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Movieland Slayings: Legendary Crimes and Lingering Mysteries

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At noon Thursday, outside the Mulholland Drive compound where actor Marlon Brando’s son allegedly killed his sister’s boyfriend during the night, a Wells Fargo security guard stood watch in front of a wrought-iron gate, barring any would-be interlopers from pushing too close to the scene.

Reporters milled about, a few actually pawing through the trash for any tidbits of news. Those who were not rifling the garbage took notes on those who did. Good color.

“Movie stars,” said Ian Black, a London Daily Mirror correspondent who was camped outside the Brando residence in a red sports car, legal pad in hand. “Everyone wants to know about movie stars. They aren’t infallible. They make mistakes. And this is one more example of the fact that they are mortal.”

One more Hollywood homicide.

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The alleged killing of Dag Drollet by Christian Brando Wednesday night joins a rich and fascinating history of movieland slayings. Some were mysterious, some open-and-shut, some unspeakably sad. Some didn’t even happen in Hollywood, but they were Hollywood murders nonetheless. All are shrouded in the mystique of celebrity.

From the lurid Fatty Arbuckle scandal--the overweight screen star was tried three times but never convicted in the 1921 death of a starlet whom, it was said, he crushed during sexual intercourse in a San Francisco hotel--to the horrifying slaying of honey-blonde actress Sharon Tate by Manson Family cultists, “Hollywood” is replete with stories of violent death.

They can be more compelling and bizarre than any invention of screenwriters.

Consider, for example, the 1958 killing of Johnny Stompanato, which in certain respects mirrors what authorities said happened at the Brando household Wednesday night. A former bodyguard who had worked for the Mafia, Stompanato was the boyfriend of actress Lana Turner, whose 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, plunged a knife into his stomach after she heard him making threats to her mother. The death was ruled “justifiable homicide.”

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The 1935 death of the “Vamping Venus,” actress and comedienne Thelma Todd, is still a mystery. The 30-year-old Todd was found slumped over the steering wheel of her Packard convertible (the top was down) with blood on her face, her mink coat and the evening gown she was wearing. The death was ruled a suicide, but many remain convinced that it was murder.

Another legendary Hollywood crime was the slaying of silent-film director William Desmond Taylor, who had a reputation as a womanizer. He died in 1922, shot twice through the heart. By the time police arrived at his apartment, much of the evidence had been tampered with by actresses and studio executives who rushed to the scene to remove incriminating documents. Police did find a hidden collection of silky lingerie. But they never found the killer.

Of course, the days when studio executives can tamper with evidence or hush up the cops, putting out their own stories instead, supposedly are gone. Nonetheless, the heightened interest in celebrity cases can make the job of a detective a bit more complex.

“The actual investigating is the same,” said Leroy Orozco, a veteran homicide investigator with the Los Angeles Police Department. “The only difference is you get more media attention and you’ll get brass involved, somebody that ordinarily would never step into the situation.’

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Orozco said good police officers know how to work the press to their advantage in celebrity cases: “A lot of times, they’ll be pushy. They’ll want to know things and you’ll tell them, ‘No.’ But if you want to relate some information that’s gonna help (a case), it can be a world of good. You put out something, you might get some clues.”

Solved or unsolved, Hollywood murders invariably become a part of the local cultural fabric, the stuff that feeds conversation from Bellflower to Beverly Hills.

They have spawned countless books, movies and even a sightseeing tour that promises to “cover more than 30 miles of movieland morbidity” at a cost of "$30 per body.”

Explained Greg Smith, the tour’s founder: “I grew up in Kansas where nothing much happens. . . . When I moved to L.A., this is the kind of stuff I wanted to see.”

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So what is it, this fascination with violence in the lives of the rich and famous? Why do we care that Carl Switzer, who played Alfalfa on “Our Gang,” was shot to death during a drunken brawl? Or that Ramon Novarro, the silent screen star of the 1920s and ‘30s, was bludgeoned to death decades after his heyday?

“I think that the public believes that when you’re a movie star, you lead a charmed life,” says author Laurie Jacobson, whose book “Hollywood Heartbreak” focuses on the lives and deaths of 31 celebrities. “And when that charmed life ends in a pool of blood somewhere, tragically, people naturally want to know what happened. . . . How did someone like Sal Mineo, who we grew up with, end up on a garage floor with a knife in him? How did Sam Cooke, who sang like an angel, end up dead on a hotel room floor?”

Hollywood murders seem scripted with common themes--love, hate, money, revenge--and common casts. Publicity-shy star besieged by crime reporters. Straight-talking cops who insist they treat all cases the same; Main Street or Mulholland, it makes no difference. And always there are the bit players, walk-ons to a tragic scene.

Up on Mulholland Drive, as the television crews piled in and a cool breeze pushed through the pepper trees that line the winding drive to Brando’s house, a cable television repairman appeared inside the gate. He had been working next door at the home of Jack Nicholson. Reporters rushed his truck. Where did he go? they wanted to know. Whom did he see? Was there anybody home?

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“I don’t understand why you guys want to speak to me,” the cable man said. “I’m just nobody. No, I didn’t go to Brando’s house. . . . You guys gonna find me a part in a good movie?”


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