Raymond Bernard Finch and Carole Tregoff Trials: 1960 & 1961

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Raymond Bernard Finch and Carole
Tregoff Trials: 1960 & 1961

Defendants: Raymond Bernard Finch and Carole Tregoff
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Don Bruggold, Grant Cooper, Rexford Egan, and Robert A. Neeb, Jr.
Chief Prosecutors: First trial: Clifford C. Crail, William H. McKesson, and Fred N. Whichello; Second trial: Clifford C. Crail; Third trial: Clifford C. Crail
Judges: First trial: Walter R. Evans; Second trial: LeRoy Dawson; Third trial: David Coleman
Place: Los Angeles, California
Dates of Trials: January 4-March 12, 1960; June 27-November 7, 1960; January 3-March 27, 1961
Verdict: First trial: Mistrial; Second trial: Mistrial; Third trial: GuiltyFinch, first degree; Tregoff, second degree
Sentences: Both received life imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: Despite overwhelming evidence in favor of conviction, a jury deadlocked, primarily because racial tension had pervaded the jury room.

Rampant greed, sex, and a considerable dose of comedy ensured that this trial of a wealthy doctor and his mistress as joint defendants on charges of murder dominated newspaper headlines for months.

By 1959, Finch, 42, a wealthy Los Angeles, California physician, yearned to elevate his affair with 20-year-old Carole Tregoff to something more permanent. Standing directly in the path of this ambition was Finch's wife, Barbara, backed by the formidable California community property laws. Divorce would entitle Barbara Finch to half of Finch's estimated $750,000 fortune. Furthermore, if Barbara Finch could prove adulteryand there was every indication that she intended to do just thatFinch faced financial ruin, since the court could then apportion any percentage of the community property it deemed fit to the aggrieved party.

Unwilling to accept such a calamity, Finch and Tregoff schemed. In Las Vegas, Nevada, where Tregoff had gone to work, they attempted to hire someone, anyone, to seduce Barbara Finch, and thereby provide Finch with evidence for a countersuit of adultery. This notion brought them into contact with self-confessed gigolo John Patrick Cody, a seedy ex-convict entirely untroubled by matters of conscience. Talk of seduction soon turned to plans of murder. Cody assured the couple that homicide was also high on his list of accomplishments. After accepting a down payment of $350 and an airline ticket, Cody departed, ostensibly to kill Barbara Finch in Los Angeles. (Actually he spent the weekend with one of his several girlfriends.) A few days later he resurfaced and told Tregoff that the matter had been taken care of. She paid him the agreed balance of $850, only to learn later that Barbara Finch was still very much alive. Cody professed astonishment, then explained that he must have killed the wrong woman. For another couple of hundred dollars he promised to rectify the error. With this payment in hand, Cody disappeared, leaving Finch and Tregoff sadder, wiser, and infinitely more desperate.

At 10:00 p.m. on July 18, 1959, the couple arrived at Finch's opulent house on Lark Hill Drive in suburban West Covina. Barbara Finch was not at home. Just over an hour later, she drove up in her red Chrysler. Finch went across to talk to her. A struggle broke out. At some point in the dispute, Barbara Finch was shot dead by a. 38-caliber bullet. For reasons never fully explained, Finch and Tregoff somehow became separated. Finch, after stealing two cars, made his way back to Las Vegas, where he was joined early the next morning by Tregoff. That same day, Finch was arrested and charged with murder. Eleven days later Tregoff was similarly charged.

Fatal Struggle

Their trial began at the Los Angeles County Courthouse on January 4, 1960. Prosecutor Fred Whichello called his first witness, Marie Anne Lindholm, the Finch maid. She told of running to the garage after hearing Barbara Finch scream and seeing Dr. Finch, gun in hand, standing over his semiconscious wife. Finch had then banged Lindholm's head against the garage wall, apparently in an effort to stun her. He'd ordered both women into the car but Barbara Finch had broken free and run. The doctor gave chase. Moments later Lindholm heard a shot, whereupon she ran to the house and called the police.

Equally damaging were Lindholm's allegations that Finch had regularly abused and threatened his wife. Over strenuous defense objections, a letter Lindholm had written to her mother in Sweden before the murder was admitted into evidence. In it she described a beating that Finch had given Barbara Finch, and also his oft-repeated threats that he had hired "someone in Las Vegas" to kill her.

When Cody took the stand, defense lawyers must have felt confident of demolishing his testimony. If so, it was confidence misplaced. Cody's cheerful admissions to just about every form of reprehensible conduct imaginablehe had been a thief, a sponger, and an occasional swindlergave his testimony a curious verisimilitude, an honesty, that the defense could never quite shake. Attorney Grant Cooper tried hard but it was useless:

Question: What did you do?

Answer: I loafed.

Question: How did you support yourself?

Answer: By my wit.

Question: (Later in reference to one of Cody's girlfriends): Did she support you?

Answer: Yes.

Defense attorney Rexford Egan fared no better:

Question: Would you lie for money?

Answer: (After a long, thoughtful pause) It looks like I have.

Cody also told the court of a homily that he had delivered to Finch in an effort to dissuade him from murder:

Killing your wife for money alone isn't worth it. Let her have every penny. Take Carole up on a mountaintop and live off the wild. If the girl loves you, she's going to stick with you.

But by far the deadliest thing that Cody had to say detailed a conversation with Carole Tregoff, in which she had snapped: "Jack, you can back out. But if you don't kill her, the doctor will; and if he doesn't, I will."

When the prosecution rested, things looked bleak indeed for the doctor and the redhead.

Dying Words

Rumors that the defense had a surprise in store guaranteed a packed courtroom when Finch took the stand. The doctor didn't disappoint. He described how his wife had pulled a gun on him. Regrettably, in his efforts to take the gun away, he had been forced to club her with it, inflicting two skull fractures. At that moment, the maid Lindholm had entered the garage. Finch's misconstrued attempts to placate the maid's obvious distressalready referred togave Barbara Finch the chance to snatch up the gun and take off. Finch went in pursuit. Some way up the drive he saw Barbara Finch taking dead aim at Tregoff with the pistol. A further struggle ensued. Finch grabbed the gun. Barbara Finch began running again. Inexplicably, as Finch attempted to toss the gun away, it went off, neatly drilling his fleeing wife between the shoulder blades. Claiming ignorance of this fact, Finch ran across to his prone wife.

"What happened, Barb?" he cried. "Where are you hurt?"

"Shot in chest," she gasped.

"Don't move a thing. I've got to get an ambulance for you and get you to [the] hospital."

Barbara held up a restraining hand. "Wait. I'm sorry, I should have listened."

"Barb, don't talk about it now. I've got to get you to [the] hospital."

"Don't leave me. Take care of the kids."

As Finch described feeling for a pulse and finding none, his voice broke: "She was dead." He wiped away a tear. Sobs could also be heard in the public gallery. Others preferred to concentrate on the likelihood of a murder victim actually apologizing for being killed, and found the story a little thin, to say the least.

Under cross-examination the doctor regained his normal buoyancy. When prosecutor Whichello, referring to numerous affairs with other women before Carole Tregoff, asked him: "Did you tell these women that you loved them?" the doctor responded jauntily: "I think under the circumstances that would be routine."

Seven days on the stand did little to undermine Finch. His story sounded implausible, but he stuck to it and yielded nothing to the prosecution.

They made more headway against Tregoff, whose own account of events bordered on the fantastic. She told of watching the scene unfold, then cowering for five or six hours behind some bougainvillea plants, paralyzed with fear, while police turned the house upside down. Later, she had driven back to Las Vegas, alone. Allegedly, her first knowledge of Barbara Finch's death came via the car radio, information which she passed on to Finch himself. He reportedly shrugged the news off and Tregoff went to work.

Prosecutor Clifford Crail succeeded in making Tregoff look very bad, intent only on saving herself at the expense of Finch. (Since their arrest, Tregoff had spurned all of Finch's letters and advances.) Crail highlighted her leading role in the solicitation of Cody, also her conflicting stories of why the couple had gone to Lark Hill Drive that night. Originally, Tregoff told police that the intention was to talk Barbara Finch out of divorce proceedings. On the stand that evolved into an attempt to convince her to obtain a "quickie" Nevada divorce.

Stunning Verdict

Courtroom observers thought that, at a minimum, Tregoff's performance had guaranteed a berth for Finch in the gas chamber. But after eight days of wrangling, the jury members announced that they were unable to agree on a verdict and a mistrial was declared. It later transpired that racial tensionone jury member was black, another Hispanichad led to ugly scenes in the jury room, when neither minority juror would yield to pressure exerted by the white Jurors.

A second trial began June 27, 1960, and again ended in deadlock November 7, 1960, despite an extraordinary admonition to the jury by Judge LeRoy Dawson, who told them, in no uncertain terms, that they ought not to believe the evidence of either defendant.

The State of California tried for a third time, opening its case January 3, 1961 before Superior Judge David Coleman. By now much of the earlier sensational coverage had dissipated, leaving a noticeably calmer courtroom atmosphere. It showed in the jury deliberations. On March 27 they convicted Finch of first-degree murder, while Tregoff was found guilty in the second degree. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 1969 Tregoff was paroled. She changed her name and found work at a hospital in the Pasadena area.

Finch, released two years later, practiced medicine in Missouri for a decade before returning to West Covina in 1984.

Given the lurid ingredients, it was hardly surprising that the trials of Finch and Tregoff assumed national prominence. And yet two juries deadlocked over what was almost surely premeditated murder. How much their indecision was prompted by the defendants' attractive appearance and social standing will remain a matter of conjecture.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Ambler, Eric. The Ability To Kill. New York: The Mysterious Press, 1987.

Gaute, J.H.H. and Robin Odell. The Murderers' Who's Who. London: W.H. Allen, 1989.

Kilgallen, Dorothy. Murder One. New York: Random House, 1967.

Wolf, Marvin J. and Katherine Mader. Fallen Angels. New York: Ballantine, 1986.

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Raymond Bernard Finch and Carole Tregoff Trials: 1960 & 1961

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