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.
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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

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