The Hustlers and the Movie Star

5.23.2012

By William Van Meter

Ramon Novarro was the king of the silent screen. In 1968, two very uncommon criminals were arrested for his brutal slaying.


Paul Ferguson in court

IV

After they left Novarro’s house, the Ferguson brothers walked to the apartment of Victor Nichols (who had given Paul Novarro’s phone number in the first place). Tommy napped on the leopard-skin sofa while Paul told Nichols that Novarro was dead. Eager to get them out of his apartment and not involve himself, Nichols gave Paul eight dollars for taxi fare back to his apartment.

The days after Novarro was killed were a blur to Paul. “I just kept thinking, What am I going to do? And there’s no answer. It was a lost week. It was just empty. I would put a pot pie in the oven and it would be there two days before I realized it was still in,” he remembers. The pair walked about 15 miles from Gardena to Bell Gardens, to the apartment of a former coworker and friend of Paul.

He continues, “We walked and walked. Tommy would question me and I’d tell him to shut up. There’s no reason or rhyme. It was just being lost. There was no direction to go. There was no place to go. What could I do? There was nothing to do. It was over with.”

The police immediately started questioning known male prostitutes, and Paul’s name came up in some interviews. They took particular interest in Paul’s brother-in-law, Larry Ortega, due to the LARRY written next to the body (Larry had, in fact, spent the night with Novarro the week prior and often rented his services to him). But Novarro’s phone record was the real beacon. Police traced a 48-minute call to 19-year-old Brenda Lee Metcalf in Chicago, made at 8:21 p.m. on October 30. When Chicago police interviewed her, she told them that she had been speaking to her boyfriend of about six months, Tommy Ferguson.

In her statement to Chicago police, taken weeks after her initial interview, Metcalf said: “He told me that he and his brother were invited to this movie star’s house… Then he told me he was working and trying to save enough money so he could send me about $300 so I could come down there and get married… I don’t know how he got on the subject, but Tom told me that his brother knew there was $5000 behind one of the pictures in the house, and that they were going to try to find it.” The “$5,000” amount in Metcalf’s statement wasn’t present in her initial interview with police weeks prior and would end up being a crux of the case. Also, no fingerprints from the Fergusons were found on any picture frame on the walls. Metcalf’s statement continued: “Tom said my brother was upstairs with Ramon and he was trying to find out where the money was… Then I heard a little bit of yelling and… and Tom said, ‘I have to go before my brother really hurts Ramon, and I wanna find out what’s going on,’ and that was the end and he hung up.”

The Fergusons both had records in Chicago (Tommy had an extensive juvenile rap sheet, and Paul had served time for taking a rented car across state lines). Their fingerprints were rushed to Los Angeles. Police determined that they matched samples taken at the crime scene. On November 6, detectives arrested the brothers in Bell Gardens; Tommy was in the apartment of Paul’s friend, and Paul was in a nearby diner.

During the interrogation, Sergeant Robert Smith asked Paul about his hustling: “And you bang these fruits really hard frequently and you stomp them?” Paul answered, “That’s a lie. There’s nobody in the world that ever said I stomped a fruit or hit one. And that’s the God’s truth.” When asked if he used the term “faggot” derogatorily, Paul responded, “They’re no different from anybody else. They’re my friends. If I meet one on the streets, I don’t cross the street.” At first, Paul denied having anything to do with the murder. Later, he said that he passed out, and, when he awoke, Novarro was dead.

During his interrogation, Tommy said that, after the phone call with Brenda, he went to the bedroom, where Paul had gone to be intimate with Ramon. Tommy said, “Ramon was all hit in the face and all that stuff, ya know, and the back of his head was bleeding and then I took him into the shower, you know, to wash off.” Tommy alleged that the next day Paul told him, “He died bravely… That’s all he wanted out of life was to live and suck a few dicks.”

At his arraignment, Paul was ordered to be held without bail pending trial. The juvenile court ruled that Tommy be tried as an adult. The brothers were charged with murder and tried together. Deputy district attorney James Ideman was assigned the case.

“I saw them as tough kids,” Ideman says. “They were called hustlers at the time. I’m not sure if that word is still used. They were looking to make a buck and possibly have sex with men for money. They wanted to steal or rob if they saw the opportunity.”

At county jail, Paul got into an altercation with a group of black inmates. “This black sergeant asked me about it. I told him, ‘Look man, you’re just another nigger, you don’t care what the fuck happened,’ ” Paul says, “and he put me in the hole.” Paul remained in solitary for the duration of his stay. By the time the trial had begun, he’d contracted hepatitis C and lost 29 pounds.

V

The summer of 1969 was a season of turmoil and upheaval, war and protest. As the Vietnam War raged, closer to home, in burning Los Angeles, the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the followers of Charles Manson darkened the city.

The State of California v. Paul Robert and Thomas Scott Ferguson began on July 28, presided by Judge Mark Brandler. The charge was first-degree murder. “We were asking the death penalty,” Ideman says. “They didn’t intend to kill him, but it was a felony murder if a death occurs in the course of a robbery. It was not premeditated, they didn’t go there with the intention of taking his life, just his money.” There was no charge of robbery, however. The only thing taken from the house was a shirt to replace Paul’s bloodied one used to mop up the crime scene. Richard A. Walton, a court-appointed attorney, represented Tommy. Cletus J. Hanifan was Paul’s lawyer (paid for by extended family).

Ramon Novarro’s problems with alcohol were well-documented during his lifetime, but his sexual proclivities, an open secret in Hollywood circles, had been closely guarded from the public. Every aspect of his sex life was now to be examined. “Mr. Novarro was a homosexual and probably had been one for many years,” Ideman said in his opening statement. “But he was a discreet homosexual. He did not go into the streets and try to pick up people. The young male prostitutes would come to his home, and he was usually careful about who came to his home.”

Over objections from the defense that her testimony would amount to hearsay, Metcalf took the stand to recount her phone call with Tom, including the reference to the $5,000. Paul’s landlady was called and claimed that Paul was late on his rent (he had in fact paid it early) and had mentioned to her that he was coming into $5,000 nine days before the murder, proof of pre-meditation if true (Paul denied this exchange altogether, and her veracity was doubted by officials, but possibly not the jury).

The defendants and their counsel sat behind the same table, but it was a forced proximity -- there was no effort to put on a united front. Hanifan and Walton pitted their clients against each other. Paul testified that he had passed out after drinking too much and awoke to Tommy telling him, “This guy’s dead.” Tommy testified that he had walked through the bedroom and had seen Paul and Novarro nude on the bed, and that the second time he entered, Novarro was alive, albeit bloody, and that’s when he helped shower him.

Tommy testified that Novarro then said, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” at which point Paul hurled a pen at his brother on the stand and screamed, “Oh, you punk liar son of a bitch! Tell the truth!” and was reprimanded by Judge Brandler. Tommy added that Paul donned a vest and bowler hat, waved a cane around, and danced, vaudeville style, covered with blood.

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