An Ending And A Beginning
In 1957 Hollywood star and sex symbol, Lana Turner had just split from her 4th husband Lex Barker after her daughter Cheryl had accused Barker of regularly molesting and raping her over the course of the 4 year-long marriage. When Turner learned of these heinous acts she got a hold of a gun and drove him from their home with it. They were divorced soon after.
Shortly after this Turner was shooting The Lady Takes a Flyer for Paramount at the time when she became pursued sexually by a man named John Steele. Steele got a hold of Turner’s phone number and began to call her constantly. He also started to send her expensive gifts. Finally, Turner succumbed and began a relationship with Steele.
However, it turns out John Steele wasn’t his real name. It was Johnny Stompanato.
Who Was Johnny Stompanato?
Johnny Stompanato was born to Italian immigrant parents in Woodstock Illinois in 1925. In 1940 his father sent him to Kemper Military School for boys in Boonville, Missouri. In 1943 he joined the Marines and was stationed all over the Pacific for the next few years.
While in China Stompanato married a Turkish woman named Sar Utush. After he was discharged the couple moved back to Illinois and had a son the following year. One day Stompanato went out for a pack of cigarettes and ended up in Hollywood, California. His wife was granted a divorce for desertion in 1949.
Once in Hollywood Johnny set up shop with “The Myrtlewood Gift Shop”, a place that sold junk pottery as fine art. In addition to running this joint, Stompanato started to work for crime boss Mickey Cohen as a driver and bag man.
Cohen and Stompanato became fast friends and Johnny moved up quickly in the ranks. He moved into a ritzy apartment in Bel-Air.
The LAPD characterized Stompanato as a pimp, blackmailer, and extortionist. He was basically a gigolo who would have sex with older women to fleece out of money and then have sex with men and then blackmail them with recordings and photographs. This was all coordinated with the Fischetti-Capone mob out of Chicago. Stompanato was arrested 7 times including on a charge of armed robbery.
In 1948 when Stompanato was getting friendly with Ava Gardner Frank Sinatra showed up at Mickey Cohen’s house and pleaded with him to tell Stompanato to stay away from her. Cohen told him that he never got between men and their “broads” and that Sinatra should go back to his wife and kids.
In 1949, with his divorce final, Stompanato married actress Helen Gilbert. The marriage would end a few months later with Gilbert describing it as a “mistake”.
Around this time, Stompanato became the right-hand man and bodyguard to Cohen. His previous bodyguard Neddie Herbert was killed by Los Angeles crime family mobster Dominic Brooklier.
In 1952 Stompanato left Cohen and began dating and working as the manager of Helene Stanley (who worked as a live model for Walt Disney Animation for both Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella). The couple married and were divorced in 1955.
Johnny vs 007
The relationship between Turner and Stompanato continued at a tumultuous pace after the initial relationship began. Stompanato’s volatile nature, jealousy, and propensity for violence boiled over when he flew to London to threaten Sean Connery and tell him to stay away from Turner. Connery and Turner were shooting Another Time, Another Place when Stompanato came to the set and pulled a gun on Connery. In a quick and nonchalant manner, Connery took the gun away from Stompanato and proceeded to knock him out with a single punch. Stompanato was subsequently deported from the UK after Turner reported him to Scotland Yard for his illegal handgun.
Oscars, Kitchen Knives, and Murder
In March 1958 Turner attended the Academy Awards ceremony to present the Best Supporting Actor award as well as to possibly win an Oscar for her role in Peyton Place. Stompanato was distraught that she didn’t take him to the ceremony so he beat her up when she returned home.
8 days after the Academy Awards, on the morning of April 4, 1958, Turner went to the Pioneer Hardware Store in Beverly Hills. She was there to purchase a new set of kitchen knives for her residence, 730 North Bedford Drive, which she had just begun renting a few days earlier. While here she ran into MGM stylist Sydney Guilaroff. Guilaroff and Turner chitchatted for a moment about her need for new knives.
That night, at around 8 PM, Turner told Stompanato that she was ending the relationship. A heated argument ensued and Stompanato threatened to kill Turner, and her daughter Cheryl Crane.
Crane, who feared for her mother’s life, took action. Crane’s eyes fell to the kitchen knives purchased earlier the day.
“There’s a knife on the counter. I picked it up ran back up the stairs. Her door suddenly flies open. I see John coming toward me. He’s got his hand up… I raised the knife and he walks right into it. And he looked at me. And he said, ‘My God, Cheryl, what have you done?'” – Cheryl Crane
Crane pulled the knife from Stompanato’s body and he collapsed to the floor. Crane left the room, placing the knife on a “small marble-topped table. Turner called her doctor who was unable to revive Stompanato’s lifeless body when he arrived on the scene. When Emergency Services arrived Stompanato was declared dead at the scene.
During this chaos, Crane called her father Steve Crane and told him all that had transpired. He arrived at the home immediately thereafter.
The autopsy which was conducted by Charles Langhauser shortly after revealed Stompanato’s death was caused by a single knife wound that penetrated his liver, portal vein, and aorta, resulting in internal bleeding on a massive scale.
Aftermath and Legal Proceedings
Police Chief Clinton Anderson arrived at the scene and Cheryl immediately confessed to him. Turner pleaded with Anderson to let her take the fall for the stabbing. Anderson refused.
At shortly after midnight on April 5, Cheryl turned arrived at the Beverly Hills Police Department. She gave a formal statement to Anderson, detailing her hearing Stompanato’s threats against Turner, and her subsequent stabbing of him in the bedroom threshold. She was then interred at juvenile hall.
Later that day Guilaroff showed up at Turner’s home to console her. She had reportedly told him –
“Did you ever dream this could happen? And with the very knife I bought yesterday.”
On April 7, a juvenile pre-detention hearing was held under Judge Donald O’Dell. This was closed to the public.
This entire event and the days that followed were a media circus and cause célèbre. By the coroner’s inquest on April 11, over 100 reporters swarmed the proceedings.
The inquest lasted 4 hours and had several witnesses, the star being Lana Turner, of course. Turner stated –
“I was walking toward the bedroom door, and he was right behind me, and I opened it, and my daughter came in. I swear, it was so fast, I—I truthfully thought she had hit him in the stomach. The best I can remember, they came together and they parted. I still never saw a blade.”
She testified for 62 minutes, collapsing into tears at the end.
The jury deliberated for 25 minutes and found Stompanato’s killing to be a justifiable homicide. On April 24, Crane was released to the care of her grandmother and was ordered to regularly visit a psychiatrist with her parents. She was only 14 years old.
Wrongful Death Suit
Stomapnato’s first ex-wife filed a wrongful death suit, against Turner, as well as Cheryl and Steve Crane on behalf of her son in the amount of $750,000 (over $6,000,000 in 2021 dollars). The lawsuit was settled out of court for $20,000 in 1962.
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