Murder, She Wrote

The day Laura Bernstein was stabbed, kicked and left to die on a Mill Avenue sidewalk, the Tempe Daily News ran a front-page photo of a new police car. In a staged shot typical of small-town newspapers more than 30 years ago, two officers were shown "inspecting" the spanking new 1967 sedan.

Also on the front page of that September 21, 1966, paper were two articles about the city's most newsworthy crimes: Bales of hay had been stolen from a Priest Road field. And suspects had been apprehended in the theft of three guns.

Against the backdrop of piddling crime stories, rah-rah ASU football stories, club news and sorority rush lists, the next day's headline was a sobering one: "Student Stabbed to Death in Dark."

And the crime itself -- the brutal murder of a 20-year-old co-ed as she locked up her bicycle -- was jarring.

Dale Douglas, the former Tempe police detective who investigated the slaying, says it was the most memorable case of his career. Jay Dushoff, the Phoenix attorney who represented the murderer, says the case was a weird, sensational one he still remembers vividly.

Now, a new book by the sister of the victim takes a fresh look at the murder that frightened and perplexed Valley residents 34 years ago. In Bereft -- A Sister's Tale, Jane Bernstein recounts not only her personal struggle to accept her sister's murder, but her journeys to Arizona to investigate the crime. The book has other subplots as well -- about how families shouldn't react to the killing of a loved one, the evolution of the state's victim's rights laws.

Bereft, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux of New York, is set for national release April 5.

It was a different Mill Avenue that Laura Bernstein encountered when she arrived on the Arizona State University campus. There were no upscale shops and trendy eateries, no inviting courtyards with carefully manicured landscaping. No tourists sipping lattes, mingling amiably with students, professors and street people.

The area had once been the core of town but was heading downhill in 1966. Jerry Stricklin, a Wickenburg town planner who wrote his master's thesis on the history of Mill Avenue, says the area was a mix of service-oriented businesses, funky specialty shops and bars. As the city developed neighborhoods and shopping centers in outlying areas, downtown was practically abandoned, Stricklin says. Within a few years after the murder, it had turned into what the Tempe Daily News called "a festering sore on the community" -- a seedy skid row complete with wild bars and rowdy motorcycle gangs.

Laura Bernstein had only been in Tempe for 10 days when she was killed. A New Jersey native, she had transferred to ASU to be closer to her fiancé, Howard Trilling, who was attending the American Institute for Foreign Trade (known now as the American Graduate School of International Management, or Thunderbird). The two were planning a Christmas wedding.

ASU was experiencing growing pains, and as Jane Bernstein found out during research for her book, more than 500 students couldn't find on-campus housing that year. Co-eds under 23 who weren't living at home were required to live on campus, but officials bent the rules and allowed them to live off campus, provided they had a note from their parents.

Laura Bernstein rented a Lemon Street apartment with a student she met at the housing office. On the evening she died, she was headed to listen to records with another new acquaintance, a girl she had met in school who lived at the Casa Loma Hotel at Fourth Street and Mill Avenue.

Today, the Mill Landing restaurant inhabits the building that used to house the hotel. An outdoor patio dining area complete with hanging ferns is adjacent to the spot where Laura Bernstein was stabbed twice in the head and four times in the upper body.

She was found lying on her side, a bike chain near her hand. David Mumbaugh, an 18-year-old passerby, stumbled upon her in the darkened alley at about 7:30 p.m. and ran so fast to the Tempe Police Department that he fell and skinned his knee.

Newspaper coverage of the crime reflected the immediate suspicions of police: that Laura Bernstein was tied into the growing hippie population on Mill Avenue and that this had somehow led to her murder. Articles pointed out that she had long, dark hair, that she wore hoop earrings. She was described as a beatnik type, a fan of "far-out" jazz music and a member of the anti-war Students for a Democratic Society.

Investigator Dale Douglas, one of the first on the scene, says police immediately suspected the crime had something to do with Euthanasia, a new nearby coffee house where stoned hippies hung out, read poetry and swung from a rope tied to the ceiling. Despite today's wistful retro craze, the '60s was a suspicious, divisive time, he says.

"There was a tremendous gap forming between the generations," says Douglas. "You still stopped in shocked disbelief when you saw people with long hair or unusual artwork."

As daily news coverage continued about the mysterious murder, reporters downplayed the implication that Laura Bernstein was a wild child who was somehow to blame. She did like "odd clothes and the arts" but she had held jobs at such respectable companies as Hearst Publications and Sears Roebuck back East, the Republic reported. And at her high school, she had been in such all-American clubs as Future Teachers, Girls Leaders and Chorus, according to the paper.

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."

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.

In July 1993, a few months after he was denied release for the 12th time, Mumbaugh killed himself in his cell, carefully inserting a thin shard of glass into his heart. He had twice made unsuccessful suicide attempts after previous parole efforts failed, prison officials said.

Jane Bernstein, who never got to meet Mumbaugh, says she wishes she could have looked him in the eye and asked him why he killed Laura. Nevertheless, she says, she was able to learn some valuable lessons.

"I got close enough to him to see something about the danger of somebody who doesn't understand the whole of his own heart -- the source of his own anger and rage," she says.

That insight helped her get out of a violent marriage. Now a creative-writing teacher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Jane Bernstein is 50 years old and the mother of two daughters, 16 and 20. As for her parents, her father suffers from Alzheimer's disease and won't be reading Bereft. Her mother is still in denial and told Jane Bernstein that she won't read the book when it is published.

Jane Bernstein says that while there is no easy way for a family to deal with a murder, she realizes her family's method -- dictated by her mother -- just added to her pain.

"There is no easy and smooth way to go through something as devastating as this, something that rips the family to shreds," she says. "But people have to be able to come through the long course of their grief and not feel ashamed of it."

Contact Laura Laughlin at her online address: [email protected]

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin