Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Switchblade Kid: The Life and Death of Sal Mineo

The Investigation

Sal Mineo's body
Sal Mineo's body

Following the discovery of Sal's body, several people saw a man running from the crime scene. One witness claimed that the man was Italian or Mexican with dark curly hair. He also said that the man climbed into a yellow Toyota and sped away. The little girl who heard Sal's screams said she had seen a white man with dark curly hair fleeing the scene. Another witnesses said the man he saw running was white with darkish-blonde hair.

When the L.A. police detectives arrived at the scene, they were quick to surmise that the murder may not have been the result of a robbery. They found $21 in Sal's coat, and the jewelry he was wearing and his car keys were lying on the ground next to his body.

The autopsy revealed that Sal died of a single stab wound to the heart. The tissue surrounding and including the stab wounds was removed during the autopsy so that if the knife was found it could be matched to the perforations. The medical examiner listed the death as a homicide. 

Sal Mineo's death certificate
Sal Mineo's death certificate

During the autopsy, the medical examiner also found evidence of possible drug usage by Sal. Several puncture wounds were discovered in his buttocks and in other areas of his body. Sal's occasional use of LSD and marijuana were no surprise, but the puncture wounds pointed to heroin.

A former lover of Sal's named Michael Mason told police that Sal received hormone injections to supplement his waning sexual appetite, thus explaining the puncture wounds in his buttocks. But it did not explain the others, which showed evidence of injections. Some people who knew Sal said he was an avid user of cocaine.

Although there was some speculation that the murder was drug related, detectives Ed Pia and Dan Tankersley believed the murder was sex related. This theory was concocted following the detectives' search of Sal's apartment, where they found piles of homosexual pornographic magazines.

The police questioned as many people as they could find who had connections with Sal. Eventually, the search was narrowed to mostly homosexuals in the entertainment industry. It became increasingly clear that they were no longer exploring the idea of a robbery by some unknown assailant. It wasn't long before the case stalled.

Sal's remains were flown back to his native New York for the funeral. On February 17, five days after Sal's death, 250 mourners crowded into the Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Mamaronek, New York, to pay their last respects. There were an equal number of mourners outside the church, mostly onlookers and saddened fans. Among the church mourners were Sal's family and many of his friends and acquaintances in the entertainment industry. Some of the people included Sal's lover, Michael Mason, and best friend, Elliott Mintz, as well as Desi Arnaz Jr., David Cassidy, Natalie Wood, Yul Brynner, Peter Lawford, Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper and Paul Newman. 

According to Jeffers, during the night of the wake, Michael Mason and Sal's brother Victor had an argument over what little of Sal's money remained. Sal's family had difficulty acknowledging that he had relationships with men, and they refused to acknowledge Sal's former male lovers, including Mason. Following the wake, Sal was laid to rest next to his father, who had died three years earlier, at the Gates of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York. 

Sal Mineo gravesite
Sal Mineo gravesite

The investigation into Sal's murder remained stalled for several months and eventually the case was temporarily shelved. Then 16 months later, a woman named Theresa Williams came forward with new evidence. Theresa told police that on the night of the murder, her husband Lionel came home with a bloody shirt and admitted to her that he killed Sal with a hunting knife. She said that his motive was robbery. Shortly after giving her statement to police, Theresa committed suicide.

The once cold investigation heated up. Detectives researched 21-year-old Lionel's past and found that he had an extensive criminal record, including robbery and check fraud. There was one problem. Lionel did not fit any of the descriptions given by the witness at the scene of the crime. Lionel was a black man.

Detectives visited Lionel, who was being held in the L.A. County Jail on bad check charges. He was anxious to talk about Sal's murder. During the interview, Lionel claimed that he overheard some gang members talking about a contract to kill Sal because of a drug deal gone wrong. Detectives believed that Lionel was lying, but they had no proof. Once again the Mineo case turned cold, but not for long.

While serving time on bad check charges at Michigan's Calhoun County Jail, Lionel was overheard bragging about killing Sal Mineo to fellow inmates. Wardens of the prison alerted the police in Los Angeles and he was charged with Sal's murder. Lionel was extradited to Los Angeles in January 1978 to face the murder charges brought against him.

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