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The Unsolved Murder of Shirley Fawcett-Kivlin

Hello, my loyal true crime readers! I’m excited to present a guest post by Shana Gammon. Shana has an undergraduate degree in journalism from Liberty University and a Masters of Liberal Studies from Fort Hays State University. She currently teaches cultural studies at both American InterContinental University and Liberty University. Shana’s first true crime book will be published in early 2022.

You can find Shana on Facebook and Telegram to discuss this case or to chat about true crime. Also, you can contact her via email at shana_gammon@ yahoo.com. As always, thanks for reading!

Lost Minutes

On the morning of Wednesday, December 3rd, 1951, Culver City police officers Bill Hildebrand, Mike Martin, and Bob Condon received a report of an alleged set-up that had taken place on November 21st inside a motel room off W. Washington Boulevard. The subjects involved were divorced optometrist Dr. William L. Barkin and Shirley Kivlin, an attractive divorcee who moonlighted as a private investigator.

Detectives were determined to question the private investigator the next day, but by that evening the auburn-haired sleuth would be dead, leaving behind a trail of unanswered questions.

**********

For Shirley Yvonne Kivlin, life would take her from the cornfields of Iowa where she was born in 1927, to Nevada, and then to the beaches of Southern California. Her childhood and teen years were rather uneventful – unlike her death, there is little to write about. Growing up in Long Beach, the only child of Alfred Fawcett, a Navy war veteran and insurance adjuster, and Helen Brock, a homemaker, Shirley attended Polytechnic High School. There she was a member of the Ushers’ Club, Alpha Delta Chi, and the Salesmanship Club. As part of Stage Costume, she worked behind the scenes on Poly’s Christmas concerts and plays. But it was likely her looks that landed the pretty teen a job as a part-time student.

fashion model for Walker’s – a department store in Long Beach. Walker’s featured a Hi-Teen shop, and in a smart public relations move offered girls from area high schools the opportunity to apply to become a “Campus Star” by being a part of their Teen Fashion Council. Shirley was chosen as one of the representatives for Polytechnic and was featured prominently in their newspaper ads.

After high school in the late 1940s, Shirley’s path would cross with former Marine Lt. Robert V. Kivlin, Jr. an aspiring professional golfer. Five years her senior, the decorated war veteran had received numerous medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, for his work in the Pacific. Not long after their marriage, they would welcome a daughter – Cheryl Lee. And from the outside they looked like a picture-perfect family – the former teen model, the dashing war veteran turned golf pro, and their beautiful baby girl. But by 1950 things had changed. For reasons unknown, Shirley left her husband and filed for divorce. The divorce was finalized in June and Shirley was granted custody of Cheryl Lee.

As a single mother now in charge of supporting herself and her toddler, Shirley relocated to an apartment in Culver City off of Lucerne Ave., and she and Cheryl Lee became roommates with Margaret Mattier, also a divorcee. Kivlin’s primary job was working for an oil company, but it seemed to be by choice rather than need that she worked a second job as a part-time private investigator for C. N. Duber – the well-connected owner of Clyde N. Duber and Associates, “the hottest agency in town” (Kinnett). Duber hailed from Chicago and even though he had only been in business in Los Angeles for a little over 10 years, he had already amassed an extensive and high-profile resume. The bulk of his work came from divorce cases and Lana Turner was just one celebrity on his star-studded client roster. How Shirley came to be employed by Duber is unclear.

**********

On Monday, December 3rd, Duber contacted Shirley to see if she would take an assignment in Long Beach. He wanted her to work for him later that day with investigator, and fellow Culver City resident, Fred Yeager. Shirley accepted and arrived at Duber’s office later that afternoon at 1:30. As Duber would later tell investigators, Shirley seemed to be in a good mood when she arrived at the office and informed him that she had quit her job at the oil company. She would leave the office briefly to pick up a fur coat and hat she had restyled and upon returning would join the men in a drink before leaving for their assignment.

Driving in Duber’s 1951 powder blue Cadillac convertible, the three made their way to Long Beach, the lady investigator no doubt cutting a striking figure dressed in her silver fox fur coat and a grey pillbox hat with red bow and grey veil. Along the way, the group would stop at a café for another drink, where Shirley had a vodka and orange juice cocktail.

Shirley Fawcett-Kivlin

Shirley Fawcett-Kivlin
Source: USC Digital Library, Los Angeles Examiner Collection

According to one statement by Duber, there was nothing about Shirley’s behavior during the trip that seemed out of the ordinary – the conversation was casual with Shirley mentioning her daughter. But Duber would later say that Shirley seemed depressed during the drive and talked about her failed marriage. According to Duber, Shirley was also having financial problems.

When the trio arrived in Long Beach at the office of Dr. Carlyle Ahrens, off Long Beach Boulevard, Duber would state,

“‘He went into the office leaving Yeager and the girl in his car.’

As he entered, Duber said he heard Miss Kivlin call, ‘I’ve got a girlfriend living near here.

I’m going to go see her.’ Duber said he told her not to take his car, then left” (“Inquest”).

Yeager and Kivlin were left alone to wait outside for approximately an hour and a half, and it was during this time that things took a strange and baffling turn.

With time on their hands, Yeager decided to walk across the street to a filling station. While inside the station’s restroom, he claimed Shirley drove off in Duber’s car. He estimated that she was gone for approximately 30 minutes, and when she returned he thought she appeared confused. He also stated that “…she bumped her head slightly on the steering wheel while reaching for the cigarette lighter, murmured ‘Oh’, and rubbed her head” (“Woman”).

After bumping her head, Shirley fell unconscious, but Yeager would state that prior to lapsing into unconsciousness, Shirley wrote something on a piece of paper. He thought little of the incident – assuming she had passed out due to her drinking – so he left the car and waited outside the doctor’s office entrance for Duber until he emerged, around 7:00p.m. Frustrated, Yeager explained to Duber that Kivlin had taken the car while Duber was inside and that he thought she was intoxicated. Duber would say that when he and Yeager got into the car, he asked Shirley where she had been, but her reply was unintelligible (“Inquest”).

During testimony at the coroner’s inquest, Duber claimed, “Fred said, ‘She’s tired. Let her sleep.’ She put her head in Fred’s lap. We drove back to Los Angeles” (“Jury”).

What Yeager didn’t realize was that the glamorous detective sleeping on his lap had neither passed out due to excessive drinking, nor was she just tired. Shirley had lapsed into a coma due to a single, lethal overdose of barbiturates – specifically Secanol.

Approximately 40 minutes later, when the group arrived back in Los Angeles, they picked up Yeager’s car at a garage, and Yeager followed behind Duber, making their way to Lucerne Ave. Once there, Yeager and Duber helped Shirley into her apartment and placed her on the sofa.

“‘At her house was the first time I found out we couldn’t arouse her,’ he (Duber) said. ‘I tried to shake her, and we put water on her head’” (“Inquest”).

Yeager would claim that he went across the street to purchase smelling salts to revive her. When the smelling salts failed work, he and Duber called the fire department and an inhalator squad. Officers Seymour Cadis and Robert Englander would also arrive a short time later. Duber would state that they also contacted Dr. Roland Perlmutter to assist. However, efforts made to revive Shirley would prove futile and shortly after10:00 p.m. she was pronounced dead – three weeks before her 24th birthday.

**********

When news of Shirley’s death emerged, so did Barkin’s story of the alleged sting operation. Barkin, who was in the middle of a bitter custody battle with his remarried ex-wife, claimed that Shirley came to his office for an eye exam on November 21st, using the name of her mother, Helen Fawcett.

“He said she told him she was lonely and that her husband was away most of the time.

Then she said she had to meet some friends in Culver City but didn’t have any way to get there.

‘I offered to drive her,’ Barkin said, ‘and she readily accepted. She insisted I have a couple of drinks with her.’

‘When her friends didn’t show up, she suggested that they go for a ride,’ Barkin said. ‘At her suggestion, we went to a motel at 5775 W. Washington Blvd.’

Inside the cabin, she stripped down to her slip and Dr. Barkin said he had taken his coat and shirt off when Duber burst into the room with two other men and a camera.

He said Duber pointed to one of the two men and said, ‘He is this woman’s husband and I represent him. You will be named as correspondent in a divorce suit.’

Barkin said he later saw Mrs. Kivlin drive away with Duber” (“Murder Clue”).

Barkin’s allegations added a layer of sex appeal and sensationalism to an already tragic and mysterious story. Newspapers were quick to pick it up and create an image of Shirley that would sell papers, describing her as a “lure girl” (“Fail”).

The story reached an audience well outside California’s borders – including Miami, where Robert Kivlin was playing in a golf tournament. Upon seeing a photo of his ex-wife and reading of her death, he immediately traveled to California.

As the story gained momentum, Culver City Police Chief O.B. Olsen came forward to address the media. He would reveal that he had been investigating reports regarding Shirley’s work methods for Duber – methods that were also allegedly being investigated by the Detective License Bureau of the State Department of Professional and Vocational Standards. But were these luring incidents tied to her death?

**********

As the investigation began that Christmas season, police were faced with three possible scenarios for Shirley’s death – suicide, murder, or accident. The first theory, suicide, seemed unlikely, due in part to her father (who had just seen Shirley the month before) stating that Shirley was always in good spirits and never took any pill stronger than an aspirin, and Robert Kivlin saying that Shirley did not take sleeping pills and that she had never tried to commit suicide when they were together.

The case for murder appeared to become clearer. Investigators told the press that while investigating Shirley’s death, they had learned of three people that they felt had reason to kill Shirley (none of which were named publicly). They alluded to the possibility of a jealous lover or disgruntled client being responsible for her death. They would also mention that Shirley had quarrelled with a boyfriend a few days prior due to the type of work she was doing for Duber’s agency.

And Duber offered evidence to support the murder theory, when upon questioning he told investigators that two days before she died Shirley had told him that she felt she was being shadowed. He claimed that Shirley phoned him a few days prior to her death to tell him that she had been followed twice that day when she was out running errands. This was not the first time she felt she had been followed.

But as the days passed, no prime suspect emerged in Shirley’s mysterious death, and police were left desperately trying to piece together Shirley’s movements during the 30-minute timeframe in which she allegedly took Duber’s car and drove around Long Beach.

Although police would receive an anonymous letter stating that Shirley’s murderer could be found in an obscure rooming house in Long Beach (a tip that would later be proven false), there seemed to be few people coming forward with credible leads, except one – Louis Dickerson, an operator for Los Angeles Transit. Dickerson was confident that he had seen Shirley around 3:00p.m. on the 3rd during the time she had left Duber’s office to pick up her coat and hat. According to Dickerson, Shirley asked him for change and then entered a drugstore near where he was sitting. To him, it looked like she was meeting someone there, and when she emerged, she was with a man who had a hold of her arm. Together, they walked down the street.

Homicide detectives seemed to believe Dickerson’s story. They allowed him to go with them as they questioned Shirley’s friends, telling them he was a policeman. But none of Shirley’s friends had seen her that night, including the one she claimed she was going to see in Long Beach – Fay Clemer. According to Clemer, Shirley never came to see her, and Fay stated she was at home all evening.

Investigators would also speculate that perhaps Shirley had spent those lost 30 minutes at a Long Beach area bar, but which bar was a mystery. Throughout the following days, police would plead with the public to contact them if anyone had seen Shirley during the late afternoon and evening of December 3rd. And on December 8th, during Shirley’s funeral service at Inglewood Park Cemetery, investigators would observe those in attendance, jotting down license plate numbers and looking for anyone who might be involved in her death.

**********

Clyde Duber and Fred Yeager

Clyde Duber and Fred Yeager
Source: USC Digital Library, Los Angeles Examiner Collection

When the results of Shirley’s autopsy were released, it would reveal that barbiturate poisoning had caused her death. Dr. Frederick D. Newbarr, Chief County Autopsy Surgeon, would explain to the press that the amount of Secanol found in Shirley’s body equaled 5-15 tablets and would have proven fatal between 15-30 minutes after the drugs entered her system. Possession of this amount of Seconal could have only been prescribed by a doctor, but who the doctor was or how the drugs had been obtained was another mystery. Newbarr also stated that it was unlikely the drugs had been given to her by force or without her knowing (“Inquest”).

Perhaps surprisingly, even though Yeager and Duber both claimed Shirley had been drinking before arriving in Long Beach, the autopsy report ruled out the possibility of alcohol poisoning. The levels of alcohol in her bloodstream did not equal levels that would merit intoxication. Tests also confirmed that even though Shirley had bumped her head on the steering wheel after she returned from her drive – she had also contracted a head injury a few days prior in an automobile accident – a head injury did not play any part in her sudden death.

The results of the autopsy, combined with information investigators had been able to glean, would result in a coroner’s inquest. On Thursday, December 13th a seven-man jury attempted to determine who had caused Shirley’s death. Sixteen witnesses would be called to testify at the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles, but it was one man that the prosecution seemed focused on – Clyde Duber. Sitting in the front row to listen to one of the men who last saw Shirley alive was Alfred Fawcett and Robert Kivlin.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times,

“Lt. Edward A Maier, a Culver City detective who was called to Mrs. Kivlin’s home about 9:35 p.m. the day of her death, caused a stir in the inquest room when he testified Duber had told him he ‘wanted to get rid of her.’

‘Did you talk with Duber about Mrs. Kivlin two weeks before her death?’ asked Dep. Dist. Atty. Richard Pachtman.

Maier said he had.

‘Do you remember him saying she was getting too serious and he wanted to get rid of her?’

Pachtman pressed. ‘He did say she was getting pretty serious and he would like to get rid of her, but he didn’t elaborate,’ Maier testified.

Shortly thereafter, Duber, who had already testified at length, was recalled to the witness stand by his counsel, Saul J. Bernard. He was asked to repeat the conversation he had with Maier.

‘Maier asked me if I still had that pretty girl Shirley working for me,’ Duber said. ‘I said I had but that I had to let her go because she was getting too serious about her job. It was only part-time and I didn’t have enough work for her full time. She wanted to quit her regular job and go to work for me’” (“Divorcee”).

But Pachtman was undeterred, and would later take questions to a personal level when interviewing Duber regarding his relationship with Kivlin.

“‘Was Mrs. Kivlin ever your girl friend?’ ‘No,’ snapped the witness.

‘Did you ever take her out?’

‘On jobs, yes.’

‘I mean on dates,’ Pachtman insisted.

‘In our business,’ Duber said, ‘jobs are dates’” (“Divorcee”).

Duber would state during his testimony that he had no romantic interest in Shirley and offered that perhaps Shirley had committed suicide.

When Margaret Mattier took the stand, she testified that Duber had visited the apartment at least 10-15 times since she began rooming with Shirley. She would also support both Fawcett and Kivlin’s previous claims, testifying that she had never seen Shirley do any type of drugs and was unaware of any reason why Shirley would want to commit suicide (“Inquest”).

The District Attorney also called Dr. Newbarr to the stand, who pointed out the amount of time it took for the barbiturates to take effect. His statement made it clear that the drugs Shirley took were taken during the time she had been with Duber and Yeager (“Inquest”). But were the drugs taken in their presence, or during the 30 minutes when Shirley said she was going to see a friend? It was a question that even Newbarr seemed to not have the answer to. He could only offer that Seconal’s bitter taste would have been hard to disguise in a drink (“Inquest”).

After hearing the evidence presented during the inquest, the jury deliberated for 15 minutes, delivering a decision that gave little closure to the case or Shirley’s family. Unable to decide if Kivlin’s death was due to suicide, murder, or the result of an accident, their verdict was “open.”

Police stated after the verdict that they would continue to pursue the case, and four days before Christmas Shirley’s death would make headlines once again. The Los Angeles Times reported:

“Three Culver City policeman escorted a 24 year-old El Monte blonde to the office of Dist. Atty. Roll with a strange story of prospective substitute motherhood involving a wealthy childless couple. Some time ago a wealthy couple asked their lawyer to find a young woman who would become a member of their household to bare a baby for the wife who is sterile. When the baby was born the woman was to drop out of the picture and the child would be reared as the couple’s own.

The lawyer was told Duber of the situation, and he told a number of friends, among them some police officers. Later, a police officer who Duber declined to identify, told the El Monte woman of the situation, and she applied through Duber for the fantastic assignment.

But after being outfitted with a complete wardrobe, and living in the house for a week, the woman changed her mind, and dropped out of the picture. This was after she had been taken to a Long Beach physician for a physical examination to determine if she was capable of discharging the assignment, Roll was told.

The Culver City police, hearing of the incident, began an investigation, resulting in locating the woman, and projected their inquiry into the question of whether Duber’s own assistant had been considered as the ‘substitute mother’” (“Substitute”).

Duber would deny these allegations, stating that they were political payback for undercover work he had done in the Culver City area for a former politician.

**********

On December 7th, the day before Shirley’s funeral, a photo of her dressed in her fox fur coat and hat would share the cover of the Daily News along with a press photo of actress Piper Laurie. Inside was another story concerning Shirley’s investigation. The article would give a brief glimpse into Shirley’s thoughts and actions in the days leading up to her death. “Among her effects, investigators would find several torn photos, one of which showed Shirley and her boss in a chummy pose at a nightclub over a cocktail. Shirley was wearing a low-cut, strapless evening dress” (“Private”). Why Shirley tore the photos is puzzling.

Like her death, many of the beautiful detective’s actions came with questions. With many of the main characters in Shirley’s drama now deceased, the answer to who caused her death and why might always remain a mystery.

Fascinated by bizarre mysteries? Check out our article on the unsolved murder of Henry Bedard Jr. and our audio file on the unsolved murder of Margaret Rosewarne.

Bibliography:

“Divorcee Death Deepens After Inquest.” Newspapers.com, Los Angeles Times, 14 Dec. 1951, www.newspapers.com/image/381315322/?terms=pachtman&match=1.

“Fail to Determine ‘Lure Girl’ Death.” Newspapers.com, Wilmington Daily Press Journal, 14 Dec. 1951, www.newspapers.com/image/359422288/?terms=lure%20girl&match=1.

“Inquest Fails to Solve Death.” Newspapers.com, Daily News/Los Angeles, 13 Dec. 1951, www.newspapers.com/image/689603036/? terms=couldn%27t%20arouse%20her&match=1.

“Jury Undecided in Girl Detective Case.” Newspapers.com, The Independent, 13 Dec. 1951, www.newspapers.com/image/718692694/?terms=kivlin&match=1.

Kennett, Jack. “No Heroics for the Private Eye.” Newspapers.com, Daily News, 30 Oct. 1951, www.newspapers.com/image/689604084/?terms=duber%20divorce&match=1.

“Murder Clue in ‘Man Trap’ Death Sought.” Newspapers.com, The Mirror News, 6 Dec. 1951, www.newspapers.com/image/693530890/?terms=barkin&match=1.

“Substitute Mother Deal Investigated by Roll.” Newspapers.com, The Los Angeles Times, 21 Dec. 1951, www.newspapers.com/image/381049883/?terms=fred%20yeager&match=1.

“Private Eye’s ‘Lure Girl’ Said Killed by Poisoning.” Newspapers.com, Daily News/Los Angeles, 7 Dec. 1951, www.newspapers.com/image/689602750/.

“Woman Detective Murder Suspected.” Newspapers.com, Daily News/Los Angeles, 7 Dec. 1951, www.newspapers.com/image/689602750/.

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3 Comments

  1. Interesting story – were there many female PIs in Los Angeles in the early 1950’s?

    • Christine Christine

      Great question! I’m not sure… but I doubt it. Hopefully Shana, the author of the guest post, sees this comment and chimes in. Shana can likely speak to this more than I can. Thanks for reading!

    • Shana Gammon Shana Gammon

      Graham,
      Duber had hired another PI before Shirley, so I’m thinking there were. However, I don’t think it was the norm.

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