Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Spade Cooley

Keeping Her Chaste

The marriage between Spade and Ella Mae Cooley was in shambles by 1960.

Cooley had always been paranoid about his wife's sex life — perhaps because he spent so many nights in the arms of others.

He saw every man as a potential lover. She was rarely allowed to visit Los Angeles. He apparently viewed the isolation of Willow Springs as a geographical chastity belt.

Meanwhile, he was out fiddlin' with Anita Aros or some other paramour.

"He virtually kept her a prisoner," Bobbie Bennett, Cooley's ex-manager, told Kienzle. "He was very jealous of her. Of course he was with another woman, or two or three, every night."

Ella Mae Cooley
Ella Mae Cooley

As spring approached in 1961, Ella Mae found Spade spending more and more time at the ranch as he worked on his theme-park project.

By then, Cooley was a full-fledged functioning alcoholic. To boot, he popped pills as whiskey chasers.

High and delusional, he began imagining sexual motives in every move that his wife made. 

He monitored her phone calls and demanded the details of her most mundane comings and goings. A trip to the grocery store in nearby Tehachapi could lead to an hour-long inquisition.

Ella Mae had become friends with two of Spade's theme-park business associates. Spade believed the men were gay, and he grew obsessed with the idea that they were luring her into a free-love sex cult.

The marital relationship became so bizarre that Ella Mae sent her children away to live with a friend.

At some point, she decided that she had had enough. She told Spade that she wanted a divorce. Cooley trumped her by quickly filing himself, citing incompatibility.

But he was soon apologizing, asking his wife to save their marriage.

The domestic trauma likely wore on Ella Mae. In the second week of March 1961, she was hospitalized for emotional problems. At about the same time, she made a peculiar confession to a nurse friend, Dorothy Davis. She said she had had an affair with Roy Rogers in 1952 or '53.

At the end of March, Cooley contacted an L.A. private detective, Billy Lewis, and asked him to "check up on" his wife, probably to help build his case against a large divorce settlement.

In the meantime, Cooley badgered Ella Mae endlessly, insisting that she admit her infidelities. On March 31, as they bickered in a moving automobile, Ella Mae either jumped or was pushed from the car. She tumbled along the road. She apparently did not seek medical help.

On the night of April 2, Spade Cooley telephoned Billy Lewis and said Ella Mae was ready to discuss her affairs. He handed the receiver to his wife. Lewis recorded the conversation:

"How are you, Mrs. Cooley?"

"I've been ill, Mr. Lewis. I almost had a nervous breakdown."

"Have you done anything you shouldn't have?"

"Yes, I have, Mr. Lewis."

She explained she spent "30 or 45 minutes" with a man in a motel the previous fall. She gave Lewis the date and the name of the motel.

Lewis asked her to identify the man.

"I don't even like to mention his name. I get so sick."

Lewis awkwardly suggested that Spade was "a forgiving sort of a man."

Ella Mae replied, "I'll love him until I die."

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