Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Who Killed William Desmond Taylor?

Hitman

Robert Giroux in his book, A Deed of Death, does not pretend to be able to identify the murderer by name but puts together a reasonable case that Taylor was done in by a professional hit man. 

He rejects the idea that the killer was a woman because he believes that a man seen by several witnesses before the slaying was the person who entered Taylor's apartment and took his life.

According to Giroux, two gas station attendants reported seeing a dark-haired male they did not recognize at about 6 p.m. The man, who was in his late 20s and weighed about 165 pounds, asked where William Desmond Taylor could be found and they pointed him to Alvarado Court. A Mrs. M. S. Stone, on her way to her daughter's apartment near Taylor's in Alvarado Court, saw a young, male stranger standing at the corner. A streetcar conductor and motorman remembered a man boarding their trolley at Alvarado and Maryland. They described him as "about 5-feet, 10-inches tall, around 165 pounds, about 27 or so."

Going on the assumption that all of these are the same person and the individual who killed Taylor, Giroux believes the hypothesis of a woman dressed as a man can be ruled out. Charlotte Shelby in particular, a petite woman in her 50s, would have been unable to impersonate the man seen by these witnesses. Race rules out Henry Peavey. Age and build exonerate Edward Sands, Denis Deane-Tanner and Mack Sennett. The killer was unknown to the neighborhood since he had to ask directions.

That the killer was a professional is supported, in Giroux's view, by his "true professional brilliance at the single moment of real crisis. Having accomplished Taylor's murder without detection... he emerged to find Faith MacLean in her doorway, looking straight at him. Instead of panicking, he solved the crisis by instantly going back to Taylor's door, pretending he'd forgotten something." It is hard to imagine an amateur showing this type of "cool" under pressure.

Giroux believes it unlikely that a jealous lover or Charlotte Shelby hired this professional killer.  Instead, he believes dope dealers had the strongest motive to want Taylor out of the way as well as the easiest access to hitmen. Taylor had gotten into physical fights with pushers and he had approached the U.S. attorney for help in putting such gangsters behind bars.

In Bruce Long's William Desmond Taylor: A Dossier, flaws in Giroux's theory are pointed out. "Would a professional killer deliberately expose himself to witnesses shortly before killing Taylor?" the author asks. "Isn't it more likely that a professional killer would learn where Taylor lived and then commit the murder some other day, speaking to no one near the murder scene? And wouldn't a professional killer have used a silencer so as not to disturb the neighborhood?"

Theories abound but none are without major problems. The mysterious death of William Desmond Taylor continues to fascinate. Part of the reason for the ongoing interest lies in the contradictory character of the victim, a man who could fecklessly flee his deepest responsibilities to wife and daughter but also express the greatest generosity and caring. Another reason is the unsolved nature of the crime and the likelihood that, no matter how many plausible theories are advanced, there will never be a solution satisfying to all observers. Then there is the fact that so many of early Hollywood's best and brightest are on the list of suspects. Last is the environment in which this mystery took place, the post-World War I Hollywood of high spirits and hard crashes, Prohibition booze and illegal drugs. To explore the facts and fancies around this baffling murder is to be temporarily transported back in time to the birth and infancy of that uniquely modern art form, the motion picture.

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