by Robert A. Waters
On April 25, 1962, an Associated Press headline read: “Police Press Hunt for Sex Slayer of 2.”
Two days earlier, Stephanie Hanna and Paula Cram, both 6, went out to play after dinner. The peaceful San Fernando, California neighborhood in which they lived was a backdrop for middle-class America. When they didn’t return home, the girls were reported missing. The San Fernando Police Department soon arrived and launched a massive search.
Five hours later, a neighbor contacted police and reported that the door of an old refrigerator she’d left open in her garage was closed.
Officers rushed to the scene and Chief W. E. Slaughter opened the refrigerator door. He was met by something out of a horror movie. The girls were dead. Chief Slaughter told reporters that “the children were there, clutching one another.” A sad-eyed officer said: “They looked just like little dolls huddled together.”
As shocked parents and neighbors gathered at the scene, police began searching for answers. The coroner spent several hours conducting an autopsy. He emerged from his lab and reported that both girls had been raped. Death had come by suffocation, he said. Newspapers across the country informed readers that the hunt for a sex killer had begun.
Police found fingerprints on the refrigerator that didn't match anyone in the house. (Those prints were never identified.) Detectives combed the city, interrogating known sex offenders. Several suspects were eliminated when they passed polygraphs.
Frustrated cops ratcheted up the search. A police spokesman said: “We're doing everything we can. We're hoping for a break. This is one we feel we have to solve.” During interrogations of neighbors, a 72-year-old man admitted that he’d fondled Paula. He was arrested and charged with child molestation, but the neighbor had an alibi for the time Stephanie and Paula went missing.
Then, a week later, another headline rocked the San Fernando Valley. This is an excerpt from the Associated Press story:
Murder ruled out in girls’ ice box deaths
SAN FERNANDO – "Authorities say it was apparently an accident--not a double murder--which claimed the lives of two six-year-old girls who died in a refrigerator.
Stephanie Hanna and Paula Cram--foster sisters--disappeared from their San Fernando home on April 23. They were found late that night, suffocated, in an empty refrigerator in a neighbor’s garage.
Blood stains and injuries led coroner’s aides to believe the children had been murdered. An extensive investigation resulted in one of the neighbors being accused of molesting one of the girls earlier--but police couldn’t find clues indicating he or any other adult had been in the vicinity when the children died.
Then, belatedly, a 4-year-old girl told her parents of seeing Stephanie and Paula climb into the refrigerator by themselves.
Authorities had the child re-enact the event Friday. Then Coroner Theodore J. Curphey met with Sheriff’s Captain Floyd Rosenberg and San Fernando Police Chief W. E. Slaughter. Their decision: the deaths were apparently accidental.
Curphey said that the girls probably injured one another in their attempts to get out of the refrigerator and the heat developed in the small place caused excessive bleeding."
So, did the police get it right? Or did someone get away with a monstrous crime? How can two children be “raped” one day, and not raped the next day?
Rgardless of what really happened, the horror suffered by girls is unimaginable.