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Female Killers - Barbara Graham

Barbara Graham, dubbed 'Bloody Babs' by the tabloids that sensationalised her was one of the last females executed in California. Much debate has lingered over the robbery gone wrong, with opposing sides going as far as to publish novels and produce award-winning movies in the belief of her guilt or innocence surrounding the events of March 9th, 1953.

Mabel Monahan (64) was a widower, who lived a relatively quiet life in the sleepy suburb of Burbank. Unfortunately for her, the tenuous link she had to LA's criminal underworld, in the form of ex-son-in-law Tutor Scherer, was to play a part in her vicious murder. Tutor was a well-known Vegas gambler who had once been married to Mabel's daughter Iris. Iris was awarded their home, the now notorious 1718 W Parkside Ave in Burbank CA, in the divorce settlement. When Iris re- married, she gifted the house to her mother. What's more, Mabel's association with Tutor did not end after the dissolution of her daughter's marriage. They kept in close contact, and Tutor was known to stay with her for short periods. More importantly, he was also known to store belongings at the house. $100k of winnings was the rumour. For eighteen months, a Chinese whisper circled LA's criminal element. A house in Burbank, occupied by a frail elderly lady with spoils just ready for the taking.

Convicted felon John (Jack) Santo met his counterpart in four- time parolee Emmett Perkins. Equally sociopathic, neither of these career criminals had any doubts about what depths of depravity they would stoop to in the pursuit of easy wealth. Their criminal relationship started with the high-grading of gold and, within the space of a few years, quickly escalated to armed robbery and murder. The levels to which they would sink would become apparent in not one, but two trials after their eventual capture.

Strangely, it is not their most heinous crime that would be the first conviction. In Chester, Nevada City, they carried out the brutal murders of Guard Young, his two young daughters Judy (7) & Jean (6), their neighbour Michael Saile (4), and the attempted murder of daughter Sondra (3). Guard, a family man, just happened to take his children on an errand to the bank. This unassuming grocery store owner was responsible for cashing paychecks on a Friday for local workers. A routine of going to the bank, then popsicles for the kids, was broken most brutally. The savage robbery/homicide of this family was carried out by Santo and Perkins a mere five months before the bludgeoning of Mabel Monahan. Had Chester Police filed charges sooner against their suspects, Mabel might have escaped her inhumane end. The score of just over $7k from the Chester massacre was not enough to sustain these criminals for any length of time. They now set their sights on the fabled $100k in Burbank.

In early 1952 Perkins, now renting an apartment in El Monte, acquired a surprise houseguest. Barbara Graham was Perkins' type of woman. A kindred spirit who also liked to make a quick buck and didn't mind bending the rules to do so. Four- times married Graham had a well-rounded rap sheet for her thirty years. Prostitution, perjury, and check-kiting were just a few of the crimes she had committed in her short life. It was through her fourth husband Henry Graham, a bartender with an expensive heroin habit, that she would forge the partnership that would lead her subsequent arrest and conviction. Perkins knew he could help her exploit her talents and employed her as a shill for his illegal poker games.

1952 brought a new-born baby and her new fondness for heroin. It was around this time that Henry and Barbara's relationship deteriorated, prompting her to leave him. With limited options, Graham found herself turning to Perkins for somewhere to stay, and by early 1953, she would become involved in a crime far more nefarious than conning men out of their cash. It is unknown at this point if Graham was aware of the lengths that Perkins and his associates had or would go to, or if she simply did not care

Meanwhile, Jack Santo was formulating a plan to rob the home of Mabel Monahan. After a conversation with John True, a deep-sea diver who claimed to have witnessed Tutor Scherer with the $100k, he decided it was time to set the wheels in motion. Through middle-man William Upshaw, Santo enlisted the help of Baxter Shorter. Shorter was a well-known safecracker and previous rumours suggested that they would run into this obstacle. Perkins was the man to get things done if things turned south, and Graham was the decoy to gain entry to the house. True was never meant to be part of the robbery, but he argued with Santo that he should be there to get his cut. After all, as he pointed out to Santo, he had provided the intel. Jack Santo, Emmett Perkins, John True, Baxter Shorter, and Barbara Graham now had their plan in place to raid 1718 W Parkside Ave. Upshaw, whose original involvement was only in shady gold, wanted no part in this scheme. It could be suggested that Santo was not opposed to this as Upshaw was not bringing anything to the table, and it would be one less person to cut in. Meeting a final time, minus Upshaw, on the morning of the robbery, Santo set out the strategy. Graham was to go to the door. Mabel was more likely to come to the aid of a woman and would almost certainly let her into the house. Santo, Perkins, and True would follow to search, and Shorter would then come in to crack the safe.

On the night of March 9th, 1953, a nervous and reluctant Mabel did fall for Graham's sob story, and the conspirators gained entry to the house. Once inside, however, things took a sinister turn. They ransacked the house but found nothing of value and no safe.
The frail and frightened Mabel Monahan was bound, gagged, and pistol-whipped, crushing her skull in two different places. Mabel slowly bled out while the gang came to a realisation; There was no $100k. True's intel was false.
A bruised and battered Mabel was to get no reprieve. The callous group tied a pillowcase over her head and left her bloodied and dying on the floor of her living room, where she eventually succumbed to asphyxiation.
Less than a week after this brutal murder, police caught a break in the case. This was partially due to Mabel's daughter Iris offering a $5k reward for information. The tips started coming in. Without forensic evidence, following this line seemed the best way, and they started rounding up all the usual suspects. Everyone had to be released without charge, but two men were frightened into action. Shorter and Upshaw. Shorter returned of his own volition on the March 31st to arrange a plea before anyone else could.

Shorter told police that he had only been there as a lookout and that he had nothing to do with the killing of Mabel.
He had entered the house just after the others and as Mabel was attacked. Shorter also told police he had tried to help her by making an anonymous call to them after fleeing the scene. This was later verified by LAPD dispatch. The operator had attempted to send an ambulance, but no such address could be found in Los Angeles. In his panic, he had neglected to tell the operator the house was in Burbank. 

With Shorter turning states evidence, the police and district attorney's office could get to work picking up the rest of the gang and building a case. Before they could pursue these new leads, information was leaked to the press. Shorter was offered protective custody but declined. A few weeks later Shorter was kidnapped from his home, never to be seen again.

Only now, the burden of proof resting on the prosecution and no forensic evidence tying anyone to the crime, law enforcement knew they had to get someone else to talk. Next was Upshaw, although his testimony was not enough. He may have known the plan, but he could not put True, Santo, Perkins, Shorter or Graham in the house. Police set their sights on True. Amazingly, True did not have a criminal record. He was arrested on April 11th and released without charge on April 16th. He would be the one to flip. Police may not have had any scientific evidence, but they could use True and Upshaw to corroborate each other at trial.
LAPD finally arrested Santo, Perkins and Graham together on May 4th, 1953 and True was placed in protective custody for agreeing to turn state's evidence.

These publicised arrests made for compelling reading and every newspaper in the state began covering the story. The real bonus for these media outlets was that Graham, despite her drug use, looked every inch the Hollywood starlet. 'Bloody Babs' as the Herald would later dub her, sold papers. The trial by media began.
Graham could see how it looked, even before the grand jury indictment. On her arrest, she could not provide an alibi, citing that she could not remember where she was on the date in question. There was no deniability regarding her relationship with Santo or Perkins. Her employment with Perkins was too well known. Graham was running out of options.
A lifeline came in the form of cellmate and young lover, Donna Prow. Graham and Prow had begun a clandestine relationship in prison. Sending love notes, so as not arouse suspicion with the guards, Graham entrusted Prow with her dilemma and Prow had an idea. She had a friend who could provide an alibi for a price. She set up the meet between Graham and Sam Sirianni. Three visits later, and they had their story. They had been together at the Encino Ritz Motor Hotel. Sirianni was going to be the man who would get her out of this mess.

On August 14th, 1953, the trial of Barbara Graham, Jack Santo and Emmet Perkins began. True's shocking testimony in exchange for immunity painted a grisly picture for Graham:

"Mrs Graham entered the house. I followed and saw Mrs. Graham was striking Mrs Monahan in the face with a gun.
She was standing up, and Mrs Graham had her by the shoulder or hair with her left hand and was striking her with the gun in her right hand. Mrs Monahan collapsed, and Mrs Graham put a pillow slip over her head. Santo, Perkins, and Shorter entered the house. Perkins tied Mrs Monahan's hands behind her and dragged her to a closet. Santo tied a strip of cloth around her face. We searched the house for fifteen or twenty minutes; we found no safe, money, or jewels. We left the house together ."

Graham sat stony-faced next to her co-conspirators, as the jury absorbed this version of events. Occasionally muttering to her court-appointed attorney, she could sense that things were not going well. True's damming statement fascinated the jury and reporters. It seemed that people were willing to overlook the fact that, only weeks before, the press had published a different version. The leaked, and now inadmissible testimony from Shorter placed the gun in Perkins' hand and not Graham's. Even Upshaw's testimony, used as corroboration for True only placed her with her co-defendants the night before. Unfortunately, the narrative told by True told a sensational story. The idea that this femme fatale was the main perpetrator was media gold.

However, everything was not lost. As Sam Sirianni walked up to take the stand, Graham visibly relaxed. Here was her get out of jail card. The calm that Graham may have felt was fleeting. Confusion contorted her face as she listened to the testimony.
Officer Sam Sirianni of the LAPD had met with Graham on three occasions under the pretext that he would provide her with an alibi. During these visits, he had obtained information from Graham that she was with Santo and Perkins on the night of the murder from 8pm. Moreover, she told him that the murder had taken place on the morning of the 10th. Officer Sirianni also stated that he had pressed her several times regarding the disappearance of Baxter Shorter, to which she replied, "He's been taken care of."
Adding insult to injury for Graham, the prosecution added another exhibit. Her notes to Donna Prow. It was now apparent to Graham that Prow had helped set her up to reduce her sentence. The sexually explicit letters shocked the court and played right to the baying public.

Against the advice of counsel, Graham took the stand. Changing her story, she tried to say that she had been with her husband on the night of the murder, but it was too late. As an exposed liar and perpetrator of a false alibi, Graham had nowhere left to turn. Trying a final plea for sympathy, Graham shouted, "Oh, have you ever been desperate? Do you know what it means not to know what to do?"

As for Perkins and Santo, they were happy to "stick the girl out front", believing that no court would sentence a beautiful young mother to death. Their fate, intrinsically linked to hers, would mean escape from the gas chamber. Or so they thought.
On September 19th, 1953, Graham, Santo and Perkins were found guilty of murder in the first degree, with no recommendation for life sentences. Execution at San Quentin was imminent. This shocked the public. No-one had believed that Graham, guilty or not, would be sentenced to death. The media reversed their position with many journalists now taking the stance that she was innocent. Some even suggested that she was left-handed and that True had lied on the stand. Hollywood took up the mantel, casting Susan Hayward as Graham in the Oscar-winning movie "I want to live!". This also portrayed the view that she was innocent, or at the very least, Mabel had not died by her hand.

Graham served out her remaining time in the California Institute for Women in Corona. Her appeals failed, and she was transferred to death row at San Quentin to await execution.Graham maintained her innocence to the very end. Meanwhile, Santo and Perkins stood trial again for the odious crime they carried out in Chester. This time their female co- conspirator was one Harriet Henson, an on/off girlfriend of Santo.

Once again, police used similar techniques to build their case. This time in the form of Larry and Lucille Shay. They were acquaintances of Santo and Henson and had given them somewhere to stay before and after the Chester murders. Santo had confessed to them the sordid events of October 10th, 1952. While the Shays had no direct involvement, they had concealed this knowledge for over a year. The culmination of Santo and Perkins now being on death row and a wire-tap set up against a drunken Larry by police finally broke the silence. Larry, barely above a whisper, laid out the whole sordid story.

The robbery of shop owner Guard was almost called off, due to him having four young children with him. Perkins was unfazed by this and as Santo put it "Well, you know Harriet—she likes money. She thought we should go ahead with it." While it is unknown if this statement is true of Henson, she did go along with it. Violence ensued when the young boy Michael (4) tried to run away. Perkins caught up to him, beating him to a pulp and killing him. The vile Perkins had come this far, so what was four more? Santo and Henson looked on (according to Santo) as Perkins, with a three-pound lead pipe, unleashed skull shattering blows to Guard and his three helpless screaming children. Santo, Perkins and a very reluctant Henson scooped up the lifeless, broken bodies and dumped them in the back of Guard's pick-up and left them there to rot.

In twenty-one days of testimony, the contradictory statements and evidence mirrored that of the Monahan trial. What was apparent to law enforcement and the prosecuting officers of the court, the commonality of both trials showed that Perkins and Santo were sociopathic killers. They just had to hope that the testimony presented by the prosecution would be enough.

In a shock twist by the defence, Graham was called as a witness. In May or June of 1953, a law enforcement agent from the California DOJ conducted a telephone conversation with Graham. In his zeal to convict, had allegedly approached Graham with a deal. She would receive immunity from prosecution in her own trial if she placed Santo and Perkins in Chester for this crime. Bizarrely, if this alleged exchange took place, she turned it down. Her reasoning at the time was that she did not believe Santos or Perkins had committed the crime. On May 6th, 1954, Santo, Perkins, and Henson were convicted of four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. For Santo and Perkins, their death sentence, already a forgone conclusion, appeals notwithstanding, would take place on the same day as Graham's; June 3rd, 1955. Controversially, Henson escaped this fate. Condemned to four consecutive life sentences, she was paroled just seven years later.

Arguably, the crime that Henson was convicted for was far more barbaric and that it was only the testimony of a biased witness that puts a weapon in Graham's hand. Both trials for these women, however, may not have stood up to today's scrutiny. Modern forensics and the revision of entrapment laws would have negated the immunity deals for guilty parties. Whatever the modern-day outcome, questions remain.

Was Graham a willing participant, reigning blows on an elderly Mabel, or was she a conspirator who watched Perkins and Santo? Was Henson a horrified witness to Perkins and Santo, or did she willingly participate in the barbaric massacre of innocent children?

No matter the answer, these women received two very different outcomes and one should ask, was it the price of fame?

© Copyright 2020 ZOE COOPER
All Rights Reserved.

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