I believe Aimee Semple McPherson's kidnapping would have remained a footnote in L.A. history, but for the burning envy of one man - the Reverend “Fighting Bob” Shuler. After six years of tireless effort, the fire and brimstone preacher's Trinity Methodist church in downtown Los Angeles had a congregation of 6,000. But that paled beside Aimee's 100,000. In sermon after sermon., Shuler denounced Aimee's vulgar Pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues and faith healing, and her regularly inviting other women preachers, black ministers, and even Catholics priests to share her pulpit. For Shuler, Sister Aimee was a divorced woman and thus the epitome of the "liberalism, pacifism, humanism, Unitarianism, universalism, and all the other little foxes that are destroying the vineyard that was planted by the Methodist fathers."
But the core of Shuler's anger was his envy of Aimee's 500 watt radio station, KFSG - "K"all Four Square Gospel. To him, the power it gave her voice was an outrage, especially since he had no similar outlet. The instant word of Aimee's drowning broke, Bob was convinced it was a hoax designed to make her even more famous, and he began publicly demanding Los Angeles District Attorney Asa Keyes investigate her for fraud. And when Shuler convinced the Chamber of Commerce and 8 other churches to add their voices as well, Keyes, being an elected official, responded immediately..
The very train that carried Aimee's mother, Mrs. Mildred “Minnie” Kennedy, Aimee's daughter and son to Douglas, Arizona, also brought D.A. Keyes and his chief Assistant D.A. Joseph Ryan. The two investigators posed as bookends to the family reunion (above), Keyes to the left and Ryan to the right of Aimee's hospital bed. And Keyes noted that on Aimee's wrist was the watch she said had been left in the hotel in Venice Beach. Still, the prosecutors gave the evangelist a sympathetic hearing. But instead of returning with Sister Aimee to Los Angeles, D.A. Ryan immediately took a train for Northern California, thanks to a tip from a Santa Barbara millionaire.
The wealthy retired engineer John Hersey (below) was vacationing in the village of Camel-by-the-Sea, at the southern end of the Monterrey peninsula, about sixty miles south of San Francisco. On the afternoon of Wednesday, 26 May, Hersey was driving eastbound when at San Antonio Street, a block before the beach, he had to slow to allow two pedestrians to cross the intersection in front of him.
He was so stunned he had to pull to the curb. The woman, he was certain, was Sister Aimee, who had been reported drown the week before, 300 miles to the south. Hersey (above) recognized her because he had attended a service at the Angelus temple the year before. However Hersey kept his observation to himself, until a month later when Sister McPherson walked into Agua Prieta, claiming she had spent five weeks held by kidnappers. Then, spurred on by Fighting Bob Shuler's well publicized doubts, Hersey called the District Attorney's office in Los Angeles.
With his father-in law, Detective Captain Herman Cline, D.A. Ryan first went to the location of Hersey's alleged sighting, the corner of Ocean Avenue and San Antonio street. They discovered that most of the houses in the area were small cottages offered for short term rentals. So they made a tour of the rental management companies, showing at each a photograph of Sister Aimee's most likely companion, ex-KFSG radio engineer Kenneth Ormiston (above). At Carmel Reality Company, they hit pay dirt.
The office manager, Mrs. Daisy Bostick, said she knew the man in the photo as Mr George McIntyre, who had come into her office on Friday, 14 May, (four days before Aimee's disappearance) looking for a three month rental of a quiet romantic cottage (above) where his wife could recover from surgery. The cottage he picked was facing the white sand beach across Scenic Drive, just two blocks south of Ocean Avenue. And he paid the $450 rental fee on the spot, and in cash. And then, without explanation, the couple left after just ten days, on 29 May, 1926
The woman living next door to the cottage rented by the “McIntyres' was Mrs Jeannette Parker. She could not swear the couple were Sister Aimee and Ormiston, but she did say they resembled the very affectionate occupants, and that the affectionate male “limped”. The owner of the cottage, retired insurance adjuster Henry Benedict, dropped by to make certain his guests were comfortable. He spoke briefly to Mrs. McIntyre, who was hidden under a large hat, while Mr. McIntyre did not seem friendly. However Benedict did remember a woman's green bathing suit hanging on the wash line stretched across the back yard. The local grocer, Ralph Swanson, never even saw the couple, but filled their phone orders, which his delivery boys then left on the back steps. The investigators found two of the grocery lists in the back yard (below), where they had survived almost two months of drew and sun. D.A. Ryan took those away as evidence.
But evidence of what? Fighting Bob Schuler might be certain a crime had been committed. Skeptical historian Louis Adamic seemed to agree. Shortly after Aimee's return he had written, “According to the Angelus Temple statistics, Aimee’s business has been better since her “escape from the kidnapers” Previously she used to convert about fifty or sixty people a night; now her average is well past one hundred. Previously she used to baptize...twenty or thirty people each Thursday; last Thursday she immersed one hundred and thirty-six.” And most conversions and baptism were accompanied by a donation.
Aimee had always been good at raising money for her temple. She would often tell the congregation that she was suffering with a headache and the jingle of coins in the collection plate would cause her pain. “No coins, please”, she would implore her flock. “Only quiet money.” Or she might give the faithful a specific goal, telling them, for instance, “Mother needs a new coat. Who will donate money today, so that mother can have a new winter coat?.” Since 18 May, there had been tens of thousands of dollars donated to the temple to pay for the “search for Aimee”, and tens of thousands more dollars, donated in memory of the presumed drown evangelist. It seemed to many an obvious fraud.
But the issue facing Los Angeles District Attorney Asa Keyes was much simpler; intent. Had Sister Aimee (above, center) conspired with her mother, Mildred Kennedy (above right), to fake the kidnapping, intending to defraud the faithful, to receive donations under false circumstances? Or did Mildred really believe Aimee had been kidnapped? Had Aimee suffered a nervous breakdown under the pressure of so many lost souls depending on her for salvation? Or, perhaps, she had just fallen in love with Ormiston, and had played no part in the temple's fund raising. Without proof of intent to defraud, there was no crime.
In early August of 1926, D.A. Keyes (above) sent a telegram to Assistant District Attorney Ryan, who was still gathering evidence in Carmel-by-the-Sea, instructing him to close the investigation and come home. The Los Angeles Grand Jury, which had already begun to hear evidence in the case, was closed down as well. Assistant D.A. Ryan might be morally outraged over how much money poured into Aimee's temple, but moral outrage is not a violation of the criminal codes. In the United States the government is secular, and a crime against God is not a crime that can be tried in a human court. There was no proof of intent. And even if Aimee had intended to commit a crime, as Fighting Bob Shuler believed, without proof, it looked as if she was going to get away with it.
And then Mrs Mildred Kennedy (above, right), Aimee's mother, came to Bob Shuler's rescue.