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Murder in Black and White

Bernard Finch was a handsome doctor working in the San Gabriel Valley. Carole Tregoff was the beautiful assistant who became his mistress. When they murdered Finch’s wife in 1959, the pair set in motion one of the most sensational trials the country had ever seen—before being all but forgotten.

A DIFFERENT TIME: Dr. Bernard Finch and Carole Tregoff put on their game faces during the trial

I cannot believe the density in the San Gabriel Valley,” Gary Cliser says as he looks toward the mountains from a country club terrace. “The smog isn’t as bad as it was in the ’50s, though.” The brassy fits and starts of Saturday afternoon band practice drift across the fairway from South Hills High School. “South Hills is a very affluent area,” Cliser continues, explaining West Covina to me. “A place where a lot of the upscale folks live—the attorneys, the doctors, the movie stars.”

The movie stars?

“Sebastian Cabot lived out in Covina. And Susan Sarandon’s husband was born here, but he moved to New York.” (As for Robert Blake having lived out there—those are just rumors.)

It’s hard to imagine the twin towns of Covina and West Covina as playgrounds for Hollywood luminaries, but so much of this valley known by Cliser, a stocky 55-year-old native with a graying goatee, has evolved from a white middle-class community to one that is increasingly blue-collar Latino. Cliser may as well be describing daily life in Atlantis when he talks about the backyard barbecues of his youth and the monthly pilgrimages grown-ups made to Las Vegas, along what was then a two-lane mountain highway. Then he tells me about the picture that changed his life.

“I was looking on eBay and came across a photograph of Carole Tregoff,” says Cliser, whose blog, whenwewerehome.com, celebrates the San Gabriel Valley’s glory days. “It was the only photo like it out there of her. So I bought the photo, scanned it, and put it on Flickr. People started commenting on it. I’ve received some great e-mails from people who’ve contacted me with their memories.”

In 1959, the woman in the photograph was his family’s next-door neighbor. Carole Tregoff, a tall redhead, was 22 years old, a prominent surgeon’s secretary, and a murder suspect in the year’s most talked-about crime. She and Dr. Bernard Finch—Tregoff’s 41-year-old lover and boss—were charged with killing Finch’s wife, Barbara. Reporters from across the country and Europe descended upon Los Angeles’s new Hill Street Superior Court building as well as on West Covina. Dorothy Kilgallen, whose experience in trial coverage for the Hearst syndicate stretched back to the Lindbergh kidnapping case, reported on the trial, as did British spy novelist Eric Ambler for Life magazine. Perry Mason’s producer and writers showed up. Each day the courtroom was packed to its 250-seat capacity with dozens of reporters and spectators who’d begun lining up before dawn.

Then, with the rap of a judge’s gavel, it was over. This story of homicidal lust that gripped America midway between the Sam Sheppard case and the Manson Family murders was all but forgotten—today you can’t locate its traces with a metal detector. Except, that is, in the San Gabriel Valley, where its lurid, tragic details continue to haunt people old enough to remember them.

“They still talk about it around here,” says a grandmotherly woman who has stopped by the table where Cliser and I are sitting at the South Hills Country Club. “There’s a little hair shop on Rowland, and she still goes in and gets her hair done there.”

That’s another thing: Carole Tregoff continues to live in the neighborhood—she’s even in the phone book, under a different name, as though she could not dream of a life outside this valley. It was at the country club that she and Finch parked their car and walked up the steep slopes of 2750 Lark Hill Drive to the doctor’s home on the night of July 18, 1959. There, in the garage of the low-slung, rectangular house he had designed for his family, the doctor pistol-whipped his 35-year-old wife, fracturing her skull before she fled to Finch’s parents’ home next door. Barbara almost made it, but a .38-caliber slug fired into her back had severed an artery, and she collapsed near a stairway leading to her in-laws. Bernard Finch was soon sprinting pell-mell across the golf course’s manicured greens before fleeing town on the new San Bernardino Freeway. Tregoff, the secretary who dreamed of becoming the new Mrs. Finch, would spend the next six hours cowering behind a bougainvillea bush, unseen by the police, the coroner, and the dead woman’s two children.

East covina had always been the kind of town where, as people often say in nostalgic civic histories, no one ever locked their doors at night. But it had been changing rapidly since World War II into a new California phenomenon that Nation writer Andrew Kopkind would call “the glassy, grassy flatland suburbs beneath the mountains, where even the palm trees are imported.” West Covina’s population in 1950—two years before Finch built his home in South Hills—was 5,000; by 1960, when his trial began, it was 50,000. Finch easily bridged the old and young Covinas, the farm village and the glassy suburb: His family had been here since the 19th century; the doctor’s father was a retired optometrist who owned a jewelry store on the main drag, Citrus Avenue.

The Covina Argus Citizen, as it did with many sons of the local gentry, dutifully noted young Bernard Finch’s social progress, from his birthday parties as a child to his becoming vice president of the Masque and Dagger drama club in high school. It announced his matriculation to La Verne College as a premed student in 1935. In 1943, he graduated from medical school at the College of Medical Evangelists, today known as Loma Linda University. “Bernie” spent World War II as an army surgeon stationed with his family in North Carolina; years afterward, his military crew cut and trim physique became familiar sights at Southern California’s amateur tennis tournaments, where he was a formidable player.

Photograph by Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images


This feature was originally published in the April 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

PEOPLE’S COURT: Clockwise from top left: Finch, with defense attorney Grant Cooper, demonstrates for the jury how his pistol went off, fatally striking his wife, Barbara; spectators were a constant during the trial downtown

The provincial press resumed doting upon the doctor’s comings and goings with his return to civilian life. “Dr. and Mrs. Bernard Finch will be the dinner guests of Mr. and Mrs. North Hathaway in Monrovia this evening (Friday),” began one Argus Citizen bulletin about a gathering in 1948. The doctor lectured about cancer to church groups, helped sponsor a girls’ softball team called the Starlets, and when a former navy officer decided to run for Congress in the 12th District, put his name on ads for Richard Nixon’s campaign.

But the youthful physician struck dissonant notes with some pious locals, divorcing his first wife to marry Barbara and live in modernist opulence atop his private hill, in a house with a four-car garage, swimming pool, and lanai. Over the years talk spread that his drinking was getting him bounced from one hospital position to another. There was scuttlebutt that the physician had been the defendant in an unusually high number of malpractice suits (one child had died on his operating table, another following a procedure) and that he had a reputation for prescribing unnecessary surgeries. Tanned, handsome, and rich, Finch above all possessed an elevated sense of droit du seigneur that led him to believe he could bend the law—and walk through bedroom walls.

He did everything in plain view, as if he regarded West Covina as his personal audience. Here was Bernie Finch, pulled over by some cop again, talking his way out of a drunk-driving arrest; and there he was having sex in the same car with a girl from the medical center as neighbors watched from behind their curtains and Barbara waited for him at home. His amoral nonchalance belonged to the coming Swinging ’60s instead of Main Street (or at least Citrus Avenue).

“My mom,” says Gary Cliser, “remembers Finch going to the house in the evening before they put up all the fences.” The Clisers lived next to Carole Tregoff on Big Dalton Avenue in La Puente, which was then a budding middle-class suburb. The street was so new, none of the homes had fences yet, enabling neighbors to witness the doctor making his romantic house calls on Tregoff. The problem was that Tregoff’s husband lived there, too.

Tregoff had been 15 when she met her future spouse, Jimmy Pappa, during his participation in a state gymnastics championship. Then a high school senior, Pappa dressed in leather jackets and wore his hair in a pompadour. He looked like a teen-movie rebel, and Tregoff loved riding on the back of his custom-built motorcycle. Her father and stepmother owned a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles and lived in South Pasadena; his family had moved from Louisiana to El Sereno when he was a child. Pappa served a hitch in the marines, waiting for Carole to turn 18, but when they married, the carefree life the young couple had known gave way to the routine of making money to pay for the modest house they’d bought. Diversions were few: visits to parents, the movies, and Lake Arrowhead or the Salton Sea, where Tregoff liked to water-ski. Pappa held down various jobs—in construction, in a machine shop, as a Standard gas station attendant—but bodybuilding and posing for the occasional muscle magazine were the pursuits he cared about most.

His bride had done some modeling, too, for a perfume line, before settling into a receptionist job at Finch’s medical office after high school. Pappa had no clue about the yearlong affair with her boss. “Doctor Finch had this beautiful Chrysler,” he says, “and he’d let me drive it—while he was banging my wife!”

Today Pappa lives alone in a 1970s tract house four miles from the Las Vegas Strip—a comfortable, orderly home filled with hundreds of glass and ceramic figurines. At 79, he has a taurine physique that still bulges beneath a gray tank top. On a wall of his well-equipped weight-lifting room hangs a collage of covers from the bodybuilding magazines he posed for in the 1950s; many of the photographs were taken by the Avedon of beefcake, Bruce of Hollywood. Pappa’s gaze in these photos is brooding and Mediterranean—“Apollo” reads the caption beneath his image in one of the pictures.

Pappa viewed Finch as a harmless big shot who happened to be Tregoff’s boss. His outlook changed when he received a phone call in September 1958. “Jimmy, this is Barbara Finch,” the voice on the phone said. Pappa had spoken to Barbara only once before, and he believed she came off as a little flirtatious—but then it seemed all women sounded flirtatious when they spoke to him. Now the woman on the other end was upset and struggled to speak evenly. “I have something to tell you. Bernard is having an affair with your wife.”

A thunderbolt struck Apollo. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it,” Pappa says. “In those days I thought I was really hot stuff and Carole wouldn’t go for an old man like that in his forties. She had never changed her love life with me—I was young and wanted sex all the time, and she never said no to me.”

Pappa awaited Carole’s return home that evening. “She’s lucky she’s still alive,” he says, rubbing a bronzed arm that has his last name tattooed on it in gothic letters. “I didn’t hit her, but I had her on the couch and was choking her. I was really upset. She stayed there that night, and the next day I went to work. When I came home, everything was gone. She moved everything out.”

Pappa found himself alone with time to think. Suddenly recent events assumed new significance. Like the time he’d been laid out by a raging sore throat and Tregoff had called over Finch, who shot him up with something that knocked him out until the next day.Did the couple have sex as he lay unconscious? Then there was the day the doctor botched a surgery on his knee—was that just incompetence? “The doctor could have done me in!” Pappa says. He tried to make sense of what had happened, but the more he ran things through his head, the hotter it became, until a plan took shape.

“I hate to say this,” Pappa tells me, “but I was going to kill him. Me and my buddy waited outside his doctor place, but he never come out.”

By January 1959, Tregoff had obtained a divorce decree and was free to marry the doctor. Except for one detail.

Barbara Jean Daugherty was an attractive 24-year-old patient of Finch’s when he delivered her daughter Patti in 1947. Later Barbara worked for him in his medical office, and the two began an affair. Their relationship did not remain a secret for long: Barbara and her husband, Lyle, lived next door to Finch and his first wife, Frances, and their three children in Baldwin Park. When Barbara decamped with the doctor and wed him in 1951, Lyle and Frances married each other. A tidy ending worthy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Photograph by Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images


This feature was originally published in the April 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

But a second marriage didn’t keep Finch from carrying on with a conga line of paramours. By 1959, when the doctor was renting a Monterey Park love nest for trysts with his newest girl, Tregoff, his wife told him she was filing for divorce. Finch moved out, and a judge soon granted Barbara virtual control of all the couple’s assets. She had to approve every penny he wanted to withdraw from their joint bank account. Worse, in that time before no-fault divorce, she stood to be awarded the lioness’s share in any settlement. The timing was disastrous for the doctor. Finch had recently opened the West Covina Clinic and Hospital with a group of other physicians, who had also purchased land to build and rent out offices. The divorce could jeopardize the bank loans Finch was trying to line up.

Fearing his wife would name Tregoff in any lawsuit, Finch persuaded his mistress to move to Las Vegas, where she worked at the Sands Hotel as a cocktail waitress. He was less successful at coaxing his wife to release her grip on his finances. Instead Barbara secured a restraining order against him in June and a month later served him with contempt of court papers for violating it.

As Finch’s money dried up, he withdrew to the confines of his West Covina motel room and Tregoff’s one-bedroom Las Vegas apartment. Feeling aggrieved and persecuted, the couple decided to take action. On the Saturday night of July 18, Finch and Tregoff drove her car from Las Vegas to visit his estranged wife. The pair would later swear they had only wanted to persuade Barbara to move to Las Vegas for six weeks—just enough time to qualify for an amicable “quickie” divorce. That didn’t quite explain why they parked a long block away at the South Hills Country Club, carrying with them an attaché case that contained, among other things, a carving knife, syringes, Seconal, and rope.

Barbara’s Chrysler was not in the garage when the couple arrived, yet they decided against entering the house. Inside, the two Finch children were watching the Miss Universe pageant on TV with their Swedish governess. For the past year Marie-Anne Lidholm had resided with the family and lived out a kind of fantasy life as an American girl. In Sweden the 19-year-old and her best friend had often joked of coming West and marrying cowboys. After Lidholm talked her father into letting her leave school to live a year in California, the two young women arrived here in the summer of 1958. Lidholm fell in love with the state. But during her stay, the Finches’ rancorous marital war had torn away the picture-book image she had of the family. The tension brought back memories of her own parents’ divorce.

Once the beauty contest ended, Lidholm sent the kids to bed. She was wearing a bathrobe and had curlers in her hair when Barbara pulled into the garage after a day spent at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, followed by dinner with friends at a steak house. Several long minutes later Lidholm heard her employer scream for help. Lidholm ran outside past the pool and to a side door of the darkened garage. As she turned on the light inside she saw Barbara sprawled on the floor, bleeding from the head. Finch immediately rushed the governess and banged the au pair’s head into a wall a couple of times, denting the plaster. He ordered the two women into Barbara’s car, firing a pistol at the ground near the dazed Lidholm to get her attention. She staggered into the convertible’s backseat, with Barbara in front.

Moments ago Lidholm had been watching Miss Japan being crowned the world’s most beautiful woman; now the governess knew she was going to die. In May Barbara had confided that the doctor planned to put her in a car and push it off the hill, and the young woman was sure Finch was about to push both of them down the slope to Lark Hill Drive. Everything felt as though it were unfolding like a movie, with one incongruous thought stuck in her mind: How were her parents going to feel when they learned of her death?

But before the doctor could start her car, Barbara slid out and ran off. As Finch chased her, Lidholm fled into the house, searched the library for a phone book, and called the police. That’s when she heard another shot. Lidholm removed her curlers before the police arrived at a quarter to midnight.

During the next half hour, Finch stole a neighbor’s Ford station wagon, which had the keys left inside it, and drove to nearby La Puente. There he parked the wagon on a residential street, blocking the driveway of a Los Angeles Police Department officer. A few doors away Finch found an unlocked Cadillac with its keys inside. The doctor sped on to Las Vegas, where he fell into a deep slumber in Tregoff’s apartment. Around dawn Tregoff emerged from the bougainvillea bush on Lark Hill Drive and returned to her car at the country club. She then drove to her Vegas apartment as well before going to her job at the Sands. When Finch awoke that morning, four cops were standing beside his bed.


This feature was originally published in the April 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

The trial began on January 4, 1960. One year after Charles Starkweather left 11 corpses bleeding on the American steppe, Barbara’s lonely death could have quickly passed into obscurity were it not for the combustible ingredients of sex, money, and murder. In that tight-collared Eisenhower era, West Covina became a sister city of Peyton Place. The accused faced prosecutors with considerable legal firepower. Finch signed over all his property to prominent trial attorney Grant Cooper as payment, while Tregoff’s father burned through his life savings so she could hire counsel from the firm of famed Hollywood attorney Jerry Giesler. The couple fully expected to win their case and then marry.

The court proceedings created a centripetal force that sucked in the media, the public, and the story’s secondary characters. Jimmy Pappa, who testified briefly to verify details of his marriage, was hounded for interviews; his picture appeared in Life, and a movie producer approached him about a role in a western. “I said, ‘Not right now, this isn’t a good time for me—I’m going through all this stuff!’ ” Pappa says. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Mirror-News rounded up several B-list actresses, including Jayne Meadows, Pamela Mason, and Terry Moore, to write their impressions of the trial. For added entertainment the Examiner sent its top sports reporter, Vincent X. Flaherty, to cover the events, while the Mirror-News hired an astrologer to predict the trial’s outcome and the defendants’ futures.

Bernie Finch didn’t look like a man facing the gas chamber. He smiled and chatted in court with appreciative writers, allowing his photograph to be taken with cops who’d asked him to pose with them. Yet most reporters were in love with Finch’s costar. To them Carole Tregoff was a dreamy-eyed romantic whose only crime, as her lawyer would tell the jury, was that she was a girl in love. In the thousands of newspaper headlines that chronicled the case, Finch was merely “Finch”; Tregoff was always “Carole”—if not “luscious Carole,” “voluptuous Carole,” or the “ravishing redhead.” No wonder, as the Los Angeles Times reported, that before one 1959 pretrial hearing began, “a screaming, fighting crowd of teen-agers and middle-aged men and women fought their way into the courtroom” to watch Tregoff answer some routine questions.

The first of two star prosecution witnesses, Marie-Anne Lidholm rebutted every point of the defendants’ version of events. Lidholm also produced a letter, written to her mother two months before Barbara’s death, in which the young woman recounted Barbara’s claim that Finch had twice beaten her and that she was convinced he wanted to kill her. One particular passage set the stage for the second star witness: “He also told her,” Lidholm wrote, “if she didn’t take everything back about the divorce that he had a man in Las Vegas who he would pay thousands of dollars to kill her.”

John Patrick Cody, the D.A.’s second star witness, wasn’t anyone’s idea of a hit man. Short, slightly built, and partial to pale satin neckties, Cody had a nearly phosphorescent complexion. The 29-year-old’s rap sheet included pimping, kiting checks, and prison escape, and to Finch’s attorney he breezily copped to being a drunk and a liar. He testified that Finch and Tregoff had hired him for $1,400 to kill Barbara—although, he said, he’d never intended to do anything with their money but take it and run. Both defendants claimed he’d merely been engaged to follow Barbara and get dirt on her for the divorce trial and, if possible, to bed her. Shameless and droll, Cody provided the court with several moments of Runyonesque humor, as in this exchange with Grant Cooper:

Q: What did you do?

A: I loafed.

Q: How did you support yourself?

A: By my wit.

Q: I don’t know what kind of wit you have, Mr. Cody.

A: Any way to make a buck—play pool, gamble….Dice, cards.

 


This feature was originally published in the April 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

Despite Cooper’s aggressive cross-examination, Cody would not budge from his central accusation—that Tregoff, with Finch’s support, had hired him to murder Barbara. Tregoff’s initiative in this plan, along with her insistence on visiting Barbara sooner than later, led prosecutor Fred Whichello to brand her as “a latter-day Lady Macbeth…the real aggressor and instigator in this crime.” Whichello also suggested that the pair had originally sought to make it appear as though Barbara had died during a robbery. The prosecutor theorized that surgical gloves, whose remnants were found near the garage and inside Barbara’s car, had been worn by the couple to avoid leaving fingerprints. And there was the matter of Barbara’s purse, which was never found. Finch admitted taking it but couldn’t recall why, or where he put it.

The defense faced other problems. Both of the accused claimed that it was Barbara who had produced the gun and that she began pointing it at them as the couple approached her; the doctor also swore that the .38 accidentally went off as he struggled to disarm his wife. In fact, forensic evidence showed that Barbara had been shot in the back from possibly four feet away.

But no physical evidence or exhibit came close to the importance of Finch’s attaché case, which Tregoff had lugged up the hill that night. Finch insisted its contents—the sedatives, syringes, rope, flashlight, carving knife, and hammer—were simply part of a medical bag he was in the process of assembling for surgical or poisoning emergencies. Only this bag, prosecutors pointed out, didn’t contain rubber tubing normally associated with field treatments for poisoning. And it had .38-caliber bullets. The D.A.’s office charged that the attaché case was actually a “murder kit” Finch had put together to handle whatever opportunity to kill Barbara presented itself to him.

Denying this, the doctor explained that he’d believed Lidholm might have been carrying a gun. He described his assaults on the au pair and Barbara as almost gentlemanly efforts to disarm them. And he only ordered them into the Chrysler because he wanted to drive the two to a hospital. His justification for cheating on his wife tapped a reliable touchstone of the period—his wife was “frigid.” For sheer audacity, however, nothing could top what Finch claimed were Barbara’s dying words, delivered as he held her in his arms: “I’m sorry, I should have listened…. Take care of the kids.”

On March 12, 1960, following six days of jury deliberations, the foreman told Judge Walter Evans that the panel was deadlocked. Bernie Finch had convinced two jurors of his innocence, and eight believed Tregoff to have been innocent of all murder and conspiracy charges. “Now that Carole Tregoff is out on bail in the Finch murder case,” Dorothy Kilgallen wrote in her syndicated gossip column, “the cafe society wags are placing bets on which bachelor will date her first—George DeWitt, Bob Neal, or Hugh O’Brian.”

Tregoff would never make those fantasy dates. It took two more trials before the district attorney found a jury willing to find her and Finch guilty of murder. In March 1961, the third trial resulted in convictions, and they were sentenced to life in prison. By then the story of the doctor and his sexy secretary had become back-page news. Soon highlights of Adolf Eichmann’s trial would be shown on TV every day, and a year later Finch and Tregoff would lose their status as California’s preeminent murder couple to crazy, rosary-clutching Iva Kroeger and her husband, Ralph.

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It was so wonderful living in California—like a dream,” Marie-Anne Karlsson, née Lidholm, says in a phone call from Gothenberg, Sweden, her English nearly flawless. “It was the most happy time of my life because it was so sunny and beautiful, and everything was perfect.” Now 73, the Finches’ former governess says she vividly remembers every bright color and quotidian detail of the happy life she led in the big house on Lark Hill Drive. “I still dream of Mrs. Finch and the children having breakfast on the patio.” The doctor never appears in these sun-dappled scenes, though.

For a time during the first trial, Lidholm lived with Gail Patrick, the producer of TV’s Perry Mason, and her husband, Cornwell Jackson, president of the Los Angeles Tennis Club—whose members had included the Finches. They offered Lidholm work taking care of their two children, but she declined. “People just wanted to be seen with me,” Lidholm says. After working at Lincoln Savings and Loan for several years, she returned to Gothenberg. One day in 1973, long after Swedish reporters had stopped bothering her, an envelope arrived. Inside was a check for $75—her last week’s wages, paid from Barbara’s bank account that had been frozen for more than a decade. “It was seriously unreal for me,” she says of the murder. “This beautiful family and their happiness, destroyed in one second.”

Finch was paroled from the California Institution for Men at Chino in late 1971, a time when the state was far more forgiving of its convicted murderers than it is today. He had served ten years in several penitentiaries, including San Quentin, where he had formed an inmate tennis club. Wooed by community leaders from El Dorado Springs, Missouri, Finch relocated to the rural Ozarks, where doctors were scarce. He first worked as an X-ray technician, buying a house with a GI Bill loan. He immediately ran afoul of state probation authorities, however, for setting up a California girlfriend in an apartment in a nearby town. “This type of thing just seems to follow me around,” he complained to a reporter.

In 1974, Finch obtained a Missouri medical license, and nine years later California granted Finch’s request for reinstatement. (This, despite his apparent intent to use medical equipment to kill his wife.) He practiced medicine in the Palm Springs area, living in a house on a Rancho Mirage cul-de-sac surrounded by a golf course. When he died in 1995, the Los Angeles Times, which had printed more than 200 articles on Barbara Finch’s murder, did not publish an obituary. But if sales of the case’s memorabilia are any indication, there may yet be a renaissance of interest in the case. “The photos run between $7.50 and $30 for one of Tregoff or Finch,” says Gary Cliser, who has also created caroletregoff.blogspot.com, a site devoted to the Finch-Tregoff case. “They have really increased in value—like trading cards.”

James L. Jones, now a semiretired doctor, remembers the day in 1978 when he treated a striking redhead in West Covina. “I was taking care of a woman in a trauma room at Queen of the Valley Hospital,” he says. “Another doctor told me, ‘That’s her! That’s the woman who helped Finch kill his wife!’ ”

Relatively new to California, Jones would soon learn all about the Finch case. Everyone in town, it seemed, had something to say about the murder and the trials. It fascinated him, as did the woman he’d treated.

Tregoff served eight years in the Corona women’s prison, having previously spent two in county jail. She had not suffered the exile and media scrutiny that bedeviled her former lover in the years immediately following his parole. After leaving Corona, Tregoff quickly picked up where she’d left off, getting a job in the records department at Covina’s Inter-Community Hospital. She was open about her new sexual orientation, too, introducing her girlfriend to colleagues as her “partner.” In the late 1980s, Jones’s interest in the case led him to begin research for a book. He wrote to Tregoff, requesting her cooperation. Jones didn’t receive a reply, but he says he learned of her displeasure with the project through mutual friends who worked at Covina-area hospitals.

By the time Jones self-published A Murder in West Covina in 1992, Tregoff’s red hair had turned gray and she had become the respected head of her department.

“She was a wonderful boss,” says a subordinate who requested anonymity for this article. “She was very kind, fair, and compassionate. Just before the book came out, she and her girlfriend left on a long vacation out of the country. Then shortly after the book came out, they left on another vacation. All of us would be reading it on our breaks.”

My expectations of sitting down to interview Tregoff were low when I wrote my letter informing her that I would be phoning soon. About a week later I called the number I knew was hers and left a message. I called again and this time a woman picked up. “Hello?” the voice said. That Tregoff wasn’t screening all calls after receiving my letter was promising.

The woman hung up as soon as I introduced myself.

Jimmy Pappa, whose second wife died in 2011, wants to talk with Tregoff, too. He spends time now looking back on those years when his former wife and her lover became so magnetized by celebrity that even he appeared in Life. “To think that someone could be so sneaky!” Pappa says. “Maybe I just didn’t know her after all those years.” Part of his myopia, he jokes, may have come from a bodybuilder’s narcissism. “She was a pretty girl,” he admits. “She was a beautiful girl, but she was never a model. I thought I was the only model!”

To this day Pappa doesn’t believe Tregoff was part of a cold-blooded plan to kill Barbara Finch.“It’s hard for me to believe that Carole went up there with the intent to kill that lady,” he says. “I think he might have had the idea, but she just went with him.” But why? “She may have been impressed with his money and status. Because he wasn’t that good-looking a guy.”

Pappa probably won’t ever learn what made Tregoff tick, but that doesn’t seem important to him now. “I talked to Carole on the phone a few years ago—I know it was her,” says Pappa. “I said, ‘Carole, this is your first love—Jimmy!’ She says, ‘No, I’m not her.’ I asked her, ‘Why don’t you just let me talk to you? I hope you’re doing fine.’ She said thank you and hung up. I did write her a letter. I sent her a card from my bodybuilding Web site. I bet she said, Oh, I never should have left him!”                  


Steven Mikulan is a writer-at-large for Los Angeles. His last piece for the magazine, about convicted murderer and former LAPD detective Stephanie Lazarus, appeared in the September 2012 issue.


This feature was originally published in the April 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine