Dial M for Mastrian

By Clarence George on April 6, 2017
Dial M for Mastrian
Mastrian's trial began on February 17, 1964, at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth.

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.

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  1. Clarence George 08:30am, 04/08/2017

    Yes, he played one of the rapists.  Best remembered for “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” he’s a very underappreciated character actor.

    Best,

    Charles Bickford

  2. Herbert Anderson 07:47am, 04/08/2017

    Christine Kaufaman was a beauty and Town Without Pity is a forgotten gem. Do you recall that Frank Sutton was in that film? He had small parts in many important films and died so young. If you read his bio on IMDB, you will be surprised at his background.  Dave Madden

  3. Clarence George 07:20am, 04/08/2017

    What would “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” have been without Kowalski?  I, too, was a huge fan of Hymie the Robot, who took everything literally.  I also remember Gautier from the short-lived “When Things Were Rotten.”  What I recall most vividly about Monte Markham (whom I never cared for) was when he took on the role of Perry Mason.  What gross impertinence!  There’s only one Perry Mason, and that’s Raymond Burr.  Which reminds me that Barbara Hale passed on earlier this year.  Did you hear that Christine Kaufmann died?  She married Tony Curtis, but the only film role of hers I recall was as the rape victim in “Town Without Pity,” which starred Kirk Douglas.

    Best,

    Arch Johnson

  4. Herbert Anderson 06:54am, 04/08/2017

    Monte Markham is alive and well at 81 and seems to be busy. In case you were interested.

  5. Herbert Anderson 06:50am, 04/08/2017

    I had been unaware that Del Monroe passed away until you referenced him. He always reminded me of Charlton Heston. Sorry to hear that another of character from my childhood is gone. I took Dick Gautier hard. I specifically recall the night he was introduced on Get Smart. He was an immediate favorite. Do you remember Monte Markham? Had a memorable appearance on Love American Style and as the star of The Second Hundred Years. Going to check his status now.

  6. Clarence George 05:45am, 04/07/2017

    Glad you liked it, Mr. Anderson. Yes, plenty of Minnesota mysteries.  Who killed the Reker sisters, for instance?  And what happened to Josh Guimond?  Reminiscent of the Ron Tammen case (though that legendary disappearance took place in Miami).  Joel Coen denies that the Thompson murder influenced “Fargo,” despite the belief of so many Minnesotans.  I once came across a photo of Barboza where he looked disconcertingly like Peter Lupus!

    All the best,

    Del Monroe

  7. Herbert Anderson 04:04am, 04/07/2017

    There has been quite a bit of mayhem in the Twin Cities, going back many decades, as pointed out in this wonderful article. The movie “Fargo” made that neck of the woods a great “character” in and of itself. There is a book called “Augie’s Secrets,” about the Minneapolis underworld. While the material could have been presented better, it vividly described the Midwest criminal element. Mastrian looks a bit like Barboza.

  8. Clarence George 08:55am, 04/06/2017

    Despite some legitimate questions having been raised, I, too, think MacDonald guilty.  Such lawsuits can be successful—the ones brought by Richard Jewell, for instance.

  9. Captain MAGA 08:30am, 04/06/2017

    I think that MacDonald is guilty as sin. I don’t know the Sheppard story well enough to say one way or the other. I remember when serial killer Danny Rolling was slaughtering students at the University of Florida back in the 90’s. Authorities had apprehended some weird kid of about 20-something and had his picture plastered all over the papers and television. Thank God, they found the real killer or that kid would have been up the river for sure, and that probably would have been the end of the story. I definitely would have sued the hell out of someone if I was that kid.

  10. Clarence George 08:10am, 04/06/2017

    Glad you liked it, Irish.  Penny Bjorkland was a strange and awful little girl.  She completely disappeared after her release and could still be among us.  Yes, you’re right—think about all the Mafiosi and escaped Nazis who lived well into old age.

    The funny thing about the brutality, Cap’n, is that the murder was supposed to be far more, well, antiseptic than it turned out to be.  The best laid plans, eh?  MacDonald’s guilt has been brought into increasing question in recent years.  Joe McGinnis’ book on the case, “Fatal Vision,” which at one time was the final word on the doctor’s culpability, has undergone considerable scrutiny and skepticism.  That said, the case for Sheppard’s innocence is stronger than it is for MacDonald.  Anyway, I think so.

  11. Captain MAGA 07:12am, 04/06/2017

    My God, what a brutal murder. Pistol whipped and stabbed more than 50 times, and the blade breaking off in her throat. The violent nature of this murder reminded me of the Tate murders for some reason. Just as brutal. Something is definitely wrong with a system that would parole these people. Always get Dr.Sheppard confused with Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald. Not that familiar with Dr. Sheppard but I was always interested in the MacDonald case.

  12. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:51am, 04/06/2017

    Clarence George-If she got the chair I’m guessing she would have been “very unhappy”! The two octogenarian rat bastards in this doozy of an article remind me that not having a conscience is a great antidote to killer stress!

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