Dakota Datebook

Winnie Ruth Judd

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Seventy-one years ago today, Winnie Ruth Judd surrendered to police in Los Angeles after the remains of two women, one from North Dakota, were found in her traveling trunks.

In 1931, White Earth native 24-year-old Hedvig “Sammy” Samuelson, was suffering from TB, so she quit her teaching job in Alaska to move to Phoenix with her best friend, Anne LeRoi. They befriended 26 year-old Winnie Ruth Judd, who was also fighting TB.

Winnie was married, but she had taken up with a married, arrogant hipster, Jack Halloway; the girls dubbed him “Happy Jack.” The three young women often had parties with Jack, who brought along some of his married business associates, as well as crates of bootlegged booze. Winnie knew that Jack also visited Anne and Sammy on the side and, in the fall of 1931, the girls’ triangle was becoming imperfect when Winnie introduced Jack to one Lucille Moore, a woman who could give him tips on where to hunt in the White Mountains.

The following night, Winnie was visiting Anne and Sammy when an argument started over Jack being introduced to Lucille; Anne knew Lucille had syphilis and therefore could endanger Jack’s life. Name calling led to threats of telling Winnie’s absent husband that she was sleeping around. Things escalated and Sammy alledgedly brought out a Colt .25. There was a struggle, and moments later, Anne and Sammy were dead, and Winnie had been shot through the hand.

Winnie wanted to go to the police, but Jack promised to fix everything and found a packing trunk for transporting the two dead girls out into the desert. But the following day, Jack called Winnie and said he had decided it would be better for her to take the trunk to Los Angeles, where a friend of his would dispose of it. He promised to reserve a train ticket for her and hung up.

The trunk turned out to be too heavy for rail freight, so Winnie was forced to divide the contents. It was then that she found that one of the bodies had been dismembered; but she carried out her task according to Jack’s wishes. When Winnie’s train pulled into L.A., the contact didn’t show. Alarmed, Winnied called Jack, but his housekeeper said he was, and would remain, unreachable.

Meanwhile, a baggage-checker noticed Winnie’s two lone trunks remained on the flatbed. They had a foul odor, and he suspected hunters of smuggling venison past rail customs. When he noticed a dark fluid dripping from the corners, he told his boss about it.

Shortly before noon, Winnie showed up in a car and presented a claim ticket for her trunks. The boss came out and asked about the contents and asked her to open them. Winnie made an excuse about having to get the keys from her husband, went back to the car and took off.

The baggage handlers called LAPD, and the hunt was on. In the ladies’ restroom, they found two bags containing surgery instruments, a Colt .25 pistol, a box of ammunition, a bread knife and an assortment of cosmetics – all belonging to passenger Winnie Ruth Judd from Phoenix.

Newspapers dubbed Winnie the Trunk Murderess and offered rewards for her capture. Five days later, she was found hiding in a funeral parlor. Winnie told of a scuffle, of Sammy attacking her with a pistol, of a bullet piercing her hand, of Anne clubbing her with an ironing board. A doctor’s examination revealed 147 gashes and bruises that indicated that Winnie had fought for her life.

When the story hit the papers, the public was shocked that instead of the snarling mad-woman they expected, they saw a beautiful, 5’2″, 100 pound waif with pretty blue eyes, dark sandy hair, and a hand so badly wounded it had developed gangrene. Along with her weakness from TB, she was hardly a likely candidate for the brutal crime.

Interestingly, Jack attended Winnie’s trial back in Phoenix, giving her snide smiles and sneers. And when Anne LeRoi’s diary suddenly surfaced, with intimate details of the girls’ liaisons with Jack’s elite married friends, prosecutors hush-hushed it, and it never made it to the courtroom.

Many believed it was Jack who committed the murders, and Winnie was taking the fall. America sympathized, but she was found guilty after a sloppy trial in which the prosecution alleged that Winnie shot her friends while they slept, butchered them, shot a hole through her hand and went home to sleep peacefully.

She was sentenced to hang. There was an appeal, and Winnie was re-sentenced to life in a psychiatric hospital. Jack showed up to gloat there, as well, until the staff barred him from the hospital. Winnie managed to escape seven times until, in 1969, her parole board decided to let her out for good.

And Sammy? Her remains were brought back to North Dakota and buried near the family farm in White Earth.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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