The Trunk Murderess: Winne Ruth Judd – The Truth About an American Crime Legend Revealed at Last


October 16, 1931, was a bloody Friday night in Phoenix, Arizona.

In a quiet neighborhood of this quiet small town, nineteen-year-old pharmacy assistant Jack West lay in wait for two hours until his sweetheart came home from a secret date with a new beau. When eighteen-year-old Pearl Mills answered his insistent knocking on her front door, he chased her into her bedroom and stabbed her to death. Then he turned the knife on himself, inflicting a superficial wound.

Just a few blocks away in a simple duplex, twenty-six-year-old medical secretary Winnie Ruth Judd was spending the night, as she often did, with her two best girlfriends. The state of Arizona would charge that on this night, she was there to murder-to eliminate her “competition” for a married man all three women adored. She supposedly waited until her friends were asleep and then shot them to death in their beds. But the world wouldn’t know about the deaths of twenty- four- year-old Hedvig “Sammy” Samuelson and thirty-two- year-old Agnes Anne LeRoi for three days. Not until the horrifying discovery that their bodies-Sammy’s cut into pieces-had been stuffed into steamer trunks and shipped as Winnie Ruth Judd’s baggage on the train to Los Angeles.

Jack West spent two weeks in the headlines and twenty-three months in prison repaying society before he blended into obscurity.

Winnie Ruth Judd became a household name across America as Arizona made her pay with one of the longest sentences this country has ever seen: thirty-eight years, eleven months, and twenty-two days.

This is her story.

Years before the country ever started wondering what happened to Amelia Earhart, it thought it knew everything that happened to Winnie Ruth Judd. Papers from coast to coast covered the gruesome story with the same prominence they gave to the sentencing of “Scarface” Al Capone and the rise of a young man in Germany named Adolf Hitler. Not since Lizzie Borden had a single name conjured up so much horror

“The Trunk Murderess.”
“The Tiger Woman.”
“The Blond Butcher.”

That’s how the press labeled her in the thirties, when she was first convicted and sentenced to hang, and then declared insane and saved from the gallows by only seventy-two hours. That’s what they called her in the forties and fifties and sixties as she escaped with great regularity-first to the horror and then the amusement of the country-from the asylum that was her prison. That’s what they called her in 1971 when she was finally paroled, a sixty-six-year-old woman judged safe for society. That’s what they still call her today, a woman nearing ninety who is trying to live out her life quietly.

An open-and-shut case. So everyone thinks. Just as everyone thinks they know the awful things Winnie Ruth Judd did during the bedtime hours of that Friday night in 1931

They said she was a cold-blooded killer.
They said she hacked up her best friend.
They said she was insane.
They said she acted alone.

Yet to this day- now sixty years after the fact- questions remain about just how guilty Winnie Ruth Judd was. Or exactly what she was guilty of doing. Or if she could have possibly done the deed by herself. Or if she ever was insane.

Whispers have persisted all these years that the Winnie Ruth Judd case was really Phoenix’s dirty secret.

A fresh investigation finds the rumors are true. It finds the story of Winnie Ruth Judd is really two stories: the one that history records, and what really happened.

But it’s not just the story of a puzzling crime that still fascinates. Or of extreme punishment. Or, as this investigation reveals, of some of the most bizarre twists ever seen in a murder case. It’s the story of a backwater town that would become one of America’s major cities. It’s the story of a moment in time–with its social taboos, its hysterical conventionality, and its concentrated political power- when this strange story could be orchestrated.

 . . .

         I first heard about Winnie Ruth Judd when I moved to Arizona in 1972 to work for the Arizona Republic, the state’s largest and then most politically powerful newspaper. Arizona history is filled with colorful characters that are part of American folklore–Geronimo, Cochise, Wyatt Earp, Father Kino, Zane Grey. In a morbid way, Winnie Ruth Judd was one of them. She belonged to that tiny sorority of women judged so heinous society said they deserved the ultimate punishment. In Arizona, she was only the third woman on the roster. The first, Dolores Moore, had been executed in 1865; the second, Eva Dugan, was hanged in 1930-beheaded actually, in a botched execution that led Arizona to abandon the noose for the gas chamber. It wasn’t until 1991 that the state added another woman to the exclusive group, sentencing to death Debra Jean Milke for having her four-year-old son killed on his way to see Santa Claus. The picture is similar across the nation: less than thirty-five women sit on death row today.

But the very first story I heard about Winnie Ruth Judd wasn’t about her heinous crime, it was about how she was framed.

Sensational cases have a way of taking on their own lore, especially juicy cases that hark back to a time when the social code was so strict women didn’t leave the house without wearing gloves and today’s thriving cities were just wide spots along bad roads. It’s far easier to imagine something sinister was at work than to believe a young beauty would hack up a rival.

Besides, this case was crammed with social taboos: a totally unacceptable love affair, the threat of deadly and incurable syphilis, snide rumors of lesbianism, outright declarations that these were “party girls”-the nice term used in the thirties for prostitutes. Add to that the widespread allegations that one of Phoenix’s most prominent businessmen was knee-deep in the crime–allegations widely reported in out-of-state newspapers, excused and dismissed by the press at home. Mix in the mysterious shadow of William Randolph Hearst, the most powerful newspaper publisher for the day, and the intervention of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Winnie Ruth Judd case was not just another murder mystery. It was a slice of Arizona and America at a most vulnerable moment: exactly two years after the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, twelve years into the disastrous ban on “spirits” known as Prohibition, and a time when media excess would be forever defined and remain a constant embarrassment for every journalist who came after.

In the twenty years I’ve lived in Phoenix, I have never heard a single person say Winnie Ruth Judd got what she deserved. Instead, I’ve heard: “She was covering up for somebody important”; “It was a powerful man who really was responsible, but you know how women were treated in the thirties”; “If the truth of this ever came out, it would ruin a lot of good ole boys.” Every time her name came up, it was inevitably coupled with the question “Do you think she really did it?”

How could so many suppositions and questions still remain when the media had for so long presented this as a black-and-white case? Historical articles in Arizona journals recount the grisly crime and leave no doubt about what happened. Newspaper libraries from Los Angeles to New York maintain thick files that painstakingly provide every bloody detail. Modern books on sensational crimes invariably include a chapter on the horrible “trunk murderess.” Even the few sympathetic articles hold sympathy for her only because she was a minister’s daughter who went wrong.

So why did so many people in Phoenix act as though the city was hiding its dirty linen behind her skirts?

In 1987, I decided to find out. By then I was an investigative reporter and editor for New Times of Phoenix, one of the nation’s largest weekly newspapers. I’d spent years probing the political scene of Phoenix, so I knew how raw the politics of this town could be. I’d worked on a special project that reinvestigated the 1976 assassination of reporter Don Bolles-blown up at noon in a down- town parking lot by a car bomb-so I knew how the most outrageous of crimes could go unpunished in Arizona. I’d exposed a horrible cover-up of the death of a boy in the county jail, so I knew how”official” records could be distorted. If all these things happened in modern times, with a host of media eyes to inspect them, imagine what sins could have been committed in the old days, when one publisher dominated the communications system of this little town and police reporters were notorious for acting more like cops than journalists.

I’d already read several articles and books about the Winnie Ruth Judd case, and even with their “she’s guilty as hell” tone, things didn’t fit. This, coupled with all the stories I’d heard, made it obvious that the case needed a new look. If half the rumors were true, I thought, it would make a great story.

A journalist needs a “news peg” to justify a story, and the obvious peg here would be to finally get Winnie Ruth Judd to break her silence and talk. It would prove to be the hardest part of the entire investigation.

From just preliminary information, I knew Winnie Ruth Judd now called herself Marian Lane, was in her early eighties, and lived somewhere in California. If this case was ever to be reinvestigated, it had to be soon, while she and some of the other principals were still alive.

Her last Phoenix attorney, Larry Debus, wasn’t at all encouraging at first. He insisted she would never sit for an interview, just as she had refused all requests from journalists since he and famed California attorney Melvin Belli had gotten her paroled in 1971. Besides, she had no love for the media, Debus added. “She just wants to be left alone,” he told me. “She’s afraid if she talks, they’ll come after her again because her parole specified she was never to tell her story.”

That’s the point, I stressed. She’s never talked. She didn’t testify at her trial, and by the time she tried to speak, they said she was insane and who’d listen to a crazy lady? She’s stayed silent all these years, and if the curiosity about this case is ever to be satisfied, she has to talk. Debus, who owed me a favor for some forgotten reason, agreed to try because her case had always troubled him. “She was the victim of small-town politics and a justice system that wasn’t just,” he said. “She deserved to be punished for the right crime. She wasn’t.” It took three years before he was finally able to convince her to meet with me.

By the time I flew to Stockton, California, to visit her in February of 1990, I knew the rumors about her case held far more fact than fancy. I’d already started plowing through the boxes of files kept under seal by the Arizona Archives on the fourth floor of the state capitol building in Phoenix. I’d already interviewed people involved in the case who shed new light on what really happened. I’d already heard again and again an outpouring of sympathy for this woman who had been portrayed to the world as a murdering witch.

But as I sat in the comfortable living room of her apartment, I thought I had to be talking to the wrong person. The bright California morning had become an overcast afternoon before this grandmotherly woman ever mentioned the name of Winnie Ruth Judd.  All that day, I was sure somehow lines had gotten crossed and my trip was a waste. This lady before me couldn’t be the awful “trunk  murderess.”

It wouldn’t be the last time everything seemed out of kilter as I reinvestigated one of the nation’s most enduring and salacious murders. More than once along the way, the most outlandish allegation turned out to be true. I soon found I couldn’t discount anything. And I discovered that, like all legends, Winnie Ruth Judd was wrongly credited with many sins. “She went around chopping up people, didn’t she?” a Phoenix city council member asked me. “She went on a killing spree, right?” another friend offered, suggesting Phoenix had in Winnie Ruth Judd its own version of Bonnie and Clyde. One after another, middle-aged friends who grew up in Phoenix recounted how their parents had frightened them with threats that if they didn’t behave, “Winnie Ruth Judd will get you.” They remembered that when she escaped from the asylum-a total of seven times-they’d been kept indoors for fear of encountering the “crazy killer.” Children even had a jump rope rhyme about their fear. Most of the words are long forgotten, but somewhere in the ditty, they sang, “. . . and she’ll chop you up to pieces.”

.   .   .

         In May 1990, I wrote a two-part series on my investigation for New Times. The series unleashed a flood of new information. Dozens of calls brought fresh leads and new people who’d been involved, revealing amazing pieces of the story.

Fortunately, Arizona archivists and librarians, recognizing the historical significance of this case, have carefully preserved enormous amounts of information. But they went far behind that, searching on their own for obscure sources that yielded unimagined treasures. Thousands of original documents-from personal letters and telegrams to internal memos and reports-were preserved under seal at the State Archives Office. During my research, archivists uncovered a long-forgotten box of files from a rural county that contained, to our astonishment and joy, a 1932 transcript of Winnie Ruth Judd telling the whole story to the county sheriff. This never- before-seen document provided minute details of both that deadly October night and its gruesome aftermath.

At the Maricopa County Court Records Office, the evidence box on the case still includes the actual bullets that killed Anne LeRoi and Sammy Samuelson. All the original police reports are still there, including interviews with potential witnesses who were ignored as the case went to trial. At the Pinal County Historical Society are records of Winnie Ruth Judd’s life at the state prison in Florence, Arizona, and of the insanity hearing that saved her from the gallows.

Even more telling are the vivid memories. I interviewed over one hundred people, including the last living juror at her murder trial and the last living member of the grand jury that sought mercy for her. Neither had ever spoken to a reporter about the case before. I found the last woman to see the victims alive. I found the woman who was run out of Phoenix because she “talked too much” to the police about the prominent men who had befriended Winnie and the victims. I found people who’d heard the most remarkable things over the years and were anxious to talk to someone who would listen and believe. Family members of major players in the case were generous in sharing their memorabilia, including vast amounts of information that never showed up in any official file.

I took much of the information to experts for help. Hugh Ennis, a retired Phoenix police captain with thirty years’ experience, helped me review the police reports for what they did and, suspiciously, did not show. One of the nation’s most respected forensic experts, Dr. Heinz Karnitschnig, reviewed the autopsy reports and pictures- pictures never seen by the public because they were too gory even for the press of the thirties. A former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, Jack D. H. Hays, reviewed the trial transcripts and appeals.

And I talked at length with Winnie Ruth Judd, getting not only the first interview in twenty years but the most complete interview she has ever given. She graciously insisted I stay with her at her apartment in early 1990. I stayed for three days, and we talked all day and twice long into the night. She shared with me secrets she’d never told anyone, memories she preferred to forget. Later, we had dozens of phone conversations. We talked until she begged that she couldn’t bear to talk anymore.

Then there are the people who even now-sixty years later-still won’t discuss what they know. Former Arizona governor Rose Mofford, whose fifty-year tenure in Arizona politics has left her extremely well connected, said “no way” would she discuss the case, even though she has known Winnie Ruth Judd since the 1940s. Former U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater refused repeated requests for an interview, relaying the message, “You tell that girl to leave that alone.”

What could be so awful so long after the fact that it must still be shielded?

That’s what this book is all about. Winnie Ruth Judd speaks at length-finally. So do the official records. So do all the people involved in the case. So do the massive newspaper files from across the country. So do the bits and shreds of evidence pieced together from thousands of sources-some never uncovered before. They are all quoted directly or used to reconstruct dialogue and scenes.

The story they tell shows history was wrong about Winnie Ruth Judd.

Jana loves Jerome, too, and had a wonderful time at the Nellie Bly gallery in April 2010

during her statewide tour for ONEBOOKAZ on her book, The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd.