85 Years Ago, An Unlikely Murderer Arrived in L.A. With Something Gruesome in Her Luggage
The Dec. 4, 1939, edition of the Detroit Free Press
Timothy Hughes Rare and Early Newspapers
At 7:45 a.m. on the morning of Monday, Oct. 19, 1931, a tiny, ethereal beauty stepped off the overnight train from Phoenix into Central Station in downtown Los Angeles. The frail woman, only 5 feet tall, wore a brown suit and a brown velvet turban, and she carried a hatbox. Trailing behind her was a porter carrying a battered suitcase. She walked straight to the ladies’ room, had the suitcase and hatbox stacked behind the door, and settled into the station’s ample waiting room across the way. An hour passed, then another. The woman continued to sit, and her baggage remained in the bathroom, much to the annoyance of ladies’ restroom attendant Stella Conway.
Conway had already asked the petite lady with big blue eyes and blond hair if she was leaving soon. The woman replied, “No, I’m waiting.” The attendant noticed the woman’s left hand was heavily bandaged. “She seemed a little uneasy and when I asked her what was wrong with her hand and wrist,” Conway recalled, “she said she had burned it.” The woman explained she was waiting for her brother, a student at USC, and that she had no money to check her bags. This was the Depression, and people were down on their luck, so Conway understood. After a few minutes, the woman went to find her brother, and emphasized that no one should take her bags. In case he appeared, Conway asked, “Who will your brother be looking for?”
“Mrs. J-U-D-D,” the lady replied, before blending into the crowd.
Around noon, the woman reappeared at the loading dock of Central Station with a tall, clean-cut young man. They had come to claim two large trunks the woman had checked in Phoenix. She was unaware that the trunks had been pink-slipped by the Southern Pacific baggage man on the train the night before.
Understandable, since they were leaking blood.
District baggage agent Arthur V. Anderson met the couple and asked what was in the trunks. “Just personal things,” the woman replied. “There is something wrong with them,” Anderson said. “You had better come and look at them.” Anderson led the man and woman to the flatbed truck where the black trunks sat. The stench was overwhelming, and flies swarmed. The young man appeared confused and just a bit disturbed. Anderson asked if they could smell the trunks. The woman said no, but her companion was overcome. “I can smell it!” he exclaimed uneasily.
Anderson asked the woman to open the trunks. She opened her purse and, after a few futile seconds, explained that her husband had the keys. She then went to phone her husband but claimed to have forgotten his number. “I’ll have to go get my husband and bring him down here,” she said calmly. And with that, the pair jumped into a Ford roadster and disappeared.
By 4:30 that afternoon, the pair still hadn’t returned. Increasingly troubled, Anderson called the LAPD to report the seeping trunks. Detective Lieutenant Frank Ryan arrived at Central Station, and met Anderson in front of the trunks. The seasoned baggage agent and detective were expecting to find deer meat, a common contraband at the time. Detective Ryan broke open the larger trunk. Nestled between bedding, papers and knickknacks, “We saw the head of a woman in a corner of the trunk,” Anderson recounted.
After the men pulled a quilt from the trunk, the body of a handsome, dark-haired woman in pink pajamas was revealed, lying on her side, her knees pulled up to her chest. According to Judd biographer Jana Bommersbach, Detective Ryan “recoiled so violently the lid slam shut with a thud.” After composing himself, he continued his search. In the smaller trunk were two bundles of bedding. In one was wrapped the head and pajama-clad torso of a second woman — lovely, thin and auburn-haired. In the other, a lower leg. Both women had been shot. Further horrific discoveries would be made in the ladies' restroom. In the hatbox, a .25 caliber automatic pistol. In the battered suitcase, the rest of the dissected woman’s body.
These discoveries would launch a search that the Los Angeles Times called “one of the greatest criminal dragnets ever spread in the West.” By Tuesday morning, the media had the name of their suspect: Winnie Ruth Judd, only 26, a married, “sweet-tempered,” tubercular medical typist who lived in Phoenix. At the time of the murders, Judd's 48-year-old-husband, William C. Judd, was living in Santa Monica with his sister, searching for employment. Her victims were her purported best friends in Phoenix. The dark-haired woman was Agnes Anne LeRoi, an X-ray technician. Hedvig “Sammy” Samuelson, a former schoolteacher practically bedridden with tuberculosis, had been dissected into four clean pieces.
The three women were in a way Wild West transients — rootless people who had traveled from place to place in search of jobs and a better quality of life. Twice-divorced LeRoi (from Indiana) and Samuelson (from North Dakota) had met in Alaska when both were working there. Soon inseparable, they had gone to Phoenix earlier in 1931 to try to repair Sammy’s fragile health. Judd, a sickly, pleasant preacher’s daughter from Indiana, had married the much older, kindly Dr. Judd in 1924. She soon discovered he was a drug addict, and his inability to hold a job would lead them to live in Mexico and Los Angeles before moving to Phoenix in 1930. She had met LeRoi at the Grunow Clinic in Phoenix, where they were both employed. The three women had soon become thick as thieves, surrogate family members in an unfamiliar place.
The investigation moved swiftly. The man who had come to claim the trunks with Winnie was indeed her brother, Burton J. McKinnell, who claimed his sister had shown up unannounced. Eager to absolve himself of any suspicion, he told police that he had gone with his sister to claim the bags. However, after receiving unsatisfactory answers as to what was in the trunks, he had given his sister $5 and let her out on the corner of Seventh and Broadway. “I wish you all the luck in the world, kid,” a befuddled McKinnell had told her, before she vanished yet again.
Los Angeles and the rest of the nation were spellbound by the search for the tiny woman they called “tiger woman,” “the blond butcher,” “wolf woman,” “velvet tigress” and, most commonly, “the trunk murderess.” The Los Angeles Examiner offered $1,000 for the tip that led to her capture. The L.A. Times, not to be outdone, offered $1,500. Judd’s husband made an appeal to his wife to turn herself in. “I cannot believe that Ruth did this terrible thing alone. I want her to surrender, tell her story and we will help her,” he said. “I believe she had an accomplice — if she did this at all.”
The Phoenix district attorney and his assistants flew to Los Angeles, charges in hand, to aid in the search. According to the L.A. Times:
In an intensive search in Los Angeles yesterday, scores of plainclothes men and uniformed officers thoroughly checked every hotel district, without gaining a trace of the suspect, and the search was continuing last night with unabated vigor. Fears that the woman may have killed herself when she learned that the murders had been discovered increased as the day advanced with the search. Railroad stations, steamship docks, airports, bus lines and every other means of egress from the city have been placed under the eyes of detectives, and all means by which the woman could escape are being watched.
Sightings of Judd were reported all over the West. She was supposedly seen hitchhiking near Laguna Beach and Fresno. A transient woman who looked like Judd was arrested in San Diego after appearing nervous and distracted in a hotel. A cafe operator in Venice claimed he had seen Judd thumbing through a phone book but never making a call. Her brother’s bachelor shack in Beverly Glen was under constant surveillance, and neighbors in the area were alerted to be on the lookout for Judd or her corpse. All L.A. residents who had known or worked with Judd or her husband received frequent visits from the LAPD. As the week wore on, Judd’s frantic husband pleaded with her to turn herself in. On Wednesday, he issued a statement to all the local papers, imploring her to contact the attorneys he had retained:
If this comes to her attention I earnestly beg and implore her to come to me or these attorneys at 420 Subway Terminal Building, 4th and Hills Streets, telephone Mutual 7235 or Cleveland 61729, at once and with every assurance that she will be protected in every way possible.
On Friday, a desperate Judd, having seen her husband’s appeal in the paper, called a family friend. She refused to come to the Subway Terminal Building but agreed to meet her husband in the lobby of the Biltmore Theater at 3:30 p.m. Disheveled and weak, she was hustled into a waiting car. “Why are they calling me a criminal,” she moaned once in the car. “I am not a criminal.” She was driven to the Alvarez and Moore Mortuary (owned by a friend of Dr. Judd’s) on Bunker Hill, where the police and her sister-in-law waited. Once there, she collapsed on her sister-in-law’s shoulder, giving the first clue as to what had happened. ‘I am not a criminal, Carrie. I’m not. Do you believe me?” She cried. “We had an awful fight. They shot me first.”
The police took Judd into custody. On their way to the Georgia Street Receiving Hospital, they stopped at a downtown restaurant for what must have been a very awkward lunch. An understandably disoriented Judd “ate vegetable soup, drank some milk, nibbled a piece of meat and ate a few bites of dessert.” Once in the hospital, she was examined. Doctors found bruises covering Judd’s body, and a bullet lodged in her wrapped left hand. Gangrene had already set in. She was put under anesthesia so the bullet could be removed. As she was coming out of surgery, she began to mumble: “I had to fight ’em. I had to fight ’em …”
Once she had recovered, Judd was whisked to City Hall for questioning, while reporters thronged the corridors. Sure, police wanted to know why she had appeared in their city with two dead bodies, one dismembered. But almost more important, they wanted to know where on earth she had been the past four days.
The answer would shock them. While law enforcement’s finest had begun their massive manhunt, a dazed Judd had walked to the La Vina Sanitarium in Altadena, where she had once been a tuberculosis patient. She found an empty room and stayed there. “As impossible as it may sound, no one entered the room,” Judd recalled years later. “No one had stopped me when I went in. I do remember getting up after the fourth day and brushed my hair and tore some paper from the lining of the dresser, then I walked out with no one giving me a second glance.” That Thursday, she hitched a ride back to downtown Los Angeles and entered the Broadway department store, where she had once worked. “I stood around staring at people I knew or who knew me. I was in such a stupor that I got locked in the store all night,” Judd wrote. “I slept in the furniture department of that store under a rug. When I awakened the next morning, people were rushing all about me going about their business.”
The press had a field day with these revelations. Judd’s story was backed up when a plumber discovered a confession lodged in the drainpipe of the Broadway's bathroom, which Judd had written during her stay. The L.A. Times and the L.A. Examiner each pressed a bewildered, cash-strapped Dr. Judd for exclusive rights to his wife’s story. “Two representatives of each paper sat in opposite corners of the turnkey’s room,” a Phoenix paper reported, “glaring and smoking innumerable cigarettes, hoping to prevent skullduggery by the other.” Within 48 hours they both had an “exclusive” first-person account of Judd’s escapades, both of which she claimed to have had nothing to do with. William Randolph Hearst, owner of the Examiner, inserted himself further into the story, helping to pay for Judd’s defense and supplying her with a new attorney.
Salacious stories were floated about the killer and her victims. The women were reported to have been lesbian lovers, prostitutes and drug addicts. Judd would always assert that she had killed her friends after they attacked her because she had introduced her secret boyfriend (and their benefactor), “Happy” Jack Halloran, to a woman who had syphilis. Afterward, Judd said Halloran had cleaned up the scene, had Samuelson’s body dissected and told her to take the bodies to Los Angeles to dispose of them, perhaps in the Pacific Ocean.
Judd stayed in protective custody in Los Angeles for two weeks, her devoted husband constantly by her side. Reporters, gawkers and quacks were allowed to view and question her, but Judd refused to answer them. She received reams of mail from countless fans, who had been shocked to find that the “tiger woman” appeared more like a wounded cub. On Oct. 29, 10 days after her arrival in L.A., Judd was finally extradited back to Phoenix. According to the L.A. Times: “'I am ready to go,’ Mrs. Judd said as she stepped from her cell in the women prisoner’s quarters on the 13th floor of the Hall of Justice and was taken immediately to Sheriff McFadden’s automobile waiting in the basement of the huge granite hall. It was 9:40 p.m. when she formally was accepted in custody by the Arizona sheriff."
Judd would be convicted of first-degree murder in a trial that many in Phoenix considered rigged. Sympathy grew for the model prisoner, who became known as a kindly saint in the psychiatric facilities she inhabited, even as she repeatedly escaped (once for six years) from her jails. She was finally paroled in 1971, and lived a quiet, peaceful existence until her death in 1998.
Judd’s three-week sojourn in Los Angeles left an indelible mark on the city. In 1944, Judd’s story came flooding back to the city’s consciousness after a salt-encrusted female corpse was found in an old trunk at Union Station, sent express from Chicago. Papers breathlessly reported the discovery and subsequent investigation — and just as quickly the story was mysteriously dropped. But Judd’s case would never be dropped. Generations of Angelenos would grow up with the legend of the “trunk murderess” who had brought mayhem and murder to the City of Angeles, and had shown how easy it was to hide in the plain, sunny Southern California sight.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.