Photograph courtesy derangedlacrimes.com
By the time she was in her late 30s, Louise Peete had left a trail of shattered lives in her wake from Boston, Massachusetts, to Waco, Texas. She was the reason that two men had committed suicide, and she’d killed a man during an attempted rape—at least, that was her version of the story.
The truth remains elusive but probably goes something like this: Louise was dating a rich oilman in Waco. He owned diamond belt buckles and big diamond rings, and Louise loved diamonds. The jewel-studded oilman ended up shot to death. Louise claimed that she killed him in self-defense, and the oilman was in no position to argue. Louise was tried for the killing, but when the jury heard her account of her valiant fight to the death for her honor, they acquitted her—and then they applauded. What about the diamond belt buckles and the rings? Everyone seemed to have forgotten about them.
Following the kerfuffle in Waco, Louise needed a fresh start (and an infusion of cash), and there was no better place to find both than in Los Angeles in 1920.
Louise and her daughter Betty were looking for a place to live when she met middle-aged mining executive Jacob Denton while checking out rental properties. He was the answer to her housing dilemma, and possibly to her cash flow problems as well. Denton was a widower, having lost both his wife and child in the recent influenza epidemic. Louise quickly sized him up as a man who would be susceptible to her Southern charm. She wooed him for several weeks, but he refused to marry her. Denton wasn’t a pushover, after all. Louise concealed her annoyance and ordered Denton’s caretaker to dump a ton of earth into the basement of the home she shared with Denton because, she said, she planned to raise mushrooms.
Jacob Denton disappeared on May 30, 1920. When people came by, Louise said that Jacob had had a violent argument with a “Spanish-looking woman” who chopped off his arm with a sword. Who would buy a story like that? Apparently everyone. If pressed, Louise would say that Denton had survived the horrific amputation but was so embarrassed by his missing limb that he’d gone into hiding. If pressed further, Louise said that not only had Denton lost an arm, he’d also lost a leg. She allayed everyone’s concerns by telling them that he would come out of hiding once he learned to use his artificial limbs.
Jacob’s absence didn’t put a damper on Louise’s social life. Calling herself Mrs. Denton, she threw lavish parties in the man’s home, all on his dime.
Denton had been missing for a few months before his attorney became suspicious. He phoned the cops and asked them to search the house. After digging in the basement for about an hour, the cops found Denton’s body. All four limbs were intact, but he had a bullet in his head.
Officers had a few questions for Louise, but she was nowhere to be found. The search for Louise Peete was on.
Mrs. Peete was eventually located in Colorado, where she was living with her husband, Richard, and their four-year-old daughter, Betty. Accompanied by her family, Louise Peete returned to Los Angeles as a voluntary witness, but she offered up nothing except her tale of the Spanish-looking woman with whom Denton had allegedly argued.
The District Attorney didn’t believe a word of Louise’s story, and she was hard-pressed to explain the silver and furs belonging to Denton that had been discovered in her possession. She also found it difficult to explain why she had purchased two expensive gowns, under the name of Mrs. J.C. Denton, prior to her departure from Los Angeles. And when she spoke about broken furniture and wild parties at the house, she had to be warned by both her attorney and her husband not to “overtalk.”
But Louise seemed certain of her ability to talk her way out of any situation. She told reporters that she was being crucified: “I am being crucified upon a cross. But I can say, as did Christ, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ ”
Of course the law knew exactly what it was doing, and Louise was indicted for Denton’s murder. The cause of Denton’s death had been determined to have been a bullet to the head. The gun responsible for the fatal wound was found in the closet where Louise’s dresses and other personal belongings were kept.
Thousands of people thronged the streets and sidewalks during Peete’s trial just to catch a glimpse of her.
On February 8, 1921, Mrs. Louise Peete was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Jacob C. Denton, and she was sentenced to life in prison.
Richard Peete had served Louise with divorce papers before she was named as a suspect in Denton’s murder, but he stood by her during the trial. Once Louise was sentenced to life, the divorce went forward, and Richard was granted custody of their young daughter Betty.
Louise filed motions for a new trial, to no avail. She would spend 18 years in prison. Was she rehabilitated during that time? Hell, no. Louise would kill again.
Read about Louise Peete’s next victim here.
Joan Renner is a writer, lecturer, and social historian with an expert knowledge of Los Angeles-based murders, corruption, and scandals. A version of this story originally appeared on her Web site, Deranged L.A. Crimes.