Recap of S01 E04: "Hollywood's First Murder"

Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories Recap: “Hollywood’s First Murder”

The movie star. The young ingenue. The stage mother. The fading actress. The valet. The chauffeur. The hit men and the drug dealers. All are suspects in what came to be known as Hollywood’s first murder. And all were very close to the victim.

To the average 1920s outsider looking in on the budding motion picture industry, Hollywood’s shimmering “tinseltown” image and glamorous celebrities were romantic, desirable and enviable. Those that climbed their way to the top and carved their names into movie history enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle traditionally reserved for aristocracy – they lived in mansions, drove luxurious cars and were honored guests at lavish parties. But above all else, they enjoyed a fame proliferated and fueled by the press. The Hollywood film industry was where nobodies went to become somebodies.

But on February 1, 1922, just seven years before the inception of the Academy Awards, the murder of one of their own shocked the film community and revealed “tinseltown’s” seamy underbelly. William Desmond Taylor – beloved star and prominent film director – was found dead in his Westlake district bungalow.

Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts, Carter and Wenndy crack open the nearly 100 year old cold case and examine William Desmond Taylor’s odd behavior in the months preceding his death, including his own prediction of an untimely end. Did he see it coming? Did he see who was coming?


At the beginning of the episode, William gets into an argument with dear friend and fellow movie star Mabel Normand. She’s still angry when she leaves his apartment, carrying the book he lent her. Minutes later, William is taken by surprise and shot dead in his home. Mabel, the last known person to see him alive and his suspected lover, becomes a prime suspect in the ensuing homicide investigation.

But child actress Mary Miles Minter and her manipulative mother Charlotte Shelby also have close ties to the former director and are interrogated dozens of times by the police. They consider Mary Miles’s unrequited infatuation with William to be motive for murder. As for her mother, Charlotte was known for not getting along with William and may have unsuccessfully tried to seduce him.

Flashback to July 1921, William calls the police to file a report against his valet and houseman Edward Sands for stealing money, clothes and wrecking his expensive sports car. Sands disappears before the police can catch him, but five months later he returns to take $1,700 worth of jewelry. He pawns it in Stockton and mails the pawn stub to William. On it, William Deane-Tanner is written.

William pays a visit to his tax professional Mrs. J.M. Berger and tells her that he believes he’s going to die soon. He instructs her to “look out for my affairs.”

He also tells his friend that Sands is not the only one breaking into his home. After one such invasion by unknown person(s), he finds muddy footprints on his bed and a cigarette stub on his front step. William believes he’s being stalked. His phone rings on several occasions, but there is no one on the other end when he picks up.

Show hosts Carter, Wendy and perhaps William Desmond Taylor himself, suspect that this mysterious stalker may have been connected to the underground drug trafficking ring in Hollywood at the time. It may also have been his killer. Because of Mabel Normand’s cocaine addiction and subsequent blackmail by her dealer(s), William was staunchly anti-drug and talked to the District Attorney about clearing the criminals out of town.He may have been killed for being a concerned citizen.

Stay tuned for next week’s episode “Lights. Camera. Murder.” – chaos ensues at the crime scene and photos found by the studio are hastily burned. What did William’s colleagues see to warrant the tampering of crucial evidence?