Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Earle Leonard Nelson: The Dark Strangler

A Phantom

Santa Barbara, California is far enough away from the Bay Area as to be in a different country. The gateway to Southern California, the city was in the 1920s not nearly as worldly as San Francisco and didn't have many of the same problems that plagued an international community. A resort town, Santa Barbara was filled with rooming houses and hotels and was the perfect place for Earle Nelson to head to as things heated up in San Francisco.

Whether he went directly from the City by the Bay to Santa Barbara is unknown, but for nearly two months, he managed to control his desires and avoid detection. Time and distance from the site of the Dark Strangler killings made the women of Santa Barbara lax in their surveillance of strange men and made them excellent targets for the psychopathic Nelson.

Railroad worker William Franey was a boarder in the home of Mrs. Ollie Russell, a 53-year-old woman who along with her husband kept a pleasant, if not slightly run-down boarding house in Santa Barbara. Franey, who worked at night, was asleep in his room on the top floor of Russell's home when he awoke to the sound of fierce banging coming from the room next door. Frustrated at yet another disturbance to his routine, Franey sleepily made his way to the door that separated his room from his noisy neighbors. Franey knew that the keyholes in the thin doors provided a view into the private lives of his neighbors and he bent down to peek inside.

He saw a large man, his pants pulled down around his knees frenetically making thrusting movements as his female partner lay beneath him. The banging of the bed's headboard against the wall was what woke Franey up. Embarrassed, Franey withdrew, but then prurient curiosity got the better of him and he leaned down to take another look. The man was wearing a shabby gray suit that looked much worse for wear but the woman's clothes were more upscale. As the man finished, arose and rearranged his clothing, Franey got a better look at the woman, although her face was turned away. But the more he looked, the more he thought the woman looked like his landlady, Ollie Russell.

Once the man finished dressing, Franey watched as he put on his hat and left the room. The railroad fireman could hear the door to the hallway open and footsteps leading away from the room. The woman on the bed had not said a word or moved in the slightest. Looking closer, Franey saw what looked like blood on the bedding. That, along with the knowledge that Mrs. Russell was not the type of woman who would even entertain thoughts of adultery, made him deeply suspicious so he headed out to find George Russell and report what he saw.

The two men returned home and Mr. Russell opened the door to the unrented room. "Her battered face gruesomely discolored, Ollie Russell lay dead on the mattress. She'd been strangled with a loop of cord pulled tight enough to tear the flesh of her throat. Blood had spattered from her neck onto the mattress, and there were bloody marks on the casing of the door," Schechter wrote.

This time, police were not as circumspect with reporters, and it soon became public knowledge that Ollie Russell had been sexually assaulted after she was dead.

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