Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, October 15, 2007


Page 7



Keyes Drops Prosecution of McPherson After She’s Bound Over for Trial




Forty-Ninth in a Series


ASA KEYES triumphed at the high-profile preliminary hearing of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson on charges of obstructing justice and manufacturing of false evidence. The Los Angeles district attorney on Nov. 3, 1926, secured an order binding McPherson over for trial in the Superior Court, along with her mother and a woman who was seemingly hired to play a role in a cover-up. And then, two months later, Keyes turned victory into vanquishment by moving to dismiss the charges…an act which  sparked suspicions that he had been bribed.

McPherson, as recounted in earlier installments, had disappeared on May 18, last seen at the beach, bringing about fears that she had drowned. She reappeared on June 23 in Agua Prieta, Mexico, telling the fantastic tale that she had been kidnapped at the beach and held hostage by “Rose” and “Steve”; that, while she was left unattended in a shack, she had cut the ropes that bound her hands behind her back with the jagged rim of a tin can; and that she had trekked 20 miles through the desert before coming upon the town.

That was 20 miles in blistering, 120-degree sun…and yet she wasn’t blistered. Her clothes weren’t soiled. She wasn’t perspiring. Her heels weren’t broken. She didn’t ask for water. Taken to a hospital in Douglas, Ariz., it was found she wasn’t dehydrated.

At the preliminary hearing, Alonzo B. Murchison, a police lieutenant in Douglas,  testified that the evangelist’s story was checked out and it was found that her foot tracks started about three miles outside Agua Prieta. That was right where tire prints showed that a car had turned around.

Testimony showed that on May 14, Kenneth G. Ormiston, an engineer at the radio station which broadcast from McPherson’s church, the Angelus Temple, rented a honeymoon cottage in Carmel, using a phony name. He returned to Los Angeles, registering under a different pseudonym at the Clark Hotel. Witnesses said they saw McPherson there before noon on May 18.

Ormiston arrived at the cottage at about 4 a.m. on May 19, about 12 hours after McPherson was last seen at Ocean Park beach. A spate of witnesses identified McPherson as the woman who occupied the bungalow with him through May 29.

Following the reemergence of McPherson, Keyes’ investigators uncovered grocery lists in a waste basket in the Carmel bungalow. They were in McPherson’s handwriting, according to an expert witness, who also identified Ormiston’s handwriting on hotel registers.

One witness was Bernice Morris, who had been secretary to Russell A. McKinley, a blind Long Beach attorney. McKinley had told the police on May 31 and Keyes on June 1 that two men had come to him saying that McPherson was their captive and that they wanted him to be the go-between in their trading their her for $25,000. Morris related that McKinley confided in her that the story was fabricated.

On one occasion following the reappearance, McKinley met with McPherson and her mother, Minnie Kennedy, and produced a photo which the evangelist immediately identified as “Steve,” one of the kidnappers, the former secretary said. She disclosed that a local youth, Joe Watt, had posed for the snapshot. It was all for Kennedy’s benefit, to reinforce her belief that a kidnapping had actually occurred, Morris explained. As part of the ruse, McKinley was supposedly in regular contact with the mythical kidnappers during the post-“kidnapping” period, according to the testimony.

On the morning of Aug. 25, Watt spoke by phone with McPherson—with her mother present—and she identified his voice as that of “Steve.” That night, McKinley was killed in a traffic accident.

An effort was planned to try to find a shack near Agua Prieta, and if one were located, McPherson would identify it as the place she was held, Morris told the court.

The Times’ report of Oct. 19 on the previous day’s proceeding contains this:

The testimony of the secretary was featured by her narrative of a trap which she said she set for Mrs. McPherson and which, she indicated, the evangelist had walked into. This occurred, she said, during one of her several trips to the temple to confer with the evangelist and her mother relative to the work which Mr. McKinley had been carrying on for them.

They had been talking about the asserted kidnapers, Miss Morris said, when Mrs. Kennedy came into the room and sat down with them.

“One of the men wanted me to ask you if you remembered about the time you had a crick in your neck and Rose rubbed it all night until the pain disappeared,” Miss Morris said she told Mrs. McPherson.

“Why mother, I do remember that perfectly. I forgot to tell you that. You know I’m always having trouble with my neck. I don’t think she (Rose) rubbed it all afternoon but she certainly rubbed that crick out,” the witness testified was Mrs. McPherson’s response.

Morris said she made up the incident.

The testimony was helpful to Kennedy who, according to the prosecution, knew her daughter was alive yet caused the evangelist’s followers to search the beach for a drowned body. Three men lost their lives in connection with the effort.

While Morris’ Oct. 18 testimony suggested that Kennedy did not have direct knowledge of the falsity of the kidnapping yarn—leeriness, perhaps, but not certainty—the young woman’s testimony on Oct. 15 pointed to passive participation by the mother in evidence-manipulation. The testimony strongly implicated McPherson.

It was Morris who had identified McKinley’s body. The day after McKinley died, she engaged in a conversation with McPherson, on her left, and Kennedy, on her right, in the rear seat of an automobile, with the chauffeur driving and defense lawyer Roland Rich Woolley in the front on the passenger’s side, Morris’ testimony set forth.

According to that account, McPherson queried as to papers on McKinley’s person when he died; Morris mentioned two documents including a letter from Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carlos Hardy to McKinley asking him to cooperate with Woolley. Hardy was a follower and confidant of McPherson…and later faced an impeachment trial based on taking $2,500 from her after allegedly providing legal guidance in connection with the charges against her. (He was acquitted by the Senate on April 26, 1929.)

Morris said that McPherson asked her to go to the coroner’s office and secure the documents, and wanted her to carry on McKinley’s efforts. The 23-year-old secretary expressed an inability to fill in for her deceased boss.

There was more evidence. A good deal more. Suffice it to say that Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Samuel Blake, presiding at the preliminary hearing, had an ample if not compelling basis for binding McPherson over for trial, and probably an adequate basis for holding Kennedy to answer in the Superior Court. As to defendant Lorraine Wiseman (or “Wiseman-Sielaff”), her guilt, contrary to her plea, was confessed.

How does Wiseman figure in all this?

Ormiston, who was in hiding, had sent in a declaration while grand jury proceedings were in progress proclaiming that it was a “Miss X” who had been with him in Carmel, not McPherson. The next step, on Aug. 25, was Wiseman publicly proclaiming that it was she…a ringer for McPherson…who was spotted by the denizens of Carmel during the 10-day period Ormiston was cohabitating with “Miss X.” She was in that burgh, she insisted, to care for her ailing sister, Miss X.

Her actual sister, a twin, executed a declaration under penalty of perjury in the office of a judge in Salinas that she was “Miss X.” The falsity of that declaration became clear, yet she was not charged with perjury.

Wiseman, who had been under psychiatric care and had charges pending against her throughout the state for passing bad checks, did, for a spell, convince some of the public that it was not McPherson who had shared the bungalow with Ormiston. But the Times confronted Wiseman with evidence that she was in Los Angeles on dates she claimed to have been in Carmel, and she couldn’t refute it; a few days later, she publicly confessed that she had lied. Wiseman said she had been hired and coached by McPherson to perpetrate the hoax, and so testified at the preliminary hearing. (She had been granted no immunity but it was expected that by virtue of her cooperation, she would be treated with leniency at sentencing.)

After the conclusion of that hearing, however, she came up with what appeared to be a variation on her previous account. It was not a “Mr. Martin” who had recruited her in San Francisco, but a “Jack Woolley,” brother of attorney Roland Rich Woolley, Wiseman proclaimed, and the attorney played a key role in guiding her actions. (Jack Woolley, it had turned out, was actually the attorney’s cousin.)

This meant, at worst for the prosecution, that it had lost a witness...a “star” witness, but hardly an indispensable one. There was much other evidence; more evidence was being unearthed.

Yet, the development caused Keyes to flip and flop like a fish on a hook, just as he had when trying to make up his mind whether to prosecute McPherson in the first place.

Here are Keyes’ statements:

Dec. 29: “The McPherson case is now in such a muddled state that a conviction is almost impossible, and the charges probably will be withdrawn. The principal witness is a turncoat and a perjurer and has told a different story every day.”

Dec. 30: “Emphatically, I will not drop this case. While Mrs. Wiseman has changed her original story in part, it is not diametrically opposite to that she told on the witness stand during Mrs. McPherson’s preliminary hearing. Instead, it is more of an elaboration of the vague parts of her previous testimony.” (Her testimony in 1929 in connection with Hardy impeachment proceedings indicated that her new statements were an elaboration, not a contradiction.)

Jan. 3: “Inspite of various rumors and reports I have not reached a definite decision one way or other. This is a very important matter and cannot be decided in a minute. For that reason I intend to take all the time necessary to make up my mind.”

Jan. 10 (in Superior Court): “Evidence was laid before me which tended to show that after Mrs. McPherson had gone to Carmel and returned with an unreasonable story of kidnapping, she and others had induced Mrs. Lorraine Wiseman-Sielaff to produce false testimony or evidence in the nature of an alibi for the Carmel escapade.

“The chief evidence laid, before me was the testimony of Mrs. Slelaff. Without her testimony, proof of the alleged conspiracy is now impossible. Since the preliminary hearings of Mrs. McPherson, conducted before Municipal Judge Samuel R. Blake, Mrs. Sielaff has changed her story almost daily until it now contains so many contradictions and inconsistencies to the one given in court that she had become a witness for whose truth or credibility no prosecutor could vouch.”

Keyes moved for dismissal of all charges against McPherson, Kennedy, and Wiseman, as well as Ormiston, who had returned to Los Angeles and was in court for an arraignment. (His lawyer was Lester Wm. Roth, later a Court of Appeal presiding justice of this district’s Div. Two, now deceased.)

An irony is that, in binding the defendants over for trial, Blake added a count not contained in the information, at Keyes’ request, alleging a conspiracy to suborn perjury. Instances of perjury included, at the least, the affidavit by Wiseman’s sister. With respect to Wiseman, the count was dismissed by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Albert Lee Stephens Sr. because Keyes professed a belief that the defendant was a liar. Of course; you can’t possibly prosecute someone you suspect of being a liar for an offense involving perjury.

Stephen J. Pullum, in his 1999 book, “Foul Demons, Come Out!”, says of Keyes: “[S]ome have suggested that he may have been party to a $30,000 bribe.”

In late 1928, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury began looking into the possibility that Keyes had been bribed to drop charges against McPherson et al. A Nov. 13 United Press dispatch from London quotes the evangelist as saying:

“I never paid a penny. The reason I was freed was that the woman who made the charges confessed she had lied and had been hired to tell the story. With her confession, I was automatically released.”

That was a gross distortion. Wiseman admitted she had lied as to her initial statements that it was she who had been seen in Carmel; she never admitted lying about having been hired and coached by McPherson to perpetrate the hoax. The “release” was not automatic; Keyes represented to the court that in light of inconsistencies in Wiseman’s account, he could not vouch for the truthfulness of her testimony, and Stephens dismissed the charges.

Evidence put before the 1928 grand jury included documents supplied to two reporters by Kennedy...who had been ousted from the church by her daughter and was estranged from her. Contrary to the pronouncement by “Lately Thomas” (pseudonym for Robert Steele) in his 1959 book, “The Vanishing Evangelist,” Keyes was not “publicly exonerated of all suspicion of venality” in connection with the dismissal. The 1928 grand jury simply did not report on any findings relating to the matter (and the impeachment proceeding against Hardy merely touched on the allegation).

Perhaps the grand jury found that there was nothing to it. Or maybe the grand jury decided it just didn’t matter. By the end of the year, Keyes had left office and was already on trial on bribery charges stemming from other cases.

Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company

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