Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Winnie Ruth Judd: 'The Trunk Murderess' In Perspective

In-and-Out Inmate

The Arizona State Mental Hospital, like most institutions of that nature in the first half of the 20th Century, lacked proper facility and offered little guidance. Hot, understaffed, short in benevolence but long on razor-strap discipline, these types of places were more Bedlam than TLC. The establishment in Phoenix to which Winnie Ruth Judd was commuted was the most overcrowded in the country.

Ruth found herself alive, true, but thrust into a world of abstracts, a place she could not understand. They said she was crazy she often wondered herself if perhaps she was -- but then how come she was sane enough to sense the insanity of her situation? By now, having been yanked by fate to all corners of hysteria, she learned to accept small gifts of luck. She coped, and made the best of her new "home". Ruth became the unofficial beautician for many of the women patients, fixing them up for the occasional dances that the hospital sponsored for the inmates. Her work was so good that the nurses began visiting her, glad to pay her the small renumeration she charged.

An aide at the asylum, Anne Keim, remembers Ruth distinctly: "She was more like a member of the staff than a patient. She worked unusually hard did more for that hospital than any two or three people. She wasn't crazy, either, she was sane as anyone..."

Only one thing, Keim remembers, would drive Ruth over the edge, something very understandable considering all she'd been through: Jack Halloran would often show up at the dances, said she, merely to "sneer and laugh real nasty at her and she'd just go to pieces." The provoker was eventually banned from the grounds.

Harry Whitmer, the institution's business manager during the 1940s, who came to know Ruth Judd well, became convinced of two things: "As for being insane, no...(Also,) there was a major question in a lot of people's minds if she (was guilty) or not, or if she was just taking the rap."

Ruth became an escape artist. During her 30-plus years of incarceration (1933 to 1971), she continuously gave the place the slip usually for a brief period of time, then ultimately for nearly seven years. The board of directors babbled; they could not figure out how she was able to duck out despite precautionary measures. Years later, after she was given official freedom, Ruth admitted that one kind nurse, who realized the injustice handed her, had given her a key to the front door.

Between 1939 and 1962, Ruth escaped seven times:

October 24, 1939 (for six days). She returned on her own.

December 3, 1939 (for several days). Grabbing a bus to Yuma, Arizona, 180 miles away, police found her there. For this escape she was put into solitary confinement for 24 months, retained barefooted and in pajamas.

May 11, 1947 (for 12 hours). She absconded in broad daylight, but was picked up that night hiding on the grounds of a nearby resort.

November 29, 1951 (for a few hours). Authorities located her, stuck in Phoenix.

February 2, 1952 (for five days). While on the lam, she remained at abetting friends' homes the while, eventually turning herself in.

November 23, 1952 (for two days). Escaped after Thanksgiving dinner, and was found by police in the home of a friend.

October 8, 1962 (for 6-1/2 years).

This latter escape requires more than a capsule summary. Traipsing around Arizona for several months, hiding out, particularly in Kingman, Ruth wound up in Oakland, California. There she utilized a pseudonym, Marian Lane, and even dared to apply at an employment agency for a local job. Her brother was financing her, but she wished to make a go of it on her own. Passing herself off as a maidservant, Ruth was hired by the extremely wealthy Nichols family of San Francisco to serve as both maid and sitter for the aging matriarch, affectionately called "Mother Nichols".

Her employer lived in a huge mansion overlooking the Bay area. Up in years, she found "Marian Lane" the ideal helper and companion. Ruth worked hard, but loved it. She tended to the laundry, the cooking, the general housecleaning, and when Mother Nichols entertained, the setting up of delicate luncheons and afternoon teas. Ruth was in heaven.

When the old lady passed away just before Christmas of 1967, the Nichols relatives invited Marian to stay with them in a cottage they owned on their property north of San Francisco.

Police found her there on June 27, 1969. They had traced her through the records of the state drivers' license bureau

When Ruth had been found "insane" in 1933, the ruling had not altogether eradicated a possibility that she might eventually return to the gallows if she ever recovered her mind. With this looming fear, she time and time again appealed to the authorities to have that aberration removed. In 1952, with the help of some supporters, she was given another hearing to have the death penalty officially voided...again she described that terrible night, again she described Jack Halloran's flimflam. Again Jack Halloran dodged punishment. But, first things first, and this time the first thing being her petition for leniency, the state freed her once and for all from the noose.

Recaptured, 1969 (Courtesy Lois Boyles)
Recaptured, 1969
(Courtesy Lois Boyles)

Now, back in the custody of the asylum after her latest and longest escape, Ruth  demanded a sanity hearing knowing that if she was found sane enough for the outside world it wouldn't mean that she must die there.

Having had a taste of the normal life, she yearned freedom more than ever. She phoned the world-famous attorney Melvin Belli in 1969; he took her case immediately. Assisted by local (Arizona) attorney Larry Debus, Belli convinced the state parole board to review the case pending the possibility of release. In October, 1969, Belli appeared before the hearing with a brilliant summary of her case, her life, and brought forth many witnesses to attest to Winnie Ruth Judd her character, her innocence, her sanity.

Over decades, some things don't change. This was proven when the board denied parole.

The attorneys campaigned; they built up a such a cry for her release from among the American public and press that, when her case came again before the same parole board in February, 1971, it listened this time. After the parade of paparazzi, the testimony, the repetitions and memories of so many years, the board declared:

"...The case is not one you sweep under the rug and forget about...As time passes, more and more people will join the ranks of those who think her sentence should be commuted. What we will see is not a question of modern penology, but the portrayal of out-and-out persecution of an elderly grandmother type unfortunate woman. It is incumbent upon the board to give her a commutation of sentence now..."

Early morning, December 21, 1971, Governor of Arizona Jack Williams put pen to paper. That evening, Ruth walked out of the asylum, this time without dodging the lights.

*****

Winnie Ruth Judd returned to California, as Marian Lane where she lived in Stockton with her dog, Skeeter.  She died at the age of 93 in her sleep, peacefully, on October 23, 1998.

John McFadden, the lawman who saved her from the gallows in the nick of time, found his career politically ruined afterwards. Expecting such, he retired from active duty. Embittered at the foulness of the men who ran him out of office for trying to help a human being, he claimed he would do it all over again, the same way, had he the chance.

Jack Halloran was fired by his silent partners in his lumber business for the scandal he created. He eventually disappeared into oblivion. Many people today believe that he may have even been the man who killed the two girls, but of course that cannot be, at this point in time, substantiated. Theorists say he promised Ruth that if she stood in for him on the killings, he would see that she was freed. He then paid his way out and walked away.

Virginia Fetterer is one who believes Halloran was the killer. A daughter of an Arizona legislator in the state's early days, Fetterer stands by the story she told writer Jana Bommersbach in 1990 about her meeting with him in the late 1930s.

It was New Year's Eve, and Fetterer and her husband dined at the Adams Hotel, a hangout for local politicians. There, she says, they met Halloran. She goes on: "Somebody asked him a question, like if he could take care of a problem. And he was bragging that, sure, he could fix it. Then he said I can't recall his exact words, but it was to the effect that if you knew the right people you could fix anything in this town. He laughed and said that Winnie Ruth was out in the state hospital paying for what he'd done. He was bragging about it."

 

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