It's probably no accident that films and sensational celebrity murders have long been two of Los Angeles' most successful exports.
The two genres' successful examples, after all, often combine similar elements: sex, money, attractive protagonists, colorful supporting players and complex subplots. Good locations help, too: Americans relish the satisfying intimation that behind their affluent neighbors' polished doors lurks unhappiness dark and deep.
At mid-century, for example, Angelenos and readers of the national press were mesmerized by the gory, sex-drenched events that transpired on one of the tree-lined streets in the gracious Mid-City neighborhood of Hancock Park.
The year was 1948. As Hancock Park's resolutely white residents frantically circulated petitions to prevent a black entertainer named Nat "King" Cole from taking possession of the home he had purchased in their midst, the rest of the city's attention was focused on one of their Lucerne Boulevard neighbors, Betty Ferreri, who was accused of using a meat cleaver to dispatch her unfaithful husband, who had inconsiderately survived the two shots the family's possibly deranged handyman had pumped into him moments before.
Betty Laday Ferreri, a redhead, was the daughter of Hungarian immigrants who owned a small cafe in New Brunswick, N.J. Jerome "Jerry" Ferreri was a handsome, 24-year-old ladies man and one of their best customers. His father, Vincent, was a "big man" in New York politics, who some believed was part of the underworld.
Ditching classes and meeting Jerry soon became 18-year-old Betty's favorite pastime. Jerry already had had his own brushes with the law, including arrests on charges of auto theft, robbery, forgery and assault with intent to kill. Betty, however, believed she could change this handsome hunk. Her disapproving parents thought otherwise, and packed her off to live with relatives in Asbury Park, N.J.
Undeterred, Jerry followed, and they soon eloped.
In 1943, hoping for a fresh start, Jerry and the by-then-pregnant Betty moved to Los Angeles. Betty gave birth to a son she called "Butchie," then got a job as a car-hop at Beverly Boulevard and Western Avenue to support the chronically unemployed Jerry.
Soon Jerry's doting parents gave the couple $8,000 to put down on a $27,000, 15-room home in upscale Hancock Park.
Strapped for money, they rented out four rooms and hired Alan Adron, a 52-year-old handyman, to baby-sit and take care of the house.
Fast women and big cars kept Ferreri happy, as did a little plastic surgery on his nose and ears, another gift from his folks. While his wife worked at her $200-a-month job, he cruised the city's fashionable streets in his new maroon Lincoln, occasionally bringing home female guests.
About the only things for which Betty could rely on her husband were regular beatings that gradually increased in severity. As she later would testify, she prayed to make it through the day without losing her teeth, having her eye swollen shut or being killed.
When Betty refused to have sex with an auto mechanic to whom Jerry owed a $100 repair bill, he ruptured her eardrum. Angered over the doctor's bill, he hit her again in the other ear as she was speaking to an ear specialist over the phone.
"Maybe he'll give you two for the price of one," she quoted him as saying.
On Oct. 26, 1948, Jerry arrived home with a young model. Enraged, Betty threatened the couple with a pipe wrench and they fled. Suddenly terrified that Jerry would return and kill her, Betty asked Adron, the handyman, to come to her rescue.
Jerry soon returned, grabbed his wife by the hair and dragged her into the butler's pantry.
Hearing her screams, Charles Fauci, a tenant and small-time gangster, gave Adron a gun. The handyman rushed to the pantry and shot Jerry twice before the gun jammed. But Jerry wasn't dead, so Betty grabbed a meat cleaver and whacked him in the head--23 times.
Betty, Adron and Fauci were arrested and charged with manslaughter.
Deputy Dist. Atty. J. Miller Leavy admitted that Jerry had been "tempestuous, obstreperous, ferocious, turbulent, quarrelsome and vicious." But he also argued that Betty had willingly engaged in sexual relations with her husband and that this murder had been premeditated.
Attorney Jack Hardy, who represented all three of the defendants, countered that Betty was a vulnerable woman, duped by her playboy husband. She was a victim, Hardy argued, of years of verbal torment and physical abuse who finally just snapped.
But Adron refused to allow the defense attorney to argue that he was insane and incompetent. Adron then hired his own attorney, Gladys Towles, who argued that, although her client was insane and under "hypnotic suggestion" at the time of the killing, he was now sane.
The fascinated press dubbed him "Robat Man."
If all that wasn't enough, the trial took an extraordinary twist when the judge, Charles W. Fricke, actually took the witness stand for the defense.
Leaving the bench, he testified to a conversation he had had with defense attorney Hardy. The substance of their talk contradicted Adron's assertion that his former lawyer had attempted to trick him into an insanity plea.
Betty, meanwhile, took the stand to describe her deceased husband as a "sadist, an incorrigible brute, a bully, a beast" who nonetheless looked at her with "big puppy-dog eyes."
According to Betty, "sometimes he gagged me and locked me in a bedroom closet, threatening to kill me and my unborn baby if I made a sound, forcing me to endure the sounds of his lovemaking to another woman. When he let me out, he expected me to cook for him."
Another witness testified that Jerry brought a puppy home as a pet for their son, but instead teased the animal and repeatedly hit it with a baseball bat in front of the boy. Hanging the animal on the clothesline, he made Butchie do a war dance around it, driving his wife and son to hysterics.
Stories of Jerry's conquests were endless. Unable to control her crying while discussing her relationship with her husband, Betty collapsed on the witness stand, producing one of the trial's many dramatic interruptions.
Ultimately, the jury of five women and seven men acquitted all three defendants.
A few months later, however, Betty found herself back in court--and in the press--fighting five traffic tickets she had collected since her release from court. "The Wilshire police are persecuting me," she said. "And all you have to do is drive a Cadillac around here to get a ticket."