The Moonwalk Killer
On the night of July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon. It was the last thing Rancho Mirage resident Jack Hale ever saw.
On that night of 32 years ago, hundreds of millions of eyes worldwide were riveted to television screens watching as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and intoned the now-famous words, "One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind." At 71-659 Estellita Drive in the Magnesia Falls district of Rancho Mirage, insurance broker Jack Hale and his family sat in their living room watching the Apollo 11 crew turn science fiction into history, in an event that changed man's view of the universe forever.
Hale, the 44-year-old president of the Palm Desert Chamber of Commerce, had moved here seven years earlier and in that time not only built up a successful insurance business but attained great personal popularity in the community as a civic leader.
The time was 9 p.m. Hale was relaxing on the couch, watching Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. Nearby were his wife Lou, his sister-in-law Margaret Manis and, three feet away on the couch, Hale's 15-year-old daughter Jennifer. Son John, 9, who had been unable to keep his eyes open to witness the spectacle, slept peacefully on the couch beside his father. The only light in the room was the flickering blue glow of the TV.
Shortly after nine, Mrs. Manis got up, went into another room and turned on a light, brightening the living room. At that precise moment, a shot rang out, shattering the sliding glass door one foot behind the living room couch and exploding Jack Hale's head into a halo of blood.
Wife Lou, horrified by the spectacle of her husband's brutal murder, panicked that the killer might still be out there and that she and the children were the next targets. She rounded up the family and fled next door to a neighbor's house. There they phoned the police.
Riverside Sheriff Patrol Sergeant Art Renney got the call and arrived at the home at 9:20 p.m. After securing the scene he dispatched homicide investigators who found footprints leading from the back fence of the Hale home across an open field - clear indication that the sniper had shot from over the backyard fence. Apparently the killer had calmly and cold-bloodedly waited for the lights to go on, making sure of the accuracy of his shot. The autopsy on Hale showed that the .30-caliber bullet from the sniper's gun had taken off half of his head.
Aware that 90 percent of the time murder victims are known by their killers, police then began to focus their investigation on those who were closest to Hale. That meant his wife Lou and his business partner Bill Hannon. (Hale had died without a will, leaving an estate of $77,000.)
Lou Hale was surprised when the police came to her and informed her that she was "completely cleared." "It never occurred to me that I would be suspected," she would say years later."I can certainly see why they would look [into the possibility]. But at the time, I remember what a surprise it was."
The police questioned Hannon thoroughly about his business dealings with Hale. The two had owned a successful insurance agency together and had an arrangement whereby, in the event of the death of one partner, the other would assume control of the company and pay half of its appraised value to the heirs of the deceased. Hannon ended up paying $27,087 for the business and was subjected to long police questionings as investigators searched for a profit motive for the murder. For a month, Hannon had a very "uncomfortable" feeling that the police were looking at him as a "very prime subject," but those feelings eased when the homicide investigators began asking his opinion on other possible leads.
With the elimination of Hannon as a suspect, detectives began to comb every possible motive for the brutal murder. Was it a professional hit? A case of mistaken identity? Revenge from a disgruntled insurance client? They could come up with nothing. A professional hit man made no sense because no hit man would kill someone when there were so many witnesses around. Neither could police come up with anyone who had bad business dealings with Hale and Hannon. And, apparently, no one disliked Hale enough to kill him.
Hale had grown up in Indianapolis and attended Butler University. He intended to become a lawyer, but World War II changed that. Hale joined the Marine Corps and served in the South Pacific, returning to Indiana to re-attend college after the war. It was there that he met his wife-to-be Lou. In 1950, after marrying, the two moved west to Sierra Madre in Southern California. He and Hannon met in 1962 while both of them were agents for Allstate Insurance in Pasadena. Both men shared a dream of getting away from the big corporate structure and running their own business. They decided to take the big gamble and moved down to the desert to realize their dream, leaving their families behind in Pasadena until they could get established. Hannon and Hale roomed together, shared expenses and even cooked for each other. After an initial period of economic struggle, the pair achieved their goal and opened their own office. Establishing a modest clientele list, they sent for their families and the business began to flourish.
"He was a very well-liked person," Captain Renney would later tell reporters about Jack. "There was nothing to indicate he had an enemy as such. If [there's something in his background that would warrant his being murdered] we didn't find it.and we tried to find it."
The lack of motive or suspects affected not only Hale's family and immediate friends, it inspired fear in the entire city of Rancho Mirage, which was at the time a tiny town of 2,500. Residents stayed home, locked their doors and kept their curtains drawn, fearing that there might be a crazed serial killer at large. Philip Lane, who was slated to succeed Hale as the Palm Desert Chamber of Commerce president, declined the office, saying he did so because there might be a killer out there who had something against civic leaders and, as he said, he "didn't want to be the next one."
The few clues the killer left at the scene - a book of matches, a doughnut wrapper, footprints from tennis shoes - indicated that he had been a cold-blooded, callous killer, who could smoke and snack while waiting for a light to go on, allowing him a clean shot. The one significant clue in the mystery was the murder weapon. Hale was hit with a .30-caliber Sako hunting rifle. Whereas a large gun maker like Winchester might manufacture half a million of a particular model, the Swedish company made only 13,150 of the Sako that killed Hale, making it comparatively rare. But even here the police drew a blank. After checking every Sako sold in Southern California, the police still had no suspects. They were at a dead end.
Fifteen years later, the police were no closer to solving the crime. After review and re-review by dozens of investigators who had interviewed and checked out the backgrounds of more than 1,000 people (they had even checked out the backgrounds of the Manson family during the time of the killing), Renney, by then Captain and commander of the Indio Sheriff's station, told reporters pessimistically that "homicides are not always solved. It's not like TV where we go out in half-an-hour and we've got the case solved. It just doesn't happen that way in real life. You try to solve them all, but you can't." (Actually, only about 60 percent of homicides in the U.S. are solved by conviction.)
But two and one-half years later, in 1987, the course of the case would take an abrupt turn. That's when the two-foot-thick file on the murder was handed over to Detective Carl Carter.
Carter, in reviewing the facts of the "Moonwalk Killer" (as it has come to be called) came to the conclusion, after spending 150 hours talking to 30 people in four states that, after ruling out every other motive, the crime had to have been a "random act of passion." That suspicion would be confirmed for him when he re-interviewed one of the people who had been contacted in 1969 during the original investigation.
Her name was Lynn Howard Halverson, the daughter of Big Band leader Eddy Howard who had retired to the desert and had died in 1963. At the time of Hale's murder, Lynn was married to the prominent cosmetologist and Palm Desert hair salon owner Glenn R. Wallace. Breaking her 17-year silence, Halverson, then living in Bullhead City, Arizona, told Carter that she had always suspected that her ex-husband, Wallace, had murdered Hale but said nothing to investigators at the time of the killing because she feared for her life. "He [Wallace] was a very dangerous person," she told Carter. "He was crazy."
According to Halverson, maybe a few days before the shooting, she and her husband Glenn had attended the 25th anniversary party for Philip and Betty Lane, the same Philip Lane who was to succeed Hale as Palm Desert Chamber of Commerce president. Also at the party were the Hales.
If this party had been held on the correct date of the Lane's wedding day, it would have taken place six weeks before the shooting. However, Detective Carter doubted Halverson's 17-year recollections of the event and put the party as close to "a few days before the shooting." Mrs. Wallace had been pregnant at the time and admitted to Carter that she had been drinking heavily and had danced with Hale, who was her senior by 17 years. She recalled how later in the evening she had jumped onto Hale's lap and how this had caused her husband to become upset.
Although Lynn denied any romantic involvement with the insurance man at any time and says she tried to assure Wallace of this, her husband had been so overwrought with her flirtations that after a violent argument at home, he had vomited and locked her up in a room. When she finally managed to free herself, she found Wallace gone - as well as his rifle, which neither she, nor anyone else, ever saw again.
After confirming that Wallace wore the same size-8 shoe as the killer and that his rifle could have been a Sako, Carter made a trip to visit Wallace's sister, Peggy Wills of Springfield, Missouri and went through her brother's belongings. The rifle was not found.
People who had known Wallace expressed no doubt that he was capable of the crime. They recounted fits of rage and exhibitions of bizarre behavior by Wallace. Jerry McPherson, a former employee at Wallace's popular hair salon, recounted the boss' penchant for revenge - he had once poured acid on the Corvette of a rival for an assumed wrong. True, an ex-roommate of Wallace's told the police he doubted Wallace had the nerve to murder Hale, but he also said he had no doubt that Glenn was capable of hiring someone else to do the deed.
Wallace, born on a Missouri cattle ranch in 1936, had moved to the desert in 1958. He attained a cosmetology license and opened his own salon, Continental Hair Fashions in Palm Desert, where he coiffured many Hollywood celebrities and soon became a guest at many social functions of the rich and famous. But there was a much darker side to Wallace that society matrons never saw.
Afraid to death of being "outed" as a homosexual, Glenn had married Halverson and fathered her child, but the marriage was short-lived, ending in 1970 when she found out about his violent tendencies and, presumably, his sexual proclivity, both of which could have contributed to his rage at her flirtations with Hale.
The police, however, were not so prone to buy Wallace's social front. One time, for example, sheriff's investigators strongly suspected Wallace of stealing some expensive diamond rings from Greer Garson, one of his clients. Wallace refused to take a lie detector test and no charges were ever filed.
In 1975, six years after the Moonwalk Murder, Wallace once more came under police scrutiny as the prime suspect in an arson investigation. The beauty salon of a competitor with whom Wallace had had a "running feud" burned to the ground; Wallace was arrested in the case but there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. (A friend of Wallace's, Gilbert Aiken of Landers, had driven into the desert north of I-10 and thrown away several cans of lighter fluid he feared might have been crucial evidence linking Wallace to the crime. Years later, Aiken confessed his deed to a reporter and recalled the night he had bailed Wallace out of jail. On the drive home, Aiken asked Wallace if he had set the $150,000 blaze that had destroyed his competitor's shop. "Glenn just smiled," Aiken said.)
Wallace's karma was to start to catch up with him that same year, however, when a woman ran a stop sign and crashed into his car. Wallace had to have his spine fused and, to kill the pain, began to self-medicate with prescription drugs and alcohol. In light of his habits, the court took away custody of his daughter.
After a bout with pneumonia, he was admitted to Eisenhower Medical Center, but when he was caught drinking from a smuggled-in bottle of vodka, he was so startled that he fell on his head, fractured his skull, and lapsed into a coma. The unconscious hairdresser was flown back to his relatives in Missouri where he died a few years later. This left a lot of questions about the Moonwalk Murder unanswered, but not for his ex-wife Lynn Halverson. "I think there's perfect justice," she told reporters. "I think Glenn suffered tremendously for it."
For Detective Carter "perfect justice," however, meant a conviction for first-degree murder, something that would elude him because of the death of his prime suspect. Even though Carter told reporters he was "99-percent sure that [Wallace] did it," the case remains officially open.
"Even if I couldn't solve it to where I could put somebody in jail," Carter said, "I would at least like to be able to say, 'This is why he was killed and this is who killed him.' To where you could at least put a lot of people's minds at ease." But for members of Hale's family, their minds will never be at ease.
Hale's widow, Lou Hale Bonavic, twice-remarried since the death of Jack, had mixed feelings about Halverson's revelations. "I don't want to relive all of that after 18 years," she told reporters. "It won't change my life."
Little Jennifer, Hale's daughter, who was 15 at the time of her father's murder said, "Even finding out who did it wouldn't put it to rest as much as somebody being punished. To my way of thinking that is the only way it could be put to rest. Over the years, I've stopped hurting a lot."
Hale's son John, 18 years later, was still too traumatized to even talk about the event or the possibility of a resolution to the case, even to members of his own family.
The only certainty in the case is that the events of the night of July 20, 1969 will reverberate through the lives of those left behind and that to them the Moonwalk will always have a different significance than to the rest of the world.
"When I hear the name Neil Armstrong," Bill Hannon said in 1987, "I don't think of the moonwalk. I think of Jack Hale. What else can you think?" PSL
Arthur Lyons, a frequent contributor to Palm Springs Life, is the author of 18 fiction and non-fiction books including The Dead Are Discreet and other mysteries featuring the private eye Jacob Asch, and Death on the Cheap, the Lost B Movies of Film Noir!. The Palm Springs resident is also the co-founder of the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival held here each May.