A Hollywood Whodunnit – The Murder of Johnny Stompanato

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29th April 2020  •  7 min read

Lana Turner achieved stardom as a pin-up model & actress. In the 1940s, she was one of MGM’s biggest stars & highest earners. Despite her glamorous career, Lana suffered horrid abuse at the hands of her mobster partner, Johnny Stompanato. Then in 1958, Johnny was murdered &Lana's teenage daughter confessed to stabbing him... but was…


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On Wednesday 26th March 1958 the RKO Pantages Theater hosted the 30th Annual Oscars Awards ceremony. It was a big night for Lana Turner who was nominated for the Best Actress award for her role in Peyton Place. The film had received 9 nominations, but sadly the evening was to end in professional disappointment and personal misery for Miss Turner. As she stepped out of her limo in Hollywood, looking every inch the star in her beautiful white lace dress, she had no idea what was to come and was full of optimism. By her side was a young awkward girl, her daughter by her second husband Steve Crane, who she had married bigamously in 1942, had the marriage annulled in 1943, remarried later in 1943 and divorced him within a year. No one paid much attention to the young girl that night, but within 12 days the whole world would know who Cheryl Crane was.

It’s safe to say that Cheryl had had a troubled upbringing with not much attention from her mother, who was always working and leading a glamorous lifestyle. By 1958 Lana had married and divorced 4 times and there were rumours of sexual abuse towards Cheryl from her last husband Lex Barker. Consequently from a young age Cheryl had spent most of her time with a series of nannies and live in helpers, plus her grandmother Mildred who was Lana’s mother.  Cheryl was a difficult child who had already ran away from school and been in trouble with the police by the time she attended the glittering awards ceremony that night in the spring of 1958.

 Lana had taken her daughter to the ceremony instead of her latest boyfriend Johnny Stompanato, who was a small-time gangster and hustler. Because of his reputation Lana could ill afford to be seen with him in public and in fact she had been trying to end her relationship with him at the time.

That evening, despite being nominated for 9 awards, sadly Peyton Place won nothing and Lana went home empty handed to the hotel suite she was staying in. Stompanato was waiting for her, in a foul mood because he hadn’t been on her arm at the star studded event. The two of them began to argue and Lana asked him to leave, which led to an enraged Stompanato slapping her around the room whilst yelling at the top of his voice. Cheryl, who was in an adjoining room heard it all and was terrified.

Lana, Johnny and Cheryl. Credit: Herald Examiner.

One week later on April 1st another fight broke out between the two of them at Mildred’s house, and this time Stompanato punched Lana in the face and threatened to cut her. Cheryl was once again a witness to this appalling behaviour. Lana told her daughter that she was desperate to get away from her boyfriend but she was too frightened of what he would do to her if she left him. Cheryl later said that it was on this occasion that Lana begged her for help.

On Good Friday 4th April, Lana and Johnny went shopping for household items for Lana’s new house that she had recently moved into. They arrived home at around 4pm to find that Del Armstrong, a long time friend was waiting to have drinks with them. He had brought along a man named Bill Brooks. For some reason Stompanato was annoyed by Brooks’ prescence and he left shortly after arriving at the house. Brooks subsequently revealed in conversation that he had known Stompanato in the past and made it known that Johnny had been lying about his age, and was in fact 6 years older than he had told Lana. For some reason Lana was enraged by what she perceived as his deception and she began to drink heavily, and when Stompanato returned later that evening to take her to the movies, she refused to go with him.

Another massive argument ensued, and upstairs in her room Cheryl turned up the volume on her TV to drown out the raised voices. The argument continued as the two of them went from room to room in the house, and at one point they burst into Cheryl’s room. Lana was yelling that she wanted Stompanato to leave and Cheryl heard him refuse over and over, saying ‘when I say hop, you’ll hop! When I say jump, you’ll jump!’

Lana begged Cheryl to go back to her room and she did so briefly, but the argument got louder and more violent. When she heard Stompanato say ‘ You’ll never get away from me. I’ll cut you good baby. You’ll never work again, and don’t think I won’t get your mother and kid’ , Cheryl was fearful for all their lives. At this point she went downstairs to the kitchen and picked up a 9 inch knife. She ran back upstairs where she later said she saw Stompanato behind her mother with his hand raised. Believing that he was about to strike Lana, Cheryl stepped past her mother and stabbed him with the knife. Stompanato took a few steps backwards, saying  ‘Oh my God Cheryl, what have you done?’

Lana rushed to his side and tried to help him, but within minutes he had died, the knife having pierced his aorta. In a panic, Lana had no idea what to do and eventually she called her mother Mildred. In turn, Mildred called the family doctor Dr MacDonald, who had already been involved in numerous Turner dramas, including her suicide attempt in 1951.

A police officer examining Johnny Stompanato’s body. Credit: Herald Examiner.

Dr Macdonald arrived and tried mouth to mouth as well as delivering a shot of adrenaline to the heart, but it soon became apparent that Johnny Stompanato was already dead. At this point the doctor advised Lana to call Jerry Geisler, the lawyer of choice for Hollywood stars in a messy situation. Meanwhile Cheryl had called her father Steve Crane and he arrived at the house just before the police and ambulance crew, along with a huge crowd of press and photographers. One reporter named Jim Bacon tricked his way into the house by pretending to be with the coroner’s office. As he entered the house he heard Lana talking to Police chief Clinton Anderson who was a personal friend of hers.

Bacon said that Lana was begging him to let her take the blame for the stabbing, but Anderson was having none of it. Besides that, Cheryl had already confessed to her father, saying ‘I did it Daddy, but I didn’t mean to. He was going to hurt Mommy. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to’. These words would be in all the papers the next day, as Hollywood read about the scandalous events of the night before.

Geisler took control of the situation at the house and soon left with Lana Steve and Cheryl to go to the Beverly Hills Police Station. There, Cheryl confessed to the killing and said she did it to protect her mother. Lana then spoke at length to Anderson, describing her relationship with Stompanato. She told of beatings, attempted suffocation, and his strangulation of her which had left her vocal chords ruined for days. He had also forced her to have sex with him at gunpoint in the preceding weeks. If she had hoped for preferential treatment due to their friendship she was mistaken. Chief Anderson ordered that Cheryl be detained on suspicion of murder, and she was led away to spend the night in a cell. For the 14 year old ‘starbaby’ this was the start of what she later described as her ‘detour through hell’

Cheryl was refused bail the next morning and she spent the next few days in Juvenile Hall. This was a shock to the system of a pampered teenager and she struggled in that environment. Meanwhile on the outside, Stompanato’s brother Carmine had arrived in town and was loudly accusing the police of doing a terrible job. It was around this time that whispers started circulating, speculating about  how a 14 year old girl had been capable of murdering a 173 pound ex marine with violent tendencies. More salacious rumours soon began to surface suggesting that Lana herself had killed Stompanato after finding him in bed with Cheryl. The murder weapon had been found in the sink of Lana’s ensuite bathroom, but interestingly there were no fingerprints on the handle of the knife, just a bloody smudge.

This revelation added fuel to the fire and kept the rumour mill working overtime. Stompanato’s family were also speaking to reporters and suggesting that there had been a long delay before an ambulance was called, and that Johnny could have been saved if Lana had acted more quickly. Gangland figure Mickey Cohen who had once employed Johnny as his bodyguard was also loudly claiming that Cheryl was taking the blame to protect her mother’s name and reputation in Hollywood. Some reporters and columnists turned against Lana, citing her chequered past and numerous husbands and lovers as proof of her loose morals, and generally tore her to shreds. Letters between her and Johnny were stolen and made public, in which she had alluded to the fact that she enjoyed a level of sado masochism. She also made reference to the fact that  his rough treatment of her was sometimes welcomed and that sometimes she found the whole thing exciting.

By the time the inquest opened on April 11th it was if Lana herself was on trial. She was centre stage and looked immaculate. Cheryl wasn’t in attendance and awaited her fate back in Juvenile Hall. Lana took the stand and Geisler took her through her testimony recounting the events of Good Friday. Lana was highly emotional,often pausing for dramatic effect and kept everyone spellbound with her evidence. Some people later remarked that it was indeed the performance of her life! Following Lana’s testimony there followed Police reports and Cheryl’s statement was read out in her absence. In just 25 minutes the jury by a majority of 10-2 returned the verdict of justifiable homicide.

Lana Turner testifying during her daughter’s trial. Credit: Getty Images.

Lana had already left the building and heard the verdict on the radio in the car on the way home. Cheryl heard the news in Juvenile Hall but was not released for her own safety. She stayed there for another 2 weeks until the hearing in Juvenile Court which would decide her future. There the judge found that she had had no proper parental guidance in her life , and made Cheryl a ward of court. At Cheryl’s own request custody was given to her grandmother Mildred. Sadly Cheryl would end up in both a reform school and a mental institution before she was 18 years old. There were also reports of a possible suicide attempt at around the same time.

As for Lana, her career saw a massive boost and her next movie was a box office success as she rode along on a wave of public sympathy. However, not everyone was convinced the jury returned the correct verdict. Carmine Stompanato said that the inquest was a fix and Mickey Cohen was quoted as saying that ‘as far as that jury was concerned, Johnny just walked too close to the knife’

Cheryl Crane is now 76 years old, happily married to her wife.  Over the years she worked as a model, in her father’s restaurant business, and as a real estate broker. She has also written her own story entitled Detour: A Hollywood Story in which she documents the events of Good Friday 1958.

Lana Turner died in 1995, and some people are still convinced that she persuaded her teenage daughter to confess to murder to save her reputation.


Sources:

LA Times

www.history101.com

Murderpedia

Detour: A Hollywood Story by Cheryl Crane

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Shelley
Shelley
30 days ago

I think it was definitely Cheryl and I don’t even blame her

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