Dial M for Mastrian
Norman Mastrian — like Kid Riviera and Joe Barboza, to name just a couple — is yet another boxer who went murderously wrong…
“She managed to get out of the tub, so I knew I had trouble.”—Dick W.C. Anderson
Someone says, “Featherweight,” and Willie Pep comes to mind. Sandy Saddler, too. Norman Mastrian? Not so much. But if someone says, “Murderer”...ah, now that’s a different story.
Born on December 7, 1923, in Duluth, Minnesota, Norman Mastrian fought out of Minneapolis from 1946 to ‘48, winding up with a record of six wins, four by knockout, five losses, four by knockout, and one draw. His last bout took place on January 15, 1948, at the Auditorium in St. Paul, where the very good indeed Glen Flanagan put him down 11 times before stopping him by seventh-round TKO.
“Norman is a crowd pleaser,” wrote Nat Loubet, the then managing editor of The Ring, “who goes out to get his man from the opening bell and either completes his mission or is the recipient of a sleep potion himself.”
An intelligent lad with a good education, 5’7” Mastrian nevertheless embarked on a life of crime. In 1962, for instance, he was arrested on suspicion of having murdered Twin Cities restaurateur Eddie James, a decidedly unenthusiastic witness in a kidnap-murder case. He hired T. Eugene Thompson, former college chum turned lawyer, to defend him and was eventually cleared.
Speaking of Thompson, wife Carol was murdered “in their comfortable brick home” in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul (at 1720 Hillcrest Avenue) on March 6, 1963. Well, not exactly in their home, as she managed to stagger outside and make it to a hospital.
Homicide detective extraordinaire, Lt. Joe Kenda, says that “There are three motives in most murder cases: sex, money, or revenge.” Two out of three for “Cotton” Thompson, who was in love with his former secretary, the fetching Jackie Olesen, and who had taken out life insurance on Mrs. Cotton in the amount of $1.1 million (about 8 million today) — “Enough money for us to live on,” he cooed to Jackie. Like Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) in Key Largo, Cotton clearly wanted more — “Yeah. That’s it. More. That’s right! I want more!”
At least the similarly motivated Dr. Bernard Finch, whose secretary was the very hot Carole Tregoff, had the balls to murder his own wife. “What happened, Barb?” he cried out to dying wife Barbara. “Where are you hurt?” Oh, I don’t know. Where you shot her?
Cotton was less hands-on, offering Mastrian $3,000 to bludgeon his wife with a rubber hose and then place her naked in the tub, hoping to make it look as though she’d bumped her head and accidentally drowned. The former pugilist couldn’t warm up to the idea of killing a church-going mother of four (obviously in agreement with mobster Kevin Weeks’ point of view that “it was just kind of distasteful killing a woman”) and subcontracted the “small hit” to the less persnickety Dick W.C. Anderson (which Thompson didn’t know until after the fact), “a hard-drinking, pill-popping ex-Marine,” for $2,300. The cost to snuff out a woman’s life in 1963 in 2017 dollars? Exactly $23,825.53.
Anderson’s incompetence is one for the books. Told by Mastrian that “Mr. Thompson will leave the door open in the morning. You will be able to go inside and go down in the basement and wait. At 8:25, Mr. Thompson will call Mrs. Thompson, and at that time you will be able to sneak up the stairway.” Soused and scared, Anderson botched it.
He entered the home as planned, all right, but was “roaring drunk.” He was hiding in the basement, as arranged, when Thompson asked his secretary to call his wife, who would have to come downstairs to answer the only phone he arranged to have left in the house, the one in the kitchen near the basement. (“The trouble was that he had thought of everything,” said insurance investigator Joe Healy of Thompson, “and everything he thought of made him that much more suspect.”) That’s where and when the murder was to take place, but Anderson was rattled by the squeaky cellar stairs.
He instead followed Carol back to her bedroom, where he assured her that he only intended to rob her. Ordering her to lie face down on the bed, he then hit her with the truncheon, knocking her out. So far, so good. As soon as Anderson placed her in the water-filled tub, however, she revived and ran back into the bedroom. Pausing to put on a robe (things were considerably more genteel in ‘63), Anderson had the time to take out his gun, which misfired. He then caught the fleeing woman at the front door, striking her “several times with the butt of the weapon — so hard that the plastic grip shattered,” writes Mark Gribben in “For Love or Money?”
“While Carol lay stunned on the ground, Anderson grabbed a paring knife from the kitchen and began stabbing her in the throat,” continues Gribben. “Again, the attack was so vicious that he broke the blade off in her throat. Convinced that she was finally dead, Anderson went back upstairs and began ransacking the bedroom to make the crime scene look like a burglary-gone-bad. One can only imagine what went through his head when he heard the front door slam and Carol screaming outside. She managed to make it to a neighbor’s house before falling unconscious on the porch. She was only able to say ‘a man’ attacked her before she died.”
Actually, she said a bit more than that: “I’ve got a knife in my throat. A man did it. He came to the door. Won’t you please help me?” Rushed to St. Paul’s Ancker Hospital, surgeons removed a three-inch blade from her throat (she’d been stabbed more than 50 times), but she died within hours.
“I never saw anyone who wanted to live so hard in all my life,” said her killer.
Thompson was arrested on June 21, 1963. His trial took place at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis beginning that October 28. Following a 12-hour deliberation, the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder that December 6, and he was sentenced to life in prison. Paroled in 1983, he died in Roseville, a Twin Cities suburb, on August 7, 2015, his 88th birthday. He’d remarried, but “his second wife died of natural causes,” his New York Times obit was quick to reassure readers.
Mastrian’s trial began on February 17, 1964, at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. The jury took 13 hours that April 10 to find him guilty of first-degree murder. He, too, was sentenced to a life term. Released in 1983, as well, he continued to have problems with the law (something about exchanging stolen fur coats for cocaine), resulting in his serving yet more time in prison, dying in Minneapolis on July 11, 2007, age 83.
Hoping for some kind of deal, as it was his confession that led to the arrests of Thompson and Mastrian, Anderson pleaded guilty, but was sentenced to life. There’s little subsequent information on him, but apparently he, too, was paroled.
How and why Thompson and Mastrian were granted parole, given that they always maintained their innocence (not to mention that the crime was, and remains, the most infamous in the history of the North Star State, supposedly the inspiration for Fargo), is something of a mystery. But these things happen. Penny Bjorkland, for instance, was quietly released only a few years after being found guilty of the senseless overkill of father-to-be August Norry, whom she shot 18 times. No explanation then or since for the early release. (Despite her “giggling disinterest” during the trial, she somehow managed to come out with an “I am unhappy” when the judge sentenced her to life in prison.)
In 1986, Cotton’s son, Jeffrey Thompson (chief judge for the southeastern district of Minnesota), and two of his sisters held a sort of family court with their father.
“We sat down with him and gave him a chance to show us that he had been wrongly convicted,” said the judge. “It was pretty clear during the course of that conversation that he wasn’t going to be able to do that. After that, I didn’t hear a whole lot of protests. I didn’t bring it up again. I told him that if he wanted to admit and ask for an apology, I’d rethink my position on him, but otherwise we were pretty much done.”
A 14-year-old Jeffrey had testified on behalf of his father, who “ate a full, leisurely breakfast with the family before going off to his office.” But with age comes wisdom. “Yes,” he says now. “I’m convinced he was guilty.”
There are indeed people unjustly convicted of murder. Dr. Sam Sheppard comes to mind, as does Alice Crimmins. But not Cotton Thompson, not the dunderheaded former Marine, and not the ex-featherweight.
Norman Mastrian — like Kid Riviera and Joe Barboza, to name just a couple — is yet another boxer who went murderously wrong.