Live Noir

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

Meyer shifts in her seat. "We'd have to look delicately at a child sex-offense case like this," she says.

"I can go that way," I say. "Let's fast forward."

Hull never returned home from the theater. Her parents called the police that night. By the next morning, nearly every family in Buena Park, a community of 5,000, sent someone out to look for the missing girl.

That afternoon, on a tip from the owner of the White Elephant Cafe, police took Henry Ford McCracken into custody. He went quietly. A bloodstained green gabardine sport suit was found in his cabin.

Outside the jail, one of the most exhaustive searches in Southern California history continued. More than 1,500 people, including Boy Scout troops and Marines from El Toro, scoured hillsides, orange groves and back yards for Hull. They searched for days with no luck.

"Now, for the electronic moment of truth," I say to Meyer. "On Wednesday, May 23, camera crews arrived on the scene to provide Southern California's television audience its first exposure to a live crime drama. After the Hull case, TV would never be the same."

"I think if I were to develop this," Meyer says, "I'd say the murder sounds—I don't mean this the wrong way—but almost incidental."

"But as history," I say, "I think this story would be a great lead-in to a live crime series. Let me just wrap up the pre-trial."

It is Thursday, May 24, 1951. Our view pans across Live Oak Canyon. A State Forest Ranger crawls under a barbed-wire fence and moves toward a tiny mound of dirt marked by a broken branch. The ranger drops to his knees and begins digging with his hands. He stops. Hesitates. Digs down deeper. We zoom in. We see a black-and-white saddle shoe breaking through the loose dirt that covers this shallow grave.

"This is this all true?" Meyer asks. I nod.

The camera tilts up and lingers for a moment, registering the emotion of the ranger and the grave. The shot dissolves into the same scene a few hours later as police detectives surround Patty Jean's body. She is fully clothed, face up, hands folded across her stomach.

Back at the Santa Ana Jail, McCracken is taken out of his cell. Police wait outside to transport him to the grave site. As he walks down a corridor in front of cameras, District Attorney James L. Davis holds out a bloodstained yellow bed sheet found near Patty Jean's body. He asks McCracken, "Is this yours?" There is no reply.

"This might be something that Court TV would consider," Meyer says. "What happened next?"

I relate McCracken's version of events. He admitted to police that Hull visited his cottage but said she panicked when she thought her neighbors were approaching. Embarrassed and trying to evade them, she attempted to escape out a screen window, slipped and accidentally cut herself. According to McCracken, she passed out. After he attempted to revive her, he claims he, too, passed out.

Meanwhile, the autopsy report had been completed. It documented "small bruises on the girl's arms and on the area of her thighs, dilation of her rectal orifice, some 15 gashes on her scalp at the back and sides, and three fractures of her skull."

The TV cameras surrounding the murder were beginning to have their effect. Before the Aug. 3 trial, McCracken attorney George Chula Jr. filed a change of venue request based, in part, on the claim that live coverage had "aroused the anger and indignation of the people." Request denied.

Drawing media coverage across the country, the first trial ended with a deadlocked jury. McCracken was found guilty of child stealing, but one juror dissented on the murder charge. As Superior Court Judge Robert Gardner dismissed the jury, McCracken reacted like a child. "I knew I wasn't guilty," he chanted over and over again in court.

As the jurors walked down the stairs from the third-floor courtroom, they hid their faces. A reporter on the stairway landing lunged forward with his camera. A male juror shoved back, smashing the camera into the reporter's eye. As he stumbled backward with blood running down his face, the reporter caught the juror with a left hook to the jaw. A brawl followed between jurors and newsmen. A sheriff's deputy intervened.

There was outrage everywhere in Southern California. Orange County citizens organized rallies to protest the verdict. District Attorney Davis was so angered by the outcome that he berated the jury for failing to convict.

Trial No. 2 was set to begin on Aug. 13.

"So what was the final outcome?" Meyer asks.

I tell her that the prosecution at the second trial was meticulous. The jury was bussed to McCracken's cottage. This time, there was no mistrial. McCracken was found guilty of first-degree murder.

On Feb. 19, 1954, after a three-year battle to escape the gas chamber, McCracken was executed.

I wait for Meyer's response. "I see murder stories all the time," she says. "I think the real story here is how this changed the community and the way people look at murder. Have we lost our innocence?"

McCracken at his second trial.
Photo courtesy of Old Santa Ana
Courthouse Museum
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