London’s Home of Crime

For all you fans of real/true crime, these are pictures I took in and around Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the center of the legal profession in London, England – it’s barely changed in centuries. The regal-looking place is the Royal Court of Justice, there’s a ghost sign too, a very old postbox (mailbox) and Peabody the Cat!

Investigating ghosts in my home town…

Last week I was in England (where the temperatures were actually hotter than Los Angeles!) and I thought I’d share some pics from my trip. The first ones are from my home town of Watford in Hertfordshire, which is about 15 miles north of London (and very close to Warner Bros Studio London, home of the famous Harry Potter tour).

I read a story that mentioned Jackson Jewellers on the Parade in Watford High Street (or what American would call “Main Street”) was haunted, so naturally I went in there to investigate.

I spoke to David Jackson, the third-generation of the family, and he told me the building was built in 1480 – as you can probably tell – and that the shape of the hearth and chimney were still there (as you can see in the picture).

It felt (and smelled) like a very old place, what with the silver, the antiques, the quiet atmosphere and the chiming clocks, and one of those clocks even had it’s original receipt from 1888 – the year Jack The Ripper was killing prostitutes in the East End of London.

As for the ghost, David explained that there used to be a restaurant upstairs – and as soon as he said that I had a flash of my childhood; we used to go there for lunch sometimes! Talking to my mother later, she remembered the restaurant’s name: The Copper Kettle (and she told me that her engagement and wedding ring both came from Jackson’s!).

As for the Elizabethan ghost, that turned out to be “fake news”. The restaurant owner HAD said that he “always felt as if there was someone or something moving around in the dark” when he was there late at night, but that was about it! Either way, I’m glad Jackson’s are still around!

 

 

Extra! Poison and Mortuaries!

The Bizarre and Deadly World of Mortuaries

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The February 10, 1990 edition of the LA Times reported that – for the first time in American history – someone had been charged with murder using the weapon of oleander, a toxic plant that’s nonetheless very common in gardens.

David Wayne Sconce was the accused, and it was alleged that back in 1985 he had killed a rival mortician, Timothy R. Waters, to stop him exposing some dark and illegal activities at the Lamb Funeral Home, the family business where Sconce worked.

By this time Sconce was already in jail for those illegal acts – mingling human remains, stealing body parts and removing gold teeth from cadavers.

Though “mingling” sounds rather innocuous, in the most notorious incident it saw 38 bodies stuffed into two furnaces, an employee later admitting that breaking one of the corpse’s legs to make it fit perhaps led to a chimney blockage and the Altadena mortuary burning to the ground.

Incredibly, Sconce’s parents Laurieanne and Jerry were also awaiting trial accused of similar offences in 1990, but it was earlier in 1985 that rival mortician Waters had been assaulted in his office by hired thug Danny Gambalos, who said that Sconce had paid him to carry out the crime.

A few weeks later in April, Waters died after becoming unexpectedly ill while baby-sitting for his sister in Malibu.

After two days of agony his death was thought possibly to be linked to heart problems, but it later emerged that a witness said he saw Sconce slipping something into Waters’ drink at the Reuben’s Plankhouse restaurant in Simi Valley (now long-gone), and Sconce – whose car licence plate once read “I BRN 4U” – was said to have bragged about it to a cellmate and others.

Sconce was accused of making murderous threats against other people as well, and the shocking story – which seemed created for a Hollywood movie – tore back the lid on what a highly lucrative but competitive and seemingly dangerous business it is to be involved with the dead.

The Sconces’ empire stretched from Pasadena and beyond, and Sconce was alleged to have said that he made $5000-6000 a month from the purloined gold teeth alone.

The oleander poisoning however could never be comprehensively proved scientifically – nor was it certain where it might have been administered or ingested – so those charges were eventually dismissed, but even then that wasn’t the end of the story.

Sconce’s name appeared in the LA Times in July 2013, and again it was under strange circumstances. This time he was being sentenced to 25 years to life in prison after violating his probation after he had pled guilty years before to conspiracy to murder a former district attorney who had been assigned to his case.

At the conclusion of that case in 1997 he’d been given the unusual sentence of lifetime probation, but when Sconce – now 56 – was convicted in Montana of stealing a rifle from a neighbor and trying to sell it in a pawn shop, he violated that probation.

Sconce argued that the neighbor had merely given him the rifle and he was going to use it to “protect his pets from wolves,” but he now felt the force of the law.

That said, with so much time already served, it was reckoned he might be out of jail within 10 years….

 

Extra! “Gourmet Ghosts” Down Under!

I was in Australia recently – the city of Melbourne and the island state of Tasmania, which was an hour’s flight from Melbourne – and here are some of the interesting, weird and ghostly things I saw (and some tasty things too).

First, some ghost signs; Shell’s Tea was in Hobart, Tasmania, the others Melbourne.

I also paid a visit to the gorgeous Victorian Princess Theatre, which is famously – and proudly – home of the ghost of Frederick Federici, a noted actor who actually died on stage of a heart attack during a March 1888 performance of Faust. He was playing Mephistopheles and was stricken WHILE HE WAS DESCENDING IN THE TRAP DOOR DOWN TO “HELL”!

The bistro beside the theatre is named after him (great bacon and cheese sanger!), and there’s an excellent portrait of him made out of stainless steel wire in there, as well as other mementos from the theatre’s history.

As for the ghost of Federici (real name Frederick Baker, who was born in Italy), he’s been seen many times by staff and actors over the years – they even keep a seat for him at every opening performance.

Even on the night he died, the cast were astonished to be told their leading man was dead – he was with them taking the curtain call with just moments ago…

Also in Melbourne was the Polly Woodside, a 130 year old sailing ship – an iron barque – that traveled the world many times over a decades-long career, and has been painstakingly restored and maintained.

The Polly is docked permanently here alongside an excellent museum, and is over 90% original fixtures and fittings – it was also the place where 8 sailors were killed, an extremely low figure for that age of maritime travel.

Alternatively, in Hobart I was lucky enough to get close to the massive icebreaker Aurora Asutralis, which smashes through the Antarctic ice many months of the year.

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Near the Aurora was the city’s famous Salamanca market, which we visited on a VERY windy day, and in one of the side streets was this great little book shop.

I of course bought a book from him on UFO’s in the Bass Strait, the stretch of water between Tasmania and Australia that’s a famous ship’s graveyard; we learned about many of those wrecks – and a strange, unexplained one – at the Tasmania Maritime Museum.

In Hobart we also saw the Tasmanian Tiger – or Thylacine – everywhere (even in the city’s logo). A marsupial that looked like a dog but with stripes, it could open its jaws almost 180 degrees, revealing a set of nasty teeth, but was wiped out by hunters after official bounties decades ago, the last dying in the local zoo in the 1930s.

Or was it?

Thousands of apparent sightings in Tasmania and parts of Australia have persisted ever since, and in image alone at least, the Tassie Tiger is alive and well; we were tickled to see an official encounter kit from the 1980’s at the Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery, plus taxidermy Thylas and pictures that show their cruel demise, but also how cute – or scary – they looked.

I drunk only Australian/Tasmanian beers during my trip, and one of them was a pint of Captain Bligh’s Lager at the Hope & Anchor in Hobart, which claims to be the oldest pub in Australia (circa 1807).

The Cascade Brewery – definitely the oldest in the country – is in Tasmania too, but we didn’t make it there this time. Can you guess what’s on their labels?

I visited several museums overall, and at the Victoria Police Museum in Melbourne there were artifacts and evidence from notable events including the remains of a car after a bombing, a set of armour from Ned Kelly’s gang and even a vampire hunter’s kit!

The museum also had handcuffs worn by – and the death mask – of Edward Deeming, the English multiple murderer who killed his wife and four children in England, conned multiple people around the world, and ended up in Melbourne, where he killed his wife Emily Mather. Deeming was also, for a while, thought to be Jack The Ripper.

I wrote about Deeming’s possible time in Los Angeles for the LA Weekly, and while in Melbourne I met Carly and Lee, the lovely people behind the Dead & Buried podcast, which looks at Melbourne history and crime.

We recorded something about Deeming (due in the new series – download it on iTunes!), and went to see if we could find the grave of Emily Mather, which we did (along with a stark warning etched on it).

It was another great trip to Melbourne – and a real find in Hobart/Tasmania too – and I leave you with something that should bring a smile: my friend the Bunyip, who stands outside the National Gallery of Victoria, where W gave all her lectures for MIFF this year.

The Bella Napoli Gangster Murders

Murder Over Dinner

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Today what was the Bella Napoli Café on N. Vermont Avenue is a laundromat with a Papa John’s pizza restaurant, so it didn’t really qualify for Gourmet Ghosts 2 – we really  prefer r unusual or unique restaurants, and a chain doesn’t quite fit the bill.

Nonetheless, this is a good example of how buildings or places that seem quite innocuous today have actually often had an interesting – and deadly – past.

Back in 1933, this was where you found the “quiet and fashionable” Bella Napoli Café – though during a busy dinner hour on August 28 it rang to the sound of bullets and a double murder.

According to the LA Times, three “swarthy gunmen” strode in with “their hats pulled down over their eyes,” cornered a couple of victims who were sitting in a booth, and opened fire.

The “deadly fusillade” – multiple bullets from automatic pistols – “tore through the heads and necks” of the victims, and induced “horror and panic” among other diners. Police immediately indentified one of the victims; Harry Mackley (AKA Abe Frank), a hat store owner from New York. Later, the other was announced as Fred Kitty (AKA Fred Harris and Fred Keller).

Both victims were described as being Italians, about 30 years of age and “immaculately dressed,” and the newspaper was strongly implying this was reprisal for a mobster hit in New York in June the previous year.

“Let’s get out here,” the leader of the murderous trio said, and right outside they were met by a large black sedan in which they made their getaway.

The “murder tableau” had been enacted in just three minutes, and within a few days the guns had been found in a drain and the LAPD had made many arrests and charged several “New York hoodlums” with the murders…..

The restaurant did its best to get back to normal….

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Extra! Extra! Murder in Glendale…

Cut from Gourmet Ghosts 2 at the last minute: a fateful day in a restaurant at 110 S. Brand Blvd in Glendale…

Though it’s now a location in the Vegas Seafood chain, in the 1980s this was Uncle Lee’s Restaurant, and on April 30, 1987 it was the scene of a violent shooting.

“Then he tried to shoot me in the head. I told him ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’ And he just said, ‘I want to kill you! I want to kill you!

According to reports in the LA Times, it seems that owner Wen Lee had agreed to sell the restaurant to Johnny Soong and had already let him and his wife Tuai Li-chun start running things, but then Soong defaulted on a $5,000 payment.

Soong had already pulled a knife during a confrontation with Lee, and when Lee visited the restaurant that deadly day expecting – but not receiving – the payment, he returned soon after, only this time he was armed with a .38 pistol he had got from his car.

This time he entered the restaurant, greeted the pair – and then opened fire.

“He shot me in the back,” Soong said, adding that when he began to grapple with his would-be killer, Lee shouted “I want to kill you, I want to kill you!”

Soong suffered further bullet wounds to his foot and, tragically, Li-chun was hit in the face by another bullet meant for her husband.

Glendale Police Detective Joe L. Jiminez, who interviewed Lee after the shooting, said that Lee admitted he was going to kill Soong, and then kill himself.

It’s perhaps not surprising then to learn that Lee tried to commit suicide in jail, leading to a mistrial being declared. Lee was deemed incompetent, and was placed in psychiatric care indefinitely.

Extra! Extra! Wanna dive the Titanic?

In James Cameron’s 1997 movie, Bill Paxton’s treasure hunter sees the Titanic emerging from the gloom, and from next year extreme explorers and even fans of the Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet blockbuster can get up close with the luxury liner.

For the first time in over a decade, concierge companies are offering submersible journeys – what they call “missions” – to the wreck, and there are already plans in place for 2019.

Bluefish, based in California, are offering expeditions costing nearly $60,000 that set sail on the RV Akademik Keldysh, which Cameron used and featured in the movie, with dives to the depths in small, nickel steel MIR submersibles.

For the pricier ticket of over $100,000 per person (the cost of an original First-Class ticket in today’s money, according to one travel service), you can gaze out from a much wider viewport and enjoy more elbow room in Cyclops 2, the cutting-edge titanium and carbon fiber sub from private outfit OceanGate, who are based in Everett, WA.

Trips leave from Newfoundland, and passengers are part of the team and expected to be hands-on. This is no day trip or theme park ride, and even though you might only get an hour or two just feet away from the famous staircase, the radio room or even personal mementoes of the disaster, tickets are already selling fast.

Expeditions have been available before, but they came to an end around 2005.

Submersibles strong enough to withstand the pressure at such depths were Government-owned and rarely available, and the bulk of the cramped journey is just an hours-long dark descent to and from the ocean floor.

The crumbling wreck was getting less than camera-ready too, but the demand has never gone away, even after the 100th anniversary of the disaster.

The remains of the 1912 disaster were found 2½ miles down by explorer Robert Ballard and his team in 1985. The tragedy killed over 1,500 people when the vessel sunk after hitting an iceberg around 375 miles off Newfoundland on its maiden voyage between Southampton and New York.

You’ve got time to save up for your super-dive, though only about 15 to 20 years according to a study from last year, which revealed that due to “extremophile bacteria,” the wreck could have collapsed and been eaten to little more than lumps of metal by then.