“The most beautiful woman in Alaska” was bruised and bloody when she screamed for help in the early hours of October 17, 1953. Still crying, Diane Wells explained that two men had broken into the apartment, attacked her, and then shot husband Cecil – but police were soon suspicious of her story.
On October 17, 1953, police were called to the fashionable Northward Building in downtown Fairbanks, Alaska. Outside a double apartment on the top floor was the hysterical Diane Wells, 31, and in the bedroom was Cecil Wells, her 51-year-old husband, who had been shot in the head at close range.
Diane was taken to thehospital and Cecil to the Coroner, who concluded that he had been shot with a .380 pistol, probably a Beretta. In evidence were two casings that could be matched to the murder weapon – when they found it.
Searching the Wells’ apartment, police began to realize that things didn’t add up: the “stolen” jewelry and money was found, there was no sign of a forced entry, and why would thieves come all the way up to the 8th floor of an apartment building?
Witness statements from neighbors in the Northward Building spoke of often hearing screaming, crying and arguing in the Wells’ apartment, and it emerged that Diane had even called the local equivalent of child protective services – perhaps about their son Mark, 3, who was often heard crying too.
But when police got a tip a few days later that Diane was having an affair with Johnny Warren, a black musician who had left town the night of the murder, the focus of the investigation shifted.
Now the case became a media sensation. Not only was Cecil a successful and influential businessman, but in Jim Crow America, a married white woman and a married black man having an affair (or “intimate relations,” to use the language of the time) was explosively scandalous.
It was almost more shocking than the murder itself, and the case was covered in Life, Newsweek, Jet, and several of the pulp detective magazines, with coverage even reaching as far as England and Australia. For a crime that happened in Alaska to get such coverage in the Lower 48 states was very unusual too, since at the time Alaska was a largely-ignored US territory.
Johnny had innocently left Fairbanks in order to visit his sister in Oakland, California, but, guessing that his arrest was likely, he voluntarily spoke to police there and confirmed the affair. He even gave police love letters sent to him by Diane – letters that were in the FBI file, but were never made public.
After a secret grand jury in Fairbanks, Diane and Johnny were indicted for murder and arrest warrants were issued, but she stuck to her story about the home invasion, and utterly dismissed any talk of an affair with Johnny.
Even so, it seemed the media had made up its mind – as had many friends, locals and family members – about what had happened. The stunningly attractive Diane was obviously a gold digger from the start, and Johnny may have been seduced into a wicked scheme – and perhaps even pulled the trigger. Either way, she surely had to be guilty.
On getting bail, Diane took her son Mark and moved down to Los Angeles to stay with friends, hoping to lose herself among the millions of Angelenos.
But as the date of the trial got closer, the case began to have wider political implications. It had already caused the resignation of the Fairbanks Chief of Police, in part because of an apparently botched forensic investigation, but also because he had clashed with the ambitious new Fairbanks D.A.
More seriously, Alaska’s long campaign for statehood seemed to be in the balance. What kind of place was Alaska if someone important like Cecil Wells could be gunned down in his own home?
Down in Los Angeles, it was reported that Diane had written to friends saying she felt a conspiracy was underway to railroad her into a murder conviction.
She told the Los Angeles Herald-Express that “they don’t think there is any evidence against me,” and that “someone saw Johnny Warren leave our apartment house (the Northward Building) that night, but that’s all there is. Still, I’m afraid the District Attorney there isn’t going to let it go. It’s such a big case, he’s afraid to drop it.”
Already on antidepressants and fearing for the effect the trial would have on Mark, Diane’s mental state became a concern to her friends, especially William Colombany, a neighbor of Cecil and Diane’s who had given them ballroom dancing lessons. He had followed her to Los Angeles, and questions were soon being asked about their relationship, especially when a member of Fairbanks law enforcement referred to him as “The Third Suspect.”
I reexamine the case in new true crime book The Alaskan Blonde: Sex, Secrets, and the Hollywood Story that Shocked America, which is available on Amazon now.
Over five years I looked again at the FBI/police investigation, interviewed living family members, uncovered new evidence, and discovered twists and surprises that made it seem like the ultimate 1950s film noir – but there was so much more to it than that.
After generations of silence and secrets, I hope I have managed to find out what happened that night in October 1953 – and the reasons why.
About The Author:
Originally from London, James T. Bartlett has been living in Los Angeles since 2004.
As a travel and lifestyle journalist and historian, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, BBC, Los Angeles Magazine, ALTA California, High Life, Hemispheres, Westways, American Way, Atlas Obscura, The Guardian, Daily Mirror, Real Crime, Ripperologist Magazine, History Ireland, Bizarre and Variety, among others.
In 2012 he published Gourmet Ghosts – Los Angeles, an alternative guide to the history and ghost stories behind some of the city’s oldest bars, restaurants and hotels, while 2016’s Gourmet Ghosts 2 focused on true crimes that took place at more of L.A.’s notable locations and eateries.
The books led to lectures, events, book club hosting, and appearances on radio, podcasts, and television shows including Ghost Adventures and The UnXplained. You can find out more information at www.gourmetghosts.com and @gourmetghosts / #gourmetghosts
Much more information, pictures and documents about The Alaskan Blonde and the murder of Cecil Wells can be found at www.thealaskanblonde.com and on Instagram and Facebook @thealaskanblonde