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Elsie Abbot, who defended killer son, dies at 100

Elsie Abbott, who became front-page news in 1955 after her son was arrested and eventually executed for the kidnap-murder of 14-year- old Berkeley schoolgirl Stephanie Bryan, died April 26 in the eastern United States. She was 100.

The trial made headlines around the nation, and the lurid details are the subject of two true-crime books.

In 1995, author Keith Walker wrote "A Trail of Corn: A True Mystery." Two years later, Harry Farrell released "Shallow Grave in Trinity County."

Both newsmen were working in the Bay Area when the story broke. Walker became Elsie Abbott's friend during the trial and remained so until her death.

Mrs. Abbott worked at the Alameda Naval Air

Station until her retirement in 1971. She left Alameda for the East Coast in 1993. Walker, who declined to say exactly where she died, said she was devoted to her grandchildren.

In 1957, Alameda resident Burton Abbott was executed for kidnapping Stephanie Bryan from Berkeley two years earlier and dumping her body in a shallow grave near his cabin in Trinity County. He was executed at age 29.

Mother supportive

Throughout the trial and until his death, he claimed his innocence, and his mother believed him.

Until the sensational trial, Mrs. Abbott's life was quiet. Born Nov. 24, 1903, in Washington state, she had married, divorced and became sole parent to sons Mark and Burton. The single mother moved to Alameda during World War II to work in the upholstery department of the Alameda Navy base.


Her everyday life changed dramatically July 15, 1955.

On that day, Burton's wife, Georgia, found the purse of Stephanie Bryan -- and in it her school ID -- in the basement of the San Jose Avenue home the couple shared with Elsie Abbott and the couple's young son, Christopher. Georgia Abbott called the police.

Stephanie Bryant, a 14-year-old student at Willard Junior High in Berkeley, was reported missing April 28, 1955. She was last seen taking her usual shortcut through the parking lot of the Claremont Hotel. She never made it home.

Major clue

When police spoke with the Abbott family in July, they discovered the older Mrs. Abbott actually had found the purse some time before, but did not contact authorities because she said she didn't recognize the name or think the discovery was important.

"His mother found the wallet soon after the girl went missing," said Farrell. "I think what happened was, she didn't realize exactly the extent of what police were looking for, and started talking about this to everybody, not realizing she was driving nails in her son's coffin."

After that first police interview, on advice from her son's lawyers, Mrs. Abbott dropped out of sight and did not speak with authorities.

Police began a search of the Abbott's unfinished basement and found other items belonging to the girl -- library books, classroom notebooks, her glasses and a torn bra.

A subsequent search of the Abbott cabin in Trinity County found nothing, until a reporter hired a local trapper and his two bloodhounds. They found the girl's body in a shallow grave on land near the cabin. Her skull had been smashed and her panties wrapped around her neck.

Burton Abbott was arrested. During his 48-day trial, more than 100 witnesses took the stand. He was found guilty but still proclaimed his innocence.

Abbott was executed March 15, 1957, in San Quentin's gas chamber. His mother never wavered in her support.

"She felt it was all circumstantial evidence based on theories and innuendoes," said Walker. "She felt they didn't prove it. She said if she was certain he had done it, she'd accept that. But she was certain (he hadn't)."

Mrs. Abbott hired a private investigator. She put up an award for information proving her son's innocence. She began her own investigation, demanding to see evidence and speaking with witnesses herself.

"She campaigned to find some way to show he was innocent," Walker said. "She felt her son was improperly convicted. It was more than just a mother's concern. It was very deep."

After her son's execution, Mrs. Abbott went to court to gain custody of grandson Christopher.

In 1961, she stepped forward with what she said was new evidence on who really killed Stephanie and framed her son -- her own brother. In the 1990s, she continued to look into the case, and tried to find DNA on the girl's clothes, Walker said.

"She was fighting all the time," said Walker. "She had several different theories."

Believed in innocence

Walker said she went to her grave believing her son was unjustly convicted and murdered. His book reinforces that sentiment.

Farrell's book, on the other hand, isn't so clear.

"I dug up the evidence the best I could and I leave it to the reader himself to make up his mind as to what happened," he said. "From her actions, I think she still tried to make herself believe he was innocent. Maybe she did. When you hope for something, you believe it."

c2004 ANG Newspapers. Cannot be used or repurposed without prior written permission.
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.

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