TIME MAGAZINE - 2/15/1960
R. (for Raymond) Bernard Finch, M.D., 42, rose from his seat in the jammed Los Angeles Superior Court room and made his way to the stand. His strong surgeon's hands were steady, his greying, close-cropped hair neatly brushed, his handsome face marked with confidence and a seeming eagerness to tell his story. With that eager telling last week began the climax of a remarkable murder trial, concerning, as most do, lust and money, but also involving such elements as wife swapping and credit ratings, such characters as a self-styled lady killer, a brash mistress and a hysterical maid, such props as a "do-it-yourself murder kit" and a gift Cadillac—and centering around Finch's wife Barbara, found dead last summer with a bullet in her back and three skull fractures. On trial with Finch for her murder was his mistress, Carole Tregoff, 23.
As prosecution and defense forces spun their separate versions of the murder, there grew the specter of not one but two Bernie Finches, and the key to the trial lay on the question of which was the real Finch.
First Finch. The prosecution's Finch, as depicted in the case built by Deputy District Attorney Fred Whichello, was an immoral, sinister schemer. Though the doctor was enormously successful (part ownership of a thriving clinic, income of about $200,000 a year, a $50,000 home in the fancy Los Angeles suburb of West Covina, a 22-ft. speedboat, three cars), his marriage to Barbara was a dismal failure. It was a second marriage for both; they had met when she was his secretary and then had swapped spouses (he had three children by his first wife). The marriage was about six years old when he got involved in a hot affair with his medical secretary, Carole, who was also married. He had threatened Barbara, the 19-year-old Swedish maid testified, and once even beat her up. "Mrs. Finch told me everything," wrote Housemaid Marie Anne Lidholm to her mother in Sweden, according to a letter introduced in evidence. "He had hit her . . . tried to get her out in the car, which he threatened to drive over the ridge ... He also told her that if she didn't take everything back about the divorce, he had a man in Las Vegas whom he would pay thousands of dollars to kill her." When Barbara withdrew money from their joint account and put it into her own, said Whichello, Finch forged a $3,000 check. And finally, to prevent Barbara's attempt to get the divorce, which could possibly have netted her all of their $750,000 estate under California's community property laws, Carole and Finch hired a self-styled ladies' man from Las Vegas named John Patrick Cody, who was to get $1,400 for murdering Barbara.
As Cody glibly told the story from the stand, Finch said: "Before you kill her, tell her the bullet came from Bernie."
But, said Cody, he had had no intention of killing Barbara Finch. When Cody failed to act, the prosecution contended. Finch and Carole decided to do the job themselves. They assembled the "murder kit" in an attaché case: rope, carving knife, drugs, surgical gloves, .38-cal. shells, hypodermic syringes and needles. The plan, declared Prosecutor Whichello: ambush Barbara, knock her out with Seconal, inject a fatal air bubble into her bloodstream, and then put her behind the wheel of her car and push it off the cliff. Late one night last July, testified the housemaid, she heard screams near the Finch garage. She rushed out, saw Barbara lying on the garage floor. "Then Dr. Finch came rushing up to me. He grabbed my head and pushed it against the wall several times, as hard as he could." At gunpoint, Marie Lidholm was forced into the back seat of Barbara Finch's car; the doctor eased his wife into the front. Before Finch could start the car, Barbara leaped out, and Finch ran after her. Marie hurried into the house to telephone the police, and as she ran, she heard a shot. Barbara Finch was dead. The murder weapon, a .38-cal. revolver, was never found. Finch and Carole were discovered next day in Carole's Las Vegas apartment.
Second Finch. That was the prosecution's picture of Bernie Finch. The other, carefully characterized by the doctor himself with the help of brilliant Criminal Lawyer Grant Cooper, was a frustrated loving husband. He happily shared a king-sized 7 ft. by 7 ft. double bed with his wife, he said, until he was driven into the arms of another woman by his wife's frigidity after the birth of their son in 1953. He testified volubly about his love affair with Carole, a onetime photographer's model, and the trysting apartments he rented under an assumed name. He lied to his wife about his affair to spare her pride, he said. But he and Barbara had their own "armistice agreement," permitting them to date on the side. To protect his credit rating while he was dickering on the "deal" to build his hospital, they decided to postpone a divorce and to present a public facade of married bliss. To seal the bargain, he gave her a new Cadillac. In September, Carole left her husband, a muscleman named Jimmy Pappa, who proceeded to give Barbara Finch an earful about Bernie's other life. Barbara then decided to start divorce proceedings herself. As a counterattack, Finch explained, he hired an "unscrupulous gigolo." John Cody was engaged, he said, to "get something" on Barbara "if he had to sleep with her himself."
When Finch suspected that Cody was bilking him, he and Carole decided to face Barbara and talk about the divorce. They had with them the "kit," but it was really an emergency pack, testified Finch, that he carried for emergency calls; the carving knife was a gift for Carole's apartment, and the rope was just a line for his new boat. When Barbara got out of her car in the garage and saw Finch and Carole waiting for her, she grabbed Finch's gun, which was in her car. Carole ran off in fright and hid in a nearby clump of bougainvillaea while Finch wrestled with his 110-lb. wife. She kneed him in the groin, stomped on his toes, bit him on the arm. She began crying for help, so he slugged her with the gun. ("I couldn't get her to cooperate with me.") When the aroused housemaid came running, he banged her head against the wall ("Everything was bang, bang, bang") because he thought she might have a gun. He "helped" Barbara into the car, began to search for the keys. She recovered consciousness, slid out of the other side, grabbed the gun and began running away. Descending from his witness chair to demonstrate to the bug eyed courtroom, Finch showed how he caught his wife, knocked the gun from her hand. As she turned, Finch said he picked up the gun to throw it away: "I didn't want either one of us to get shot." As he raised it, "it went off."
Q. What happened to the gun?
A. I don't know what happened to the gun after it went off ... I went over to the edge of the hill [to look for Carole]. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Barbara . . . running down the steps.
"I'm Sorry . . ." Then, testified Finch, he saw her fall. "I went over and knelt down by her and said, 'What happened, Barb . . .?' She said: 'Shot in chest.' I was amazed." Finch started off to call an ambulance, but Barbara called, "Wait."
"I came back and knelt down by her head. She moved her arm ... I took her hand and she sort of opened her mouth, and then she spoke, and her voice was very, very soft. She said: 'I'm sorry . . . I should have listened . .. Don't leave me . . . Take—care—of—the—kids.' She was dead. I said, 'Barb! Barb!' She couldn't answer me." In his distress, says Finch, he stole a car, abandoned it, stole another and drove through the night to Las Vegas.
In the courtroom, as Bernie Finch concluded his testimony, Carole Tregoff wept. A woman juror removed her glasses and sniffled into her hanky, and a spectator released an anguished sob. There were two Bernie Finches all right: the prosecution's was a calculating, cold-hearted wife murderer; the defense's, a genial, fate-tricked playboy who only wanted to protect himself against his wife's divorce proceedings. But in reality there was only one Bernie Finch, and the jury of six men and six women would have to decide who he was.