Sex, Murder and Videotape
09/12/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
TO FANS OF TV'S HOGAN'S Heroes, actor Bob Crane will always be Col. Robert Hogan, the rakishly handsome, Robin Hoodwinking leader of a merry band of World War II Allied airmen in a German POW camp. In fact, says Werner Klemperer, who played Stalag 13's dummkopf commandant, Col. Wilhelm Klink, during Hogan's 1965-71 run, his costar was not all that different from the sly devil he portrayed. "Bob was a very gregarious, outgoing person with a great sense of humor," says Klemperer.
But there was a darker side to the man, and ultimately it may have cost him his life. On June 29, 1978, Crane was beaten to death as he slept in a Scottsdale, Ariz., apartment. This week, when the man accused of the killing is finally scheduled to go on trial in a Phoenix courtroom, a disturbing image of Crane will emerge. The most lurid exhibit in the prosecution's case against John Henry Carpenter, 65, a former video-equipment salesman, is a black-and-white home video that shows Crane and Carpenter together engaging in oral sex with a young woman. The cassette is one of dozens of videos that Crane produced for his private use over a 12-year span, during which he would often pick up women in bars and nightclubs and then talk them into having sex on-camera.
Crane's porn tape may be the most sensational element in this trial. But what is most baffling is the 16-year gap between his murder and Carpenter's trial. Police say most of that time was spent trying to convince reluctant prosecutors that they had a case strong enough to get a conviction. The defense, on the other hand, has contended that Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley is trying to further his political career by resurrecting a case that should have been dropped long ago. Carpenter's court-appointed attorney, public defender Stephen Avilla, maintains that by the time his client was finally arrested, in June 1992, much of the state's key evidence had been either lost or destroyed.
This much is known: On Wednesday, June 28, 1978, Crane was performing at Scottsdale's now-defunct Windmill Dinner Theater in a frothy comedy, Beginner's Luck. The title was ironic, given the state of Crane's fortunes. Hogan's Heroes had ended its run on CBS in an era when contracts did not allow series stars to get rich from residuals, and Crane, after a quickly canceled 1975 sitcom, The Bob Crane Show, and some TV guest shots, had settled into the nomadic limbo of Sun Belt dinner theater.
At 11 that night, after the curtain rang down at the Windmill, Crane drove to Bogarts, a local nightspot, with his friend Carpenter, who was in Scottsdale visiting him. Later, the two were joined by a pair of female acquaintances for a meal at the nearby Safari Restaurant. Shortly before 2:30 a.m. the group broke up. Crane went home alone to a cluttered, furnished two-bedroom apartment he was subletting at 7430 East Chapparal Road; Carpenter returned to his room at the Sunburst Hotel, a block away. Sometime between 3 and 3:30 a.m., according to police reports, someone entered Crane's bedroom and, as he lay sleeping, struck him once or possibly twice in the head with what police identify only as "a blunt linear instrument." (The murder weapon has never been found.)
It wasn't until 2 p.m. that day that Victoria Berry, Crane's costar in Beginner's Luck, discovered his body. Crane had been helping Berry, then 29—a blonde, buxom Australian with whom he had once had a brief fling—make an audition tape. Now, after knocking and discovering his front door unlocked, the actress walked into Act I, Scene I, of a real-life murder mystery. Berry later told police that she recalled seeing a figure curled up in the sheets. "I thought, 'Oh, Bob's got a girl here. Now where's Bob?' " But as her eyes adjusted to the gloom caused by the still-drawn bedroom curtains, she saw the figure was a man. His face, bloodied and swollen from beatings, was unrecognizable. As she left the bedroom, Berry noticed one more thing: "He had [an electric] cord tied around his neck in a bow," she said. And yet, curiously, an autopsy would reveal that Crane had not been strangled with the cord. Had the killer simply left it as a bizarre signature?
Police arrived a few minutes later. At 3:15 they were still in the apartment, searching for clues, when the phone rang. The caller was Carpenter. Crane's buddy had checked out of his hotel at 8:30 a.m. in what police would later call "a state of anxiety" and had caught a 10 a.m. flight back to his home in Torrance, Calif., a three-hour flight. When Lt. Ron Dean identified himself, he was struck, he said, by Carpenter's lack of curiosity about the cop's presence. "I was wondering, 'Why don't you ask me what I'm doing here?' " Dean recalls. Carpenter has said that he was curious, but that Dean would say only that police were conducting an investigation concerning Crane and that Dean never informed him of Crane's whereabouts. "That's when I called Bob Crane Jr.," Carpenter told an interviewer in 1993. "I was very worried." Bob Jr., then 27, was living in L.A. with his mother, Ann, the first of Crane's two wives. Neither Ann nor Bob Jr. had been told that Crane was dead, and the young man was puzzled by what he described to police the next day as Carpenter's weird call. His father's friend said he just wanted to chat—something he had never done before. Carpenter ended the conversation by saying that if Bobby "needed anything" to please contact him. As Dean, 52, who retired from the force in 1988, sees it, Carpenter was behaving like a killer who returns to the scene of his crime—in this case by telephone. He could only guess at the progress of the police investigation. "I think he thought [Crane's body] would be discovered a little bit earlier than it was," says Dean.
But what was the motive for such a savage crime? Dean and his partner, Dennis Borkenhagen, interviewed a waitress at a local restaurant who said she had overheard "a heated conversation" between Crane and Carpenter two nights before the murder. Based on that, police began to theorize that Crane simply got tired of having Carpenter around as he prowled for women. "But Carpenter craved those liaisons," Assistant Maricopa County Attorney Alex Poulos says, "and, once denied access to [Crane's] women, he reacted violently."
Carpenter's longtime friend Mark Dawson, 34, a producer of soft-core porno films, flatly denies that Crane and Carpenter ever had a serious falling out. Adds Dawson, son of Brit actors Diana Dors and Richard Dawson, Crane's Hogan's Heroes costar: "John has said to me more than once: 'No, I didn't kill my best friend. No one asks me how it feels to lose your closest friend.' "
It was Dawson père who introduced the two men on the L.A. set of Hogan's Heroes in 1966, shortly after Carpenter, then a salesman for Sony, had sold the elder Dawson one of the first VCRs in the U.S. and installed it in the Dawsons' home. A frequent visitor thereafter, Carpenter befriended Mark. But it was Crane and Carpenter who soon became soul mates. "It was pretty well-known what Crane and Carpenter liked to do on their days off," says Dawson of the pair's sexual pursuits. In later years, Carpenter would schedule his video sales trips to coincide with Crane's dinner theater engagements.
Crane's videotaped seductions continued unabated—despite the damage that his promiscuity was wreaking on his domestic life. In 1949, Crane, born and raised in Waterbury, Conn., had wed his high school sweetheart Ann Terzian, with whom he had three children, Bob Jr., now 43, Deborah, 35, and Karen, 32. But their marriage collapsed in 1968, after Ann discovered Bob was having an affair with actress Sigrid Valdis, who played Colonel Klink's curvy blonde secretary on Hogan's Heroes. The Cranes divorced in October 1970. A few weeks later, when Valdis (using her real name, Patricia Olsen) wed Crane on the Hogan's set in L.A., she was three weeks pregnant with Crane's child.
Crane and Olsen raised their son Scott, as well as her daughter from a previous marriage, Melissa. But in November 1977, Olsen filed for divorce. Her husband's obsession with videotaped sex had reached the point, she charged in court papers, that he was even showing some of his porno home videos to Scott, then 6. ("I don't remember that happening," he says today.) In April 1978, however, according to Olsen's attorney, Lee Blackman, she and Crane attempted to reconcile, with Crane promising to seek counseling for his peculiar sexual obsession.
But Crane's behavior didn't change. When the police began searching his apartment for clues, they found dozens of Polaroids scattered about, each showing a different woman performing oral sex on Crane. Many of the same women would also turn up in Crane's cassettes, which the police found in his living room.
Repeatedly questioned in the days after the murder, Carpenter quickly became the prime suspect. In addition to the suspicious phone calls he had made, there was also physical evidence. While in Scottsdale, Carpenter had rented a 1978 Chrysler Cordoba. On the vinyl interior of the front passenger door, investigators found a tiny streak of blood. This was before the era of DNA "fingerprinting," but the stain was tested and found to match Crane's own Type B, suggesting to police that Carpenter had driven from the crime scene with the bloodstained murder weapon beside him on the front seat. But according to public defender Avilla, a 1990 DNA test of the same door panel came up negative for the presence of blood. (The prosecutors decline to comment on the evidence.) Even if it is blood, says Avilla, some 300,000 people living in the Scottsdale-Phoenix area at the time shared Crane's blood type (Carpenter's is Type A). "The blood," Avilla says, "could be anyone's."
Many of Avilla's doubts about the evidence are shared by Charles Hyder, Maricopa County Attorney from 1977 to 1980, who refused to prosecute Carpenter or even to convene a grand jury. "What the [Scottsdale police] had," says Hyder, an assistant U.S. Attorney for the past 11 years, "was suspicion and conjecture, and you just don't prosecute on that basis."
But police, certain they had the right man, refused to give up. In 1990, County Attorney Rick Romley, eager to tie up unsolved cases, ordered the Crane investigation reopened. Investigators soon turned up 26 forensic photographs, filed away in an evidence closet, that had been taken of the interior of Carpenter's rental car in 1978. One showed something reddish and glistening on the window button of the passenger-side door panel. Studying the image, Maricopa County medical examiner Dr. H.H. Karnitschnig said it could be a fragment of human tissue, which had somehow been overlooked by the original lab technicians.
Another expert, Dr. Vincent DiMaio, a renowned medical examiner from Texas, said he thought the speck could even be brain tissue. Other authorities would later disagree that it was a fragment of brain, but for Romley and his team that was the vital link tying Carpenter to Crane's murder. On June 1, 1992, Carpenter was arrested enroute to his job as national sales manager at Kenwood USA, a California electronics firm. Publicly identified as a murder suspect years before, Carpenter had grown increasingly depressed as he saw his friends, one by one, breaking their ties with him. Now, charged with first-degree homicide, he was extradited to Arizona.
Freed on $98,000 bail, Carpenter soon faced a host of other problems. He lost his job at Kenwood and has been unemployed ever since. Diana, his wife of 38 years, with whom Carpenter reconciled in 1979 after a five-year separation, had to sell her diamond wedding ring and his gun collection to help pay his legal bills before a public defender was appointed.
Though Carpenter faces 25 years to life in prison, Avilla predicts his client will go free. He points to the prosecution's dubious smoking gun—the rental-car photo that purportedly shows a piece of human tissue. The sample itself, Avilla notes, is no longer available for analysis. Other blood samples, he adds, were simply allowed to deteriorate in unrefrigerated storage.
Even Maricopa County superior court judge Gregory Martin, who will be presiding at the trial, has chastised the police for their "sloppy" handling of evidence. But the case's most damning critic may be the man who could have prosecuted Carpenter 16 years ago. "I think [the police] focused on one person," says Charles Hyder, "and shut their eyes to the others."
Others? Both Avilla and Carpenter's pal Dawson insist there were plenty of potential suspects, including the presumably jealous spouses or boyfriends of several of the women Crane had bedded. In fact, says Avilla, Lee Fetty, one of two moving men loading furniture from a nearby apartment, told police at the time of the murder that he saw a man emerge from Crane's apartment and drive off in a white Cadillac a few hours before Victoria Berry discovered Crane's body. Shown photos of his client by Avilla, Fetty says the man bore no resemblance to Carpenter. Though police never pursued this lead, Avilla says he plans to call Fetty as a witness.
Among those who will be watching the trial with particular interest is Scott Crane, now a recording-studio owner in Seattle. He remembers his father vividly as a loving and playful man. He also grimly recalls being told by his mother that his father had been killed. "I was in total shock," he says. "It took me three years to start crying, and then it took me three years to get it all out."
Crane's murder continues to trouble his friends as well, including Werner Klemperer. "I have grave doubts that they have the right person," says the former Colonel Klink, who knew Carpenter from his visits to the Hogan's Heroes set. "It seems the prosecution's case is so circumstantial. I personally have the feeling that this crime will never be solved."
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Scottsdale, DANELLE MORTON in Los Angeles and JOAN DECLAIRE in Seattle