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The Peephole Murder

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Elbert “Ray” Belote, left, and Blanche Friedman were believe to have conspired in the killing of Allen B. Friedman, but only one of them would wind up serving time for the murder. (Courtesy photo)
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“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.”

— Raymond Chandler, “Red Wind”

There must have been a Santa Ana wind blowing in San Francisco on Oct. 1, 1951, when the body of Allen B. Friedman, president of Atlas Paper Company, was found in the front hallway of his house at 597 17th Ave.

At first, police thought it was natural causes. Friedman was lying peacefully near the front door, and there was no sign of violence or disturbance in the house. It wasn’t until the pathologist found that Friedman had been shot through the eye with a .22 rifle that police took a closer look.

Detectives found the means and motive for the crime in the bullet hole in the door peephole and in the stories in Friedman’s diary. Friedman had written about an affair between his estranged wife, Blanche, and a man named Elbert “Ray” Belote, and his fear that they were trying to kill him. On a pad next to the phone, Friedman had written, “Belote called 9:42 p.m. Saturday.”

Friedman was killed shortly after that time.

Police went to Guerneville, where Friedman owned a cabin, and found Blanche floating in an alcoholic haze.

“I don’t know anyone who might have killed Allen,” Blanche said, “but I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t enjoy killing him.”

Police later found Belote hiding under the bed and questioned him. Belote admitted he had a .22 rifle. He said he was using it to go deer hunting, even though it wasn’t deer-hunting season.

Where was his rifle? It was stolen when he stopped at the Willow Brook Inn for a drink, Belote explained. His alibi? Belote was up in Guerneville, 76 miles north of San Francisco, all weekend and wouldn’t have had the time to go to San Francisco, shoot Friedman and return.

Arthur Dias, who was at the Willow Brook Inn, told police a different story. The night of the murder, Belote told Dias that he was on his way back from San Francisco to Guerneville. Belote also wrote his name on a piece of paper and gave it to Dias, who showed it to police. With his alibi completely demolished, Belote confessed.

“I killed him because I loved his wife,” he admitted to police before leading them to the missing rifle.

There was more than one logical explanations for Belote and Blanche Friedman’s illogical behavior on the weekend of the murder — there were 80 of them. That’s how many glasses of whiskey the couple consumed between the night of Sept. 28 and the morning of Oct. 1.

“It takes about a fifth to get me started,” explained Belote, “but I am not a drunkard.”

A TALE OF TWO ALLENS

Was Allen Friedman a raving alcoholic who brutalized his wife? Was he an invalid, terrified of Blanche and Belote’s plotting?

“For the last three-and-a-half years, my husband was alcoholically insane,” insisted Blanche. “He drank steadily, a quart or more a day.”

Lilian Cherney, Friedman’s sister, put the onus on Blanche.

“She kept plying him with liquor, week after week, to get an inheritance. Then, she drugged him,” Cherney said. “As long as 15 months ago, Allen told me that he wanted a bodyguard. He told me that Belote and Blanche were out to get him.”

The coroner’s jury’s decision was that Belote killed Friedman and that Blanche conspired in her husband’s killing. The police, however, did not have enough evidence to indict Blanche.

At the trial in March 1952, Belote changed his story and insisted the killing was done in self-defense. Belote said he was angry at the divorce settlement Friedman had offered Blanche.

“He offered her $1,000 and the house in Guerneville. She said this was not enough,” Belote testified.

Belote decided to come to San Francisco, see Friedman and get a better settlement for Blanche. Belote said he fired the gun only to frighten Friedman.

“It never occurred to me I had hit him when I fired through the door,” Belote testified. “I knew he had other enemies, and no one liked him. I thought someone else might have shot him.”

Needless to say, the jury convicted Belote of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Under California law, Blanche received $38,000, half of her husband’s estate. She used $8,000 to pay for Belote’s lawyer.

In 1965, after 13 years in San Quentin, Ray Belote was released on parole. He died in 1994 at the age of 89.

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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