Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Spade Cooley

Charged with Murder

Cooley in custody
Cooley in custody

Ella Mae Cooley, 37 years old, was declared dead on arrival at Tehachapi Hospital.

Dr. Vincent Troy reported, "There were numerous marks of external violence noted on the body consisting of bruises over the entire body, indicating that the victim had been beaten severely."

A coroner's report would note numerous cigarette burns and trauma to her head, neck, chest and genitals. She had suffered vaginal and anal abuse. The cause of death was internal bleeding from a ruptured aorta, a result of punching and kicking.

Law enforcers were called to the hospital. Spade Cooley, seated in the waiting room, told Kern County Sheriff's Sgt. Thomas Shuell that he may have slapped his wife once or twice. But he said her injuries came when she jumped from their moving car a few days before and then fell in the shower the previous night.

Cooley couldn't explain why his fiddle-playing hands were as swollen and bruised as a prizefighter's.

District Attorney Kit Nelson brought first-degree murder charges, but Cooley hardly seemed to notice.

At his arraignment, the Associated Press reported that Cooley "shuffled into court like a sleepwalker" and, "as if in a daze, failed to acknowledge introduction of his defense attorney."

Cooley collapsed in his jail cell a few days after his arrest. His attorney, P. Basil Lambros, explained that Cooley hadn't eaten since the killing.

Cooley's health problems, including periodic chest pains and minor heart attacks, delayed the start of the trial until mid-summer.

At Lambros' suggestion, Cooley pleaded both not guilty and not guilty due to insanity. However, he was examined by three separate court-appointed shrinks, who judged him sane.

Police at the Cooley home
Police at the Cooley home

Ten days before the trial began, Lambros arranged a peculiar field trip for Cooley to the scene of the crime — "to try to jog his memory" of what happened that night, as his attorney put it.

Reporters were allowed to traipse along. Cooley told them, "It brings back bitter memories."

At trial in Bakersfield, prosecutor Nelson called 24 witnesses, including Melody Cooley, who bravely recounted the murder of her mother. Spade Cooley fainted at the defense table as his daughter testified.

The jury of ten men and two women also heard from Billy Lewis, the private investigator.

He described the bizarre telephone infidelity "confession" by Ella Mae, then went on to say that he had checked the motel where the alleged liaison had occurred. The proprietor had no record of the rendezvous, and Lewis had concluded that it hadn't happened. He said he could find no evidence that Ella Mae had been unfaithful with anyone.

The trial was heavily publicized, but no witness got more attention than Dorothy Davis, the friend and nurse to whom Ella Mae had confided the Roy Rogers affair. Ella Mae told Davis that she and Rogers had become "intimate" while on a trip to Texas nearly ten years before.

Davis said she did not believe Ella Mae, who was under emotional duress at the time. She could not explain why the woman would have lied about such a thing.

Reporters contacted the spokesman for Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans. They dismissed the allegation as "ridiculous."

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