‘Body of Crime’ Figure Is a Body Unclaimed as Famed Case Closes

Times Staff Writer

The body of L. Ewing Scott, whose conviction three decades ago for the murder of his wealthy socialite wife was California’s first successful “no body” prosecution, lay unclaimed at the Los Angeles County Morgue Tuesday--more than a week after his death.

He left no survivors.

And he was penniless.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County public administrator said Scott, 91, died Aug. 17 at the Skyline Convalescent Hospital in Silverlake, where he resided after becoming too feeble to live alone.

He had been paroled from prison in 1978.

It was a quiet, lonely and destitute end for the luxury-loving man whose single act of greed and violence had spawned years of headlines and to some degree altered the texture of criminal law.


First of Its Kind

At least 20 “no body” cases--six of them in Los Angeles County--have been successfully prosecuted around the nation since the day in 1957 when a Los Angeles Superior Court jury convicted Scott of murdering Evelyn Throsby Scott despite the fact that her body was never found.

But Robert Leonard Ewing Scott was the first, and the achievement of Deputy Dist. Atty. J. Miller Leavy in obtaining the conviction based entirely upon circumstantial evidence and without being able to produce the remains of the supposed victim made Leavy a legend among prosecutors.

Evelyn Scott disappeared from her Bel-Air home on the night of May 16, 1955, after taking a test ride in a Mercedes-Benz with her husband, a handsome and charming ne’er-do-well paint salesman who had called himself an investment consultant when he met and married her five years earlier.

Scott later claimed that his wife had left the house to buy a can of tooth powder and never returned. But friends suspected foul play, and when it became evident that Scott was forging his wife’s name to checks for living expenses, her brother filed a lawsuit demanding an accounting of her assets--which, in turn, stimulated police to launch a major hunt for the missing socialite.

Eleven months after the disappearance, a grand jury indicted Scott for grand theft and forgery in connection with liquidation of nearly $1 million of the missing woman’s assets, and Scott fled, only to be arrested when he tried to enter Canada from Detroit, driving a car purchased with his wife’s money.

Brought back to Los Angeles, he insisted that he had done nothing wrong and argued that without a body--Evelyn’s eyeglasses and false teeth had been discovered near a backyard incinerator at her home, but her body was not found--the prosecution had no case. “No corpus delicti, “ he said.

But corpus delicti --generations of detective fiction notwithstanding--does not refer to a physical body. In fact, the Latin phrase refers to the body of the crime, to the facts constituting or proving the offense rather than flesh and blood. And Leavy was able to establish that offense.


“What we did,” Leavy told a Times interviewer in 1986, “was prove ‘the suddenly interrupted life pattern’ of Evelyn Scott.”

He said a juror later told him, “I was just as convinced as if they’d brought her body into the courtroom.”

Yet the same jury refused to send Scott to the gas chamber.

Instead, he was given a “life” term, which turned out to be about 21 years. He turned down parole twice, saying to accept it would be an admission of guilt, but was finally set free in 1978.

A pauper (his wife’s assets had been taken over by members of her family in the early 1960s) Scott lived on a small state allowance in a rundown mid-Wilshire apartment, still insisting that his wife was not dead.

And then, he confessed.

In 1986, a Burbank writer produced a tape recording in which Scott appeared to admit the murder and describe his wife’s death in graphic detail.

Diane Wagner, who spent five years as a part-time reporter in the New York Times Los Angeles bureau, wrote a book, “Corpus Delicti,” in which she quoted Scott as having told her he killed his wife by striking her on the head with a rubber mallet and then buried her body in the desert near Las Vegas.


Asked Tuesday if she knew why he confessed, Wagner said, “I can’t tell you why he confessed. He called up and said he had a story to tell me and that’s what it was.”

The confession came as a considerable surprise to investigators who had always assumed that the body was concealed in some part of the San Diego Freeway, which had been under construction near the Scott home at the time of the murder.

They expressed skepticism, which was reinforced by subsequent interviews in which Scott told a former crime reporter-acquaintance that he was married to Wagner (he wasn’t), had taken her on a honeymoon to South America (he didn’t), and told another reporter that the publisher would “be in trouble” for printing the confession.

But what had prompted him to acknowledge the crime after so many years, the reporter asked.

“Acknowledge it?” Scott said. “I’d be a damn fool to acknowledge it--they never found the body!”