When a convicted rapist was recently charged with murdering 10 L.A. women, some longtime residents were reminded of a grisly case from the 1920s.
On Feb. 2, 1928, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies found a burlap bag containing a headless body in a La Puente ditch. A male teenager had been shot through the heart with a .22-caliber rifle.
In the next few months, three more boys vanished: Walter Collins, 9, of Mount Washington disappeared in March on his way to the movies; two Pomona brothers, Nelson and Louis Winslow, 10 and 12, went missing in May while walking home from a model yacht club meeting.
In September, federal immigration authorities received a call from a Canadian woman. She said her nephew had kidnapped her son and was holding him at a Riverside County chicken ranch.
When investigators arrived at the ranch in Wineville -- now known as Mira Loma -- they found Stanford Wesley Clark, 15, and his sister Jessie (who had alerted her mother to the situation). But the accused kidnapper, Gordon Stewart Northcott, and Northcott's mother, Sarah Louise, had fled.
Stanford Clark told authorities that Northcott had kidnapped little boys and, after molesting them, killed them with an ax, poured quicklime over their remains and disposed of them on the ranch. As for the body in La Puente, he said Northcott had killed a young Mexican ranch hand, dumped the body there, brought the head back to the ranch and smashed the skull.
At the ranch house, authorities also found a Pomona Public Library book checked out to one of the Winslow brothers, clothing identified as theirs and a note one of them had written to their parents. Don't worry, the note said, "we are fine."
Clark eventually admitted to participating in the murder of one of the Winslow brothers, saying Gordon Northcott had forced him.
Gordon and Sarah Louise Northcott were captured in Canada and held without bond. While they awaited extradition, Clark led investigators on a hunt from the Riverside farm to the Northcott family home in Boyle Heights and to a cabin Gordon Northcott rented in Saugus. Officers found traces of human blood and bloodstained axes with strands of human hair.
But the most appalling discovery was beneath the chicken coop: graves filled with bones, quicklime, bits of blood-soaked mattress and a .22-caliber rifle and bullets of the type used to kill the Mexican teenager.
In December 1928, three months after his arrest, Northcott was taken to the chicken ranch in handcuffs. Police reported that he initially said nine boys had been killed there, but admitted killing only five. In a written confession that day, he owned up to just one, believed to be the Mexican ranch hand: "I killed Alvin Gothea on the ranch on Feb. 2, 1928. No self-defense. Gordon Stewart Northcott will plead guilty to the above charge in Riverside County tomorrow."
Northcott's mother, who said she would "do anything" to protect her son, confessed to killing Walter Collins with an ax. She was sentenced to life in prison.
Northcott was charged with killing Walter, along with the Winslow brothers and the Mexican youth. His trial began in January 1929 amid heavy security. Women were excluded from the jury because the judge believed the crimes were too heinous for the fairer sex to be exposed to. (They were admitted as spectators, however.)
Retired Superior Court and appellate court judge John Gabbert, now 95, was then a student at Riverside City College. "I waited around the courthouse a long time to get a seat," he said in a recent interview. Northcott "was a very self-possessed guy, not overawed by the trial at all. During breaks, he kidded around with the prosecutors. He was as much at home in the courtroom as any attorney but didn't know what he was doing [legally]. He was a conniving, smart guy, in a limited way."
Northcott toyed with investigators, sending them on wild goose chases for bodies with hand-drawn maps that never led to anything. He fired three attorneys in succession, took over his own defense, growled obscenities at the prosecutor, Deputy D.A. Earl Redwine, and even put himself and the prosecutor on the stand. Playing attorney and witness at the same time, he asked himself questions and answered them.
Redwine portrayed Northcott as a pathological liar and a sadistic degenerate -- fearless, defiant, foulmouthed and full of bravado. Northcott's conduct underscored Redwine's case.
At one point, smiling benignly at the jury, Northcott accused the sheriff of plotting to kill him and of stealing his legal papers. He alleged that his family members were "liars" coerced into testifying against him. Moreover, he said, the judge wasn't giving him a "square deal."
At times he hinted that there were more than four victims.
Northcott had his mother brought from Tehachapi State Prison to testify on his behalf. Her startling testimony was that her husband, Cyruss George Northcott, had had intercourse with their daughter, Winifred, who gave birth to Gordon Stewart Northcott.
Winifred married and had more children, including Stanford Wesley Clark.
Northcott's father testified that his son had bragged of killing many boys and that he had seen evidence of the carnage before much of it was destroyed with lye and fire. He even testified that he had bought the lye.
When Redwine asked the haggard, gray-haired Sarah Louise Northcott how many husbands she'd had, she couldn't remember. Nor could she recall the names of her five children. She shrieked at the prosecutor, "The next time I get married, it won't be to a man like you."
After a 27-day trial and two hours' deliberation, jurors convicted Northcott of three slayings -- all but young Walter Collins. Northcott was sentenced to death.
The teenager who first revealed the killings, Clark, was sentenced to the Whittier State School for Boys for his role in one murder. After his release, he returned to Canada.
On Oct. 2, 1930, the date fixed for Northcott's execution, he began screaming and trembling. His hands shook as San Quentin guards strapped his hands together. "Will it hurt?" he asked.
He requested a blindfold so he wouldn't have to see the gallows. He had to be dragged up 13 stairs to the noose, pleading with guards, "Please -- don't make me walk so fast."
Just before the trap was sprung, Northcott hollered, "A prayer -- please, say a prayer for me."
Prison Warden Clinton T. Duffy later wrote that Northcott told him he'd killed "18 or 19, maybe 20" young men and boys. Duffy wrote a book about the death sentences he'd carried out, "88 Men and 2 Women."
After Northcott's execution, in his cell Duffy found a crudely drawn map of the ranch, which had acquired the newspaper nickname "murder farm." In one margin, Northcott had written, "I am not guilty," but he had drawn coffin-shaped boxes and written, "If you will look here you will find what you want."
Duffy mailed the map to Riverside investigators, but they found nothing. Apparently the map was Northcott's last hoax.
But six weeks after Northcott was hanged, a Hesperia trapper found the remains of a youth in the desert near the ranch. The body was male, from 12 to 15 years old, and was believed to be another Northcott victim. It was never identified.
The macabre case exhausted Wineville, which had had its fill of bad publicity. Weary townsfolk changed its name to Mira Loma.