Mother or Monster

Mother or Monster

After withstanding a dramatic two-hour inquisition on the part of her husband, Detective Leo O’Loughlin, late yesterday, Mrs. O’Loughlin was brought before Captain of Detectives Clark and Chief of Police Reed again late last night.

 

From 9:15 until 4:30 this morning she underwent a merciless grilling, her iron nerve snapped and she was taken back to her cell in city jail in partial collapse.

 

Captain Clark said there was no formal “confession.”

 

“But she talked,” he declared, “ and we will go into the details of her admissions later on.”

Bradford Evening Star and The Bradford Daily Record (Bradford, Pennsylvania), October 23, 1930

The body of ten-year-old Leona O’Loughlin was pulled from a lake in a city park in Denver, Colorado, on Friday, October 17, 1930. Leona had been missing from her home for two days when her body was discovered.

The Denver coroner performed an autopsy on the body and determined that she died either from suffocation or drowning. She had sustained two blows to the back of her head. The blows were severe enough to have caused a concussion but didn’t cause her death. She also had a small quantity of ground glass in her stomach and intestines but not enough to have killed her. The coroner estimated Leona’s time of death at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, October 14.

Leona lived with her father, 44-year-old police detective Leo O’Loughlin and her stepmother, 32-year-old Pearl, along with Pearl’s son from a previous marriage, Douglas Millican, aged seven. Frank O’Loughlin, Leo’s younger brother, boarded with the family but did not take his meals with them due to an ongoing argument with Pearl. Leona’s mother, Maude, had died of natural causes in 1928. Leo married Pearl, a divorcée, in January 1929.

Pearl and Leo were both taken ill on Wednesday, the day after Leona died and the first day the family realized Leona was missing. Pearl suffered from what was called “ptomaine poisoning,” from which she recovered the following day. Leo had something more serious, described as influenza, and he was sick enough to be hospitalized on Thursday. He was still in the hospital when his daughter’s body was found on Friday.

Pearl Leona Leo

Pearl, Leo and Leona O’Loughlin.

The police initially theorized that Leona had been kidnapped and killed by a child molester or by an enemy of her father’s. They also speculated that she might have wandered off on her own and died by misadventure or even that she committed suicide. But on Sunday, October 19th, her grandfather, Dennis O’Loughlin, told police that six weeks earlier he had found ground glass in his sugar bowl after Pearl, Leo and the kids had a meal with him at his Fort Collins home. He speculated, based on no evidence, that Pearl put the glass in his sugar in order to poison him. He ate some of the sugar and spat it out. Though he didn’t realize the sugar contained ground glass, he saved the contents of the bowl, which he turned over to police.

With the ground glass evidence in hand, the police developed a new theory — Leona’s death was an “inside job” — the work of a family member, likely her stepmother. Leo had been at work the night his daughter died, so that left Pearl and Frank as suspects — they were taken into custody. Leo insisted that his brother could not have been involved in Leona’s death. He wasn’t so sure about his wife. Supposedly Leo’s stomach contents were tested at the hospital and also found to contain ground glass.

Police decided that Pearl poisoned the family’s dinner with glass, causing everyone except her own son, Douglas, to become ill. Douglas was interviewed and admitted that he had not eaten the rice his mother served that Tuesday evening because she told him he’d already eaten enough. The theory went that, when Leona didn’t die shortly after eating rice containing the glass, Pearl took the girl to the lake, hit her on the head a couple of times and threw her in, leaving her to drown. Or maybe she suffocated her first, hit her on the head for good measure and threw her into the lake.

Motive was a problem. The police came to the conclusion that Pearl was after Leo’s insurance money, about $3200 (worth about $45,000 in 2017 dollars — not bad but far from a fortune). Leo claimed he changed the beneficiary of his policy from his wife to his daughter the week before Leona died. So with Leona out of the way, Pearl could next kill Leo and get the cash. They also thought she wanted Dennis’ money. His estate was the real plum, said to be worth about $35,000. But if it was her father-in-law’s money Pearl wanted, she needed to kill him first, so Leo would inherit, then kill Leo. Apparently she gave up on murdering Dennis after the glass in his sugar bowl didn’t kill him, but decided to try it anyway to kill Leona and Leo, or so the theory went.

The police interrogated Pearl relentlessly over a period of four days. Interviewed for hours on end, all she would say was that Frank was somehow involved in Leona’s death, but she refused to provide details. She was even taken to the funeral home to view Leona’s body in her casket in an effort to break her “iron nerve.” Instead Pearl leaned over and kissed the dead girl’s face.

Pearl O'Loughlin News pic_marked

Pearl in the Denver City Jail, November 1, 1930. Collection of the author.

Finally, in the early morning hours of October 23rd, an exhausted Pearl broke down. “I’ll take the blame. I’m the one that has to suffer,” said Pearl, after almost seven hours of non-stop questioning by police. Pearl’s lawyer intervened before police got her to sign a confession, but she was charged with first-degree murder. The police and prosecutor hoped that, if convicted, she’d get the death penalty. Two days later Pearl insisted she was innocent and claimed the confession was made under duress.

Frank was also charged with murder. Leo wanted his brother to have a trial so he could clear his name. Frank’s trial was scheduled to begin after Pearl’s finished.

A bloody towel was found in the O’Loughlin family car. Pearl claimed Douglas had a bloody nose sometime recently and that was how the blood got on the towel. Blood and some fibers were found on the tire iron in the vehicle. The fibers might have come from Leona’s hat, though no one was sure. Blood typing had not yet been discovered, so all anyone could say was that it was human blood on the towel and on the tire iron.

Pearl lacked an alibi for the evening Leona died and she damaged her case by lying about where she had been. At first she said that, after putting the children to bed, she went to her hairdresser’s home for a permanent wave, left briefly and went back again, spending most of the evening at the hairdresser’s. However the hairdresser testified that Pearl only came to her house once that night around 10:30 p.m., not wearing stockings and generally looking disheveled. Pearl also claimed she had taken a friend to the doctor that evening, but the friend said it was a different night they had visited the doctor. In fact, she insisted that she hadn’t seen Pearl for three weeks before Leona died.

The case was circumstantial, but Pearl was convicted of first-degree murder. It took the jury of twelve men less than two hours to arrive at the verdict. Her verbal “confession” to police was not allowed as evidence, so the death penalty was off the table. (At that time in Colorado the death penalty could only be imposed if the convicted person had signed a confession or if there was an eye-witness to the crime.) She was sentenced to 62 years to life in the Colorado State Penitentiary.

Leo, who had been allowed to testify against his wife at her trial, filed for divorce the day after Pearl was convicted. He remarried and that marriage, according to his obituary, also ended in divorce. In 1956 he died in Denver, aged 68. His father, Dennis, died in 1936, so if it were money that Pearl was after, with a little patience, she would have gotten it. The murder charge against Frank was dropped after Pearl’s conviction. He died in 1946.

After almost 20 years behind bars, Pearl was paroled from the Colorado State Penitentiary on June 30, 1951. During her time at CSP, she worked as a prison trusty and as the housekeeper of Warden Roy Best and governess for his children.

Pearl, who didn’t testify at her trial, gave an interview to the editor of the Rocky Mountain News, in 1950, in which she told her side of the story. She said Leona came downstairs “acting silly” on the night she died, and told Pearl she had mistakenly taken some sedative tablets belonging to Leo that were on the bedside table. Pearl put the girl in the car to get help, but Leona died before they could get to a doctor, so she panicked and put the body in the lake. “I thought I had to get rid of her,” Pearl said. Though the story doesn’t explain Leona’s head injuries or the ground glass found in her stomach, the editor of the paper said he found Pearl’s story credible.

Warden Best offered Pearl a job as his housekeeper after she was released. Pearl wanted to work for the warden, who had long supported her requests for parole, but the Colorado Parole Board wouldn’t allow it. She took a job as a housekeeper in California. She died in San Diego in 1987, aged 88.

Featured photo: Pearl O’Loughlin’s undated mugshot. Museum of Colorado Prisons Facebook page.

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