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.

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