LA Crime Queen, Joan Renner

Joan Renner, LA Writer and Historian

If Joan Renner had an official city title, it would be Queen of Noir and L.A. Crime History. She maintains a website, Deranged LA Crimes (derangedlacrimes.com) which is a treasure-trove of information contained in her wildly entertaining blog posts; an essay about Aggie Underwood, a nationally-recognized LA journalist who wrote about crime from 1931 until the late 1960s; and in a series of affordable Webinars about specific cases.

After retiring from a long administrative career at UCLA in 2008, she launched a second career that followed her heart’s desire, writing and lecturing about LA crime through a variety of media. In addition to her website, she has been a volunteer archivist for the LA Police Museum, is currently an archivist/historian for the LA County Sheriff’s Museum. During her time at the LA Police Museum, she was an assistant curator on an exhibit about the investigation of the unsolved 1947 “Black Dahlia” murder of Elizabeth Smart.

Renner has been featured as a crime expert on numerous television true crime series.

She is the author of THE FIRST WITH THE LATEST: AGGIE UNDERWOOD, THE L.A. HERALD, AND THE SORDID CRIMES OF A CITY, and provided editorial support for a book of LA crime photos, LAPD ’53, co-authored by well-known crime novelist James Ellroy and Glynn Martin, retired LAPD sergeant and previously the director of the LA Police Museum. Martin is currently executive director of the Los Angeles Police Memorial Foundation.

I interviewed her in June.

SK:    Hi Joan! Thanks for giving us this time. I’ll start at the beginning: How did you first become interested in true crime?

JR:    Actually, I’ve always been interested in crime. When I was a kid in Chicago—My brother and I were born there but our family later moved to LA—I read the newspapers. I didn’t always understand what was going on, but I read them anyway.

          When I was eight or nine a boy about my age went missing. He was found murdered shortly after. Then, about a month later, I read that his father had died. The story said he died from a broken heart. My kid brain just wasn’t capable of understanding how someone’s heart could break or how anyone could kill a little kid.

          Years later I did some research to see whether my memory of that event had been accurate. I was right that there had been an unsolved child murder, but it was three little boys, not one. They had been to a movie and were picked up by this guy, molested, and murdered. From then on in the back of my mind I knew that bad things could happen to you, and I always wanted to know why.

SK:    So then did you go on to study forensics or law enforcement?

JR:    No, my career took a whole different path. I’ve been lucky to have had a pretty long career as an administrative staff member at the University of California. I retired from UCLA in 2008.

          After that I had a few things I wanted to try doing and see where they led, and they sort of brought me to where I am now.  My lifelong interest in crime and mystery stories turned out to be a viable second career for me. That still surprises me!

          I’m definitely a frustrated detective. I would have loved to do that work but I don’t have the stomach. I think I could look at the sites, but I couldn’t stand the smells. I’d be the first one in the bushes losing her lunch and that’s where I’d stay. Newswoman Aggie Underwood’s daughter told me that once, returning from a crime scene, her mom burned up the clothes she had been wearing because she knew she’d never get the smell of death out of them.

SK:    What part of the crime-writing process is your favorite?

JR:    I love the research. I like creating the context. These things happen in a particular time and place that is unique to that moment. I go down that rabbit hole and sometimes can be gone for days.

SK:    Do you feel as if you are any closer now than when you were at age nine to understanding why people commit these heinous crimes?

JR:    No, I wish I could say I did. Well sometimes I do: The easy ones are the crimes of passion.  Everyone has thought at some time “I wish that person were dead,” but you don’t mean that you could actually kill them. I understand the impulse, I just don’t understand the act. The ones I find difficult or impossible to wrap my head around are the ones where people just kill for their own pleasure. I don’t understand that now and I don’t think I will ever get any closer.

SK:    I first encountered your writing when I read in your website archives about William Edward Hickman’s murder of 12-year-old Marion Parker in 1925. I had read about and researched hundreds of true crime cases and seen crime scene photos where the victims were small children, but I was the most horrified about Hickman’s vile treatment of that little girl’s body and how blasé he was about committing the crime.

JR:    I think with Hickman he was probably schizophrenic. He was about 19 years old, a typical age for the onset of that condition. Something was missing in him right from the start, but he was somehow able to conceal it.

          At that time– in the ‘20s and ‘30s– all over the country but especially around LA, there were a number of abominable child murders. In LA we have a history of people behaving badly. There are lots of stories to tell. For example, the rape/torture/murders Canadian-born Gordon Stewart Northcott committed in Wineville, CA—3 confirmed and 9 he confessed to– were so horrifying that the town changed its name to Mira Loma after the trial. The case was the subject of the movie Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood.  

[Blogger Notes: Northcott tricked his cousin, 13-year-old Sanford Clark, into moving from northern Canada to the farm where the former raped and imprisoned Clark and forced him to participate in the murder of two little boys and to help Northcott destroy the bodies. Clark was eventually able to escape and convince the police of the crimes his cousin had committed. Northcott was convicted and sentenced to hang. Sanford subsequently joined the army, married, and had a family, and was uniformly well-regarded by all who knew him.

After his death, his son Jerry Clark, with author Anthony Flacco, wrote a book about the case and Sanford Clark’s life. The Road Out of Hell: Sanford Clark and the True Story of the Wineville Murders, published in 2009 by Diversion Publishing Inc.It is a book well worth reading.]

SK:    Backing up a little to William Hickman: He was executed at San Quentin when he was just 20 years old. Had he lived longer, do you think he would have killed again?

JR:    Absolutely. Remember that he had killed once before while he was pulling off a pharmacy robbery. He would never have stopped voluntarily. He had that sort of disconnect from other people’s suffering.

SK:    I noticed from your website that you have done a lot of t.v. work as a crime expert. You are sort of the LA “go to” lady when it comes to murder. How did that happen?

JR:    It was a happy accident. After I retired, I worked some for a couple who operated a series of LA tours. I did the crime bus tours. It used to be that a lot of people just went to Disneyland for entertainment. Today there is more “boutique tourism.” Oddly enough, most of the tourists on my buses are from southern California. On a bus they feel safe and can go places they wouldn’t otherwise feel safe going. One day the tour operators got a call from a T.V. producer who asked if they knew someone familiar with the Barbara Graham case. “Yes, Joan is,” they told him.

The producer of Deadly Women called me the next day. That was 10-12 years ago. We made a deal that I thought was a one-off thing. Then they called again about another case and soon other producers called too. After having a lifelong fear of public speaking, doing these shows really broke the spell.

          There have been opportunities for a lot of variety. I’ve done 40+ episodes of various network series including ID Discovery Channel Evil Twins, Evil Kin, Hell House, and Deadly Affairs. I appeared in a segment of Turner Classic Movies’ Film Fanatics about the noir genre. During the lockdown I did another episode of Deadly Women and some work with the National Geographic Channel about a gambling ship, the Monfalcone, that sunk off the Southern California coast in 1929.

You just never know what will come up next. I do them because they’re interesting and fun and I enjoy doing them. But if I never get another call, I’m okay with that too.

SK:   I have watched some of your Webinars too and enjoyed them very much. Do you manage the technology as well as the content for those?

JR:    Yes, I do. I developed a comfort level with technology at UC, so can make them multidimensional by using film clips and PowerPoint to supplement the photos and narrative. Those skills give me new and sometimes more effective ways to communicate. Now that the lockdown is over, I’m going to try to get back to producing more of those.

SK:    Has social media affected how you connect with your readers?

JR:    Yes. The connections are easier, and you reach people you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Research is so much easier. I love Newspapers.com and Ancestry.com to find people.

          While technology has changed a lot, a good story is still a good story. My long-time friend novelist James Ellroy still doesn’t use a computer, but he sure does know how to tell a crime story! He writes all his manuscripts in longhand on yellow legal pads. He has an amazing work ethic and his most recent novel, Widespread Panic, has recently been released. LA’s oldest independent bookstore, Chevalier’s Books, sponsored Ellroypalooza on June 22nd [now available on You Tube] where three panelists familiar with his work—myself included—and James talked about his writing life. His mom was a famous unsolved LA murder case and his father died a few years later, so James was forced to kind of raise himself. He got into a little trouble as a teenager but then straightened himself around and decided what he really wanted to do is write. So, he has.

SK:    Speaking of writers, are you working on a book?

JR:    Yes! I recently signed with Kentucky University Press to write a book of true crime tales set in LA during the Prohibition era.

SK:    Are you still writing about Aggie Underwood? From your website you seem fascinated with her. Much of the true crime reader demographic is women, and I think they would be interested in her story.

JR:    I am fascinated by her and still writing about her. My progress has been slow partly because I am still in contact with some of her family members and I want to be very respectful of their privacy and sensitivities.

Aggie hadn’t started out wanting to be a reporter, and when she went to work for a newspaper, she always considered herself a general assignment reporter. She had a special instinct, though, for crime journalism and in a lot of ways she paved the way for other female reporters in LA.

Hers was not exclusively a women’s story though. I think it would resonate with men too. She was totally fearless. I mean I think she felt afraid sometimes, but she went ahead anyway. As a result, she was liked and well-respected by law enforcement. More than once, the famous radio commentator Walter Winchell talked about her, and she got a couple mentions in Time Magazine.

          The crimes I write about attract all kinds of people, not just women. I get people interested in history or psychology or sociology. For decades true crime was a guilty pleasure. I think it was because a lot of it was badly written. Today it’s so much more than that. It is informative contemporary history that illuminates a time and place you might not know about otherwise.

SK:    I bet a lot of Aggie’s success as a journalist was helped by her close relationship with the police. I know you have worked at both the LA County Sheriff’s Museum and the LA Police Museum. What kind of relationship do you have with LA law enforcement?

JR:    I have a good relationship with the LA police and sheriff’s department. My friend Mike is the curator of the Sheriff’s Museum and was a custody assistant at the LA County jails. In LA the retirees go to lunch once a month at an old-style steakhouse. Mike invited me to go with him to one and I did. I’ve gone to pretty much every one since.

          The detectives were all really polite and nice. Most were men, although there were a few women too. I could tell they were all giving me the beady cop eye at first, and I knew it was going to be some time before I was really accepted. That’s just who they are.

          It went on like that for a while and then at one lunch I made a comment about something, and they just jumped all over me. They eviscerated me. I thought “Now I feel like I’m one of the guys.” On the way out Mike asked, “Are you okay?” I said “Are you kidding? That was just like having dinner at my parents’ house when I was a kid.” Not only was I okay, I felt humbled and honored.

I’ve since become good friends with some of the investigators. Frank Salerno and Gil Carrillo of the LA County Sheriff’s Department were the lead investigators in the Night Stalker/Richard Ramirez case. They were such good investigators and are such decent men. Salerno was experienced and well-regarded; he had also led the Hillside Strangler investigation. Carrillo was fairly new to the Homicide Bureau. At first, some detectives doubted his theories, but eventually he gained their trust and he and Frank solved the case. Netflix produced a docuseries “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer.” Ramirez actually took a back seat in the series, which was much more about the investigation. Gil’s wife Pearl appeared in the series and did a great job describing what it was like for her family during the investigation.

Cops are the best storytellers! I just sit back and soak it in. They don’t have to make up a thing. The truth is enough.

SK:    Now for the question I ask all the authors I interview: Why do you think women today are so obsessed with true crime?

JR:    I think people in general have always been fascinated by crime and bad behavior. They want to compare themselves with the perpetrators, measure themselves against them. Am I capable of doing that? How are they different? How are they like me?

The interest is just more obvious now because there are so many venues for it. But there is an incredibly old oral tradition of folk songs about murder and crime dating back for centuries. [Blogger Note: See the Wikipedia entry for Murder Ballads.] And then the broadsheets—the original “serious” newspapers—covered those cases.

In terms of women’s particular interest, I think they want to figure out how to avoid becoming prey, but most of us are raised to be people-pleasers. A guy may be doing something that makes us uncomfortable, but at the same time we are afraid of saying something that might hurt his feelings. While we’re doing that, by following true crime we are reading about or watching a vulnerable woman do what we might do in the same situation. “Don’t go into that room,” we think.

SK:    Before you cry out for mercy, I think I ought to wrap this up! What are you doing now?

JR:    I just finished a piece, “The Wages of Sin,” for an anthology Partners in Crime edited by Mitzi Szereto. The story I wrote is about a case that happened in 1918. Looking back, it seems like we haven’t changed that much– which is sometimes discouraging, sometimes hopeful.

SK:    Thank you Joan. I have loved talking with you! I’m dying 😊 to see what you write next.

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About Sue Keefe

I am a freelance writer whose particular topics of interest include true crime and the experience of deafness. I am currently co-writing a book about the triple homicide of a wife and her 4- and 7-year-old daughters with Charlie Wells, the now-retired 23-year veteran sheriff of Manatee County, Florida. I have three adult sons, two daughters-in-law, and four grandchildren. My husband Bob Volpe and I divide our time between a lake cottage in Battersea, Ontario, Canada and our condominium in Sarasota, Florida.

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