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Mary Skeele reenacting her kidnapping with police investigators

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

A police investigator examines a hole in the ground at the site where ransom money was to be dropped

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

The kidnappers asked for ransom money to be left at this spot on Montecito Drive

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

The house on Buckeye Street in Pasadena where Mary Skeele was held

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

The bedroom of the Pasadena house where kidnapping victim Mary Skeele was held

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

The ransom note

Mary Skeele with two children after being released by kidnappers

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Kidnappers E.H. Van Dorn and Luella Pearl Hammer, seated

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Mary Skeele testifies in court

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Kidnappers Luella Pearl Hammer, center, and E.H. Van Dorn, right, at their trial

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

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The kidnapping of Mary Skeele

On a Sunday night in February 1933, Mary Boswell Skeele received a phone call at her Los Angeles home from a man who said her husband had been in an automobile accident. The caller said a car was being dispatched to pick her up and take her to the hospital.

Within minutes, a man and a woman came to Skeele’s Highland Park address. She got into their car.

But when the car didn’t go toward the hospital, Skeele realized something was amiss. Skeele, whom the Los Angeles Times described at the time as a “frail little 65-year-old,” screamed, prompting the man to cover her mouth with his hand and put a cloth over her face. Her captors drove around, Skeele’s head covered, before she was eventually taken into a house on Buckeye Street in Pasadena.

Inside the house, Skeele’s hands and feet were bound, and a gag was put in her mouth, she later told police.

She heard various voices, but was unsure what was going on.

A Times article two days later recounted: “Nothing was said about ransom, so far as she could hear, Mrs. Skeele declared; and nothing was done to intimidate her. But as it began to dawn on her that she was in the hands of kidnapers, she began to tear at her blindfold in an effort to remove it and observe her surroundings.”

Left behind at Skeele’s house, on South Avenue 55, was a note demanding ransom from her husband, Dr. Walter F. Skeele, dean of the University of Southern California’s college of music. The note said Walter Skeele was to bring $10,000 to a designated spot on Montecito Drive at 5:30 p.m. the next day.  (The $10,000 amount would be equivalent to about $183,000 today.)

The ransom note directed police to a second note, and then a third, which was placed near a long piece of string leading over an embankment.

“Tie package thoroughly to this end of string and go on,” said the note.

At the time designated by the kidnappers, police had Walter Skeele deliver a dummy package, supposedly containing the ransom, to the spot at the end of the string. But to the frustration of officers watching from hidden positions, no kidnappers appeared.

Unbeknownst to police, the kidnappers were having second thoughts. According to The Times, the abductors told Mary Skeele that “they would return her to her home providing she did not make a ‘rumpus.’”

Sure enough, they drove Skeele back to her neighborhood, let her out of the car, and she walked home, coming in the front door about 24 hours after she had left.

She was, The Times reported, “unharmed save for a few scratches.”

Tipped off by neighbors who saw unusual activity at the Pasadena home, police soon arrested Earl H. Van Dorn and Luella Pearl Hammer and charged them with kidnapping.

Police said the pair had unsuccessfully tried to kidnap the 29-year-old daughter of the pastor of the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Pasadena just prior to the Skeele abduction. They had, in fact, used the same ransom note, simply pasting the word “wife” over “daughter” when Mary Skeele became the target.

Two months after Mary Skeele was kidnapped, Van Dorn and Hammer appeared in court for trial. Van Dorn soon admitted his guilt, while claiming that Hammer was innocent.

Van Dorn’s bid to shield Hammer (his “sweetheart,” The Times said)  failed. She was convicted a few days later after unsuccessfully pleading insanity. Both were sentenced to 10 years to life in prison.

1 Comment

  1. February 6, 2016, 8:46 pm

    This is so amazing. My father-in-law's picture is on the wall! He was her nephew.


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