Before There Was Serial, There Was the Murder of Diane Sparks

True crime writer Joan Renner looks back on the L.A. case that most reminds her of Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee

If you ask one of its millions of fans what makes Serial, NPR’s popular podcast about the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee, so compelling, you’ll likely get an impassioned answer about the apparent guilt—or innocence—of Adnan Syed, the ex-boyfriend who maintains he had nothing to do with Lee’s death but was convicted of her killing anyway. As a true crime fiend myself, I love the mystery at the heart of the podcast, which wrapped its first season today, but I also appreciate host Sarah Koenig’s approach to the tale. She’s worked as a detective in addition to journalist, tugging on strings to see where they lead and scratching her head and expressing frustration when she couldn’t get a handle on the big picture. I empathize with her. I often ask myself the same nagging questions she’s asked of her subjects and her listeners when I write about historic Los Angeles crime.

After getting hooked on Serial I looked through my files to see if I could find a case similar to Adnan’s. There I discovered a 1946 Los Angeles homicide case that had left me wondering if justice had been served. Here are the details of that case:

On Sunday, March 10, 1946, two little girls and a terrier named Bozo walked to an olive grove about half a mile from Glen Oaks Boulevard in Glendale for a picnic. The girls had just spread out a blanket when Bozo startled them. He was a few yards away, furiously yapping at something they couldn’t see. They went over to investigate, expecting to find that the terrier had cornered a gopher or a squirrel. Instead they discovered the slim, white leg of a woman protruding from the dirt. They took one look at the limb, started screaming, and ran home.

When police arrived they found a badly decomposed body in a shallow, brush-covered grave. The victim had been shot in the head and was missing her right arm and left hand.

That victim was Diane Sparks, a woman who had been missing since January 29th. Her husband George, an LAPD motor officer, identified her by recognizing an oddly shaped toenail on the big toe of her right foot.

While LAPD detectives were conducting their official investigation, George and his father-in-law poked around for answers on their own. They went through Diane’s credit card receipts and found that she had purchased gasoline on the day she disappeared. When they queried the gas station attendant, he recalled seeing Sparks with a man who fit the description of one of George and Diane’s neighbors, Ramon Gonzales.

Gonzales confessed to investigators that he’d seen Diane on the afternoon of her death, but he was adamant that he hadn’t killed her. He said that Diane had called him because she’d run out of gas and needed help. Ramon said he met her with enough gas to start the car, followed her to the station where he filled the tank, and then—at Diane’s suggestion—drove with her in her car to watch planes take off from Lockheed Air Terminal. Gonzales said Diane dropped him off at his truck after that and he headed home.

If Ramon was telling the truth, why was his .32 caliber sawed-off rifle, which had the initials R.G. carved into the stock, found on the road near Diane’s make-shift grave? Ramon insisted that the gun had been stolen out of his car three months before Diane was killed.

Ramon’s statements to the police were filled with contradictions and omissions. At first he neglected to mention that he owned a weapon and then proceeded to tell several versions of what happened between him and Diane on the day she disappeared. He told cops that he and Diane often flirted and had even shared a kiss once, but that nothing had come of it. He said he had overheard her telling someone at a party that she was in love with an army flyer and intended to leave George. Despite the discrepancies, there was one detail about which Ramon didn’t waver: He said that when Diane dropped him off at his truck she told him she intended to meet George.

Ramon looked guilty as hell, but the investigators couldn’t ignore the fact that George may have had his own reasons for wanting his wife dead. When they asked him to submit to a polygraph test, George made a point of saying that he’d been emotional and drinking heavily since Diane’s body had been found. Was he setting up an excuse in case he failed the examination?

According to Colleen Pullen, a 19-year-old war widow, she and George dated in June, just months after Diane’s body was found. Colleen testified at trial that George flew out to Texas to visit his brother rather than take a second lie detector test.

Ramon was tried for Diane’s murder in July 1946. The all-female jury acquitted him and he returned to his family. Another suspect was never charged in Diane’s death.

George Sparks stuck around Los Angeles for a short time following the trial but then quit the LAPD, which he’d served for 14 years, and moved to Texas to live near his brother. He committed suicide on February 9, 1953. Was the grief of knowing his wife’s killer had been acquitted too much for him to bear? Had George murdered Diane only to find he couldn’t live with the guilt? Did George’s death have nothing at all to do with his late wife?

Like Hae, it’s likely that Diane was killed by one of the two men at the center of her case—but it is also possible that she was killed by someone else entirely, someone who flew below the radar of the investigation into her death. Both cases illustrate the importance of perception in the absence of physical evidence. In both cases, dozens of unanswered questions remain, and with them the uneasy feeling that justice may never be served.