Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Murder and Mayhem in the Crescenta Valley

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

“Murder and Mayhem in the Crescenta Valley” is the unlikely title of a new book, co-written by Gary Keyes and me. I say unlikely because CV is such a quiet, nice place – how could there have been murders here? Any community, no matter how nice, has its dark side and we in CV aren’t immune to the evil that lies just below the surface of any society.

The book is laid out chronologically, beginning with the brutal treatment of the local Indians, verging on genocide, and an attempted uprising at San Gabriel Mission, foiled by Jose Verdugo himself. Tuberculosis, called consumption in those days, was a leading cause of death in the early years of the valley as hundreds flocked here from the east for largely ineffective treatments and succumbed to a horrible lingering death.     As the valley developed in the teens and ’20s, we hear the story of a black man and his entanglement in corrupt local prohibition politics. His house was burned, he was persecuted and threatened until he snapped and shot a white man dead. La Crescenta wanted to lynch him, reminding us that in that era CV was a “whites only” town by law and the Ku Klux Klan was welcomed here.

We had our share of resident psychotic killers such as Red Jensen, a young boy who tortured one of his playmates to death. When released as an adult, he immediately began killing hitchhikers with an elaborate “automotive killing machine.” La Cañada’s Buelah Overell was the classic “poor little rich girl” with a sick twist. At 17, she and her loser boyfriend bludgeoned her parents to death on their yacht and then blew it up with dynamite. With a classic OJ Simpson-style courtroom defense, she beat the rap despite bloody clothes and bomb making material found in her boyfriend’s car.

The so-called “Rattlesnake Murder” also took place in our quiet valley. A professional widower who made his living cashing in on several dead wives’ life insurance unsuccessfully attempted to murder his latest wife with black widow spiders and rattlesnakes, finally resorting to drowning her in his backyard fishpond.                  Some killers just visited CV,  such as Bittaker and Norris, who tortured their victims to death on the fire roads above CV, and the Hillside Strangler who dumped a body on one of our quiet streets. Don’t forget – our own Angeles Crest Highway ranks as L.A.’s favorite murder dumpsite.

The book covers several unfortunate tragedies as well: teen suicides, accidental shootings by kids playing with loaded guns, drug deals and robberies gone bad, and plane crashes. The 210 Freeway bridge collapsed during construction, killing six workers, two of them entombed in cement. Some stories even inspire, such as the heroic story of a Montrose Search and Rescue team member who drowned while attempting a rescue.

All these tales and more make for great bedtime reading guaranteed to bring on nightmares. Gary Keyes and I relate the chilling stories that the local realtors never tell their clients, and that the chamber of commerce would rather forget.

Gary Keyes is a familiar figure to anyone who went to CV High. He was a history teacher there almost 40 years. In the ’70s, he was my history teacher and his stories of the darker side of human history added gasoline to my already blazing fascination with history. In more recent years, Gary and I put together the very popular “CV’s Dirty Laundry Tour” in which we led tour groups to some of the sites of various evil deeds in the valley. It was out of this tour that the idea for a book grew. When we put together our massive collection of material on murders, prostitution, moonshining, racial prejudice and various grisly tragedies we had enough for two books. So while the bloody “Murder and Mayhem in the Crescenta Valley” is available now at local bookstores, our vice-laden follow-up “Wicked Crescenta Valley” will come out next spring.

Reading these two books back-to-back may make you wonder what’s really going behind your neighbors’ closed doors.