The Murder of Actor Sal Mineo

From ’50s heartthrob to a homicide victim.

Lori Johnston
Mar 5 · 19 min read
Sal (photo)

The End

The call came into the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office at 9:42 p.m. on Thursday, February 12, 1976. It was man down, assault with a deadly weapon at 8567 Holloway Drive. The responding unit with two officers rolled up to a bloody scene. The “man down” was lying motionless on the ground, roughly halfway down the alley. He was dressed in blue jeans, a blue shirt with red and white flowers, a dark blue jacket and black tennis shoes. Sunglasses, a red address book, a manila envelope, car keys, and a paper bag with a piece of cellophane-wrapped cake inside are scattered around the inert figure. His wallet, with the contents untouched, was found in his pants pocket. A blood pool ran for more than 10 feet east of his body, down the alley. Upon closer inspection, the officers found that the man had a terrible stab wound to his upper left chest.

An ambulance arrived, summoned by the upstairs neighbors who heard screams. Despite resuscitation attempts, they were too late for the man on the pavement. He was pronounced dead at 9:55 p.m.

Sal photographed in death (photo)

A canvass revealed no weapons but did turn up multiple witnesses who heard the victim screaming “Oh God! Someone please help me!” in addition to hearing fleeing footsteps, likely from his assailant, and the sound of a car starting up. Two of the witnesses, one an upstairs neighbor, the other a security guard at The Park Wellington, saw a man fleeing that they described as a white, young, slim around five-foot ten with long dark blonde or brown hair. One witness thought the fleeing suspect got away in a yellow Toyota.

Those neighbors who heard the screams and cries for help and ran downstairs to attempt to offer aid unfortunately contaminated the crime scene, leaving their own footprints in the victim’s blood. They, however, knew the victim. His name was Sal Mineo and he was an actor.

The Switchblade Kid

As he entered his teens, he found a great deal of work on television, which was then entering into the American way of life. It was his appearances in programs like “Hallmarks’ Hall of Fame” and “Omnibus” that led Sal to his first motion picture: a Tony Curtis film called Six Bridges to Cross. It would be his third film that would shoot him into superstardom.

Sal in a 1955 publicity photo (photo)

Rebel Without a Cause is considered the first teen angst movie, as well as only one of three in which James Dean would grace the screen. While Dean is the clear star of the picture, as the troubled Jimmy Stark, Sal stood out as the sensitive Plato who hero-worships Jimmy. Dean and Sal became immediate friends both on and off the set, fueling rumors as it was whispered that Dean was bisexual. Sal later said that at the time, he did not realize his sexual attraction to other men and that by the time he did, it was too late for him and Dean, who died in September of 1955, a month before Rebel Without a Cause was released. Dean’s death from a fiery car accident, an irony given the “chickie ride” depicted in the film, made his performance even more poignant and helped boost ticket sales. Sal was recognized for his touching portrayal and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor; he lost to Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts but “Mineo Mania” had been born. He was only 17 years old.

Sal found himself the subject of many movie magazine articles and pictorials and the heartthrob of screaming teenage girls. He received fan letters by the thousands and was mobbed at any appearance he made, whether in Hollywood or New York. Every pretty starlet he dated was splashed across the pages, guaranteeing positive press for the starlets and for Sal — although leaving many of his adoring fans heartbroken.

Sal and Jill Haworth (photo)

For five years, Sal portrayed variations of Plato on film and on television, garnering him the nickname “The Switchblade Kid.” His first truly adult role was in 1959’s The Gene Krupa Story, in which Sal, an accomplished drummer in his own right, played the drums himself in the biopic. He received another Academy Award nomination for his role in Exodus (1960) in which he played a Jewish Holocaust survivor. He lost again (this time to Peter Ustinov in Spartacus), much to his disappointment as he hoped an Oscar win would reignite his career but he won a Golden Globe. Perhaps most importantly, he met actress Jill Haworth, with whom he would have an on-and-off relationship for a number of years.

After a brief stint into pop music in the late 1950s, after his appearance in Exodus, Sal’s career began to slow. He was considered too old to play the types of roles that had first made him famous (although he was only in his early twenties) and the whispers of his sexuality, despite his relationship with Haworth, led him to be considered “inappropriate” for leading roles. Sal’s loss of popularity was sudden and perplexing to him. He was forced to audition for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), considered an insult to an established star — and he did not get the part. He was critically acclaimed for his turn as a stalker in 1965’s Who Killed Teddy Bear but it led him to once again being typecast, this time as a criminal. According to friends, he had hoped to portray Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) but was once again disappointed.

Sal in 1965 (photo)

Sal made a handful of television appearances during the 1960s before returning to the stage in 1969, starring opposite the-then unknown Don Johnson, and directing, “Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” an LGBT-themed play that scored positive reviews.

In 1971, he made his last film appearance, as the chimpanzee Dr. Milo in Escape from the Planet of the Apes. From that point on, Sal focused on stage work, where his career had begun, and episodic television.

1976 seemed to be the year his career was going to turn around. He got the role of a bisexual burglar in the comedy play “P.S. Your Cat is Dead,” which had been on Broadway in 1975 for 16 performances, and ran successfully in San Francisco. Sal’s performance was singled out, with theater critics writing that he stole the show with his delivery and In Touch magazine wrote up a profile of him. When “P.S. Your Cat Is Dead” wrapped its San Francisco run, it moved to Los Angeles and Sal went with it, renting Apartment №1 on Holloway Drive in West Hollywood.

On February 12, 1976, he was at rehearsals at the Westwood Playhouse early and, according to his co-stars, in tremendous spirits at the upswing his life was heading in. Although it had rained earlier in the day, by the time rehearsal ended just after 9 p.m., the rain had stopped and left the Los Angeles air clean and clear, although the roads were still wet. Sal jumped in his Chevy and drove home. He had less than an hour to live.

The Investigation

(photo)

Robbery was almost immediately ruled out by the detectives once Sal’s wallet was found in his pants pocket, along with $21 in cash and some change, a ring on his finger and a pocket watch on a chain in his jacket.

Detectives tossed his apartment, a modest one consisting of a living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and hallway. The building, they discovered, was owned by celebrity attorney Marvin Mitchelson, who would go on to pioneer the concept of palimony — and be convicted of tax evasion. According to Mitchelson, Sal had kept an apartment in the building for three years and had used it when he was in Los Angeles and as far as he knew, the actor lived alone.

Although he had bought his parents a $300,000 home in the late 1950s in Mamaronek, New York, Sal’s own furnishings were decidedly downscale. His apartment was overrun with books, many of them paperbacks with “lurid” covers. There were also stacks and stacks of movie and play scripts. Of greater interest to the detectives in addition to the books featuring men on the cover were the beefcake prints on the walls and a love letter found in a drawer. The letter and many of the books were dusted for prints, with only Sal’s identified.

Acquaintances of Sal’s were interviewed and checked out. From those interviews, a picture of Sal emerged as a private man with a busy social life who had relationships with both men and women. In the years of “Mineo Mania,” he had been involved with a number of women but that had apparently begun to change at some point in the 1960s, the same time period when Sal was reportedly involved with Rock Hudson. His relationship with Jill Haworth had been a real and loving one and the two had remained good friends after their romantic relationship ended. His last serious relationship had been with Courtney Burr, an actor with whom he had been involved with for six years. They had broken up for a while prior to Sal’s murder.

One neighbor claimed that Sal’s apartment had heavy traffic of young men in and out at all hours. Another knew who Courtney Burr was, as well as his relationship with Sal, but that Burr had not been seem around the complex for at least a year before Sal was killed.

Detectives followed up on Courtney Burr, who had a solid alibi in New York.

Drugs also came up, with some claiming that Sal was into smoking marijuana and doing cocaine. Others hinted that he was dealing himself. These illegal activities put him into contact with less than savory individuals, as did the suggestion that he liked to occasionally pick up hitchhikers for a one-night stand.

Checking into Sal’s finances, however, as well as where he lived discredited the theory that he was a dealer. When his autopsy results came back, the toxicology reports were clean, indicating no drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of his death. If he had used drugs, it was clearly recreationally and not a serious habit.

He had died from a single stab wound that had perforated his heart, causing a massive hemorrhage. Whoever had thrust the knife into his body had given him no hope for survival.

Sal’s casket is carried out of the church (photo)

On February 17, 1976, a funeral service was held for Sal at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in New York. The church could barely hold the onslaught of mourners. NYPD detectives also attended, watching the crowd for anything of note. Only three years earlier. Sal had been in the same church, giving a eulogy for his father.

On February 23, 1976, a wake was held for Sal in Los Angeles at producer Bill Belasco’s Bel Air home. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide attended, hoping to hear something that would give them a break in the case. They got nothing.

Detectives continued to chase the theory that Sal’s murder had to do with his lifestyle, hitting the gay bars around town and speaking with hustlers on the street. They went through his two address books (one professional, one personal). His professional address book was neatly typed and contained contacts for some of the biggest names in Hollywood and across the pond to England, France and Italy. His personal address book had hand-scrawled entries of pharmacies, pizza delivery spots, gas stations, adult theaters in West Hollywood and gay bars, as well as male names who had had contact with Sal.

In all, they were left with nothing to solve their case.

The Break

On February 7, 1976, a couple had been entering an apartment house to visit friends on the west side of the city when they were accosted by three “young thugs.” One of them put a gun to the man’s head and threatened to kill him. The man had to watch helplessly as another of them manhandled his wife. The couple was then robbed, with the criminal trio fleeing into the night.

On February 12, 1976 at 9:55 p.m., roughly 13 minutes after Sal was attacked and at the same time he was being declared dead, a man by the name of Richard Roy was accosted after getting out of his car in his underground parking garage at 1323 North Harper in West Hollywood. The two men who jumped him beat him to the ground before robbing him. North Harper was less than a mile and no more than a three to five minute drive from Sal’s residence on Holloway.

On February 19, 1976, a week after Sal was murdered, a young woman walking to her car was grabbed by a man who snatched her handbag. He then punched her so hard in the head, she permanently lost all hearing in one ear.

On February 26, 1976, Peter Kirchen was driving down a road in West Hollywood and was blocked by two men in a Buick. One of the men smashed his windshield with a ball peen hammer, one with a crowbar, demanding his money. The incident caused glass particles from the windshield to spray into Kirchen’s eyes, leaving him with vision trouble.

Only 20 minutes later, police caught the two men, who were still in possession of the victim’s credit cards and the ball peen hammer and crowbar. One of the men was a 19-year-old named Lionel Ray Williams.

(photo)

When taken into custody, Williams allegedly told a sheriff’s deputy that he had been at a “dope den” and overheard “blood dudes” talking about killing Sal Mineo because there was a contract out on Sal for $1,500 over a dope burn. Authorities didn’t believe Williams’ theory and he, along with his cohort, was released.

On March 7, 1976, a robbery took place on Rodeo Drive in front of the Gucci store. Two couples, strolling down Rodeo one evening, were robbed at gunpoint. One of the female victims had a probation officer’s badge taken from her.

Lionel Ray Williams was on the police radar, yet neither he nor the burglaries was connected to Sal’s homicide — at least not then — mainly due to the eyewitness descriptions of Sal’s killer being a tall, slender white guy with long hair. Williams was short, stocky, and black with a bushy Afro.

It would take until April of 1977, over a year after Sal’s murder, before the case was solved.

A 19-year-old woman by the name of Teresa Collins contacted authorities on April 26. Her man had been extradited to Michigan that day for writing a bad check. She was terrified of him and had known for many months about an unsolved murder but only with him safely behind bars and in another state did she feel secure enough to talk. Her man’s name was Lionel Ray Williams.

Teresa told the cops that Lionel was a burglar; she had gone with him on two jobs. In February of 1976, the couple, then unmarried, lived with Lionel’s mother on West 93rd. Lionel owned a Buick and on February 12, that car was in the shop and he had a yellow Dodge Colt loaner. That day of February 12, Teresa gave Lionel money — money he used to purchase a knife at Western Surplus he had seen and wanted. He felt he could use it in order to “make more money.”

According to Teresa, when Lionel left West 93rd that day, he wore all-black and soft-sole shoes. She stayed home with his mother and watched television. He returned later that evening, showing her a large knife and telling her that he had “just stabbed a dude.” He had hidden in a large apartment complex intending to rob somebody and saw “the dude” park his car. “The dude” saw Williams and starting yelling for help, prompting Williams to stab him. Williams freaked out and fled, scoring no money for his effort.

Teresa Collins was taken to the Western Surplus store at 85th and Western, where she picked out a replica of the knife she said Williams purchased on February 12, 1976. Cops took the knife to the L.A. coroner and the serrated edges were found to match the stab wound to Sal’s chest, as well as leaving similar bruising marks and hilt patterns.

Records obtained from Western Surplus indicated that such a knife was indeed sold on February 12, 1976, although there was no way to prove who made the cash purchase.

In early May of 1977, Teresa was given, and passed, a polygraph. The next day, investigators flew to Michigan to see that Williams’ cell and phone calls would be bugged during his 10-month incarceration.

Publicly, the case was cold but the case continued to be worked. Detectives spoke to mutual friends of Williams and Teresa, two of whom corroborated Teresa’s story. One claimed that Williams, in a fit of depression and tears, had confessed to killing a man in Hollywood. The other, after a session of marijuana smoking with Williams, claimed he admitted flat out that he had knocked off Sal Mineo. When she expressed doubt, he showed her the knife he said he had done it with. He also showed her some dark clothing that appeared to be bloodstained and claimed he was wearing those clothes when he killed Sal.

Another acquaintance of Williams, a Marine named Allwyn Price Williams (no relation), stated that Lionel had confessed the killing to him, even showing him exactly how he had stabbed Sal, with a right-hand downward thrust motion. Under the grant of immunity, he told authorities that he had accompanied Lionel on March 7, 1976 to Beverly Hills to stick up the two couples outside of the Rodeo Drive Gucci store.

Tipsters gave investigators the name of Michael Alley, a friend of Williams who could possibly help their case. After being promised immunity, Alley admitted to having gone out with Williams on the night of Sal’s murder. They were drinking and cruising for women, according to Alley. When the search for women came up empty, Williams decided to drive into Hollywood, saying he had to see somebody about something. He had pulled up to some apartments and walked off, leaving Alley in the car. Alley said he watched Williams talking to someone and then saw him stab the man.

The surveillance of Lionel Williams while in jail provided the LA authorities with more evidence to use against him. Williams was overheard by a deputy telling another inmate that he had killed Sal Mineo. The deputy had at first assumed that Williams’ statement was of the bragging type, done commonly by new inmates as basic jailhouse talk but quickly changed his mind once he heard that Williams was the prime suspect in the Mineo case.

Lionel Williams was due to be released from the Calhoun County jail on January 8, 1978 but on January 4, the Los Angeles District Attorney issued a warrant for his arrest for the first-degree murder of Sal Mineo. Based on the evidence and statements, the D.A. believed that Williams had been lying in wait, meaning that Williams was eligible for the death penalty.

On January 12, 1978, Lionel Williams was returned to California and ensconced at the Men’s Central Jail. He told reporters and anyone who would listen that he was not guilty but said nothing about the fresh tattoo of a knife on his arm. The knife was identical to the one he was said to have purchased and used to murder Sal.

As the case was being prepared, LAPD interviewed Peter Kirchen, whose windshield had been busted out by two individuals back in February of 1976. His vision was improved and he was shown photo lineups and chose two pictures: Lionel Williams and James Green. According to Mr. Kirchen, Williams swung the hammer and Green swung the crowbar.

James Green was indicted on May 2, 1978, the same day that the L.A. County Grand jury returned indictments against Williams. Green was arrested a day later, waives his right to an attorney and quickly admits his involvement in the Kirchen crime. Eerily similar to Michael Alley’s story, Green said that he and Williams had been out cruising, looking for girls. They spotted Mr. Kirchen’s car, followed him down the street and forced him up onto the curb. After they had began beating on his car, Mr. Kitchen had thrown three or four dollars’ worth of change out the window, which he and Williams had collected before leaving.

According to Green, it was the only time he had done such a thing with Williams. He knew nothing about Sal Mineo.

Sal, 1960s (photo)

Justice

Despite losing what should have been his star witness and having mainly circumstantial evidence (the murder weapon was never found), prosecutor Michael Genelin put on a strong case over the month-long trial. He had James Green, Allwyn Price Williams and Michael Alley, who all testified as to Lionel Williams’ confession of murder. He had a rental agreement for the loaner Williams was driving on February 12, 1976 for the Dodge Colt, a car that could easily be mistaken as a Toyota. He had two deputies who had overheard Lionel Williams confess to the murder. He also showed the jury a February 26, 1976 mugshot of Williams, taken when he was arrested for the Peter Kirchen attack. His hair was slicked back and the prosecutor pointed out it was dark in the carport that night, dark enough that witnesses could confuse him for a white man.

Although he had no eyewitnesses to the stabbing itself, Genelin was able to strengthen those tenuous cords between the murder of Sal Mineo and Lionel Ray Williams enough that justice was served.

The jury deliberated for seven days before finding him guilty of second-degree murder, sparing him from the death penalty. He was also found guilty on 10 robbery counts.

Judge Bonnie Lee Martin set March 15, 1979 for sentencing and offered Williams the opportunity to speak. He criticized first his attorney, claiming he never wanted him and the man wasn’t in his corner, and then Judge Martin herself, blaming her for forcing Williams’ attorney on him.

Judge Martin, after reviewing Williams’ lengthy record, found that “he was not susceptible to rehabilitation considering him escalating conduct of committing more and more serious crimes with more and more violence.” She sentenced him to the harshest sentence she could: 51 years, with eligibility to apply for parole in 14 years.

(photo)

Williams served only a portion of that sentence and was paroled in the early 1990s. He reportedly returned to his criminal lifestyle once back on the street and was soon back behind bars. He continued to deny publicly that he had murdered Sal.

Although Williams’ conviction closed the book legally on Sal’s killing, some of Sal’s friends and even some law enforcement continued to harbor doubts on whether Lionel Williams was the killer, or the sole killer.

The official story, and the one most likely, is that Sal was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He saw Williams approaching him with a knife and that’s when he screamed and called out for help; it’s unlikely he would have been able to say very much after the stab to his heart. Williams, who had been looking for an easy burglary score, worried that Sal’s calls for help would be overheard (they were) and stabbed him. The eyewitness descriptions could have been incorrect as prosecutor Michael Genelin pointed out or they could have seen a man unrelated to the murder. Or, it’s always possible that, as Sal’s friends wondered, they could have seen an accomplice of Williams.

Back in 1955, after filming on Rebel Without a Cause wrapped, James Dean said in a press release that he considered costars Natalie Wood, Sal, and Nick Adams “the only friends I have in this town.” Dean died at 24 in a car accident shortly after making that statement. Nick Adams was only 36 when he died in February of 1968 of a prescription drug overdose, a death which has been called suicide, accidental and murder by various sources. Natalie Wood was 43 years old when she drowned in November of 1981, in a case that was initially classified accidental before being changed three decades later to undetermined.

Sal’s brother Michael, who had followed Sal briefly into show business before running a business in New York, was buried alongside him when he died in 1985.

Sal’s final resting place (photo)

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Lori Johnston

Written by

Writer, reader, margarita drinker. Currently looking for a “dare to be great” situation.

The True Crime Edition

A publication that delves into fascinating cases, the psychology behind criminals and the history of finding them.

Lori Johnston

Written by

Writer, reader, margarita drinker. Currently looking for a “dare to be great” situation.

The True Crime Edition

A publication that delves into fascinating cases, the psychology behind criminals and the history of finding them.

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