Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato - Hollywood Homicide

The Happening

Turner mansion, crime scene (CORBIS)
Turner mansion, crime scene

It all happened so quickly, they both said later. Like in an old-time silent movie, events in Lana's Beverly Hills mansion on that fateful Good Friday 1958 had a disconnected feeling to Lana and Cheryl.

In all the years afterward Lana would only refer to it as "the happening" and Cheryl would not talk about it at all, but in a matter of seconds the lives of Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato and Cheryl Crane would be changed forever.

The happening began on a Friday evening. Lana and Johnny were fighting and Lana would later say she knew this fight was going to be a bad one. They were in her bedroom and Cheryl was in her room next door. Their voices were loud enough that Cheryl could easily hear everything that was being said. Lana had already told Cheryl that that was the night she was going to end her relationship with Johnny.

After the Academy Awards, Cheryl had seen her mother's bruised face and knew John was beating her. Lana forbade her daughter from telling anyone, including her grandmother or father. Cheryl never said she saw Johnny hit Lana, but she did see the after effects in London and after the Oscars.

"[There were] awful fights, screaming and yelling and smashing glasses and just, you know, things I wasn't used to hearing," Cheryl told Larry King. "And she finally sat me down and told me the whole story about having had him thrown out of England when she was filming there because he beat her so badly. How he had threatened her life, my grandmother's life. She couldn't get him out of the house. She couldn't get rid of him. And my reaction was, 'Well, mother, call the police.'

"And of course, that was last thing in the world she would do because publicity. You know, I mean, it would have been she felt the end of her career."

Outside the bedroom, Cheryl called to her mother and Johnny, trying to quell the fight.

"I was, you know, hoping to get them apart," Cheryl said later.

"Cheryl, get away from that door!" Lana yelled. "I'm not going to tell you again!"

But Cheryl didn't go away. Instead she begged her mother to stop arguing and open the door. "And she wouldn't open the door," Cheryl said. "She said, 'Go back to your room. John is leaving.'

"And, of course, he didn't leave. And then I started hearing the threats that he was making that he was going to cut her face, that he was going to kill my grandmother. 'And I'll get your daughter, too.'"

As Lana and Johnny argued behind closed doors, Cheryl went down to the kitchen and grabbed a carving knife from a drawer. Johnny and Lana had purchased the knife earlier in the day. She returned upstairs and found herself outside her mother's closed door.

The argument then tapered down and Stompanato was going to leave the house. He went to the closet and took a set of clothes and some heavy, wooden hangers.

Armed with the knife, Cheryl pleaded with her mother to open the door, which an exasperated Lana did. She stood between Cheryl and Johnny. He was facing the door and looking at Lana with a raised arm holding the clothes over his shoulder in such a way that all Cheryl could see was the arm and some sort of weapon.

He moved to go past Lana toward the door, his arm upraised holding ... something ... and Cheryl thrust out her arm. From Lana's vantage point it looked like Cheryl had punched Johnny in the stomach and he sucked in his breath and jerked like someone who has been hit.

"Oh, my God, Cheryl, what have you done," he gasped. Then he did a small pirouette and fell to the floor. Eyes closed and wheezing awfully, Johnny lay dying on the carpet of Lana Turner's new home. Cheryl backed away, the knife falling from her hand and Lana realized the horror of the event. Cheryl had not punched John; she had stabbed him with the carving knife. Lana went to her daughter, who was sobbing, and helped her back to her room. She returned to tend to John Stompanato.

Johnny was unconscious by the time he hit the floor. His breathing was labored. As if in a trance, Lana picked up the knife and dropped it into the sink in the pink marble bar. Then she called her mother.

Within minutes a doctor and Lana's mother were on the scene. Turner was giving Johnny mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when they arrived. The doctor, a family friend, gave Stompanato a shot of adrenaline directly into his heart, but it was fruitless. Johnny Stompanato, military hero, wannabe actor, small-time hood, gigolo and abuser was dead.


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