On the night of April 4th 1958 Beverly Hills Police arrive at the house of movie star Lana Turner, to find her boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, dead from a knife wound to the gut. But what really happened? Below are three very different versions of the events that took place that night.
Justifiable Homicide –
In the version of this story told at trial and upheld for the past 60 years; low-level mobster, Johnny Stompanato, was a terribly abusive boyfriend. On the night in question, 14 year old Cheryl Crane took a kitchen knife to her mother’s bedroom to defend her mother in the midst of a heated break-up. According to Cheryl’s own accounts, she stood at the doorway to her mother’s bedroom clutching the knife in front of her. Stompanato, belongings in hand, went to pass her and as he did, she thrusted the knife into his abdomen.
This was in response to Cheryl overhearing Johnny threaten to scar Lana Turner’s face, ending her career, kill Cheryl’s grandmother, and then Cheryl herself. After hearing the actress’ emotional testimony, the jury concluded that the murder was indeed justifiable. The Jury however was not unanimous in this decision and the evidence was not consistent with the tale they were told.
Fatal Attraction –
Of the forty seats available at the trial (inquest) one was occupied by an unidentified man, who, towards the end of the trial, burst from his seat shouting “Lies! All Lies!” He pleaded to testify, stating that the mother and daughter were both in love with Johnny and that he died because he was a gentleman. The unidentified man was removed from the courtroom and despite the swell of press present and titillated with the whole affair, the man was not pursued and has never been identified.
Many have theorized that this could have been a mob plant or just an everyday Hollywood nut job, and he might have been dismissed as just that; if not for the similarity between his rant and that of Johnny’s friends.
Johnny Stompanato was a graduate of the military academy, he joined the Marines and fought bravely against the Japanese in World War II. Before meeting Lana he owned a small gift shop. When his business failed he got a job working security at a nightclub. There he did his job so well he caught the attention of club-owner, Mickey Cohen (a mob guy) who promoted Johnny to be his personal bodyguard.
According to friends, Johnny was not the guy he was made out to be in the court room. They say that the emotionally troubled 14 year-old had a crush on Johnny, and he rebuffed her advances, causing her to snap.
Allegedly, Cheryl’s former step-father (Lana’s fourth husband), Lex Barker (the original Tarzan) forced the young girl into a sexual relationship, which started at age 10 and continued on for three years before Cheryl was able to tell someone. There’s no doubt that this traumatic series of events along with her strained relationship with her mother and “fishbowl” type existence, would have left the young girl messed-up (for lack of a better phrase).
Stompanato’s boss, Mickey Cohen, was appalled by the verdict, telling the press “As far as that jury is concerned, Johnny just walked to close to the knife”.
The Stompanato Family sued Lana Turner but the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Jilted Lover –
The third (more tawdry) version was uncovered by pop historian, Darwin Porter, who claims his evidence proves that Cheryl Crane, wasn’t the one who did the stabbing.
According to Darwin Porter, Lana Turner arrived home that night to find her boyfriend in her 14-year-old daughter’s bed. They were allegedly cuddling in “post-coital sleep”. Infuriated, Lana went to her nightstand and retrieved the knife she bought earlier that day. She then went back to Cheryl’s bedroom and stabbed Stompanato while he slept.
Allegedly, Detective Fred Otash confessed to Porter before his death, that he and Lana’s lawyer staged the crime scene, including moving the body to Lana’s bedroom and wiping the prints off the knife. This would explain a couple inconsistencies that came up at the inquest.
According to investigators, the knife had sliced a kidney, struck a vertebra and twisted upward, puncturing Stompanato’s aorta. This would have led to a lot of bleeding, yet there was no blood present in the bedroom. They also reported that there were no fingerprints on the knife handle, suggesting it had been wiped.
Side Story –
In 1957, Stompanato became so jealous about Turner’s relationship with costar Sean Connery, that he stormed onto the set of Another Time, Another Place and threatened Connery with a gun. Unperturbed, the 6’ 2” Scotsman, who was a black belt in karate, bent Stompanato’s hand back forcing him to drop the weapon. Stompanato was turned over to the police and deported back to the States.
The fact is none of the versions are consistent with the evidence we know to be true. Johnny Stompanato did have a temper, enough to get him kicked out of a country. Lana Turner purchased that specific kitchen knife earlier that day, and by all accounts was a strong independent and influential woman. Stompanato’s body was found far from the door and fully clothed. And if loud fights weren’t uncommon, what inspired Cheryl to bring a knife to her mother’s bedroom on the night in question?
So what really happened that night 60 years ago? Did Cheryl Crane save her mother from becoming another Hollywood tragedy? Or did years of acting and influence spare a cold-blooded murderess from justice? The answer, I’m afraid, is lost to history.