A Tale of Adultery, Mutilation Yields Obsession

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Angela Mellus Copeland is obsessed with the 1928 murder of her grandfather's first wife.

She's not a detective; she's a jewelry designer who is also historian of an illustrious California clan. One of her forebears was a mayor of Los Angeles, Henry Mellus, who was elected in 1860 and died in office the same year.

But it's another family member who intrigues her, one whose bloodline she doesn't share: her grandfather's first wife. Had that woman not been killed in her Hancock Park home, Copeland wouldn't exist; the widower married the woman who became Copeland's grandmother.

The murder victim, Myrtle Mellus, 42, had been carrying on a five-year love affair with Leo "Pat" Kelley, 29, a local butcher more than a decade her junior. Her well-to-do husband, Frank, a grand-nephew of the former mayor, apparently knew nothing about the relationship.

The so-called "Butcher Boy" murder case made headlines. Kelley was convicted of the killing and sentenced to hang. His appeal to the state Supreme Court resulted in the verdict's reduction to manslaughter from first-degree murder. The case set a precedent for altering a conviction without a new trial.

Many of these details come from Los Angeles Times stories about the case, as well as from the diaries of Copeland's grandmother, Vera Bayard Mellus, and what she told her granddaughter.

Copeland, 46, who lives in Santa Monica, was in her early 20s when she learned about the murder. Her grandmother showed her the diaries, and the case piqued her curiosity.

A few years later, in 1985, Copeland went to a funeral at Forest Lawn in Glendale. "I asked at the desk if any Melluses were buried there," she said. " 'Only Myrtle Mellus,' " the record-keeper replied. Copeland went to see Myrtle's grave and took a photo of her headstone.

She showed the picture to her mother, but her mother and aunt refused to talk about it. "My aunt was very upset when my cousin, Cathy Wilmoth, and I went out to UCLA library to research it, looking up all the old newspaper stories. When I saw how beautiful Myrtle was, I became even more obsessed with the whole story," Copeland said.

Copeland even drove her grandmother to the Hancock Park house, but the owners wouldn't let them in.

Her grandmother, Vera, who died in 1989 at age 92, was a prolific diarist, filling more than 20 volumes with accounts of her life. Born in South Dakota, she was a young child when her father died at the turn of the century. Her mother went to homestead on land in North Dakota while Vera lived with an uncle. She was sent alone by stagecoach to visit her mother and older sister. All three moved to Los Angeles in 1912.

In 1928, Vera Bayard was a 30-year-old single teacher living in Glendale when she read about the murder. She knew the victim and her husband; she'd had dinner with them and mutual friends a few nights earlier.

"When I picked up the Sunday paper, there were headlines 6 inches high all about Myrtle Mellus' murder by a man that Myrtle had been secretly seeing," Bayard wrote in her diary.

"When Frank came home from his fishing trip, he found his wife dead," she wrote. "When the police arrived, Pat Kelley was found in the maid's closet. He was drunk, scratched and asked to be shot."

Bayard knew the Melluses through her sister and brother-in-law, Harriett and Paul Kaulhausen, who had lived next door to them in Glendale.

Frank and Myrtle Mellus had been married 22 years. He was 47, a tent and awning manufacturer and a sportsman who loved fishing and duck hunting. She was a bored socialite. Parties, shopping sprees and drinking binges became her pastimes.

On Aug. 5, Frank Mellus had left their house about 6 a.m. to go fishing. Kelley showed up at the Mellus home around 8:30 a.m. He and Myrtle embraced and kissed, according to trial testimony by the maid, Maggie Eugene Ferris.

The lovers drank during breakfast and after, and were still drinking when Ferris finished work later in the morning. Kelley was a regular visitor whenever Frank Mellus was not home, the maid testified.

Kelley himself told police that they drank a quart of whiskey and had started another when he and Myrtle Mellus quarreled about her not inviting him to a certain party. "I roughed her up a bit, but I didn't beat her to death," he told police.

They both fell asleep, Kelley testified. He awoke when he heard Frank Mellus come home and hid downstairs in a closet.

Frank Mellus found his wife's nude and mutilated body on her bed and called police. They found Kelley in the closet, passed out, still drunk and covered in blood, according to court testimony. Mellus grabbed a chair and rushed toward Kelley, saying: "I'll kill the dirty dog!" But police drew their guns and protected Kelley.

Police took Kelley upstairs to the body. "Well, if she's dead," he said, "someone else must have done it; I didn't." The blood on him was from a split lip he gave her when they quarreled, he said.

The trial mesmerized reporters and readers with gory, titillating events. It also shocked high-society Hancock Park.

Prosecutors said Kelley beat Myrtle, then hauled her body upstairs to the master bedroom. He said she walked there herself with his help.

Deputy Dist. Atty. James Patrick Costello painted Kelley as a "pitiless murderer urged on by unnatural impulses that led him to mutilate and disfigure his victim ... a loathsome thing, a man who had no morals or compunction about breaking up another man's home."

Kelley said he loved Myrtle madly. He directed police to a secret compartment in her dresser where she kept his love letters, addressed to "Myrt" from "Daddy."

Witnesses testified that a drunken Myrtle sometimes had "fainting spells" and could have fallen and hit the back of her head and died from that trauma. She had what the L.A. County coroner called a "slow fracture" and was probably unconscious hours before she died.

A jury of five men and seven women took an hour to convict Kelley of first-degree murder. "Must do something to stop this kind of crime," one of the jurors had written on a ballot.

Kelley was sentenced to death. But the state Supreme Court reduced the conviction to manslaughter because there was no proof of premeditation.

Resentenced to one to 10 years in prison, he was released in 1933. He died in Los Angeles in 1965.

In the meantime, Frank Mellus and Vera Bayard were married in 1930. They moved into Mellus' Hancock Park home, where they reared two daughters -- one of them Angela Mellus Copeland's mother.

"When I got older," Copeland said, "my grandmother told me about the murder and how she felt like the second wife in 'Rebecca,' " the haunting romance novel by Daphne du Maurier, which Alfred Hitchcock made into a movie. The film about a young bride who marries a wealthy widower and finds herself living with the ghost of her glamorous predecessor won the Oscar for best picture in 1940.

"Neighbors actually stared at her, but no one said a word," Copeland said, referring to her grandmother.

Because of the murder, Frank Mellus was afraid to leave his wife alone. He even took her on his fishing trips, Copeland said. "He was always by her side," until he died of a heart attack at the house in 1944. "My grandmother finally moved, selling the house in the 1950s," before Copeland was born.

Her grandmother left many of her diaries to Copeland, along with a long, crystal necklace and her silver spoon collection. One spoon is engraved "Myrtle."

The necklace is part of family intrigue too: Copeland only recently learned that it had belonged to Myrtle Mellus when she saw it around her neck in a Times photo.

When the Hancock Park house went up for sale in 1999, Copeland finally got a peek inside. "But the minute I started talking about the murder," she said, the owners asked her to leave. She never got to see the upstairs. "If it ever goes on the market again, I'm buying it," she said. "It would be like owning a big piece of the family history."

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