In October of 1974, I received a phone call at my desk in the courthouse pressroom from a woman who saw my byline in The Orange County Register. She was crying when she told me the story of Linda Cummings.
That story has been ringing around in my head ever since.
Linda’s suspicious death on Jan. 24, 1974 inside Apartment 8 was quickly brushed off as a suicide, and when authorities could not immediately find her next of kin, her body was slid into an inexpensive wooden casket and buried in an unmarked grave. She was dead and almost forgotten, and it seemed as if no one cared.
When it is good versus evil, and good catches no breaks while evil gets lucky at every turn, the results are predictable: Evil usually wins.
But sometimes, a small act of decency can change that scenario and one phone call can make a difference.
The author of A Small Act of Decency spent more time in the courtroom than in the newsroom during his 44 years as a journalist for The Orange County Register. He covered more than 500 trials in his career, has been inside San Quentin, Folsom and Soledad prisons, and once researched, compiled and wrote “The Notorious OC,” about the 60 most newsworthy cases in county history. One appellate court justice has taken to calling him “The Dean of Courthouse Reporters.”
In my 46-year quest seeking justice for Linda, I copied and saved thousands of pages of public records, police reports, legal filings, letters, notes and photographs. I reviewed old newspapers on microfiche and read hundreds of pages of transcripts, dating from the 1960s and into the 2010s. I collected binders full of information and images I hoped would someday help me write a compelling story about a young woman who had been victimized by others with more clout, power and strength.
She was two years older than I when she died on Jan. 24, 1974, inside Apartment 8. Her age became frozen in death -- forever 27 -- same as Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse. But as I continued my journalism career, my age never stopped advancing 27, 35 … and beyond. Somewhat to my surprise, I became Linda’s surrogate big brother -- the kind of big brother who would stand up for her – the same way a newspaper stands up for the underdog.
Chief Yeoman John A. Welborn served in the U.S. Navy at both Pearl Harbor (where his assigned ship, The Oklahoma, capsized) and at the Battle of Midway. In 1944, he returned home to Garden City, Kansas, on an emergency leave to see his ailing mother. He had been a pen pal with Lenore Thorne, who was just 16 when Dad was deployed to the Hawaiian Islands.
But four years later Mom was 20 and smoking hot when dashing Dad – called Arlo after an uncle in Kentucky – suddenly showed up in Garden City.
They had a casual date on Monday. He got down on one knee and proposed on Wednesday. And on Saturday, March 18, 1944, they were wed in the home of my gaga -- maternal grandmother Gertrude Thorne.
My dad worked for Los Angeles County for years after the war before he became a lawyer. He put up a shingle and practiced law successfully for 30 years in Pico Rivera, where he was a Rotarian, a member of the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce, and my little league coach.
He retired and golfed regularly at Western Hills Country Club in Chino Hills where he was president of the men’s club. He toured the country on his motorcycle, sometimes with my mom on the back, and then, always with mom, in a motorhome.
My mother was my supporter and protector who encouraged me at every stage of my life, even when I announced at age 13 that I wanted to become a journalist and cover major league baseball.
I made that decision after I read “Freshman Backstop,” a youth book by Lawrence A. Keating about a short, no-power college freshman baseball player who also wrote for the college newspaper.
Actually, I really wanted to become a baseball player, but I wasn’t as athletic as Shorty.
But I could write.
I became sports editor and then editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper “El Rodeo” at El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera. I applied for and was accepted to a learn-by-doing sports writing workshop at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo founded by the legendary Los Angeles Examiner sports writer Ralph Alexander.
While I wasn’t the best writer in that California Scholastic Press Association workshop (we also had Los Angeles Times reporter and book author William C. Rempel, a good friend; future San Francisco Examiner Executive Editor Narda Zacchino, and future Life Magazine photographer Sergio Ortiz), I was one of the most determined.
Alexander, who covered the 1960 Rome Olympics, met Eleanor Roosevelt and guided the CSPA Workshop for 31 years, took me under his wing. He was a curmudgeonly gentleman who wore short sleeve shirts, under the same red checkerboard sports coat for years. He once was called “Old Asbestos Lips” because he smoked one cigarette after another as he typed (by the hunt and peck method) until he quit one-day cold turkey – because he didn’t want to be a bad role model for the kids at the workshop. He helped hundreds of young journalists get their start in this wonderful business. I was one of them.
First, he helped me get a scholarship to Pepperdine College in Los Angeles, where I became editor of “The Graphic” newspaper and was named to “Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities,” and from which I graduated in three-and-a-half years.
Second, Ralph got me a two-week gig as a stringer for “Der Spiegel,” the German news magazine, covering the Manson Family murder trial at the Criminal Courts Building in Los Angeles.
At the time, The Manson murder trial was hailed by some as “The Trial of the Century.” Legendary Hearst reporter Adela Rogers St. John, however, insisted that the Bruno Hauptman trial in the Lindberg baby kidnapping was even bigger.
Anyway, there I was, sitting in the courtroom gallery for two weeks with Linda Deutsch of the Associated Press and dozens of other top journalists -- until the regular “Der Spiegel” reporter arrived and took my spot. I was definitely out of my league.
And third, Ralph helped me get my first full-time journalism job at what was then called the Santa Ana in 1970. It was the fastest growing newspaper in the United States for a while. It changed its name to the Orange County Register and it won three Pulitzer Prizes during my tenure.
I included on my resume for that job that I attended the CSPA workshop, had a part-time job replacing the pocket parts in my Dad’s law books every year, and that I covered The Manson trial. I actually read some of the cases in the new pocket inserts, and understood how they worked. When a huge controversy erupted over the county supervisor’s voting themselves a hug pay raise, I managed to find a new law in one f those pocket inserts that lead to a Register exclusive by Larry Welborn
When in January 1974, the junior courts beat opened up at The Register, the editors thought of me, apparently believing I had some legal acumen.
Over the course of my 44 years at The Register, I covered the courthouse beat three separate multi-year stints. I was the courts and cops editor for another term.
For 12 years, I was the paper’s training editor who organized the National Writers’ Workshop, bringing in top journalists from around the country to talk shop. Linda Deutsch, who is the biggest Elvis fan on Earth, was a featured speaker, as was true crime book author Caitlyn Rother.
Even when I was away from the courthouse bureau, I kept track of the comings and goings among lawyers, judges, clerks and bailiffs, often getting tips from old sources that lead to exclusives in the Register.
When the editors sent me back for my third stint as courts reporter in 2002, after my three kids all graduated from college, my business card read Larry Welborn, Legal Affairs Writer, and some judges started calling me “The Dean” of OC courts reporters.
Totaled up, I spent 35 years in that dingy bureau covering hundreds of murder trials, scores of death penalty verdicts, a handful of corruption indictments, including one where Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona was convicted and sentenced to federal prison for six years.
I’ve cultivated as sources judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, clerks and bailiffs. I interviewed serial killers, cop killers, and cops who’ve killed. I had a front-row seat in the courtroom gallery to some of the most gruesome cases in Orange County history.
I was in court once when a pimp who killed a prostitute threatened me because he didn’t like the story I had written on his murder trial. Three days later, Michael Bottoms was stomped to death in the holding cell of the county courthouse. He was a jerk.
It was the best of times for an ink-in-the-blood newspaperman. I strongly believed that we as journalists have the responsibility to:
- Stand up for underdogs by telling their stories
- Reveal the truth wherever it takes us
- Make people care by writing powerful stories about compelling things.
- Hold people in power accountable
- Make a difference
During one of my first assignments as the criminal courts reporter for The Orange County Register I became aware of the Linda Louise Cummings story.
Her childhood had been heartbreaking and tragic. She struggled as an adult, was always the underdog, and never got any breaks.
Her mysterious death on Jan. 24, 1974 was not a suicide. I believe she was raped, strangled and hung by her neck by an evil force inside Apartment 8 at The Aladdin apartments.
And when she was buried in an unmarked grave in an inexpensive wooden casket, it seemed like nobody cared.
Well, maybe somebody.
I never met Linda Louise Cummings.
Our paths did not cross until after she was dead, buried and forgotten.
But in decades of researching, investigating and writing about the circumstances of her troubled life and mysterious death, I came to admire her courage and appreciate her toughness.
She was two years older than I when she died on Jan. 24, 1974, inside her apartment in Santa Ana, California. Her age became frozen in death -- forever 27 -- same as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse. But as I continued my journalism career, my age never stopped growing, 27, 35, even 50 … and beyond.
Somewhat to my surprise, over time, I became Linda’s surrogate big brother -- the kind of big brother who would stand up for her – the same way a newspaper stands up for the underdog.
After I first heard about the sad, shocking and tragic sequence of events that put Linda in harm’s way, I spent 44 years – and counting --patching together a quilt of her life, piece by piece, stitch by stitch.
In 1974, I reported and wrote an exclusive story in the Santa Ana Register about how her nude body was discovered hanging by a clothesline with a non-slip knot tied behind her neck and then stretched oddly between a closet rod and a door hinge.
The deputy coroner ruled it was a suicide. I knew it was murder.
I didn’t write her name in print again for 31 years, while a penetrating image from her drivers’ license continued to pop into my subconscious mind. The unsmiling face with cat’s eye glasses urged me to do something to restore her dignity, to make people care, to seek justice.
I interviewed hundreds of people, including her stepmother, stepsister, half-brother, cousins and friends…the few I could find. I talked with scores of cops, prosecutors, defense attorneys, clerks and judges. I challenged authorities to look closer at the circumstances of her death. I pressed more than one deputy district attorney about why no one was charged in connection with her death.
I copied and saved thousands of pages of public records, police reports, court documents, notes and photographs. I reviewed dozens of pages of old newspapers or photographs. I read hundreds of pages of transcripts, dating from the 1960s and into the 2010s. I collected binders full of information and images that I felt would someday help me write a compelling story and find justice for a young woman who had been victimized by others with more clout, power and strength.
I traveled to Northern California, Wisconsin, Florida and Nevada collecting information.
I interviewed two of the four people who played significant roles in the sequence of interactions on Linda’s final night on earth. Those interviews spliced together with police reports, court testimony and photographs helped me piece together a moment-by-moment recreation of most of the damning things that happened inside Apartment 8.
In 2005, my efforts for the now Orange County Register led to a S.W.A.T. team arrest of a fire-starting, cat-killing ex-convict with a MENSA IQ on a single felony charge: the murder of Linda Louise Cummings.
But in 2009, an Orange County judge dismissed the case because of “extreme, prejudicial and unjustified delay by the passage of time … caused destruction of evidence, the loss of records, the failure of memories and the death of witnesses.”
The killer’s attorney argued that the “case at bar” was not from any initiative by the District Attorney’s Office, not by any advance in the state of art of scientific criminal investigation, and not by further discovery of anything of evidentiary value, but instead by “the fortuitous and extrinsic circumstance of goading by newspaper reporter Larry Welborn of the Orange County Register who was seeking to weave the tapestry of an engaging human interest story on the putative fate of Linda Cummings.”
I had pushed Linda’s boulder to the top of the hill too many times seeking to show that her life mattered and that people cared. But I had failed.
Linda Cummings’ remains were placed in a new casket and reburied in a crowded public cemetery in El Toro.
I retired from the newspaper game after 44 rewarding years of investigating, researching and writing stories that mattered by using tools and techniques passed on to me by editors, teachers, mentors and colleagues.
But I left one story unfinished that was eating a hole in my soul; that haunting image of the saddened woman in the cat’s eye glasses would not let me retire until I told her complete story.
Linda Louise Cummings was a troubled, shy and withdrawn young woman who endured heart-wrenching emotional hardships at an early age, and then challenged them head-on as a kind and caring adult just before she was killed.
She was a combatant with fierce determination who was also fragile, naïve and alone. And she was on the cusp of success, happiness and normalcy, just before she was murdered.
What happened to her shouldn’t have happened.
In 2018, a reader in Albany, New York, sent me dozens of journals, papers and research by one of Linda Cummings’ deceased brothers written decades ago that revealed parts of their family history in foster care and a heartbreaking story of abandonment. I received a letter written by her older sister that documented tragic events that shaped their lives. I accessed never-before-seen police records from The Orange County District Attorney’s Office that provided brighter illumination on what happened on the night Linda died.
As a journalist, I continued to learn everything I could about who Linda Cummings was, how she died and why she died to provide texture, meaning and definition to her short, difficult and anonymous life.
I want people to know and understand one unchallengeable, unquestionable true fact: somebody cared.