A Madam, A Murder, A Mystery

Exhuming Arizona's most notorious prostitute

After Presti came Topp. Then Gabe married Bernard Sohn Melvin in Orange County, California, in 1919. They split after six months and were legally divorced in 1923.

Just before Christmas, 1922, Gabe traveled to Los Angeles from Prescott to have Melvin arrested on a charge of embezzling $2,000 from her. Her return to the city of her acquittal was big news, only this time it was Melvin giving sensational interviews from behind bars.

"Gabriell called herself the plaything of men when she was on trial for killing Topp," Melvin told the Los Angeles Times from the county jail. "She still is, but she makes them pay. She's wealthy and has thousands in the bank. I didn't steal that money from her. She gave it to me. We loved each other once, but we're through now, and she hates me. She hated Topp and she killed him. I'm in jail. The man pays, I guess."

Her face bruised from her pimp's final blows, Gabriell Dardley poses for a jailhouse photo in 1915.
courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Her face bruised from her pimp's final blows, Gabriell Dardley poses for a jailhouse photo in 1915.

Melvin's last years were bizarre. He lived in a shack at the Prescott dump, where he worked as caretaker, refusing to communicate with the outside world. He had no family and hadn't received mail in 20 years. In 1927, according to Yavapai County probate papers, he was attacked at the dump and beaten to within a whisker of his life by several shadowy men. They obviously knew that he stashed his $800 life savings there and made off with it. The crime wasn't pinned on Gabe, but it was never solved either. Melvin, who refused to speak of who attacked him or why, died a pathetic loner in 1929 at age 70. The official cause of death was pneumonia.

Gabe's next husband was a barber and manicurist named Everett L. Fretz. Something went haywire in his head, too, and in 1935 he was committed to the Arizona State Asylum in Phoenix. He raved through terrible nights about his gold mine near Prescott, demanding to be deputized to protect it. But the mine existed only in his imagination. A month after arriving at the asylum, he died of what state records cryptically describe as "general paralysis of the insane." He was 40.

Six men either shot, poisoned or dead under mysterious circumstances. But there might be more. Mine-town whores aren't exactly easy to track, and what Gabe did prior to marrying Presti in 1909 is a blur, as are the years immediately following her trial.

There's also no accounting for the name Dardley, or Darley. She left Prescott to kill Topp as Gabrielle Layral and stood trial as Gabriell Dardley. A marriage record couldn't be located, nor could any information about what happened to Mr. Dardley.

Gabe's nephew, Gil Layral, a retired food-service worker in southern California, thinks he knows. In 1948, at age 17, he moved from his home in France to work for Gabe in Salome, and stayed six months. Shortly after arriving, Gil was pulled aside by one of Gabe's best friends, an American woman fluent in French, who gave him the lowdown on the madam. "She said my aunt had killed every man she had," Layral recalls in a telephone interview. "How many were there, eight?"

Then he laughs in a lilting way. "Rat poison, eh. That was her preferred method."

Layral doesn't think his informant had any reason to lie to him. "I didn't leave because my aunt had killed her men. It didn't affect me at all. I slept very well at night."

He laughs again. "I had just come from France, remember, where I had seen many Nazis barbecued in their cars by the Resistance. No, I left Salome because I didn't like it there. I didn't like taking care of her chickens. I was a boy from Paris, you see."

George Wiley presumably didn't see rat poison in his future when he proposed to Gabe in 1937. If he was aware of her previous dalliances, and their unfortunate conclusions, it didn't play too heavily on his mind. He had traveled to Prescott from Salome for a romp at the Rex Arms and that was enough to turn his head.

Gabe had different motives for marrying again. She was nearing 50, and according to court records, having trouble paying her rent. Maybe after hooking up with George, she could sell girls for a few more years, then as much as she was able, settle into a kind of small-town respectability.

The two were married in Prescott in what must have been a sight to behold: an old whore, plump, unsmiling, glistening with diamonds, standing beside a grinning ex-bootlegger with a tomato for a face, with the ceremony performed by Yavapai County Judge Gordon Clark, who stood three-and-a-half-feet tall in his cowboy boots.

The midget judge, as he was called, joined the happy couple in matrimony on July 31, 1937. Adopting her longtime nickname of Dollie, Gabe Fretz moved to Salome and became Dollie Wiley.

The desert west of Wickenburg looks like the moon. It consists of mile after mile of scrub and creosote, lifeless except for jack rabbits, rattlesnakes and stiletto-spined cactus best appreciated from the window of a speeding car.

Salome, farther west, seems mostly empty, too. The afternoon wind blowing through town this day can twist your nerves to steel. It makes the Harcuvar Mountains to the north look smoky behind the dust it throws up, and it turns tumbleweeds into flak. Sometimes it churns up funnel clouds of dust, 100-foot-tall monsters whirling across the earth. At least they're something to look at, breaks in the deadening sameness of a place where the afternoon heat could bend a spoon, and the shrill whistle announcing the arrival of another train on the Arizona-California line is a welcome racket.

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