Everett Collection

The tragic, unsolved murder of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane

August 26, 2019 at 04:20 PM EDT

The wealthy suburb of Phoenix drowses in the heat of the Sonoran Desert, sprinkled with luxury resorts catering to snowbirds in what Arizonans call the Valley of the Sun. June 29, 1978, likely began as nearly all Scottsdale summer days do — temperatures soared above 100 degrees by high noon, and well-heeled residents took refuge in their heavily air-conditioned villas, leaving the wide streets as empty as any Southwest ghost town. It didn’t end that way.

Responding to a call from one of the city’s apartment complexes, local cops happened on a very un-Scottsdale tableau: In a dimly lit first-floor apartment, they found the battered body of a shirtless 49-year-old man, sprawled in bed with two huge gashes above his left ear and an electrical cord knotted around his neck. It was clear he had been in good shape and had salt-and-pepper hair, but gore obliterated most other details. Blood was splattered over the wall and ceiling; there was so much of it, the victim’s pillow was drenched crimson.

After learning the apartment was leased to the nearby Windmill Dinner Theatre, police asked the theater’s manager, Ed Beck, to identify the corpse. “There was no way I could identify him from one side,” Beck told the press. “The other side, yes.”

The bludgeoned form had once been Bob Crane, a TV star known to millions as the wise-cracking title character on the 1960s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. Crane’s grisly murder revealed he had been doing a very different sort of on-camera work behind closed doors. Four decades later, the still-unsolved slaying of the enigmatic actor — with its links to a netherworld of sex addiction and pornography — has spawned a 2002 movie, at least five books, three investigations, and a vast spider’s web of speculation.

Everett Collection

The seamy side of Crane’s life is no mystery. His obsession with sex hurt his career and possibly got him killed. The actor’s son Robert recalls that his father’s dressing room was “porn central,” where the star stored Polaroids, negatives, and X-rated films. Long before he met his end on the edge of Phoenix, Bob Crane had plunged from the heights of Hollywood into a particularly unfortunate showbiz hell. But for those who loved him, it’s the unanswered questions that are haunting. “There’s still fog,” says Robert, the 68-year-old author of Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved Murder. “And when I say ‘fog,’ it’s that word closure, which I hate. But there is no closure. You live with death for the rest of your life.”

IN THE 1960S, SITCOMS WITH LAME jokes punctuated by a bad laugh track were the norm, but only one dared to mix that cheesiness with bumbling Nazis. Yet when it debuted on CBS in the fall of 1965, Hogan’s Heroes was an overnight hit. Very loosely inspired by World War II movies like The Great Escape (1963), Heroes featured a motley crew of inmates in a German prisoner-of-war camp outfoxing a remarkably inept Third Reich for six seasons. Along the way, it made Crane, who played the womanizing Col. Robert Hogan, a household name. Before going in front of the camera, the Connecticut-born Crane made his name as a radio host, interviewing Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, and Charlton Heston on CBS’ L.A. flagship station, KNX. After legendary TV writer Carl Reiner appeared on Crane’s radio show, he gave the broadcaster a guest gig as a philandering husband on The Dick Van Dyke Show. That led to a regular spot as a happy-go-lucky dentist on The Donna Reed Show. When his agent sent Crane the script for Heroes, the actor mistook it for a drama. “Bob, what are you talking about?” the agent said, according to Robert’s 2015 book about his dad. “This is a comedy. These are the funny Nazis.”

Crane wasn’t the only one who was confused. WWII had ended a mere 20 years before the sitcom’s premiere, a genocidal trauma within the living memory of millions. Making matters even more bizarre, three of Heroes’ funny fascists — Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink), John Banner (Sergeant Schultz), and Leon Askin (General Burkhalter) — were Jews who survived the Holocaust, while Robert Clary (Corporal LeBeau) had been interned at Buchenwald and lost his parents at Auschwitz. Still, Clary, the only living member of the cast, makes no apologies. “It was well-written, well-directed, and well-acted,” says the 93-year-old, whose concentration-camp tattoo, A5714, is still visible on his left forearm. “It was a great group to work with. Bob never said, ‘Hey, I’m Hogan and I’m the star.’”

Kobal/Shutterstock

But Crane was a star, and fame allowed him to indulge his appetite. Married to high school sweetheart Anne Terzian and with three children (Robert and his sisters, Deborah and Karen) the actor used his celebrity to meet women, and then collected nude photos of them. “There were no drugs, no coercion, none of that,” explains Robert. “Women just liked him, or found him handsome, or whatever it was. They would hook up.” Aiding Crane in his sexual and cinematic conquests was John Henry Carpenter, a video-equipment salesperson from Sony who was pals with Hogan’s Heroes cast member (and future Family Feud host) Richard Dawson and helped Crane acquire gadgetry to watch and make erotica long before the birth of internet porn. When asked about his costar’s addiction, Clary responds, “Who cares? That’s his problem. Why waste my time saying, ‘How dare you like ladies?’ That is dumb, would not think about it. All we thought was, your life is your life — as long as you’re doing your job properly.”

Crane’s sexual behavior did affect other castmates. After having an affair with costar Cynthia Lynn, who played Klink’s buxom secretary Helga in the first season, he moved on to her replacement, Patricia Olson, who stepped in to play the identical role of Hilda the next year. Olson, who went by the stage name Sigrid Valdis, became Crane’s second wife in 1970 (shortly after he divorced Terzian); the couple had two children, Scott and AnaMarie. But Olson resented the influence Carpenter wielded over her husband — a dynamic captured in the 2002 film Auto Focus starring Greg Kinnear as Crane, Willem Dafoe as Carpenter, and Maria Bello as Patricia. Carol Ford, who coauthored Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography and serves as an unofficial spokesperson for Crane’s second family, says the movie overemphasized the star’s fetish. “As far as the amateur pornography, that was a small part of a bigger pie, you might say. Bob was chronicling and writing down and filming every single thing in his life. So when you look at it in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a small slice.”

It was a slice that mainstream Hollywood couldn’t tolerate. “He made some bad moves,” Robert says of his dad. “He collected photographs of women and put together these books — ‘Oh, here’s Sally from Jacksonville, Florida’ — and then he started showing them to people. He was doing a very bad Disney movie called Superdad, playing an all-American character who cares about his daughter running off with some unsavory type, but at Disney studios in Burbank he’s on the set showing photographs of women that he’s been with to people on the crew. That hurt him because the executives found out. People talk, and it started getting in publications like the National Enquirer.”

The son maintains his father’s sexual proclivities never veered into dangerous territory. “To find out that the all-American Hogan has this…some people call it a dark side, but I don’t think of it as a dark side,” says Robert. “My dad loved women. I think he might have been overcompensating for the lack of a solid career in the final years, and maybe that fed his ego to meet a woman in a nightclub and they’d go off and sleep together. But I never looked at it as dark because it was consensual. There weren’t hidden cameras or anything.”

Everett Collection

Robert isn’t embarrassed by his father’s sordid enthusiasms. He still chuckles remembering the time Crane took him, as a 21-year-old, to the 1972 premiere of Deep Throat. “He just loved it because he was meeting all these porn stars.” But by then Crane’s star was fading fast — the culture had changed, and Heroes had ended its run the previous year. Work dried up for the middle-aged actor, who was soon getting by with gigs on the dinner-theater circuit.

BY THE TIME CRANE GOT TO PHOENIX, HIS second marriage was on the rocks and he was only scoring guest spots on shows like The Love Boat. The actor bought the rights to a play called Beginner’s Luck, a slight romantic comedy he had performed at venues like the Windmill. Two days before his death, he called his eldest son. “He was two weeks shy of 50,” says Robert. “He says, ‘I am making changes. I’m divorcing Patti.’ He wanted to lose people like John Carpenter, who had become a pain in the butt. He wanted a clean slate.”

That never happened. Robert believes that when his dad tried to pull away, Carpenter, who had followed the star to Arizona, became enraged. “They had a breakup, of sorts,” claims Robert. “Carpenter lost it. He was being rejected, he was being spurned like a lover. There are eyewitnesses that night at a club in Scottsdale that said they had an argument, John and my dad.”

A few hours later, Crane was dead. Scottsdale detective Barry Vassall was in Phoenix with a colleague on June 29, 1978, when he was called to unit 132A of the Winfield Apartments. Several cops were already present, along with a dinner-theater actress named Victoria Berry, who had arranged to meet Crane that day. Vassall then went to the airport to pick up Robert, Crane’s business manager Lloyd Vaughn, and attorney Bill Goldstein and brought them to the scene. The son believes what happened next compromised the hunt for the killer. “Vaughn, Goldstein, and I walked through the apartment, examining, touching, handling items in plain view of Vassall,” Robert wrote in his book. “We added our fingerprints, footprints, and hair samples to an already contaminated, lackadaisically investigated, casually considered…murder scene.”

Vassall, now retired from the force and a private investigator in Scottsdale, sees it differently: “In a perfect world, you have a crime scene, nobody’s allowed in, and nobody’s allowed out. You only have one or two people in there. But that doesn’t always happen. I don’t think there was any contamination of the crime scene, which is what you really worry about.”

DNA testing wasn’t available in 1978, but all roads led to Carpenter — Crane’s partner in porn. Not only did cops know that the pair had been fighting, there was no sign of forced entry into Crane’s apartment, which suggested that the victim knew his assailant. But there was even more damning evidence than that. “At the scene, there was blood everywhere,” Vassall recalls. “There were some traces of blood on the back of the exit door, the front door, the doorknob. There was a red stain on the curtain. We found blood in [Carpenter’s] rental car and on the passenger door. It was Crane’s blood type. Nobody else who handled that car had the same blood type as Crane. It was type B blood, all of it.”

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

But what cops found in Carpenter’s Chrysler Cordoba wasn’t enough. Absent a murder weapon, detectives couldn’t persuade the county attorney to issue an arrest warrant. However, 12 years later, Scottsdale detective Jim Raines uncovered a previously unseen crime-scene photo that showed a speck of brain tissue in Carpenter’s car. The actual tissue sample was long gone, but the image was ruled admissible by a judge, and Carpenter was eventually charged with Crane’s murder in 1992. Prosecutors had an uphill battle: DNA testing of the blood proved inconclusive, and witnesses came forward to say Crane and Carpenter had a friendly dinner the night before the killing. Carpenter’s attorney shot down speculation that a missing tripod could have been the murder weapon and reminded the jury that there was no proof of its existence. Meanwhile, Crane’s pre-dilections gave the defense plenty to play with — they suggested an enraged husband or boyfriend could have attacked the actor. Vassall doubts vengeance for an infidelity was a motive. “Bob was a non-confrontational guy, and these women liked him,” he says. “I don’t think I ever interviewed one that disliked him or was mad at him.”

In the end, there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Carpenter, who was acquitted in 1994 and died four years later. “We did the best we could,” Vassall says. “We went through all the evidence. We talked to all the witnesses that we could possibly talk to, and we came up with what we came up with. A lot of times when you have an old case like that, it’s very difficult to get a conviction. It would have been a slam dunk with the DNA testing.”

In 2016, Phoenix TV reporter John Hook convinced the county DA to allow him access to the old blood samples so he could send them to Bode Cellmark Forensics — a firm that (under a previous name and owner) helped with the JonBenét Ramsey and O.J. Simpson cases. “It’s absolutely unheard of that a county attorney’s office would allow a reporter to reopen a cold case and do DNA testing,” Hook says. It made for a compelling TV special, but the testing only revealed the presence of a previously unidentified male; the rest of the results were inconclusive.

Hook, like Vassall, believes Carpenter was Crane’s killer. Robert is willing to go along with the theory but has also pointed the finger at his stepmother, who died of lung cancer at 72 in 2007. “She was in the middle of a divorce with my dad. If there’s no divorce, she keeps what she gets, and if there’s no husband, she gets the whole thing.” Vassall and the other cops have never taken those accusations seriously.

In death, Crane got the Hollywood treatment. About 150 mourners attended the funeral at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood, Calif., including Patty Duke, John Astin, Carroll O’Connor, and Crane’s Heroes castmates. A man who’d sought love in dangerous places suddenly had it, in abundance.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

In the years since, the star’s family members have battled grief — and one another. Before her death, Patricia Olson moved her husband’s body from its original resting place to another cemetery without telling Crane’s first family, then set up a memorial website with her son Scott that peddled some of Crane’s amateur pornos. Scott Crane declined to comment for this article, but Ford says he regrets his actions and has shuttered the site. He’s now focused on getting his dad inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame, and has destroyed his father’s massive collection of Polaroids and porn films. With them goes an intriguing part of a curious Hollywood career.

Robert Crane does not speak to his step-siblings, and his mother and sisters refuse to talk about what happened so many years ago in blistering Scottsdale. “It’s bizarre to me,” he says. “I’m not expecting a let’s-hold-hands-at-the-table, but we’ve just never talked about it.” And yet, like all the strangers fascinated by the sunny public life and mysterious death of Bob Crane, he cannot seem to let it go. “I don’t know what else to do,” he says. “Carpenter’s dead. Patti’s dead. Time is just taking people away.”

Related content:

Manson speaks: Mindhunter actor on playing the cult leader again in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
‘Hollywood Ripper’ who killed Ashton Kutcher’s friend and another woman has been convicted
This summer’s buzziest thriller, The Chain starkly examines parental desperation

 

Comments