WWII was raging, and 33-year-old Corporal Maoma Little Ridings checked into Room 729 at the Claypool Hotel in Indianapolis to enjoy her weekend leave. That same evening her mutilated, semi-nude body was found sprawled across the bed. Almost seventy-five years later, no one knows the identity of who killed Maoma that hot August night of 1943.
Maoma hailed from Warm Springs, Georgia and had been a therapy nurse at Warm Springs Infantile Paralysis Foundation from 1927 to 1931. It was here the she tended future president Roosevelt, who was then governor of New York when he came for treatment at the center.
Maoma was stationed only twenty-five miles from the hotel at Camp Attenbury. She had enlisted in WAC only eight months before, and had just been promoted to corporal. She had stayed frequently at the Claypool Hotel for the last two months. Sometimes she was alone, other times with another WAC. The army immediately sent detectives, but city authorities were also investigating and interviewing personnel and guests.
The hotel switchboard operator said that she had received a call that a woman was heard screaming on the seventh floor, and other guests complained of hearing a soldier and a woman arguing in another room. When the employees went to the room, the room was empty and the soldier had checked out.
The corporal's body was found by a housekeeper who said that the body was nude below the waist. Part of the clothing was on the bed, the shoes on the floor and the rest of her clothing was in the closet. Her throat, the left side of her face, arms and wrists were cut with a broken whiskey bottle found at the scene, that some believed was an attempt to make the murder look like a suicide. The whiskey was later found to have been purchased by Maoma herself, but she did not have any alcohol in her system.
Within a day the police were looking for a mysterious black-haired woman who had been sitting on the bed smoking a cigarette when a bellhop came to deliver soda. He described how she was wearing a black dress with a white collar, a black hat and veil. She was also seen later in conversation with a uniformed policeman in a service elevator. A hotel employee overheard her say to the officer, "You better go up to a room on the seventh floor. There's a woman dead there. She may have committed suicide, or she may have been murdered". The officer replied, "You'd better not stick your neck out; you might be into trouble". He had then gotten off on the seventh floor, and the employee took the woman down to the first floor. The local police had no report of this woman or the policeman described by the employee.
An autopsy found that Maoma had died from a blow to the head and loss of blood. The authorities would not clarify if she had been raped or if a robbery had taken place.
Once the county coroner confirmed that Maoma Riding had been sexually assaulted the police started looking for suspects beside the "lady in black" seen in the room. Lt. Jones in charge of the detective investigation was the first to propose that the mysterious lady seen in the room was a man disguised as a woman. Later it was clarified that it was not clear if Maoma had engaged in consensual sex or had been raped, only that she had been intimate with a man before her death.
The next twist into the investigation was when 22-year-old bellhop Robert Wolfington who had come to the room to deliver ice was held on a charge of vagrancy when indeed he was being considered a suspect. He had failed to show up for work, claiming he had to get his uniform cleaned. Review of the record's sheet for the day of the murder reflected no request for ice to Room 729 which is the reason he had presumably gone to the room. The police described him as being intoxicated and "emotionally unstable" when being questioned. He was unable to account for all his time on the day of the murder.
He was estranged from his wife and had been medically discharged from the Navy a few months before because he suffered from seizures. He had attempted suicide in July 1942 by ingesting lye, and stayed at the hospital for six weeks.
Wolfington said that when he came to the room, the door was slightly ajar, and a voice from the bathroom told him to leave it on the table, and take a .25 cent tip that was on the dresser. Another bellhop Albert Bayne, was the one who had seen the lady in black.
A man's blood-stained woman's coat and man's slack were dropped off at a local laundry by a young woman who said she would come back for them later. The stains were discovered after she had left.
Once the police found only .46 cents in the victim's purse, robbery was also considered a motive. Officer and others who knew Maoma said she was also known to carry large sums of money.
By September 2nd, police were considering the crime possibly committed by more than one person in "a moment of blind fury".
On September 3rd, police arrested Robert De Armond, 40, a kitchen worker who in 1934 had been convicted of attempting to rape a 10-year-old girl. He had been released on parole in April 1943 from the Central State Hospital for the Insane, after being transferred there in 1939 from the Michigan City State Penitentiary.
The day before Maoma Riding was laid to rest in her hometown of Warm Springs, Georgia.
Within the next few days both Wolfington and De Armond were freed, and the search for the woman in black continued. The same housekeeper who had found the body, found that a screen had been forcibly removed from a seventh-floor window that opened onto the fire escape. It had been opened with sufficient force to sliver the wood frame around it. She quit soon after this last discovery.
The police also investigated a 19-year-old chambermaid who had worked on the seventh floor who had suddenly quit her job two days before.
The prosecutors had concluded that Maoma had known her killer. They based this conclusion on the fact that the hotel room door would automatically lock, and the murderer either had a key or had been allowed entry by the victim. They surmised that her attacked had struck her across the head, raped her and then panicked and cut her body in an effort to make it look like a suicide. They also concluded that the room which was located in a remote part of the seventh floor, adjacent to two stairways had facilitated the murderer to enter and leave without being seen.
Seven days after the murder police still had failed to apprehend the murderer. They were checking the trash behind the hotel when they found a discharge notice from the army, along with a masonic emblem with the same name. This clue was speedily shelved when a letter, part in code, was found in the chandelier of Room 729. It was found after the prosecutors and deputies started using the room as a command center while they conducted their investigation. It was later discarded as it had been written by a shoe salesman who had been filling out an order, made a mistake, and had thrown it over his shoulder where it landed in the chandelier.
The prosecutors told the newspapers that they were looking to find a mystery man who was an acquaintance of Maoma and who had visited the room shortly before her murder. Later Corporal Emmanuel Fisher was found to have come to the hotel, called several times to the room from the lobby, and got no answer until a detective answered the phone. He hung up thinking that Maoma decided to meet another man for a date.
As the police investigated Maoma's background they received information that she had a divorced friend who frequently dressed in black who she would party with during her weekends in the city, but they were unable to locate this woman, and the investigation came to a standstill until October 1944.
William Luallen an Indiana state convict confessed to the killing and initially implicated his ex-wife, Wynona Kidd Luallen who he said was the "lady in black". He said the murder had taken place after a wild party in the room. His wife who had been under arrest in Tennessee for burglary charges was eventually cleared of suspicion as it was found she was working in Knoxville at the time of the murder.
Luallen's confession was eventually dismissed. He was one of four persons who had made a similar admission. Three of them were found to be mentally unbalanced. Luallen was serving ten to twenty years at Indiana State Prison for various burglaries.
The years went by and every time a suspect was apprehended for a similar murder in Indianapolis he was checked as to see if he might be the murderer.
Until this day, the person who killed the corporal and the mysterious lady in black who possibly knew who killed Maoma or who was complicit in her murder have yet to be identified. The Claypool Hotel was razed in 1969.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by Marlene Pardo Pellicer