The Small-Town Murder of Marjorie Winn
A 17-year-old homecoming queen from Redlands, California, shot to death by an unknown bandit turned murderer
Lucky. That’s how James Sloan Jr of Redlands, California must have felt when the object of his affections agreed to go with him to a Palm Springs Rodeo as his date on February 7, 1948. Her name was Marjorie Lee Winn. Margie was a 17-year-old high school senior. She was stunning, with raven hair and piercing dark eyes. Margie was a notable contender for Redlands High School homecoming queen. James, a young veteran and budding photographer, thought he might use the opportunity to photograph the beautiful girl.
Like James, Margie came from a well-to-do San Bernardino County family. Her father was a successful pharmacist, and his family found their fortune in southern tobacco and the California citrus industries. A union between them would have almost certainly been a fairy tale. Unfortunately, Margie’s joie de vivre wouldn’t carry into a marriage. Instead, her minister would recall it during her eulogy in a few short days, as a stranger’s gunshot ended her life before the lovers made it home.
A Shot in the Dark
After a full night of dancing, drinking, and people-watching, James drove west on California State Highway 99 towards home. Around 230 AM, February 8, 1948, the couple pulled off the road about four miles east of Beaumont, California, to synchronize their wristwatches with the clock on James’ dashboard. James was 25 years old and had all the time in the world to spend with his girl. Margie didn’t worry about a curfew that night since she didn’t live with her mother, and her father was out on a fishing trip.
The spot, known as “The Badlands,” was dark and lonely, surrounded by heavy shrubland typical to Southern California’s wild-grown areas. James had no time to put the car in park before a stranger appeared from the thicket, yanked open Margie’s door, and pressed a gun to her side.
“Give me all your money!” The man demanded.
Margie wasn’t having it. “Step on it!” she yelled. When James stepped on the accelerator, the stranger pulled his trigger, sending a bullet through Margie’s side. “I’ve been shot,” Margie whimpered, “Take me to the nearest place.”
James drove about a mile when he noticed a police presence at a nearby farmhouse. The home belonged to Adolph Eilts. Just hours before the shooting, an intruder entered his home armed with a sawed-off .410 shotgun. Adolph and his wife Ardell chased the man away with a firearm of their own. They paid close attention to the man’s appearance.
The intruder appeared to be around 5'8" tall. He was caucasian, about 40 years old, and in need of a shave. The gaunt-faced man wore a leather jacket and a felt hat with a black band and spoke with a distinct southern drawl. Adolph and Ardell agreed that the stranger looked and smelled drunk.
The prowler fled on foot. He abandoned a 1937 Packard on the Eilts property and disappeared into the darkness among pepper trees and manzanita.
Adolph went to a neighbor’s house to warn them to learn that the strange man broke into their place earlier. What’s more, he attempted to rob another neighbor, Lucille Jensen, who also ran the man off. With that, Adolph and the neighbor drove to the Beaumont Police Department and reported the incidents.
Officers McCrackin and Courtney went out to The Badlands to investigate. Minutes after their arrival, James Sloan pulled up to the Eilts home. Sadly, Margie passed away in the passenger seat just as the car came to a halt. Young James was inconsolable.
Captain Claude McCrackin speculated that a man in such an unkempt state might have difficulty hitching a ride. Within 20 minutes of the murder, police barricaded all roads leading from the highway 99 crime scene, creating a crime scene that spanned two counties and 150 miles. Captain McCrackin believed with all certainty that the perpetrator could not have left the area.
The nearby community of Hemet deployed three airplanes to search from the sky. The police used bloodhounds to help search the ground.
Footprints left at the Eilts farm and the murder site proved the prowler and the murderer were the same individual. Police and bloodhounds tracked the prints to other farms in the vicinity, namely the JC Cansler and Carl Janata farms, where an unknown prowler attempted to steal vehicles.
Investigators tracked the distinctive footprints, half-soled Oxfords in size 9, away from the scene through canyons and gullies. The tracks ended at one side of the highway but picked up on the other and disappeared at the Lighthouse Service Station a half-mile away, where the attendant reported a strange man poking around cars as recent as 430 AM. From there, the trail ran cold.
On February 10, Marjorie’s classmates came out in droves to help search for the murder weapon while police continued investigating possible suspects.
As officers and volunteers combed the area, Coroner Ben White brought Margie’s body to the Ray F Allen Mortuary in Beaumont. He conducted an autopsy and assembled a jury to determine the cause of death. Margie’s uncle, JA Winn, officially identified her body. District Attorney William Mackay questioned two people — James Sloan and David J Courtney, the first officer contacted after Margie was shot.
Coroner White came to the obvious conclusion that Margie’s death was a homicide caused by a point-blank gunshot, the bullet having pierced the poor girl’s heart. More importantly, he ruled out James as a suspect. The shooting was extremely traumatic for the young man, and he needed the care of a psychiatrist.
During the hour following Margie’s death, police obtained fingerprints from the abandoned vehicle, which matched an empty whiskey bottle found inside. These prints didn’t belong to the owner but the killer. Unfortunately, investigators were unable to link them to a suspect.
The 1937 Packard was stolen from a cafe called Danny’s Place, at 14th Street and Howard Avenue in Riverside, about an hour away. According to the vehicle’s owner, Albert Strickland, there was a sawed-off .410 shotgun inside.
Police in Riverside were on high alert since the man who killed Margie stole a car in their city on the same night. Cafe patrons reported a man matching the description provided by Adolph Eilts loitering around the parking lot. Another customer saw the man drinking whiskey in the washroom. Sure enough, officers searched the restroom and found an empty bottle.
It is important to note that while California was not legally segregated in 1948, the San Bernardino County Sun printed that Danny’s Place was in the “black section” of Riverside. The person who stole the car and killed Margie was caucasian and would have stuck out like a sore thumb poking around a parking lot at midnight in that neighborhood.
Investigators placed tremendous faith in the security of the crime scene. The only way the killer could have left the area, they supposed, was by hitching a ride or hopping a train. Police arrest several hitchhikers between Los Angeles and Palm Springs and ruled out every one of them.
Police also apprehended a train hopper named Tobe Beam, whose appearance seemed to tally with the suspect’s description. He was wearing a navy-issued coat and a gray hat with a dark band. Tobe insisted he had nothing to do with the crime; he was just discharged from his military duties at San Pedro and hopped the train near Colton to get back home to Kentucky. Tobe’s shoes didn’t match the prints left by the perpetrator. Police excluded Tobe as a suspect rather quickly and released him.
Four days after the crime, a letter arrived at a police station in northern California, which read as follows:
“I killed M Winn because I loved her. I am traveling north by Greyhound bus. I bought my ticket from a bus driver by the name of Mr. Lee in Los Angeles.”
The unsigned missive came from Rodeo, California, up in Contra Costa County. The sheriff from that county immediately forwarded the letter to Riverside. Captain McCracken dismissed the letter, thinking the author was an attention-seeking crank.
Eventually, investigators traced the letter to 25-year-old Richard Olsen, resident of Rodeo, California. However, Richard was in Modoc County at the time of the murder — some 700 miles away. Richard admitted he wrote the letter but denied killing Margie. All of the witnesses agreed he looked nothing like the man whose bullet ended Margie’s life.
Evidence in the case was meager and puzzling. Given the extensive dragnet over the area, it seemed impossible the assailant could have escaped. Footprints and a campfire suggested the wanted man hid out in the brushlands.
Six days after the murder, and about five miles west, 35-year-old Frank Adair attempted to strangle a woman to death. Police wholly believed the crimes were connected, and justice would be served for Margie’s death. Arthur Cook and Madge Reese were taking an afternoon drive through the community of Yucaipa, California when Frank stumbled out of a grove of peach trees and onto the road. Concerned for the unkempt stranger, Aurthur pulled over and asked if he was in trouble.
“Yes, I am,” Frank replied, “Great trouble!” Arthur felt sorry for the man and offered to give him a lift out of town. The car didn’t travel three blocks before Frank suddenly reached for Madge’s throat from the backseat. Arthur and Madge fought him off. Frank leaped from the car and retreated into the orchards.
Within hours, police surrounded the rows of peach trees where Frank hid and coaxed him out. Yucaipa was a sleepy little town, as was Beaumont. Nothing of this magnitude happened in these communities where everybody knew everybody and neighbors kept no secrets. The cops were sure Frank was the only murderous villain in the brushlands, and he was Margie’s killer.
At the station, Frank spoke freely about the attempted strangulation. He claimed “voices” told him to strangle Madge. They also told him he should have killed his wife that day. When questioned, Frank knew nothing of Margie or any murder. James Sloan agreed with other witnesses that Frank was not the same man who killed Margie.
Parallels have been drawn between the shooting death of Margie Winn and the known Zodiac murders. The anonymous letter, the lover’s lane aspect, and the fact that the car was stolen just a mile from where future possible Zodiac victim Cheri Jo Bates was killed make the crimes appear very similar. However, the similarities end there. Police identified the author of the Margie Winn letter. Unless Richard Olsen also wrote all of the Zodiac letters and the Zodiac Killer is 20 years older than previously thought, Margie couldn’t have been one of his early victims.
Days of intense searching yielded no compelling evidence. The investigation into Margie’s death grew more stagnant with each passing day and eventually ceased. In the absence of new evidence, Margie’s family will likely never see justice for her murder. If the police still have the liquor bottle found in the stolen car, perhaps they will test it for DNA and give the Winn family some closure.
Marjorie’s funeral was held on February 13 at the First Baptist Church in Redlands, her hometown. Family, friends, and hundreds of Margie’s fellow students filled the church. Over 200 floral arrangements adorned the sanctuary. James Sloan was among the young men who carried Margie’s coffin.
Reverend Paul Lee Sturgis presided over the service. He spoke fondly of Margie, recalling the “…beauty, winsome personality, and love of life typified by Miss Winn. Margie was highly respected and loved for her leadership, scholastic attainment, and high influence among her classmates. The tragic death of Marjorie is a community loss, and we feel it keenly.”
At the end of the service, Reverend Sturgis prayed for the capture of Margie’s killer. Sadly, that prayer remains unanswered.
The next year, Margie’s parents commemorated their daughter’s loss by awarding the first annual Marjorie Lee Winn Memorial Scholarship.