I think most people in Los Angeles in 1926 thought the L.A. District Attorney Asa Keyes' case rested on Lorraine Weiseman-Sielaff . It was a shaky foundation, because the lady was unstable. She was under the care of a psychiatrist, and had spent time in a sanitarium. When no one came forward to bail her out of jail, and confronted with proof she'd been passing bad checks in L.A. during the last week of May, the very week her affidavit swore she'd been in Carmel-by-the-Sea, nursing the mysterious “Miss X”, companion to the limping bald playboy radio engineer Kenneth Ormiston, Lorraine changed her story. Now she claimed to have been promised $5,000 for signing the false affidavit, and perhaps more for convincing her twin sister to claim being the mysterious “Miss X” . This lady had more stories than Mother Goose.
But the prosecution had much more. There was Walter Lambert, the owner of a shirt store on Hill Street in downtown L.A., across from the Hotel Clark, and the hotel's doorman Thomas Melville, both of whom saw Sister Aimee entering the 12 story hotel at about ten on the morning of 18, May - the day of her drowning. She only stayed 30 minutes. Kenneth Ormiston had been staying at the hotel since leaving his wife in January - the same time he left the Angelus Temple. In an experiment, detectives left Venice Beach at about three in the afternoon (the time of Aimee's drowning) and drove the 300 miles north to the “love nest” cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea. They arrived at just about one-thirty the next morning, the same time Ormiston had admitted arriving there on 19 May in the company of the mysterious “Miss X”.
There were half a dozen witnesses from Carmel who had seen and/or spoken with a woman they recognized as Aimee, or said “resembled” McPherson. There was Dennis Collins and Louie Mandrillo, graveyard shift mechanics at a Salinas garage. They testified that the owner of a Studebaker sedan, left for a refuel and fluid check, had picked up his car at two on the morning of 29 May. The man signed the receipt as Kenneth Ormiston (above), and he was accompanied by a woman wearing a heavy black veil on a very dark night.
And then there was the testimony of Bernice Morris, secretary to a lawyer named Russel McKinley, who worked for Sister Aimee. Morris had not been an intimate of the full conspiracy, but she had come to suspect that the kidnapping story had actually been concocted to fool Aimee's mother. At one point in a conversation at the Angelus Temple with the two women (above), Morris had announced without warning, that her boss wanted to remind Aimee (left) one of the kidnappers had rubbed Aimee's neck to relieve a headache. In fact Morris had just made the incident up. But Sister Aimee immediately turned to her suspicious mother and said, “Why mother, I do remember that perfectly. I forgot to tell you that. You know I’m always having trouble with my neck.” Morris added she did not think Mrs. Kennedy (right) believed her daughter. A few days later, lawyer McKinley was killed in an automobile accident, and the plans he and Aimee had laid out were dropped. That was damning.
But, to my mind, the case against Aimee McPherson rested on a single question D.A. Keyes asked her in front of the August grand jury. He admired her watch, and then pointed out, “I seem to have observed a photo of you wearing that wrist watch which was taken in Douglas, five weeks after you went bathing on the beach. You are sure you did not have it with you?” Aimee could only reply, “I guess the watch must have been brought to me in Douglas by my mother.” A few minutes later, the hearing was interrupted when Aimee fainted. But here, in open court, Keyes would not have a chance to ask that question, because at least in this preliminary hearing, Aimee would never have to take the stand.
On the other hand there was Arthur Betts, a bell boy at the Hotel Clark who was supposed to identify Aimee as having entered Ormiston's room, but on the witness stand he suffered a total memory loss. Two of the prosecution witnesses suffered such a memory failure under oath. And there was another problem, which the defense brought up in cross-examination with all the witnesses from Carmel. If they were so certain the woman in the “love nest” had been the famous evangelist, why had none of them claimed the rewards offered by newspapers for information on Aimee's whereabouts..
Then there was the lack of physical evidence. The Carmel “Love Nest” produced lots of fingerprints, but none belonging to Aimee Semple McPherson. And the grocery lists, recovered from the back yard, and identified as being written in Aimee's handwriting, had gone missing. Photo-stats remained (above), but the defense never ceased in pointing out prosecution experts were now only working from copies. Besides, they had their own experts who insisted, it was not Sister Aimee's handwriting.
Aimee's kidnapping story was always a problem for Aimee's lawyers. Her escape from the kidnappers was just not believable. As D.A. Asa Keyes put it, “That was 20 miles in blistering, 120-degree sun…and yet she wasn’t blistered. Her clothes weren’t soiled. She wasn’t perspiring. Her heels weren’t broken. She didn’t ask for water. Taken to a hospital in Douglas, Arizona...she wasn’t dehydrated." Author Louis Adamic argued, “The only way she can convince me that she made that... hike across the desert...is to do it all over again, and let me ride behind her in an automobile equipped...with a huge canteen of water; and if she asks me for a single drink or a lift, I’ll give it to her and then laugh right in her face. “
Still Aimee's version of events never varied by an inch or an instant, under oath or from the pulpit. When challenged Aimee (above) would always say with a beatific smile, “That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.” She repeated that line so often it was eventually used with great effect by vaudeville and movie star Mae West, whose entire career was a parody of "the world's most pulchritudinous evangelist", Sister Aimee McPherson..
On Wednesday, 3 November, Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Samuel Blake concluded the hearing by telling the small courtroom (above) he found ample evidence that Aimee Semple McPherson, her mother Mildred Kennedy, and Mrs. Lorraine Weiseman-Sielaff. were indeed involved in a “criminal conspiracy to commit acts injurious to public morals and to prevent and obstruct justice.” It was assumed Weisman-Sielaff would at some point plead guilty to a lesser crime, in exchange for her testimony against the other two . Aimee and Mildred were facing a possible 42 years in prison, each. In Spartenburg, South Carolina, humorist Will Rogers was traveling with Queen Marie, of Rumania. Wrote Rogers, “Bless her heart. America owes her a debt of gratitude for running...Aimee McPherson back among the want ads.”
And then, while the shock waves were still roiling back and forth across Los Angeles' culture, the unstable Lorraine Weisman-Sielaff (above) changed her story again.