Compiled and written by Johnny Black
In the early 1960s, former country music star Spade Cooley and his wife Ella Mae were living on his remote ranch, Rosamund, in Willow Springs in the Mojave Desert near Bakersfield, California.
A decade earlier, between film work, recordings, his own TV show, radio and concerts, Cooley had been pulling down $10,000 a week, but his career, along with many others, took a nose-dive in 1955 when rock'n'roll became the new thing. Nevertheless, when he announced his retirement in early 1960, he still had $15m in the bank.
By now a serious alcoholic, the charismatic Cooley nevertheless managed to ignite an affair with Anita Aros, 28, a classically trained violinist who was a member of Cooley's last band.
In the second week of March 1961, Ella Mae (37) was hospitalized for emotional problems. At about the same time, she made a peculiar confession to a nurse friend, Dorothy Davis, that she had had an affair with Roy Rogers in 1952 or '53.
At the end of March, Cooley contacted a private detective, Billy Lewis, and asked him to "check up on" his wife, probably to help build his case against a large divorce settlement.
In the meantime, Cooley badgered Ella Mae endlessly, insisting that she admit her infidelities.
Within days, she would be dead.
March 31, 1961 : As they bicker in a moving automobile, Ella Mae either jumps or is pushed from their car. Despite serious bruises, she does not seek medical help.
Leonard Winters (private investigator) : He had a mean streak in him, he was running out of money and he was drinking heavily at that time. He always was very possessive.
Bobbie Bennett, (Cooley's manager) : He virtually kept her a prisoner. He was very jealous of her. Of course he was with another woman, or two or three, every night.
Kit Nelson (District Attorney) : She was going to leave this man. She had had enough. She wanted a divorce. No-one gets away from Spade Cooley unless he tells them.
Bobbie Bennett : He was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-type person.
April 3, 1961: 6.00pm. Convinced that Ella Mae is involved in a 'sex-cult' love triangle with medical technicians Clifton Davenport and Luther Jackson, Spade Cooley brutally beats, kicks and strangles her to death.
Spade Cooley (courtroom testimony) : She told me about a love cult she had joined. She described her initiation at length. It was with two men in a motel near our home. It included unnatural sex acts. I hit her. The next thing I can recollect, I saw her half on the bed and half on the floor. I must have hurt her terribly. I have a hazy recollection it was an animal, not Ella Mae. I can only say that when she told me about that love cult, rockets went off in my brain. My head was literally on fire!
Clifton Davenport : To serve his own purposes, only Spade Cooley would think up something like a free-love cult. His statement only goes to show how his mind works and that he is a person, in my estimation, void of human decency. I am appalled and amazed at what lengths he would go to.
6:20 p.m. Their daughter, Melody, 14, who has been visiting friend arrives home.
Melody Cooley (courtroom testimony) : When I entered he was on the phone. He was talking to a business partner, Beal Whitlock.
I heard him say, 'Beal, don't call the police.' He was real sweaty and he had blood spots on his pants. He said to me, 'Come in here. I want you to see your mother. She is going to tell you something.' He took hold of my arm and took me into the den. The shower was running in the bathroom. Mother was in the shower. He opened the door and said, 'Get up, Melody's here. Talk to her.'
He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her into the den with both hands. She was undressed. He banged her head on the floor twice. He called her a slut. She couldn't move. She seemed to be unconscious.
He turned back to mother and said, 'We'll see if you're dead.' Then he stomped her in the stomach with his left foot. He took a cigarette which he had been smoking and burned her twice.
Spade Cooley (courtroom testimony) : She went into the shower alone. I didn't push her or shove her. There was a terrible thud.
P. Basil Lambros (Defese attorney) : The whole crux of this case is what happened in the shower. She wasn't pushed into the shower. What actually happened, nobody knows.
Spade Cooley : I rubbed her wrists, breathed in her mouth, put cold towels on her head, and I prayed.
I did not hit her with my fists. I went in a rage. I slapped her.
Melody Cooley : He told me, 'You're going to watch me kill her, Melody. If you don't, I'll kill you, too. I'll kill us all.'
6.30pm : The phone rings, and while Cooley answers it, the terrified Melody runs for her life, returning to her friend's house.
8.00 PM : Manager Bobbie Bennet arrives with Ed Borglund, sees Ella Mae is dead, calls Dorothy Davis, the nurse and family friend, and his married son and daughter-in-law, John and Dorothy Cooley.
11.35pm - Ambulance arrives at the Cooley ranch.
Richard Stickel (ambulance driver) : It was a hard time finding it out there at that time because there was nothing out there, but we found it. When I got there, I went into the house he told me his wife needed taking to the hospital. I kinda questioned it. I was by myself, didn't have anybody with me. The house was in disarray, you could see there had been some kind of ... uh ... activity. She was lying on the floor and I could see that she had bruise marks on her and burn marks on her.
I told Spade Cooley I couldn’t get a pulse. I said she didn’t seem to be breathing, but Cooley kept saying there were noises coming out of her throat. ‘You see! You hear her?’ he’d say.
But I wasn't gonna argue with the man when he said he wanted to take her to the hospital. He helped me put her on the stretcher and put her in the ambulance.
11.45pm : Ambulance leaves the Cooley ranch
Richard Stickel : He rode in the back seat, behind me, and I kept thinking all the way on that back road, you know, River Springs Road, what had happened, and the man was riding right behind me. It was scary.
12.20pm : Ella Mae Cooley, 37 years old, is declared dead on arrival at Tehachapi Hospital.
Dr. Vincent Troy : Upon our arrival, observed the victim to be a Caucasian female of the apparent stated age of 37 years.
There were numerous marks of external violence noted on the body consisting of bruises over the entire body, indicating the victim had been beaten severely.
When I was told the circumstances of how this woman died, that she’d suffered a fall in the shower, I found this to be inconsistent with the condition of her body. She was badly bruised and these appeared to have been inflicted, repeatedly so. It was my judgment that the coroner be notified and an investigation ordered before any further determinations could be made as to the cause of Ella Mae Cooley’s death.
12.45 am. Kern County Sheriff's Office is notified
Sgt H.E. Cooper (Kern County Sheriff's Office) : At approximately 12:45am, I received a telephone call at my residence, stating that there had been a victim of a beating brought into the Tehachapi Emergency Hospital and that upon arrival, that victim had been pronounced dead.
Deputy Marion Dickey (Mojave Sheriff's Dept) : We found Spade Cooley in what I’d describe as a state of shock. I noticed right away that his hands were swollen and bruised, and he was shook up, saying the fact that his wife was really dead was hitting him bad. Maybe excited is the better word to describe his condition. I got him some water and, sort of coming apart at the seams, he told us his wife had jumped from the car a few days earlier, but he didn’t give much detail. Then she fell in the shower, he said, and hit her head. He said he believed she had a concussion.
I looked at the body and she looked like somebody’d clobbered her. I didn’t need any medical confirmation to see that this woman had been beaten to death.
Sgt H.E. Cooper : On arrival at the Tehachapi Hospital, we were contacted by Sgt. Shuell of the Mojave Sub-Station who had just been talking to Spade Cooley. This conversation was taking place in the waiting room of the Tehachapi Hospital.
Chief Fote and myself contacted Spade Cooley and he stated that he would gladly give us a statement of what happened at his ranch house earlier in the evening.
Along with Chief Fote, Sgt. Shuell and Coroner Stan Newman, Spade Cooley was taken into a doctor's office at the Tehachapi Hospital where he was briefly interrogated.
Dr. Vincent Troy : He stated his wife had jumped from a moving automobile a couple days prior to this and had fallen in the shower on this particular evening, which caused the injuries.
Further questioning revealed he did admit slapping his wife two or three times while at their ranch in Willow Springs.
Sgt H.E. Cooper : After talking to Spade Cooley for approximately 20 to 25 minutes , Mr Cooley stated that he would free and voluntarily on his part proceed with Sgt. Shuell and myself to the Sub-station in Mojave.
Richard Stickel : They were very nice to him, whether because he was a celebrity or not, I don't know. And he was very co-operative and nice about the whole thing.
3.00am : Cooley is interviewed by Deputy Harmon Cooper for an hour in the Mojave Sherrif's Sub Station, then arrested.
Sergeant Tom Shuell (Mojave Sheriff's Dept) : He stuck to the story about her falling in the shower. We didn’t believe him, and during the recorded interview, talking about his swollen hands, he did finally admit to having struck his wife. He said, ‘. . .slapping her maybe a couple times because she was hysterical, but that was it . . . That was all.’ I asked, ‘How many times did you slap her? You hit her once? You hit her twice or more than twice?’ He confessed he might’ve struck her more than once but denied having done anything that could’ve caused any serious injuries.
Bill Gillis (reporter, Henderson Home News) : I was one of the first newsmen on the scene. While news, radio and tv men weren't afforded the opportunity to interview Cooley, we did see him, and he was understandably haggard after several hours of questioning.
As dawn was breaking over the desert mountains, Cooley was handcuffed and driven to Bakersfield, 90 miles from Mojave.
April 4, 1961 : Spade Cooley is booked into Kern County Jail, Bakersfield, California, USA.
Tex Williams (employee of Spade Cooley) : The Deputy District Attorney from Bakersfield came down and spent two or three hours with me and he was on the scene. There was no way I could say it was an accident. It went on for so long.
Leonard Winters : When he was arrested, he couldn't wait to talk. He wanted to tell them the whole story. Not the true story, of course, but he thought he could talk himself out of it.
July 10, 1961 : Trial starts at Kern County Superior Court No5, Bakersfield.
Bill Gillis (reporter, Henderson Home News) : Kern County Superior Court no5 isn't particularly spacious. In fact, it seats only 62. But hours before the start of the daily sessions, a long line formed in front of the courtroom, hoping to gain admission. Most of the curious were women, maybe 90 per cent.
Leonard Winters : The courtroom was packed. They'd bring lunches and wait out in the corridor for seats.
Bill Gillis (reporter, Henderson Home News) : During the six weeks of testimony an air of informality reigned in the jurors' box. Only one or two men ever bothered to wear ties. Sport shirts were the motif. Some even chewed gum.
Kern County District Attorney Kit Nelson, the prosecutor, and P. Basil Lambros, who represented Cooley, were a study of opposing contrasts.
Lambros, a flambouyant individual, wandered endlessly around the courtroom as he hammered away at the prosecution witnesses.
Nelson wasted no words, rather stood quietly by his desk, querying witnesses with the damaging questions that were to lead to Cooley's conviction.
Frequently, they engaged in verbal clashes, at times had to be restrained by Judge Bradshaw.
The colour pictures I saw (about 8) of Ella Mae's body would tend to indicate she had been subjected to a considerable beating, particularly her face.
Kit Nelson (D.A. and prosecutor) : Mr. Cooley is not normal. He is abnormal, has sadistic tendencies and a dual personality. His recollections are convenient memory to Mr. Cooley, but he doesn't recall when things look bad for Mr. Cooley.
Aug 19, 1961 : Spade Cooley is convicted of first degree murder.
Bobbie Bennett (manager) : It was an accident. He never intended to kill her. We had thousands of letters from all over the country and most of them felt that, because of the pleasure he had brought them, and so forth, they didn't feel he was particularly guilty. But I must say, as far as the particular entertainers in the field, they were very harsh as far as he was concerned.
Leonard Winters : I'll never forget it. The jury brought the verdict in as guilty and you'd have thought he was a star all over again. People hugged him, they kissed him, they cried, the men cried, after finding him guilty of first degree murder. Oh my God, I've never seen anything like it in my life.
Bobbie Bennett (manager) : It was such a shock to me that I just closed up my office and I went back into law.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
Cooley then withdrew his insanity plea, and Judge William L. Bradshaw sentenced him to life in prison. He had cheated the gas chamber. His physical and emotional state led to a cell at a much less forbidding lockup, the California State Prison at Vacaville.
After Ronald Reagan was elected governor in 1966, mutual friends from the B-movie business began lobbying for a pardon or parole for Cooley. Reagan waved the magic wand, and in August 1969 the state parole board unanimously recommended parole for Cooley, effective Feb. 22, 1970 - his 60th birthday.
However, he died of a heart attack on November 23, 1969, during a three-day furlough to perform in Oakland at a benefit concert for the Alameda County Sheriff's Department.
BEST DETAILED SOURCE OF EVENTS - http://law.justia.com/cases/california/calapp2d/211/173.html
Henderson Home News - 24 Aug 1961
Leonard Winters - (Source : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypogtWjkT3k)
Bobbie Bennett : (Source : http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/celebrity/spade_cooley/9.html), Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California by Gerald W. Haslam and Southwest Shuffle by Rich Kienzle)
Clifton Davenport : (Source, The Long Beach Independent, 10 Aug 1961)
Melody Cooley : Courtroom transcript as reported by (Source : Tucson Daily Citizen, Apr 14, 1961
Basil Lambros : (Source : Lodi News-Sentinel - Aug 8, 1961)
Richard Stickel : (Sources : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypogtWjkT3k) and http://www.johngilmore.com/Books/preview_spade_cooley.html)
Dr Vincent Troy : (Source : http://www.johngilmore.com/Books/preview_spade_cooley.html and Coroner's Office, Kern County, Coroner's Report)
Sgt Cooper : Sheriff's Office Incident Report.
Marion Dickey : (Source : http://www.johngilmore.com/Books/preview_spade_cooley.html)
Sgt Tom Shuell : (Source : http://www.johngilmore.com/Books/preview_spade_cooley.html)
Tex Williams : (Source : Southwest Shuffle, by Rich Kienzle)