Not even the Hollywood studios, a few miles down the road, could have come up with a more block-busting scenario than the one which unfolded before Judge Walter R. Evans and an enthralled jury in Los Angeles District Court on a sunny January morning in 1960, when Dr Bernard Finch and his beautiful mistress went on trial for their lives.
No wonder the press and public galleries were jam-packed with celebrities and journalists from over 30 countries. No wonder three Hollywood studios were bidding millions for the movie rights even before the trial had begun. For the case of Dr Bernard Finch was a media dream come true. It had everything: sex, glamour, beauty, wealth, jealousy, intrigue, violence, a do-it-yourself murder kit, and finally a killing which could send two of Los Angeles's beautiful people straight to the gas chamber on Death Row... But most of all, it had love or so 40-year-old Dr Finch, the city's most fashionable physician, was at pains to point out. All the terrible things that had happened to him had, he claimed, resulted from his devotion to his lover, and former secretary, 23-year-old Carole Tregoff.
Not that he regretted for a moment the affair that had destroyed his marriage, alienated his friends and even lost him patients. Carole is the love of my life, Dr Finch declared. "Whatever terrors the future holds, we will face them together, hand-in-hand. And if the worst comes to the worst that includes a sentence of death." Not that Dr Finch, Carole Tregoff and their expensive legal advisers thought it would come to that. The death of Finch's wife, Barbara from gunshot wounds in their mansion in the fashionable suburb of West Covina in July 1959 had been a tragic accident.
At least that was the theory on which the defence hinged when Finch and Tregoff finally came to trial. The socialite tennis playing Finches married in 1952 but it wasn't long before things began to go wrong and Dr Finch's attentions were wandering elsewhere. He had numerous affairs and by the autumn of 1958 the house was a battleground and quarrels grew more bitter and frequent. Marie Anne Lidholm, the couple's pretty Swedish maid, witnessed many of the Finches' battles. Later she would tell the court that in May 1959, Mrs Finch appeared with her head bandaged.
She told Marie Anne: "He banged my head on the edge of the bed when I told him I wanted a divorce. He said he'd kill me first. He was like a wild man." As a result of this row, the Finches separated and Barbara filed for divorce on May 20. They argued bitterly about money Barbara wanted $2,000 a month and a judge ordered Dr Finch to keep away from the family house. He didn't. On June 25, according to Marie Anne Lidholm, Dr Finch broke into the house even though his terrified wife had had the locks change and strengthened the window bars. Once inside, he hit Barbara and threatened her life. Marie Anne called the police but before they arrived, Dr Finch had driven off in the new white Cadillac he had given his wife as a birthday present.
The car returned shortly before midnight on July 18 and Marie Anne heard it park outside the garage. Shortly afterwards she heard Barbara scream for help and ran out to find Mrs Finch lying on the floor of the garage. As she bent over the woman, Dr Finch appeared, seized the Swedish girl and banged her head against the wall. His face was twisted and angry, Marie Anne said. "Mrs Finch got up and Dr Finch grabbed her and tried to force her into the car.
"She managed to escape and ran across the lawn. I ran into the house to call the police and it was then that I heard a shot. I found her body lying on the lawn." How did Barbara Finch die? Pathologist Dr Gerald Ridge, called to the scene, found that death had been caused by massive haemorrhaging produced by a downward-fired bullet that pierced her left shoulder-blade and emerged near the breastbone.
There were other signs of violence, too: two skull fractures, probably caused by being beaten with some heavy object, perhaps a pistol. So where was the death weapon? Police Captain Jack Ryan, in charge of the case, had to admit that despite an extensive search, it was never found. But what he did find at the death scene was more sensational than any firearm. It was a briefcase, identified as belonging to Dr Finch. Inside, police found an eight-inch carving knife, two coils of clothes-line, a box of .38 cartridges, a flashlight, two boxes of surgical gloves, a box of sleeping pills, a box of sedatives and hypodermic syringes and needles. Not surprisingly, the press dubbed the collection the "do-it-yourself murder kit."
Dr Finch was arrested next day and Carole Tregoff a week later. Both denied murder, claiming that Barbara Finch's death was a tragic accident, a story they stubbornly stuck to when, amid hysterical media excitement they appeared before Judge Evans, on trial for their lives. From the start, the apparent infatuation of the prisoners was plain to see.
"Our case," Fred Whichello told the jury, "is that on July 18 he finally did so." But that wasn't Dr Finch's version of events when he finally took the witness stand on February 3 to tell his version of the story. Guided by defence lawyer Grant Cooper, the handsome doctor wept as he bared details of his married life. He had, he said, been very happy with Barbara until she turned frigid after the birth of their son in 1953. After that, when his wife spurned his loving advances, he was reluctantly "driven into the arms of other women." He first met Carole Tregoff when she applied for a secretarial job in 1956 and within weeks they had fallen deeply in love.
He claimed that on the day of Barbara's death, he and Carole had decided to visit his wife to "iron out difficulties" and try to reach an amicable settlement. The so-called "murder kit" was only the medical kit he carried for emergency calls, plus the rope, which was for use on his boat, and the carving knife, which was a gift for Carole's new apartment. He told the hushed court that when he and his lover confronted his wife, she produced a gun and aimed it at him.
"I told Carole to run out of danger and I began struggling with my wife. She fought like a fiend, kicked me and bit my arm. We struggled for the gun and it went off. "Barbara staggered on to the lawn and fell. I ran to her just in time to hear her whisper: 'I'm sorry, Bernie. Take care of the kids...' Then she died. There was nothing I could do." Shaken by convulsive sobs he was unable to continue his evidence. Later, when recovered, Dr Finch explained that after his wife's death, "I didn't know what I was doing. I remember running down a hill and through an orange grove. The next thing I knew I was in Las Vegas. I have no idea how I got there." Prosecutor Whichello was not impressed. "sn't it a fact that you made up the whole touching death scene?" he asked Dr Finch, "In order to avoid the implication that you left a dying woman on the lawn?"
"No, sir," Finch replied. "That's not true at all." He admitted that when the shot was fired his first thought was of Carole's safety, not his wife's."
"I love her and want to marry her if the result of this trial permits," he told the jury. He was to be disappointed on both counts. On March 4, 1960, after hearing three months of evidence, the court returned verdicts of life imprisonment for both Finch and Tregoff. In fact the lethal lovers had missed the gas chamber by a hair's breadth on a first ballot the jurors had voted 11-1 for the death penalty but had later revised the decision.
Weeping Carole and her stony-faced lover had a brief reunion before they were led away. Her head on his chest, they exchanged whispered pledges of love. But the affair was all but over. When the couple were released on parole in 1971 neither made any attempt to contact the other, and Carole Tregoff has since married. What started out as a literally fatal attraction had, it seemed, simply faded away...
(Willard Roper/Tony James Features)