Back in the ‘30s, the Jensen family of La Crescenta had big problems with their son Richard, nick-named “Red” because of his mop of curly red hair. The kid had a penchant for thievery, and starting at 6 years old, began a steady stream of burglaries and vandalism. Often caught at it, he was sent to various reform schools and homes for delinquents. Each time he was released, he’d begin his crimes again, so nonchalant that he’d even leave thank-you notes behind – “Thanks for the stuff” written in a child-like scrawl. By his pre-teens he was doing “hard time” in the crowded and brutal Whittier State School for Delinquents, spending much of his time in solitary confinement.
In the summer of 1939 at the age of 14, he was released back to his parents. For two months he seemed reformed – that is, until 13-year-old Billy Williams next door called him an “ex-con.”
On a hot August 22, Mrs. Jensen heard a whining noise she thought was the neighbor’s dog. She called out to Red, who was down in his basement “play-room.”
“What’s wrong with that dog?”
“He’s got some tacks in his mouth” was Red’s odd reply. When the whining turned into louder yowling coming from where Red was, Red’s mother tried the door-handle to the playroom, and found it locked.
“Don’t come in here,” Red called, but Mrs. Jensen demanded he open the door. He did, just a crack, and Mrs. Williams could see his face was splattered with blood.
“I just killed Billy Williams,” Red muttered.
Mrs. Jensen screamed and Red pushed past her and ran. Billy Williams lay inside dead, his skull crushed with a hammer, a copper wire twisted around his neck and stab wounds to his torso.
The police caught up with Red the next day, all the way down in Venice. He told investigators, “Nah, I ain’t sorry. He got what was coming to him.” They later found a hole dug in the back yard where Red had planned to cut up and bury the body.
Red Jensen was too young for the death penalty, but what could they do with him? He even told a reporter, “I’m the kind of guy who should be put away for life.”
He was simply warehoused in the prison system for a decade or so.
For those of you who think that the justice system is more lax today that it was then, in 1952, despite a murder conviction, three escape attempts and a history of prison troublemaking, he was declared no longer a menace and granted “supervised leaves.” He almost immediately went on a killing spree.
He rigged up an elaborate “automotive murder machine” in his car. Mounting a gun in the back seat facing the passenger seat, he rigged a wire from the trigger to a spot he could reach under the driver’s seat. He went cruising for victims. He nailed his first one, a 16-year-old hitchhiker who seemingly vanished, and was discovered only after Red confessed later.
His second victim, a Marine hitchhiking in the San Fernando area, was luckier. The remotely fired bullet struck one of the springs of the seat back, and whacked the Marine in the back. Stunned, he staggered out of the car, where Red attacked him with hammer blows to the head, stole his clothes, and before leaving, finished him off with a shotgun blast to the chest. Marines though are tough, and this one regained consciousness, and crawled bloody and naked for a mile to a residence where he was discovered. He survived to testify at Red’s trial.
Red again was matter-of-fact and cold about his crimes and this time there was no question about what to do with him. He was put to death in San Quentin’s gas chamber on Feb. 11, 1955.
Somewhere in La Crescenta there’s a little house with a basement that still looks just as it did in 1939, its occupants unaware of the cold-blooded murder that happened there.
Even in our peaceful neighborhoods, there’s a history of evil.