by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the post in this blog detailing the late 1929 sexual assault case of theater mogul Alexander Pantages, brief reference was made to the trial of his wife, Lois, who was charged with second-degree murder and convicted of manslaughter in the death of Juro (Joe) Rokumoto in an automobile crash in Los Angeles in mid-June, nearly two months before Alexander was accused of attacking 17-year old Eunice Pringle in a small room at his palatial downtown theater.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection, a press photo showing Carmen Pantages, the couple’s daughter, and foster sister Dixie Martin, adopted by the family, just after Carmen testified at her mother’s trial, brings the opportunity to discuss this remarkable case and whether it really did afford (literally) justice to Rokumoto.
Lois Mendenhall was a talented musician when she married Pantages and he continued his rise to great wealth and power in the entertainment industry during the first decades of the 20th century. Originally based in Seattle, the couple and their family came to Los Angeles and lived in a palatial Los Feliz residence, as well as having a beachfront second home in the Ocean Park area of Santa Monica.
On 16 June 1929, Lois, who was 45, drove from that seaside retreat with a friend and, after dropping the latter off, she continued toward home. At the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Serrano Avenue, her large luxury sedan, which veered into out of her eastbound lane, plowed into the smaller sedan, described in one account as a Ford “flivver,” driven by Rokumoto, 44, who lived just a couple blocks away from Pantages, and making a left turn and carrying his family and another.
At the time, there were some major injuries and Rokumoto was taken, as six others in his vehicle were, to a local hospital. It was asserted as she was arrested that Pantages was drunk (today, of course, there would be tests administered, but these didn’t exist then.) After several days, however, he died, and, after a coroner’s inquest jury determined that he passed away from complications of injuries suffered in the crash, Lois, initially cited for driving while intoxicated but still recuperating in a hospital, was charged with second degree murder a little over a week after the incident. It was reported that she hit at least one other vehicle nearby and was told by bystanders not to continue driving, but she, of course, did to tragic results. Other witnesses were prepared to say that she was drunk.
With her wealth, she was able to hire several defense attorneys, who first introduced several motions to delay arraignment and a preliminary hearing because of her hospitalization, but also under the argument that forcing these procedural matters could lead to her death. Her team quickly built up an argument that claimed, among other things, that there was another car that forced Pantages to hit other cars prior to the accident, that Rokumoto made his left turn without signaling, and that his death was due to a nitrous oxide anesthetic given to him before a procedure in the hospital for a broken pelvis and hip.
In an echo of incidents pertaining to the future proceedings against her husband, including the strange tale discussed in yesterday’s post, William McGee, a bail bondsman and former deputy sheriff, was arrested and faced charges of telling a police lieutenant that “there was plenty of dough on the line” if the officer forgot some of his coroner’s inquest testimony, including a statement about Lois’ presumed intoxication. Alexander Pantages, naturally, denied he had anything to do with McGee. Separately, witness Harry Ledebrink told the court he’d received two phone calls, with one warning him not to testify and the other to leave town during the trial. This latter was similar to calls Eunice Pringle’s father received during the case against Alexander Pantages. Finally, the firebrand Reverend Robert “Fighting Bob” Shuler, a prominent radio preacher, was convicted of contempt of court and got 30 days for alleging corruption by Alexander Pantages in his wife’s case and later published a blistering pamphlet in defense of Eunice Pringle.
It was at the end of July that the preliminary hearing before a Municipal Court judge was finally held and Pantages appeared in a wheelchair. It was quickly determined that there was enough evidence to try her and a date in the Superior Court before Judge Carlos S. Hardy was set for early September. Her trial lasted much of the month and included her taking the stand in her own defense, not usually a recommended strategy as the prosecution has the obvious burden of proving its case.
Pantages was trembling with tears in her eyes as she denied she’d been drinking, though admitted she “scraped” a few cars prior to hitting Rokumoto (one witness and his pair of passengers confirmed this.) She reiterated that he made an improper left turn in front of her and there was no way she could stop or swerve enough to forestall a collision. She explained her veering out of her lane by claiming another car honked its horn (its driver denied in testimony that he crowded her and said she passed him and drifted out of her lane just before the crash, though he noted Rokumoto did not signal before starting his left turn) and startled her and averred that “I pulled my steering wheel as hard as I could” to avoid hitting Rokumoto’s vehicle.
Prior to that, as she was several blocks south on Western and Beverly, Ledebrink claimed he saw her car stall and that, as he approached the vehicle and offered to help get it restarted, Pantages launched “an avalanche of abusive language” and drove away. He also stated that he smelled whiskey on her breath. She countered that she merely stopped to let out her passenger, but left quickly because of the “go” sign (there weren’t signals then) at the intersection.
This dovetailed with preliminary hearing testimony, where a driver said Pantages barely avoided hitting a vehicle and then hit a parked car but kept driving while he followed while it swerved through traffic, though he lost here when he had to stop at a red light. Meanwhile, a police officer testified that “her breath was alcoholic” and that he considered her inebriated and that she was tart with him about wanting to go home instead of a hospital and then, at that facility, saying she didn’t want to speak with the police, she wanted to talk to Alexander.
The photo of Carmen came after she took the stand, though all the 20-year old, “dressed in the height of fashion,” could really offer was that, when she visited her mother at a hospital after the accident, she could tell that her mother was not nor had been intoxicated, though this seems hardly important given that she was not a witness to the incident at hand. She showed a little quick wit when she informed the court that she fainted when visiting her mother and, as a prosecutor asked how long the fit lasted, she retorted, “I don’t know, because I didn’t time myself.” Carmen’s fiancee, United Artists Studios manager and producer John W. Considine, Jr., also testified that Lois was not drunk when he visited her with Carmen.
Meanwhile, a parade of nurses and doctors were brought in to testify over whether Rokumoto died directly from the injuries he suffered or from the anesthetic administered to him. Defense witnesses claimed that the victim dreaded surgery and anesthesia and said he wanted to be taken to a Japanese hospital, though a Japanese doctor present at the operation testified that Rokumoto knew he needed the procedure and was calm about it. The county’s autopsy surgeon opined that death was due to shock from the operation, but consequent of the injuries inflicted in the accident. While prosecutors sought to exclude this question, Judge Hardy allowed that the defense could argue the matter. It is also notable that there were several defense witnesses who admitted to prosecutors that they had been in contact with Alexander Pantages or the defense attorneys prior to appearing at court.
In any case, there were initial schisms within the jury, with a few wanting to acquit and those remaining somewhat split on whether the conviction should have been for second degree murder, as charged, or a lesser finding of manslaughter. Two male jurors were, it was reported, ready to come to blows over that difference, but, it was added, shook hands and agreed not to air this conflict publicly. When it came time to file into the courtroom of Judge Carlos Hardy, the fact that faces were grim and the five female jurors had reddened eyes from crying, it was obvious what the verdict would be.
The clerk intoned the verdict of guilty on the manslaughter charge and Pantages, already reported as shaken, ashy-faced, and prone to poor health, was said to be so distraught that she had to be all but carried out of the courtroom and was reported to be near death’s door in following days. Facing one to ten years at San Quentin, it was argued vigorously by her counsel that her poor health could not stand the strain, so Hardy agreed to give her ten years probation with the caveat that a $78,000 payment be given by her husband to the Rokumotos and others involve in the tragedy.
That early November sentencing featured Hardy giving several reasons for his action, including that most evidence did not show she was intoxicated; that she’d agreed to the cash settlement; that she “had led a Christian life” and worked in welfare causes while not having committed a felony previously; that her health was such that a stint in San Quentin “virtually would be a death sentence, despite the fact that she was convicted only of manslaughter;” and, finally, the circumstances showed “she is entitled to probation” while “the fact that she has wealth and position should not discriminate against her.”
The ten years of probation included stipulations that she not be allowed to drink (Prohibition was, however, still in effect) or to drive. When it came time for Alexander to write out a check, it was “with shaking hands,” and the payment was made to the Rokumoto’s attorney, William G. Bonelli, recently a city council member and who represented the family in civil cases introduced against Pantages (Bonelli went on to a notorious career.) A separate Superior Court Judge was present for the transfer of funds and “questioned each of the Japanese carefully” concerning “their willingness to settle,” and was assured that “all agreed to the terms” providing the eight civil suits were withdrawn.
District Attorney Buron Fitts, who prosecuted both Pantages cases, was not particularly happy with the granting of probation and pointedly referred Hardy to a recent case in which he denied probation to a young woman, obviously not wealthy, who was convicted of driving intoxicated. He also asked if Hardy would have done the same if the defendant had been Rokumoto, though whether this was raised as a class as opposed to an ethnic question, was not explained.
For his part, the judge insisted that “in granting her probation I am ignoring, totally, the fact that she is a woman of wealth and position” and intoned that “I believe that the same justice should be given those who live east of Main street as those who live west of Main street.” Moreover, though he cited conflicting testimony about her purported inebriation, Hardy claimed “if I felt that the defendant would survive imprisonment, I would hesitatingly give it.” It is to be pointed out that the probation officer, Ellen Ladico, “recommended probation with a County Jail sentence to be imposed as one of the conditions.”
Even still, Pantages was on probation for only about a year when, just before Christmas 1930 and after intense lobbying by her and supporters, the Times reported that “Mrs. Pantages’s Stigma Erased” as Judge Hardy “terminated her ten years’ probation agreement” and then “restored the case to the calendar, entered a plea of not guilty for the defendant and then ordered it dismissed.” This reversed her conviction and, unless she was to be found guilty of another felony, “she will assume the status of never having been convicted of a felony.” If she was to face a lesser charge, “the manslaughter case will be considered as a prior conviction under the law.”
Fitts was livid and told the paper “it is a disgusting episode, a travesty on justice in Los Angeles county.” He denounced Hardy’s reasons as “so flimsy they are sickening.” He cited the expenses incurred by the county in her prosecution and noted that she was duly convicted and given probation “which served adequately the ends of justice.”
For her part, Pantages wrote that she had abided by all of the conditions of her probation, but was also under “great mental anguish” during her husband’s trial and conviction, rendered at the end of 1929 and which he was appealing to the state supreme court.” Moreover, this hindered her recovery from injuries incurred in the accident and her doctors ordered that she leave the area so she could properly recover her health and have a full-time nurse. It so happened that her son, Rodney, was getting married and her accompanying him and his bridge on their honeymoon (!) would do the trick.
Not only would this be a boon to her health, but it would remove the “stigma” attached to her and, strangely, allow her children and daughter-in-law to “mingle in society in Los Angeles without being embarrassed by reason of my misfortune.” She also argued that her one year of probation, though Hardy admitted that most cases like this involved those who served at least half of theirs, showed she had paid her debt to society. The judge, however, noted that he “made an exception in view of her record” with the probation office and “because of her precarious physical condition.”
While she declined to comment on her stroke of good fortune, Alexander did express to the Times her gratification at the news and stated that, while there was no wedding date set, his wife fully intended to join their son and his fiancée on their honeymoon, possibly to Europe and Asia. Alexander secured a new trial, with his attorney allowed by a change in precedent to use Eunice Pringle’s personal life, or what was alleged to be, as part of the defense. The result of the second trial was an acquittal.
Alexander Pantages died a few years later and Lois followed in 1941 at age 57 when, after a swim, she had a heart attack on her yacht anchored off Avalon at Santa Catalina Island. As for the Rokumotos, there were no holiday presents for them in the aftermath of the tragic death of Juro and certainly no yacht to sail in or mansion to which they could go. The question of whether justice was served may best be answered by Buron Fitts in his bitter invective after Hardy’s revocation of probation and dismissal of her conviction.