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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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

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