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The Buttermilk Bluebeard, Part I

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Alfred Cline, right, consults with his attorney Jake “The Master” Erlich. (Courtesy photo)

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Buttermilk is the new black.

This ancient drink, originally a byproduct of making butter, is now a favorite of the artisan milk crowd. It’s high in protein, easy to digest and a natural treatment against gastrointestinal ailments. All in all, buttermilk is quite a healthy drink, unless prepared by Alfred Cline.

Cline, called a “fiendish philanderer” by the Syracuse Post Standard, poisoned as many as 11 people with buttermilk. But he was so clever that police were never able to charge him with murder.

Born in 1889 in the Bible Belt of Kansas, Cline married early, had two children and gained a reputation as an upstanding farmer, Sunday school teacher and choir member. In 1915, he moved his family to Fort Collins, Colo., where he became a salesman and real estate operator. In 1929, Cline attempted to steal a rich widow’s estate by forging her name on a some legal documents. He was convicted of grand theft and sent to the Colorado state penitentiary.

When he emerged in 1930, he added a deadly twist to his forgery practice and began earning a lethal living. His new method went like this:

1. Find a rich, old widow and marry her.
2. Take her to a hotel in another state.
3. Serve her poisoned buttermilk.
4. Obtain the death certificate from the doctor.
5. Ship the body to another state and have it cremated.
6. Forge documents, collect assets and begin again.

Cline met and charmed 75-year-old Laura Cummings in Los Angeles. They decided to take a trip up the Pacific Coast. Somewhere along the way, Cummings changed her will, leaving her $60,000 estate to Cline. She suddenly became ill in British Columbia and entered a hospital, where the doctors found she had been poisoned. By this time, Cline had decamped to Los Angeles. Her attorneys convinced a reluctant Cummings to destroy the new will.

“I hate to do this,” she said. “He’s such a sweet man.”

Cline’s future traveling companions were not so fortunate. A few months later, Cline married Carey Porter, another wealthy widow. He proposed an auto trip, and they drove to Reno. Three weeks later, she died, leaving him the sole heir of her $20,000 estate. Cline had her body shipped to Oakland and cremated.

And it was not just women who received the buttermilk treatment. In 1931, Rev. Ernest Jones, a retired minister, met Cline and joined him on a trip. Jones died of heart failure and heat prostration, leaving $11,000 for Cline. Jones’ body was shipped to Glendale, Calif., where it was cremated.

In 1932, Cline married Bessie Van Sickle, who was living with her brother-in-law Lucas McCreary. Within a few months, they both expired, leaving Cline $21,200 in insurance and inheritance.

But in October 1933, Cline miscalculated: His next victim, Martin Frame, survived. Frame told police that Cline had given him a glass of buttermilk. He also remembered signing some forms before he passed out.

Police searched Cline’s luxurious home in Glendale and found Frame’s wallet, vials of barbiturate and cyanide and will forms with Frame’s signature. When police found out about Cline’s background, they investigated him for murder. But they couldn’t find enough physical evidence to bring charges.

Instead, Cline was convicted of drugging and robbing Frame and sentenced to 15 years in Folsom State Prison. While locked up, Cline explained to his cellmate his preference for buttermilk.

“If you want to poison someone, put it in buttermilk,” he said. “The taste of buttermilk masks the bitterness of the poison.”

After 10 years, in February 1943, Cline was released from prison at age 60 and revived his business, this time getting the dosage right.

Sincerity was one of the keys to Cline’s success. He presented himself as a religious and successful businessman, both of which were true. Although he regularly broke at least three of the 10 Commandments, Cline was an avid churchgoer and sang in the choir. He was also a successful businessman, only his business was murder.

In September 1943, Cline proposed to 85-year-old Edith Lewis in Oakland. They honeymooned in Florida, where Lewis died of heart failure. Cline collected $15,000 in assets. A month later in the Sunshine State, he met Alice Carpenter. They left for California in February 1944 but never made it. Carpenter died in a Dallas hotel, leaving Cline $15,000 richer.

In May 1945, Cline struck pay dirt in the person of Eva Krebs, a Chicago widow with a $250,000 estate. He married her and said they would take a trip to Oregon. But first, they went south to Texas. Cline wrote to Krebs’ family and said she wanted to write them herself but had injured her hand, so she was dictating the letter to him. Since Krebs never wrote her family and always communicated by phone, Cline’s letter made them very suspicious. Krebs’ nephew hired a private detective who found the signatures on her annuity checks had been forged.

In October, Cline gave Krebs a glass of buttermilk with predictable results. But he had her cremated under someone else’s name so he could continue cashing her lucrative annuity checks. But with Krebs’ relatives on his trail, Cline needed her to die officially so he could inherit her estate. He needed a body.

“Just think of me coming into so much good fortune,” exclaimed Isabella Van Netta, a poor 73-year-old widow, to her friend Sue. “God has been so good to me. Mr. Cline seems to have so much interest in me and how he could, I don’t understand.”

Cline offered Van Netta a place to live and a job managing one of his apartments in Southern California. Cline loaded her meager belongings in his trailer, and they prepared to go south. But first, they had to make a brief stop in Portland, Ore.

“THE LORD GIVETH AND THE LORD TAKETH AWAY” began the telegram Cline sent to Krebs’ nephew. “AUNT EVA DIED IN PORTLAND OREGON AFTER SHORT ILLNESS.TO BE CREMATED TODAY. ASHES WILL BE INURNED AT CEMETARY IN SAN FRANCISCO.”

Krebs’ nephew called San Francisco police and told them his suspicions. The police investigated, found the cemetery with the ashes, located Cline at the Mark Twain Hotel and arrested him for forgery. Cline hired the legendary Jake “The Master” Erlich, the lawyer on whom Perry Mason was based. Erlich’s motto was “never plead guilty.”

One of the strangest cases in San Francisco history was about to begin …

Editor’s Note: Look for the conclusion to this series on Sunday, April 29.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.

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