News

Murder, She Wrote

Page 2 of 3

"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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin