by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Previous posts on this blog have covered the late 1929 sexual assault trial of vaudeville theatre magnate Alexander Pantages as well as the previously unknown story of his victim, teen Eunice Pringle, powerfully told by her daughter. Tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection concerns a bizarre element of the trial involving two other young women arrested and charged with witness tampering in the matter.
The strange story came to light in the early stages of the legal proceedings and was reported on in the Los Angeles Times of 9 September, with the paper beginning its coverage by stating “trapped in a web of handwriting, two young women were arrested in a Hollywood rooming-house yesterday and held in $25,000 bail each on a charge of attempting to influence witnesses slated to testify for the State in the forthcoming trial of Alexander Pantages.”
The article continued that “the women were booked as Nancy Lee, a sculptress, 25 years of age, and her half-sister, Janice Hill, 19, a stenographer.” Buron Fitts, California’s lieutenant governor in 1927-28, the district attorney for Los Angeles County from 1928-1940, and the prosecutor in the Pantages case, personally appeared for the detainment and was accompanied by three detectives from the Hollywood division of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Next, though, the Times observed that “as a result of a demonstration the two are said to have made in an adjoining room pending their removal to the City Jail, the women are also charged with suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and possession of absinthe [it was still Prohibition, so having an alcoholic beverage was, of course, a crime]. In addition they were further held as material witnesses in the case.”
Fitts averred that the sisters spent four days “with a view of placing the Pantages case witnesses in a discreditable light,” including the landlady of the rooming house “and a man roomer, whose identities Fitts kept secret.” The D.A. alleged that Lee and Hill were planted at the house a week earlier and, after a day or two, “began to make overtures to them.” This involved inviting the man, who stayed in the adjoining room, to join them for an absinthe party and the landlady was asked to join.
While Fitts was notified of this, he advised the witnesses to “sit tight” and see what else was on offer. Sure enough, he told the paper, “the man roomer found a note that had been placed under his door” and which said “if you will testify that the Pringle girl bruised herself there might be $25,000 in it for you.” The gentleman and landlady then informed Fitts, who then swooped in with the detectives for the arrest. Hill and Lee, when questioned, denied vigorously that they were placed at the house or “had any ulterior motive” toward the man or landlady.
Fitts then produced the note the man found under his door and instructed Lee to copy it. Once she did, he immediately had them detained. After Fitts allowed the sisters to change their clothing with the landlady present to watch over them, it was stated that “Miss Lee seized a butcher-knife and rushed at the witness while Miss Hill kicked her on the shins.” As the landlady ran out to seek help, it was alleged that “one of the women grabbed up a bottle of absinthe and hurled it from the window.” The detectives scurried to retrieve the bottle and what they could of its intoxicating contents.
The D.A. informed the paper “he felt convinced Miss Lee and Miss Hill had been enlisted as agents by other persons in their asserted attempts to coerce his witnesses” and suggested there was evidence that would soon allow him to divulge the names of those suspected. Meanwhile, Edith Hill, the mother of the young women, claimed from her Oakland home that their daughters were framed, though she offered no evidence other than “they are good girls and couldn’t know anything about these people.” She added that Janice, a recent high school graduate, was only visiting her sister, said to be a film actress, when the incident occurred.
The Los Angeles Express went into greater detail about the incident, though the basic allegations were largely the same as reported by the Times. When it came to the note, however, it was stated that Lee admitted it was written on the back of a letter written to her, but claimed “if I were going to write any such note, I certainly wouldn’t write it on the back of a letter addressed to myself.” She called for a handwriting expert to analyze the note and professed not to know how it wound up under the man’s door. It was also reported in the Express that the landlady told the sisters that the man was a witness in the Pantages case and that he took a fancy to them. Lee said she “made a flippant remark” when she told the landlady she knew about the case and asked her to have the man “drop by and knock on my door sometime.”
The next day, the Times offered a laconically-titled short editorial “Subtle,” in which it opined, “whether they are two fresh girls trying to show off—or really hired agents trying to bribe the Pantages witnesses, the fascinating Janice Lee and Nancy Hill have not helped the course of justice much in this celebrated criminal case.” Referring to their methods as hardly being “subtle,” the paper offered that the tactic of “shoving an offer of a $25,000 bribe under a gentleman’s door isn’t the way it is done in the best modern detective romances.”
The sisters’ attorney filed a habeus corpus motion when they were unable at a superior court hearing to produce bail at $25,000 for the charges of bribery and assault. But, on the 11th, the sisters were arraigned by a municipal judge on the charge of liquor possession and the habeus corpus petition was dismissed. After issuing not guilty pleas and bail set at $100, the two were ordered to appear in court on 8 October for trial.
The liquor charge trial was delayed for over two months, because the witness in the rooming house was involved in testimony in the Pantages trial, because of a crowded court calendar, and because of illness suffered by Hill. Finally, in mid-December, the case was heard, but only after three municipal courtrooms were contacted to see if there was room on their calendars and, once one was found, Fitts minced no words in claiming that the two women were set up at the house to “vamp” the male witness.
When defense attorney Frank Lavan, who sought another delay claiming he needed a chemical analysis done of the liquid salvaged by detectives, countered that the liquor charge was a substitute for the inability of Fitts to make the witness tampering and assault charges stick, the D.A. got hot under the collar. He shouted that there had been too much witness intimidation (Pringle’s father, for one, claimed he and his daughter were threatened by unknown figures who appeared at his house) and he was determined to stop it.
Moreover, Fitts told the court that one of Pantages’ lawyers admitted Hill, who was said to be an artist’s model, and Lee, again described as a sculptor, were placed at the house to watch the man, finally identified as Nick Dunayev, the performing partner of Pringle as they sought to get a contract to perform on the Pantages circuit (he claimed they framed him by making up the asssault allegation.) The landlady was also identified as Mary Yuell.
Lee and Hill took the stand in their own defense, usually not a recommended strategy for defendants, and claimed to be unaware of the ginger ale bottle mixed with alcohol, while Lee asserted that the absinthe was three years old and prescribed by a veterinarian for the treatment of a sick cat!
Lee and Hill were convicted of the liquor charge, which included Fitts testifying to the facts of the case, among which was that a ginger ale bottle mixed with alcohol was found under a pillow on one of the beds used by the sisters. The judge fined the pair $75 and denied a motion for a new trial, whereupon Lavan filed for an appeal. It appears this was denied and the matter vanished from the papers.
As to Pantages, he was found guilty in late October 1929 and faced a long prison term. While he was jailed, he was granted a new trial and his attorney, Jerry Geisler, was permitted by the state supreme court to introduce evidence about Pringle’s personal life, which was not allowed in any court in the state previously. Whether this was the deciding factor is not known, but Pantages was acquitted in the second trial and went free, though he died just a few years later.
Pringle, meanwhile, receded from public view and kept her story hidden from her only child, Marcy Worthington, who has joined me in a couple of talks about the trial and told in great compelling detail about her mother’s long life after the strain she went through.
The highlighted press photo here, from the Newspaper Enterprise Association, is date stamped 17 September 1929 and shows a haggard Lee held by Hill. The caption states that “a sensation, second only to the charge of assault against Alexander Pantages, was precipitated in court in Los Angeles when District Attorney Buron Fitts caused the arrest of” the sisters, with Hill said to be only 16, for the purported tampering. Note that the women wear the same coats as in the newspaper image above from December, where Lee was in full makeup and looking far different.
Tomorrow, we look at another press photo involving the Pantages family, but for another criminal case that took place at the same time as the sexual assault trial and concerned a vehicular homicide trial of Pantages’ wife, Lois.