Old Hollywood siren and “Blonde Sweater Girl” Lana Turner had married four times by the time she met mobster Johnny Stompanato. After a period of stalking and incessant phone calls, she eventually gave in and started dating him, but she was totally unaware of his true nature. And it almost cost Lana her life.
Luckily for the actress, her only child Cheryl was utterly devoted to her and watched her every move. At only 14 years old she took matters into her own hands, but it landed her on trial. Theories still persist today about what really went on at Lana’s house that fateful night in 1958, and as you’ll come to see, Lana was in a dire situation.
Lana’s Mom Was 14 When She Met Her Dad, the Same Age as Lana’s Daughter Would Be When She Committed the Heinous Crime
The first thing to know about Lana’s family history is that her parents’ relationship was very controversial. Her mom Mildred was just 14 years old when she met and started dating Lana’s father John, who was 10 years her senior. Mildred was only 16 when she gave birth to Lana, then named Julia.
Mildred’s father disapproved of her age-gap relationship, so the couple fled to Idaho to be together. They married, but struggled to bring earn enough money, and eventually separated when Lana was six. In the three years that followed, Lana developed an interest in dancing, but a huge family tragedy was just around the corner.
Lana’s Dad Won Some Money Gambling in a Dice Game but Was Robbed and Beaten to Death on His Walk Home
Things went wrong, ironically, the night that Lana’s father John ran into a spot of good luck. He had been playing a craps game with a group of people when he walked away victorious, winning all the earnings that night. John did the sensible thing and packed his earnings away safely, taking off one of his socks and stuffing all the cash in there. His elation was short-lived, as he was found bludgeoned to death in the Potrero Hill and the Dogpatch District of San Francisco.
His body was found on a street corner between Minnesota and Mariposa, missing a sock, a shoe, and the money he’d won the night before. John’s death had a huge impact on young Lana, who later stated: “I know that my father’s sweetness and gaiety, his warmth, and his tragedy, have never been far from me. That, and a sense of loss and of growing up too fast.”
Lana Went From “Living on Crackers and Milk for Half a Week” To Aspiring To Become a Nun
After her father’s death, money became even more sparse for Lana and her mom. She was sent to live with family, friends, or barely-known acquaintances to give her mom a financial break, including one family who would “treat her like a servant.” During these difficult years, Lana recalled how she would sometimes be “living on crackers and milk for half a week.”
It was during this period that she started to lean more on her Christian beliefs. She was baptized as a Protestant, but one of her foster families introduced her to Catholicism and it resonated with her deeply. She asked to convert formally at the young age of seven, and has dreams of becoming a nun in adulthood. Years later, she began attending the Convent of the Immaculate Conception in order to pursue her nun ambitions.
Lana Turner Walked Down the Aisle Eight Times in Her Life, but None of Husbands Stuck Around for Long
The first thing to know about Lana, before diving into her relationship with a mobster, is that she was married eight times throughout her life. In the 40s, Lana was the ultimate sex symbol, but despite how men were falling at her feet, she failed to find someone who could give her what she really wanted. According to Lana, she only really longed for “security and peace.”
A total of eight times Lana took the plunge and got married, hoping to have finally found Mr. Right. She had eight weddings, but to seven different men – she remarried Joseph Stephen Crane, pictured, for a second time in the 40s. As Lana once stated, “My goal was to have one husband and seven children, but it turned out to be the other way around.”
Cheryl Had Always Been an Object of Intense Media Attention as the Daughter of a Pin-up Model
That brings us to her daughter, Cheryl. In 1943, Lana gave birth to the only child she would ever come to have – Cheryl Crane. Lana was part of a rare blood group and was advised by her doctor to abort Cheryl while she was still a fetus, but Lana refused. At the time, Lana had just divorced Stephen Crane, but they eloped once more once they found out Lana was pregnant with his baby.
Ever since she was a little girl, Cheryl had always been the object of intense media attention. Her mom was a Golden Age sex symbol after all, whose romantic affairs were widely reported on. Once Cheryl became a teenager, she entered into modeling to try and follow in her mother’s glamorous showbiz footsteps.
Cheryl Was Totally Devoted to Her Mega-famous Mother, but Lana Was Too Busy Worrying About Her Career
Cheryl’s childhood was challenging for more reasons than one. Aside from the media attention, Cheryl craved attention from her mom, but Lana was just too busy to give it to her. Nonetheless, she remained totally devoted to Lana in her younger years, and accepted that her mom had more pressing matters to attend to.
Years later, Cheryl recalled her relationship with her famous parents, remembering that she was “enthralled by them, but I lived at a distance, their princess in a tower.” She also described living with Lana was like living “life in a goldfish bowl,” as Lana’s every move was being watched. But she still remained utterly devoted to the silver screen actress and would give anything to make her proud.
Lana Plants a Deadly Seed in Cheryl’s Mind the Day That She Almost Killed Her Fourth Husband
Lana was already four times divorced before Cheryl turned 14. When it came to Lana’s fourth husband, Tarzan actor Lex Barker, Lana’s reaction to hearing the truth about him may have greatly influenced her young and impressionable daughter. Cheryl claimed that Lex had abused her from the age of 10 to 13, and Lana freaked out.
Upon hearing the news, Lana immediately drove home to fetch her gun. She held the weapon to a sleeping Lex’s head that night, and almost pulled the trigger. In the end, she decided against killing him, and ordered him out of their home the next morning. Arguably, Lana’s resolution to take Lex’s life, if even for a few moments, might have played a huge part in what was to come.
Lana Was Too Focused On Her Romantic Liaisons To Have Given Cheryl the Attention That She Needed
You’re probably wondering what the pressing matters in Lana’s life were that took her attention away from her only daughter. The truth is, Lana was ambitious and wanted to stay relevant in Hollywood, so she continued taking on movie roles and working on her career. But there was one other aspect of Lana’s life that took away much of her attention – her love life.
As stated, Lana had already been married four times before Cheryl turned 14, and that’s not to mention all the lovers throughout those years, too. Cheryl would refer to the string of men she brought home as “uncles,” all the while quietly aching for Lana’s love and attention. Years later, Cheryl admitted sneaking into her mother’s closet just to “inhale her essence.”
Even When Cheryl Reached Out for Affection, Lana Would Push Her Away for Fearing of Messing up Her Makeup
What happened when Cheryl did reach out for love and affection? Well, Lana always had her appearance to consider, and it usually got in the way. Cheryl would later explain how when she reached out for a hug, Lana would refuse so as to not mess up her perfectly manicured image.
“I knew never to touch pretty Mommy, her hair, her makeup, her dress,” Cheryl later stated. Lana prioritized her image and ultimately herself, at the expense of her daughter. But if Cheryl insisted on physical affection, she would be met with soft resistance: “The hair. Sweetheart, the lipstick.”
Johnny Forces His Way Into Lana’s Life in the Form of a Secret Admirer
It was in 1957 when Johnny Stompanato entered Lana’s life for the first time. But right from the start, there were major red flags. Lana was starring in The Lady Takes a Flyer and while on set, she started receiving flowers from a secret admirer and getting phone calls from a man who called himself John Steele. It was Johnny Stompanato, but he wasn’t willing to reveal his true identity just yet.
But he didn’t stop at just flowers and phone calls. After the movie’s release in 1958, Johnny turned it up a notch. He started sending all manner of gifts to Lana, and it eventually wore her down. She found herself becoming intrigued by this generous mystery man, and described herself as feeling “thoroughly intrigued” at the time. Soon enough, Johnny and Lana were dating.
Johnny Stompanato Hid His True Occupation From Lana as a Mafia Hitman
Johnny Stompanato used a fake name at first because he didn’t want Lana to find out the truth about his life. He was a former United States Marine who turned to crime and became a mobster. When he met Lana, he was working for Los Angeles mafia boss Mickey Cohen as his bodyguard and enforcer. But he knew Lana wouldn’t want anything to do with him if she found out.
In 1958, when Johnny started forcing his way into Lana’s life, she said that she had met a “very nice gentleman” and that “she liked this guy before [she’d] even met him.” She had no idea about his ties to the Los Angeles mafia, and Johnny intended to keep it that way for as long as possible.
Johnny Curried Favor With Cheryl by Giving Her a Job at His Front Company
At the start of Lana and Johnny’s relationship, he was on his best behavior. He made sure to be nice to her only child Cheryl, which included letting the teenager ride his horse. They seemed to be developing a real friendship, with Johnny eventually even acting as Cheryl’s trusted confidant.
Johnny even went to the trouble of giving Cheryl a part-time job at one of his dodgy companies. It wasn’t so much an actual company, but more of a legal facade – it was used to hide money laundering and any other illegal doings. Either way, Johnny was cunningly embedding himself in Lana and Cheryl’s lives.
Johnny Was Proving To Be Too Clingy and Lana Wanted To Leave the Possessive Relationship
Despite Cheryl’s acceptance of Johnny, Lana started to have second thoughts. She found out through a friend that Johnny was a mobster, and wanted to end things with Johnny immediately. After confronting him, he explained that Lana would have never given him a chance had she known the whole truth. But their relationship didn’t end there.
Lana was also going through a lull in her career at the time. She was still a drop-dead gorgeous Silver Screen actress, but her relationship with Johnny began to look ever more unattractive to her. He had told her that he’d “never let her go,” but that was looking less cute with each passing day. Finally, she told Johnny that she would be going to the 1958 Academy Awards without him, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Lana’s Relationship With the Mobster Soon Turned Abusive and She Was Blackmailed Into Staying
Johnny didn’t take the news too well. When Lana told him she’d be attending the awards without Johnny by her side, he began pleading and even became aggressive. Over the course of the next few months, he would continue to exhibit aggressive behavior, and his relationship with Lana turned into an abusive one.
Cheryl was even a witness to some of the physical abuse. Johnny was prone to rage but after every argument, the pair would eventually make up. Lana was trapped in a toxic spiral, not least of all because Johnny had taken photos of her in the nude without her permission, and was willing to use the photos as blackmail.
Setting the Scene of the Night That the Deadly Incident Took Place
On the night of April 4th 1958, Cheryl had been in her bedroom upstairs when Lana came in to have a word. “I went upstairs to do a book report and mother came in and said, ‘I’m going to ask John to leave. I don’t want you to come downstairs but if you hear us arguing that’s what it’s about,'” Cheryl told KMIR 6 News.
Cheryl started doing her book report but soon found herself hearing Lana and Johnny shouting downstairs. She started listening in to what they were saying and overheard Johnny tell Lana that he would disfigure her and ruin the lives of Lana’s family members.
Cheryl Stabs Johnny in the Abdomen and Claims He Walked Right Into It
Cheryl would later recall her every step that night. “I ran down the stairs into the kitchen,” she explained, adding “I don’t know what I was looking for but I found a knife.” Cheryl, only 14 years old at the time, then decided to retrace her steps: “I ran back upstairs, the door burst open and mother was there looking at me and John was coming toward me.”
Cheryl continued, “I stepped through the door and he literally ran into the knife.” The knife hit Johnny right in the stomach and he fell to the ground. It’s unclear how long he survived after the stabbing, but we know it wasn’t long. Now came the tricky part for Lana and Cheryl, as the world would soon find out that Johnny was dead.
Cheryl Confesses to the Stabbing That Same Night and Is Whisked Away to Juvie Hall
Things were about to get even more isolating for young Cheryl. When the police arrived at Lana’s Beverly Hills mansion, Cheryl wouldn’t explain what happened. But by the end of the night, she admitted to stabbing Johnny: “You want to protect your mother, I was the only one there and I had to do something.”
Immediately after that fateful night, Cheryl was sent off to juvie hall, but only for a short period. Nonetheless, it was scary for Cheryl: “I had no attorney, no one to speak for me. My mother and father were in custody battles with each other… I knew nothing.”
Lana Is Called to the Stand to Testify and Gives the Performance of Her Life
Lana, on the other hand, had to appear in court. A week after the fateful night of the stabbing, Lana was brought to the stand, where she delivered a dramatic monologue recounting the events of that evening and her abusive relationship with Johnny. She explained that he once even told her, that he would “cut you just a little now to give you a taste of it.”
Lana testified on the stand for an hour. She revealed: “He grabbed me by the arms and started shaking me and cursing me very badly, and saying… that if he said jump, I would jump; if he said hop, I would hop, and I would have to do anything and everything he told me or he’d cut my face or cripple me. And if… when it went beyond that, he would kill me and my daughter and my mother.”
Lana Claims That She Couldn’t Stop Cheryl From Entering the Room That They Were Arguing In
Lana told the jury that she couldn’t stop her daughter from entering the scene that night. “I swear it was so fast, I … I truthfully thought she had hit him in the stomach. The best I can remember, they came together and they parted. I still never saw a blade,” Lana explained. The knife Cheryl had been holding was a butcher’s knife, it was later confirmed.
Lana continued to explain how she couldn’t protect her only child from the horrible scene: “I broke away from his holding my … holding me … and I turned around to face the door, and my daughter was standing there, and I said: ‘Please, Cheryl, please don’t listen to any of this. Please go back to your own room.’”
The Stabbing of Johnny Stompanato Is Declared To Be a Justifiable Homicide, but Some People Had Other Ideas
Luckily for Cheryl, the jury didn’t deliberate long after Lana’s testimony. It was up to a 12-member coroner’s jury to decide whether or not Cheryl had committed the act out of necessity, and it didn’t take them long to come to a final decision. Unanimously, they declared the killing of Johnny Stompanato to be a justifiable homicide.
Lana had succeeded in putting on an emotional performance, but that didn’t mean that was she said on the stand wasn’t true. Allegedly, she relievingly stated “Thank God” upon hearing the jury’s verdict at home. Cheryl was off the hooks it would have seemed, but there were people who weren’t willing to forgive and forget.
One of Johnny’s Friends Said That Cheryl Was in Love With Johnny and Jealous of Her Mother
Cheryl was going to be let off that easy by some of Johnny’s acquaintances. Upon hearing the jury’s judgment just outside of the courtroom, one of Johnny’s friends threw a tantrum in front of everyone. He claimed that he wanted to testify, as he had some damning information about 14-year-old Cheryl.
This friend of Johnny’s stated “It’s a lie,” adding “The girl was in love with him. There was jealousy between her and her mother. He was a gentleman. That’s more than the rest of you Hollywood people are.” If his claims were true, it would have called everything that Lana said in her testimony into question.
Another Theory Says That Cheryl Just Took the Blame for Lana So She Could Continue Her Career
The idea that Cheryl had been jealous of her own mother’s relationship with the mobster wasn’t the only theory flying around. The media were all over this trial, and soon it became clear that some people believed that Lana was actually the one who stabbed Johnny.
According to this theory, Cheryl had taken the blame, but some people thought that Lana actually forced her to claim she was the killer. Of course, especially after the jury had made their decision, it was nearly impossible to prove. But that didn’t stop people from talking and theorizing.
According to Johnny’s Family, Cheryl and Johnny Were Having an Affair and a Furious Lana Was Responsible for the Murder
Even Johnny’s family had their own accusatory theories about what really went down that night. After the trial, they claimed that Cheryl and Johnny were having an affair, and when Lana found out she went into a jealous rage and stabbed him. He was 32 years old at the time, while Cheryl was only 14.
They also sued the silver screen actress after Johnny’s death was declared a “justifiable homicide.” Johnny’s mom Carmela and dad John sued Lana for $750,000 but settled for $20,000 in the end. It’s unclear exactly what correspondence either side had with each other, but either way, Stompanato’s walked away with a bit more money in the bank.
Cheryl Broke Her Silence in 1988 By Releasing Her Autobiography, But There Was a Shocking Revelation
It wasn’t until the late 80s that Cheryl finally broke her silence and spoke about Johnny Stompanato. She published an autobiography in 1988 Detour: A Hollywood Story, in which she went on record about what happened that night in 1958. But she revealed a lot more sordid details about her relationship with Johnny.
She claimed that Johnny had been secretly abusing her while she was just a child. But even after Johnny’s death, Cheryl still had to deal with the after-effects of such traumatic experiences. She spent time in reformatories and mental hospitals and tried twice in her youth to take her own life. Luckily, things did eventually get much better for her.
Cheryl Fell in Love With a Woman Called Joyce and Recalls the Moment She Told Her About That Night in 1958
Cheryl moved past the traumas of her youth and found love and acceptance in the arms of another woman. She met model Joyce LeRoy back in 1970 and married her in 2014. Cheryl had spent time working in the fashion industry, before settling down with Joyce and becoming a high-end real estate agent.
Cheryl recalled one of the moments that made her fall in love with Joyce, in which Cheryl began to detail the events of that night in 1958. But Joyce stopped her mid-story and said “Cheryl, I think it was a very brave and noble thing to go to your mother’s defense.” It was a profound moment for Cheryl as it was the first time she ever heard that, and perhaps unsurprisingly, their relationship bloomed.