November, 1924, Fred Dean a well-liked rancher was found murdered in his bed. His head was bashed in and his throat slit with a razor. There were two other persons in the house. His wife and daughter who slept downstairs. What came to light during the trial where his wife defended herself of a murder charge held the country spellbound for several months.
However there was a backstory to this horrible crime, and like many scenes of murder it all starts with the land.
La Piedra Pintada sits on the slope of the Santa Ynez mountains, between the Montecito Valley and Cañada de las Alisas (Sycamore Canyon). It a lonely boulder with a flat top, 20 by 30 feet in diameter that lead to a partially subterranean gallery. There is a cavity on its northwest side where a series of prehistoric paintings adorn the walls. According to Indian tradition it was known as the Bad Indian's Cave, and were mostly considered a mystery by them. Several paintings are made and were first seen by Franciscan missionaries who ventured into the area in the 16th century.
Eventually Piedra Pintada become part of a ranch on Carissa Plains. An urban myth told of an Indian medicine man named Hago who supposedly laid a curse on the land.
In March 1920, while a woman languished in a nearby jail on a pending murder charge, T. C. Teeter was driving a road scraper in San Luis Obispo, close to Piedra Pintada and the Carissa Plain. Initially he unearthed nine skeletons. Reports stated that there were Indian bowls in the grave, even though there were no reports of an Indian cemetery in that area. Once the grave was opened 13 complete skeletons were found. Ten belonged to men and women and three belonged to children. Several of the skulls indicated trauma as if they had been hacked at with savage fury. Were they victims of a murder?
Rancher, Fred Dean is found murdered in his bed. His head had been split open and his throat slit.
His wife and daughter were sleeping downstairs. His wife was awoken by a 5 AM train passing by the house. She visited the room upstairs and found her husband dead. She locked her daughter in her room so she wouldn't come upon the crime scene and ran to a neighbor's house for help.
Within hours of the discovery of Fred's body, his wife attempted suicide by slitting her throat with a knife.
Prior to the murder the house the family occupied had a reputation for being haunted. Approximately twenty years before a 3-year-old girl was found strangled in the home. In one version the parents went insane, and in the other they just simply left the house vacant. The perpetrator was never found.
The house developed a reputation for being haunted, but Fred Dean dismissed the stories and bought the house anyway.
Fred Dean’s father, 75, passed away on February 1919, nine months before his son's murder. He died in Colorado with one of Dean's brothers, but he had lived with Fred and Myrtle for several years before that.
During the trial, Mrs. Dean and her daughter Bertha told of ghostly figures seen flitting through the house and weird noises made by unseen hands. They described several supernatural events taking place during the years they lived there. In one version, Fred slept upstairs alone because he was the only one who didn't care about the ghostly phenomena experienced by anyone in that part of the house.
Mrs. Dean described that when she first met her husband he was the best man she had ever known, but that later he became unbearable.
Initially Bertha Dean insisted her mother had nothing to do with her father's murder, however later in the trial she testified that on the morning of the murder she felt she was under the influence of ether. She also described when several days before his death, Mrs. Dean had remarked, "Papa may not be with us long."
A conversation between her parents was:
"Say hubby, how would you like to go to see Jesus?"
"I'm not ready yet," he replied, "You don't need to think you can put anything in my tea."
Eventually Mrs. Dean was accused of the murder, however examination of her life history found that it was she and not the house that was cursed.
When she was 10 years old her mother went insane following the birth of a child. She never recovered her sanity.
Several years later she set out for California from Texas with her father William Crow. They carried valuables and a considerable amount of money. They traveled on a train and took turns guarding it while the other one slept. One morning she awoke and found her father missing along with the valuables. The train was searched but he could not be found. The tracks were searched thinking he might have fallen off, but they never came upon anything to indicate what became of him. The mystery of his disappearance was never solved.
Myrtle Crow continued to California and eventually met her husband Fred A. Dean, and after their marriage she spent several years as a semi-invalid.
During the trial, Mrs. Dean described that when she first met her husband he was the best man she had ever known, but that later he became unbearable.
Later in the proceedings, two alienists testified concerning Mrs. Dean's sanity. One of them, Dr. McGovern stated that there was a strong streak of hereditary insanity in Myrtle's family.
On April 23, 1920, a jury declared her insane and she was committed to Agnews State Hospital.
Little else is known about the fate of Bertha and Myrtle. According to the census for 1930 and 1940 she was still an inmate at the insane asylum.
Myrtle died on May 31, 1970, in San Luis Obispo, only 20 days after turning 90 years of age.
During the trial, it was believed that much of the evidence the prosecutors presented was circumstantial. Did Myrtle lose her sanity for a moment and commit the crime but return to normalcy afterwards? Was she influenced by a curse or something much more ancient that existed on this land from before?
One hundred years later the answer still eludes us.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer