Forgotten precursors to Phil Spector.

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April 16 2009 7:39 PM

Spector's Forgotten Precursors

John Wilkes Booth was not, it turns out, the last celebrity to take a murder rap.

Rae Carruth. Click image to expand.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth

Writing earlier this week ("Jury Convicts Celebrity!"), I hypothesized that prior to Phil Spector's conviction for second-degree murder, you had to go back all the way to John Wilkes Booth to find a celebrity who'd been punished by the state for committing murder. I then invited readers to set me straight about whom I might be missing. I declared ineligible famous mobsters, terrorists, and assassins; anyone who became a celebrity as a result of murdering someone; socialites, who aren't quite the same thing as celebrities; children of celebrities (e.g., Cheryl Crane); and, of course, celebrities who were themselves murdered, a different category altogether. Readers nonetheless came up with two celebrity murderers of the 20th century whom I'd overlooked. Their names meant nothing to me, but they were celebrities and did (or are still doing) hard time.

Most frequently mentioned was Rae Carruth, a wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers who in November 1999 ordered the drive-by shooting of his girlfriend, Cherica "Cookie" Adams, then pregnant with his child. Adams, who managed to deliver the baby by Caesarean and live 30 days more before she died of gunshot wounds, told the police that Carruth had been driving in front of her and seemed to deliberately block her car while the shooter pulled up alongside her. Then Carruth tore away as Adams, with four bullets in her, dialed 911 on her cell phone. Here's what she told the dispatcher, as recorded in the 911 transcript:

A: I was following my baby's daddy, Rae Carruth the football player.
Q:
So you think he did it?
A:
He slowed down. And a car pulled up beside me.
Q:
And then shot at you?
A:
Yes.
Q:
Okay. What's that horn blowing?
A:
Me. Trying to get attention.
Q:
To get somebody to come out?
A.:
And before, and before we left, he called somebody from his house.

Cell phone records later showed Carruth was talking to the driver of the shooter's car moments before the shooter opened fire. The shooter copped a plea to avoid the death penalty and testified against Carruth at his trial; the driver testified against Carruth, too, saying Carruth had ordered the killing because he didn't want a child and felt Adams had tricked him into the pregnancy. In January 2001 a jury found Carruth not guilty of first-degree murder, thereby sparing him the death penalty. But it found Carruth guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced him to 24 years in prison.

Many readers also flagged bandleader and fiddle-player Spade Cooley, king of western swing, a blend of big-band and country music. Although he was real, Cooley—the only convicted murderer to have a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame—turns up repeatedly as a fictional character in the novels of L.A. noir writer James Ellroy. From 1948 to 1957 Cooley hosted a syndicated variety show called The Hoffman Hayride, broadcast live Saturday nights from a ballroom on Santa Monica Pier. Cooley was also a B-movie actor in Westerns. In 1961 Cooley, his career, finances, and physical health all in steep decline, went into a rage over his wife Ella Mae's alleged infidelity with Roy Rogers, whom Cooley would later call his "ex-best friend," and beat her to death while his 14-year-old daughter, Melody, looked on. (Rogers denied the affair.) At the trial, Melody gave eyewitness testimony against her father:

When I entered, he was on the phone. He was talking to his business partner and he said, "Don't call the police." He was real sweaty and he had blood spots on his pants. He put down the phone and said, "Come in here. I want you to see your mother. She's going to tell you something." He took hold of my arm and took me into the den. The shower was running in the bathroom. Mother was in the shower. He opened the door and said, "Get up. Melody's here. Talk to her." He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her into the den with both hands. She was undressed. He banged her head on the floor twice. He called her a slut. She couldn't move. She seemed unconscious. He turned back to mother and said, "We'll see if you're dead." Then he stomped her in the stomach with his left foot. He took a cigarette which he had been smoking and burned her twice.

Then, Melody said, Cooley picked up a gun, pointed it at her, and said, "You're going to watch me kill her, Melody. If you don't, I'll kill you, too. I'll kill us all." Cooley testified that Melody was lying but admitted, "Rockets ran through my brain when Elle Mae told me of her desire to join a free-love cult." Cooley was convicted of first-degree murder but avoided the death penalty because of his poor health. Instead, he received a life sentence. In 1969 the state parole board, at the prompting of Gov. Ronald Reagan, granted Cooley parole. Three months before it went into effect, Cooley was furloughed to perform at a police benefit in Oakland, Calif. He played three songs, received a standing ovation, walked offstage, and dropped dead from a massive heart attack.

Readers also alerted me to several gangsta rappers convicted on murder charges: Cool C (Christopher Roney), currently on death row for killing a police officer during a bank robbery; Steady B (Warren McGlone), now serving a life sentence in connection with the same murder; Big Lurch (Antron Singleton), currently serving two consecutive life sentences for killing and cannibalizing a female roommate while high on PCP; X-Raided (Anerae Brown), currently serving a 31-year sentence for the gang killing of a community activist; and Mac Minister (Andre Dow), currently serving a life sentence for killing two fellow musicians. C.-Murder (Corey Miller) was tried and convicted for killing a 16-year-old fan  but is now awaiting a retrial due to alleged prosecutorial misconduct. In at least some of these instances, it bears noting, true celebrity did not arrive until after these rappers established their authenticity through pathological acts of violence.

Other examples get progressively shakier.

Paul Kelly's moderately successful career as a Broadway actor during the 1910s and '20s was interrupted for two years, but not appreciably damaged, by his 1927 manslaughter conviction for killing Ray Raymond, a vaudevillian with the Ziegfeld Follies with whose wife, an actress named Dorothy Mackaye, Kelly was having an affair. Two years in the pen might seem insufficient for such a crime, but Kelly's culpability was a little murky. Raymond got drunk and confronted Kelly, the two men engaged in a fistfight, and Raymond died some days later from a brain hemorrhage. Raymond's alcoholism was judged a factor in his death. After Kelly's 1929 parole, he resumed his career on Broadway and in the movies, eventually winning a Tony in 1948 for his lead performance in Command Decision by William Wister Haines. Kelly later originated the role of Frank Elgin, the alcoholic actor at the center of Clifford Odets' well-known 1950 play The Country Girl.

Jim Gordon was the drummer for Eric Clapton's band Derek and the Dominos, and co-wrote Clapton's signature song "Layla." In June 1983 he attacked his mother with a hammer and a butcher knife and killed her. Later he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but because he stated that it is wrong to kill, he was not, under California law, able to plead insanity. He was convicted of second-degree murder and remains in prison. Gordon's documented schizophrenia and the dubious circumstances of his continued incarceration calls into question, I think, his suitability for this cavalcade of villains. An online petition urging Gordon's parole can be found here.

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a middleweight boxer, was convicted of triple murder. I had heard of Carter, of course, before a reader flagged his case to me. But Carter doesn't belong on this list at all because, as Bob Dylan made clear, it was "somethin' that he never done." The convictions were set aside in 1985.

[Update, April 17: Another borderline case is Tom Neal, a B-movie actor with a penchant for violence. Neal's acting career mostly ended  in 1951 after he broke actor Franchot Tone's nose and cheekbone in a fistfight over the affections of Barbara Payton, a starlet who would later suffer setbacks of her own and become a prostitute. Although Neal continued to act occasionally on TV, after his fight with Tone he was reduced to working as a restaurant night manager and eventually started a landscaping and gardening business. In 1965 Neal shot his third wife, Gale Bennett, in the back of the head and killed her. He beat the murder rap but was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served six years in prison. He died in 1972, one year after his release on parole. Today Neal is remembered mainly by cult fans of the 1945 low-budget noir film Detour.]

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.