Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dancing Girls, Part Five

The elegant building on South Spring Street had once been the home of a civic institution. Then it became a nightclub, and finally a taxi-dance hall. Now it would change hands again - in the wake of a violent crime.

On the evening of November 14, 1943, William Lederer went to make a night deposit at his bank of the evening's receipts of his business, the Roseland Roof taxi-dancehall. The dancehall occupied the fourth floor of a building on South Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles.

Just a year ago he'd been waylaid by robbers on the same errand in the parking lot near his bank. They'd stolen $800 that time. So he hitched a ride with the dancehall's cashier and her husband. After he left the car, his friends heard a shot, then saw men run to a car, which sped away.

The robbers left behind Lederer's cash deposit of $700, as well as $2000 in his wallet, and a check of $5000. Lederer died, shot in the back.

The getaway car was spotted at a automobile paint shop. The shop owner had been tipped $20 to do a "rush job."

Detail, crime suspects detained, 1951 - USC Digital Archive

Amil Weller, Ronald Easley, and Donald Barker were arrested, along with Weller's sister, Ann Stagers. Easley fingered Barker as the gunman. Barker's real name was Donald Davidson, and he was only 15 years old, even though he looked older.

They were part of a gang of robbers who'd hit filling stations and small stores over the past few weeks.

Weller and Easley's girlfriends, Pauline and Myrtle, had worked as taxi-dancers at the Roseland Roof, and knew Lederer's nightly routine. Because Lederer might have recognized the two men, they stayed in the getaway car and sent Davidson and another gang member, Robert Le Plante, to make the heist.

Davidson broke down and confessed to the killing, sobbing:
"I didn't want to kill him....I thought it would be an easy stickup.... My partner and I laid for him downtown and I followed him into a hallway. I pulled a gun and he started waving his arms and getting excited. I looked for my partner and he was way back behind me. I panicked and shot Lederer."

Dance hall girls testifying to the grand jury in the Roseland murder cover their faces, November 23, 1943 - Los Angeles Public Library

As the investigation continued, Weller's mother was also arrested, charged with complicity in the crime, and for harboring the gang. She and daughter Ann were taken into custody in a dramatic scene outside the Grand Jury, "screaming and raging" as policewomen pried Ann's three-month old baby from her arms.

In the end, four adults were charged with the murder and with six counts of robbery - Amil Weller, Ronald Easley, Robert La Plante, and Weller's mother, Katherine Stagers - named "Ma" Stagers in the newspapers. Donald Davidson was the prosecution's star witness - he would be tried separately.

The trial was dramatic, with twists, turns and sordid details revealed each day. The defendants had forced two girls into sham marriages, to disqualify them as witnesses. One crook had tried to bribe a cop. "Ma" Stagers had supplied guns and ammunition, and had counted the take of the stick-ups in her own bedroom.

Detail, shooting suspect, 1943 - USC Digital Archive

Easley related how he'd split the nose of his bullets because he'd read in a magazine that they would "cause the bullet to splatter" and make a more deadly wound.

Finally, the prosecution's star witness, young Donald Davidson, testified. He told how he'd escaped from a reformatory in Idaho, and had fallen in with Weller in L.A. He told of the string of robberies that culminated in the murder. After shooting Lederer, Davidson said.
"The other fellows kidded me when I ran back to the car after the shooting. They said they didn't think I'd hit anyone. Easley bet me a quarter I hadn't. I collected later when the newspapers printed the news that Lederer was dead."
Davidson said "Ma" Stagers handed out the guns and ammunition, and participated in dividing up the loot. He said he'd netted $700 from one of the robberies, and had handed all but $100 of it over to her to keep for him. He never saw the money again.

Sobbing as she testified, "Ma" Stagers denied it all.

While the jury deliberated, there was another sensational development.

Two of the defendants made a daring jailbreak from the ninth floor of the Hall of Justice. They slugged a deputy, severely beat two other men, and escaped by elevator to the basement. They commandeered a coroner's ambulance and sped away, siren screaming.

The police mounted what the papers called a "massive manhunt." But later that evening, two Long Beach vice detectives picked up a pair of hitchhikers who they recognized from police bulletins as the fugitives and returned them to custody.

The sequestered jurors reached a verdict the following day. They had not been told of the jailbreak. Even so, all four defendants were found guilty of first degree murder, six counts of robbery, and related charges. "Ma" Stagers rose from her seat and screamed, "I want to tell the jury, you have condemned an innocent woman!"

All four were sentenced to life in prison.

Donald Davidson was tried separately. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life.

As for the Roseland Roof dance hall? One sad twist to the story - before he was ambushed and killed, William Lederer had decided he'd had enough of the taxi-dance business. He'd already sold the dance hall. The check for $5000 that the robbers had left in his wallet was the first payment from a buyer.

Coming up next - The Roseland Roof gets a new owner, in Dancing Girls, Part Six.


Tristan Robin said...

wow - why hasn't this remarkable tale been made into a movie?!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Dancing girls, history, Murder!

A new tag for your story...

mo.stoneskin said...

I always find robberies strangely fascinating. I'm not sure why.

*folds bank schematic up and places carefully in right pocket*

Anyway, gotta run, off to the bank.

cactus petunia said...

Holy Moley! What a sordid tale!

Christine Fletcher said...

Shot and killed after he sold the dance hall...that's just terrible.

The rest of the story is sensational in a way only L.A. stories seem to be. I love the picture of the taxi dancers hiding their faces from the camera. Reminds me a little of Bette Davis in Marked Woman.

Glennis said...

Yes, and Christine - aren't their shoes fabulous?????? That's what struck me first when I found the photo!

Unknown said...

Oh my goodness. So interesting. I can't stop reading.

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corey said...

I have a question, as my great grandmother and her sister were taxi dancers in Sacramento, and one may have worked in the Los Angeles area. Do you know if the registry you mentioned in this great story is available to research ?

Unknown said...

It was. It was changed into girls Im sorry I cant remember the name my mother told me before she died. My name is Laurie Weller