Three Landmark O.C. Criminal Justice Cases

Decades-old local cases that marked turning points in American jurisprudence

The Original Celebrity Gone Wild

Silent-film star Bebe Daniels was clocked driving her Marmon roadster 56½ mph through largely agricultural Orange County at a time when Judge John B. Cox fined anyone going over 35, and jailed anyone doing 50. Daniels’ courthouse trial on March 28, 1921, drew some 1,500 spectators hoping for a glimpse of the former child actress (Dorothy in the 1910 short film “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”), who had matured into a successful ingenue under contract to Cecil B. DeMille. Sentenced to 10 days in jail, Daniels wrote about her time in the clink for Photoplay magazine, and promptly went on to star in “The Speed Girl”—becoming the first celebrity to exploit her appearance in the O.C. crime blotter.

The Day Forensic Science Prevailed

In 1947, Walter and Beulah Overell’s bodies were found after their yacht exploded in Newport Harbor. Investigators discovered unexploded dynamite and the remains of a time clock—and also determined that the wealthy couple had been bludgeoned with a ball-peen hammer. Suspicion focused on their 17-year-old daughter, Beulah Louise, and her 20-year-old fiance, George “Bud” Gollum, because the teen stood to inherit her parents’ $500,000 estate. “We had lust, we had greed, we had frustration,” said the prosecutor during the couple’s trial later that year. “These are the raw materials out of which murders are made.” But the young lovers were acquitted—and went their separate ways. The case might have been forgotten except that it led to the establishment of the county’s first crime lab in a converted women’s restroom on the second floor of the old Sycamore Street County Jail, staffed by a single criminologist. Today’s modern lab is administered through a partnership of the sheriff-coroner, the district attorney, and the county CEO, and has more than 150 staff members working in a 100,000-square-foot facility. It housed the first local law enforcement DNA lab in the western U.S., initiated the state’s first local automated fingerprint ID system, and helped introduce portable breath-alcohol testing devices.

The First Made-For-TV Case

“Coast TV Beats Ink Outa Papers as Sex Slaying Stirs Populace” proclaimed The Billboard on June 2, 1951, during one of many precedent-setting local cases involving crime and the media. Patty Jean Hull was just 10 when she was abducted from a Buena Park theater by Henry Ford McCracken, a hillbilly musician with a history of sex-crime arrests. Three days after her May 19 disappearance, KTTV Channel 11 sent remote units and a film crew from Los Angeles to cover an investigation that previously would have been deemed too shocking for TV. A day later, KTLA Channel 5 joined in. In an era of family-friendly programs such as “I Love Lucy,” news cameras were rolling when lawmen entered McCracken’s auto court cabin, and when Patty’s body was found in a shallow grave in Live Oak Canyon. They also covered the grand jury’s indictment of McCracken, center above, who was executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber in 1954.

 

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