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The Real-Life Sleuth Who Inspired ‘Dragnet’ Character

Times Staff Writer

Joe Friday was a fictional detective who, on radio and television, roamed the virtual streets of Los Angeles, solving crimes and sticking to the rule book.

But one character Friday relied on in the weekly television drama “Dragnet” was a civilian, Chief Forensic Specialist Raymond Pinker. Unlike Friday, Pinker was based on a real-life LAPD figure named ... Raymond Pinker.

Pinker, whose career with the department spanned almost 40 years, solved crimes not with shoe leather but with a Sherlock Holmesian magnifying glass and other tools of the consulting detective’s trade.

“Dragnet” used Pinker’s real name but never paid him a dime, his widow, Ruby Pinker, said in an interview. “He never even got any Chesterfields.... I think that’s the cigarette company that sponsored the show.”

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In 1929, Pinker joined the LAPD’s 7-year-old Police Scientific Investigation Division. It was the first such lab in the country, sparsely equipped with a few test tubes, a microscope and a Bunsen burner.

Over the years, Pinker transformed the grimy, crammed quarters into a renowned crime lab with 61 experts and state-of-the-art equipment. As a leader in forensic science, he and the lab became a model for police departments in other cities.

Pinker pioneered the use of paraffin tests and gamma rays to determine if someone had fired a weapon. He was among the first to use color and 3-D crime-scene photographs, Breathalyzers and lie detector tests, which he trained officers and attorneys to perform and evaluate.

The “Dragnet” stories were said to be true because they were based on real cases from his and others’ files.

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“We used to sit and laugh at some of those ‘Dragnet’ episodes. They would take facts from one case and mix them with facts from another to make the stories more interesting,” said Ruby Pinker, 88, a former Vaudeville hoofer and real estate agent. She still lives in the Mount Washington house the couple bought after their 1948 marriage, her first and his second.

A quiet, bespectacled man, Pinker helped put some of the hardiest and most elusive criminals behind bars, including one of the LAPD’s very own: Capt. Earle Kynette, the head of the Special Intelligence Squad. Kynette was convicted in the 1938 car-bombing of a former LAPD detective who had been investigating police corruption.

Pinker’s remarkable contribution to the department will be highlighted Saturday at the Los Angeles Police Museum and Community Center’s public event, “A Night With Joe Friday: A Tribute to LAPD Detectives Real & Reel.” An outstanding LAPD civilian employee also will be recognized with the first-ever Ray Pinker Award.

Born in Nebraska in 1905, Pinker arrived in Los Angeles with his family as a teenager. In the 1920s, he put himself through USC working at a drugstore. He graduated with a degree in chemistry.

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“He was a very quiet, curious person and always wanted to know what made things tick,” Ruby Pinker said.

Four months before the 1929 stock market crash, Pinker landed a job as a chemist with the LAPD. He worked at the Central Police Station, which was built in 1896 at 1st and Hill streets.

“That old police station was really quite a place,” Ruby Pinker said. “It had rats bigger than cats and there were more of them than there were workers on the third floor.”

Smoke stained its walls and bullet holes riddled its ceiling, the result of misfired weapons. But it was the place Pinker called home for decades as he waged his own quiet war on crime.

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Often he was summoned in the middle of the night to help collect evidence at a crime scene. He was the specialist in demand.

“Capt. Jack Donahoe, a big, wonderful Irish man who was in charge of the Robbery-Homicide Division in the 1940s, would always shout, ‘Don’t get me so-and-so, get me Pinker,’ ” Ruby Pinker said.

Pinker attended many of the autopsies performed on the victims he had examined at the crime scene. But he didn’t much like them.

Her husband “didn’t have much hair,” his widow said, “but after gruesome autopsies, he would come home, take his clothes off on the front porch before coming inside, then shower, scrubbing his head until it shined. Our neighbors thought he was quite a character.”

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Pinker made hundreds of court appearances a year, never letting anything stand in the way of his job. In 1938, while on the witness stand during the Kynette case, Judge Thomas Ambrose cut Pinker’s testimony short with a smile: “May I interrupt at this time to say that the hospital just called and you are the father of a bouncing baby girl.” Court adjourned early.

The same blushing chemist cracked the Louise Peete case in late 1944. Peete, a convicted murderess out on parole, was suspected of robbing and slaying a woman who had befriended her and cared for Peete’s daughter, Betty, while Peete spent 18 years in prison. But the woman had merely disappeared; no body had been found. Six months later, the LAPD called Pinker into the case.

“He thought it was very strange for a woman [Peete] who displayed freshly cut flowers throughout the house to have a beautiful raised flower bed empty of flowers,” Ruby Pinker said. “That’s where they found the [missing woman’s] body.”

In 1947, the same year Peete was executed in the gas chamber, Pinker would begin to weigh, photograph and dissect the evidence in the most notorious unsolved murder in Los Angeles history -- the Black Dahlia case.

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Her body was found in a vacant lot in Leimert Park, cut in half, mutilated, neatly scrubbed and drained of blood. She was identified as Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old cashier and waitress.

She was nicknamed the Black Dahlia, which her friends reportedly had called her because of her black hair. Every interesting murder needed a nickname in those days, and the press gleefully jumped on one.

Pinker was interested in more than “just the facts, ma’am,” the fictional Joe Friday’s catch phrase. Will Fowler, then a reporter for the Los Angeles Examiner, recalled in his 1991 book, “Reporters,” some of the little clues that Pinker had taught him to look for in a murder victim, “little signatures of disclosure to inform the keen eye.”

When it came to Elizabeth Short, Pinker deduced that the slashed mouth and other gruesome wounds had been inflicted while she was still alive.

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“She was a professional sponger, not an out-and-out prostitute,” Ruby Pinker said. “She didn’t like to work and wanted to play, which she did, and paid for it in the end. Ray pitied her because she was a beautiful girl with such terrible teeth,” plugged with wax, “a sign that nobody cared about her.”

(One of the people scheduled to attend the event next weekend is author Steve Hodel, who believes his father was the killer.)

Pinker and his first wife had divorced and, in 1947, he met Ruby, whom he married in 1948.

Instead of a honeymoon, the Pinkers hung out at the old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana, where Beulah Louise Overell, 17, and her boyfriend, Bud Gollum, 21, were on trial for bludgeoning her wealthy parents to death and blowing up their yacht in Newport Harbor, with the bodies aboard.

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As a noted forensic specialist, Pinker was brought in to help investigate the case and testify about his findings. The couple was acquitted, but Ruby Pinker is convinced that the jury “just looked the other way, not believing those kids could do such a thing to her parents ... the evidence against them was overwhelming.”

In 1955, the LAPD moved its headquarters to a new $7-million building on Los Angeles Street, the present Parker Center. Pinker was like a kid in a candy store.

His new $200,000 arsenal covered the entire fourth floor. Its equipment included centrifuges, spectrophotometers, spectrographs and other precision analytic instruments widely used in chemistry and medicine.

More than four decades later, the same crime lab would be portrayed in the O.J. Simpson trial as a “cesspool of contamination,” which led to another round of modernization.

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In 1965, after 36 years and a pile of commendations from across the globe, Pinker left the department to teach police science at Cal State Los Angeles. He died in 1979 at age 74.

Ruby Pinker is a tiny, vivacious woman who has been volunteering for 22 years at the Braille Institute, where she keeps bowling scores and reads books to the blind. She’s close to Pinker’s two daughters from his first marriage. And she’s pleased about the Ray Pinker Award, but sorry that it didn’t come while he was still alive.

“He was a wonderful man and I know all the boys at the California Assn. of Criminalists, which Ray helped found, will be tickled too,” she said. “Ray kept everything inside. I know he would have been quietly pleased, but he wouldn’t have done a handstand.”


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