L. Ewing Scott's reported confession--after 30 years of indignant denials--surprised J. Miller Leavy, the retired prosecutor who in his day sent many notorious killers, such as "red light" bandit Caryl Chessman, to the gas chamber.
Leavy, interviewed the other day, said he was always certain that Scott, a handsome and charming ne'er-do-well paint salesman, had murdered his wealthy, older wife in 1955 to get her $1 million in assets, a case that made Page 1 news for several years.
Just as certain of Scott's guilt was the Los Angeles County Superior Court jury that convicted him on Dec. 21, 1957, even though socialite Evelyn Throsby Scott's body has never been found. The jury, however, rejected the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment.
What was unexpected for Leavy--and almost everyone else familiar with the case--was that Scott finally owned up to it in graphic detail on a tape recording made by Diane Wagner, a Burbank writer who spent five years as a part-time reporter in The New York Times bureau here.
Optioned for TV Film
Wagner, 26, who was a White House intern in 1979, interviewed Scott repeatedly for her recently published book about the unusual case, "Corpus Delicti" (St. Martin's/Marek: $16.95). The book, an alternate selection of the Literary Guild next August, has been optioned for a TV movie.
But for Leavy and others familiar with the case, questions linger: Why, after all these years, did Scott acknowledge murdering his wife? In admitting his crime, did he give an authentic account of what happened? And, finally, at the age of 88 and ailing, did Scott know what he was saying?
After all, Scott had claimed innocence from the day of his arrest on April 15, 1957, when he was a fugitive trying to enter Canada from Detroit in a new car bought with his wife's money.
Without her body, Scott always insisted, there was no corpus delicti and thus he could not be properly convicted. (Actually, that Latin phrase refers to the body of the crime --to the facts constituting or proving the offense--not to flesh and blood.)
Twice Scott rejected parole, saying acceptance would be a tacit admission of guilt.
Prosecutor Leavy said there have been many cases of juries convicting murderers without a body. "But in California, except in this case, the murderer always said he was aware the person was dead though, of course, at the hands of others," Leavy said.
Can of Tooth Powder
Scott never acknowledged that his wife was dead until he spoke to Wagner. He always insisted his wife had sent him out for a can of tooth powder and when he came back she was gone.
Wagner, who started work on the book in 1983, said she spoke with Scott repeatedly in the run-down mid-Wilshire apartment he took after the state freed him in 1978, deciding that the frail old man of 81 had served his time. Wagner said each time they met Scott denied he had killed his wife.
Then, on Aug. 5, 1984, Scott telephoned Wagner, asking her to come to see him one more time, promising, as always, that he had something important to disclose.
Wagner said she went the next day, vowing it would be the last time and certain she would hear the same litany of innocence again.
When Wagner arrived, the tape recording shows, Scott began by noting that his full name is Robert Leonard Ewing Scott. And he assured Wagner that he knew her tape recorder was running.
"Well," he said suddenly, "I arrived in Las Vegas about dusk. . . ." And with that he offered his version of Evelyn Scott's death.
"I hit her in the head with a mallet, a hard rubber mallet. Just once. On the head, right on top," Scott said into Wagner's tape recorder.
Scott said that his wife was in her bedroom the evening of May 16, 1955, and saw him approach. "But I haven't done anything," Mrs. Scott, who was 63, said before he struck her without saying a word, Scott related.
Scott told Wagner that he wrapped his wife's naked body in a gardener's tarpaulin, loaded it into the trunk of a 1940 Ford and drove into the desert six miles east of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.
There, Scott said, he dug a grave, dumped her body, drove around in the sand to cover his tire tracks and then "went to sleep in the car for awhile. Then I drove back to Los Angeles."
Leavy said he was mightily impressed when Wagner brought him a copy of the transcript.
"She did what all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't do," Leavy said.
"The best detectives in Los Angeles, men like Herman Zander, did their best--and this was before Miranda when we didn't have to read 'em their rights and then stop the questioning the minute they ask for a lawyer. But they couldn't get him to confess."
Neither could the best crime reporters in Los Angeles, like Howard Hertel and Tom Towers, who covered the case for Hearst's Examiner, and Gene Blake, now retired from The Times.
Towers, now a city Airports Department official, kept trying, though. Towers kept in touch with Scott, visiting him every few months after his release.
"I always felt that he did it," Towers said, "but I was just unable to bring all the pieces together to finalize my own conviction because there was no body.
"I visited him repeatedly because, like a lot of newspapermen, I felt if he is going to cop out he'd cop out to me," Towers said.
Art Alarcon, who assisted Leavy in prosecuting the case and who is now a federal appeals court judge, said he was also surprised that Scott confessed.
"I have had many letters from him over the years asking me to help him by writing letters to various people," Alarcon said. "For example, he belonged to some fraternal group that apparently throws people out who have been convicted of murder and he asked me to intercede and tell them that the trial was a frame-up."
Alarcon, like Leavy, cooperated with Wagner. "I spent two days with her and I was impressed; impressed with questions she asked and the kinds of material she had," Alarcon said.
After Scott was convicted, Alarcon said, he got a telephone call from a woman in Rome. She said she had been married to Scott years earlier and feared he would kill her to get her fortune. Alarcon said the woman told him she gave Scott money to go away. And, Alarcon added, the woman thanked him for winning the conviction.
Towers, Leavy and Alarcon say they have doubts about the details of the confession. None believes a single blow from a rubber mallet could have killed Evelyn Scott, for example. "The important thing," Leavy said, "is he acknowledged he killed her."
All three men also said they are unsure about Scott's claim that he buried his wife east of Las Vegas. At the time of the trial there was speculation Scott had buried her beneath the San Diego Freeway, which was then under construction, or that Scott burned the body.
Neighbors of the Bel-Air couple, like writer Salli Stevenson, who was then a girl of 12, recall seeing Scott in his yard stoking a fire in the incinerator that gave off a terrible smell. "We came near and he got angry and ran us off," Stevenson recalled the other day.
Other neighbors called the police to complain about the odor, the likes of which Stevenson said she has never forgotten and never again smelled.
Nearly a year later, when a civil lawsuit involving Evelyn Scott's assets made her disappearance news, police belatedly began investigating. They searched the incinerator, but found nothing.
'Deserved to Die'
Three decades later, when Scott told Wagner he killed his wife, he made no mention of the incinerator.
In the tape-recorded interview with Wagner, though, he bragged that he was smarter than the police and prosecutors because they never found his wife's body.
He said his wife "deserved to die" and was a "terrible person." Scott claimed his wife tried to poison him, a charge his prosecutors say is ludicrous.
Scott told Wagner he feels no remorse.
So why did he confess? Scott told Wagner it would make a good epilogue to her book.
When they spoke, Scott was 88 years old. Wagner said at times he was lucid, at others his mind was unclear.
Towers said he visited Scott on Nov. 12, 1984, three months after he confessed to Wagner.
"I found him in pretty good condition, but weakened and disoriented," Towers said. "He claimed to be married to Wagner, claimed she was his third wife and he took her on a honeymoon to South America."
Then, was Scott's tape-recorded confession truly an unburdening of his past?
A reporter went to see Scott one evening at the Silver Lake area convalescent home where he is now bedridden, hoping to resolve the mystery.
Asked if he knew Wagner, Scott, now 89, said she was his third wife.
As for the confession, he said "the publisher is in trouble" for printing it. But he didn't deny making it.
Scott said he had not seen the book, so the reporter read him the transcript of the confession, which comprises the five-page epilogue to "Corpus Delicti."
Scott lay in bed, his eyes fixed on the reader as he listened. When the reading ended, he started to say something, then stopped.
"What do you want?" he demanded.
The answer to a question, the visitor replied: What prompted him to acknowledge the killing after all these years?
"Acknowledge it?" Scott said. "I'd be a damn fool to acknowledge it--they never found the body."