On October 23, 1998, Winnie Ruth McKinnell died after being convicted of murdering her 2 close friends in October of 1931.
She was charged with one of the murders and sentenced to death, but the sentence was later repealed because she was found to be mentally incompetent. She was committed to a state asylum for the insane. Over the next 30 years, she escaped 6 times. During her last escape, she remained on the run for over 6 years.
In 1971, she was paroled and in 1983, she was discharged from parole. She lived another 15 years before her death in 1998.
BACKGROUND AND MURDERS
Born on January 29, 1905, Winnie Ruth McKinnell was raised by a Methodist minister and a stay at home mother in Oxford, Indiana. She got married at age 17 to William C. Judd, a World War I veteran 20 years older than her, and she moved to Mexico with him. Allegedly, he was addicted to morphine, which caused strain on their marriage, on top of Winnie's health issues and infertility.
By 1930, the couple was essentially separated, though they talked regularly. Winnie moved to Phoenix, Arizona and worked as a governess to a rich family. There, she met John J. Halloran, a 44-year-old business man active in the city's social and political circles. He was married, but a known cheater. The 2 became close, and began an affair.
A few months later, Winnie got a new job, this time as a secretary at the Grunow Medical Clinic in Phoenix. It was there that she met Agnes Anne LeRoi, age 32, and her roommate, Hedvig Samuelson, age 24. They had moved together from Alaska after Hedvig got tuberculosis. The 2 of them also became friends with Halloran.
Winnie became close friends with the roommates, and even moved in with them for a period of time in 1931, but they had some irreconcilable differences, and Winnie got her own apartment close by.
On the night of October 16, 1931, a fight between the 3 women broke out and Winnie murdered Hedvig and Agnes. The prosecution would later argue that the fight was over men, and that jealousy was the motive for the murders.
The victims were shot with a .25 caliber handgun in their home. Then, Winnie and an unknown accomplice dismembered Hedvig's body and put the head, torso, and legs into a black shipping trunk. Another portion of the legs were put into another box, and Agnes' entire body was stuffed, intact, into a different black shipping trunk.
2 days later, Winnie boarded an overnight train to Los Angeles, the bodies of her victims with her as luggage. Due to their foul odor and the FLUIDS ESCAPING FROM THEM, the baggage was under suspicion by a baggage agent in LA. It was assumed that she was smuggling deer meet, and when Winnie said she was unable to open them for inspection, they apparently let her go.
Winnie's brother Burton McKinnell, a junior at the University of Southern Carolina, came and picked her up from the train station, obviously unaware that she was dragging around 2 human bodies as carry-on luggage. She left with her brother, and left the trunks behind. Later that day, the baggage agent who was skeptical of the trunks called the Los Angeles Police Department.
They discovered the horrific scene inside.
Meanwhile, Winnie disappeared in LA. She hid out for several days before she surrendered to police on October 23, 1931.
INVESTIGATION AND LEGAL PROCEEDINGS
On the evening of October 19, Phoenix police entered the home of Agnes and Hedvig, but before they arrived, neighbors and reporters had destroyed the crime scene. The next day, before police could conduct their investigation, the landlord placed ads in the paper offering tours of the home for those interested in the case.
Based on what little they could gather from the crime scene, police determined that the victims were shot while sleeping in bed. The mattresses from both beds were missing when police entered. One was found days later with no blood stains on it miles away, the other was never found.
Winnie's trial began on January 19, 1932 in Maricopa County, Arizona. She was only tried for the murder of Agnes LeRoi, so the dismemberment was never even mentioned because Agnes' body was fully intact. She was never charged for the murder of Hedvig.
The prosecution argued that the murders were premeditated based on fights that deteriorated the women's relationships over the weeks before the murders. They argued that they had all been arguing over the affections of Halloran, which ultimately led to the slaying.
Winnie was found guilty of first-degree murder on February 8, 1932. She was sentenced to be hanged, even after 4 jurors presented sworn affidavits that they only voted in favor of the death penalty because one of their fellow jurors believed it was the only way to get Winnie to give up her accomplice. A variety of appeals on these grounds were filed, but all were rejected.
When, during the trial, it was discovered that Halloran and Winnie had been involved in an affair, he became the immediately suspected accomplice. He was indicted by a grand jury as an accomplice on December 30, 1932, and Winnie testified in his trial.
"I am going to be hanged for something Jack Halloran is responsible for... I was convicted of murder, but I shot in self-defense. Jack Halloran removed every bit of evidence. He is responsible for me going through all of this. He is guilty of anything I am guilty of," Winnie said during her testimony in his trial.
She testified that she had gone to Agnes and Hedvig's home to play bridge, and claimed an argument broke out when she found out they had introduced Halloran to another woman. She claimed they physically attacked her, and she shot in self defense. She said she met up with Halloran shortly after the murders and they returned to the home together, and he brought a "great, heavy trunk" into the home, though she did admit to packing Hedvig's dismembered body into the trunk.
Though he was exonerated of any misdeeds, he fell out of favor in the area where he once loomed large, losing his business associates and social status. He died shortly after in 1939.
Winnie's sentence was overturned after a 10-day hearing that deemed her mentally incompetent. Instead of spending time behind bars, she was sent to Arizona State Asylum for the Insane on April 24, 1933. And honestly, an insane asylum during the 30s seems a lot worse than prison, but that's just me.
While doing her time in the insane asylum, Winnie escaped 6 times between 1933 and 1963. On October 8, 1963, a friend gave her a key to the front door of the hospital and she walked out. She ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and became a live-in maid for a rich family. She worked there for 6 years before her identity was discovered, and she was taken back to Arizona on August 18, 1969.
Her lawyer, Melvin Belli, called for her immediate release. She was paroled on December 22, 1971, after 2 years of legal back and forth. In 1983, she was officially discharged, a free woman.
She lived out the rest of her days in Stockton, California. She died there on October 23, 1998 at the age of 93. It was the 67th anniversary of her surrender to the police.
In the 90s, investigative journalist Jana Bommersbach re-examined the trunk murders, and was even able to interview Winnie herself for her book. She faulted the press for the coverage of the trial, and argued that they created an atmosphere that would have made it impossible to get a fair trial. She claimed that Phoenix's small town vibe meant that the police knew Halloran well, and that they would allow Winnie to go down for a crime that he committed. In fact, his car had been spotted near the crime scene the night of the murders, but it never came up.
Bommersbach argued it would be impossible for Winnie to have dismembered Hedvig's body alone, not only because she wasn't physically fit enough to complete the task, but because the autopsy photos revealed that the incisions were done with surgical precision, a skill she definitely did not have.
She brought a nurse named Ann Miller into the conversation. Miller said that a doctor at the hospital, Dr. Brown, said he was going to confess everything. However, Dr. Brown died in June of 1982. Though he officially died of a heart attack, she believes he may have been the man who helped dispose of the bodies and he committed suicide.
Bommersback also spoke with former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice to reveal the trial, and he said he did not believe there was enough evidence of premeditation, and she shouldn't have been convicted of anything beyond second-degree murder.
Despite this investigation, many believe that she was biased, as she formed a personal relationship with Winnie while investigating her case.
In 2014, a "confession letter" written back in 1993 in Winnie's handwriting to her attorney brought about new interest in the old case. She referred to it as her "first and only confession", and she said she and she alone planned and carried out the murder of Agnes, who was competing with her for Halloran's affections. She said that she only killed Hedvig after the gunshot alerted her to the crime. She said she acted alone in the transport of the bodies.
According to an article in the New Times, Winnie's attorney, H.G. Richardson, suppressed the letter because it didn't align to the story they were telling for her appeal. When Richardson died, Winnie wrote his widow begging for the return of the letter because it would jeopardize hearings about her sanity, but she refused. In 2002, the letter was anonymously donated to the Arizona state archives.
While some who have studied the case believe it is a true confession, others believe it was an attempt at bolstering her insanity defense, or clearing Halloran of suspicion.
This case is pretty tricky, partially because it took place 89 years ago. Not only did they not have the best investigative equipment, but the landlord of the newfound murder scene was asking people to pay to tour the building without giving police a chance to do a thorough sweep. There truly isn't enough evidence to know what exactly happened, but obviously, a woman traveling from Phoenix to LA with smelly, oozing, dismembered bodies as her luggage points the finger at someone.
I do believe she likely had an accomplice of some sort, only because I can't imagine dismembering and loading bodies into trunks, and then transporting those trunks, is an easy thing to do alone. But I don't know if anyone helped her with the murder specifically. She seemed a little crazy... it wouldn't surprise me that in a rage, with 2 people who already kind of kicked her out of their home because they didn't mesh well, she killed them.
Old timey cases are always fun to look back and speculate on, and this is definitely a weird and mysterious one with a lot of moving parts!