Murder, She Wrote

Sister of slain ASU co-ed pens memoir more than 30 years later

Douglas, who retired from the police department in 1982 and now heads the Dobson Ranch Homeowners Association in Mesa, says the handful of investigators on the force in 1966 worked around the clock on the case. But they were stumped. Laura Bernstein had not been sexually assaulted or robbed and she was so new to town that she hadn't any enemies.

Then one afternoon more than a week after the slaying, Douglas says, he and another detective invited David Mumbaugh back to the crime scene to go over again what he found that night.

"It was not a particularly warm day, but it was a nice day," Douglas recalls. "We were standing there and the chalk marks (that had traced Laura's body) were still on the sidewalk. I happened to glance up and notice that the street light was located in a place where he couldn't have seen what he said he saw."

Murder victim Laura Bernstein and fiancé Howard Trilling, circa 1966.
Murder victim Laura Bernstein and fiancé Howard Trilling, circa 1966.
Author Jane Bernstein.
Author Jane Bernstein.

When the detective told this to Mumbaugh, the boy told a new story about seeing a lighted flashlight near Laura's body, a tale that seemed improbable. "Within minutes, he broke out in a profuse sweat," Douglas says. "It was just dripping off of him."

The group went back to the police department, where police confiscated his shoes, the same dark ones he had worn the night of the murder. Blood stains found on top of them turned out to be consistent with what he soon admitted, that he had stabbed Laura Bernstein to death then kicked her several times in the head.

The motive? He says he wanted to see if he could get away with it.

"Ever since I was in eighth grade I've wanted to kill someone," he told police.

Jay Dushoff, now a real estate attorney, was relatively new to the Valley then and had little criminal-law experience. He says he was (and is) too irreverent for his serious profession.

And so when the phone rang at his home one night in 1966 and the caller asked for Jay Dushoff, he replied: "You got him, the one, the only, the incomparable, the great Jay Dushoff." When the man at the other end said, "My son is David Mumbaugh," Dushoff says he immediately recognized the name and shrank in embarrassment.

He agreed to represent the suspect in cooperation with Robert Corcoran, who had more criminal-law experience. (Corcoran later became an Arizona Supreme Court justice.)

Mumbaugh, Dushoff soon learned, was the only child of a middle-class couple who lived a few miles from Mill Avenue. "He was not a crumb-bum. He was one of those murder defendants where everyone says, 'Gee, he was that nice kid who lived down the block.'"

The arrest of Mumbaugh made the senseless murder even more disturbing. The brutal slaying was not the work of a drugged-out hippie or deranged serial killer. It was committed for no apparent reason by a local boy who had a job and a good family.

On May 1, 1967, the case went to trial. In what was essentially a plea bargain sparing the teenager from the death penalty, Mumbaugh was convicted in a 15-minute non-jury trial. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Dushoff says it was obvious Mumbaugh was mentally disturbed. When his parents asked Dushoff what type of psychiatric help their son would get in prison, he had to tell them there was little, if any, treatment available.

"I was ashamed as a lawyer," he says.

On the other side of the country, Jane Bernstein, age 17, and her mother and father could have used some counseling. Jolted by the telephone call that had alerted them to the murder, the Bernsteins chose to virtually ignore Laura's death. And they effectively erased her from their lives.

Jane Bernstein, who had adored her older sister, says the prevailing rule in her house was to stay busy, get on with life. Her parents ordered her to sever all contact with Trilling, Laura's fiancé. She and her parents never spoke Laura's name, never cried, never looked at old photographs, she says. She changed her first name -- she used to be Martha -- and told people she'd never had a sister.

It wasn't until 1989 that Jane Bernstein, haunted by nightmares and a gnawing curiosity, came to Phoenix for the first time to find out for herself what really happened.

Jane Bernstein says she felt funny calling police officers, attorneys, reporters and correctional officials 23 years after the fact.

"But I was treated with so much respect," she tells New Times. "It made me feel a little less wacky about doing it."

During four trips to Arizona over several years, Bernstein visited the murder scene, examined police and court files, viewed photographs of her sister's twisted body, visited the murderer's home and his father and traveled to the prison where David Mumbaugh had served his time.

She met with a prison warden and with controversial ASU law-school graduate James Hamm, who was imprisoned with Mumbaugh. She learned Mumbaugh had been freed from prison on 36 three-day furloughs, that he had a good disciplinary record and a solid work record behind bars.

Jane Bernstein discovered that before Arizona's law was changed to require victim notification, Mumbaugh had applied to be paroled 10 times. She testified at the 11th and 12th commutation hearings, arguing there was no assurance that Mumbaugh wouldn't commit such a spur-of-the-moment crime again.

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