A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

How did Bob Crane die, anyway?

May 8, 2008

How did comedian and actor Bob Crane really die? I've heard both murder and suicide. Which was it? —WAA03948

SDSTAFF Bricker replies:

Even the most determined suicide would find it difficult to end his life by battering himself to death. Actor Bob Crane was beaten to death in 1978 with a blunt object, most likely a camera tripod. The weapon was not found at the crime scene (or anywhere else), so it's fairly safe to take suicide off the table. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as we can go towards dispelling the mystery surrounding Crane’s death, which as far as the Scottsdale, Arizona, police department is concerned officially remains an unsolved homicide.

Millions remembered Crane from the World War II sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, in which he played the clever leader of a plucky band of POWs in a Stalag commanded by the ineffectual Colonel Klink. The show ran for six seasons, from 1965 to 1971, and earned Crane two Emmy nominations. But those who knew of Crane only through his portrayal of the wily but basically wholesome Colonel Robert E. Hogan were stunned to learn the reasonably sordid details (they seemed sordid at the time, at least) that emerged following his murder.

Crane, it turned out, was into sex. Crane was into sex pretty much the way Ben and Jerry are into ice cream. In addition to being an inveterate womanizer (hardly a rare breed in Hollywood), he kept extensive records of his exploits. Years before the portable camcorder made filming sex a sport of the masses, Crane videotaped his encounters with hundreds of women. He was assisted in this endeavor by his friend John Carpenter (no relation to the film director of the same name). Carpenter, an electronics enthusiast, supplied Crane with taping apparatus; Crane, in turn, apparently was a source of women for Carpenter, and the pair would often double date. Their close friendship extended to the bedroom, where they at least once engaged in a threesome; this encounter, like so many in the Crane boudoir, was videotaped.

As of June 28th, 1978, however, something may have happened to strain the relationship. Crane and Carpenter were in Scottsdale, where Crane was appearing in a touring dinner-theater production of a play called Beginner’s Luck. A waitress who served the pair lunch that day claimed that the mood at their table was tense; Crane’s fellow cast members said that the actor seemed slightly distracted during the evening's performance.

At 2:00 PM on June 29th, one of those cast members, actress Victoria Berry, arrived at Crane’s apartment for what she told police was an appointment to redub a recorded voice track for a scene in the play. (Berry initially claimed her relationship with Crane was “brother-sister,” but later conceded she had slept with him twice). After knocking and getting no answer, she tried the door, discovered it was unlocked, and entered the apartment, where she found Crane’s body. “[T]he whole wall was covered from one end to the other with blood," she told police. "And I just sort of stood there and I was numb. He was curled up in a fetus position, on his side, and he had a cord tied around his neck in a bow." A forensic investigation would show that the killer had struck Crane, who had likely been asleep, at least twice with powerful blows from a blunt instrument, and then, after he was dead, tightly knotted a cut electrical cable around his neck.

While police had no shortage of possible suspects – possible scorned lovers and jealous husbands numbered in the triple digits – they quickly focused their attention on Carpenter. He had hastily left Scottsdale the previous evening for Los Angeles, and from there had called the Crane apartment twice while police were there; when a police detective answered the phone, Carpenter didn’t ask where or how Crane was or why the detective was there. And the scorned-lover theory took a backseat after medical examiner Heinz Karnitschnig opined that the force needed to deliver the fatal blows suggested a very strong – and thus presumably male – killer.

Police examined the rental car Carpenter had used in Arizona and found tiny spots of dried type-B blood – a match for Crane and about 10 percent of the rest of humanity. In 1978, of course, DNA testing wasn't yet a possibility. Although police continued to suspect Carpenter, they had no additional evidence and didn't then charge him with the crime.

In 1989, DNA science having improved in the intervening years, police revisited the blood sample and tried to link it to Crane, but the test was inconclusive. Finally, in 1992, cold-case detectives reviewing photographs of the rental car noticed a small speck on the door panel, which they concluded was human brain matter. The speck itself was no longer available, but the prosecution found experts willing to testify that it was in fact brain matter, and Carpenter was indicted for murder.

At trial, Carpenter's lawyers countered with experts of their own who testified that there was no way to know what, if anything at all, that speck was. The defense argued that the rest of the prosecution's evidence – a tense mood at lunch as observed by a waitress and Carpenter's behavior on the phone as interpreted by the detective – did not meet the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard, and the jury agreed, finding Carpenter not guilty. He died in 1998, still professing his innocence.

Investigators never seriously entertained the idea of another suspect, and unless the guilty party reveals all with a deathbed (or posthumously arranged) confession, it's unlikely that the truth will ever be known.

Sources:

Rubin, Paul, “The Bob Crane Murder Case,” Phoenix New Times, April 28, 1993, http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/1993-04-28/news/the-bob-crane-murder-case-part-two/ [retrieved April 11, 2008]

Graysmith, Robert, The Murder of Bob Crane, Crown Publishers, 1993

Noe, Denise, “A Hero Called Hogan,” at http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/classics/bob_crane/1.html [retrieved April 7th, 2008]

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