Larry Potter and the Moormeister Case Part III

 

Read Part I here and Part II here. If you want to skip right to the conclusion, read on.

February 21, 1960 marked 30 years since the murder of Dexter Moormeister, wife of Salt Lake City physician Dr. Frank Moormeister. The case was still unsolved, and with almost all of the principal figures now gone, it seemed almost certain that it would remain so.

That’s why it was even more surprising when four years later, someone confessed.

It was not the first confession. In November 1931, William F. Pope (alias Frank Webster), a 20-something deserter doing a stretch the Portsmouth, New Hampshire naval prison, said he and another man killed Dexter because she “knew too much” about their criminal activity in the Salt Lake area.

Salt Lake authorities were dubious. Pope had been arrested in the city previously, and had a known habit of confessing to crimes he’d only read about in the newspaper. On November 30, police dismissed the confession as a hoax. Chief of Detectives David H. Clayton said he had established positively that Pope was in a local card room at the time the murder was committed and could not have done it.

Sheriff S. Grant Young, who was in charge of the Moormeister case at the time, announced at the end of 1931: “as far as we are concerned the investigation is at a standstill. Any further action in the case must await new developments.”

A few months earlier, Young had heard the findings and conclusions reached by Edward O. Heinrich, the noted criminologist from Berkeley, California, who’d been hired to assist with the investigation in April 1930. His involvement had been controversial because his services were paid for by the victim’s husband– though Heinrich reported to the sheriff’s office under Young’s predecessor, Clifford Patten. Heinrich told Young how he believed the murder was committed but the obvious suspect had an alibi for the hour witnesses had seen a man slip away from Dexter’s abandoned car and the alibi could not be broken. The investigation was stymied. The solution required what Dr. Heinrich referred to as the “missing link.”

Returning to his office in Salt Lake, Young had filed Heinrich’s report away and, as he said, awaited further developments.

On August 27, 1964, Salt Lake police got a letter from Martin G. Guttiers, a trustee in the Frio County jail in Pearsall Texas. He wrote that a fellow inmate, William Sadler, had confessed to him that he murdered Dexter Moormeister. Guttiers wanted to know if there was any reward involved. 

Salt Lake Tribune 8/28/1964.

SLPD Captain Dewey J. Fillis conferred with the sheriff’s office. The current sheriff was George Beckstead, who’d been a deputy in 1931 under Sheriff Young and Young’s handpicked replacement when retired in 1947. From what Fillis was able to cobble together, the details in the letter conformed with the basic facts of the case. Fillis asked the Texas authorities to interview Sadler.

Sadler repeated his confession on tape and in a written statement to Frio County Sheriff Willie J. Alley and D.A. J. Taylor Brite. 

After hearing the confession over the phone Fillis and Lieutenant Ferris Andrus of the Sheriff’s office–who would now jointly handle the reinvestigation– were skeptical. After all, a few others had confessed to the crime over the years besides William F. Pope. But as they began reviewing the case, they became increasingly convinced Sadler was telling the truth.

Sadler claimed that in 1930, Larry Potter told him Dr. Moormeister was willing to pay $5000 to have Dexter killed. The doctor was an abortionist and she was threatening to disclose information about an abortion racket. Plus, she was fooling around with other men. 

Sadler had needed money, he said, to pay his lawyer, whom he owed $1000 for “getting me out of a bum rap” (Deseret News 9/5/1964). It was supposed to look like an accident. On the night of the killing, Potter picked Sadler up in Dexter’s car at 5th South and State streets. Dexter was passed out–doped. Sadler took the wheel while Potter sat in the back holding onto Dexter to keep her from falling over. Another car trailed them, driven by an accomplice. They drove around for a while, then stopped at 33rd South and State streets. Potter propped Dexter up in a corner then got into the other vehicle, which drove off.

Sadler continued out to the pole line road driving Dexter’s car, stopped and opened the passenger door. Dexter, whose prone form had been leaning against it, fell out onto the road. Sadler proceeded to run over her several times, he said.

Later he went to Larry Potter’s hotel to be paid, but only collected $500 of the promised $5000. Potter and the driver of the other vehicle told Sadler that he’d committed a murder. They witnessed it, and if forced, would testify against him in court. He left town the next day.

Sadler, now in his 60s, was in the Texas jail on a check forgery charge. “Her face kept haunting me….I had to get her murder off my chest.” he told the Texas authorities in 1964.

 

William Sadler as a baby-faced criminal in San Quentin, 1922. California State Archives.

William Ernest Sadler was born in Salt Lake City in 1901. He was living in Salt Lake at 23 North Main Street in 1930. He worked as a salesman in the advertising department of a local rag, though he often referred to himself as a “reporter.”

Sadler already had a long police record throughout the West, mostly for check forgery and related crimes. In January 1922 he was arrested in San Joaquin County, California and sent to San Quentin to do time for check forgery.

Stockton Daily Evening Record 1/14/1922.

In June 1925, Sadler was arrested in Sacramento for passing worthless checks. He’d purchased a press badge from a second-hand store and went around to so-called “soft drink parlors” as a self-styled newspaperman, ostensibly checking that they were observing Prohibition laws.

Salt Lake Telegram 11/17/1928.

In April 1928 he was charged in Salt Lake for passing worthless checks but avoided jail time when his father offered to cover the amount of the losses. In November 1928 he was extradited from Los Angeles back to Salt Lake to stand trial for passing a forged check at a clothing store in Salt Lake back in September. Convicted in February 1929, he was sentenced to serve a term of 1 to 20 years in the state pen but, thanks to his lawyer, won a new trial in April 1929. This time, he was miraculously found not guilty. 

Clarence D. “Scoop” Williams had driven out to the Moormeister murder scene with news photographer Bill Shipler as a cub reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune. Now 34 years later Williams recalled Sadler as a “slightly built, talkative man” who claimed to have been a newspaper man and was always hanging around the police station.

Larry Potter was a known local underworld figure who operated brothels from the Teens to the 1930s. He’d known Dexter since 1919. Two days before the murder he had met up with her at the Newhouse Hotel in downtown Salt Lake, where he introduced her to an underworld figure from Los Angeles, H. Paul Mitchell. Potter testified about this meeting at the inquest in March 1930. Mitchell was to have met Dexter the day of the murder, but left Salt Lake by train that morning at 10:30.

The Newhouse Hotel as it looked in the early 1960s. It was demolished in 1983.

At the time of the murder, Dr. Moormeister was indeed in legal jeopardy over abortions he performed in the Fall of 1929 and was facing the loss of his medical license. The hearing in one case against him was held February 11; the charges were dropped when the witnesses failed to show up (as was typical). Doc M’s hearing on a second charge was to have taken place on March 6, 1930 but in wake of the tragedy it was postponed.

As investigators were aware, the doctor had died more than twenty years earlier. But Larry Potter was still very much alive. He had relocated to Los Angeles in 1937 and reinvented himself as a respectable owner of bars and restaurants.

Larry Potter c. 1963. The Valley Times 12/19/1963.

Overall, the Salt Lake officials found Sadler seemed to have knowledge of facts that had never come out in the newspaper and were known only to those close to the case.

In early September they went to Texas and spent two days questioning Sadler themselves. Sadler again confessed on tape. He also took four polygraph tests. Fillis said the results “revealed quite a lot of information that involves other people” and that they “indicated conclusively that Sadler was telling the truth.”

On September 11, 1964, Sadler was officially charged with murder along with three John Does.

Building a case was difficult due to the passage of time. Existing files were “sketchy” at best. Most of the original investigators and witnesses had passed away.

Coincidentally, the records and evidence had only recently been moved from the sheriff’s office and stored in the attic of the county jail. The evidence included Dexter’s clothing and the steering wheel of the “death car.”  Her clothing (most notably a hat), had been taken from Salt Lake to Dr. Heinrich’s lab in Berkeley shortly after the murder but were returned to the sheriff’s office in 1931.

Although Heinrich’s written up findings and conclusions had been stolen from Young’s office sometime during his tenure, the 77-year-old former sheriff still lived in the area. He read of Sadler’s confession with interest. The penny must have dropped as he realized: this was Dr. Heinrich’s “missing link.” Unfortunately, Heinrich would never know; he died in 1953.

But Young knew something else: if Heinrich’s hypothesis was correct–and Young was convinced it was– William Sandler had not murdered Dexter Moormeister.

The ex-lawman apprised the investigators of the findings and conclusions Heinrich had relayed to him in 1931.

Investigators also talked to R. C. Jackson, who’d served as Young’s chief deputy from 1931 to 1944 and had been assigned to the Moormeister case. According to local papers, he said his investigation had turned up no new information and that police never saw E. O. Heinrich’s write up of his findings. This was probably a misunderstanding– Jackson likely meant that the previous administration never saw a report. He let Lt. Andrus “borrow” a number of photographs and documents he had in his possession.

Detectives sought persons who had examined Dexter’s body in 1930. They struck out.

Ray T. Woolsey, the assistant county physician who performed the autopsy on Dexter, had passed away in 1957. Investigators had to ask his widow if she knew whether there’d been an autopsy, and if so where the report might be found.

They also hoped to get a statement from Leo Walman Goates, a former employee of Larkin Undertaking, who had prepared Dexter’s body for burial. However, Goates died in 1962.

But not all the original witnesses were gone.

Dexter’s sister Amelia, now Mrs. Nilson, was still alive and lived about 40 miles from Salt Lake CIty. It was Amelia who gave Dr. Moormeister an alibi for the evening of the murder. The papers didn’t mention her so it’s unknown whether investigators contacted her.

Also still living and still local was Greta Seddell, now Mrs. Stenquist, the Moormeister’s former live-in maid. She was 29 at the time of the murder and had testified about Dexter’s movements that afternoon. Her statement that Dexter left home at 4:00 pm was in conflict with Amelia’s, who said it was 5:00 pm. The papers don’t mention whether Gretta was in touch with the current investigators.

Larry Potter’s reaction, or whether investigator attempted to contact him, went unreported. He was presumably one of the John Does. The other two were unnamed.

Sadler was extradited to Salt Lake City and arraigned on November 23, 1964. At his preliminary hearing January 7, 1965, his taped confession was introduced into evidence.

Sadler’s legal counsel stated for the record that Sadler underwent a brain operation in 1949 and was declared “mentally incompetent” in San Antonio the same year.

William Sadler in Salt Lake City 1965. Utah State Historical Society.

When Sadler took the stand, he recanted his confession, claiming it was a complete fabrication. He said had a working knowledge of the case from when he lived in Salt Lake and had also read about it in an “old detective magazine.”

“I do not know a Larry Potter,” he said. “I do not know Dorothy Moormeister or Dr. Moormeister. I have never seen either of them.

Salt Lake Telegram 12/10/1931

The Moormeister case had indeed been written up in a true-crime detective magazine. The January 1932 issue of True Detective Mysteries magazine featured an illustrated article by a Salt Lake resident, Alice Jones, with details supplied by L. L. Larson, the sheriff’s deputy who originally headed the investigation. The article Sadler was referring to, however was published in 1962.

Cover of True Detective Mysteries, January 1932.

 

Sadler was held over for trial in Dexter murder and subsequently given a psychiatric examination at the Utah State Hospital. 

Main Street Salt Lake in the 1960s. The Hotel Utah, where some witnesses reported seeing Dexter the evening of February 21, 1930 is at left.

The trial opened on April 6, 1965. Salt Lake County DA Jay E. Banks promised that the prosecution would show that Sadler drove Dexter in her car to the murder scene, backed over her with the car, then drove to a Salt Lake hotel to get $5000 from Larry Potter but only got $500.

Dr. Heinrich’s findings and conclusions were not introduced during the proceedings by either side. Former Sheriff Young had informed Sadler’s defense of the particulars.

A key witness for the prosecution was Virginia Risley, now Mrs. Choate. As a 14-year-old, she had worked as a maid in the Moormeister home. She testified that she saw the Doc in the library of the Moormeister home on the afternoon before the murder talking to “Curly Yates” and “Al Rees” and heard the mention of $10,000 to “get the job done.” Later that day, she heard and saw Sadler arguing with Doc M in the library talking about money and sounding angry. The doctor went to her home later to tell her his wife was dead and paid her $500 in wages just as she was about to leave for a new job in California. 

Under cross examination, Virginia said no one had asked her about Sadler until a few days ago when D.A. Jay E. Banks interviewed her.

Virginia Risley had lived in Salt Lake City in 1930 and was about 14 years old at the time. She did not live with the Moormeisters as their other maid did but resided at home with her widowed mother. She married in 1935 and remained in the Salt Lake area.

It would have been interesting if Greta Seddell had been called to corroborate or refute this story.

Another prosecution witness was Harold W. Clark of the SLPD. Clark, who joined the SLPD in 1927, had actually played a minor but important in the original investigation: he picked up Dexter’s damaged 1929 Cadillac sedan in downtown Salt Lake about 1:15 a.m. on February 22, 1930. Now, as a veteran officer with an exemplary record, he told the court how he’d observed blood, hair and sand on the spring and right rear bumper and, taking care to preserve any fingerprints, drove it to the police garage. [The car was subsequently returned to Doc M and sold by him].

J. Taylor Brite, DA of Frio County, Texas, testified that he took Sadler’s confession and that it was given voluntarily. 

Dewey Fellis testified that he interviewed Sadler in the Frio jail and Sadler confessed, which he had on tape.

Gary Gossett, Texas TV newsman of WOAI-TV, testified that he obtained Sadler’s “sound on film” confession to the murder. The film was played to the jury over the objection of Sadler’s lawyers.

In all, four confessions were introduced as evidence.

Sadler took the stand in his own defense and again recanted his confession, repeating his claim that he’d made it up based on an article he’d read in a detective magazine and his own recollections of the case. Yes, he’d id’d the Doc and Dexter from pictures, but his lawyers pointed out, the article had similar photos. Sadler said he made up the story because he wanted to be extradited “home” to Utah as he would receive better treatment, and because he faced possibly life imprisonment in Texas as a habitual criminal.

DA Banks said Sadler knew too many details about the case to have concocted it and that some of the information he gave was not in the magazine article.

But the all-male jury found Sadler not guilty. He walked out of the courtroom a free man. 

Heinrich’s Hypothesis

The Salt Lake medical and forensic officials had concluded in February 1930 that Dexter had been killed outside the car as there was no blood or sign of a struggle inside the vehicle. A hole in her close-fitting hat; injuries to her skull; blood and a dent in the car’s rear bumper; and a hunk of bloody iron ore found at the scene led them to theorize that she’d been standing behind the car when her killer hit over the head with the ore. The blow had knocked her out, they believed, because she hadn’t been moving when she the car ran her over.

Dr. Heinrich, after visiting the crime scene in April 1930, interviewing some of the witnesses, and examining the hat, ore, and other items back at his lab in Berkeley, had reached a different conclusion.

He would agree there’d been no struggle inside the car and that she had not moved when run over. That, Dr. Heinrich believed, was because Dexter was already dead.

In his 1972 self-published memoir, Retrospections of a Sheriff, Soldier, Horseman, S. Grant Young revealed E. O Heinrich’s hypothesis:

“Dr. Heinrich was positive that the woman was killed either in her car or in her home. The evidence showed she arrived home in the late evening of the day of the murder and could have been under the influence of liquor, or she could have been given an anesthetic. THe murder, in Dr. Heinrich’s opinion, was done at this time. In support of this conclusion, he produced a small close-fitting hat the victim was wearing at the time she was killed. It had a slit in the lower part in the back where it covered a small part of her neck. Around this area there was a clot of blood. He reasoned the murderer had used a small instrument to commit the crime, killing the victim instantaneously. Dr. Heinrich gave much scientific detail as to how it could have been done. If his deductions were correct, after the murder was committed the victim was driven far out into the country to a lonely road where she was taken from the car, deposited on the roadway, and then run over many times. The car was then driven back to the city and abandoned on a street west of the business district in Salt Lake City.”

“At this point Dr. Heinrich was stymied. The time the car was abandoned was definitely established but it was impossible for the suspect to have parked the car at that place and to have gotten home. The suspect was able to prove he had been in his home all of the evening, The alibi could not be disproved, so naturally the suspect could not have driven the death car. This was the ‘missing link’ “

Heinrich’s hypothesis was based on science and his significant professional experience. He would follow the facts where they led him– however awkward that might be.

Young declined to name Heinrich’s suspect. But by including a discussion of the state of the Moormeister’s marriage and the doctor’s abortion activities, it’s fairly clear who he meant.

Dr. Moormeister gave two different accounts of his movements that night and had been out alone- driving and attending a movie- part of the time and spent the other part at home. Amelia was his alibi for a portion of the evening. Another was Swedish masseur, Erland Druselius of the Deseret Gymnasium, who arrived at the Moormeister house for an appointment with Dexter at either 9:30 or 10:20 (Doc M gave the earlier time in his initial statement but at the inquest said it was 10:20). Druselius waited with the doctor then left at 11:00. So the doctor could not have been the man seen abandoning Dexter’s car at 10:30.

If the doctor gave conflicting reports about his own movements, there was even more confusion about Dexter’s whereabouts in the afternoon and evening. At first it was thought she’d gone out in the early afternoon and never returned. But a witness reported seeing her heading home about 2:00 pm. About 2:30 she apparently left again, then returned home and– again– went out after changing her clothes. Greta Seddell said she left at 4:00. Amelia said it was 5:00. Peggy Moormeister, the doctor’s daughter from his first marriage, said it was 5:30. In any case, according to Greta Sedell, Dexter said she would be home in time for her massage appointment.

An even greater fog surrounds the hour of 6:00, when the doctor initially said he’d talked to Dexter by phone. He later claimed to be at his lawyers’ office at that time; he said he called home and was informed Dexter was out. A witness in the same office building as the doctor, the Brooks Arcade, claimed he saw Dexter leaving the building about 6:00. Still another witness said Dexter had been parked in front of the Hotel Utah at that time and left shortly after with two men and a woman (the latter story was quickly dismissed; in 1931 a friend of Doc M’s, a fellow physician, would claim he saw Dexter leaving the Utah with a man- and that the man was Charles Peter). In the end, no one could account for her whereabouts after about 6:00 pm on February 21, 1930. We do know she intended to go home.

It’s possible Heinrich’s suspect was Charles Peter, but this seems very unlikely.

Charles fell under suspicion immediately due to information supplied by Dorothy’s sister Amelia, who claimed Peter had an unrequited passion for Dexter. Even if true, as a motive it’s pretty weak. The only other reason Peter was ever considered a person of interest was due to eye witness accounts. The two young women who had observed a man abandoning Dexter’s later claimed he “looked like” Charles Peter (though they didn’t see his face, which was hidden by his coat collar). Another witness reported seeing Dexter in her car with two men that night– and was sure one of them was Charles Peter. Peter denied all of it it. Like the doctor, he had an alibi for the evening. His wife of 20 years, Lydia, confirmed he’d been home with her.

In May 1931, Sheriff Young arrested Peter for the murder. The action appears to have been prompted by revisiting these and other eye witness accounts rather than Dr. Heinrich’s evidence as it occurred before Young met with Heinrich in Berkeley. Charles Peter was released after two days and at the end of the year–the same press conference where he pronounced the Moormeister case at a standstill–Young stated he had been cleared of any involvement. It seems unlikely he would say this is Charles Peter remained under a cloud of suspicion.

It’s also apparent that the former sheriff believed William Sadler’s story– except Young knew that, if Heinrich’s findings were correct, Sadler had not killed Dexter– he only thought he had.

This was Heinrich’s “missing link.” It explained how his suspect could have committed the murder and yet have a rock-solid alibi for the critical hour of 10:30. Someone else had taken Dexter’s body away in the car. Someone else drove it out to the pole line road and it was he who had abandoned the car.

Another puzzling aspect of the case was the multiple, conflicting reports of witnesses claiming to have seen Dexter in her car at different times and places, sometimes alone, sometimes with one man, sometimes with two. While not all the sightings were legitimate surely, if Sadler was telling the truth it is possible some witnesses saw Dexter when she was alone, other witnesses saw Larry Potter and Dexter, and still others saw Sadler, Potter and Dexter.

The two witnesses who saw a man abandoning Dexter’s car said he was a “small, slightly-built man, about 140 pounds.” The description could have fit half the men in Salt Lake. It also fit William Sadler. According to his 1922 prison record, he was just over 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 132 pounds.

William Sadler’s defense strategy was to recant his confession. His lawyer had conveyed to him the information about Heinrich’s hypothesis, which relieved Sadler’s mind even if the criminologist’s findings could not be proven at that late date. Dexter had been dead, not doped, when he got into the car. He’d been willing to kill- but he hadn’t. Recanting the confession probably seemed like the easiest way out.

There would be no justice for Dexter. If Dr. Heinrich was right, at least she hadn’t suffered, as long believed

Afterward

William Sadler celebrated his freedom by promptly writing bad checks in Salt Lake City. He was picked up again soon after his acquittal and held for Texas authorities to face the previous felony check fraud charges but posted $1500 bail and vanished.

He surfaced in Sacramento, California in 1971 when he was arrested on March 26, accused of kidnapping a 16-year old girl at gunpoint and raping her. The gun was later found to be a bb gun and the kidnap and rape charges were dropped. Police did find him with numerous forged and fictitious checks and fake driver’s licenses so he did a 6-month term in Sacramento County jail. He was arrested again in Sacramento two years later for conspiracy to commit forgery.

William Sadler in an advertisement for Alpha Beta supermarkets, 1976. The career criminal, would-be murderer, accused rapist was not the best choice to represent the plight of senior citizens. Fresno Bee 7/7/1976.

Sadler died in Los Angeles on November 20, 1989.

 

NOTES FOR PART III

As with alcoholic beverages during Prohibition, the illegality of abortions brought otherwise law abiding citizens into the orbit of criminals. It also made it an extremely lucrative enterprise. There were risks, but they could be minimized by greasing the right palms.

The E.O. Heinrich papers were donated to the University of California, Berkeley by his son in 1969 and are now held in the Bancroft Library special collections. The library is currently closed to researchers from outside the UC. If the author is able to view the collection, post will be updated.
Former deputy Jackson also retained at least one Moormeister case exhibit: Dexter’s “French doll” that had once hung from the rear window of the “death car,” which he used as a prop when giving talks about the case.
Authorities were said to be seeking the former mortuary employee in California; the Leo Walman Goates who lived in Oakland was Goates’ son.
Lydia Peter died in February 1971. Her obituary mistakenly states Charles Peter died in June 1942; it was June 1955.
Larry Potter died on February 1, 1972 in Los Angeles.
Amelia Nilson died in January 1973.
Greta Seddell Stenquist died in 1974.
Much of the information from former sheriff S. Grant Young comes from his 1972 self-published memoir, Retrospections of a Sheriff, Soldier, Horseman. He died in 1984 at age 96.