Gone Girl: The 1953 Disappearance of Stella Darlene Nolan


Stella Darlene Nolan, Photograph courtesy USC Libraries – Los Angeles Examiner Collectione

On June 20, 1953, Ilena Nolan reported the disappearance—and possible abduction—of her eight-year-old daughter, Stella Darlene, in a Daily Bulletin. At that time a missing child would often turn up in a day or two, and the notice would be canceled in a subsequent bulletin. I couldn’t find a cancellation for Stella, so I decided to dig deeper, and I couldn’t believe what I found.

Stella disappeared from Auction City (in the Norwalk area), where her mother was employed as a clerk at a refreshment stand. Stella was a well-behaved child and checked in every hour with her mom, so when she failed to turn up between 8 and 9 p.m., Mrs. Nolan knew that something was wrong.

In the days following Stella’s disappearance, the little girl had still not returned home. Her parents, who lived in a trailer park in Compton, were frantic with worry. In desperation, Stella’s mom and dad revealed that they were not her birth parents and that even though they’d had custody of her nearly since birth, they had never legally adopted her. The cops quickly located Betty Jean Stalcup Eckols, Stella’s birth mother. She’d moved to Texas, married, and had a three-year-old girl. She was swiftly cleared of any involvement in Stella’s disappearance.

By early July, barely a month after she’d disappeared, Stella’s 20-year-old cousin, William R. Nolan, an unemployed hospital orderly, was jailed on a technical booking in Long Beach as a key suspect in the case. Nolan emphatically denied any connection with Stella Darlene’s disappearance. The L.A. Sheriff’s Department dispatched several criminal laboratory technicians to check for possible blood stains in William’s bungalow court apartment and in the trunk of his 1949 convertible. The techs didn’t turn up a single clue. Nolan told conflicting stories regarding his whereabouts on the night that Stella disappeared, but he was cleared.

At least one crank caller phoned the Nolans to tell them that their little girl was alive, but nothing came of the call. The police became frustrated by the lack of movement in the case.

In mid-October 1953, a 14-year-old boy was brought in for questioning. Norwalk Deputy District Attorney Adolph Alexander and Inspector Garner Brown stated that the boy held the key to the girl’s fate. While the minor was being questioned, two of his acquaintances, William R. Hardy, 22, and an unnamed 17-year-old, were taking lie detector tests in Pasadena.

The boys were proven to be liars, and one of them even made a false confession. They were not, however, killers.

At least 300 tips were investigated without succes.

On June 20, 1955, the second anniversary of her disappearance, the L.A. Times ran a follow-up story about Stella, but it didn’t result in any further leads. The Sheriff’s detectives reluctantly stated that they believed Stella had been kidnapped and killed by a sexual psychopath.

Mrs. Nolan told reporters: “We’ll never give up hope until we’re both dead.”

Ilena and Owen Nolan struggled to get on with their lives in the wake of Stella’s disappearance. Meanwhile, Sheriff’s deputies and LAPD investigators continued to pull in every deviant who even looked cross-eyed at a child. They busted other child molesters, but they couldn’t seem to get a break in Stella’s case, which grew colder with every passing day.

In December 1955, Sheriff’s deputies interrogated Robert Louis Kracker, 20, on suspicion of kidnapping a 3-year-old Baldwin Park girl, Cynthia Hardacre. Robert was guilty of the attack on Cynthia, but he was not responsible for Stella’s abduction.

On March 6, 1970 a 51-year-old Sylmar construction worker, Mack Ray Edwards, appeared at the LAPD’s Foothill Division station. He handed them a loaded handgun and then said he had kidnapped three Sylmar girls earlier that day.

Mack Ray Edwards, Photograph courtesy derangedlacrimes.com

Edwards, a native of Arkansas, was booked on suspicion of murder in the 1969 death of a 13-year-old Pacoima boy — one of the six cases he voluntarily discussed with detectives.

Edwards and an unnamed 15-year-old companion told the police that they’d entered the home of Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Cohen at 5 a.m., after the couple had left for work. The two stole a coin collection and other items from the house and then took the three Cohen children, Valerie (12), Cindy (13), and Jan (14) by car to Bouquet Canyon in Angeles National Forest north of Newhall. Two of the girls escaped, and the third was abandoned by Edwards and his accomplice—they told her they’d send a sheriff’s car to pick her up.

It was during his confession to police that he admitted to kidnapping, raping, and then murdering 8-year-old Stella Darlene Nolan in 1953. The girl was allegedly his first murder victim.

In mid-March 1970, the skeletal remains of Stella Darlene Nolan were unearthed by a highway crew who worked from directions given to them by her killer. In addition to the slaying of Stella, Edwards admitted to murdering Gary Rocha, 16, in 1968, and Donald Allen Todd, 13, in 1960. He also admitted to three other murders of children. Edwards was a heavy machine operator and often worked freeway construction sites; it simply wasn’t possible for the law to go around digging up Southern California freeways in an effort to unearth the other remains.

In Van Nuys Superior Court, Edwards entered a plea of guilty in three of the six slayings to which he had confessed. All of the murders were horrible, but Stella’s was the most disturbing. Edwards had taken her from Auction City in Norwalk to his Azusa home, where he molested and then attempted to strangle her. After he thought Stella was dead, he threw her body over a bridge. Later that night he returned to the scene and found the little girl still alive. She had managed to drag herself about 100 feet. She was sitting up, dazed, when Edwards took out his pocketknife and stabbed her to death.

Edwards attempted to sell his surrender and confession as a guilty conscience. He said:

“I have a guilt complex. I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep and it was beginning to affect my work.  You know I’m a heavy equipment operator. That long grader I’m using now costs a lot of money — $200,000.  I might wreck it.  Or turn it over and hurt someone.”

Edwards claimed to want a death sentence. Maybe he did; he attempted suicide twice during his trial. The third time was the charm—he successfully hanged himself with a length of TV cord in his cell on California’s death row.

Edwards is suspected in the murders of more than 20 children between 1953 and 1970. In 2006, a letter written by Edwards to his wife while he was on death row implicated him in the 1957 disappearance of 8-year-old Tommy Bowman in the Arroyo Seco.

In 2011, the Santa Barbara Police Department took four teams of cadaver dogs to an area near a 101 Freeway overpass in Goleta that was under renovation, looking for the remains of Ramona Price, a 7-year-old girl who disappeared in August 1961 — Mack Ray Edwards had worked in the area during that time.  Ramona wasn’t found, but the search for other victims of Edwards continues.

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