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.