The story so far: Tipped off by the relatives of Eva Krebs, a wealthy woman who had died suspiciously, San Francisco police arrested Alfred Cline for forgery. Authorities strongly suspected that Cline had killed at least four women in other states.
Police found a treasure trove of evidence in Cline’s room, including notebooks with more than 100 names of past and future victims. Information in these notebooks led to murder investigations in Florida, Texas, Nevada and Oregon.
Cline’s modus operandi was to romance a wealthy widow, travel with her to a hotel in another state, give her buttermilk laced with poison and convince a local doctor to ascribe the death to heart problems. Then, he would ship the body to another state and have it cremated, eliminating all evidence of poison.
The choir-singing Cline met many of his victims at church. The women, mostly elderly widows, were flattered with the attentions of a younger, prosperous and devoutly religious man. They invited him to their houses, which he carefully inspected to determine whether they were wealthy enough to kill.
It was evident that Cline was running a very successful enterprise. His safety deposit box contained $165,000 in stocks, $26,000 in currency and a large quantity of women’s jewelry. Cline hired Jake “The Master” Erlich, one of the top criminal lawyers in the country.
Ehrlich had defended 56 individuals accused of murder and never allowed one to be sent to the gallows. Although Cline was charged with forgery, murder would play an important role in the trial. For Cline to inherit his wives’ estates through forgery, he had to know they were dead. If the district attorney could prove Cline was the only person with the means, motive and opportunity to kill these women, it would go a long way toward convicting him for forgery.
SEE RELATED: The Buttermilk Bluebeard, Part I
Prosecutor Norman Elkington led a parade of witnesses who put Cline at the crime scenes. A witness testified that Cline was actively involved in his wife’s medical care. “Coffee is not good for her. She should drink buttermilk,” he told one doctor.
Using a comparison of cremation ashes, dental charts and mortician testimony, prosecutors proved the body in Portland was really that of Issabella Van Netta and that the body in Texas was really that of Eva Krebs
The strongest witness against Cline was Clark Sellers, a noted document expert who had testified in the famous Lindbergh kidnapping case. Sellers methodically showed the jury nine instances of forgery on the part of Cline, eight of which were related to Krebs. Erlich argued the charges be combined into one count, but Judge Herbert C. Kaufman refused, and the nine counts of forgery remained.
Suddenly, the case hit an unexpected speed bump: Two police inspectors noticed that juror No. 11 looked somewhat familiar. His juror form listed him as an interior designer, but the detectives recognized him from an earlier career as a forger. Both sides and the police met in the judge’s chambers to figure out a way out of this sticky situation. It turned out the juror had lied on the juror form because he was embarrassed about his past; they let him off with a $250 fine and replaced him with an alternate.
Then, in a move that flummoxed everyone, Cline requested a private audience with Judge Kaufman, a move without legal precedent. Up to this point Cline had said nothing, even to his own lawyer. This was seen as possibly the last chance to get to the bottom of the mystery that Cline had created.
Judge Kaufman agreed, and he and Cline disappeared into the judge’s chambers. There they stayed for the next hour and 10 minutes. Years later, Judge Kaufman revealed the conversation to journalist Nancy Barr Mavity.
“Cline approached me like a salesperson, trying to ‘sell me’ a lighter concurrent sentence, but never in his approach did he show the slightest feeling of horror, remorse or regret,” Kauffman recalled. “’But I was never cruel to them,’ Cline reportedly told the judge, an interesting insight into the mind of a sociopath. “‘I bore them no ill will. … I always felt quite kindly toward them and acted so.”
Cline’s sales attempt failed.
When they emerged from the judges chambers, Kaufman announced he had agreed to reveal nothing of the conversation. A dumbfounded Ehrlich told reporters, “You can call the undertakers. I’ve seen everything now!”
The trial continued as if the meeting had been a momentary illusion.
The case went to the jury on April 18. Ninety minutes later, the jury returned with a guilty verdict on nine counts of forgery. Judge Kaufman ruled the sentences should run consecutively and gave Cline the maximum: 126 years in prison.
With Cline put away for life, the murder charges, which would’ve been difficult to prove, were dropped. Two years later, in a kind of irony, Cline dropped dead of a genuine, non-buttermilk-related heart attack.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.