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