The Wineville Chicken Murders

Crime Files

On 2 February 1928, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies found a burlap sack containing a headless body in a ditch in La Puente, LA County, California. The male teenager had been shot through the heart with a .22 calibre automatic weapon. On 10 March 1928, nine-year-old Walter Collins disappeared while on his way to see a film. On 16 May 1928, the Winslow brothers, Lewis, 12 and Nelson, 10, went missing from Pomona, apparently on their way home from a model yacht club meeting.

Accounts differ on how the police found their way to the Northcott ranch. One account states that Sanford Clark’s 18-year-old cousin, Jessie Clark, from British Columbia, Canada, came to visit Sanford on the ranch, was appalled by the conditions in which he lived and the way Northcott treated him, and thus alerted the police. Another simply states that Clark escaped from the ranch and approached the police with his story. Some accounts claim that it was Clark’s Canadian parents who complained to police about his mistreatment. One account also states that Northcott was Clark’s uncle but this is not corroborated by any other reports.

Whatever it was, the authorities were horrified by the tale Clark had to tell. According to him, he was forced under threat of death by Gordon Northcott and his mother Sarah to help dismember and bury the bodies of children that Northcott had kidnapped. Clark told the police that the decapitated body found in La Puente was the first victim, it was speculated to be Jose Gonzales, a teenage Mexican ranch hand. Next was Collins, who Northcott tied to a bed and tortured for a week, after which he was killed by Sarah with an axe. Finally, Lewis and Nelson Winslow were kidnapped. Nelson perished by the hand of Clark, while Lewis was hacked to death by Northcott. Some accounts report sexual molestation of the children by Northcott before their murder but this aspect was not mentioned in the LA Times newspaper report covering the Northcott trial.

Timeline

Born: 1908 - Gordon Stewart Northcott - British Columbia, CanadaThe Victims: 2 February 1928 - Headless body of Jose Gonzales found in a sack in a ditch in La Puente 10 March 1928 - Walter Collins disappeared 16 May 1928 - The Winslow brothers, Lewis and Nelson, disappearedArrested: 15 September 1928 - Sanford Clark told his story to the police 20 September 1928 - Northcott arrested in Vernon, British Colombia, Canada. Sarah Northcott was also arrested around the same time, in Calgary, Alberta, CanadaTrial: November-December 1928 - Trial of Sarah Louise Northcott in California January-February 1929 - Trial of Gordon Stewart Northcott in CaliforniaSentenced: December 1928 - Sarah Louise Northcott sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Walter Collins 19 February 1929 - Gordon Stewart Northcott sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of Gonzales, Nelson and Lewis WinslowDied: 2 October 1930 - Gordon Stewart Northcott - death by hanging 1944 - Sarah Louise Northcott died

The Arrest

Northcott was arrested in Vernon, British Colombia, Canada on 20 September 1928, while his mother was arrested in Calgary. Jack H Brown, a sheriff’s deputy from the Riverside County police, was sent up to interview them. Upon his arrest, Northcott initially denied his identity, although positive identification was a simple matter. They were extradited and returned to the United States to stand trial for the murder of the four boys.

The Trial

Sarah Northcott initially confessed to all four murders, probably to save her son. Her husband, Cyrus George Northcott, testified that she was completely devoted to her son and would do anything he asked. She was placed on trial for the murder of Walter Collins and was subsequently sentenced to life in prison in December 1928. Presumably she was spared the death penalty on account of her age and gender. She served less than 12 years of her sentence before being paroled. She apparently died in 1944.Initially, Gordon Northcott verbally confessed to the murder of nine boys in total, although he later confessed in writing only to the murder of Gonzales, the Mexican ranch hand. He was charged and stood trial in January 1929 for the kidnapping and murder of Gonzales and the Winslow boys. Northcott proved to be a frustrating subject. He frequently toyed with police investigations by constantly changing his story, by leading them on wild goose chases in search of more bodies, and by dropping broad hints as to the actual number of murders committed, ranging from none to as many as twenty.At his trial, Northcott was as flamboyant as he was a nuisance. With his constant grandstanding, the trial was, to him, an opportunity to obtain as many column inches as he could in the media. He filibustered by firing three defence attorneys in succession, finally choosing to defend himself, which he did with great vigour if not with any semblance of competence. He put himself on the stand, as a witness, as well as the prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Earl Redwine, who he then proceeded to harangue with obscenities. With himself on the stand, he asked himself questions and then answered them. He also made fantastic accusations about the sheriff, the judge and the victims’ families.A recent interviewee, who attended the trial as a college student, said that Northcott “…was a very self-possessed guy, not overawed by the trial at all. During breaks, he kidded around with the prosecutors. He was as much at home in the courtroom as any attorney but didn’t know what he was doing [legally]. He was a conniving, smart guy, in a limited way”. Dr SM Marcus, a Los Angeles psychiatrist and somnotherapist who examined Northcott, declared that he possessed three of the nine classifications of the “constitutional psychopathic inferior”. He was “a pathological liar, a criminalistic individual and a sex deviate”.Northcott even brought his mother, by then incarcerated in Tehachapi State Prison, to testify on his behalf. In her testimony, she startlingly claimed that she was not his mother but in fact his grandmother, as her husband Cyrus had committed incest with their daughter Winifred, who gave birth to Gordon. This claim was never verified. Northcott’s father Cyrus testified that his son had bragged to him about killing many boys and also testified that he had seen evidence of the disposal of the bodies, using fire and quicklime. In fact, Cyrus had even provided a lorryload of quicklime to Northcott.After a 27-day trial and two hours’ deliberation, the jury found Northcott guilty of the murders of the Winslow boys and the Mexican teenager. He was sentenced to death on 19 February 1929.For his part in the murders, Clark spent a number of years at the Whittier State Industrial School for Boys. He was released and sent back to Canada and was never heard of again.Northcott retained his bravado until the final moments of his death. He had earlier requested that Christine Collins, mother of Walter Collins, visit him at San Quentin State Prison so that he could confess to her in person to the killing of her son. He later reneged and told her that he was innocent. He also left several notes. One was to the prison warden, in which he pinned the murder of Collins on his father and the murder of Nelson Winslow on Clark. He admitted to the murder of Gonzales and Lewis Winslow. He left two notes to his father, one to his mother, and one to his spiritual adviser and evangelist Larry Newgent. In the note to Newgent he claimed, “As God above is my judge, I am not guilty. The police worry me and make me say things but the truth is I am innocent. God pity me and save my life”. In his note to his father, he asked that he have white roses at his funeral.Northcott was hanged in San Quentin on 2nd October 1930. There are many conflicting accounts of his last words but the most reliable source is the Los Angeles Times, which reports that Northcott finally quailed in the face of his impending death, mumbling “Don’t hang me. Don’t hang me”. He was a pale and shivering wreck, his quivering body had to be carried up the scaffold and his eyes were covered at his own request so that he need not see the gibbet. Witnessing his execution were 140 people. Some accounts report that Northcott’s knees sagged as the trapdoor opened, his collapse took the slack out of the rope and thus the fall was too short to break his neck. He apparently took 11 minutes to strangle to death. This was not mentioned in the Los Angeles Times article.A boy thought to have been a Northcott victim was found alive and well, five years after his execution. This gave hope to Christine Collins, who never stopped searching for her missing son. Her remarkable and touching story has recently been dramatised by Clint Eastwood in his film ‘The Changeling’ (2008). The town of Wineville changed its name to Mira Loma in an attempt to escape the negative publicity associated with the macabre case.

Key Figures

Victims: Lewis Winslow, 12 Nelson Winslow, 10 Walter Collins, 9 Jose Gonzales, age unknownAccused: Gordon Stewart Northcott, 23, d. 1930 Sarah Louise Northcott, age unknown, d. 1944 Sanford Clark, 15Detectives/Police: Jack H Brown, San Bernadino County and Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Clem Sweeters, Riverside County SheriffTrial judge: Judge George R FreemanProsecutor: Earl Redwine, Deputy District AttorneyDefence: Self

The Investigation

When the police arrived at the Northcott ranch, they found that Gordon and his mother Sarah had already fled. It later transpired that they had made their way to Canada. Northcott was a British Columbia native but had moved to Los Angeles with his parents in the 1920s. On the ranch, police found blood soaked earth, three empty graves, and “a toenail, two finger bones, nine bits of flesh, two clumps of hair on a piece of scalp, a knee cap and a piece of skull”. A .22 automatic gun, bloodstained axes and cleavers were also found.The three empty graves had recently contained bodies which had been covered with quicklime, supposedly to make them decompose more rapidly. It was speculated that the bodies had been hurriedly moved upon Clark’s escape/disappearance. They were never located and it is most likely that they were buried out in the Mojave desert.Pieces of clothing were identified by the Winslow parents as belonging to their sons, while a library book from Pomona Public Library that was checked out to one of the Winslow boys was recovered. A note written by the Winslow boys, addressed to their parents saying that they were fine, was also found. This conclusively placed the kidnapping of the Winslow boys at the door of Northcott.