Captain Harold Davis of the Oceanside Police Department kept several scrapbooks in which he placed newspaper clippings, letters, and photographs, some of which were graphic in nature. Throughout these books, he wrote personal notes and memories about a particular crime or accident, or about a fellow officer he enjoyed working with in his long career.
Included in the many pages of one scrapbook were two mugshots of a Thomas Happel, along with two newspaper articles from the local newspaper. In his photos, Happel does not appear to be a hardened criminal, but he may just be one of the few, if not only person, to successfully escape from the Oceanside jail.
On September 25, 1951, Motorcycle Officer Hubert C. Russell spotted what he thought was a suspicious vehicle at a local service station. He noted a small corner window of the car was broken, and then noticed two teenage girls seated inside the vehicle while a young man talked outside with an attendant. A closer inspection of the car revealed keys that were broken off in the door locks and as the officer peered inside, “a jumble of blankets, clothing and other items.
With the likelihood of the car being stolen, Russell made contact with the driver, Thomas Happel, and instructed him to follow him to the police station. Happel seemingly complied and drove dutifully the few blocks to the Oceanside Police Department, then located at 305 North Nevada Street.
After pulling into the parking lot, Officer Russell waited for Happel to park, but instead Happel put his car into drive and sped away. Happel traveled north on Freeman Street with Russell in pursuit, joined by fellow Officer Paul Ricotta. As he attempted to make a left turn at Eighth Street (now Neptune) and make his way to Highway 101, Happel ran off the road and hit a house. Unhurt all three occupants of the car emerged and fled on foot. An unidentified Marine witnessed the trio running, followed by two uniformed officers, and took action, heading off Happel and bringing him down “with a flying tackle.”
After taking Happel into custody, Oceanside Police discovered that Thomas Happel was an 18-year-old Air Force private who had gone “AWOL” from Lowery Fareli Field in Denver, Colorado. Walking away from his duty station, he stole a 1950 Ford and drove to his home state of Maryland, some nearly 1700 miles away. In Brooklyn, Maryland Happel picked up the two girls, ages 15 and 16, and obtained Maryland license plates for the stolen car, using a “phony registration slip.” Then the trio drove headed west, driving across the country while Happel cashed or wrote bad checks to pay for gas and food. Just before coming to California, Happel stole two wheels and tires in Arizona.
The girls were never publicly identified because of their age, and were taken to the Anthony House in San Diego and then returned to their parents in Maryland.
Happel was booked and placed into a cell in the Oceanside jail, which was located on the second floor of the police station. That same night Happel escaped from his cell by breaking a bar off the grating of a roof ventilator and squeezing through a narrow opening. The Oceanside Blade Tribune described the scene: “The opening he made at one end of the grating was about seven inches wide and 10 inches long. Happel is about 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 130 pounds. The bar which he broke was not one of the original ones in the grating but had been welded on the cross-pieces after a similar escape attempt was once made through the opening.”
The account went on to say that “Happel must have had help from other prisoners in the cell block in order to get up to the ceiling and work the bar loose. When he had the piece of steel free, he used it to force the next bar over enough to get through.”
With Happel’s escape his list of charges continued to grow and the F.B.I. were now involved. On the run, Happel stole another car, a Cadillac, which he abandoned in Fontana, California. He apparently stole yet a third vehicle and made his way east.
Three weeks later the Oceanside Police Department received word that Happel had been apprehended by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and was in custody in Oklahoma City. The fugitive was caught after a traffic accident at Woodward, Oklahoma and apparently tired of running, admitted his identity to law enforcement.
It was reported that Happel would be made to return to Oceanside to face charges, including felony escape, but it seems he managed to “escape” extradition and perhaps served his time elsewhere. Thomas Happel, it appears, gave up his brief stint as an outlaw and went on to live a presumably quiet life in south Florida.
The scrapbooks of Harold Davis hold many more stories waiting to be told…
On a quiet summer night off a dirt road in northeast Oceanside, California laid the body of Marine Staff Sergeant Carlo G. Troiani. He had been shot twice, once in the back and once in the neck. As he lay dead or dying, tire marks on his lower legs suggest he had been run over by a vehicle.
Troiani, who served his country in Vietnam, was killed, not by a foreign enemy but by one he would have considered a brother, a fellow Marine. The Marine Corps motto is Semper Fidelis or Semper Fi for short, Latin for “always faithful”. But unfaithfulness would result in Carlo Troiani’s death. His murder was orchestrated by his wife of five years.
On August 10, 1984, Laura Troiani had lured her husband to a remote area under the pretense of car trouble. When her husband dutifully came to her aid in the middle of the night, she waited for her plan to unfold. As Carlo pulled off North River Road to help his wife, Laura tapped her brake light. This was a prompt that signaled two Marines who were in hiding to step out and to ambush Carlo. One of the Marines, later identified as Mark J. Schulz, shot the defenseless man in the back.
After being shot Carlo cried out to his wife, “Laura, I’ve been hit!” Laura watched impassively from her car as the scene played out. There was no attempt to save her husband, no attempt to help or abort the mission. She watched the Marines grab Carlo as he instinctively tried to find cover and crawl under the vehicle. They pulled him by his legs and shot Carlo again, this time in the neck with the bullet exiting his face as he collapsed. Laura watched it all. Her husband, the father of her children, was dead.
Laura and the two Marines, Russell Harrison and Mark Schulz then drove to a 7-11 convenience store on Vandegrift Boulevard where three other Marines, Russell Sanders, Kevin Watkins and Jeffrey Mizner, were waiting with Laura’s two small children. This woman who had coldly masterminded the murder of her own husband and watched him die, had left her two young children, ages 5 and 2, in the care of two men who had helped plan the murder of their father. Two little ones any caring mother would have safely tucked in bed hours ago, were instead left with strangers at midnight standing in front of a convenience store. The children, too young to know what was happening, had no idea they would never see their daddy again.
After her murderous plot was accomplished Laura took her children to a friend’s house to spend the night — instead of taking them home where they belonged. It was just before 1 am in the morning. She told Annabelle Thompson that she was coming home from a Tupperware party and had a flat tire. This story is simply inconceivable — what was she doing at a Tupperware party in the middle of the night with her children? But lies came easy to Laura Troiani. It did not matter to her that the story made no sense. It only mattered to her that she was free to do as she pleased. By dropping her children off, she was free of her children, and free of Carlo forever.
Annabelle watched as Laura hopped on the back of a motorcycle driven by a “Marine-type.” They took the same dark and winding route on North River Road where the murder occurred. On the way to Vista they passed by the lifeless body of Carlo Troiani. Another route could have been taken but the two callously drove past the murder scene, perhaps satisfied with their deed.
After Laura returned to her apartment she picked up the phone and called police, feigning concern for her husband who she claimed did not come home as expected. She called police twice more. Then Laura called her husband’s friend Marty Gunter saying that she had a premonition that Carlo was in danger. She called him three additional times in less than an hour.
Meanwhile, the Oceanside Police Department had been alerted by a passerby who had discovered the body of Carlo Troiani. John Brohamer, Jr. was the first Oceanside Police Officer to arrive at the murder scene at 3 am. He found Carlo Troiani face down in the dirt in a pool of blood. The engine of his Ford Mustang was still running with the headlights on, piercing through the darkness. Detective Ed Jacobs was notified and upon arrival he initiated the criminal investigation.
Detective Jacobs said in an interview that it was a “good crime scene” because it was done in a remote area and had therefore been left in pristine condition. As they waited for the sun to rise, nothing had been disturbed. Shoe prints left in the dirt, along with tire tracks were noted. These matched Laura’s 1968 Ford Galaxy which was found by police. It had a flat tire after being hit but a bullet from the same gun that killed Carlo.
It did not take long for Laura to be visited by Detectives Jacobs and Bob George. They went to her Vista apartment at 8 am. When advised of Carlo’s death, Laura did not seem at all surprised, nor did she exhibit any grief or sadness. She was taken to the police station for questioning and she would never leave their custody.
After a lengthy interrogation and numerous false stories, Laura Troiani would eventually confess and name her co-conspirators.
The Detectives also conducted interviews of the neighbors in the apartment complex where the Troiani’s lived, who confirmed Laura’s plan was to have her husband killed. They reported to police that she had solicited a number of men in recent weeks to accomplish the deadly task and there were at least two failed prior attempts.
Oceanside Police Sergeant Ron Call drove to Camp Margarita aboard the military base. The Marines were put in formation, then identified one by one, and eventually taken into police custody.
Police apprehended and arrested five young Marines, all under the age of 21, with the murder of Staff Sergeant Carlo Troiani. They were with H&S Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, Camp Pendleton: Russell E. Sanders, 20, Kevin W. Watkins, 18, Mark J. Schulz, 19, Jeffrey T. Mizner, 20, and Russell A. Harrison, 19.
These Marines called themselves “The Gremlins,” after the movie Gremlins, which had just been released that summer, two months before the murder, about creatures that “transform into small, destructive, evil monsters.”
Laura Ann Cox was born in Los Angeles, California in the summer of 1961. By all accounts hers was not a happy childhood. She was a neglected child, raised by a mother who was described as self-involved and slovenly, spending hours watching daytime television and reading romance novels rather than tending to her three children. Without the love and proper care of a mother, the children were left to themselves, and as result, were poorly dressed, disheveled and dirty. Due to a lack of proper personal hygiene, Laura and her siblings were seen as outcasts at both school and church.
The family moved to Washington State where Laura would grow up. Laura’s parents separated when she was seven years old and divorced about three years later. She remembered it as a turning point in her life. Just two years after the divorce, Laura’s mother Catherine remarried in 1973. The marriage offered little stability in Laura’s life. Her mother was inattentive and labeled as a hypochondriac, caring more for herself than her family.
If her mother was a poor example of a parental figure, Laura’s biological father was no better. Lawrence J. Cox was described as angry and had a drinking problem. He was sent to prison for attempted murder after he shot at a neighbor.
Laura had a brief relationship with an unnamed man and became pregnant at the age of 17. Apparently the biological father was quickly out of the picture and Laura found herself alone. She met and married Carlo Troiani who told her he was willing to raise her unborn baby as his own. In Carlo, Laura found the security she never had.
Carlo Grant Troiani was 15 years older than Laura, born in 1947 in Seattle, Washington. His marriage to Laura was his third, and he had two children, one from each of his previous marriages.
Carlo was in the Navy, serving in Viet Nam in the late 1960s. He was released from the Navy and joined the Marine Reserves and later enlisted in the Marine Corps. Carlo was a Marine Recruiter in Tacoma, Washington from 1976 to 1979. His supervisor recalled that he was one of the “proudest individual in the Marine Corps” he had ever met, he loved being a Marine and worked “aggressively” as a recruiter to meet his quota and prove his worth.
Carlo and Laura were married August 3, 1979 in Pierce, Washington. It was a Marine Corps “full dress” wedding with Marines in their dress blues. After the ceremony, Laura and Carlo walked underneath an arch of swords, where a group of six to eight Marines stand on either side to create an arch as if to “shelter the bride” as she and the groom walk out.
Laura gave birth to a son and shortly thereafter, Carlo Troiani was sent to Orange County, California as a Marine Corps Recruiter. In 1982 Laura gave birth to another child, a daughter. Eventually Carlo Troiani was stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Assigned to H&S Battalion, 1st Force Service Support Group (1st FSSG), he was a military police or “MP”. The couple got an apartment in Vista on Foothill Drive.
Infidelity and Murder Plots
Laura Troiani may have found security in her marriage to Carlo but she did not find happiness. She was continually unfaithful. It was even reported that she had slept with her husband’s best man (before or after) their wedding. Carlo knew of her infidelities and was angry. However, he sought to salvage his marriage and the two attended marriage counseling in the spring and summer of 1984.
James Bondell, family and marriage counselor, would later describe Laura Troiani as a manipulator and a “hard person” who “tormented” her husband. The Troiani’s attended 20 sessions from April through July, wherein Bondell also noted that “Laura Troiani teased her husband by withholding sex from him, was the dominant force in their relationship and was otherwise ‘ambivalent’ about marital problems the couple was experiencing.” He also noted that Laura complained that Carlo wanted her to “stay home and be with him.” This statement would suggest that Carlo was aware, at least to some extent, of Laura’s extracurricular activities.
Despite Carlo’s attempts to save his marriage, Laura’s presence at the sessions seems disingenuous at best. Carlo was sent to Korea and while gone, Laura threw a party over Memorial Day weekend. There she met Darryl Nelson and was intimate with him that very day. During the two month affair, she asked Nelson if he knew anyone that could “do a hit” on her husband. When he asked Laura about simply getting a divorce, she replied in the negative, complaining that she would then have to get a job and take care of her children, which was apparently out of the question.
Jessie Montgomery, a Gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corps attended a party thrown by Laura and noticed that Laura Troiani and a man emerged from her bedroom. Montgomery was then informed that Laura only married Carlo for security and that “the marriage was one of convenience.” Troiani spoke to Montgomery about getting rid of Carlo and even stated that she knew someone who would “put a contract out on him.”
Over this same weekend Laura talked to Kevin Manwarren and Bill Fenley, unambiguously telling them she wanted her husband dead. Manwarren, who would later claim to be joking, offered to kill Carlo Troiani for $5,000, to which Laura quickly offered: “Well, I can take care of it out of the insurance proceeds.” (Carlo had two policies that totaled $95,000.) Laura then followed up their conversation with several phone calls to Manwarren, anxious to elaborate on a plan to have her husband killed. He demurred.
Annabelle Thompson recalled that Laura had also told her that she knew a person in Tustin, California who would “take care” of Carlo and that he was “worth more dead.”
It appears that many of the men Laura encountered thought that she was joking and did not take her seriously, but she continued searching and sleeping with potential would-be assassins. None seemed willing to commit murder for her.
In July of 1984 Kim Hartmann moved into the apartment complex in which the Troiani’s lived. The two women met and Laura wasted no time by complaining to Hartmann about Carlo and that she wanted him killed. Hartmann said Laura talked about it constantly. Laura also told Hartmann that Carlo, keenly aware of her unhappiness, offered Laura a divorce, a way out, and said that he would pay her rent and child support. But Laura would not be dissuaded. She wanted Carlo’s insurance money and for that he had to die.
On July 19th Hartmann went with Laura to an E-club (Enlisted club) on Camp Pendleton. There Laura met Jeffrey Mizner for the first time and was introduced to the other Marines who eventually would be the accomplices to Carlo’s murder, including the triggerman Mark Schulz. Hartmann would later testify that Laura kept bringing up the subject of having her husband killed, even though she had just met them. Laura was unapologetically, unabashedly, out to have Carlo murdered and she apparently did care about first impressions.
It is significant to point out that in conversations with Kim Hartmann, someone she felt close enough to tell about wanting her husband murdered, Laura Troiani did not allege or assert to her that she was being abused by Carlo. Hate and money were her given motives. In marriage counseling, even when she attended one-on-one sessions without Carlo, she never complained of abuse of any kind, only that Carlo had a “yelling problem.”
Laura, was not one to be weighed down by marriage vows or motherhood. Her own son related his memories about their relationship: “I do remember a lot of her, actually, even at a young age. I remember she had Carlo crying one night in the bedroom. I remember she would just take off with whoever the boyfriend was at the time.” When asked if he remembered any abuse between his mother and stepfather, Chris replied: “As far as the abuse, no, none, not that I can remember. Honestly, seemed like they were never together, very rarely.” He added, “The abuse was more about neglect, [leaving] a 5 year-old to fend for himself. She was at the clubs doing it up. In no way was she a mother.”
The Marines began to plot with Laura Troiani, as the ringleader, the killing of Carlo Troiani. Mark Schulz told other Marines in his company that he had been “hired to waste someone” and was recruiting anyone else that might be interested in helping with the deed, adding their cut would be $500 to $600. Schulz along with Russell Harrison, Jeff Mizner, and Russell Sanders began to solicit information on how to kill someone, which including poison, making a bomb and using a firearm.
For several days in a row, Laura would take her two children and drive 35 miles each way to the remote base camp to visit with the Marines at Camp Margarita so that they could discuss their “options.”
August 3, 1984 was the occasion of the Troiani’s fifth wedding anniversary. Carlo, oblivious to the fact that his bride was planning to have him killed, toasted his wife that evening.
The First Attempt
On the night of August 6, 1984, Laura and Kim Hartmann went to the E-Club at Camp Margarita aboard the military base. There Laura plotted with the Marines to kill Carlo (This group included Kevin Watkins). All of whom seemed eager to carry out the plot. Harrison and Schulz had weapons, a knife and a gun, which they put into Laura’s car. They then traveled to the Del Mar Club, located near the beach of Camp Pendleton. At the club the conversation of killing Carlo continued. This was no fantasy talk or mere joking. The group planned to carry out the plot that night. Harrison suggested that the Marines “jump” Carlo at his car, attack and kill him with a knife, rather than attract attention with a gunshot.
Laura and Kim Hartmann were dropped off at a market in order to call Carlo and tell him that Laura’s car had broken down. She told Carlo that she was stranded in Carlsbad with their children. But exactly where were the children on a Monday evening, if not with her or Carlo? Like her own mother, it seemed she had no instinctual love and care for her children.
Hartmann claims that she tried to keep Laura from going through with her plans, saying it wasn’t too late and that she could still call Carlo back to keep him from being murdered by the Marines who were lying in wait. Laura’s reply was, “Nope, I got to get it over with.”
The Marines then hid in an area near Carlo’s vehicle, waiting for him to come out of his apartment. However, because his car was nearly out of gas, Carlo had called his friend Corporal Marty Gunter, to come and take him to look for Laura. Ambushing Carlo alone was not feasible and the group was unable to fulfill their deadly plan.
Carlo and Marty diligently searched for Laura and the children for four hours, to no avail. (This was before the convenience of cell phones.) Unsuccessful in their search, Marty dropped Carlo back at his apartment building.
When Laura discovered the plan to kill her husband did not go through, she was furious. She told the Marines that she “couldn’t stand it” and that it had to be done that night. Russell Harrison volunteered to go up to the Troiani apartment and to slit Carlo’s throat. Laura gave him the key. However sinister and bloody this particular scenario would have been, it is believed it was abandoned altogether as the group was spotted, likely by an apartment resident.
The Second Attempt
While the group did not want to be seen that night by outsiders, it was an open secret that Laura and the Marines were seeking to murder Carlo as they spoke about it openly to several people. The following day, Jeffrey Mizner told Robert Guerrero, a fellow Marine, about his “girlfriend Laura”, and that she was trying to get someone to kill her husband. Mizner asked his roommate “how to blow up a car by running a wire from the sparkplug to the carburetor.”
Apparently, this was now the chosen method of murder. Russell Sanders shared a story with yet another Marine how they had “practiced” by attaching a wire to the sparkplug of Kevin Watkin’s motorcycle and hooked the other to a mouse to electrocute it. They watched it die.
Satisfied that a similar technique would also kill Carlo, his vehicle was rigged with the wire from the sparkplug placed into the gas tank of his truck. The attempt failed and did not detonate. In fact, Carlo found the device and removed it. Marines in his unit remembered him laughing about it, thinking it was a harmless prank by one of them.
Jeff Mizner then complained to Marine Joseph Hickman that the sparkplug scheme did not work. Mizner even said that he had lost sleep over the failure and the plan was now just to shoot Carlo Troiani.
With at least two thwarted murder attempts, on August 9, 1984, Laura Troiani would not be denied. Mark Schulz borrowed a .357 pistol from David Schenne on the pretense of doing some target practice. That same day Laura went to the local Kmart (at the time located next to the Oceanside Police Station) to purchase bullets for the weapon and the group laid out their final lethal plan.
That evening between 8 and 9 pm, Laura went to the apartment of Diane and Randy Gray with her two children. Soon after Mizner, Harrison, Sanders, Schulz and Watkins arrived. The group huddled together, whispering their plots and because the Gray’s were concerned about the secretive behavior, asked what was going on. Sanders replied, “Never mind, we don’t want you to get involved further.”
The group left the apartment with Jeffrey Mizner riding on the back of Watkins’ motorcycle and Laura, Schulz, Harrison and Sanders, along with Laura’s two children, drove away in her car. The group pulled up to a 7-11 on Vandegrift Boulevard (which leads to the rear gate of Camp Pendleton).
Sanders and Watkins called Carlo Troiani, presumably as “good Samaritans”, to tell him that his wife’s car was broken down and they directed Carlo to a remote location on North River Road.
Meanwhile, Carlo had called Stephanie Howard, a friend of Laura’s, to ask if she knew where Laura and the children were. He was genuinely concerned for his wife, while she was getting ready to have him killed.
Laura, along with Russell Harrison and Mark Schulz, drove to the location they had chosen for their ambush to wait for Carlo, a dirt turnoff on North River Road, three miles east of Vandegrift Boulevard.
A clerk back at the 7-11 reported seeing two small children with at least one Marine (Jeffrey Mizner) standing outside near the ice machine. They were there for 45 minutes. Waiting … in the middle of the night …. while Laura completed her plan to have her husband killed.
Laura Troiani would describe herself as helpless to stop the murder of her husband, an event she had longed for, recruited for, and set in motion. As he was shot by Mark Schulz with bullets purchased by Laura, Carlo’s last words were to her, a cry for help. But rather than help him, she left her husband for dead by the side of that dark road.
After the murder, the trio drove west on North River Road back to the 7-11. The clerk there reported seeing a vehicle drive up with a flat tire. One of the men came into the store to buy a can of tire inflator and once the tire was sufficiently inflated the group departed.
The murder of Carlo Troiani was the last case Detective Ed Jacobs worked on before he retired from the Oceanside Police Department. After investigating the murder scene, he and his partner Bob George went to the Troiani apartment to speak with Laura the morning that Carlo’s body was discovered.
Detective George went through Laura’s car which had been impounded. He found evidence that Laura had purchased bullets at Kmart and interviewed the clerk, who specifically remembered Laura because he had given her wad-cutter bullets, commonly used for target shooting, and she insisted on lead caliber bullets.
Laura Troiani was taken to the police station for “routine questioning.” During the interview Jacobs said that Laura remained calm and was not visibly upset when told about her husband’s murder.
One of the first stories Laura Troiani told investigators was that she and her two children were abducted by three men who forced her to call her husband to lure him out to North River Road. She said she was separated from her children, and after Carlo was murdered, was taken to be reunited with them and warned not to tell anyone or that she would be killed.
Detective Jacobs and George listened as Laura then changed her story and said that she was at Kmart when five men on two motorcycles abducted her. When detectives questioned the veracity of that story and asked how five men were on just two motorcycles, Laura simply said, “I don’t know.”
Yet another story that Laura offered was that she and the children were driving around all day after Carlo said he wanted a divorce. She ran out of gas and then discovered she had a flat tire. Two strangers on motorcycles came to her rescue, one drove her and children to the babysitter’s house (Anna Thompson), and then one took her to her Vista apartment. When asked by detectives if she was worried at all by these strangers giving her a ride in the middle of the night, Laura replied, “No”, because she was “a good judge of character.”
Laura’s next defense strategy was her unfaithfulness. “Why would I want to have my husband shot? Sure, we had marital problems. Sure, I was having affairs on the side,” Laura told investigators. “I was having a ball, being married and fooling around.”
Detective Jacobs said that Laura Troiani never mentioned any abuse by her husband in the lengthy interrogation that spanned over nearly 12 hours. She eventually confessed and gave up the names of the Marines, who were all stationed in the same unit.
During a phone call while Laura was being held in jail, she told Marty Gunter that her husband had “suffered not more than two to three minutes” the night he was murdered. She thought her comments would come across as reassuring and compassionate but only served to further expose her lack of remorse and coldness.
Meanwhile Laura’s co-conspirators were bragging about Carlo’s murder to their fellow Marines on base. After taken into custody at the Vista Detention Center, Mark Schulz told a fellow cellmate about the murder, including that Carlo Troiani had begged for his life before being fatally shot.
Three years after Carlo’s murder, the murder trial of Laura Troiani began in the San Diego Superior Court, North County, located in Vista. She was the first woman in San Diego County to face the death penalty in California in 25 years.
Laura not only succeeded in having her husband murdered, her attorneys now went about destroying his character. Her defense team would portray Carlo Troiani as controlling, angry, having a drinking problem and being physically abusive.
But before the defense had its turn, District Attorney Paul Pfingst would send a myriad of witnesses to the stand, including the Troiani’s marriage counselor, who would testify that it was Laura, not Carlo, who controlled the family. Far from being fearful of an abusive husband, it was Carlo who “was in fear of [Laura’s] moods.” The counselor added, that Carlo “walked on eggshells most of the time, not wanting to upset her [because] she would become very mean to him.” While Laura gave her affections away to numerous men, Carlo was ignored. “He had a wonderful day if he got a kiss or she put her arm around him,” the counselor testified.
When asked if Laura Troiani was a “fragile” woman desperate for her husband’s approval for her self-worth, the counselor replied, “No. She didn’t need it because she was pretty much in control of the relationship.”
Stephanie Howard, who knew Laura since 1981, testified that Carlo Troiani loved his wife and was trying to improve his marriage. She went on to testify that Laura had Carlo “wrapped around her little finger. She’d be a cold fish one minute, and then when she wanted something (from him), she’d warm up.”
Howard also told the jury that Laura openly admitted to her that she “had more than one boyfriend.” More damningly, Laura told her “she wanted to hire someone to kill” Carlo and that “she wanted to make sure he was not in her life again.” In response, Howard said she tried to talk Laura out of it and suggested a divorce, but Laura would hear none of it.
Leeca Smardon, manager of the Foothills apartment complex, testified that Laura expressed to her that was not happy about Carlo returning from Korea. She reported that Laura told her, “I wish he’d never come back. That would make me happier.” Smardon added, “When Carlo was home, I never heard any screaming, shouting or disputes from their apartment. When he went to Korea, there was a lot of traffic into the apartment, and it was mainly males.”
Kmart employee Richard Deem testified to the fact that it was Laura, accompanied by a male, who purchased the bullets that killed Carlo. He remembered the event because there was a “price mix-up” and particularly noted Laura’s demeanor that day. “She was forceful and rude.” He said, “I was behind the counter, and the male asked for ammo, I believe for a .38 special. I was uncertain about what they wanted because there are different types of ammo.” Laura told the young clerk, “I want 158 grain (the weight of the bullets).”
“She was very specific about it,” Deem testified. “She knew what she wanted. I felt it wasn’t good to make her wait. I thought she was in a hurry and didn’t want to waste time.” The bullets that Laura demanded were high-powered ammunition, rather than something typically used for target practice.
Despite the testimony of others to the contrary, Laura’s defense attorney, Geraldine Russell described her as an “impressionable, simple young girl who was used by others looking for thrills.” She contended Laura was being abused by Carlo and had no way of escape. The defense portrayed Carlo Troiani as an “overbearing and obnoxious husband who cowed his wife into submission.”
Catherine Lewtas, Laura’s mother, testified for the defense and stated that while she witnessed Carlo being verbally abusive to Laura, she did not witness any physical abuse.
But even when interrogated for hours by police, Laura did not claim Carlo abused her. Instead Laura said she was perfectly happy being married to Carlo, all the while being unfaithful to him. She gave several scenarios as to how she was a kidnapping victim, but none on how she was the victim of domestic abuse.
Sergeant Ron Call was the supervisor on the Troiani case and he said that at no time during questioning did Laura Troaini bring up spousal abuse. He also said that Laura was neither upset nor emotional over the death of her husband.
A psychiatrist hired by the defense said that Laura was not capable of being manipulative and that rather than being a neglectful mother, Laura was so depressed that she had “trouble getting up and getting dressed and caring for her children.” Another expert witness dismissed the idea that Laura was a so-called “black widow” and put all the blame on the men, arguing that “organized violence is virtually a male monopoly.”
Anna Thompson, Laura’s friend who often watched her children, testified that she witnessed Carlo kick Laura when she did not change one of the children’s diapers. But she also said she had seen Laura hit her husband, and said that Laura would refuse to cook or clean and gave Carlo the “silent treatment” when she didn’t get her way. “Laura had control,” Thompson insisted.
The prosecution called over 45 witnesses, most of whom testified that Laura Troiani did not want to be married and that she “openly plotted” in the “company of others” to have her husband killed.
While presenting their defense, and closing arguments, the defense team claimed that Carlo’s murder was not orchestrated by Laura, but the Marines themselves. Laura was depicted as abused, vulnerable and helpless and that Laura’s codefendants alone were responsible for killing Carlo Troiani.
One of the last things presented to the jury by the prosecutor was the recording made by the Oceanside Police Department. The jury listened intently to the recording, as Laura concocted story after story, variations of different scenarios. And then finally, after hours of interrogation, Laura told detectives that she had in fact plotted, planned and agreed to pay at least two of the Marines to kill Carlo. As the courtroom listened to the recording, Laura Troiani sat emotionless at her own word as she described the murder of her husband, “half crawling, half staggering” before he was shot a second time, in the back of the head.
On August 26, 1987 Laura Troiani was found guilty of first degree murder after the jury deliberated over a two day period. Her trial was one of the longest and most expensive court cases in San Diego County history. She would now face the death penalty.
At her sentencing hearing, Laura’s father testified on her behalf. Lawrence Cox said that Laura was raised in a filthy home by a neglectful mother who had “the mentality of a six year old.” In some respects he could have been describing Laura, who reflected many of the same character flaws, especially when it came to motherhood. Cox said that while he was in the military he always worried that his children were not getting fed or clothed properly and that his wife “couldn’t cope with responsibility.”
After he and his wife separated he helped to move them into a new apartment. He said he had to hose out the refrigerator that it stunk so bad. He added that the apartment was filled with both human and animal waste.
Others took the stand to testify to the fact that Laura’s childhood was horrible, as if that were the cause or justification for Carlo’s murder. Laura cried for herself as she listened to their testimony, but she did not shed tears for Carlo.
In the end Laura Troiani was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life without parole. She was sent to the California Institute for Women in Chino, California.
On December 17, 1987 Jeffrey Thomas Mizner pled guilty to first-degree murder. In doing so he avoided the possibility of a death sentence or life in prison without parole.
Twenty year old Jeffrey Mizner knew Laura Troiani just three weeks, and yet he was willing to plot to have her husband killed. Laura told him that Carlo was molesting their two children. There was never any evidence to suggest such a thing and likely Laura made the statement solely to gain sympathy and then outrage, hoping to garner Mizner’s support and cause him to act on her behalf. When asked why he or Laura did not simply report the alleged abuse to authorities, Mizner answered, “She wanted him dead, and we went with it.” Laura also told Jeffrey that her two children were not Carlo’s biologically. Was her second child a result of an affair, or was Laura lying? It is anyone’s guess because she did both prolifically.
Jeffrey Mizner would later tell the parole board in his case that he never slept with Laura Troiani, and that his sole motive in the killing of Carlo was to protect the children from his alleged abuse. Shortly before the murder, Mizner found out that Laura had turned her affections to Russell Harrison, and was sleeping with him instead.
Russell Sanders pled guilty to murder in 1988 and was sentenced to 25 years.
Russell Harrison pled guilty to first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in 1988 and was sentenced to 26 years.
Kevin Watkins, whose trial was moved to Ventura County, was acquitted.
Mark Schulz (sometimes spelled Schultz) was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
A Second Chance
In December of 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown commuted Laura Troiani’s life sentence, saying that she had been rehabilitated. While this commutation did not release her, it gave her the chance for parole.
During a hearing held on June 21, 2019, Laura was asked what exactly she did that landed her in prison. Her response: “Prior to the actual brutal murder of Carlo Troiani, my spouse, I had put into motion several incidences leading up to Carlo being murdered. I was the mastermind. I was the one who utilized by codefendants as a tool and a means to, um, to, um, to murder Carlo.”
While she was willing to admit to being the mastermind of her husband’s murder, Laura seemed to shirk responsibility as her hearing continued. When asked about details and organizing discussions of Carlo murder, she started to backtrack and minimize her role as “mastermind” saying, “I did not organize [them], sir. They were — they — we were at a club or in a parking lot and discussion would — would come about. We’d go from normal discussion and that — and that would come about. Did I bring that up? I did not always bring it up. No sir.”
When asked about purchasing bullets at Kmart, she referred to the shooting of Carlo as “target practice” saying, “Initially it was to — to use the bullets for target practice, but in essence it was to use Carlo as the target. In other words, to murder him.”
In describing the murder, she placed responsibility on the Marines rather than her role: “They, uh, form — a plan was formulated that we would — we ended up leaving the children and three of the codefendants down at a 7-11, the car — three of us went up on a deserted rural road where a phone call from below had been made letting Carlo know that I was in distress and that I would be found in this area.“
Presiding Commissioner Castro: And did you drive up to that area?
Inmate Troiani: I did not drive. No sir. Nor did I drive leaving. I was not the one driving that night.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: Did you go voluntarily?
Inmate Troiani: Yes, sir, I did.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: And did you remain in the car?
Inmate Troiani: Yes, sir, I did.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: How long did you remain there until Carlo got there?
Inmate Troiani: I honestly don’t know how long it was while I sat in the —
Presiding Commissioner Castro: Can you give me an estimate?
Inmate Troiani: Um, no more than twenty minutes.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: What happened when Carlo got there?
Inmate Troiani: Carlo left his car running. He walked over to where I was sitting in the passenger’s side, tapped on the window, and asked me if I was okay and then the bullets started flying.
When asked what happened next, Laura describes the shooter as a stranger in hiding, rather than a person she planned the murder with and drove her to the scene: “I witnessed what looked like a very large man running out of a bush toward Carlo firing a gun. Carlo went down and within 20 seconds we were leaving the — you know, we were leaving where Carlo was.” (She couldn’t bring herself to say the crime or murder scene.)
Laura was asked if she did anything else to accomplish the murder and only stated, “I was physically there.”
The parole commissioner continued to press her: “Okay. How did you convince them? You said you hit upon their training, but usually they’re trained to kill other combatants. This is very different than what they’re trained for. How did you convince them to participate in a murder?”
Inmate Troiani: “I was seen as a damsel in distress,” Laura answered, “And I played upon — I played upon that.”
Presiding Commissioner Castro: That’s why you think they got involved?
Inmate Troiani: I’m not sure why they got involved. I only know that they did.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: Just helping you out?
Inmate Troiani: Yes, sir.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: So what’s in it for them? Anything?
Inmate Troiani: I didn’t recall this at the time, but I know it happened that they had hopes of receiving insurance money?
Presiding Commissioner Castro: How would they know about insurance money?
Inmate Troiani: Being in the military, you automatically sign up for a policy.
When asked why the Marines would think they were entitled to Carlo’s life insurance proceeds, Laura denied she offered insurance proceeds, but only agreed to pay them when they asked, saying, “Because I was asked to give them some money from the insurance policy.“
Laura then went on to deflect responsibility of Carlo’s murder by saying that she was in a disassociated state.
The Mayo Clinic describe this disorder: Dissociative disorders are mental disorders that involve experiencing a disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions and identity. People with dissociative disorders escape reality in ways that are involuntary and unhealthy and cause problems with functioning in everyday life. Dissociative disorders usually develop as a reaction to trauma and help keep difficult memories at bay. Symptoms — ranging from amnesia to alternate identities — depend in part on the type of dissociative disorder you have. Times of stress can temporarily worsen symptoms, making them more obvious.
Inmate Troiani: I continue to remove myself by going into my head when the consequences were too great. I had distorted thinking and then there was the childhood abuse, which brought about the distorted thinking and the disassociation.
Presiding Commissioner Castro asked, “What do you mean by disassociation?
Inmate Troiani: I would go into my head and come up with a different fantasy type scenario.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: What was the role in your — in your crime specifically?
Inmate Troiani: In the crime itself?
Presiding Commissioner Castro: Yeah.
Inmate Troiani: While I was sitting there waiting in the car for Carlo, that’s exactly what I did. I put myself in a whole different scenario.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: Okay, when you’re having the conversations, planning these different plans, were you in a disa — dissociative state at this point?
Inmate Troiani: At times, yes, sir.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: When you called Carlo asking him to come help you, so that he would leave the apartment, when you made that call, where you in a disassociated state?
Inmate Troiani: No until after I made the phone call, sir.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: Report says that you gave keys to Mr. Harrison.
Inmate Troiani: Yes, sir. I did.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: Were you in a disassociated state when you gave him the keys?
Inmate Troiani: No, sir. I was not.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: You made admissions to the police, correct?
Inmate Troiani: I do not recall exactly what I said because I said so many different stories.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: There were different versions and they said that you had made some admissions about being involved in the murder. Were you in a dissociative state when you talked to the police after the crime?
Inmate Troiani: Yes, I was.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: When you’re buying the bullets are you in a dissociative state?
Inmate Troiani: I was in denial.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: When you’re being driven up to the location where he was killed, were you in a disassociated state?
Inmate Troiani: No, sir. I was not thinking about what was going on. I was actually not thinking at all.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: Okay. So you said the abuse, domestic violence, hopelessness, disassociation, distorted thinking, your childhood trauma. Any other reason why you decided to kill Carlo?
Inmate Troiani: I wanted the abuse to stop.
Presiding Commissioner Castro: Okay. Was the insurance money part of your motivation?
Inmate Troiani: Initially, no.
When questioned by Deputy Commissioner Lam, he asked why she didn’t try to stop the Marines from murdering her husband.
Laura answered, “When Carlo tapped on the window, before I could have even said anything, the bullets began to fly. There was not any time to say anything, think or anything else. So had the opportunity been there, I would’ve said something.”
Of course, Laura had time to say something. On the way to Kmart she could have aborted the plan and not purchased the bullets used to kill Carlo. She was the only one old enough to purchase them. On the way to 7-11 to drop off her children, she could have turned around. While on the five minute drive to the scene of the ambush she could have called it off.
For the twenty minutes it took Carlo to arrive, she could have stopped it. Even if the two Marines who were with her were hell-bent on executing their plan, when they exited her vehicle, she could have driven away, leaving them there. Carlo, looking for Laura’s car, would have driven by instead of being ambushed.
Certainly, she might have even been able to warn Carlo before he opened his car door. Lastly, she could have called the police to report the murder of her husband, if in fact she was a pawn in a murder scheme.
But she did none of those things.
Incredulous to her answers, Deputy Commissioner Lam asked, “May I ask why your version of what happened to the clinician only two months ago was so vastly different from the version today?”
Laura answered, “At the time I spoke with the psychologist, I was still in denial. I was not seeing my — how my actions were the — what led — what was — what was feeding this. How — how I was the one who was the mastermind and I was unable to say that and acknowledge to myself. Therefore I wasn’t able to even speak about it at that time. Since then I have been looking within myself and in my denial management class I am able to see that I — I was in complete denial. I rationalized, I minimized and I blamed.“
Then, just moments later, Laura again denied any knowledge about the murder plot saying, “I may have been the one that initiated it. I do not recall.“
The panel was not swayed by her insincerity and empty words. After listening to Laura fail to take responsibility for her role in Carlo Troiani’s death, the Parole Board denied her release.
However, on July 10, 2020, the prison’s Administrative Review Board approved an advancement of Troiani’s next parole suitability hearing date (at her request). Rather than having to wait three years, her next hearing is scheduled for January 22, 2021.
While Laura sits in prison, Jeffrey Mizner was released in 2013 at the age of 50. Russell Sanders and Russell Harrison have presumably been released as well as there is no record of them in the California Department of Corrections. Mark Schulz, who shot Carlo Troiani, is currently serving life in a private prison in Arizona.
Some may question why Laura Troiani would serve life without parole when she did not even pull the trigger. But it should be remembered that while these Marines helped plan, plot and carry out the murder of Carlo Troiani, it was Laura Ann Troiani who went looking for an assassin. It was she who solicited a number of men to kill her husband even before she met Jeffrey Mizner and his friends.
It was Laura Troiani who brought up the killing of her husband to the group — they were not looking for someone to murder — it was Laura who was looking for a killer.
It was Laura Troiani who gave an apartment key to Russell Harrison so that he could enter the apartment with the intent to kill Carlo.
It was Laura Troiani who purchased the bullets used to kill her husband. She even demanded the type of bullets with which he would be killed.
It was Laura Troiani who tapped the brake lights when Carlo pulled up on the place of his execution. Tragically it was for Laura her husband called out to when he was shot.
It was Laura Troiani who pretended concern for her husband and called police but who could not conjure up grief or remorse when told he was dead.
Laura Troiani, who only cried for herself, now presents herself as an abused wife and has fully embraced that role. While there was no testimony or evidence presented to suggest that she was ever abused by Carlo Troiani, she has continued to assassinate his character even while he has been dead for over 35 years.
And just like the Marines who she was able to persuade and manipulate, she successfully convinced the Governor of California that she was “a damsel in distress” (her words) and to commute her life sentence, declaring her “rehabilitated.”
In January of 2021 Laura Troiani faced the parole board but she again skirted responsibility for Carlo’s murder and continued the alleged abuse stories by her husband, as if to say Carlo deserved to be killed on that dark desolate road.
The panel was not persuaded and manipulated, as were her co-conspirators. She was denied parole based on her lack of insight, minimization of her role in the crime, and denial of certain aspects of the crime. She will not be eligible for parole for another three years, although she may petition the parole board for advancement of hearing.
Will Laura Troiani ever accept responsibility for the brutal, cold and calculating murder of Carlo Troiani? Or will she continue to present herself as the victim?
Kristi S. Hawthorne, historiesandmysteries.blog “Unfaithful, The Murder of Staff Sergeant Carlo Troiani”, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent and written permission from the author and owner is strictly prohibited. Links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author Kristi S. Hawthorne and historiesandmysteries.blog “Unfaithful, The Murder of Staff Sergeant Carlo Troiani”, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Harold Davis joined the Oceanside Police Department in 1930. His law enforcement career spanned over two decades. Davis was acting Police Chief six times before retiring in 1955 as Captain.
Davis was a collector of all types of memorabilia. Some of his most important and valuable items were three scrapbooks that he compiled of photos and articles of incidents, accidents and arrests during his time with the Oceanside Police Department. He chronicled his career, as well as those of his fellow officers. The newspaper articles he clipped and pasted in his books ranged from petty theft to murder. The numerous photos Davis saved were mostly traffic accidents, but also included graphic crime scenes.
In one of the scrapbooks, Davis cut and pasted a mugshot of Billy Blake Johnson along with a newspaper article and a typewritten index card with some details about Johnson’s criminal exploits. Just who was Billy Blake Johnson and why did Captain Davis include him in his collection? I wanted to find out…
Billy Blake Johnson was born December 3, 1933 in Ladonia, Texas. He was the son of Emmett and Edna Jewel Johnson. Emmett and Edna divorced when Billy was a young boy. By 1940 his father remarried and the family moved to Kern County, California where Emmett worked as a truck driver.
Nothing further is known about Billy’s growing up years, but in 1951 he joined the Marine Corps and was stationed at Camp Pendleton. His military career would be short-lived. In January of 1952, PFC Billy Blake Johnson was being held in the Camp Pendleton Brig for robbery.
On January 18, 1952 Johnson was able to open his cell door with the aid of a screwdriver he had somehow acquired. He then overtook a guard along with his firearm. Now armed with a weapon Johnson commandeered a car belonging to Captain George Atkin and made his way off the military base, headed to Los Angeles.
An “All Points Bulletin” was released and eventually two LAPD officers, L. K. Waggoner and G. L. Ward spotted the stolen vehicle occupied by Johnson. The Los Angeles Mirror reported that when ordered out of the car Johnson came out shooting, and shouted “This is it!” Officers returned fire but Johnson was able to escape injury and he jumped several fences before he was eventually taken into custody.
After his capture in Los Angeles, Johnson was returned to the brig at Camp Pendleton. He was sentenced to five years for burglary and theft, among other charges. He sat in his cell for several months likely contemplating his next move, when on a Saturday in late June of 1952 he escaped once again.
This time he had an accomplice, Bobby G. Davis, who had enlisted in the Marine Corps a year prior. The two made their getaway at 3:30 am in a green 1952 Chevrolet convertible with Texas plates. It was reported that the two were “armed and known to be dangerous.” No details were given as to how they had managed to escape the military brig, but they were apprehended a week later in Ehrenberg, Arizona.
After yet a third escape, and subsequent capture, Billy Blake Johnson eventually served his time and was paroled. But his years in lock up did nothing to rehabilitate him.
In January 1962 Johnson went to a service station in Haltom City, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth. He bought $3.43 worth of gas and then pulled a gun on the attendant and said, “Act right or I’ll kill you.” Johnson then took $100 from the cash register and forced Hilleary Beck into the car with him. Beck tried to fight off Johnson in the vehicle but was further threatened with the firearm.
After driving about a mile, Johnson ordered Beck out of the car and into a ditch and told him to lie down. Johnson drove away while Beck went to call authorities.
Law enforcement spotted Johnson and pursued him, with both parties firing wildly. Police set up a barricade on Highway 377 and while Johnson approached Denton, Texas Patrolman A. C. Ballard “leveled down on it with a sawed-off shotgun and blew off one of its tires.”
The car went out of control, rolled over and landed upright in a ditch. Johnson somehow managed to escape serious injury and the scene, which resulted in a large manhunt. He was eventually captured on a ranch in Denton County, Texas. While in custody Billy told the arresting officers that he had “escaped three times from military prisons and had served time in four civilian prisons.”
He was treated at a hospital for minor injuries and taken to jail in Tarrant County. Johnson went to trial for his criminal escapades but was found to be insane by a jury. (There was no explanation provided as to their conclusion.)
Billy’s criminal career did not end there. In 1964 Johnson went to the Bonham, Texas jail for the sole purpose of breaking out inmate Walter Ray Crews. The federal parolee was armed with a gun and overtook a guard. He forced the jailer Ed Fulcher to release Crews and the two men fled.
The pair made their way some 35 miles southeast to Commerce, Texas where they stole a car. They then drove over 300 miles to Fort Polk, Louisiana. While stopped on the side of the road, a state trooper pulled over to check on the two. Johnson robbed the trooper, Jerry E. Raines, at gunpoint and handcuffed him to a tree with his own handcuffs. Crews and Johnson returned to their stolen car and sped off headed north. The trooper was able to free himself with a spare key and alerted authorities. The duo was caught by an armed roadblock near Leesville, Louisiana.
Johnson was sentenced fifteen years and sent to the notorious Angola Prison in Louisiana, sometimes referred to as the “Alcatraz of the South”. The prison is bordered on three sides by swamp land and the Mississippi River. Conditions were so harsh and inmates so violent that that it had the reputation as “the bloodiest prison in the South”.
However, even a formidable institution such as Angola could not contain Billy Blake Johnson.
On February 22, 1969, Johnson and two other inmates armed with knives and a pistol, overpowered guards in two separate dormitories. The guards were locked in a closet while the escapees cut the power of the main prison.
Kester Lee Hall, serving 189 years for murder, was captured just outside the prison. But Johnson, along with Philip Hudgins, had managed to avoid capture … but they did not make it far. Authorities closed in on the two fugitives who were found in the swamp that surrounded the prison.
Billy Blake Johnson, however, had made his last escape. Overtaken by the waters of the “backed up” Mississippi, Johnson could not battle his way through the swamp. Hudgins tried to assist him and even carried Johnson for several hundred yards until he realized Billy was no longer breathing. He propped up the body of his fellow inmate against a fence and waited while guards closed in. Exhausted, Hudgins surrendered to law enforcement. (Hudgins would be released from prison in 1981. In 1983 he took a butcher knife and slashed the throat of his wife and stabbed two others.)
Billy Blake Johnson was buried in the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Ladonia, Texas. Although a cold, calculating and elusive criminal, his mother still loved him. His headstone was engraved with the simple epitaph “Son.”
One quiet night in Oceanside, California a senseless murder was committed with no apparent motive or suspects. Days after the murder, someone claiming to be the killer called local police with an ominous threat that resulted in armed gunmen protecting city busses for several nights in anticipation of another death. But as shocking as it was, the incident slowly faded into obscurity and the murder went unsolved. The case was in fact forgotten about altogether until in 2017 when I stumbled upon a newspaper article while doing research on an unrelated subject. As I continued research on the murder I collected dozens of newspaper articles and discovered that the case had never been solved. I then contacted the Oceanside Police Department who directed me to their Cold Case Detective.
The Murder of Ray Davis
On the evening of April 9, 1962, the Oceanside Police Department received an anonymous telephone call. The unidentified caller stated cryptically: “I am going to pull something here in Oceanside and you will never be able to figure it out.” The call was likely dismissed…until two nights later on April 11th, when a body was discovered and the caller contacted the police again.
Patrolman Terry Stephens discovered the lifeless body of Ray Davis in an alley in the upscale beachside neighborhood of St. Malo at 1:45 am. The night of the murder, Stephens had not yet turned 28 years old, but was already a seasoned police officer. Born in 1934 in Escondido Stephens was raised in Oceanside where he lived nearly all of his life. At the age of 21 he joined the Oceanside Police Department and served on the force for 31 years before he retired.
The victim, Ray Davis was just 29 years old, a native of Michigan. Ray was estranged from his wife Marion, whom he had married in 1953 in Owosso, Michigan. At the time of Ray’s murder she was living in Pomona with two children from a previous marriage.
Ray and his brother Jack had moved to Oceanside in January of 1962. Oceanside had a population of less than 25,000. Jack got a job working at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Ray as a cabdriver for the Checker Cab Company. The brothers were renting a house at 525 South Tremont Street.
Ray Davis was working an evening shift, his cab parked on Mission Avenue in downtown. At 11:10 pm he reported to his dispatcher Lowell Sikes that he was driving a fare to South Oceanside. He never returned or responded to subsequent radio calls.
Ray’s body had been dumped in the alley behind 1926 South Pacific Street, the home of Oceanside’s former Mayor Joe MacDonald. Across the street was the home of Oceanside’s current Mayor Erwin Sklar. This was not a neighborhood familiar with violent crime, let alone murder. (Note: Few people realize that St. Malo does not begin behind its iconic gated archway, but also includes the 1900 block of South Pacific Street.)
Davis had been shot once in the back, through the driver’s seat, and once in the back of the head. His assailant unceremoniously pulled him out of the cab and drove away. Robbery did not appear to be a motive as Davis had a modest amount of cash in both his wallet and shirt pocket.
The bloodied cab was discovered at 6:30 am, left in the alley of the 400 block of South Pacific Street with its meter showing a $2.20 fare. On scene Detective Don Brown found a third shot had been fired through the windshield of the taxi.
On the front seat of the abandoned cab was a paperback novel, “Dance With the Dead.” Written in 1960 by Richard S. Prather, it featured a private detective who solved crimes, all the while encountering scantily clad women…very campy stuff.
Davis was taken to the Seaside Mortuary at 802 South Pacific Street where an autopsy was performed by L. H. Fairchild of the San Diego County Coroner’s Office. Two .22 caliber bullets were removed and given to Oceanside Police Detective Floyd R. Flowers.
The following day, April 12th, both the Oceanside Blade Tribune and San Diego Union Tribune newspapers reported the murder along with the fact that police had no motive or suspect. The story of Ray’s murder was also published in several Southern California newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. In Ray’s home state of Michigan, at least three newspapers reported the murder of Ray Davis. No mention was made of the mysterious phone call of April 9 as the Oceanside Police Department had not released that information.
Funeral services for Ray Davis were held at the Oceanside Church of God on April 13th. He was buried in a plot located in the “Sunset Slope” at Eternal Hills Memorial Park. Virginia Davis, his bereaved mother, flew from Michigan to Oceanside for the services.
On April 16th the Oceanside Police Department disclosed to the public that an unknown person had called them on April 9th with a veiled threat that they now linked to the murder of Ray Davis. The second phone call came with a frightening warning.
Police Chief William H. Wingard described the caller as a possible “deranged killer” and released the contents of the call: “Do you remember me calling you last week and telling you that I was going to pull a real baffling crime? I killed the cab driver and I am going to get me a bus driver next.”
Who, but the original caller, would have known about the initial message? Who would taunt the police in such a way?
This threat was not taken lightly, considering the unknown caller seemed to have made good on his last one. Chief Wingard stated: “We have no reason to disbelieve the calls.”
In response to the threat, the Oceanside Police Department took measures to protect all city busses and armed military police were put on each bus going aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. The newspaper reported that Frank Lilly, Oceanside’s City Manager gave Oscar Hatle, Bus Superintendent “blanket authority to take whatever steps necessary.” The unusual aspects of the murder and the unprecedented response of armed guards were big news. The story was widely distributed by the Associated Press and United Press International.
Three days passed without incident. Guards were removed from the busses, but on so-called “lonely routes” the bus company assigned two drivers. Oscar Hatle commented: “The situation still exists. We are taking no unnecessary chances.”
The police had no motive and scant evidence. They were desperate to solve the murder. Several people were questioned and released. One reported suspect was a fellow cabdriver, Charles Schofield, but the accusation had no foundation.
On May of 1962 an arrest was made of four Marines for armed robbery, but neither their prints nor ballistics matched. Another armed robbery suspect was arrested in November but again, the fingerprints were not a match.
The murder was all but forgotten about except for the Davis family. Years passed, then decades. Ray’s brother Jack died in 1990. Ray’s mother died in 1995 and was buried at Eternal Hills Memorial Park. Ray had no biological children. After the death of his brother and mother there was no one left to remember.
Work of the Zodiac?
It is only speculative, but it is still worth noting that seven years after Ray Davis’s murder, a killer known as the Zodiac would mimic the same deadly scenario. In 1969 he shot and killed a taxi driver in San Francisco, contacted police taking credit for it and then threatened to target a bus, in this instance one full of children.
The Zodiac killed his victims in a variety of ways and weapons, including a .22 caliber gun (as in the murder of Ray Davis). It is believed that the Zodiac may have been in the military. It is now surmised that one of his first victims may have been Cheri Jo Bates, who was murdered in Riverside, California in 1966. While there are several theories surrounding Zodiac, is it too far-fetched to believe that perhaps he started his killing spree in Oceanside?
Many serial killers are known to taunt or toy with police and certainly this was the case with Ray’s murderer. Serial killers taunt because they crave the attention, they want the notoriety and many times they are convinced of their own superiority over law enforcement.
Theories and conjecture aside, to this day the murder of Ray Davis remains unsolved. It is likely the killer is dead … even if he was just 25 years of age in 1962, he would be 83 years old in 2020. Many of the police officers and detectives who worked so diligently to try to solve the case and protect the residents of Oceanside have passed. However, Roy K. Smith, a retired police captain, remembers the case as he was working the morning watch the night of the murder.
I first brought this case to the attention of Tom Heritage, a semi-retired law enforcement officer working part time in the Oceanside Police Department’s Cold Case files. Soon after his brief review of the file, Heritage permanently retired and moved out of the area. Detective Sylvia Guzman O’Brien then headed the department and she took a more thorough look into the unsolved murder.
In December of 2019 Detective O’Brien sent the latent fingerprint cards collected at the scene for entry into the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). The Oceanside Police Department has kept silent about those results.
There may be DNA evidence. The murderer pulled Davis’ lifeless body out of the front seat of the cab by his belt loop but it is unknown if the evidence is sufficient to create a profile.
Detective O’Brien retired in 2021 and it is unclear if anyone is actively working this murder which is now 60 years old. The Oceanside Police Department solved a 27-year-old case in February of 2022, the stabbing death of Dolores Rabaya in 1994.
Regardless if there is a tie or link to the Zodiac killings, Ray Davis still deserves justice. Even if the killer has since died, perhaps this case could be solved through ancestral DNA forensics.
Kristi S. Hawthorne, historiesandmysteries.blog “The Murder of Ray Davis”, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent and written permission from the author and owner is strictly prohibited. Links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author Kristi S. Hawthorne and historiesandmysteries.blog “The Murder of Ray Davis”, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.