Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Asa Keyes Prosecutes Aimee Semple McPherson—and Encounters Her Wrath
By ROGER M. GRACE
Forty-Sixth in a Series
ASA KEYES, district attorney of Los Angeles County, finally did on Friday, Sept. 17, 1926, what he had tried hard to avoid doing. He brought felony charges against ecclesiastical superstar Aimee Semple McPherson.
McPherson responded with fierce and forceful assaults on the DA, from the pulpit and over the airways.
In announcing on Thursday, the 16th, that criminal complaints were about to be issued against McPherson and others, Keyes said, in a press release:
I have just instructed Mr. Forrest Murray, head of my complaint division, to issue felony complaints against Mrs. Aimee Semple McPherson, Mrs. Minnie Kennedy, Mr. Kenneth G. Ormiston, Mrs. Lorraine Wiseman, and John Doe Martin.
Mrs. McPherson and her mother, through Attorney W. I. Gilbert, have stated that they will surrender when the complaints are issued and the warrants placed in the hands of Chief of Detectives Ben Cohn for service.
Legal action to place before the public of this community all the facts and circumstances of this case and to prosecute before the bar of justice this woman and her associates for tampering with the instrumentalities of the law is imperative.
From the time the story that Mrs. McPherson had been drowned was broadcast throughout the country, there has been the tainted atmosphere of a gigantic hoax surrounding it. As time has progressed this increased with the expose of the unbelievable story of the kidnaping and the brazen activities of Mrs. McPherson and her friends to build up a false alibi for her.
As the District Attorney of this county and its enforcement officer, I have proceeded from the beginning with the thought in mind that Mrs. McPherson’s position as the religious leader of a considerable number of people and the custodian of their Christian faith entitled her to protection from hasty or ill-considered action.
It is my duty and I can do no less than exert the full power of my office to bringthis woman to the bar of justice in order that she may have a fair and public hearing. It is with regret that I take action against a person so high in the religious esteem of many persons, but the community and the upright members of all religions must welcome a fair and open hearing of the situation, which has become a nationwide scandal.
As to the co-defendants….
•Kennedy was McPherson’s mother and business manager, and purportedly her partner in crime.
•Ormiston, whose whereabouts were unknown, was the engineer at her radio station with whom McPherson was allegedly romping about during the 35 days of her supposed captivity, the man who checked into hotels with her under phony names, posing as her husband.
•Wiseman had stepped forward claiming to be the woman whom townsfolk in Carmel had seen with Ormiston when he stayed there for 10 days in May, and had mistaken for McPherson. She was soon after to recant her tale, and allege that she had been promised $5,000 by McPherson and Kennedy to tell it.
•“John Doe Martin” was the private detective who allegedly hired Wiseman to perpetrate the ruse.
All five, along with Richard Roe and Sarah Moe, were charged under Penal Code §182, the conspiracy statute. It then provided that when two or more persons “conspire to commit any felony, or to commit any act injurious to the public health, or to public morals, or tending to pervert or obstruct justice, or the due administration of the laws, they shall be punishable in the same manner and to the same extent as in this Code provided for the punishment of the commission of the said felony or act, respectively.”
All defendants were also charged under Penal Code §134, unchanged since it was enacted in 1872. It says:
“Every person guilty of preparing any false or antedated book, paper, record, instrument in writing, or other matter or thing, with intent to produce it, or allow it to be produced for any fraudulent or deceitful purpose, as genuine or true, upon any trial, proceeding, or inquiry whatever, authorized by law, is guilty of felony.”
Kennedy was arrested on the 17th, and was quickly arraigned before Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Samuel L. Blake, who would be conducting the preliminary hearing. McPherson was too ill to be arrested, confined to bed with a nasal abscess.
Kennedy issued a searing statement that day in which she spoke of persecution of Christians through the centuries, and declared:
“Jesus distinctly taught that His church should have persecution. As far as we know we are the only church in the world today to have this honor.”
Keyes, that same day, retorted in a press statement:
“Mrs. McPherson is not and never has been a victim of persecution in so far as the law-enforcement agencies of this city are concerned. Every act of my office concerning her kidnaping story was weighed carefully and thoughtfully. We went over every shred of evidence before issuing the complaints against Mrs. McPherson and her mother in order that we would not be guilty of hasty or ill-considered conclusions. Mrs. McPherson returned home after a month’s absence with a story that she had been kidnaped and held prisoner in a shack by a Steve and Rose whom we now know to be purely mythical. She never brought forward one iota of evidence to back her astounding charges, but went, instead, to the grand jury and attempted to make that body a plaything by asking for indictments against kidnapers that did not exist. This office has its duty to perform and must do it regardless of who is hurt. I am sorry for Mrs. McPherson, but that cannot influence my sworn duty.”
Those were big words for a little man who had been shirking his duty, doing all he could, until it was impossible, to avoid launching a prosecution.
In what some saw as a miraculous self-healing, McPherson rose from her bed on Sunday, the 19th, and delivered a sermon. At the end of it, she made a plea for the contribution of funds—and opened fire (and brimstone) on Keyes, declaring:
“You may call it a ‘Fight the Devil Fund’ if you wish, because that’s what it will be used for....Information has come to me that the man who will handle the prosecution said, ‘Either she will have to go or we will have to go!’ And I am here to say that when I am proved innocent he will certainly have to go.”
Robert Bahr, in his 1979 book, “Least of All Saints,” says of McPherson:
“She had…[a] powerful enemy, she knew—District Attorney Asa Keyes himself, who prosecuted the case—and she singlemindedly set about destroying him. First, she assigned her detectives to scour every detail of his past. ‘Nobody’s perfect,so I’m told,’ she snapped. ‘Get something on him that’ll stick.’ Then shearranged to write for the Editors’ Feature Story syndicate a serial, ‘Saint or Sinner? Did I Go from Pulpit to Paramour?’ Carried in newspapers throughout the country, it vigorously denounced her accusors, particularly Keyes. ‘What brought about District Attorney Keyes’s change of belief? (Originally he had not wanted to prosecute the case.) Did the overlords of the underworld who are fighting me, and who are heavily interested in Los Angeles, have anything to do with it?”
On Sept. 26, McPherson addressed those assembled at her temple, as well as her radio listeners (in several states). She began:
“Mr. Keyes means to do a-plenty to me right away! He has already blasted my name with trumpets with trumpets across the world—settling it for everybody—if his word is the Gospel—that I am the worst ever.”
McPherson read from a Pasadena newspaper. Gov. Friend Richardson had just pardoned a man convicted of grand larceny, saying: “This is the sixth pardon I have granted men wrongly convicted in Los Angeles County.” An L.A. Times article the following morning paraphrases her as saying “that if the District Attorney’s office had made six such mistakes it might be wrong in the seventh instance”—that is, in her case.
(A torrent of harsh criticisms of Keyes had already emanated from the governor, and more were to come.)
On Sept. 27, McPherson’s preliminary hearing got under way. And each evening, the preacher delivered a “daily bulletin”—a commentary on the events in court—before her followers at the Angelus Temple, with the remarks beamed over her radio station.
McPherson was particularly riled when she addressed her live and radio audiences on Oct. 1.
In court that day, a maid at the Ambassador Hotel, Agnes Callihan, had testified that she had seen a man, whom she identified from a photograph as Ormiston, on at least six occasions at the hotel…and on one occasion spotted him entering McPherson’s room. She said the man had a limp—which it was known that Ormiston had. It was uncontested that McPherson often stayed at that hotel during construction at the Temple.
An assistant manager at the hotel provided corroborative testimony with respect to Ormiston’s presence in the hotel.
“That night from the temple platform Aimee again attacked Asa Keyes. ‘The vile insinuations which fell from the lips of Mr. Keyes during his examination today could not, in my opinion, exist in the mind of any pure man! He has subjected me today to the most exquisite cruelty and suffering that the human mind can conjure up. Asa Keyes—if you are listening in, you are a dirty, lecherous libertine! I urge every single taxpayer listening to my voice to contact your office and demand immediately an accounting of the money—thousands upon thousands of dollars—that you have been squandering—you and your wife and your assistants and their wives—on trips to vacation resorts in Carmel, Douglas, Arizona, and Mexico for what we are supposed to believe are investigations into my integrity.’
“She followed the verbal attack with a release revealing that Keyes, who had been voted an annual secret fund for putting thieves, murderers, and other criminals in prison, had been improperly diverting the money to the McPherson case, and possibly to personal accounts, and had already requested another five thousand dollars for the same purpose. Chairman [R.F.] McClellan of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors promptly [swore to] a criminal complaint against Keyes. According to an assistant, the district attorney began drinking heavily about that time.”
(McClellan, acting on authority granted by the board, asked that the attorney general appoint a special prosecutor. There’s more to come about that in the next column.)
McPherson was still seething over Keyes having sought evidence before the Grand Jury that the supposed kidnapping was a hoax, when the announced purpose of the proceeding was to ascertain the identity of the kidnappers. The Times quoted the following from a press release while the Examiner attributed it to the broadcast (and, indeed, the same statement might well have been issued in both forums):
“I will submit the course of conduct adopted by Mr. Keyes to any committee of lawyers selected by the members of the Superior Court, and if that committee, after reading the record made by him before the grand jury, will state that he was justified in the course of conduct he pursued and in the attitude he assumed, I will never raise my voice again in Los Angeles.”
It does not appear that any such committee was ever formed.
The next day, McPherson was still on the offensive, and with added fervor. She declared:
“Everybody knows that Asa has his hands pretty tight around my throat just now and wants to squeeze a little tighter every day until he chokes the life out of me. There is no other excuse or reason possible for dragging in the dirty filth, innuendo of Friday afternoon. Everybody knows I am not charged with being in the Ambassador Hotel. The sole purpose of this dastardly attack was to persecute me and besmirch my character, and possibly to destroy this temple. To my mind this is itself evidence of a hidden motive.”
She also commented:
“This is what is called a preliminary examination and not a trial, but to determine whether I am to be held for trial. Mr. Keyes’s office boys usually attend to such things. And I ask now for the name of another case since Mr. Keyes has been District Attorney in which he has appeared for ten days as he does in this; and especially if he was going to appear in person, upon what theory does he need two able assistants to prosecute poor me in this preliminary hearing.”
There was a time when a district attorney for this county did handle all of the county’s civil and criminal matters, including preliminary hearings. But this was 1926, and there was now a county counsel who was in charge of civil litigation, and deputy DAs who represented the People in criminal proceedings.
The case was not one handled in a business-as-usual manner.
is doubtful that any district attorney in the history of this county made as
many press statements as Keyes did concerning a criminal defendant, and surely
no criminal defendant’s verbal assaults on the DA attracted the press attention
that McPherson’s did.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company