Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Winnie Ruth Judd: 'The Trunk Murderess' In Perspective

The Trunks

Around him, passengers in stylish Stetsons and feminine cloches rushed to and from their trains amid the hustle-bustle of redcaps and stewards and baggage men like himself who staffed Los Angeles Union Station this Monday morning, October 19. The human activity was accompanied by the shrill screech of arriving steam engines and the incessant, almost automaton voice of the clerk announcing departures and arrivals. George Brooker, in blue uniform and wearing the blue, round cap that identified him as a baggage-checker, had been hard at work several hours already. All of the cases, trunks, valises, parcels and packages that had been unloaded from that morning's arrival of the Golden State Limited from Phoenix, Arizona, had long been picked up by their owners, but two trunks, he noted, remained on the flatbed truck. Checking his baggage list against those trunks, he ensured that those pieces did indeed come off the said train. He decided to wait a few more minutes before returning them to storage; someone may call for them yet.

Both were black with great silver latch-type locks. One was a large packer trunk, 40" by 24" by 38," and had been weighed in at 235 pounds. The other was an average-sized stream trunk, 15" by 18" by 36," weighing some 50 pounds less.

Besides, he had a particular interest in talking to the owner of those two trunks. It was his job to act as inspector of any suspect luggage, and God forbid should he pass on any contraband such as illegal firearms or liquor; this was 1931, Prohibition was in effect, and he had been given strict orders from the Southern Pacific for whom he worked to keep an eye peeled for bootleg hooch or tommy guns in transit.

But, that pair of seemingly abandoned trunks surely didn't smell of alcohol nor of gunpowder. But, they had an odor that he best described to himself as something foul, something... nauseating. It wasn't uncommon for hunters returning from the mountains to try to smuggle their catch through rail customs venison, or deer, or even bear meat. Worse, he had noticed a dark fluid dripping though the corners of the lid onto his truck.

A few minutes before noon, Brooker noticed a Ford roadster backing up toward the receiving dock. Alighting was an attractive young couple, a blondish woman with a face like movie star Norma Shearer and a handsome college-age male, several years younger than the woman. The former asked for her trunks, presenting a claim ticket for both. She and her associate ascended the few wooden steps to the platform.

Brooker's boss, baggage agent Jim Anderson, with whom he had earlier shared his observations of the shipment, stepped out of his office and signaled to the other that he would take over.

"Have to ask, ma'am: What're the contents?" Anderson inquired, thumbing her two large baggage trunks.

"Oh, nothing. Personal articles," the woman answered. Anderson, as did Brooker, noted she seemed uneasy. As she was closer now to him, Anderson thought she looked a trifle bruised about the face.

"Your personal items?" the agent pursued.

"Er.... yes, they are my trunks," she explained. She tried to smile. "Sorry I'm a little late picking them up, but I had to wait for my brother" she motioned the boy "to drive over here and help me. They're rather heavy."

"Ah, I see," Anderson reasoned to remain personable, "and yes, they are heavy. Ma'am, excuse me, but there seems to be a stench coming from inside each."

"Really?" She intoned a surprise. A panic darkened her pretty features.

Her brother, however, laughed. "You're kidding!" And he leaned over to sniff. One whiff and he grimaced. "Hmm, you're right, sir" he turned to the baggage man, nodding. "And look, Ruth, something seems to be oozing out."

The woman intimated nonchalance. She claimed she smelled nothing well, maybe a little something; and as for whatever that was dripping -- for the life of her she couldn't figure out what that was. After all, as far as she remembered she had only clothing and ladies' private things stored inside them.

"Nevertheless, ma'am," Anderson sounded stern this time. "I have to ask you to unlock them for my inspection. Please open the trunks, ma'am."

"The woman seemed hesitant (but) opened her purse and fumbled around inside with her one good hand Anderson now noticed that the other was bandaged as though looking for the keys to unlock the trunks," says Jana Bommersbach in her book, The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd. "'My husband has the keys,' she told him, and Anderson took it for a lie right away."

When her inquirer offered to let her use his station phone, she declined, telling him that she would have to fetch her husband in person; she could not recall his telephone number verbatim. Suddenly, she had alerted and, as both Brooker and his superior noticed, could not wait to get away from them. On the same token, her brother seemed as equally puzzled as his sibling tugged him down the steps toward the automobile, not looking back, not once, as the Ford wheeled out of the lot.

Suspicious, Anderson phoned the L.A.P.D. A Lieutenant Frank Ryan answered the call. Hearing the railman's tale, the detective picked the lock of the larger trunk first. Even before he opened it, his decade of experience warned him, by the smell and its putrid leaking, to expect the worst. Opening the lid, he was momentarily overcome by more than the odor. Lifting a layer of rags and clothing from a corner, the decomposing face of a dead woman stared blankly back at him. He dropped the lid closed.

"Holy sh---" A wail of a locomotive from the tracks beyond drowned out his expletive.

Regaining his senses, he dared to examine both trunks.

A headline article that would appear in the following morning's Los Angeles Examiner detailed what Lt. Ryan found: "In the larger one was the body of an older and larger woman. She had been shoved into the trunk and partly hidden by a mass of clothing, blankets, letters and a jumble of other material, apparently thrown hastily on top of the corpse...In the body of (a) younger woman were three bullet wounds. One was through the left temple, one in the left breast and one in the left shoulder...She had been stuffed into the smaller trunk, for the body had been severed by a keen-edged instrument cut completely into three pieces, but the portion from the waist to the knees was missing!"

Both women appeared to have been dead about two days.

The missing pieces of the younger woman soon turned up. A janitor in the ladies' restroom at the depot discovered that evening, a beige valise and hatbox, hidden behind the door of the ladies' restroom. Police recovered the items and, as they had with the two trunks, removed them to the morgue where they were searched. In the valise was the remaining lower torso, wearing shreds of pink pajamas. This was bundled in blankets.

The matching hatbox contained a surgeon's kit of instruments, the type used to dissect, a Colt .25 calibre automatic pistol, one box of .25 caliber Winchester cartridges, a bread knife and an assortment of cosmetics.

In no time, the police verified that the wayward pieces of luggage belonged to passenger Winnie Ruth Judd who had boarded the train Sunday evening in Phoenix.

 

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