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On Tuesday, August 2, 1921, Father Patrick A. Heslin, pastor of the Holy Angels church in Colma, California disappeared without a trace. According to his housekeeper, an unknown man whose face was covered by a "roll-up coat collar" and motorcycle goggles came to to the priest's home and asked Father Heslin to provide last rites to a dying man. They then left together in the stranger's car and the priest would never be seen alive again. Though he had only recently began his duties in Colma, Father Heslin had already gained a reputation for diligence and there seemed nothing remarkable about a request for his help. Soon afterward however, his housekeeper became concerned enough about is delay in returning home to call the police.
The disappearance of a well-liked priest made headlines throughout California and police officers across San Mateo country took part in the search. Despite various theories about why Father Heslin was abducted, the possibility that he had been murdered led posses to begin scouring likely spots for his body. On August 5, a break in the case occurred when Archbishop Edward Hanna, whose diocese included Father Heslin's parish, received a ransom note demanding $50,000 for the priest's safe return. A follow-up note provided even more gruesome details. It said that Father Heslin was being held in a "bootlegger's cellar" in a house somewhere in the hills of San Mateo. The letter-writer also described the beatings that Father Heslin had already received and that the kidnapper was prepared to kill him with a machine gun if the ransom wasn't paid.
The massive manhunt came to an end days later when William A. Hightower, an unemployed baker, approached a a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner with an odd story. He said that he had spoken with a woman of his acquaintance named "Dolly Mason" who had reportedly talked to a man that was one of Father Heslin's kidnappers. From this mysterious source, "Dolly" learned that the kidnappers had been motivated by hatred of the Catholic Church and had been hoping to collect ransom. Based on what she told him, Hightower traced the location of the priest's grave and would later lead the reporter there. Digging at the grave site, which was located at the bottom of a sand cliff near the Pacific Ocean (about twenty miles south of Francisco), they quickly discovered the body of Father Heslin. He had been bludgeoned before being shot twice in the heart and head and the body was then covered by two feet of loose sand.
While William Hightower likely hoped to claim the substantial reward for information on Father Heslin's kidnapping, he quickly found himself the prime suspect when police were called in. Almost from the beginning, the Examiner - which happened to be the flagship newspaper in William Randolph Hearst's media empire, took credit for breaking the case. The reporter filing the story was even able to persuade police to hold Hightower incommunicado so the Examiner could break the story of the body's discovery the following morning. As soon as the story came out, newspapers and police competed to build a case against William Hightower, all based on circumstantial evidence.
Police investigating Hightower's story found no trace of "Dolly Mason" though they discovered bloody burlap, a rifle, and newspaper clippings mentioning the reward for information on the kidnapping in Hightower's hotel room. Convinced that Hightower had an accomplice, the District Attorney soon formally charged Hightower with murder and announced to the press that he was guilty. Although Hightower stood up to grilling and refused to confess to the murder (even with a lynch mob outside the jail), a police spokesman openly theorized that he had killed the priest after being unable to collect the ransom. While police remained convinced that Hightower had an accomplice, no evidence of one ever turned up. They even did a careful search of the area where Father Heslin's body was found to see if Hightower had murdered the accomplice and buried that body as well.
What followed was a spectacular trial with Hightower's defense attorney, William Herron, promising to track down "Dolly Morgan" and to create reasonable doubt by discrediting all of the prosecution witnesses. He also insisted that his client had a solid alibi on the night that Father Heslin was kidnapped since he was with a woman, Doris Shirley, at the time. Ms. Shirley, who likely didn't appreciate the notoriety that trial brought her emphatically denied being with Hightower that night and it quickly degenerated into a "he said, she said" match. Herron also tried to pin the priest's murder on David Bender, an escaped convict who had recently been captured in the San Francisco area and was already suspected of murdering a policeman in Baltimore. This particular defense strategy never went anywhere either.
As for the newspapers reporting the story, they had another trick up their sleeves courtesy of Berkeley police psychologist, John Augustus Larson. Earning his doctorate in physiology in 1920 , Larson joined the Berkeley police that same year and became an early pioneer in the use of the polygraph in criminal investigations. Though polygraph evidence had not yet been tested in court (that would come with the landmark Frye case in 1923), Larson had expanded on the blood pressure polygraph developed by William Moulton Marston by added other psychophysiological measures including pulse, respiration, and galvanic skin conductivity.
His polygraph apparatus, which he dubbed the "cardio-pneumo psychogram" (also known as the Sphygmomanometer), allowed for continuous readings of physiological data so that he could monitor actual changes in blood pressure and skin response during questioning. It's fairly evident that he took this work rather personally considering he later married the first woman he ever interrogated, a nineteen-year-old coed whose diamond ring had been stolen. He even demonstrated his device at a meeting of the International Association of Police Chiefs in San Francisco (San Francisco's Chief of Police served as his test subject on stage, happily telling lies for the audience.) Over the next two decades, Larson would used his device in hundreds of cases and establish a reputation for solving complex crimes and police sources were enthusiastic that a new age was dawning for criminal investigations.
Considering the enormous publicity over Larson's "lie detector", it was hardly surprising that a local newspaper, the San Francisco Call and Post (which happened to be in direct competition with Hearst's newspaper chain), would arrange for it to be used on William Hightower to see if he was lying about his innocence in Father Heslin's death. But how could technology that had never been tested in court before help unravel the claims and counterclaims being made during this baffling trial? More on that next week.
To be continued
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