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Friday, December 20, 2013

Murder LA 000038

Ramon Novarro, circa 1928
via IMDB
Ramon Novarro had been a silent film star. In fact, he starred in the original Ben-Hur in 1925, decades before Charlton Heston reprised the titular role. He was direct competition for the other Latin leading man of the era, Rudolph Valentino.

In 1968, at age 69, he had long ago given up the leading man routine and only occasionally graced television screens. Thanks to investments he was living comfortably on Laurel Canyon about a mile south of Ventura Blvd, near Mulholland.

In 1967 he had slammed the male stars of the late 60's for being slobs. In that article he was quoted as saying "Marriage is one mistake I didn't make" but he "made it clear he continues to see the girls."

Less than a year later he was dead -- and it became public knowledge that he wasn't interested in girls.

He was tied up and beaten on the night of October 30th, 1968, and drowned on his own blood. His personal assistant found him on his bed the next morning. Police found a pen in his hand and a man's name written out several times but this turned out to be misdirection to throw them off. Apparently there was quite a bit of that.

Phone records were what broke the case. There had been a 48 minute phone call that night to Chicago -- to a girl named Brenda Metcalf, who said she was speaking to her boyfriend, Thomas Ferguson.

A week after the murder 17-year-old Tom and his 22-year-old brother, Paul, were in custody. They gave various accounts of the relevant evening's events, including one claim by the younger Ferguson that they had visited simply because they were bored.

They were put on trial together -- each with his own lawyer -- the following year, and both claimed the other was solely responsible.

The Fergusons on trial
via the Reading Eagle

According to a rather in-depth 2012 Out article that includes a new interview with Paul Ferguson, he had acquired Novarro's number from his wife's brother, who was a hustler. Tom had recently come to stay with Paul and his wife and Paul was hoping to get rid of him by getting him to work and finding an older guy to stay with as Paul had done in the past. As the oldest of 10 siblings, Paul started hustling at a young age.

Ramon Novarro
via the Reading Eagle
In court Paul claimed he fell asleep and woke up to the bloody scene. When Tom testified that he was on the phone while Novarro was killed, Paul threw a pen at him on the witness stand, calling him a "punk liar." Ms. Metcalf stated under examination that during the phone call Tom said Paul was busy trying to get Novarro to reveal the location of $5,000 they believed was hidden somewhere in the house. This hidden money did not exist. The Fergusons' mother appeared in court and was asked about a letter she had sent Tommy that was obviously instructions to take the fall because as a minor at the time of the murder he couldn't face the death penalty but his brother could.

After the two were found guilty that's exactly what Tom did, claiming responsibility while maintaining the death was unintentional. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment at San Quentin. In jail Paul began studying and writing, winning an award for a short story (note that in this article he claims yet another explanation for why they visited Novarro -- this time to get his brother a "singing job").

Tommy was eventually released but ended up back in prison and then out again before slitting his own throat in a motel room in 2005. Paul was also paroled but found himself back in prison by 2012, when he spoke to Out.

Novarro's residence
via the Evening Independent