They Did It for Money: The Mob-Style Murder of Burbank Widow Mabel Monahan

Baxter Shorter, safe cracker., Photograph courtesy LAPL

Only a few weeks after the Monohan slaying, Baxter Shorter was kidnapped at gunpoint from his Bunker Hill apartment at 121 North Flower Street. Shorter’s wife, Olivia, identified the two kidnappers as Emmett Perkins and Jack Santos.

Shorter’s kidnapping left the Burbank cops with a huge problem. He was an eyewitness to the Monohan murder and had been willing to testify in court to save his own sorry ass. If he had really been kidnapped, the chances of his being found alive were slim to none.

The car believed to have been used in the kidnapping was found abandoned near an apartment at 5124 Imperial Boulevard, and that’s where Emmett Perkins, Jack Santo, and Barbara Graham were busted.

The sedan was owned by one of Jack Santos’ girlfriends, Brenda Pearney of Grass Valley, California. It had recently been repainted, and the mat in the rear trunk compartment was missing. Police chemist Ray Pinker turned up some small pieces of wood and a little yellow flower in the car that he took to the Los Angeles County Museum for identification.

The wood was ribbonwood, found only in Southern California and usually in the San Jacinto Mountains at an elevation of between 2,500 and 3,000 feet. The flower had no common name but was identified as Metzelia affnis; it too could be found at elevations of between 2,500 and 3,000 feet.

If Baxter Shorter’s remains were buried off a lonely mountain road at an elevation of 3,000 feet, then he was likely as close to heaven as he would ever get.

Emmett Perkins was arraigned on charges of kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon in Shorter’s kidnapping. Barbara Graham was charged with seven counts of forgery. She’d gone on a shopping spree in March and April and had passed $266 worth of rubber checks. Santo was released on the kidnapping beef and walked out of court into the waiting arms of Burbank cops, who cuffed him and took him in for questioning on the Monohan slaying. They had to release him for lack of evidence, but he wasn’t free for long. He was soon rearrested and charged with forging a fictitious telegram to Baxter Shorter’s mother. The telegram read:

“Sorry to have been away. See Olive [Olivia] and tell her not to make the mistake ’cause I have to return one of these days. All my love. Baxter”

Circumstantial evidence was beginning to mount.

To add to the drama, a new witness in the Monohan case came forward. The witness was an ex-con named William Upshaw. He’d voluntarily surrendered to police when he heard that he was wanted in connection with Shorter’s kidnapping.

Upshaw was cleared of any involvement in the Shorter kidnapping, and he was the first witness called to testify before the grand jury in the slaying of Mabel Monohan. Cops were understandably edgy because of Shorter’s abrupt disappearance, and they weren’t about to lose another witness. Upshaw was heavily guarded around the clock. He testified that he’d been with the gang: Graham, Perkins, Santo, True, and Shorter, when they’d cased the Monohan home on the night before the crime. He knew all about the plan and had opted out. He decided that he wanted nothing to do with robbing Las Vegas bigwig Tutor Scherer. He remembered what had happened to Tony Trombino and Tony Brancato back in 1951. (Trombino and Brancato, known as the Two Tonys, were murdered in a car after cheating Las Vegas gambler Sam Lazes out of $3,000 by posing as collectors for a local syndicate gambler.)

On June 3, 1953, Perkins, Santo, True, and Graham were indicted by the county grand jury on charges of conspiracy to commit burglary, robbery, and murder in the death of Mrs. Mabel Monohan.

The cops and the D.A. lucked out when John True decided to turn state’s evidence in exchange for his freedom. Apparently the indictment in a capital murder case scared John True straight—or as straight as he could be. Taking no chances with this witness, cops guarded John day and night against possible retaliation.

At the conclusion of their trial, the three defendants were found guilty of the charges against them in the Monohan case. The jury made no recommendation for life sentences.  They were doomed.

***

On June 2, 1955, Barbara Graham was removed from Corona and transferred to San Quentin for execution—her time was set for 10 a.m. Santo and Perkins were scheduled for a couple of hours later. It was going to be ladies first.

The car with Barbara handcuffed in the backseat arrived at San Quentin in the wee hours of the morning. She was taken to the cell from which she’d take her last walk.

Her last few hours were a choreographed dance of despair. Graham was in a holding cell praying with Father McAlister when he said to her, “It’s time.” As McAlister and Graham were heading out of the holding tank, the phone rang for Warden Teets. It was Governor Knight. The execution had been delayed.

Barbara collapsed and almost had to be carried back to the cot in the holding cell.

About 20 minutes later the phone rang again. It was the governor for Warden Teets. He told him to go ahead with the execution.

Barbara was brought to her feet and escorted to the entrance of the gas chamber. The phone rang a third time, and she was drawn back from the brink. She said, “I can’t take this. Why didn’t they let me go at ten. I was ready to go at ten.”

This time the condemned woman was taken to a small office adjacent to the gas chamber. Twenty minutes more passed. Barbara was sobbing, “Why do they torture me like this?” The reason for the back and forth was that her attorney was desperately attempting to save her life, and the last-minute legal wrangling made for a hellish couple of hours.

The phone rang for a fourth and final time. Barbara couldn’t bear to look at the witnesses surrounding the gas chamber, and she begged for a blindfold. One of the matrons had a sleep mask.

Barbara Graham was the only person ever to ask for a blindfold for the gas chamber.

Barbara’s last words were “Good people are always so sure they’re right.”

Joe Feretti, one of the men in charge of her execution, strapped Barbara into the gas chamber and gave her some advice. He told her to take a deep breath, and it would go easier and quicker for her. Barbara responded, “How the hell would you know?”

About ten minutes later Barbara Graham was pronounced dead.

A couple of hours later Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins went to their deaths in the same gas chamber with very little fuss and no drama. It was reported that the two men chatted amiably as they were strapped into their respective chairs, and when they were ready to go, Perkins allegedly said to the assembled cops, “Now don’t you boys do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Barbara’s  trial had been standing room only, but her funeral was sparsely attended. Henry Graham drove up to Northern California for the funeral, but he left their son Tommy at home.


Joan Renner is a writer, lecturer, and social historian with an expert knowledge of Los Angeles-based murders, corruption, and scandals. A version of this story originally appeared on her Web site, Deranged L.A. Crimes

 

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