Spade Cooley, King of Western Swing

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Preview from L. A. DESPAIR  
A Landscape of Crimes and Bad Times

© John Gilmore 2005.   All rights reserved

Was she dead or wasn’t she dead?  She was naked on the bed, bruised from head to foot. Somebody’d wrapped her in a blanket and turned out the light. Spade Cooley, the once King of Western Swing, stood white-faced and shaking, eyes rolling like red balls. He kept saying, “She can’t be dead! My wife just can’t be dead!”

Richard Stickle, the ambulance driver from Mojave, wasn’t so sure. She’d fallen in the bathroom shower, Cooley insisted, hit her head, and got a concussion. He said he could tell. He knew. Stickle had arrived at the Willow Springs Ranch just after eleven that night and hadn’tSpade Cooley and Western Swing Dance Gang been in the bedroom more than a minute. He says, “I told Spade Cooley I couldn’t get a pulse. I said she didn’t seem to be breathing, but Cooley kept saying there were noises coming out of her throat. ‘You see! You hear her?’ he’d say. I said, ‘Let’s get her to the hospital as fast as we can. ’ Cooley demanded we take her to the Tehachapi Valley Hospital — it was the closest. I didn’t honestly think there was any life in her but in case of a chance, slim as it seemed, I didn’t argue as we got her loaded into the ambulance.”

The first time Stickle saw Ella Mae Cooley in person was at a Mojave meat market. “It was a while ago,” he says “and I also saw her in Rosamond by the Air Force base. She’d been real pretty, the same as on television in The Spade Cooley Show long before that. She still looked fairly young, and pretty, even if maybe she wasn’t alive — banged up like she was, like she’d fallen down a flight of stairs and hit every part of her body.” There weren’t any stairs in the Willow Springs Ranch for one to fall down. “It was a new place — big,” says Stickle. “Part of the Water Wonderland project Cooley’d been developing since his television show folded and he’d gone off the air. Gone broke as well.” Spade Cooley - Shame On You

Spade rode in the back of the ambulance, Stickle says. “He was right at my back telling me she’d been out of her mind for week, and days before that she’d jumped out of the car he was driving. ‘She’s had a lot of emotional problems,’ he was saying, and that’s why she’d jumped out of a moving car a few weeks earlier, even before the first time she’d tried to do that. Cooley kept patting his wife gentle-like, kind of covering her eyes. He didn’t seem so shaken as he’d been at the ranch, and as we drove to the hospital he seemed to calm down a little, talking in an almost normal tone. ‘If she’s not going to make it,’ he was saying, ‘life isn’t worthwhile without her.  It isn’t worth living.’

Dr. Vincent Troy at the Tehachapi Valley Hospital said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Cooley, but your wife is dead . . .” Examining the body of thirty-five-year-old Ella Mae further, the doctor noted that she appeared to have been dead for some time before being brought to the hospital. “When I was told the circumstances of how this woman died,” the doctor says, “that she’d suffered a fall in the shower, I found this to be inconsistent with the condition of her body. She was badly bruised and these appeared to have been inflicted, repeatedly so. It was my judgment that the coroner be notified and an investigation ordered before any further determinations could be made as to the cause of Ella Mae Cooley’s death.” Ella Mae and Spade Cooley in happier times

That same night, the Kern County coroner’s office was notified, as was the Sheriff’s department in Mojave. Sergeant Tom Shuell and Deputy Marion Dickey left the substation for the hospital in Tehachapi. “We found Spade Cooley in what I’d describe as a state of shock,” says Dickey. “I noticed right away that his hands were swollen and bruised, and he was shook up, saying the fact that his wife was really dead was hitting him bad. Maybe excited is the better word to describe his condition. I got him some water and, sort of coming apart at the seams, he told us his wife had jumped from the car a few days earlier, but he didn’t give much detail. Then she fell in the shower, he said, and hit her head. He said he believed she had a concussion.”

The deputies were then told by the physician that the condition of the woman’s body was inconsistent with someone falling in a shower. Or even jumping from a moving car. He said, “Mrs. Cooley might very well have fallen in a shower as Mr. Cooley says, or received injuries from jumping from a car sometime earlier, but what I’m seeing has nothing to do with either such kind of accident.” He went on to say, “The bruises on her neck are consistent with strangulation, and there’s these burn marks on her breasts . . .”

“I looked at the body,” Dickey says, “and she looked like somebody’d clobbered her. I didn’t need any medical confirmation to see that this woman had been beaten to death”

Spade Cooley playing his fiddle to a kittenCooley was informed that until things were cleared up by the coroner he’d have to accompany the deputies to the substation and wait for the results. “He expressed that it was an inconvenience,” Dickey says, “but agreed to come with us. In fact, he had no choice, though we didn’t say that right out to him, or that we were holding him as possibly the one responsible for his wife’s death — if the coroner’s report showed that to be the case. We took pictures of Ella Mae’s body, and pictures of Cooley’s hands, his swollen and bruised fists.”

Spade was questioned for three hours in Mojave. “He stuck to the story about her falling in the shower,” Sergeant Shuell says. “We didn’t believe him, and during the recorded interview, talking about his swollen hands, he did finally admit to having struck his wife. He said, ‘. . .slapping her maybe a couple times because she was hysterical, but that was it . . . That was all.’ I asked, ‘How many times did you slap her? You hit her once? You hit her twice or more than twice?’ He confessed he might’ve struck her more than once but denied having done anything that could’ve caused any serious injuries. He was lying. We knew it and I figured he knew that we suspected it, but we also knew he was going to hold to his story about the shower and her hitting her head. Looking at the photographs, which we had rushed out, I even said to him one time, ‘Looks to me, Spade, like she’s got bruises on her neck, and like she was choked. How’s a shower door gonna get a pair of hands around a woman’s neck?”

Ignoring the question and shaking all over, Spade said, “There’s been this awful fightin’ that’s been going on for a while. A long time — these tensions, the wrangling and fighting, and it’s been an impossible situation . . .” He shook his head sadly and said, “I can tell you, boys, I’ve been half crazy with it, but I’ve never ever meant to cause Ella Mae harm or certainly what’s happened. This is the most awful thing that’s ever happened to me in my life.”

Dickey says, “Again we asked him if he’d hit her with his fists and he kept saying, ‘No!’ and rubbing his hands. ‘I’ve told you, boys, I hit things when I am hopelessly lost. I don’t hit people — I never hit people. Why can’t you understand what I’m saying?’

It was learned that Spade’s son from a previous marriage, John Cooley, had received a call at his home in Los Angeles hours earlier that evening. “About nine o’clock,” the son said, and he’d been told that Ella Mae was dead — approximately two hours before the ambulance was called.

Spade’s son John and daughter-in-law arrived in Mojave close to three o’clock that morning. Both had to wait until four before the deputies finished questioning Spade. Weak and exhausted, Cooley was brought out of the office and it was announced that he was under arrest.

“Oh, Dad!” John cried, hugging his father. Spade and his son shared a whispered conversation until Spade used the phone to call his lawyer. “They’re trying to blame me — me!” he said into the phone. “It’s — it’s crazy! I loved her — I cherished her . . . My God, what am I going to do without her?”

"Oh, Dad . . .” Cooley’s son said again, and asked the deputies, “What’s going to happen?”

Spade Cooley - The Kid from Gower Gulch

(Robert) Young says, “He should never have been convicted of first-degree murder. But no, those hypocritical, hand-picked jurors were pulled along by the DA and by the county that had a lot at stake in their own locked-up quarters — a way of defeating any sort of infiltration into Kern County by any undesirable elements, meaning the investments Spade was looking for out of Fort Worth. All he wanted to do was get back into the spotlight. “He should’ve done a couple years for the involuntary manslaughter, as tragic as the situation was. I believe he would’ve killed himself if he’d been acquitted. He had to suffer, and suffer good’s what he did. But he made the most of it — a tortured soul in a cage. Him and Ella Mae were caught in an awful situation, all bound up in a whirlpool and torturing each other to death by the tragic love they shared. It was plain poison.”

Ken Curtis said, “Spade’s wife drove him crazy because he couldn’t trust her. Whether that’s him or her, nobody’s going to know. I knew her from the first when she went to work for Spade, and she was barely out of her teens. Take a sweet girl with a pretty face and a darling figure and you fall head over heels in love but you never know what’s inside that person. Never really know what they’re like in their heart. I heard that after the first year of them being together, the girl was driving Spade up the wall. Take his failing at what he wanted to do most, making music, the kind of music that’s the soul of this country and proves the uniqueness and originality of the American spirit, all that, and I’m saying take a few hard blows to the heart of Spade’s life, and you start beating him down, and soon he’s flat on the canvas and out for the count.”

L.A. DESPAIR: A Landscape of Crimes and Bad Times 
is available NOW on AMAZON


Crazy Streak by John GilmoreSevered by John GilmoreManson by John GilmoreLA Despair by John GilmoreLaid Bare by John GilmoreLive Fast - Die Young by John Gilmore

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