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California

A celebrity victim, claims of a hoax. Before Jussie Smollett was Aimee Semple McPherson

AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON 1926 AT ANGELUS TEMPLE
Radio evangelist and celebrity Aimee Semple McPherson, shown in 1926 at Angelus Temple in Echo Park. McPherson claimed to have been abducted from a beach in Santa Monica.
(Los Angeles Times)

A celebrity claims to be the victim of a crime. His or her story starts to unravel. The celebrity is then investigated by law enforcement and charged with fabricating the whole thing. The media covers the case breathlessly.

Los Angeles has seen a story like this before.

This week, authorities in Illinois charged “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett with felony disorderly conduct, alleging that he made a false police report after staging a hate crime against himself in downtown Chicago last month.

The twists and turns of the story — including claims by Chicago police that Smollett hired two brothers to carry out the attack as a publicity stunt — broadly resemble an episode from 1920s Los Angeles.

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Radio evangelist and California celebrity Aimee Semple McPherson — whose Angelus Temple still stands in Echo Park — was reported missing in May 1926 after going for a swim at Ocean Park Beach in Santa Monica.

She reappeared 36 days later in the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta across from Douglas, Ariz., in the Sonoran Desert. She claimed to have been abducted from the beach and drugged by two men and a woman who whisked her to a desert shack and tortured her. One day, she said, she escaped and walked 20 miles in 120-degree heat to Agua Prieta, according to coverage by The Times.

McPherson’s account immediately drew skepticism from the sheriff of Cochise County in Arizona. He told reporters that her clothing and shoes did not appear to be damaged or even dusty from her journey.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Asa Keyes and his investigators did not buy the story either.

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A Los Angeles Times headline from September 18, 1926.
(Los Angeles Times)

Working off an anonymous tip, Keyes alleged that McPherson and her mother fabricated the abduction to cover up a tryst McPherson was having in Carmel with a married Angelus Temple radio engineer named Kenneth Ormiston.

But a woman named Lorraine Wiseman said it was her sister — not McPherson — who had shacked up with Ormiston, according to a 1969 report that The Times published at the 43rd anniversary of the saga.

Wiseman was arrested on “bad check charges” in the weeks after she came forward, and then her story changed. She then claimed McPherson and her mother had hired her to lie to police.

Keyes charged McPherson with “criminal acts to commit acts injurious to public morals and to prevent and obstruct justice,” according to a Times review of a McPherson biography.

McPherson defended herself on the radio, calling Keyes “a dirty, lecherous libertine.” She also said the investigation was religious persecution because several investigators on the case were Catholic.

A Los Angeles court ruled in November 1926 that there was enough evidence to find McPherson guilty, but Wiseman changed her story again.

“Since the preliminary hearing, Mrs. Wiseman has changed her story almost daily, until ... she has become a witness for whose truth and credibility no prosecutor could vouch,” Keyes said at the time, according to The Times.

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The charges were dismissed.

Later, Keyes was accused of being paid to drop the charges. An investigation cleared the district attorney of that charge but discovered he had been bribed by an oil company in a separate matter, for which he served 18 months in San Quentin prison.

McPherson died in Oakland in 1944 of a barbiturate overdose. The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which she founded, still stands. To this day, her biography on the church’s website maintains the abduction story is true.

“Aimee’s public image took a beating but, as always, she continued to work hard to bring the gospel to those who needed to hear it,” it reads.

javier.panzar@latimes.com

@jpanzar


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