Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato - Hollywood Homicide


Lana Turner with Johnny Stampanato (CORBIS)
Lana Turner with Johnny
Stampanato (CORBIS)
In Lana's autobiography she describes how Johnny pushed his way into her life in 1957 by first telephoning, then sending flowers day after day and then by finding out what kind of music Lana liked and sending her records. He was charming and gentlemanly. Having just divorced her fourth husband, Lana was ready for something different.

"That's how the blackest period of my life began," she wrote. "It started with flowers and an innocent invitation for a drink, and it was to end with screaming headlines, in tragedy and death."

He called himself John Steele and he had the wavy hair and olive-skinned good looks of a movie star with a physique to match. For some reason he told Lana he was five years her senior, when in fact it was the other way around.

Stompanato had already lived a life of adventure by the time he got to Hollywood. A Marine war veteran, he converted to Islam when he married a Turkish woman. He spent time in China after World War II, telling people he ran nightclubs although he was really a government bureaucrat. Johnny's childhood had been troubled, he had been in military school, and he apparently continued down the same path as an adult.

"[Sir Charles] Hubbard was in the United States looking for investments when he took John to California as a companion in 1948," wrote Cheryl Crane in her autobiography, Detour. "During the next two years Hubbard gave him $85,000. John told the IRS he had 'borrowed' the money, but the agency suspected that he was blackmailing Hubbard."

When Hubbard ran into trouble for a marijuana bust shortly after arriving in California, Johnny dropped him and took a job as a bouncer at one of Mickey Cohen's nightclubs. His size, personality and style got Mickey's attention. Before long Stompanato was pulling in $300 per week as Cohen's bodyguard, Crane said. Stompanato was Cohen's moneyman and twice when he was arrested he was found to be carrying more than $50,000 cash. Having a flunky carry all the money was typical in the syndicate. Since the top guys were often harassed by police and arrested on trumped-up charges such as vagrancy, it would be difficult for a flower shop owner like Mickey Cohen to explain why he had so much cash. Since bodyguards are less likely to be arrested and searched, they carried the weapons and money.

Despite his connection with Cohen, Stompanato was still a small-time hood and could be described as a gigolo. He was always on the arm of a beautiful, older woman and he was dependent on them for his livelihood. He was married at least two more times before he met Lana Turner, but nothing lasted more than two years. The evidence that he was a gigolo comes from court records: In the course of his divorce from actress Helen Gilbert (the teacher in the Andy Hardy series), she testified, "Johnny had no means. I did what I could to support him." The police knew this and made a note of it in his dossier. "When the victim's money is dissipated, he becomes interested in another woman. Usually he frequents expensive nightspots to meet wealthy female types," a detective wrote.

Looking back, neither Turner nor her daughter had much good to say about Stompanato. After all, Cheryl Crane stabbed him to death and Lana testified that she was frightened for her life. However, she must have seen something in Johnny, because her relationship with him lasted longer than any other he had in Hollywood. If he had not died, there is no telling how long it would have gone on. Lana recognized this herself.

"I believed the lies a man told me, and by the time I learned they were lies it was too late," she wrote years later. "I was trapped, helpless because of my fear for my own life, for Cheryl's and my mother's."


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