This is Part II in the story of Los Angeles underworld figure Larry Potter and his connection to the February 21, 1930 murder of Dorothy Dexter Moormeister, wife of Salt Lake City doctor Frank Moormeister continues. Read Part I here.
1930 had ended with no notable progress in the Moormeister murder case. As 1931 dawned, however, there was literally a new sheriff in town: S. Grant Young, who had defeated the incumbent Sheriff Clifford W. Patten the past November.
An Army vet, Sheriff Young had no law enforcement experience He had served in the Utah House of Representatives from 1928 to 1930.
Likewise, County Attorney John Rice (who had conducted the Moormeister inquest then tried unsuccessfully to bill Dexter’s estate for the cost) lost reelection that same November to Matthew Cowley, a local attorney who had not previously held public office.
The new officials were sworn into office January 5, 1931. Soon a year would have lapsed since that night on February 21, 1930, and the trail was ice cold.
On January 14, the Salt Lake Telegram editorialized about the “comic opera manner” in which the initial Moormeister investigation had been conducted by police and deputy sheriffs and the “farcical tone” of the inquest. It pointed out that from time to time there had come the story that criminologist Edward O. Heinrich supposedly “knew the identity of the murderer” but needed only a “few slight details” to make the case complete. The paper suggested that Sheriff Young would do well to “force a solution” of the Moormeister case by requiring Heinrich to reveal what he knew.
Over the next two days, local papers reported that indeed, Heinrich– in a letter dated January 10 and addressed to former Sheriff Patten– said he had cleared his calendar and was ready to resume the inquiry. Doctor Moormeister had funded the original research and had been allowed to carry away the physical evidence!
Sheriff Young said he was willing to confer in the matter but turned the matter of who would pay Heinrich’s fees over to the County Commission. Young also opined, quite rightly, that evidence in the case belonged in the County’s vaults, not on the Pacific Coast.
On February 4, the County Commission declined to hire Heinrich to continue pursuing the Moormeister murder. The board had no objection if Sheriff Young wanted to work with Heinrich, but said that because “no facts have been presented to the County Commission, and Salt Lake County, having seen no results or report whatsoever from Dr. Heinrich concerning this case,” did not feel justified in doing so.
That evening, Doc M announced that, on the advice of his legal counsel, he was to discontinue his “arrangement” to finance Heinrich’s investigative work, noting that he had originally agreed to fund it up to $2500 and to date had expended $4000.
Coincidentally, the day after this announcement, on February 5, Doc M reported that an armed, masked intruder had burst into his office in the Brooks Arcade on the pretext of being a patient and held him up. (He reported a similar crime again the following year, on Jan 18, 1932). Police Chief John B. Burbidge did not believe there was any link between the incident and the murder.
Two months later, on April 11, the Moormeister home caught fire in the wee hours. A passing policeman noticed the flames and got the doctor and daughter Peggy safely out of the house. A second fire occured the same night, possibly caused by sparks from the first blaze. The damage in both cases amounted to about $5000.
It was in April 1931 also that negotiations with E.O. Heinrich and the sheriff’s office came to a head. On April 9, the Ogden Standard reported that Sheriff Young had rejected Heinrich’s demand for a $1000 fee to tell Young what he had already discovered, plus another $10,000 living expenses for 100 days to continue the investigation.
The Standard editorialized on April 9: “If Mr. Heinrich has valuable information which might lead to the discovery of the murderer, he is duty bound to divulge the same. His attitude is not good for one who is supposed to have dedicated his talents to the uncovering of crime. He is worthy of his hire, but should not refuse to disclose to the sheriff all he knows, after having been paid for his past service,” adding: “The officials of Salt Lake County should never cease in their efforts to clear up the Moormeister murder, regardless of what Mr. Heinrich may do.”
Heinrich returned the physical evidence in the Moormeister case (the piece of iron ore believed to have been used to strike Dexter of the head, her coat and hat and a lock of hair found on the ground at the murder scene) to the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s office via Chief County Jailer Van R. Savage, who traveled to Berkeley to extradite a fugitive and brought the items back with him on April 27. Heinrich refused to discuss the case with reporters but told the Salt Lake Tribune he would be “glad to go into detail with Sheriff Young,” if Young came to the coast. Young in turn said he’d be happy to come, if Heinrich could assure him the expense of the trip would be justified by the information obtained.
Less than a week later, in the wee hours of Sunday, May 3, 1931, a suspect was arrested for the first degree murder of Dexter Moormeister: Charles Peter, longtime friend of Doc Moormeister.
In February 1930, Dexter’s sister Amelia Hugentobler told authorities that Dexter went out with Peter the Friday before her death (February 14) and that according to Dexter, Peter was planning to get a divorce. Dexter, Amelia said, wanted nothing to do with Peter, whom she called a “lop-eared fool” and was going to break thing off with him the following Friday, according the Salt Lake Telegram of 2/24/1930. Sheriff’s deputies questioned Peter about this at length the day after the murder. He initially denied he’d been out with Dexter on the 14th but then admitted he’d been out with Dexter and another woman, a “Mrs. Mays,” guest of the Hotel Utah, that night. He denied that there was anything between himself and Dexter. He’d lied about the matter, he said, to protect Dexter’s name. Peter was also asked about his movements the night of the murder. After questioning him at length, he was let go.
In addition, Peter spent considerable time on the stand during the inquest in February and March 1930, being grilled once again about his whereabouts on the 21st. But he an alibi: his wife, Lydia. The two met downtown and went for a drive, then returned home and were together all evening.
Young and County Attorney Cowley had been quietly reviewing the original case files and found that reports of many persons interviewed by the former administration were not among the records. Young tasked his deputies with following up with these witnesses. Chief among them was a man named George L. Edmunds.
On 2/24/1930, the Salt Lake Telegram reported that Edmunds, a mechanic for General Motors, had “partially identified” Peter as the man he saw on the Bingham Highway near Copperton at 9:00 pm the night of the murder in the company of a woman Edmunds said be “believed” was Dexter Moormeister. Edmunds and his companion that evening, Helen Keitting, were brought to the police garage about 4 hours after the murder and identified the “death car” as the one they had seen.
Edmunds did not testify at the inquest on March 17, 1930, however, as he was called out of town to attend a mechanic’s convention in Detroit.
On May 3, 1931, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that deputies checked up on Edmunds’ story had identified Peter as the man he saw driving Dexter’s car near Copperton about 9:25 (it was reported as about 9:00 in the 2/24/1930 article) on the night of the murder. The car swerved in front of him, causing him to brake, he said. In his headlights he saw Charles Peter and a “black haired man” in the front seat with Dexter seated between them. Edmunds was able to see that Peter turned his head and “muttered some remark.” A special agent had been dispatched to San Francisco to interview Helen Keitting, Edmunds’ companion that night. She identified the car that swerved in front of them as Dexter’s but could not id Peter as one of the occupants.
Another witness interviewed was surgeon, William P. Beer. Beer said he was in the lobby of the Hotel Utah between 6:05 and 6:55 pm the night of the murder and saw Charles Peter and Dexter leave the hotel together and get into Dexter’s car.
Beer’s story was not reported in 1930. However, an unnamed witness at that time had claimed to have observed Dexter pull up at the Hotel Utah about 6:00 pm and left a short time after in the company of two men and a woman. Authorities never identified the other persons and dismissed the account on the basis that Dexter had not eaten dinner before her death. The friend of Dexter’s, “Mrs. Mays,” who had been out with Peter and Dexter on February 14, 1930, was said to have been staying at the Hotel Utah, although the hotel had no one by that name registered. Authorities believed she was really a woman named Kathleen Parrish, but then-Sheriff Patten had questioned Parrish in Los Angeles in April 1930 and came away convinced she was not “Mrs. Mays” after all. As noted in Part I, Parrish died, an apparent suicide, two months later.
Another witness investigators talked to in 1931 was Sarah King. She was one of the young women who testified at the inquest that she and friend Nona Wilson saw a man drive up in Dexter’s auto about 10:30 or 11:00 pm at 3rd South and 2nd West streets. He locked it and walked away. They hadn’t seen the driver’s face, but both in court pointed to Charles Peter and said he “looked like” the man.
King, now Mrs. John Sturgis, re-interviewed in 1931 by County Attorney Cowley and Deputy Sheriff George Knapp, reaffirmed her original statement. Wilson, interviewed by Cowley, corroborated the story. Their testimony– not who they thought they saw but when they saw him- was critical to Dr. Heinrich’s findings on the case and remained, in 1931, a stumbling block for his hypothesis.
Salt Lake County authorities had not planned to arrest Peter at this point. They were still building their case. Young had scrambled to make the arrest that Sunday morning at 4:00 am after learning that Peter was planning to depart Salt Lake for Los Angeles.
On May 4, 1931, as news of Charles Peters’ arrest was splashed across the headlines, another strange potential development had occurred. Deputy Sheriff R.C. Jackson interviewed Frank B. Snyder, a 38-year-old Salt Lake department store employee.
Jackson had joined the department in January 1931 coincident with Young taking office and was assigned to the Moormeister case. He was one of the deputies who’d brought Charles Peter into custody in the wee hours earlier that morning.
Snyder told Jackson that a friend of his knew something about the jewelry stolen from Dexter Moormeister after her murder.
On the evening of May 4, Sheriff Young left Salt Lake for Berkeley to confer with E. O. Heinrich, after all.
The charges against Charles Peter were dropped on Tuesday morning, May 5, 1931, after prosecutors were unable to produce any witness at his preliminary hearing. Cowley had unsuccessfully requested that the hearing be delayed to give the prosecution time to bring witnesses in from out of state. He vowed a new complaint would be filed soon. That never happened.
Whether acting on Snyder’s tip or not, the county attorney’s office told reporters on May 5 that they were seeking a diamond fence in Philadelphia as a “key witness” in the Moormester case.
Around 5:00 am on May 6, Snyder’s body was found on the side of the Saltair road leading to the Salt Lake airport, shot through the heart execution style.
Two hours before the body was discovered, two men who gave their names as “George McDonald” and “Paul Jacobs” were arrested in Salt Lake City for speeding. Jacobs was held as a drunk while McDonald was let go, having left his roadster with authorities as bail and promising to turn up for his hearing in traffic court. He promptly took a powder.
McDonald was soon thereafter identified as the prime suspect in the Snyder murder. Alias George Downey and George Alexander Lee, he had a police record in California and was now thought to be a member of Larry Potter’s “gang.”
Paul Jacobs (aka Fred Williams), in contrast to the usual underworld code of silence, admitted that McDonald told him “I have bumped a guy off and will have to scram.” He was held as a material witness in the Snyder murder along with his wife Bertha.
A few days later, Ogen police located McDonald in their city and told their counterparts in the SLPD where to find him. McDonald, however, managed to slip through the SLPD’s fingers.
With McDonald on the lam, Jacobs’/Williams’ lawyers began lobbying for his release and the man was eventually let go on bond.
Chief of Detectives David H. Clayton told reporters he had “almost conclusive evidence” that Snyder had known the whereabouts of Dexter’s jewels, and that when he refused to reveal the location, he was taken out near the airport and killed.
Interviewed by Clayton, McDonald denied any participation in the Snyder murder. Curiously, this low-level criminal was able to obtain the services of a high-powered lawyer immediately.
“Paul Jacobs” (alias Fred Williams), who was to have been the State’s star witness in McDonald’s preliminary hearing on September 19, stunned the prosecution by developing a case of amnesia on the stand. When Deputy County Attorney Willard R. Huntsman reminded Jacobs of his earlier statement that McDonald told him he’d just “bumped a guy off,” the memory-challenged Jacobs now said McDonald maybe might have said he “bumped into a guy” with his car. Huntsman called for and got a continuance until October 5. Jacobs was taken into custody in the City jail. Huntsman told reporters on September 21 that Jacobs had admitted the obvious: witness tampering had occurred. Jacobs refused to elaborate but agreed to “come clean” the next time he took the stand.
Which would be, as it turned out, on the fifth of Never. Having signed a notarized statement reaffirming his original remarks to the SLPD, Jacobs was released. On the eve of the resumed preliminary hearing, Jacobs eluded his SLPD surveillance detail and vanished.
Salt Lake Mayor John Bowman was voted out in November 1931, possibly as a result of an incident involving Bowman’s son and an underaged girl– which Bowman asserted was a frame-up instigated by Larry Potter and his goons.
On Christmas Eve 1931, Sheriff Young and Matthew Cowley announced that Charles Peter had been officially eliminated as a suspect.
They also admitted that the Moormeister case was at a dead end. Sheriff Young said: “As far as we are concerned the investigation is at a standstill. Any further action in the case must await new developments. The evidence is insufficient to identify the slayer.”
On Jan 5, 1932 the City Commission appointed William L. Payne as chief of police to replace Joseph Burbidge.
On March 8, 1932, absent the star witness for the prosecution, George McDonald was acquitted in the murder of Frank Snyder. McDonald did not have long to breathe the fresh Utah air, however. Sheriff Young handed him over to his counterpart from Redding, CA and McDonald was extradited to California to do time for robbery and jewel theft.
Whatever Snyder may have known about Dexter’s missing jewelry or whether the murder was actually related to the Moormeister case, Clayton never said publicly. He died at age 52 in December 1936.
Matthew Cowley lost reelection for County Attorney in November 1932 having served just one term.
R.C. Jackson left the sheriff’s office in August 1944 to become chief of civilian security of Tooele Army Depot. He would later say his investigation turned produced no new evidence in the case.
S. Grant Young remained sheriff until his retirement in 1947.
Several years after Young placed Dr. Heinrich’s transcript in the vault along with the physical evidence and other material related to the case, R. C. Jackson discovered that it had been stolen.
“When and how we could not find out but it did not seem too important anyway as the case had been long since closed,” Young wrote in 1972.
In early January 1931, SLPD vice squad officers raided Larry Potter’s Fairmont Hotel and took him into custody along with several “girls”. Potter, now 36, gave his profession as “retired capitalist.” He was soon let go.
Following the raid, a citizen wrote to the Salt Lake Telegram wrote of the failure to hold Potter accountable for his vice activities: “Would like to know and I’m sure a number of citizens would be interested in knowing, how soon our chamber of commerce will change the name of our fair city to Pottersville, for it seems appropriate… Does he run the entire police department or what sort of power has he that makes him immune?”
In February 1931, rumors circulated that Larry Potter was leaving Salt Lake and reestablishing himself in Ogden. In April he was said to be totally out of the hotel game.
Potter did ostensibly leave the city for a brief time. By November 1931, he was running The New York Club in Reno.
Soon after taking office in January 1932, the new Chief of Police Bill Payne addressed reports that Potter had transferred his interests from Reno back to Salt Lake and said that if Potter remained in the city, he (Chief Payne) would resign.
Potter, however, the Deseret News noted on 2/24/1932, did stay and was apparently enjoying the “protection which enables him to carry on his various corrupting activities with impunity.”
Several months later, in Nov 22, 1932 the SLPD arrested 24 men in a dice game at 20-1/2 E. Second South St., said to be operated by Larry Potter and W.J. Browning. The same place had been raided twice in one night by sheriff’s deputies a few days earlier.
On September 14, 1933, Larry “former hotel operator and well known police character” Potter was arrested in Salt Lake on an “open charge” by officers Elmer J. Blazzard and Golden D. Holt of the police morals squad. It was assertedly his first appearance in the city in several months. He was held in jail a few hours then told to leave town.
He may have. But he continued to hold a financial ties to Salt Lake until 1936 at least.
Potter was in Los Angeles by 1937 and that August took out a permit to convert a store building at 6619 Hollywood Boulevard into a nightclub, The Jade.
Per the FBI report of 1945, his partner in the venture was Nathan Sherry, who at different times was associated with Sunset Strip nightspots the Clover Club and of course his namesake Sherry’s. Both locations were associated with the underworld and mystery men Nola Hahn and Marcell Lamaze who, like Potter, drifted into Los Angeles after Repeal. That Potter arrived in Los Angeles when Bugsy Siegel was attempting to take over the rackets of the local mob probably no coincidence.
But if Potter had come to Los Angeles on the lam because was a murder suspect and Utah got “too hot” for him, he must have had inside information, as no public reporting found ever suggested any such thing. And if he was trying to lay low, it wouldn’t exactly have taken J. Edgar Hoover to find him; he went around plastering his name on numerous cocktail lounges and clubs all over town.
In September 1946, he opened his own namesake club, Larry Potter’s Supper Club at 11345 Ventura Blvd., formerly Grace Hayes Lodge.
On March 11, 1933, a 16-year-old Duchesse County girl visited Doc M seeking an abortion, and subsequently gets one. On July 7 the doctor and his loyal nurse Pearl Evans were charged in the Duchesse County girl’s illegal operation case. The charges against Pearl were later dropped. On October 14, the case against Doc M was dismissed on a technicality (his lawyer screamed that he hadn’t had a fair preliminary hearing). The City’s complaint remained “in good standing” however, and a new hearing was duly ordered. The case against Doc M and Nurse Evans was refiled on November 25 but the girl he operated on refused to answer questions. Oh, and possible bribery: in 1934 the judge who oversaw the case faced disbarment for having negotiated a “loan” from Doc M while the case was before his bench!
As of January 1936, the Doc was still trying to get his medical license back. In June, his daughter Peggy married and moved with her husband to San Francisco.
In August 1939, a retrospective of the case by reporter Otis J. Pusey appeared as a syndicated Associated Press article in newspapers across the US. In what may be his last known remarks about Dexter’s murder during his lifetime, Doc M, now 57, said he still hoped the killer would be caught.
On January 13, 1941, Doc M died of a heart attack while visiting Peggy on the West Coast. In September 1943, Peggy died of pneumonia in San Diego.
Former sheriff Clifford Patten died in July 1945.
On December 9, 1945, the Salt Lake Tribune ran a retrospective of the case by Bruce Malvern for a series on unsolved Utah murder mysteries. Malvern said in closing: “Today the mystery of why Dorothy Dexter Moormeister, who lived and laughed and had fun, should have been killed in such a macabre fashion is still unsolved. Somewhere, perhaps, the murderer lives and reviews the crime, shivering each time the name of Dexter comes out of the past.”
Edgar Ray Peterson, the smelter who spotted Dexter’s body, died in 1951.
Matthew Cowley, the County Attorney from 1931-1932, died suddenly while on a visit to Los Angeles in 1953.
Criminologist Edward O. Heinrich also died in 1953.
Pearl Evans [Barnes], Doc M’s longtime nurse and confidant, died in San Diego the same year.
On January 16, 1955 a not-completely-reliable retrospective of the case by reporter Howard S. Benedict for the Associated Press ran in the Ogden Standard-Examiner for a series on “famous Utah crimes.”
Charles Peter, the only person publicly charged with the crime to date, died in June 1955, still married to his wife of 45 years, Lydia.
Perry Imri Holt, the deputy sheriff at Midvale who found Dexter’s body after Peterson reported it, died in 1956.
In August 1962, Elijah A. Larkin, the undertaker who signed Dexter’s death certificate, died in Ogden.
John D. Rice, the former Salt Lake County attorney who presided over the inquest, died in 1963.
With almost everyone involved in the original investigation gone or retired, it seems unlikely that the Moormeister case would ever be solved.
Coming soon: Part III
NOTES FOR PART II
Heinrich did not hand over all the evidence. At least one item, a locket containing a lock of hair (probably Dexter’s, used to compare to the hunk of hair found at the crime scene, which Heinrich took back to his lab in 1930) remains in the Heinrich Papers collection at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. The materials were donated by Heinrich’s son Mortimer in 1969 and became available to researchers in 2018.
Dr. William Beer testified for Dr. Moormeister in Moormeister 1936 bid to regain his medical license. In 1939 Beer was charged with mishandling narcotics. He collapsed of a heart attack on the stand and moved to California. The charges were dropped in November 1940, as the doctor’s advanced age made it unlikely that the charges could be prosecuted. He died in 1943.
S. Grant Young. Retrospections of a Sheriff, Soldier, Horseman. Self-published. 1972.
Lydia Peter’s obituary states, incorrectly, that Charles Peter died in 1942.