Slain on Lovers Lane: The Century-Old Double Murder of Jazz-Age Lovebirds, Part 1

Jul 8, 2023 | 2023 Articles, Hometown History, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sarah Peterson-Camacho

by Sarah A. Peterson-Camacho

Sunday, July 9, 1922

Forty-nine feet was all she had. From the moment he put two bullets in her boyfriend’s brain, Pauline Grass had only 49 steps left to take.

A balmy summer night out on the town in Alex’s new auto, cruising the countryside under a full, white-hot moon, slipping out to that secluded spot by Haig Tusoosian’s vineyards. Climbing into the backseat to christen upholstery so new it squeaked, and steaming up the glass in a heady potpourri of sweat, smeared lipstick, and Alex’s aftershave. Losing herself in his kiss…

And then BAM BAM.

A ruby mist as Alex’s head was blown open, a spray of blood and brain matter coating those squeaky leather seats. And her terror … the taste of his sweat still on her tongue, her feet swift in the soft summer grass … squeezing through the two-strand fence at Tusoosian’s property line, the rip of her dress and a mad dash through the vines … then BAM. Her last step taken in a cloudburst of bloody stars.

Pauline Grass’ grave in Sanger’s Bethel Cemetery

Born on November 24, 1906, Pauline Caroline Grass was the youngest of seven children, born to Russian-German immigrants who had settled in the small farming community of Sanger, California, around 1901. Her parents Christian and Marie had married as young teens in Russia (having their first child at the tender ages of 14 and 13, respectively), and by the time they arrived in California’s Central Valley, the youthful pair had multiplied to a family of six. Christian would go on to establish a successful grocery business in Sanger, as Marie gave birth to three more children in quick succession.

By the summer of 1922, Pauline had grown into a tall, willowy brunette of fifteen and a half, her serious nature and piercing dark gaze belying her tender age. She had just graduated from grammar school, and spent her summer days working in her father’s grocery store. And despite her often somber façade, she was popular with her peers, both girls and boys alike, with a lively sense of humor and a keen intelligence. She could often be found in the company of her two best friends (Elsie Steinert, fifteen, and Gladys Turner, sixteen), at least, until a terrible argument with Steinert ended their lifelong friendship some six months previous. But, there was only one young man that Pauline went steady with: twenty-one-year-old Alexander “Alex” Winter, who had recently moved to Sanger from Fresno to work on his uncle’s ranch and to be closer to Pauline.

Alex Winter, born in Russia on October 8, 1900, had immigrated to California with his family as a toddler, settling in the Central Valley that members of the extended Winter clan already called home. But unlike Pauline’s family, Alex and his brood had found the American Dream elusive. Although his extended family was already well-established in and around Sanger, Alex himself was something of a wallflower. His father August had died shortly after the family had arrived in the Golden State, when the little boy, the youngest of six siblings, was only three years old, leaving the newly-immigrated Winters to fend for themselves in a strange and unfamiliar land.

Alex Winter’s grave in Sanger’s Bethel Cemetery

Alex’s widowed mother Maria had her hands full with six offspring in tow, ranging in age from three to nineteen, and although she had remarried by 1908 to a Fred Ruge of Fresno, she was nonetheless picking fruit in the fields, alongside her children, by the time Alex was in his teens. From Sanger to Armona to Fresno, the nomadic Winters lived wherever they worked.

By 1922, Alex’s three older sisters were all married with families of their own; his middle brother had hightailed it out of the Valley for San Francisco; and oldest brother August, Jr., had settled down with his own family (plus their mother Maria) in Fresno, with whom Alex had been living. But now, at the age of twenty-one, the youngest Winter son was in love.

He and Pauline had met the previous year, at the ages of twenty and fourteen, respectively, and it was plain to see what had drawn the youngest Grass daughter to him; Alex was boyishly handsome, with curly blond hair falling across his forehead, a sunny disposition, but with a piercing gaze that matched her own in its intensity. And despite the six-year difference in their ages, they fell head over heels in love.

Alex’s steady work in the fields brought him to Sanger on a regular basis, and his extended Winter relations welcomed his dependability and strong work ethic. He had saved up enough to purchase his own automobile so he could take Pauline out, and a steady diet of love letters kept the spark alive when the two were apart. So, of course, it had only been a matter of time before the young Winter left the home of his oldest brother to test his wings. He officially moved to Sanger, around May of 1922, to work on one of his uncles’ ranches, but in the ensuing summer months, he worked on other properties as well, including those of J.D. Collins and Peter Schiebelhut.

Falling in love had given Alex the courage to strike out on his own. He had no lack of work as a Winter, with extended family threading the area. He was a hard worker who dreamed big, envisioning a future for him and Pauline. He had even confided in Schiebelhut that he and the Grass girl were expecting to be married soon.

Soon he and Pauline could be spotted parking Saturday and Sunday nights off Greenwood Avenue, near the fence bordering Haig Tusoosian’s vineyards. Ernest Rice, who lived on a farm nearby, got used to passing Winter’s auto late on weekends, and most likely, others in the small community had begun to notice as well. By the last night of their young lives, the couple had developed a weekend routine: after Pauline finished her shift at her father’s store, she would return home to freshen up for “church,” then leave the house alone around 8:30 p.m., but instead of attending evening services as St. Paul’s Pentecostal, she would meet up with Winter in downtown Sanger.

The steamy night of Sunday, July 9, 1922, began the same as any other recent evening. Alex popped in to Grass’ Market to chat up Pauline’s older brothers Henry and Christian, Jr. and to catch a glimpse of Pauline. He left the store around 7:30 p.m., according to Henry, and Pauline clocked out around 8 p.m. After meeting up for their clandestine tryst, Alex was apparently teaching his young sweetheart how to drive, as witnessed by Sanger youth George Atrat, fourteen, around 10:10 p.m., shortly before they parked off Greenwood.

Only this time, the couple was being trailed. The unknown perpetrator ambushed the distracted pair as they got down to amorous business in the back of Winter’s vehicle, quickly dispatching Alex with two bullets to the head. Terrified, Pauline stumbled from the backseat while the killer took aim at her retreating back, but the pistol misfired. In the time it took the shooter to eject the unspent round and reload, the Grass girl had made it to the fence. There ensued a desperate struggle for her very life.

Pauline gave it all she had, managing to squeeze through the wire fence, snagging her dress and bruising her thigh in the ensuing melee. But ultimately, she was shot in the back of the head, falling facedown in Haig Tusoosian’s vineyard, forty-nine feet from the body of Alex Winter. She more than likely would have glimpsed her murderer’s face before she died, and thus took his identity to her grave.

Monday, July 10, 1922, promised to be another unrelenting scorcher, so butcher wagon driver J.R. Baker had gotten an early start as usual. By 7 a.m., he was on his delivery route, making his usual rounds, when he passed an auto parked on an embankment by the roadside, on Greenwood Avenue. Was that a man slumped over in the backseat? Must be sleeping off a hard night on the bottle, Baker thought with a sideways glance as he drove past.

But something was a bit off; perhaps it was the stiffened slouch of the vehicle’s lone occupant or the richly metallic aroma of blood wafting by on the slightest of morning breezes. The butcher shop driver knew that scent well. So, Baker made a U-turn and backtracked about a quarter of a mile, slowing to a stop on the shoulder of the lonely country road. Perhaps the young man had been injured. But, the poor fellow was dead. His head had been blown open, powder burn dusting what was left of his features an inky hue.

Baker hailed down passing farmer Peter Faller, who was irrigating his own vineyards nearby, and it was he who came upon the body of a teenaged girl, sprawled facedown in the grapevines, several dozen yards from the dead man in the automobile. The back of her head was caked with congealed blood.

Twenty-one-year-old Alexander Winter had two bullets in his brain, both shots had been fired at close-range: one through the right side of the forehead, the other straight through the left eye. Death had been instantaneous. Fifteen-year-old Pauline Grass had been shot once in the back of the head, the bullet entering at the base of her skull, piercing the brain at an upward angle, before exiting at her forehead. Her dress was torn and disheveled, having torn while squeezing through the two-strand wire fence, and a large bruise was already blooming across her right thigh like a lush purple flower. Fresno County Sheriff William F. Jones had his work cut out for him.

The little farming community of Sanger, population 2,600, was abuzz in the immediate wake of the double homicide, fanning the flames of small-town gossip like a lit match to dead grass. Jones’ first thought was that he had a murder-suicide on his hands: a lovers’ quarrel turned deadly, or a suicide pact, perhaps. But, the autopsy of Alex Winter, performed the night of Monday, July 10, 1922, by a Dr. L.T. Fleming of Sanger, quickly proved otherwise. Either of the bullets found in the young man’s brain would have killed him instantly, precluding the suicide angle.

Pauline Grass, from The Fresno Morning Republican, Wednesday, July 12, 1922

Jones’ prevailing theory now went … Winter had most likely never known what had hit him, shot twice in the head at close-range, probably from just outside the back of the vehicle while in the throes of passion. Terrified beyond reason, Pauline Grass had stumbled from the automobile, running blindly toward the pitch-dark vineyard, tearing her dress and bruising her thigh as she fought her way through Tusoosian’s fence. The teen girl had taken her final steps in flight, felled by a single bullet to the back of her skull, already dead by the time her body hit the earth with a muffled thud, facedown in the dewy grass.

What about a motive? Robbery was certainly out of the question, as young Winter’s pockets were still laden with his hard-earned cash, and nothing else of value had been taken from the automobile, let alone either of the deceased. Even the theory that took root about a jealous rival for Pauline’s affections had trailed them to their doom was fast losing ground in the absence of known enemies of either victim. Neither Alex, nor Pauline, were known to have been romantically linked with anyone besides each other.

Pauline Grass and Alex Winter were laid to rest in Sanger’s Bethel Cemetery the morning of Tuesday, July 11, 1922, buried forty-nine feet apart — the exact distance between the two at the time of their murders. Their families and friends gathered to pay their final respects in the little country graveyard, surrounded as it was by serene vineyards much like the one in which an unknown killer had hunted down his human prey.

Alex Winter, from The Fresno Morning Republican, Sunday, July 16, 1922

Rumors sprang up like weeds in the emotional wake of the double funeral confounding Sheriff Jones and his officers as they desperately trailed the gossip. Authorities questioned dozens of the dead couple’s friends and family members, attempting to trace each and every thread of hearsay to its original source all in dogged pursuit of a phantom fiend.

Pauline’s older siblings told investigators that their “little sister” had only been seeing the Winter fellow for a couple of months, and that they knew nothing of the engagement that Winter’s employer Peter Schiebelhut had mentioned. But, unbeknownst to the Grasses, the girl had been Alex’s main squeeze for well over a year, and the smitten pair had been secretly hooking up since the youngest Winter had moved to town a couple of months prior.

Clarence Price of Sanger reported seeing a “little auto” parked about twenty yards behind Alex Winter’s vehicle that night, what looked to Price to be a Ford model, but didn’t recall seeing anyone inside the small car.

Then there was the mystery woman who had supposedly attended the young lovers’ double funeral, only to be overheard saying she knew the identity of the murderer, but could not reveal it for fear of retaliation on the part of the killer.

But Mrs. Margaret Steinert, the wife of a Sanger merchant, and the mother of Pauline’s estranged best friend Elsie, who was alleged to have overheard the mysterious woman’s graveside admission, vehemently denied ever hearing such a confession, let alone reporting it to Sheriff Jones.

By Thursday, July 13, “Sheriff W.F. Jones … continued to probe into the general activities of a band of youths in their teens,” reported Ernest J. Hopkins in The San Francisco Examiner of Friday, July 14, 1922, “whose escapades and automobile parties have attracted attention of town authorities in the past.”

As reported to Sheriff Jones by one Justice B.F. Cotton of Sanger, a young couple was returning home to Sanger from Fresno in their automobile the night of the slayings, when they decided to pull over on Central Avenue, near its intersection with Greenwood, to snack on some watermelon they had purchased earlier in the evening. “…an auto load of five gangsters, evidently intoxicated, turned into Greenwood Road about 10:30 o’clock Sunday night, almost the exact hour of the crime,” Hopkins continued. The quintet of rowdy young men, all teenagers, jeered at the parked couple as they sped past, before turning south down Greenwood, where Alex and Pauline were sharing their very last kisses in the backseat of his automobile, outside Haig Tusoosian’s vineyards.

“A smaller car, following closely behind, contained two men who also acted in disorderly fashion,” reported Hopkins. “The couple started their car … and presently passed the smaller car, which was stalled. “This evidence was given by a man and wife, Sanger residents, whose names are withheld owing to their fear of gang vengeance … Sheriff Jones stated that he had the names of five men who had been in an auto, intoxicated, on Sunday night, but had not previously located them in the neighborhood of the murders.”

Clues to the double slaying were agonizingly few, and every tangible piece of evidence trailed off to a dead end.

The owner of a flashlight found near the dead girl could ultimately not be traced, despite several promising leads, and a pair of eyeglasses unearthed in the grapevines, about 200 yards from the bodies? Those ended up belonging to a J.P. Lester of Fresno, who claimed to have lost the spectacles while trying to catch a glimpse of the murder scene that Monday morning.

The proverbial smoking gun turned out to be the smoking gun: a .25-calibre, nickel-plated automatic pistol, to be exact. The weapon used to snuff the lives out of Pauline Grass and Alex Winter was never found, but what it left behind would prove crucial: two spent shells and one live round were discovered in the tonneau of Winter’s auto, near the crumpled form of Alex’s body on the backseat indicative of a misfire. The bullet that had killed Pauline, however, would never be retrieved, exiting her forehead into the great unknown.

The unspent round near Alex gave trace to the automatic weapon, identified as belonging to Sanger pool hall owner Rolla Johnson, who claimed it had been stolen from his cash drawer a few months previous. Several months prior to the murders, Johnson stated, he had bought the pistol in question off his employee Edward “Ed” Peterson, a “Sanger youth” who no longer worked for him, and shortly after that alleged purchase, it had been stolen from Johnson’s cash drawer when the pool hall owner had failed to lock the back door to his establishment one spring night after closing.

Unlike in a typical burglary, no money had been taken from the till, even though the gun’s place of honor was right next to the cash box. Whoever had stolen the eventual murder weapon had come solely for the pistol, and more importantly, knew exactly where to find it. Who else would have known where it was kept besides Johnson, except Ed Peterson himself, or someone he had told? Peterson, in turn, would only admit to selling the gun in question to his former employer, and to the fact that the nickel-plated weapon did indeed have a tendency to misfire.

The so-called smoking gun only lead to more smoke and mirrors. Then when the anonymous Sanger couple retracted their story (most likely in fear for their lives), all potential leads had therefore dried up, and by Sunday, July 16, 1922, only one week after the double murder of Alex Winter and Pauline Grass, the tragic story of the young lovers’ violent demise had completely disappeared from all the papers.

And that was that. Life went on in the small town of Sanger, as those affected by the double tragedy slipped back into their daily routines, but irrevocably changed by it all, nevertheless. Love soon blossomed between Pauline Grass’ older brother Henry and her estranged best friend Elsie Steinert whose mother Margaret had adamantly denied ever having overheard the mystery woman’s graveside admission of knowing who the killer was. The two were married several years later, brought together by their shared grief.

Sheriff William F. Jones would go on to solve other infamous local crimes, including the 1923 serial poisoning case of black widow Elizia Potegian and the 1924 Clovis First State Bank robbery. He hung up his badge in 1931, retiring as the last Fresno County Sheriff to act as the primary criminal investigator for the agency. He died of a heart attack while on a fishing trip, five years after retiring, at the age of 61.

What the murder scene looks like today

So who killed Alex Winter and Pauline Grass as they made love under a full moon, parked on a lonely country road the scorching night of Sunday, July 9, 1922? And just who were those five gangsters witnessed by the thoroughly spooked Sanger couple that night, careening on to Greenwood Avenue at the exact time of the double slaying?

I have a theory…

Works Cited
“Find Girl and Young Escort Shot to Death.” The San Bernardino Sun, Tuesday, July 11, 1922, p. 1.
“Sanger Murders Remain Unsolved; Boy Finds Bodies.” The Santa Cruz Evening News, Tuesday, July 11, 1922, p. 1.
“Clues Traced in Murder of Sanger Boy and Girl.” The San Francisco Call, Tuesday, July 11, 1922.
“Sanger Murder Still Mystery.” The Madera Tribune, Tuesday, July 11, 1922.
“Fresno Girl and Escort Slain; Police Seek Rival.” The Stockton Independent, Tuesday, July 11, 1922.
“No Clue Found in Double Murder.” The Hanford Sentinel, Tuesday, July 11, 1922.
“Armona Boy Murdered, Police Say.” The Hanford Journal (Daily), Tuesday, July 11, 1922.
“Girl and Sweetheart Thought Murdered by Rival in Affections.” The Sacramento Daily Union, Tuesday, July 11, 1922.
“Girl and Youth Found Murdered in Lonely Spot.” The San Diego Union and Daily Bee, Tuesday, July 11, 1922.
“Murder Mystery Still Unsolved.” The Riverside Daily Press, Tuesday, July 11, 1922.
“Auto Ride Ends When Murderous Shots Fly.” The Humboldt Times, Tuesday, July 11, 1922.
“Youthful Lovers Dead in Baffling Double Mystery.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Tuesday, July 11, 1922, p. 1.
“Jealous Lover Clew Sought in Double Slaying.” The Oakland Tribune, Tuesday, July 11, 1922, p. 18.
“Night Ride Fatal for Young Folks.” The Visalia Times-Delta, Tuesday, July 11, 1922, p. 1.
“School Girl is Slain, and Her Companion is Dead Near By.” The Redding Searchlight, Tuesday, July 11, 1922, p. 1.
“Murder Victims Found.” The Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, July 11, 1922, p. 8.
“Boy and Girl Murder Mystery Baffles Police.” The Sacramento Bee, Tuesday, July 11, 1922, p1
“Bullet Torn Bodies Found Near Fresno.” The San Francisco Examiner, Tuesday, July 11, 1922, p. 1.
“Murderer of Boy and Girl Sweethearts Not Apprehended.” The Santa Cruz Evening News, Wednesday, July 12, 1922, p. 5.
“Love Affair May Be Responsible for Killing.” The Merced Sun-Star, Wednesday, July 12, 1922.
“Girl and Boy Murder Still Unsolved.” The Madera Mercury, Wednesday, July 12, 1922.
“No Clues in Dual Slaying.” The Stockton Independent, Wednesday, July 12, 1922.
“Little Auto is Only Clue to Murders.” The Hanford Sentinel, Wednesday, July 12, 1922.
“Second Car Sought in Double Murder.” The Sacramento Daily Union, Wednesday, July 12, 1922.
“Police Fail to Solve Deaths.” The San Bernardino Sun, Wednesday, July 12, 1922.
“Phantom Auto, Flashlight are Death Clues.” The San Francisco Call, Wednesday, July 12, 1922
“Fresno Murder Mystery is Not Near Solution.” The Riverside Daily Press, Wednesday, July 12, 1922.
“Clues Vanish in Probe of Double Murder Mystery.” The Sacramento Bee, Wednesday, July 12, 1922, p. 1.
“Sanger Case Still Mystery.” The Visalia Times-Delta, Wednesday, July 12, 1922, p. 5.
“Fail to Solve Mystery.” The Los Angeles Times, Wednesday, July 12, 1922, p. 7.
“Car Sought as Clue in Fresno Double Murder.” The San Francisco Chronicle, Wednesday, July 12, 1922, p. 4.
“Auto Hunted as Clew in Double Slaying.” The San Francisco Examiner, Wednesday, July 12, 1922.
“Inquest Fails to Bring Out Possible Clue.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Wednesday, July 12, 1922, p. 1.
“Clue Found to Sanger Murder.” The Madera Tribune, Thursday, July 13, 1922.
“Arrest Believed Near for Murders of Man and Girl.” The Stockton Independent, Thursday, July 13, 1922.
“Murdered Pair in Hanford on Fourth.” The Hanford Sentinel, Thursday, July 13, 1922.
“Pistol Clew in Killing of Boy and Girl.” The Madera Mercury, Thursday, July 13, 1922.
“Gun’s Owner Sought in Girl Murder.” The Sacramento Daily Union, Thursday, July 13, 1922.
“Gun Clew Found in Fresno Double Murder Mystery.” The Oakland Tribune, Thursday, July 13, 1922, p. 17.
“Death Machine Still Mystery.” The San Bernardino Sun, Thursday, July 13, 1922, p. 3.
“Police Look for Mystery Woman in Murder Case.” The Sacramento Bee, Thursday, July 13, 1922, p. 1.
“Fresno Murder Clues Vanish.” The Stockton Daily Evening Record, Thursday, July 13, 1922, p. 16.
“Fresno Sheriff Follows Clew.” The Los Angeles Times, Thursday, July 13, 1922, p. 29.
“Woman Sought in Two Deaths.” The San Bernardino Sun, Friday, July 14, 1922, p. 8.
“Fresno Sheriff is Seeking Weapon to Unravel Murder Mystery.” The Merced Sun-Star, Friday, July 14, 1922.
“Sanger Murder Mystery Still is Unsolved.” The Madera Mercury, Friday, July 14, 1922.
“Sanger Crime Has Few New Angles.” The Hanford Sentinel, Friday, July 14, 1922.
“Fresno Murder Mystery Still is Unsolved.” The Riverside Daily Press, Friday, July 14, 1922.
“Mystery Woman Has Knowledge of Crime.” The Sacramento Daily Union, Friday, July 14, 1922
Hopkins, Ernest J. “5 Gangsters Sought for Dual Killing.” The San Francisco Examiner, Friday, July 14, 1922, p. 3.
“Young Thugs Believed to be Slayers of Couple.” The Chico Enterprise, Friday, July 14, 1922, p. 1.
“Officers Find Few Clues in Sanger Crime.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Saturday, July 15, 1922, p. 1.
“Is No Clue in Sanger Mystery.” The Madera Mercury, Saturday, July 15, 1922.
“Sanger Murder Still Mystery.” The Madera Tribune, Saturday, July 15, 1922.
“Murder Victim.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Sunday, July 16, 1922, p. 9.

Sarah A. Peterson-Camachois a library assistant with Fresno County Library, with a Bachelor’s in English and a Bachelor’s in Journalism from California State University, Fresno. In her free time, she makes soap and jewelry that she sells at Fresno-area craft fairs. She has written for The Clovis Roundup and the Central California Paranormal Investigators (CCPI) Newsletter.


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