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CONTENTS:
The Ninth Life
Hallie
The Golden State
Mosquito Bites
Hard Times
The Accident
The Outsider
Running Wild
Escape Risk
A Creative Urge
The Boy Bandit Gang
The Big Time
Bernice Freeman
Flight From Chino
Back in Business
Back in Prison
The Red Light Bandit
Stick-up in Redondo Beach
Captured
Identified
Interrogation
A Little Ride
The Charges
Section 209
Preliminary Hearing
The Hatchet Man
The Judge
The Trial
The Verdict
Sentencing
Journey to Death Row
A Visit From the Warden
A Visit From Berni
The Transcript
Appeals
Dates with Death
A Woman in His Life
Cell 2455 Death Row
More Dates With Death
Appeals and More Appeals
The Transcript Hearing
The Hollywood Version
The Face of Justice
Last Innings
The Last Stay
Last Life
The Last Day
Execution Morning
Aftermath
Bibliography
The Author
By the Same Author
Home

  

The True Story of Caryl Chessman

The Red Light Bandit

The Red Light Bandit crime spree in the Los Angeles area in 1948 began on Tuesday, January 13, when Rose Howell, a housewife who had just done the week's grocery shopping, parked her 1946 Ford on a street corner in the suburb of South Pasadena. Leaving the car, which had a large carton of groceries on the back seat, she hurried to do another quick errand before going home -- and left the keys in the ignition. When she came back from her errand several minutes later, the car was gone. She reported the theft to police and hoped for the best.

At 4:30 a.m. the following Sunday, January 18, a young dentist named Thomas Bartle was driving his date, Ann Plaskowitz, to her home in Malibu. As he traveled along Pacific Coast Highway, a late model Ford pulled out of an access road and began following them. Presently, a red light flashed in Bartle's rearview mirror. Slowing, he pulled onto the shoulder of the highway and rolled down his window. Pacific Ocean surf could be heard rolling in fifty yards away.

A tall man dressed in khaki came up to the car and shined a penlight in Bartle's face. "Identification, please," he said. Bartle produced his wallet, at which point a gun was stuck in his face. "Just give me the money." The frightened dentist gave the gunman all he had -- $15 -- and the gunman walked back to his car and fled. Bartle and his date drove to the nearby Highway Patrol Station in Malibu and reported the crime.

Fourteen hours later, just before six p.m. that same Sunday, a used car salesman named Floyd Ballew, and a woman named Elaine Bushaw, were parked on one of the scenic overlooks above the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, having just watched one of Southern California's glorious winter sunsets. Suddenly a red light flashed behind them and a man wearing khaki clothing approached.
"Holdup," he said. "Let's have your wallet."

Ballew handed it over and the stickup man removed $20 in ones and fives. As he did so, Ms. Bushaw leaned toward the driver's window to get a better look at him. The man slapped her hard across the face with the wallet and she quickly drew back.
"Stay put," he ordered, and hurried back to his car to drive away.

Twenty-five hours later, just after seven p.m. on Monday, January 19, a career Navy man named Jarnigan Lea, age 34, was parked with Regina
Johnson, age 36, the wife of a friend and neighbor, Harry Johnson, in the La Canada section where they lived. Lea had invited the Johnsons and their 13-year-old daughter for a drive up to one of the scenic parks in the Flintridge Hills, overlooking the twinkling lights of Los Angeles. Harry declined, preferring to stay home and listen to one of his favorite radio shows, and their daughter had homework to do, so Regina accompanied Jarnigan alone. She frequently went out without Harry, who was twenty-five years her senior.

The scenario of this robbery was much the same -- except that this time the stickup man was masked with a handkerchief covering his nose and mouth. And, after robbing Lea of fifty dollars, the gunman hesitated, studying Regina Johnson in the beam of his penlight. She was an attractive woman, and she instinctively sensed that the man's stare was more threatening than robbery.

"I -- I have -- a few dollars also," she stammered, offering her purse to distract his obvious interest. "Keep it," he said. "Get out of the car. You're coming with me."
"Wait a minute," Jarnigan Lea protested. "Please don't do that.  She -- she just got out of the hospital, she's had polio." It was not a total lie; Regina had suffered from polio, but it had been several years earlier.
"Shut up, you!" the robber snapped, putting his gun close to Lea's face. "Get out!" he ordered Regina. Beginning to cry, she obeyed. "Give me your car keys!" he said to Lea. Taking the keys, he further ordered, "Stay put!"

The gunman pulled Regina roughly to his car and pushed her past the steering wheel into the passenger seat. He got in beside her. Opening
his trousers, he said, "Suck me off."
"Oh, please, no, I can't --" the terrified woman said.
"Do it!" he said, grabbing her behind the neck and forcing her head down. "Do it or I'll kill you and the guy both!"

As the sobbing woman was performing fellatio, she heard another car pull up to the view park. "Is -- that -- the police -- ?" she asked, raising her head.
"What?" The robber turned nervously to look, pulling his mask down in case anyone saw him. When he did that, Regina Johnson got a good look at his face. "No, it's nothing," he told her, seeing just some teenagers joyriding. He pushed her head back down. "Go on, finish it."

Fingers entwined in her hair, he helped her move her head back and forth until he ejaculated. When he let go of her hair, Regina sat up, choking, sobbing, wiping her mouth in near hysteria. Her purse was on the seat between them. The bandit fumbled around inside it and found a five-dollar bill. "This is all I'm gonna charge you for letting you suck my dick," he said with a chuckle.

He handed her Jarnigan Lea's car keys, reached across to open the passenger door, and shoved her out onto her knees. As she was struggling to her feet, he drove off.

Later that same evening, high up in the Laurel Canyon area, about fifteen miles from the Regina Johnson crime scene, Gerald Stone, a truck
salesman, was parked with Esther Panasuk, an airline stewardess from Manila. This time it was only robbery that the gunman had in mind, taking small amounts of money from each victim. As in the earlier holdups that evening, his face was again covered by a handkerchief mask -- but it slipped down briefly during the crime, allowing Stone to glimpse his face.

The similarity of the four holdups -- in particular the use of a red light to approach the victims, making them think it was a policeman -- prompted quick action from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.  Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz ordered increased patrol activity in so-called "Lovers Lane" parking areas over which the county had jurisdiction. He also ordered male and female officers in street clothes to randomly park throughout those areas as a lure for the bandit. Likewise, the Los Angeles city police department stepped up routine watches through sections of the overlooks in its jurisdiction. Both agencies were more than annoyed that a stickup man was using a red light to trick his victims. No information was given to the newspapers, but identical orders were issued to radio car officers in both departments: Let's catch this guy -- quickly.

Mary Alice Meza, victim

Two days then passed with no holdup activity, taking some of the edge off the urgency caused by four quick stickups in succession. Then, early in the morning of the third day, between one and two a.m., Frank Hurlburt, a student at Loyola College, and Mary Alice Meza, a young girl he had met earlier that night at a dance at Holy Spirit Church, were parked high up on Mulholland Drive, when the car with the red light pulled up to Hurlburt's rear bumper.
"Stickup," the masked gunman said, almost touching Hurlburt's nose with a .45-caliber automatic.
"I -- I don't have -- any money," the frightened student replied. The gunman shined his penlight on Mary Alice. She was a willowy, darkhaired beauty -- whom Hurlburt did not know was only seventeen years old. "Okay," the gunman said, "I'll just take your girl then." Striding around to the passenger side, he dragged the frightened girl from the car. 
"Drive down the road and park," Hurlburt was ordered.

Hurlburt drove down the road -- but he did not park. Instead, he accelerated. Seeing that one of his victim's was escaping, the gunman, with a now terrified Mary Alice beside him, sped after the fleeing car. Catching up with it, the gunman leaned on the horn and swerved toward Hurlburt's car. Hurlburt quickly swerved to avoid a collision -- and ran off the shoulder of the road. The gunman's car, with Mary Alice now sobbing hysterically, continued on and sped into the night. Mary Alice was driven around the extensive Mulholland hills for some twenty minutes before the car was finally parked in a concealed ravine off the side of one of the roads. There her kidnapper pulled her from the vehicle and stood her next to the front fender. "Take off your clothes," he ordered.
"Please -- I never did anything to you -- " the teenager tried to plead.
"Do it!" he told her.

Sobbing, Mary Alice began undressing, laying her clothes on the car fender. In the moonlight, she could see that he was taking his clothes off also.
"I -- I'm having my period -- " she managed to say through her sobs.
"What? Let me see -- " The gunman examined her underpants and found a Kotex pad. "All right, get in the back seat," he said. "Get on your stomach."

Mary Alice managed herself into an awkward face-down position in the car's rear seat. The abductor got in behind her and tried several times to anally penetrate her. Unsuccessful, he tried vaginal intercourse from the rear, despite her menstruation. But that too failed.
"I - I'm a virgin -- " Mary Alice choked out between sobs.

Cursing, the gunman pulled her from the rear seat and forced her to her knees on the ground. "Do it with your mouth," he told her.

Now convulsing with sobs, the girl felt her head pulled forward. Closing her eyes, she tried to silently pray as her captor manipulated her mouth with his erection. It seemed to take him a very long time to satisfy himself, but when he finally did and was finished with her, he pushed her
head back and immediately began putting his clothes on. "Get dressed," he told her, speaking in a civil tone for the first time.

When they were both dressed and back in the front seat, the kidnapper started the car and, without headlights, drove up out of the ravine and onto the paved road again. "Where do you live?" he asked.
"On Sierra Bonito," the girl said, "south of Pico."
"I'll take you close to there and drop you off," he said. After a moment, he added, "Bet you thought I'd just leave you up here in the hills all alone, didn't you?" When she didn't answer, he prompted, "Well, didn't you?"
"I don't know what I thought," the still sobbing girl replied. She was cold now, shivering, but her face felt flushed and hot.
"The only reason I did this to you was to get even with my wife," he said as he drove south out of the Mulholland hills. "She was unfaithful to me while I was away in the service. I'm from New York, but I left there because of her. I've only been here a couple of days; I'm on my way to San Francisco."

They came down out of the hill where Laurel Canyon intersected Hollywood Boulevard, an area Mary Alice recognized. The driver then cut
over to Fairfax and turned south to Pico. Mary Alice would later remember thinking that he knew his way around pretty well for someone who had only been in the area for a couple of days. 

At Fairfax and Pico, he pulled over. "You can walk home okay from here," he said, reaching across her to open the passenger door. Mary Alice got out and the car drove away. It was now four a.m., the streets deserted. The girl started walking, but when she reached the next corner, Packard Street, she realized she was going the wrong way. She sat down on the curb and cried uncontrollably for a while. At one point, she reached up and discovered she had lost her red hair ribbon. No cars passed and no one walked by. Presently, she got up and started along Packard, knowing that it intersected her street, Sierra Bonita, and that she could double back that way to get home. As she walked along the dark streets, her thin body shook spastically and she was unable to control it.

It was nearly five a.m. when Mary Alice got to her house at 1568 S. Sierra Bonita Avenue. It was the only house on the block with the lights on. A short time later, acting on a report made by Frank Hurlburt, the police arrived.

       



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