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A deadly secret on Mount Tamalpais

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After reporting his wife missing following an “intimate personal argument,” Donald Panattoni, left, confessed to police that he murdered his wife Elaine, right, and buried her on Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. (Courtesy photo)
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With its hiking trails and sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay, Mount Tamalpais is a favorite destination for those seeking a bucolic day in Marin County. But on one summer day in 1949, it was the site of a discovery that destroyed two of San Francisco’s most prominent families …

On June 28, 1949, Donald Panattoni called police with a mystery: His wife Elaine was missing. Donald and Elaine were one of San Francisco’s golden couples. Twenty-two-year-old Donald was the son of Lawrence Panattoni, the wealthy owner of Sunset Poultry Company. Nineteen-year-old Elaine was the daughter of two luminaries: Paul Dana, a famous attorney, and Louise Dana, a leader of the San Francisco Opera. Donald and Elaine had been married about a year and had a 7-month-old son.

It was the golden age of San Francisco attorneys, with legal legends such as Vince “The Lion” Hallinan, Jake “Never Plead Guilty” Ehrlich and Mel “King of Torts” Belli stalking the courtroom. Dana was a match for any of them; he had a winning record against Belli in courtroom battles and defeated Hallinan in a 1938 nonlegal battle outside City Hall. Dana’s one-punch knockout was Hallinan’s only loss in 23 fistfights with other lawyers.

Panattoni told police that he had a few drinks after work and had a “tiff” with Elaine, who then left their house at 1663 38th Ave., to go to the movies. She never returned. Elaine’s mother Louise became suspicious when she found blood on the couple’s bathroom floor and under the bath mat. Elaine’s father got The City’s top detectives — Frank Ahearn and Tom Cahill, both future police chiefs — assigned to the case.

The detectives found bloodstains in Donald Panattoni’s car trunk and bloody clothes hidden in the basement. But after hours of questioning, Donald still denied knowing anything about his wife’s disappearance. Then, Cahill changed tactics and asked Panattoni, “Did you ever drink to the extent that you didn’t know what happened?”

“This was the first time I noticed any real hesitation,” Cahill later testified. “He stopped and looked at the floor.”

“I don’t think so,” Donald replied.

“I asked him again,” Cahill continued. “He put his hands to his face. Then, he finally said, ‘I’ll tell you what happened.’”

Donald said he had come home intoxicated and had sex with his wife. He asked Elaine to go out with him, but she refused, saying that he was too drunk. This enraged him, and he started beating her. He remembered putting her in the trunk of his car and driving to Marin, but his memory became hazy after that.

On June 30, Donald took detectives Cahill and Ahearn to a location on Mount Tamalpais, where Elaine’s body was buried. The autopsy revealed that she had been badly beaten with a pipe in the head and chest. It also revealed that Elaine was still alive when she was in the trunk of the car and might have been buried alive. Donald was charged with first-degree murder.

Donald’s father hired Leo Friedman, a high-powered defense attorney to represent his son. Friedman said that Donald had committed the crime during an alcoholic stupor and was innocent of murder.

The main question at the trial was not whether Donald had killed his wife, but why he did it. Though alcohol was a contributing factor, it wasn’t a motive by itself. The prosecution hinted at “sexual maladjustment” in the marriage. Paul Dana said he knew why Donald killed Elaine, but didn’t reveal the reason — perhaps class differences played a role.

Donald felt that the Dana family looked down upon him, and the family was upset that Donald waited until Elaine was five months pregnant before he married her. One newspaper implied that reading crime comics might have influenced Donald’s actions.

By the time of the trial, the Panattoni and Dana families, once friendly, had become bitter enemies. On Nov. 21, after a six-week trial, Donald Panattoni was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to five years to life in prison. The verdict satisfied neither family. Paul Dana wanted a first-degree verdict, and the Panattonis were hoping for a manslaughter decision.

The two families battled over custody of the couple’s 1-year-old son, a fight won by Elaine’s mother. But other misfortunes were yet to come.

In 1957, Donald Panattoni was released from San Quentin State Prison. In 1960, Donald’s younger brother, 20-year-old Larry Panattoni, was arrested for the attempted rape of a 17-year-old girl.

The case destroyed Paul Dana. He started drinking heavily, and his second marriage fell apart. The law firm he founded fired him for financial improprieties, he declared bankruptcy and he was briefly committed to a mental institution in 1960.

But Dana still retained the brilliance that dazzled many a courtroom.

In 1955, Norman Saucedo, a Mexican-American teenager, watched Dana cross-examine a witness in a criminal case. Watching Dana changed Saucedo’s life. Saucedo went on to college and law school and became one of the most prominent trial lawyers in the country.

“Paul Dana was like magic,” Saucedo told me. “The way he moved, the way he talked, the way he commanded the courtroom. I wanted to be just like him.”

Dana died in 1967.

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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