Live Noir

Henry Ford McCrackens 1952 Santa Ana murder trial launched the age of broadcast voyeurism

Photo courtesy of Old Santa Ana
Courthouse MuseumIn Buena Park on May 19, 1951, the parents of 10-year-old Patty Jean Hull told police their daughter was missing. Four days later, television cameras zoomed in on Hull's uncoiling story. As real-time TV signals from Santa Ana's jail radiated throughout Southern California, we entered the age of broadcast voyeurism.

Stan Chambers, a living legend of television news, was at the mic to bring viewers a "first-hand picture of developments" at California's first live broadcast of a crime case. The tease: Where is Patty Jean Hull?

Today, Hull looks straight at me from my computer monitor. A bitmapped jpeg of a grammar school class photo taken at the midpoint of the 20th century, her image is processed into a future she never saw. It's an amplified future where TV programs starring reluctant celebrities like Gary Condit, Elizabeth Smart, Jon-Benet Ramsey, and O.J. Simpson push the value of image above the value of language. But even more, as philosopher Jean Baudrillard said in The Ecstasy of Communication, we live in an age in which "the scene and the mirror have given way to a screen and a network."

If Hull's case was tried today, CNN, Fox and Court TV might showcase her story as an infotainment docudrama—a "Missing Girl Mystery." They might weigh episode tie-ins and hire ad agencies to determine her demographic appeal.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of her case, it's time to retell Hull's story in the medium her tragedy helped fashion. The only question is what screen and what network will premiere her story of death—and the birth of reality TV?

Jurors exit after the deadlocked
first trial.
Photo courtesy of Old Santa Ana
Courthouse Museum

"It's in a rough stage now," I say, describing my Patty Jean Hull docudrama to Nancy Meyer, a development executive at Universal Studios. "But here's what I see."

It is midday on May 19, 1951. A hard light flares off the marquee at the Buena Park Valuskis Theater. In the distance, a man in a green gabardine sport suit approaches. A few cars scroll past on Beach Boulevard in this agricultural community of citrus growers. Suddenly, Patty Jean Hull's face pops into full frame. A 10-year-old in pigtails, a red sweater, blue jeans, bobby socks, and saddle shoes, she smiles, turns, takes the hands of her two younger brothers and walks to the ticket window for the matinee.

Meyer listens intently as I continue.

Theater interior. The Bird of Paradise, a motion picture playing that day, fills the screen. Tiki Room music and Technicolor palm trees set the scene, as André, a white man who has sailed to Polynesia, is about to marry Kalua, an island princess. We zoom in on the screen as Kalua's brother Tenga explains a native honeymoon night to André:

TENGA: You will kidnap Kalua. It would bring great shame to the chief if he let her go easily. She must be taken from him by force.

ANDRÉ: But I don't need to take Kalua by force. She wants to come with me. She loves me.

TENGA: That is true, but when you kidnap her, she will fight you and bite you. That is the custom. It proves that she loves her parents. It proves that she does not willingly run from their happy house.

At the Valuskis Theater, Patty Jean Hull is seated alone, away from her brothers and the crowd. Someone approaches. It's the man in the green gabardine sport suit: Henry Ford McCracken. He sits down immediately next to her.

"I'm a little lost now," Meyer says. "Who is McCracken?"

"McCracken was 34," I say, "a handyman and country musician. Slicked-back hair, clean-shaven, inconspicuous-looking. He never touched alcohol. In fact, he wouldn't drink Coke at a bar for fear it was spiked."

McCracken was also a sexual psychopath on a short fuse. In 1946, his concerned mother petitioned the Orange County Superior Court to have him committed to a mental hospital. His behavior and record as a serial child sex offender, however, failed to impress medical examiners who said he had "mild schizophrenia with anxiety neurosis but can distinguish between right and wrong." Diagnosis: no big deal.

Patty Jean Hull.
Photo courtesy of Old Santa Ana
Courthouse Museum

"What else can you tell me about McCracken?" Meyer asks.

After his "mild schizophrenia" diagnosis, McCracken moved from Orange County to Michigan, where his string of child sex offenses continued. In the fall of 1950, after nine arrests, Detroit Police prepared documents to have him permanently committed to a mental institution. Before the documents were filed, McCracken fled back to Orange County. A few weeks later, he was arrested in Santa Ana for failing to register as a sex offender. He served a six-month jail sentence. On May 6, 1951, he was on the streets again.

McCracken immediately gravitated to an auto court cottage down the block from the Valuskis Theater where he took up residence. He worked nights entertaining at the nearby White Elephant Cafe. Just 12 days after his release from the Santa Ana Jail, he took an empty seat at a Saturday matinee, next to Patty Jean Hull.

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