Winnie Ruth Judd (January 29, 1905 – October 23, 1998) was a Phoenix, Arizona medical secretary found guilty of murdering and dismembering two of her friends and stuffing them into travel trunks. Newspaper coverage and suspicious circumstances; the sentence she received raised debate over capital punishment.
The Background of Winnie Judd
Born Winnie Ruth, while employed at the Grunow Medical Clinic in Phoenix, Judd met Agnes Anne LeRoi, an X-Ray Technician who worked at the clinic, and her roommate, Hedvig Samuelson. LeRoi and Samuelson had become close friends while living in Alaska and then moved together to Phoenix for its drier climate after Samuelson contracted tuberculosis.
In August 1931, Dr. Judd left Phoenix to start a practice in Los Angeles, leaving his wife in Phoenix. At this time, Judd moved in with LeRoi and Samuelson, but in early October, she moved out in order to be nearer to the Grunow Clinic where she was employed. At the time of the murders Judd was 26 years old, LeRoi 32, and Samuelson, 24.
According to police, on the night of October 16, 1931, LeRoi and Samuelson were murdered by Judd after an alleged fight among the three women over a conflict of interest—reportedly, all three were interested in the same man, prominent Phoenix businessman John J. “Happy Jack” Halloran.
Halloran, 44, was a married local businessman and a friend of all three women. The prosecution at Judd’s murder trial would suggest that quarrels over men and the relationship between LeRoi and Samuelson broke up the friendship of the three women, and that jealousy was the motive for the killings.
The two victims were killed with a .25 caliber handgun in their rented bungalow located at 2929 (now 2947) N. 2nd Street. According to prosecutors, after the two women were murdered, Judd and an accomplice dismembered the body of Samuelson and stuffed the head, torso, and lower legs into a black shipping trunk, with the upper legs being placed in a beige valise and hatbox. LeRoi’s body was stuffed intact into a second black shipping trunk.
The Ride to Los Angeles
Two days after the murders, on Sunday, October 18, Winnie Judd boarded the Golden State Limited passenger train from Phoenix’s Union Station with the trunks containing the bodies; with her left hand bandaged from a gunshot wound, she traveled overnight to Los Angeles. Upon arrival at 7:45 the next morning, the trunks were immediately under suspicion because of the foul odor detected by station personnel as well as fluids escaping from the trunks. Thinking at first the trunks contained contraband such as a dead deer, the baggage agent, Arthur V. Anderson, wanted the trunks opened and tagged them to be held. He asked Winnie Judd for the key, but she stated she didn’t have it with her.
Burton McKinnell, Judd’s brother and a junior at the University of Southern California, picked Winnie up from the train station unaware of the crime or the bodies. At around 4:30 that afternoon, Anderson called the Los Angeles Police Department to report the suspicious trunks. After picking the locks of each trunk, the police discovered the bodies. Meanwhile, Judd’s brother had dropped his sister off somewhere in Los Angeles where she proceeded to disappear. Winnie Judd hid out until she surrendered to police in a funeral home the following Friday, October 23, 1931.
The murder was reported in headlines across the country and Judd came to be referred to in the press as “Tiger Woman” and “The Blonde Butcher”. Eventually, the case itself came to be known in the media as “The Trunk Murders”.
The Trial and Conviction of Winnie Judd
On Monday evening, October 19, the Phoenix police entered the bungalow where LeRoi and Samuelson resided for the first time; neighbors and reporters were also allowed in and subsequently destroyed the original integrity of the crime scene. The following day the bungalow’s landlord took out ads to be placed in The Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Evening Gazette newspapers informing the public that tours of the home were available for ten cents per person. In the next three weeks, hundreds of curiosity seekers toured the three room bungalow. During the trial, Judd’s defense protested by stating, “By the advertisements in the newspapers, the entire population of Maricopa County visited that place.”
The police maintained the two women were shot while asleep in their beds. The two mattresses were missing the night the police entered. Although one mattress was later found with no blood stains on it miles away in a vacant lot, the other remained missing. No explanation was ever offered as to why one was found so far away nor what ever became of the other mattress.
The trial began January 19, 1932, three months after the bodies had been discovered in the trunks. The state argued that Winnie Judd acted with pre-meditation, that the relations between the three women had deteriorated over some weeks, and that they had argued over the affections of Jack Halloran. According to the prosecution, all of this culminated with the murders. They maintained that Winnie Judd had self-inflicted the gunshot wound to her left hand to try to bolster her self-defense explanation. Judd’s defense took the stance that she was innocent because she was insane, but did not introduce the “self-defense” argument for the record. None of the dismembering aspect of the double slaying was addressed in court because Judd was tried only of the murder of Mrs. LeRoi, whose body was not dismembered. Judd did not take the stand in her own defense.
The Fate of Winnie Judd
The jury found Winnie Judd guilty of first-degree murder on February 8, 1932. An appeal was unsuccessful. Judd was sentenced to be hanged February 17, 1933, and sent to Arizona State Prison in Florence, Arizona. The death sentence was repealed after a ten-day hearing found her mentally incompetent; she was then sent to Arizona State Asylum for the Insane on April 24, 1933.
When it was discovered during the course of the trial that Halloran and Winnie Judd had been involved in an illicit affair, Halloran also became suspect of having complicity in the killings. A known playboy and philanderer, Halloran was indicted by a grand jury as an accomplice to murder on December 30, 1932 following new testimony from Judd. Winnie Judd referred to this testimony as “the whole truth”.
A preliminary hearing on the charge against Halloran was held in mid-January 1933; Judd was the star witness. In testimony that lasted almost three days, an emotional Winnie Judd told her story, saying
“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 this. He is guilty of anything I am guilty of.”
Winnie Judd Tells All
Winnie Judd testified she had gone to the apartment on an invitation to play bridge, and a fourth woman who had also been invited to the get-together had already left. She testified that there was an argument about Judd’s introduction of Halloran to another woman, and that she killed LeRoi and Samuelson in self-defense after they physically attacked her.
According to Winnie Judd, she met up with Halloran shortly after the killings and returned with him to the apartment. After seeing the bodies he went out to the garage, returned with a “great, heavy trunk” and told her not to tell anyone. Under cross-examination, Judd admitted repacking Samuelson’s dismembered body in a trunk and other luggage two days after the murders.
Halloran did not take the stand in his own defense. His attorney told the court that Judd’s story was nothing more “than the story of an insane person” and argued that since Winnie Judd had testified that the two women were killed in self-defense, there was, in fact, no crime committed, therefore Halloran could not be tried for anything. Halloran’s attorney then asked for the charges against his client to be dismissed. On January 25, 1933 the judge freed Halloran, saying that the state’s case was inconsistent, and that trying him would be “an idle gesture”.
Escapes and Parole
After her death sentence was repealed, Winnie Judd was committed to the state’s only mental institution, Arizona State Hospital in Phoenix. From 1933 to 1963, Judd escaped from the institution six times, in one instance walking all the way to Yuma, Arizona, along the old Southern Pacific railroad tracks.
She escaped for the final time on October 8, 1963, using a key to the front door of the hospital a friend had given her. Winnie Judd ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area where she became a live-in maid for a wealthy family living in a mansion overlooking the bay, using the name Marian Lane. Her freedom lasted six and a half years. Her identity in California was eventually discovered and she was taken back to Arizona on August 18, 1969.
Winnie Judd hired famed San Francisco defense attorney Melvin Belli. Belli needed an Arizona-licensed attorney to help him”, so he hired then “unknown Phoenix attorney” Larry Debus. Gov. Jack Williams was going to sign for Judd’s release as long as the meeting was kept “hush, hush”. In the following days, Belli called a press conference calling for the immediate release of Winnie Judd, therefore Debus had to fire Belli from getting in the way of Judd’s release. Judd was paroled and released on December 22, 1971 after two years of legal wrangling.
Winnie Judd moved to Stockton, California. In 1983, the state of Arizona issued her an “absolute discharge,” meaning she was no longer a parolee. She died 23 October 1998 at the age of ninety-three, 67 years to the day from her surrender to Los Angeles police in 1931.
Subsequent unofficial investigations, most notably by investigative journalist Jana Bommersbach, revealed many people close to the investigation believed Winnie Judd was guilty only of killing in self-defense—what Judd had maintained all along—not of first-degree murder. After Bommersbach had initially written about her investigation of the Judd case as a series of articles in the Phoenix New Times, she then published a book about Judd, The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd. For the book, Bommersbach extensively interviewed Judd herself.
During the course of Bommerbach’s investigations, the police and prosecution were found to have been biased against Winnie Judd in a number of ways. According to the book, due to Phoenix’s small population in 1931, members of the Phoenix police knew Jack Halloran well, who he associated with, and who his friends—and girlfriends—were. Some police also knew the victims. Some even believe Judd hadn’t killed anyone, even in self-defense, but was only covering up for the misdeeds of Jack Halloran, and possibly other people. Many believe Judd wasn’t capable of dismembering Sammy Samuelson’s body, of being “The Blonde Butcher,” as the mainstream press had labeled her, or of being able to lift the bodies. There are indications that someone with surgical skills had performed the dismembering, a skill Judd hadn’t possessed.
According to autopsy photos, the body was not “butchered,” but cleanly dissected in several places. Jack Halloran being let go was considered by many a miscarriage of justice; his exoneration a political cover-up. His gray Packard had been spotted at the crime scene the night of the murders, and again there the next day. At the very least, he should have been tried as an accomplice. Although officially exonerated by the law, Halloran eventually fell out of favor with the local Phoenix population, losing his valuable business associates and social status.
Bommersbach also introduces the possibility that a second gun may have been involved because of early newspaper reports that LeRoi was shot with a larger caliber bullet. The October 20, 1931 edition of The Arizona Republic stated, “Two different calibrere revolvers were used, autopsy surgeons said.” On the same date, The Los Angeles Times reported, “The killer is believed to have used a .25 caliber automatic to murder Miss Samuelson, but a larger caliber weapon was used to kill Mrs. LeRoi.” No police reports, however, say anything about a second gun and no written autopsy reports could be located. Eventually, the unfounded reports of a “second gun” ceased.
Addressing the possibility that a person who possessed surgical skills dissected Samuelson’s body, Bommersbach writes about a nurse she interviewed for her book named Ann Miller who said that while she was working at the Arizona State Mental Hospital in 1936 and had become friends with Ruth Judd, Judd had confided in her that a Dr. Brown had come to see her while she was in prison and told her he was going to confess everything. Later, after Miller told a Phoenix attorney of Judd’s story, he stated, “I’m sure she told you that. Dr. Brown came up to my office and wanted to tell the whole story. He made an appointment for the next week, but he died the day before the appointment.” Dr. Brown died in June 1932 of heart disease at the age of forty-four. According to Bommersbach, some speculate he might have been contemplating suicide. Bommersbach writes, “As the New York Mirror reported the day Halloran’s indictment was announced,
‘A second man would probably have been indicted, according to widespread rumor, if death had not intervened. Mrs. Judd’s story included the declaration that a physician, who has since committed suicide, was summoned to the murder bungalow to aid in the disposal of the bodies.’ ”
The first feature-length film about the Judd case was 2007’s “Murderess” (written and directed by Scott Coblio and featuring an all-marionette cast) which debuted at Rochester New York’s Little Theater in October of that year and has played annually ever since at The Trunk Space in Phoenix, Arizona, always on October 16, the date of the fateful shooting.
The 2005 British film “Keeping Mum” is also loosely based on the story. The main character, played by Maggie Smith, is a murderess who has escaped from prison and is working as a nanny and housekeeper. Her dismembered victims were found in two bloody steamer trunks as she was traveling by train, though her victims are not female friends as in the true story. “Keeping Mum” also stars Rowan Atikinson, Kristin Scott Thomas and Patrick Swayze.