It was Sunday, March 10, 1946, and Barbara Hensley, 11, Mary Young, 8, and a small terrier named Bozo walked to a spot near their homes for a picnic in Van Nuys. The two girls had spread out a blanket and some food when they noticed Bozo’s strange behavior. He wasn’t very far from them, and the little terrier was furiously digging and barking.
Barbara and Mary decided to see what all the fuss was about. They walked over to Bozo expecting to find a gopher or a squirrel—anything but a woman’s leg protruding from a shallow, brush-covered grave.
The girls’ parents phoned the LAPD’s Van Nuys Division and investigators rushed to the scene, which was at the end of a lover’s lane in an untended olive orchard a half-mile off Glenoaks Boulevard.
What the cops found was the dismembered body of a woman with evidence of a gunshot wound to the head. They also discovered several .38-caliber cartridge cases nearby.
The dead woman was soon identified as 31-year-old Diane Sparks, an LAPD motor officer’s wife, who had been missing for nearly six weeks. Diana’s 42-year-old husband, George, identified her by recognizing an oddly shaped toenail on the big toe of her right foot. The body was without its right arm and left hand.
On the day of her disappearance, Diane was seen at her home on Chandler Boulevard by one of her neighbors, Mrs. Edyth Bailey, who saw her drive off in her car.
George and Diane’s father, E.B. Maxmeyer, decided to do a little detective work on their own. They went through Diane’s credit card receipts and found she had purchased gasoline on the day she disappeared. They questioned the gas station attendant, who described seeing a man with Diane. George recognized him as his neighbor, Ramon Gonzales.
Gonzales, 32, confessed to investigators that he’d seen Diane on the afternoon of her death, but said that he didn’t kill her. He said she’d phoned him for help when her car ran out of gas on Victory Boulevard. Ramon said, “I drove down in my truck and poured some gasoline in her tank. We drove to a gas station for more gas, and she suggested we drive on and watch the planes take off from Lockheed Air Terminal. We drove out San Fernando Road, then she drove me back to my truck and I went home.”
Cops were skeptical about Ramon’s version of the day’s events and arrested him as a suspect, but investigators were no less suspicious of George, who voluntarily submitted to a lie detector test. During six hours of questioning George admitted that he had been drinking and emotionally upset since the discovery of his wife’s body. He also admitted that things weren’t too rosy between him and the missus, and that they had been discussing a possible separation before her disappearance.
George Sparks, Photograph courtesy derangedlacrimes.com
George underwent another round of questioning for nearly 24 continuous hours before police were satisfied that he had nothing to do with Diane’s death. Ballistics tests of his service revolver were made, and it was determined it could not have fired the bullet found lodged in Diane’s skull.
The coroner’s inquest determined Diane’s death “…to be a homicide committed by some person or persons and at some place unknown.” The inquest revealed that Diane had been shot twice, once in the right chest and once in the back of the head.
Investigators went public with a statement that the gun used to kill her was a .32-caliber—not a .38—but they were lying: The hold-back evidence was that the weapon was actually a .32-caliber rifle, and unfortunately for Ramon Gonzales, he owned a gun just like it.
Gonzales reluctantly admitted that he had a .32-caliber sawed off, but he told cops that it had been stolen out of his car three months prior to Diane’s slaying.
Ramon was looking guiltier by the minute. A fellow named M.O. O’Lear called the police and told them that he’d found a sawed-off .32-caliber rifle along the road between Mrs. Sparks’ makeshift grave and Glen Oaks Boulevard. The weapon had the initials ”R.G.” carved into the stock.
Further tests concluded that the bullets that had killed Diane Sparks matched perfectly with those from the gun owned by Ramon Gonzales. When he was confronted with the evidence, Ramon didn’t deny ownership of the weapon, but he steadfastly maintained his innocence:
“I didn’t kill her. Why should I? She and her husband were my friends.”
The cops were unmoved by his protestations and busted him on the spot.
Ramon’s statements to the police were filled with contradictions and omissions—he had neglected to mention to investigators that he’d owned a weapon, and he told several different versions of the incident in which he took gasoline to Diane’s stalled car on the day of her disappearance.
Law officials were also suspicious of what was referred to as Ramon’s “unusual” interest in Diane, and the fact that he’d often used Spanish endearments when he was speaking with her. The D.A. felt that there was enough to charge him with the murder.
Ramon was held without bail.
Ramon Gonzales was arraigned for the murder of Diane Sparks in April 1946.
One of the interesting bits of information about the victim that Gonzales shared at the arraignment was that he had heard her expressing her love for Lt. Ade Garvin, an Army flyer, at a party in the Sparks’ home only a few weeks before she vanished. Garvin was thoroughly investigated and cleared in Diane’s death.
There had definitely been trouble in the Sparks’ marriage. Gonzales stated that at another drinking party at the victim’s home the night before she vanished, he’d heard Diane complain to George:
“You love the new house [which George was building in his spare time] more than you do me. I’m going to leave tomorrow and get someone who will really care for me. I don’t want to ever see you, Ramon, or Connie [Ramon’s wife] again.”
And speaking of Ramon’s wife, Connie — she was taking the “for better or worse” portion of her marriage vows very seriously:
“My Ramon couldn’t have done this thing. He loves me and our children too much.”
Ramon went to trial in July 1946. He testified about the day of Diane’s disappearance:
“I took four or five gallons of gasoline and found her by her car on Hollywood Way near Victory Boulevard," Gonzales testefied. "After putting the fuel in the tank, I drove [Diane’s car] to a nearby gas station.”
Gonzales said that Diane dropped him off at his car and told him that she was going to meet George. Ramon testified that he never saw her again.
What about the murder weapon that Ramon said had been stolen from his truck weeks prior to Diane’s killing? According to him, he queried some of his fellow workmen at a construction site about the gun as soon as he noticed it was gone, but claimed that he didn’t see it again until detectives confronted him with it.
Ramon’s attorney, William G. Kenney, had an explanation for the murder that exonerated his client: He said that George had done it. Of course George emphatically denied the accusation.
Interestingly, Edward R. Brand, the judge in the case, commented:
“I believe the evidence to be very weak, and even if the jury would convict the defendant, I don’t believe the State Supreme Court would sustain the conviction.”
The all-woman jury evidently agreed with Judge Brand because it took them only seven hours to acquit Gonzales.
Following his acquittal, Ramon Gonzales went home to his family, and he seems to have behaved himself. George Sparks stuck around for a short time following the trial, but then he quit the LAPD, where he’d served fourteen years as a motorcycle officer, and moved to Texas to live near his brother. On February 9, 1953, George Sparks committed suicide (I don’t know by what means). Members of his family said that he’d been heartbroken since Diane’s murder. Was it grief or guilt that caused George to take his own life?
There is one more piece of the story to consider. I was searching for photos of the principals in the Sparks case when I came across a picture of Bessie Hensley and her daughter, Barbara. Barbara was one of the little girls who found Diane’s body. The photo’s caption reads:
“Principal witnesses in the Gonzales murder trial which opened today in Superior Court are shown here. Lower left is Mrs. Bessie Hensley with her daughter, Barbara, who found Mrs. Sparks’ body in a shallow grave in the hills above Roscoe. Mrs. Hensley has told police she saw what she believes was the killing as she hiked through Lanark Canyon the afternoon Mrs. Sparks disappeared.”
I couldn’t find anything in the L.A. Times indicating that Bessie Hensley had been called as a witness during the trial. I have to wonder why.
“Threatened by someone who told her to ‘shut up and not talk to the police,’ Mrs. Bessie Hensley reports the incident to Regis Goldbach, Valley policeman. Mrs. Hensley received the warning after telling police she witnessed the murder of Mrs. Diane Sparks.”
And if Bessie really was threatened, who was behind it? Bessie Hensley is the wild card in this tale. She claimed to have witnessed the crime, but yet it appears that she was never called to the stand by either the defense or the prosecution.
Following Gonzales’ acquittal, there were no further arrests for the murder of Diane Sparks. The case remains unsolved.
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.