Every community, every era seems to have a “trial of the century.” For Los Angeles, it was O.J. Simpson. For Oklahoma City, it was the 1995 conviction of domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh.
Bakersfield’s trial of the century came in 1961, when western swing music icon Spade Cooley was convicted of the brutal murder of his wife Ella Mae, whom he tortured and beat in an hours-long rage as their teenage daughter watched helplessly.
As a young lawyer starting out in Bakersfield five decades ago, I was captivated by a trial that seemed to be the biggest thing Kern County had ever experienced. All the big state newspapers and television stations carried daily stories of the monthlong trial. People waited for hours in line at the courthouse to grab the few available seats to watch the action and get a glimpse of the fallen star whose fame extended from the stage to the silver screen to television.
But after a jury found Cooley guilty of murder and he was sentenced to life in state prison, the trial and the celebrity faded from the headlines and people’s memories. I seldom gave it a thought until the 2011 death of my good friend Leonard Winters, a private detective who worked with Cooley’s attorneys. As the executor of his estate, I took responsibility for Winters’ files, which spanned decades of legal work, primarily done for storied Bakersfield attorney Morris Chain.
The Cooley trial boxes contained Winters’ notes, newspaper clippings, photos and statements from Cooley’s associates. Also in the box was an unpublished manuscript by Cooley’s former business manager, Bobbi Bennett, and a copy of a tape-recorded interview of the celebrity by Kern County sheriff’s officers just a few hours after Ella Mae’s murder.
Lifting the lids from the Cooley file boxes let out more than just memories. It provided a glimpse of the past that better explains how far we have come, particularly in the criminal justice system’s treatment of domestic violence.
Even 54 years later, the case has the power to shock and fascinate, so much so that a producer for the Investigation Discovery television series “Tabloid” has done an episode on the Cooley trial, which airs June 20.
“The photographs, hair, costumes and nostalgia, combined with the graphic twists and turns of this story are great,” said Tammy Wood, executive director of “Tabloid.”
“A guy from a poor family makes it big and then chooses to drink heavily and loses everything. It’s a classic tragic story.”
The self-proclaimed king of western swing summed up his rags-to-riches-to-ruin life in just one line: “I came to California with a fiddle under one arm and a nickel in my pocket.”
But Cooley’s upbringing, his migration to the West Coast and the sacrifices along the way mimic the experiences of many Kern County Depression-era migrants.
No doubt that is why Cooley, his music and his celebrity resonated with the many local people who considered him a hero.
Donnell Clyde Cooley was born into poverty on Dec. 17, 1910, in Grand, Okla., where his father made a living in part by playing a fiddle for local dances. One-quarter Cherokee Indian, Cooley was sent to an Indian school in Oregon for an education. He wanted to become a concert cellist or violinist but with no money for lessons, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became an accomplished fiddler. On the side, he was an amateur boxer, which is credited with providing the fancy footwork he included in his high-octane performances.
Even as a child, Cooley was “uncontrollable,” according to his mother. When he was 17, he met Ann, a full-blooded Eskimo Indian, also enrolled at the Indian school. The pair ran away, got married and had a son, John.
Like others fleeing poverty, the family ended up in California, a population and entertainment magnet for Dust Bowl migrants looking for defense-related work during World War II.
The performer’s career began to look up under Bennett’s management and by 1943, Cooley’s performances at the Santa Monica Ballroom and later the Aragon Ballroom at Ocean Park were drawing large crowds of defense workers, soldiers and adoring women, who helped build Cooley’s reputation as a womanizing cheat. Bennett claimed in one year alone, she paid off 10 women to have abortions. Ella Mae Evans, a young, beautiful and marginally talented singer, caught Cooley’s eye; he added her to his band and eventually divorced Ann.
Cooley’s career was catching fire: He had his own weekly television show, lucrative music and movie contracts, a mansion in Los Angeles, a fancy yacht and celebrity friends, including Roy Rogers and Frank Sinatra. His friends also included members of most of Southern California’s law enforcement agencies, for whom Cooley regularly played free benefit shows. His reputation as a good friend of law enforcement followed him to Kern County.
By the late 1950s, Cooley appeared to be at the height of his career. There was little hint of personal or financial stress. But looks were deceiving. His private life mirrored his band’s theme song, “Shame on You.”
Paranoid and violent
As the popularity of Cooley’s brand of western swing waned, the celebrity’s poor investment decisions — like his dream to open a Disney-style water park near Rosamond — were taking a financial toll, though he reportedly earned $500,000 a year. Cooley was further distressed by his increasing paranoia that Ella Mae was cheating. Bennett wrote in her unpublished book that Ella Mae was imprisoned like a princess in a castle at the couple’s ranch in eastern Kern County. Cooley insisted his wife give up her career to care for their children: daughter Melody, born in 1946, and son Donnell Jr., born in 1948.
On an April night in 1961, Cooley lost control of his demons, and Ella Mae paid the ultimate price. Convinced his wife was having affairs with a number of men, including his friend Roy Rogers, as well as two men Cooley believed were homosexuals, Cooley began beating Ella Mae. Court transcripts describe in vivid detail the hours-long, brutal torture he inflicted on Ella Mae in front of their daughter. Finally, when Ella Mae became unresponsive, an ambulance was called and she was taken to a Tehachapi hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Kern County law enforcement officials were called first to the hospital and then to the Mojave substation, where, for more than an hour, Cooley — clad in his traditional western wear and cowboy boots — was interrogated by Harmon Cooper, a senior detective with the Kern County Sheriff’s Department. But “interrogation” is too strong a description for the verbal dance, recorded on a tape, between two men who were extraordinarily polite to one another under the circumstances. Cooper wanted to get to the bottom of the situation, but Cooley wanted to tell the story of how Ella Mae died — from a fall in the shower, he claimed — and offer a rambling story of his wife’s alleged infidelity.
After the interview and a search of the ranch, Cooley was arrested on suspicion of murder and transported to the county jail in Bakersfield.
Cooley initially was represented by Morris Chain, who wanted the star to plead guilty to second-degree murder and avoid a lurid trial. Chain was replaced by Hollywood lawyer Basil Lambros, who kept Winters on the team as a private investigator.
While he awaited trial, Cooley had “the run of the jail,” Winters recalled, and could have just about anything he wanted. He often was not confined to a cell, but allowed to walk the jail corridors. He ate with law enforcement officers in their dining room, which served much better food than the regular inmates were given.
Cooley’s trial, full of gruesome crime details and celebrity testimony, lasted slightly more than a month. Among those testifying was Melody, who described how her father viciously beat her mother that night. Unbeknownst to jurors and court observers was the reason Cooley refused to plead not guilty by reason of insanity.
Winters’ files revealed that Cooley knew it would make public his psychological profile and his private fears that he was a homosexual.
Jurors embrace star after finding him guilty
After 19 hours of deliberation, jurors convicted Cooley of murder.
Winters recalled with amazement what occurred when the jury of 10 men and two women handed down their verdict. Weeping jurors rose from their seats and hugged Cooley. Some kissed him. Even the men were crying.
Kern County Superior Court Judge William Bradshaw sentenced Cooley to life in prison, upheld by the 5th District Court of Appeal, which had strong words about Cooley’s defense. In a lengthy ruling, justices minced no words in recounting the brutality of Ella Mae’s death and dismissed Cooley’s contention that he “blacked out” the night of the murder when he suddenly learned his wife’s alleged lovers were two homosexuals. Evidence showed Cooley had known about Ella Mae’s alleged affairs weeks earlier.
Cooley, reportedly in poor health, was sent not to the grim and forbidding San Quentin but to the state prison in Vacaville. There he performed with an inmate band, built fiddles in the prison hobby shop and reportedly found religion. In a prison interview, he showed remorse and acknowledged that “there can be no excuse for beating anyone.”
And then Cooley drew another lucky hand — he always claimed he picked his nickname while on a hot poker streak. When former actor Ronald Reagan was elected California governor in 1966, Cooley’s Hollywood friends began lobbying for his pardon or parole. With Reagan’s support, the State Parole Board in August 1969 unanimously recommended parole for Cooley, effective in February 1970.
Four months before his release, Cooley was granted a three-day furlough to perform in Oakland at a concert benefiting the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. Cooley appeared before an audience of 3,000 on Nov. 23, 1969. After receiving a standing ovation, he went backstage, met with musicians and friends, and said he was looking forward to returning to work.
Assured that his fans would welcome him back, Cooley said he had the feeling that “today is the first day of the rest of my life.” With that, he turned, dropped his fiddle, collapsed and fell dead from heart failure at 58. Cooley had not been told before his death that Reagan had decided to pardon him.
By today’s standards, Cooley’s pending release after serving only a few years in prison and his deferential treatment by law enforcement and jurors seems shocking in light of the heinous crime he committed. But people’s attitudes about domestic violence and the response of the criminal justice system has evolved in the half century since the Spade Cooley trial.
Fifty years ago, the prevailing attitude was that domestic violence was a family issue, not the business of the justice system or government. For centuries, husbands were allowed to beat their wives with rods or switches, as long as the implements were no thicker than a thumb (the punishment was the origin of the phrase “rule of thumb”). In 1910, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a wife had no cause for action on an assault and battery charge against her husband because it “would open the doors of the courts to accusations of all sorts of one spouse against the other, and bring into public notice complaints for assault, slander and libel.”
Finally by the 1970s, domestic violence was defined as a crime, justifying intervention by the criminal justice system.
If Cooley had murdered his wife today, there probably still would be fans willing to forgive the star. But after hearing the gruesome details of how he beat and tortured Ella Mae for hours until finally killing her, I doubt jurors would hug and kiss Cooley after finding him guilty. — Timothy Lemucchi is a Bakersfield attorney.