The Devil and Lorna Lax: Sympathy for the Devil

Clifford, Parents, LawyerThe Sheriff’s taskforce was briefed on Lorna’s murder twice daily. The leads all moved down the same path and every time that path led back to Clifford Fortner. There were too many discrepancies in his story. Religious tracts from Clifford’s home were found at the fort as were Clifford’s fingerprints on a teacup. On Saturday morning November 14, Lorna was seen meeting a tall pimply faced boy with a receding chin at Kent School. Inspectors suspected the boy was Clifford.

 

Clifford had previously admitted that he visited Lorna at her fort on Saturday morning. Among the items he described seeing at that time were the contents of her purse: two lipsticks; an eyebrow pencil; a mirror; and bus tickets. However, a high school girl who the sheriff did not identify, had the cosmetics in the purse she brought to the Tamalpais-Drake High School football game at College of Marin on Saturday evening. She unknowingly dropped the purse under the grandstands at about 8:00 p.m. The items were retrieved by Lorna. The cosmetics could not have been at Lorna’s fort on Saturday morning. The only way Clifford could have seen them in Lorna’s possession is if he had been with her late Saturday night.

 

On December 2, Inspectors Sears and Sargento went to the Fortner home and got Mrs. Fortner’s permission to talk to Clifford once again at Kent School, where Clifford was in the 8th grade. Inspectors Melovich and Battaglia confronted Clifford with the fact that they had the knife and that his story had discrepancies. “We brought him to the principal’s office at the school and asked him a few questions,” Inspector Battaglia said. “Then he just started talking about it, and we didn’t have to do anymore except just listen. We just let him talk and talk until we had the whole story.”

 

Clifford met Lorna Saturday morning and had sex with her at the fort. She told him that she would be at the Tamalpais-Drake football game that night. He saw Lorna at the game and she told him that she would be staying at the fort for the night. Clifford’s mother picked him up from the game and drove him the few short blocks home. The family watched Death Valley Days on television, and then Clifford and Norman went to bed. Still wearing his street clothes, Clifford slipped under the covers of the upper bunk in the bedroom he shared with Norman.

 

About midnight he crept out of bed and left for Lorna’s fort, unbeknownst to Norman or his parents. He said he had sex with Lorna again at about 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., Sunday morning. Clifford said, “All of a sudden something just came over me.” He struck Lorna over the head with a flashlight until she was unconscious. Then he got a rope near the fig tree and strung her from an overhanging branch. “He checked her pulse,” Melovich said, “and found it was still beating, even though it was weak.” He grabbed a steak knife from Lorna’s set, which she had hidden at the fort, and plunged it into her abdomen twice. He threw the knife into the bushes as her pulse weakened. He went home and crawled back into bed.

 

That was key, because Inspector Melovich found the bloody serrated kitchen knife in thick blackberry bushes about 15-feet from Lorna’s body the morning after the grisly discovery. The murder weapon belonged to a set of knives that Lorna had bought as a Christmas present for her parents. The Sheriff’s Department did not share that information out of fear that full disclosure would hinder the investigation.

 

The next morning the Fortner’s got up around 8:00 a.m. Mr. Fortner went to work and Mrs. Fortner took the children to Church, leaving only Clifford behind because he was going to a friend’s birthday party. At 10:00 a.m. he went back to see Lorna. He looked at her and knew she was dead. In a halting voice he told the Inspectors that ‘rigor mortis’ had set in. He went home, wrapped his birthday present and went to the party.

Lorna's Parents John and Amy Lax

Lorna’s Parents John and Amy Lax

On December 4, Lorna’s parents held a press conference in the living room of their modest home on Kent Avenue. Seated side by side on dining room chairs, John Lax defended his little girl in a dry, factual voice. When asked if he felt animosity toward Lorna’s admitted killer he responded quietly, “That wouldn’t help bring our girl back. We just feel empty. The only thing we want to do now is clear her name, and I think we can. We have information that Lorna did not start the club. We believe Clifford forced her into it.” Lax added bitterly, “We know that Clifford raped Lorna about four to six months ago.That was her introduction to sex.”

 

After a brief hesitation he continued, “He raped her, but she never told us a thing.” They learned of the rape after Lorna’s body was discovered on November 16. An 11-year-old playmate said Lorna told her about the assault, but said, “Don’t you tell anyone,” and she did not. After Lorna’s body was found the playmate told her mother, and the mother told Lorna’s parents. John and Amy, in turn, immediately reported the rape to Sheriff Mountanos.

 

John Lax continued, “She was only 65 pounds and physically retarded – only a child. That’s the important thing.” Lax said Lorna knew the Fortner boy. “She knew everybody in the neighborhood. She was friendly and trusting.”

 

“I’m trying to tell you about my little girl, the bad and the good, just as she was,” he continued. “After Clifford raped Lorna he had a power over her. He didn’t get into any trouble over it, and he was able to use the threat of exposure over Lorna.”

 

Then Amy Lax spoke for the first time. “We hold no grudge against him, because Lorna never held a grudge against anybody in her life.” She added, “There are other little girls Lorna’s age around here. We don’t want other families to go through what we have gone through. They can’t hurt us any more than we have been hurt, but other families could be hurt.”

 

Sheriff Mountanos responded that, “The report of Lorna’s rape is all hearsay. We were unable to confirm it. It was just something an 11-year-old girl told her mother, and the mother told the Laxes.” He continued, “When the Laxes told us about it, they reported it as an attempted rape, and Clifford has denied raping Lorna.”

 

Marin County’s first teenaged killer had found an unlikely ally in Sheriff Mountanos.

The Devil and Lorna Lax: And Then There was One

Sheriff Mountanos with Rope Used to Hang Lorna

Sheriff Mountanos with Rope Used to Hang Lorna

Sheriff Lois J. Mountanos couldn’t get out of his own way. When Lorna’s remains were discovered on November 16, 1959 the Sheriff said, “It’s a possible homicide, but we’re not ruling out suicide.” Several hours later he declared that Lorna was, “Apparently the victim of a sex maniac.” Two days after that he accused the 4’6”, 65-pound Girl Scout of being a whore, hell bent on deflowering the neighborhood boys for financial gain.

 

The Sheriff justified his character assassination thusly: “When several days passed and Kentfield parents expressed alarm over a possible sex maniac on the loose I decided to give out the facts of the club’s existence. This was partly to relieve the fear of other parents and partly to expose the shocking truth of what teenagers are capable of.” The Sheriff was the one who raised the possibility of a sex maniac, and it was only two days later that he made the salacious accusation that further victimized Lorna’s family by blaming the little girl for her own death.

 

Support for Lorna’s family evaporated like dew drops in the warm morning sun. Her parents were stunned into silence. However, next door neighbor Elizabeth Rogers was quite vocal in defense of her little friend. “Except for the possibility that an older child might have led her into it, I completely discount this business,” Mrs. Rogers declared. “I saw her daily, and she did not have those kinds of thoughts in her head.” Mrs. Rogers continued, “An older boy took Lorna to high school football games at the College of Marin field in recent weeks. He told her not to tell her parents or his about it, but she finally told her mother and father. Lorna once told me that a boy had asked her to go steady. She didn’t particularly cotton to the idea. She was too young to go steady.”

 

MapThe investigation focused on two men and the seven boy members of Lorna’s ‘club’. Based on Norman’s testimony that a man picked up scissors at the crime scene and put them in his pocket, Mountanos accused Fire Chief John McLaren of murdering Lorna. The Chief explained that he had exited the house with a knife to cut the rope and that his wife handed him scissors as he dashed out of the door. He said that he must have dropped the scissors at the scene only to pick it and take it home. The Sheriff took the scissors as potential evidence. No further action was taken.

 

The shit hit the fan over the way the seven boys were treated by Mountanos. Norman Fortner’s parents retained local attorney Thomas Boyd to represent Norman and Clifford after Kent School refused to allow Inspectors to remove Clifford from school without his parent’s permission.

Payola

At a hastily called press conference to express his anger at the Sheriff, “For the way he interrogated these boys at all hours of the night.” Mr. Boyd said, “These boys aren’t going to be interrogated anymore unless it is in my presence and in a civil way. I’m willing for the boys to undergo lie detector tests if I see the questions first. If I’m satisfied with the questions, and if I’m present. These youngsters have been questioned as though they were suspects and also for any collateral knowledge they may have of anyone else.” He continued, “They honestly don’t have any idea of who might have killed the girl, and I believe them.” Neither of the Fortner boys had, “any difficulty explaining his whereabouts on Saturday.”

 

Jeff Doherty’s father, a prosperous lumberman, complained to Undersheriff Eugene Mayer that his son was taken from his house and questioned without his consent. Mayer promised to bring it to the Sheriff’s attention. The lie detector tests were put on hold.

John and Amy Lax

Lorna’s parents John and Amy Lax

On Saturday, November 21 Lorna’s parents broke a week long silence to defend their little girl. Her dad described her as a “lonely but good girl. If she was involved in a sex club, it originated with the boys, not with her. Some of the boys were 16. She was only 12, and physically only 10. She weighed only 65 pounds.” Lorna’s mom, fighting back tears explained why they didn’t report her missing as soon as they saw Lorna’s note. “We were very concerned and looking for her, but we kept thinking that she would come back any minute as she always had.” They said that they did not ask her friends because they feared that would lead to embarrassing publicity. “But we realize now it was a great error,” her father said, hanging his head. “We should have reported it right away.”

 

With time comes clarity. By Saturday, November 28, Sheriff Mountanos announced that they had interrogated more than 50-people in the murder probe. Although progress was slow, Mountanos and his staff narrowed their focus on the boys who belonged to Lorna’s ‘club’. He said, “We’re satisfied that the killer was a juvenile, not an adult. Although at this time, of course, we are not ruling out that remote possibility.”

 

Slowly and systematically potential suspects were eliminated until only one remained. The inconsistencies in his story were too glaring to ignore. The Sheriff knew he had his man!

The Devil and Lorna Lax: Forget Me Not

Kent School 1958

Kent School Picture 1958: Norman Fortner top row, far right. Lorna Lax 3rd row srom top, 6th from left.

Twelve-year-old Lorna Lax was an adventurous little girl who had disappeared for extended periods of time on four separate occasions, so her mom was not overly concerned when she discovered her daughter’s note on Saturday, November 14, 1959. Bullied her entire life, Lorna would become ‘mad at the world’ when the taunts became more than she could endure. She would withdraw and take refuge in one of the forts that she built at home and around the neighborhood.

 

Instead of going to the city on Saturday morning as she stated in her note Lorna stayed within a few blocks of her home at 147 Kent Ave. She spent part of the morning hanging out with her friend and neighbor thirteen-year-old Norman Fortner and his fifteen-year-old brother Clifford. Lorna invited Norman to play at her fort, but he declined because he was busy with his paper route. Later that morning Lorna was seen at Kent School meeting with a tall pimply faced boy with a receding chin. Sometime around noon, Lorna rode her bike to the East side of Corte Madera Creek where she spoke briefly with Jackie Timmer, the eighth grade step-daughter of Fire Chief John McLaren. The conversation didn’t last long because Jackie was busy babysitting her seven young siblings.

Ben Hur

That evening Lorna attended a football game between Drake and Tamalpais High Schools at the College of Marin. During the game she was seen looking for dropped items under the bleachers. She left the 31-0 Tam High blowout when the game ended at 10:15. After the game, Lorna’s dad went to the stands to look for her. He knew she liked to look for things under the stands and thought he might find her there. But, he did not.

 

Norman Forther & Jeff Doherty after they discovered Lorna Lax' body

Norman Forther & Jeff Doherty after they discovered Lorna Lax’ body

At 3:30 pm on Monday, November 16, Norman Fortner finally did visit Lorna’s fort and discovered the carnage that had been inflicted on the petite seventh grader. He ran to the College of Marin tennis courts where he found fourteen-year-old Jeff Doherty. “Come look what I found,” he implored. After witnessing the grisly scene the boys ran to the Lax home to get help. They returned to the thicket with Amy Lax. When she saw her battered and lifeless daughter Amy nearly collapsed. Norman said, “She was hysterical and screaming for help.”

 

Chief McLaren was awakened from a nap, “by the wife and kids screaming.” When he realized that someone had been hanged the chief grabbed a butcher knife to cut the rope. “My wife handed me a pair of scissors on the way out the door,” he said. “I started to cut the rope, but something made me back away. I knew I was too late.”

 

Marin County Sheriff Louis Mountanos led the investigation into Lorna’s death. Sheriff’s Deputy Edmond Mauberret was the first officer at the scene. Inspector Mike Melovich, Identification Chief Earl Cummesky, Identification Technician Ramond Barton and Deputy Douglas Gledhill soon arrived to secure the crime scene. Inspectors Bowen Bridges and Carl Sears rounded out the investigative team.

Atomic PowerDressed only in a blue pajama top, Lorna’s unblinking hazel eyes stared upward toward the fig branch securing the noose that held her head a foot off the ground. Her legs were stuffed into one of two sleeping bags at the scene. Under the sleeping bag were a quilt, three blankets, and a peach colored chenille bedspread. None of the items came from the Lax household. Her clothing lay beside the little redhead’s body. Some in a box, and the rest were folded neatly. They included a pair of jeans, a denim jacket, blue sweatshirt, underwear, shoes and bobby sox. None were torn. Other items found in the fort included candles, silverware, plates, and soft drink bottles. The weapon used to stab Lorna was not immediately located at the scene.

 

 

Over the course of the next several hours investigators scoured the crime scene for the murder weapon. The two boys who discovered the body were questioned at length. Norman told the investigators that he saw the man at the scene pick a pair of scissors off the ground and put them in his back pocket.

McCovey

After receiving an initial briefing Sheriff Mountanos said, “It’s a possible homicide, but we’re not ruling out suicide.” However, before wrapping the first day of the investigation at 11:00 p.m., the Sheriff declared that Lorna was, “Apparently the victim of a sex maniac,” before concluding that, “There’s no more we can do right now. We’ll pick it up in the morning.”

 

 

On Wednesday, November 18, Sheriff’s Inspector Bowen Bridges said, “The autopsy showed she definitely had been slain. She had been stabbed twice and the wounds were 4 ½ inches deep. As in many cases hesitation marks surrounded the wounds. She also had been beaten about the head with heavy blows.” Inspector Bridges also stated that there had been some “sexual mistreatment.” Dr. John Manwaring said the stab wounds could have caused death through internal bleeding or she could have been choked to death by the rope.

Lung Cancer

On Wednesday, November 18, Sheriff Mountanos dropped a bombshell. In a classic example of blaming the victim the Sheriff held a press conference and declared that Lorna was running a sex club out of her makeshift fort. He based the accusation on interviews with seven neighborhood boys, ages 12 through 16, including the Fortner boys and Jeff Doherty. Mountanos said Lorna, “charged an eighty-five cent initiation fee for club membership. Other charges for club members ranged from thirty-five cents to one dollar.” He said the last known tryst occurred on Saturday morning. “My theory,” the Sheriff said, “is that there was a sexual act committed without force shortly before death occurred. Whoever killed Lorna may have been afraid that she would talk.”

 

Headstone

Lorna Lax tombstone

On Thursday, November 19, Lorna’s remains were released to the Leary Brothers Mortuary in San Francisco for private burial. The Catholic Church denied Lorna a Christian burial because she had died in ‘infamy’ so her family held a private service at the Golden Gate National Cemetery. Her last name was left off of her headstone.

The Devil and Lorna Lax: Little Girl Lost

Lorna LaxMy wife has strolled along the path at Corte Madera Creek in Kentfield, California almost every work day for the past 5-years. Occasionally, she will call to tell me that a deer has crossed her path, or that she is joining friends for lunch at one of the charming restaurants near her office. However, until recently she had no way of knowing that decades earlier, in the waning hours of November 14, 1959, twelve-year-old Lorna Jane Lax was savagely raped and murdered along this same creek bank. Violet would have felt far less secure had she known that Lorna’s killer, who lived in Marin County until his death in 2012, was never punished for the vicious, predatory crime that he confessed to having committed.

 

Lorna Lax was not expected to live when she was born at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco on March 27, 1947. Her mother Amy said, “She arrived in this world with not two, but four strikes against her. She was not able to feed, had a cleft palate, and a collapsed lung which required oxygen for the first four months of her life.” The cleft palate caused Lorna’s arms to be splinted so that she couldn’t put her tiny hands into her mouth. She couldn’t suck so she was fed through a tube in her nose. The staff told Amy not to visit too often. “It makes it hard on the nurses because she cries when you leave.”

 

EdselAfter six months her arms were liberated from the splints, she was discharged from the hospital and taken home to 636 Missouri Street in San Francisco. Over the course of the next several years John and Amy Lax focused on their daughter’s health and wellbeing. “We struggled to correct her inherent handicaps,” her mom said. “After four major operations and four years of speech therapy, Lorna could now speak almost as well as a normal eight-year-old.” In 1955, John and Amy wanted to give their tiny, eccentric child a chance at acceptance so they moved across the Golden Gate Bridge to the bucolic Marin County suburb of Kentfield.

 

Lorna was a 4’6″ tall, 65 pound red headed stick of a girl who attended church with her mother twice a week and earned numerous Girl Scout merit badges. She was popular in her neighborhood and liked to help her friends by staging little puppet shows or circuses. She charged the kids whatever they could afford and then bought them ice cream with the proceeds. She was an athletic girl who would rather swim than go to a movie and could occasionally be found sleeping under the stars on the neighbor’s deck.

KrushchevLorna was also a troubled child with explosive, dark secrets that she held close, too close, until it was too late. Her cleft palate had not been totally corrected so she suffered from hypernasality, a speech impediment caused when air leaks from the nose during speech. This contributed to bullying that continued even after the family moved to Kentfield. The little girl who wanted nothing more than to fit in was deeply wounded by the sharp barbs of her tormenters. She regularly returned home from school sobbing and holding a grudge against the world.

 

When she was eleven Lorna started leaving home for extended periods of time. One time after a quarell with her mother she was found sleeping in a bus at Kentfield’s Greyhound Station. Another time Lorna was found wrapped in a neighbor’s discarded comforter, nestled in the trees along the bank of Corte Madera Creek. In September, 1959 the police were alerted when Lorna tried to check into a Sacramento motel where she and a girlfriend hoped to attend the State Fair.

 

In the spring of her twelfth year Lorna began to turn inward, keeping her own counsel and closing out her parents. John and Amy sought psychiatric counseling in hopes of understanding her dark moods and reconnecting with their daughter.

 

Last NoteOn Saturday morning November 14, 1959 Lorna left her mother a note. “Dear Mom, I’m mad at the world, so there is only one thing I know to do and that’s get away from these seroundings. So I’m leaveing. I’ll promise to be back Sunday morning. I’m going to the city. Your daughter, Lorna Lax.”

 

Lorna was a devout Catholic who had not missed church since she was six-years-old, so when she had not returned home by Sunday, November 15, her parents called the police. On Monday, November 16, her friends and family began posting missing flyers in and around Kentfield.

 

The little redhead’s ravaged and beaten body was discovered at 3:30 Monday afternoon when her thirteen-year-old friend Norman Fortner stopped to check out the fort Lorna hacked out of the wild blackberry bushes on the bank of Corte Madera Creek, about a block from her home.

 

She was wearing a blue pajama top, her legs were stuffed into a sleeping bag, and her body was held erect by a rope knotted around her neck and lashed to an overhanging fig tree branch. Her head had been bashed in and she had been stabbed in the abdomen six times. Her shoes and bobby sox were placed neatly side by side next to the sleeping bag. Make no mistake: it was a scene reminiscent of Jack the Ripper.

 

On Monday

The Devil and Lorna Lax: Forget Me Not