A Look Back - 1974: Gadget inventor’s wife put price on his head

Blue-eyed, blonde-haired Newport Beach socialite Eloise Popeil broke down in tears when an Orange County jury found her guilty of trying to hire two hit men to murder her estranged husband, multimillionaire inventor Samuel Popeil, in 1974.

She and her boyfriend, Dan Ayers, exchanged only a brief glance as the jury declared them both guilty of solicitation of murder after deliberating for 38 hours over the course of eight days, the Los Angeles Times reported Sept. 15, 1974.

Ayers, 37, was a dark-haired, mustachioed machinist and pilot from San Ana, 12 years younger than Eloise Popeil, 49.

During the pair’s seven-week trial in Orange County Superior Court, the jury heard a recording in which Eloise Popeil and Ayers discuss with how to kill Samuel Popeil with two prospective hit men, The Times reported Sept. 10, 1974.

In the tapes, Eloise Popeil and Ayers discuss using sleeping pills to poison her estranged husband to make it look like a suicide, The Times reported Aug. 27, 1974.

If that wasn’t possible, “just blow his head off and forget it,” Ayers told the two prospective hired killers, Donald C. Reed and Robert Peeler, both his co-workers at an airplane manufacturing plant in Long Beach.

After recording conversations in which Eloise Popeil and Ayers discussed murdering Samuel Popeil, Reed contacted the multimillionaire with the information, who in turn called the police.

Samuel Popeil was a wealthy Chicago-based kitchen gadget inventor. He was best known for his time-saving vegetable-chopping inventions the Veg-o-matic and Chop-o-matic. His son from a first marriage, Ron Popeil, is the founder of the company Ronco, which gained fame for marketing inventions like the Electric Food Dehydrator and Pocket Fisherman on late-night television.

Samuel Popeil and his second wife, Eloise, had been separated since 1972 when she was charged with plotting his murder.

“The reason I could not live with my husband was that for 10 years, since October of 1964, that he has had me followed day and night,” Eloise Popeil testified at her trial. “That he has had my phones bugged all the time, that he had electronic beeping devices on my cars...and that he was insanely jealous of everyone and every thing.”

Eloise Popeil and Ayers were arrested at Eloise Popeil’s Harbor Island home on June 8, 1974, in Newport Beach after she offered up two diamond brooches, a set of dangling earrings and several rings up as a security deposited to Reed and Peeler, according to historical news accounts.

She had agreed to pay the two men $25,000 if they would kill her husband, The Times reported.

“I still hear that tape ringing in my ears,” Judge Mark Brandler said after the jury declared Eloise Popeil and Ayers guilty. “They deliberately and methodically discussed murdering Popeil, talking about shooting him and then about poisoning him.”

The pair were sentenced to one to five years in prison.

Eloise Popeil served 19 months at the women’s prison at Frontera and was awarded a $250,000 divorce settlement from her millionaire ex-husband in 1976, The Times reported on June 26 of that year.

Eloise and Samuel Popeil later remarried, according to several news accounts.