Montara Murder: Babes in the Woods Case 1946: Part V

Murder in Montara: The Babes in the Woods Case 1946; Part V

There was a lot of back-and-forth over where Vorhes Newton’s arraignment would take place in the summer of 1946. Who knows how they finally worked it out but those officials who pushed the Redwood City County Courthouse venue, lost, and it was decided the 24-year-old Newton would be arraigned on the Coastside where his horrific crime had been committed.

Half Moon Bay was a rural country village, and Judge Manuel Bettencourt, who presided over the court there, was the kind of man you either liked or hated, He was called “The Judge” and depending on who was saying it, “The Judge” sounded warm and friendly or tainted with a smoldering ire.

One thing nobody could deny, “The Judge” had broken social barriers by marrying the pert, outgoing Irene Debenedetti, the daughter of one of the most prominent families in town. She was Italian; he was Portuguese; theirs may have been the first such important marital union in Spanishtown, as the “real” locals called Half Moon Bay.

It was only an arraignment, a legal procedure measured in minutes, but no matter how small his role “the Judge” would be a presence.

Judge Bettencourt’s office/courtroom stood on Main Street, across the way from today’s “Original Johnny’s” coffee shop. Bettencourt’s courtroom was a space big enough to hold a maximum of 25 spectators.

Dubbed the “Babes in the Woods” case by the press, Vorhes Newton had attracted national attention putting Redwood City, where the heavy legal business was conducted, on the map. This case could make reputations.

Due to all the attention, Judge Bettencourt’s Half Moon Bay courtroom couldn’t comfortably accommodate all the photographers, reporters, the curious, the locals and the participants. Sheriff’s deputies, with their prisoner, had to push through the crowd before a decision was made to move the whole show to the nearby high school’s gymnasium, accommodating 150 spectators. When the bleachers were full, chairs were quickly brought in and a courtroom improvised with tables from the classrooms.

Sheriff Walter Moore, member of a prominent Pescadero family, acted as bailiff. County District Attorney Gilbert Ferrell arrived with Fred Wyckoff, Ferrell’s second-in-command who had done most of the early case work.

The noise of onlookers didn’t drown out official voices in the makeshift courtroom in the school gym– rather there was a stunned quiet– and, besides the normal curiosity associated with people wanting to see the kind of man who would murder his own children–there was pity for young Vorhes Newton.

Wearing a checkered sports jacket and brown tie, Vorhes had a scrubby brown beard, his face was bruised, his black eye colored a purplish hue now. His own personal trial had caused his shoulders to droop. When his eyes searched the school gym, he recognized half a dozen members of his family but Vorhes didn’t smile or nod at them. He still couldn’t believe he committed the murders.

Judge Bettencourt asked the defendant if Vorhes Newton was his name and he softly answered, “Yes”.

Then followed a series of damning witnesses First was Fred Simmons, Half Moon Bay’s deputy sheriff. He spoke of bringing a bloodied Lorraine Newton to the Community Hospital. He told of finding the bodies of the two little ones.

John Kyne testified to finding the bodies of the two babies at the Montara flower ranch which was also confirmed by Kyne’s employees James Fiedler and Steve Torre,.

Mrs. Dodd, the Newton’s Alameda neighbor, told the court that she accompanied the Newton family on the first part of the murder ride. She was dropped off at the Alameda navy base. Later that day she saw Vorhes return home alone.

Of interest to defense attorney Leo Friedman was Mrs. Dodd’s statement that she often heard Vorhes call his wife, “Boss”. In her opinion Lorraine Newton was the quarrelsome type, not her husband.

Witness Anthelmo Quaves said he saw an auto containing a man and woman drive slowly into the lonely canyon and heard yelling and the sounds of someone being beaten. He said he saw the auto come back speeding out of the canyon.

Lorraine’s mother, Mrs.Tuttle, said her daughter was improving and identified her engagement and wedding rings

Defense attorney Leo Friedman revealed that Mrs. Newton knew she was pregnant, wanted to confirm it with a doctor and left open an abortion.

Newton sat solemnly at a student’s desk in the makeshift courtroom, obviously relieved when Deputy Sheriff Jack O’Brien escorted from out of the courtroom and back to the car that would return him to the Redwood City County Jail.

Outside the courtroom in Half Moon Bay, defense attorney Leo Friedman joked with reporters and photographers. They knew him from for his role in two sensational trials, that of Mrs. Frances Andrews and David Lamson.

Lorraine Newton did not make an appearance. So far she had remained in the background.

To be continued….

Murder in Montara (1946): Babes in the Woods Case: Part IV

Whether the San Mateo County District Attorney would press for the death penalty in the Vorhes Newton case was not yet known. Newton’s was a heinous crime, the killer of his two little children who were left to die on a lonely road in Montara—and the attempted murder of his young pregnant wife.

Luckily, 21-year-old=year Lorraine Newton had survied and was slowly recovering from severe head injuries in a Half Moon Bay hospital in the summer of 1946.

Lorraine hadn’t been told that the babies were dead, and although she hadn’t talked to her husband, the pair both agreed about one thing: neither remembered what happened at the end of that horrible day. They’d had an argument about abortion, they remembered that, but then both Lorraine and Vorhes maintained they blanked out and couldn’t recall anything else.

The prosecutors had no trouble mapping out what had happened. They had an open and shut case, with testimony, evidence and the murder weapon in their possession, enough to convict and ask for the death penalty. The prosecution was anxious to go to trial, which they predicted would be short and sweet.

The prosecution team also bragged that they had damning testimony even if Newton’s wife couldn’t testify—but they believed she would be well enough to do so. They had the murder weapons, a sharp-edged shovel and a baby’s milk bottle.

Vorhes Newton was not a loner, not without the love and support of his wealthy family, his father an affluent farmer from nearby Lodi, and one of his brothers a successful “coin phonograph” operator. His parents and siblings rushed to his side at the county jail, strategizing with Leo Friedman, the nationally known and colorful attorney who replaced former superior judge Alden Ames, said to have had second thoughts about representing the controversial defendant.

Fresh from winning several tough cases for his clients, Leo Friedman huddled with Vorhes Newton’s family, discussing strategy. He walked away forty five minutes later telling the press Vorhes impressed him “as a lovely boy with a good record. I don’t even know that he did it. If anybody did do anything like this—he must be crazy.”

After the legal conference with Friedman, Newton followed his new lawyer’s advice and refused to give up any information during future grilling by detectives—even though he had already allegedly confessed bludgeoning the babies to death.

Friedman wanted that confession repudiated because it had been elicited under the duress of grilling. He mentioned the possibility of a plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity”.

County District Attorney Gilbert Ferrell said that Mrs. Newton was pregnant but, when asked if she would keep the baby, he said no one had that answer– but that the pregnancy was certainly the cause of the argument between the couple and the violent events that followed. Vorhes and Lorraine Newton, Ferrell said, were arguing about the abortion, an illegal medical procedure in 1946. Ferrell did not reveal whether husband or wife was for or against it.

Medical experts believed the beating Lorraine received could lead to a miscarriage.

Her parents, residents of southern California, came to their daughter’s bedside. Lorraine’s father, Frank Tuttle, was the port auditor at Los Angeles. She had still not been told of her children’s deaths but was conscious and conversing with nurses at the Coastside hospital.

But would she appear as a witness at her husband’s trial?

To be continued….

Loren Coburn’s Folly: Pescadero’s Pebble Beach Hotel

In the 1890s Loren Coburn, the most hated man in Pescadero, built the Pebble Beach Hotel overlooking the popular and locally sentimental pebble-covered beach south of the tiny village. From what we know guests never stayed overnight– except for the watchman who was there to protect the new hotel from vandalism. (Among modern conveniences the Pebble Beach Hotel offered the luxury of hot and cold water). Business associates of Coburns (perhaps anxious to take advantage of the illiterate but wealthy man) sometimes held private parties at the hotel.

Local artist Galen Wolf wandered up and down the Coastside using his box of watercolors to preserve the past for us. Here, before it was torn down to make way for Highway 1, is Wolf’s picture of Loren Coburn’s Folly: the Pebble Beach Hotel at Pescadero where the rooms remained empty and, perhaps haunted, for decades.


In 1992 I published “The Coburn Mystery”, acknowledged as a definitive history of Pescadero. Regrettably, instead of the critics focussing on the history of Pescadero, they fell into the quagmire of environmental politics. The book covers all aspects of Pescadero’s fascinating history and should be read. “The Coburn Mystery” is still available and can be purchased at Ano Nuevo State Reserve.

“Babes in the Woods Case” Murder in Montara: Part III

In the summer of 1946 the lifeless bodies of two little girls were found near a bed of wild lilies bordering the Havis Flower Nursery in Wagner Canyon in Montara.

Despite severe skull injuries, the children’s mother, 21-year-old Lorraine Newton, had survived the brutal attempt to murder her—and sought refuge overnight in an abandoned shack.

Next morning longtime Coastside resident John Kyne encountered the semi-conscious Lorraine, shoeless, wandering, and calling for Barbara Ann and Caroline Lee, the names of her children. It was Kyne who alerted authorities, and, Simmons, the constable from Half Moon Bay, arrived to take her to the nearby Community Hospital. (Community Hospital was run by Colonel Howard Roycroft, a military doctor, a reminder that the armed forces had had a presence on the Coastside during WWII.)

Constable Simmons noted that Lorraine was not wearing an engagement and wedding ring as most married women did in 1946. Had the murderer taken them?

At Community Hospital, Lorraine slipped in and out of consciousness, calling for her children and husband Vorhes. Colonel Roycroft wouldn’t let police question her. The head injury was severe and her survival was uncertain. More importantly after examining his patient, Dr. Roycroft had important information for police. Lorraine was pregnant. Lorraine Newton asked for her children and her husband Vorhes.

When she began to recover, police were permitted to ask a few questions. The only thing Lorraine recalled, she told them, was sitting in a car with her husband and daughters and watching the waves at Rockaway Beach in Pacifica. Everything else remained a blank.

Meanwhile a statewide search for Lorraine’s husband, Vorhes, was underway. The 24-year-old glazier had vanished and police were anxious to interrogate the man who had become a murder suspect in what the press dubbed “The Babes in the Woods” case.

Cops knew Vorhes had returned the car he borrowed from his sister, the car that he drove to the Coastside. A search of the vehicle produced a shovel, a possible murder weapon. They tracked Newton’s movements back to the couple’s apartment in Alameda. On the bed Newton had spread out one of his wife’s dresses and beside it, a baby bottle.

As Lorraine Newton recovered, police were permitted to ask her questions—but Dr. Roycroft wouldn’t let them tell her about the death of her daughters. Asked about her husband’s character, she said he was the most lovable man on earth. About the events which lead up to her injuries, she recalled little. All she could remember was sitting in a car with her husband and daughters, watching the waves at Rockaway Beach in Pacifica. Nothing else.

And that was what the newspapers reported.

Police fanned out to question Lorraine and Vorhes’ neighbors and friends in Alameda where the couple lived. The first reports offered nothing out of the ordinary, a picture of a happily married couple—but cracks in this picture emerged as a close friend said Lorraine hated her husband, adding that she wouldn’t be with him if it weren’t for the children.

The murder story was headlined in so many papers that San Mateo County police figured it wouldn’t be long before Vorhes Newton would be caught. His picture was posted everywhee. Cops were playing the waiting game.

And it was a short wait– a couple of days after the horrific crime, Auburn officials notified San Mateo County Deputy Sheriff Walter Moore that they had his man in custody.

How did they catch him?

Part of the answer came from Vorhes, part of it from several other witnesses.

A motorist offered Vorhes Newton a ride when he saw him, soaked and disheveled, wandering along the highway near Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe. Vorhes told the driver his clothes were soaking wet because he had slipped and fallen into the cold lake water. He had a black eye and visible abrasions so the driver took him to a tavern where a doctor gave Newton first aid. The doctor recognized Vorhes from the newspapers and alerted the Tahoe constable who took him into custody, driving him to the bigger jail at Auburn.

Elated with the news, Deputy Sheriff Walter Moore raced to Auburn to pick up His prisoner. Under questioning, Vorhes Newton repeated the same thing as his wife. He recalled watching the surf at Rockaway Beach, then, he said “everything went blank.” Afterwards he remembered waking up on a park bench in Reno [he had taken the bus or train there] and it was there that he read about the murders in a newspaper.

“I woke up in Reno, with a paper lying over my face,” Newton told Sheriff Moore. “I decided that I had better go back. I took a bus and hitch-hiked as far as a resort on the California side of Lake Tahoe, Eagle Falls, by Emerald Bay. I clambered up the rocks and fell into the lake, then climbed back to the road.” He complained of severe back pain, had one black eye and abrasions all over his body.

Sheriff Moore branded Newton’s story a fake. “He’s covering up and telling a lie,” Moore said. He told reporters Vorhes read his wife’s account in the newspapers. He’s just repeating her story. What he didn’t’ tell reporters was that he found Lorraine’s engagement and wedding ring in Vorhes’ possession.

Newton was driven back to the county jail in Redwood City. The sky was carbon black as three hours of heavy grilling began– but failed to break his story. When confronted repeatedly with the facts, Vorhes, by now weary and haggard, insisted “he blanked out”. “I’m not a brute,” he swore, “I couldn’t have done it. I couldn’t have done it.” The same thing, over and over.

Making little headway, Sheriff Moore quit for the night. “What do I charge him with, ” Night Jailor Paul Jenson asked Sheriff Moore. “Oh, hell, charge him with murder,” Moore snapped.

The “Babes in the Woods” case was attracting national attention, becoming a big case. It was time for Walter Moore’s boss, Sheriff James McGrath to step into the picture and McGrath announced he was now taking the lead in the investigation.

“I think he [Newton] should be made to see his daughters”, Sheriff McGrath told a clutch of reporters. The little girls were lying in the William Crosby Mortuary in Burlingame.

Newton hadn’t hired a lawyer yet but money wasn’t a restriction as his father, Benjamin, was a prominent rancher near Lodi. At first the family hired Alden Ames, a former superior judge. Ames said his client was being put through the third degree and anything he said would be questioned in court as having been obtained under duress.

Alden Ames soon retired from the case and was replaced by the aggressive defense attorney Leo Friedman known for winning some tough cases.

Up to this point Deputy D.A. Fred Wycoff was handling the prosecution’s case. He told reporters he had enough evidence to convict and that it would be a quick trial.

Where Newton would be arraigned on two counts of murder was still up in the air. The plan was to take him to the court of Manuel J. Bettencourt in Half Moon Bay. But Vorhes complained of injuries sustained in the fall at Lake Tahoe and the doctor who examined him said he didn’t know if the prisoner “could stand” the physical pain of the ride from Redwood City to the Coastside.

He might not be able to make the bumpy ride to Half Moon Bay but there was no excuse why Vorhes Newton could not be taken to the Crosby Mortuary in Burlingame to see the bodies of his baby daughters. Face up to what he had down—and once there, he almost immediately cracked and confessed that he had beaten them to death after first attempting to kill his wife.

In the presence of six officials, with reporters banned, Newton confessed that he struck his wife and babies first with a baby bottle, then a shovel at the spot where they were found, a lonely ranch road in Wagner Canyon near Montara.

And the reason for the brutal crime was finally was revealed: The couple had quarreled over an abortion.

Sobbing, Vorhes said he struck his wife first but didn’t know why he took it out on the kids.

After the confession a decision was made: The arraignment on a double murder charge would take place in Half Moon Bay at the Court of Justice Manuel J. Bettencourt.

….To be continued