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 described as “ptomaine poisoning.” 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 that Pearl put the glass in his sugar in order to poison him, but he had no evidence to support his theory. He ate some of the sugar and spat it out. Though he didn’t realize the sugar contained ground glass, he claimed 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. It was reported that Leo’s stomach contents were tested at the hospital and were found to contain ground glass.

Police decided that Pearl laced 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 police theory was 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. Either way the police figured Pearl had murdered Leona.

Motive was a problem. The police figured 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 said he’d 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 insurance cash. However the police also believed 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 the method 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 said he 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, Pearl’s friend insisted that she hadn’t seen Pearl anytime during the three weeks before Leona’s death.

The case was entirely 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 was 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.

29 thoughts on “Mother or Monster

      1. According to the 1940 federal census, he went to live with his father, William Millican. He later served in WWII. He died in 1996. Thanks for reading and posting!

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    1. Yes I think so. I find the whole ground glass theory ridiculous unless Pearl was mentally unbalanced and trying to sicken her husband and his family members. But there’s no evidence that she was mentally ill. I think her brother-in-law was involved in Leona’s death.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Actually, given what I saw in A Crime to Remember, I disagree with the theory that the brother was involved with Leona’s death. There were several pieces of information in the show that do not appear here. For one, Leo and Leona were -not- the only ones fed ground glass. A few weeks earlier, following a dinner party in his home at which Pearl was in attendance, Leo’s father wanted something sweet and decided to eat a spoonful of sugar, only to discover that it had been adulterated. At the time, he thought the sugar had been cut by the store or by the government, and he had no idea what was in it. The police only learned of the incident when they went to interview him after Leona’s death, and he mentioned why he had no sugar to offer them for their coffee.

        It should be mentioned that Leo’s father had a significant insurance policy, and Leo was the beneficiary.

        Further, it was discovered that both Leo and Leona ate rice for dinner, and added sugar to the rice. That may seem strange to you, but in some households, particularly during the Depression, rice was served not as a savory side dish, but as a hot cereal like oatmeal or cream of wheat and eaten with sugar and/or milk. Leo’s father, who was present at the dinner, did not eat sugar in his rice due to the prior incident in his home, and his subsequent belief that sugar was being cut with an unknown filler at the production level before commercial sale. However, Leo’s father was also able to attest that Douglas, Pearl’s son, asked for some of the rice, and Pearl told him he had had enough to eat and would not let him have any.

        All the evidence points to Pearl being the one who tainted the sugar with ground glass. She had the opportunity at Leo’s father’s house, and she had both the means and the opportunity at her own home. While Frank, technically *could* be a suspect, the fact that Pearl specifically kept her son from eating the rice tells me that she knew the food was adulterated and did not want him to be affected. If Frank had adulterated the sugar, then Pearl would not have known to warn Douglas away from the rice.

        Further, Pearl admitted that she had been doing laundry in the morning when Leona was found missing. That tipped off Leo, because Leona disappeared on a Wednesday and Pearl only did laundry on Mondays. When they investigated the washing machine, they discovered sand and dirt in the washer that matched the residue left on Leona from being in the pond. Pearl specifically stated that *she*, not Frank, was the one doing the load of laundry that had the sand and dirt evidence.

        Last but not least, Pearl admitted she drove the car the night Leona disappeared. Leona’s blood was found on the tire iron, and the tire iron matched the contusions on Leona’s head.

        Pearl is the one with both means and motive to attempt to poison Leo’s father, and to actually poison Leo and Leona. She’s the one who would benefit financially, whereas Frank would not. Frank, the brother, was not a beneficiary of Leo’s policy, though I don’t know if he was one of the beneficiaries on his father’s policy. However, if Leo and Leona were to die, Pearl would get the money from Leo’s policy, and of course, she’d inherit anything that Leo received from his father’s death.

        As far as I can tell, Frank has zero motive to poison his brother, his father, or his niece. Pearl, on the other hand, had thousands of dollars of reasons to do so.

        Therefore, I must respectfully disagree with your contention that Frank is guilty of this. Put Pearl in the category of Monster, Evil Stepmother division.

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      2. I never said I thought Frank was involved in Leona’s death. The most likely scenario was that Leona died from an overdose of sedatives, as Pearl claimed years later. Either she took them on her own or Pearl gave them to her to help her sleep, mistakenly giving her an overdose that killed her. When Pearl, who I suspect was being abused by her husband, discovered that Leona died, she knew Leo would blame her and she was petrified. She tried to cover up the death by getting rid of the body, possibly even going to the extent of hitting Leona on the head to make it look like someone had murdered the girl. I reject the theory that Pearl was trying to murder her family members by feeding them ground glass hidden in sugar. There is no evidence that, if the rice was adulterated with glass, that Pearl put it there. Ingesting ground glass might have made them sick, but it was unlikely to kill anyone.

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  1. I agree. The police theory of murder for inheritance, suing ground glass as a weapon is ridiculous. It entirely hinges on the father-in-law’s statement about glass in his sugar and the pathologist’s claims of finding ground glass in Leona’s stomach. Frank should have been looked at much more carefully by the police, but because Leo was a policeman (and a control freak) he pretty much ran the investigation. Possible scenario: Frank molested Leona and ended up killing her, then blackmailed Pearl into helping him get rid of Leona’s body.

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    1. Claims? It wasn’t a CLAIM that there was ground glass in Leona’s stomach, it was THERE. Further proof is that once they treated Leo for the ground glass, he was able to recover.

      You have zero proof Leo was a control freak. I don’t know what your problem is, or if you’re just a troll, but Pearl was a money-hungry murderer. What, are you related to her or something? Is that why you’re coming up with lies to defend her?

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    1. By 1942 he was a student at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He registered for the draft that year and listed his father, William Millican, as his next of kin. He enlisted in the army the following year. He survived the war and was discharged from the service in December 1945. He married a woman named Dorothy and died on July 13, 1996. His death was recorded in Portland, Oregon. There’s no way to know if he ever saw his mother again.

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    2. One other interesting note: on the 1930 federal census (taken during the first week of April) Pearl was counted twice. On April 2 she and Douglas were listed as living in the Denver home of her father, Arthur Weiss. On April 7 she was listed again, this time as living with her husband, Leo O’Loughlin, along with Leona and Frank in Denver. To me this indicates that months before Leona died, Pearl was trying to get away from her husband, possibly because he was abusive.

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      1. You have ZERO proof that her husband was abusive. Unless you have proof, stop trying to obfuscate the known facts of the case.

        Pearl. Was. A. Child. Murderer. Sorry if it blows your tiny mind, but she was.

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    1. The coroner said Leona died either from suffocation or drowning, not from ingesting ground glass. Leo’s father claimed he found ground glass in his sugar bowl and accused Pearl of putting it there but he didn’t see her do it and he clearly didn’t like Pearl. The unproven allegations that Pearl put ground glass in the family’s food helped the prosecution theory that Pearl wanted to poison various O’Loughlin family members in order to inherit money. But if that were true Leo’s father would have had to die first with Leo inheriting his money and that didn’t happen. The story Pearl told later was of Leona accidentally being poisoned by taking medication not prescribed for her. It’s possible that Pearl gave Leona a sedative so she’d go to sleep so that Pearl could go out and get her hair done. But she gave the girl too much and thought she had died, so she tried to get rid of the body out of fear. Leona may still have been alive when she was put in the water. This scenario fits the facts much better. If I’m right, Pearl might have been convicted of manslaughter but not murder.

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      1. No, Pearl’s father in law did NOT accuse her of putting the ground glass there. If you’d done any research at all, you’d know that he thought the government was cutting the sugar. He had no idea there was ground glass in it, and much less that Pearl had put the ground glass in there.

        What happened was he had hosted a dinner one night at his home before Leona’s murder. After the dinner, he started to eat a teaspoon of sugar and found it tasted strangely gritty. He came to the conclusion that the government had started putting additives in the sugar to stretch it (hey, again, Depression), discarded all his sugar and stopped eating sugar, period.

        The fact that he stopped eating sugar because of that was likely why he, too, was not poisoned that night at dinner, although he was in attendance.

        The only reason the police knew about this was that they came to his house to interview him after Leona’s death. Mr. O’Loughlin offered them coffee, but stated that he had no sugar. He mentioned the incident that had happened a few weeks previous and his conclusion that the ‘government was cutting the sugar’. At NO time did he accuse Pearl of anything.

        The proof that he didn’t know it was ground glass? Leo was hospitalized as a result of Pearl’s attempted murder. Nobody knew what was wrong with him. If his father knew that he’d been fed ground glass, why wouldn’t he have told the hospital about it? Why wouldn’t he have mentioned it to the police when they interviewed him? Why, in fact, would he think that the sugar had been cut with something by the government to stretch the supply?

        Your claims have zero logic. Again, I don’t know why you are defending this woman. She wasn’t remotely mentally ill. She had one thing wrong with her: greed.

        If Pearl gave Leona a sedative, then why, pray explain, was a wound found on Leona’s head that matched the tire iron in Leo’s trunk? In fact, why would she have dumped Leona in a lake when Leona was still alive? Why didn’t the autopsy uncover the sedative? Don’t blame the coroner; even you admit that Pearl never provided the sedative lie until years later. There’s no question the autopsy would have turned up any sedative. It didn’t.

        Moreover, why would anyone need to sedate a 10-year-old girl? Why would she sedate Leona and not her son, who was younger? And why in the world would any responsible mother sedate children and leave them in a house alone, period? That makes ZERO sense.

        Frank was provably at work at the time of Leona’s death, so no, he couldn’t have hit Leona. You have zero proof of abuse by Frank; you have zero proof of abuse by Leo. What you DO have is a provable money trail and a money-hungry black widow who wanted to enrich herself at the expense of her innocent stepdaughter. Face the facts and stop manufacturing garbage.

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  2. You guys must not watch deadly women ? … 😆 🤣 women do things like this. Men usually have a different mo. Not saying a man wouldn’t do this to make his victims suffer. I’m just saying. This show sounds like it belongs on deadly women becauseeeee. That deadly woman is crazy.

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