He Walked By Night is a documentary-style film noir. The opening credits (overlaying a street map of LA metropolitan area) and opening montage establish that we’re in Los Angeles. A voice over tells us that the story is based on a real case:
“This is a true story. It is known to the Police Department of one of our largest cities as the most difficult homicide case in its existence, principally because of the diabolical cleverness, intelligence, and cunning of a completely unknown killer! The record is set down here factually, as it happened! Only the names are changed to protect the innocent! This is Los Angeles. Our Lady. The Queen of the Angels, as the Spaniards named her. The fastest growing city in the nation. It’s been called a bunch of suburbs in search of a city. And it’s been called the glamour capital of the world. A Mecca for tourists. A stopover for transients. A target for gangsters….This is the case history of a killer, taken from the files of the Detective Division. The facts are told here as they happened. The story starts here, in Hollywood Division Headquarters, at 1:00 of a June morning last year.”
The postwar population of Los Angeles was indeed growing, faster than civic services could keep up with. The LAPD struggled to find enough hires to fill vacancies and bring the force up to its authorized maximum of 4333, which would make it one of the largest in the country. Growth in the unincorporated county territory was even more impressive, and the sheriff’s department was even more shorthanded.
There was a concern that eastern gangsters were flooding into the city, for a very good reason: they were! But the real-life criminal depicted in He Walked By Night was neither a newcomer nor a newly arrived gangster. He was a native son.
April 25, 1946. Willard Starr, a sound recording engineer, had encountered a salesman calling himself Paul C. Norris who tried to sell him some audio equipment, which Starr recognized as part of the loot stolen from a Hollywood recording studio a few months earlier. Starr immediately alerted Hollywood division police. At their instruction, Starr arranged to meet “Norris” at Starr’s home studio, 1347 Fifth Avenue. Detective sergeants Colin Forbes and Stanley Johnson got there early to stake it out. When “Norris” arrived in his car and strolled up the driveway, Forbes stepped out to question him. At that moment “Norris” pulled out an automatic and fired point blank. Forbes, unable to return fire when his own weapon jammed, was hit in the chest and left arm. His partner was winged in the arm as “Norris” fled on foot. The two officers were rushed to Georgia Street Receiving Hospital, where emergency surgery saved Forbes’ life.
Attempts to trace “Norris” in the following weeks lead nowhere. The car he left behind was a dead end; it was traced to an innocent Oakland man who had abandoned it at a junkyard. Norris seemed to have vanished into the LA smog.
June 5, 1946. California Highway Patrol officer Loren Roosevelt, a former Arcadia chief of police, was heading home from his shift along Los Feliz Boulevard. Approaching New Brunswick, he spied a driver acting suspiciously and gave chase. The motorist pulled out a .45 and opened fire on the patrolman at close range. Roosevelt was rushed to Georgia Street Receiving Hospital, but unfortunately died of his wounds. The suspect got away. He’d abandoned his car, which was later found to have been stolen in Oakland the previous month. Inside, police found a stolen submachine gun, burglary tools and materials for making explosives.
Meanwhile, there was still no break in the “Norris” case. Forbes and Johnson recovered enough to return to duty. In October, they worked the double homicide of eastern gangsters Benny “The Meatball” Gamson and George Levinson in Hollywood, an incident directly linked to another the gangland-style execution, that of of Pauly Gibbons a few months earlier. The three murders went unsolved. So, it seemed would the murder of officer Roosevelt, as well as the attempted murder of officers Forbes and Johnson.
December 20, 1946. County sheriff’s officers with LAPD detective sergeants Earle Rombeau and Marty Wynn, along with head of the Homicide Division, Capt. Jack Donahoe , raided the apartment of a burglary suspect, William Erwin Walker, at 1831-1/2 N. Argyle Avenue in Hollywood . They found Walker, a 28-year-old discharged Army lieutenant and former civilian employee of the Glendale police department, asleep– cuddled up with a submachine gun in the bed and a .45 on the nightstand. Instantly alert, he grabbed the machine gun and leveled at the officers, subdued only after Wynn shot him in the shoulder and wrestled the weapon from Walker’s hands.
En route to Georgia Street, Walker confessed to shooting officers Forbes and Johnson and to the murder of Roosevelt. He also told Det. Sgt. Rombeau that he was “lucky” to be going home to his family that night. Walker went on to describe several other close encounters he’d had with police that could easily have resulted in additional shooting deaths.
Indeed, officers found an arsenal in Walker’s apartment. In one of his cars they discovered a machine gun mounted so that it pointed at the driver’s door, set to automatic fire, the safety catch off. The press nicknamed him “Machine gun” Walker.
In June 1947, Walker was convicted of the murder of officer Roosevelt and the attempted murder of officers Forbes and Johnson and sentenced to death .
C.C. Forbes and Stanley Johnson continued with the LAPD. In 1948, the year the film was released, Forbes headed the investigation into the kidnap-rape of two LA women, eventually traced to Carl Chessman, the “Red-Light Bandit.” Forbes still had a bullet near his spine, however, and never fully recovered from the injuries he sustained at Walker’s hands in 1946.
Lion-Eagle’s He Walked By Night premiered in Los Angeles theaters on November 24, 1948. Shot largely on location, the real-life events are depicted accurately enough that yours truly as a first time viewer, recognized it as the Walker case right away. In addition, some of the LAPD’s cutting edge procedures are seen in the film.
During production of He Walked By Night, actor Jack Webb, who had a small part as “Lee Whitey,” met Marty Wynn, the LAPD detective who’d helped capture Walker and served as a technical advisor on the film. Soon after, he developed an idea for a radio show that, like He Walked By Night, would be based on real cases from the department’s files. The program, Dragnet, debuted the following year and was also of course adapted for television .
1. Robbery and Homicide were then two separate divisions of the LAPD. Capt. Donahoe had served as head of the Robbery division from 1942 to April 1945, when he was succeeded by detective Eddie Chitwood, formerly of the Narcotics squad, who had recently returned from a wartime military leave of absence. In December 1945 Donahoe took over as head of Homicide following the promotion of its former chief, Thad F. Brown. In September 1947 he was transferred back to head the Robbery squad. He retired in 1962 and died in 1966.
2. Only a few years after this, 1831-1/2 N. Argyle found itself in the path of the Hollywood Freeway construction. The apartment building survived, however. It was moved to 2630-2623-1/2 N Beechwood Ave. where it currently still stands.
3. Walker’s father, a respectable County Flood Control District employee, committed suicide in December 1947, never knowing his son would not, after all be executed. In 1949, Walker’s mother and lawyer lobbied for a new trial on the grounds of insanity after a jailhouse suicide attempt. At the time, criminal trials took place first, sanity hearings after. Walker was housed at San Quentin until a prison doctor ultimately judged him insane on the day of his scheduled execution, May 4, 1949. Walker was then housed in mental institutions until deemed fit to have his sentence carried out. A Marin County judge pronounced Walker legally sane in 1961, but Governor Pat Brown subsequently commuted Walker’s death sentence to life without parole on April 26, 1961- 15 years almost to the day since the first shootout with Forbes and Johnson. Forbes, who had since retired, partially as a result of his injuries from that day in 1946, was, according to an LA Times article, “outspoken in his disgust” at the decision. He died in May 1970. Johnson, still with the LAPD at the time, expressed skepticism- justifiably, as it turned out- at the “no parole” stipulation.
In 1971, Walker was granted a new trial, now claiming that his confession had been “forced” and that he’d suffered a severe beating at the time of his 1946 arrest. He apparently forgot that he was pointing a machine gun at the officers at the time. In any case, the California Supreme Court refused to overturn his conviction of grant a new trial. It did, however, recommend that the “no parole” stipulation be stricken from his commuted sentence. Walker wasted no time in applying for parole, which was duly granted in 1974. He changed his name and vanished once again.
4. Dragnet didn’t originate the idea of a program based on true crime cases from the LAPD files. A generation earlier there had been “Calling All Cars” which did the same thing. It debuted in 1933 on KHJ, the Don Lee-Columbia network and was introduced by the department’s own Chief of Police James E. Davis.