Author Bommersbach retells tale of ‘30s trunk murderess

By M.V. Moorhead

‘Winnie was a wonderful
person…The only thing I
knew about the murders was
what I read in my mother’s
detective magazines. But as
a person, just know she was
sweet.’

“She was a little old lady who was
short…she had a dowager hump…
She had had her hair done that day.
She had a little puppy dog. I thought,
this isn’t Winnie Ruth Judd.”
Thus does Jana Bommersbach
describe her first meeting with the
infamous “Trunk Murderess” in the
early ‘90s.
It was indeed Judd, then in her
80s and living in California after
decades of incarceration in Arizona,
and seven varyingly successful escapes
from the state hospital.
“The whole first day she didn’t say
anything about the [“Trunk Murder”]
case,” recalls Bommersbach.
“We went shopping, we had
dinner, and that evening we were
watching Wheel of Fortune.
“And she said, ‘They never could
understand how I could escape all
those times.’ And I about levitated off
the couch.
“I said, ‘Noooo, nobody
understands that,’ and she said, ‘I had
the key to the front door.’ And then
she said, ‘I still have it!’…That’s when I
knew I had a scoop.”
Bommersbach, who spoke at
Tempe Public Library about her work
on the Judd case, had landed an
interview with Judd through her friend
Larry Debus, the lawyer who had
helped Judd finally attain her freedom
legally.
The result of Bommerbach’s
interview sessions were two lengthy
stories in the New Times, where
Bommersbach was then employed,
and eventually a book, The Trunk
Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd,
published in 1992 by Simon & Schuster
and later republished by Poisoned Pen
Press.
Judd was accused of fatally
shooting her friends Hedvig Samuelson
and Agnes Anne LeRoi in October 1931
in a fight, allegedly over a Phoenix
businessman named Jack Halloran
whom all three were romantically
interested in.
Judd was then said to have stuffed
the bodies into luggage and taken
them, by train, to Los Angeles, having
dismembered Samuelson’s body so
that it would fit into a trunk. A Railway
Express station agent in L.A. noticed a
bad smell coming from Judd’s luggage.
Judd was convicted of murdering
LeRoi in February of 1932 and
sentenced to be hanged. Her death
sentence was reversed in 1933 and
she was sent to the state hospital at
24th Street and Van Buren, where
she remained until 1971, not counting
her time away on some half-dozen
escapes—one lasting several years—
during which time she worked as
a live-in domestic for a family in
California.
“He said she didn’t murder
anybody, and she didn’t cut anybody
up,” says Bommersbach of her lawyer
friend Debus. After researching the
crime, Bommersbach came to believe
that he was right.
She and Judd eventually grew
into close friends. She says that the
case taught her a lot about the nature
of justice in Arizona, and about the
place of women in society—she notes
the case of a man, convicted of the
first-degree murder of his wife the
same night as the Trunk Murders,
who served just twenty-four months in
prison for his crime.
Bommersbach says that from
the start of her investigation she was
surprised at the level of sympathetic
fondness for Judd and skepticism
about her guilt that she encountered.
At the end of her Tempe Public
Library presentation, she was able to
present an unusual example of this:
She noticed a woman in the
audience who had been a nurse at the
State Hopsital, and who claims that
Winnie Ruth Judd saved her from
being beaten by two violent inmates
who were laying in wait for her.
At Bommersbach’s request, the
lady stood up and told how the inmates
backed down when Judd confronted
them, because, she said, “They were
terrified of this woman. The inmates
were all so scared of her.”
The nurse did not share the
inmates’ view, however.
“Winnie was a wonderful person,”
she recalled. “The only thing I knew
about the murders was what I read in
my mother’s detective magazines.
“But as a person, just know she
was sweet.”

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