Bernard J. Lotka and Tillie Michalski Trials: 1943

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Bernard J. Lotka and Tillie Michalski
Trials: 1943

Defendants: Bernard Joseph Lotka, Tillie Michalski
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Lotka: George A. Codding, 0. H. Bengtson; Michalski: Otto J. Frohnmayer
Chief Prosecutors: George W. Neilson, Allison Moulton
Judge: H. K. Hanna
Place: Medford, Oregon
Date of Trials: Lotka: May 17-20, 1943 Michalski: May 24-28, 1943
Verdicts: Lotka: guilty of second-degree murder; Michalski: not guilty
Sentence: Life imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: These trials of an unmarried couple for the murder of their baby shocked a small Oregon town during World War II.

After the United States entered World War II in 1941, a number of camps were set up across the country where soldiers trained for war. One of these, Camp White, was located on the Agate Desert in Jackson County, Oregon. Some 30,000 men and officers resided in this temporary city of 1,300 buildings that included barracks, theaters, post offices, a radio station, a small prison, and a hospital.

Camp White had a significant impact on the nearby civilian communities.

For example, the largest city in Jackson County, Medford, was seven miles away, had a population of only 11,500, and gladly welcomed the soldiers to visit and spend their money in a variety of ways. However, the men not only brought their cash to Medford, but their personal problems as well. That led, in 1943, to the murder of a nine-week-old child that scandalized the army and the residents of southern Oregon.

The baby's parents, Bernard Joseph Lotka, 23, and Tillie Michalski, 22, were an unmarried couple from Cleveland, Ohio. Lotka was an army sergeant assigned as a surgical technician to the 79th General Hospital in Camp White, where he had been stationed since October 1, 1942. Michalski arrived in Medford shortly thereafter and, on October 5 they rented a cabin at Merrick's Motor Home under the name of Mr. and Mrs. B. Lotka.

Child of a Secret Relationship

Dating since 1939, Lotka and Michalski's relationship was not perfect. In April 1941, Lotka severely beat Michalski and assaulted her mother. Brought before a judge, the young man was released when he promised to marry the girl. (That promise was never kept.) A year later, when word came that Lotka would be drafted, the two "stepped over the line and became intimate." As a result, Michalski was six weeks pregnant when Lotka was inducted into the army on June 12, 1942. Once she learned of her condition, Michalski wrote to Lotka who told her to have an abortion. Her doctor, however, advised against it, so Michalski followed Lotka as he was sent to Denver, Colorado, and then to Camp White.

Things did not improve in Oregon. On Christmas Day 1942, Lotka left Michalski alone at their cabin to have dinner at a local home. In early January of 1943, he returned to Cleveland on a two-week furlough, but refused to allow Michalski, then eight and a half months pregnant, to come along lest their families found out about their living together and Michalski's condition. (None of their parents approved of the relationship.)

On January 25, 1943, the couple's son, William Lotka, was born. The parents were listed on the hospital's records as Sergeant and Mrs. Bernard Lotka.

Lotka still refused to marry Michalski. He also refused to allow the baby to be adopted for fear that his parents would somehow learn that he and Michalski were living together. Lotka never provided the young mother and child with anything. In addition, he wanted to get into the Army Air Corps, but that could happen only if he were single.

Baby's Body Found at Motor Court

On or around April 1, Lotka was accepted into the Air Corps. Then, on the morning of April 2, a gruesome discovery was made. Shortly before 10 a.m., E. P. Merrick, the manager of Merrick's Motor Home, and Raymond Chapman, the motor court's caretaker, noticed that no firewood had recently been used at the young couple's cabin. Their suspicions aroused, they entered and found William's body stuffed in a brown leather overnight bag on the shelf of the bathroom.

The police were called and two officers immediately went to Camp White to interview Lotka. The sergeant made a full confession and accompanied the police back to the motor home to reenact the crime. Based on information from Lotka, Michalski was arrested a short time later at the Union train depot in Portland, Oregon, nearly 300 miles away.

Lotka signed two statements confessing to the murder of his son. Supposedly, he and Michalski had "many times discussed getting rid of the child, and it was agreed between us to do so." Lotka also claimed that he killed the baby because "it was illegitimate and would never have a chance in society." Furthermore, he had no remorse for what he had done. "I don't consider I killed anyone, only my own flesh and blood, and the baby is better off this way."

According to Lotka's confession, he took Michalski on April 1 to the Greyhound station in Medford at about 8:30 p.m. SO she could purchase a bus ticket to Portland. From there, she would go by train back to Cleveland. (According to Michalski, she decided on March 28 to return home.) Lotka also stated that, as far as he knew, Michalski thought he was only going to give the baby away. Instead, the sergeant returned to the cabin and smothered William with a blanket. One hour later, Lotka calmly returned to the bus station to see Tillie off. When asked, he told her that he had done nothing to the child.

Lotka further confessed that, after Michalski's bus was gone, he purchased an overnight bag, returned to the cabin, stuffed the baby's body into it, and then returned to Camp White. It was his intention to return the next day to bury the child, but the corpse was found before he could act.

Both Parents Face Death Penalty

Lotka and Michalski were both indicted for first-degree (premeditated) murder. If convicted, they faced the gas chamber. (The state's theory was that Michalski had previous knowledge of Lotka's intentions and was, therefore, an accessory to the crime.) Given court-appointed lawyers, one of Lotka's counselors was George Codding, a former district attorney. Michalski's lawyer was Otto Frohnmayer, a prominent figure in Jackson County's legal community.

The defendants were tried separately. (Shortly after his arrest, the local authorities were told by the military that Lotka was "definitely out of the army" and, thus, subject to the civilian courts.)

Initially, Lotka pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Under Oregon's law in 1943, this would have required his lawyers to prove that he was insane beyond a reasonable doubt. However, after specialists examined by him, the plea was substituted with a regular "not guilty" plea.

Lotka's attorneys did everything they could. They attempted to exclude the confessions from evidence on the grounds that Lotka had not been fully advised of his right to a lawyer before he made and signed the statements. They also argued that the confessions were improperly obtained by police promises to keep the scandal "localized" so the defendant's relatives in Cleveland would not find out. (When asked if he wanted any members of his family present at the trial, Lotka's response was that "I don't want to see any of them, and I would like it better if they knew nothing about it.") Thirteen witnesses from Camp White testified to the sergeant's excellent reputation and character. It was to no avail. As Lotka's other lawyer, 0. H. Bengston, said to the jury:

I am absolutely convinced this soldier is innocent and is trying to protect someone else, even though by so doing he may lose his own life. We have had no assistance from the defendant. He refused to take the stand in his own behalf to refute [the] state's evidence against him. He has sat resolutely by as if trying to protect somebody.

The trial lasted four days. After only three and a half hours, the jury found Lotka guilty on Thursday, May 20, of second-degree murder. (There were later rumors that some jurors refused to convict Lotka of first-degree murder because they did not want to apply the death penalty to a soldier. A conviction of second-degree murder, which required the jury to find the defendant guilty of acting deliberately in an unpremeditated manner, carried a mandatory life sentence.)

Father Blames Mother As Surprise Witness

The following Monday, Michalski's trial started. The state argued that she knew Lotka was going to kill the baby when she left for Portland. It also had a written statement signed by Michalski that she had tried, at Lotka's insistence, to smother the child a month before the actual murder, but became frightened and stopped when William turned blue. The alleged confession, which also contained such incriminating statements as, "I'm as much to blame as he is" and "I've gotten him into an awful mess," was submitted into evidence.

Michalski claimed that she was bullied to sign the statement and denied that she knew Lotka planned to kill William and that she ever tried to murder her son. Michalski further stated that, on the night of April 1, she and Lotka had a terrible fight during which he refused to let her take the child back to Cleveland. "If you leave with the baby, Tillie, I'll do something desperate." Furthermore, Lotka told her that he'd "rather see all three of us dead" than let the young mother take their son to her parents.

On the third day of Michalski's trial, a bombshell was dropped in court. Lotka, who said nothing at his own trial, was called by the prosecution as a rebuttal witness. The state did not expect him to talk, but Lotka now claimed that Michalski killed William and that he signed his confessions "to avert suspicion from her." As he said:

I knew I had a good military and civilian record and thought perhaps I might receive leniency. All I wanted was for Tillie to get away from here, to go home to Cleveland.

When asked why he decided to speak up, Lotka claimed that Michalski's testimony had "blackened my character" and that he owed the truth to the men at Camp White who believed in his innocence.

In his closing argument, Michalski's lawyer, Otto Frohnmayer, told the jury:

you jurors may well criticize Tillie for abandoning her child in that cabin the night of April 1st, even though she might have had an inkling Lotka planned to smother it to death. But, that does not make her an accessory before the fact in this charge. That does not show she aided, abetted, or influenced the act.

Frohnmayer also attacked the state's theories of who actually committed the murder. (At first, the prosecution argued that Lotka committed the murder, but after his surprise testimony, the state maintained that Michalski did the deed and that the convicted killer was a credible witness.)

The jury considered the evidence for over seven and a half hours. Late Friday night, on May 28, it found Michalski "not guilty." Two days later, after a brief rest at a local hotel, Michalski left Oregon in the company of her mother and sister for her parents' home in Cleveland. And on June 4, Lotka was transported to his new residence at the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Mark Thorburn

Suggestions for Further Reading

Medford Mail Tribune April 2-June 6, 1943.

Working, Russell. "Alcatraz: Camp White and Jackson County in the 1940s." In Land in Common: AnIllustrated History of Jackson County, Oregon. Edited by Joy B. Dunn. Medford, Ore.: Mail Tribune, Rogue Federal Credit Union, and the Southern Oregon Historical Society, 1993.

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Bernard J. Lotka and Tillie Michalski Trials: 1943

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