There was a time when Bob Crane was even more famous than O.J. Simpson. But that was years ago, and our memories are short.
Crane's every movement was noted with a sort of breathless wonder by gossip columnists across the country. If Crane was seen in the company of a starlet, if he dined at a new restaurant, even if he caught the flu, it was dutifully reported. Often, the item was illustrated with a smiling photograph of Crane wearing an Air Force officer's cap.
Before there was Burt Reynolds, there was Bob Crane. For newspapers, he was a salable commodity. He was the star of Hogan's Heroes, a popular comedy about the Second World War.
If Crane had been bludgeoned to death during those halcyon days, the trial of his accused killer would have taken on heroic proportions. It would not be in the same league with the Simpson trial, but it would have been very big in the National Enquirer. The case certainly would have played to packed courtrooms and been heavily covered by national television. Instead, the trial of Crane's accused killer was a theatrical flop. It took place in virtual obscurity. If the proceedings had been a play, the cast would have taken its final curtain call before it reached Broadway.
The lesson is immutable. Bob Crane's era is long past. No one cares who killed him any longer.
The actor's fame had dimmed after Hogan's Heroes came out of the weekly listings in TV Guide. For the remaining years of his life, Crane was obliged to keep a stiff upper lip and wander around the country playing for reduced paychecks at local dinner theatres. Crane's name was still a draw. But it was nothing like the glory days, when he was on national television every week and came into homes across the country. There were the reruns, of course. Somewhere in the world, they are still actually running. But for Crane, it was never the same. He had reached the top, and now he was on the way down.
Insensitive fans sometimes asked: "Didn't you used to be Bob Crane?"
No one any longer recalls what stage roles he played in the minor leagues of Scottsdale. It would be like asking what play was being performed the night Abraham Lincoln was dispatched at Ford's Theater.
But playing the lead in a local stage bit was an easy gig for Crane. He never took much pride in his acting, anyway; it was effortless. The money kept him going in the style to which he had become accustomed. There was even a dividend. The constant roaming about gave him the opportunity to meet a lot of new women--many of them vulnerable and star-struck.
Crane's chief running mate during his final descent into sleaze was John Carpenter--a classic hanger-on who traded on his friendship with Crane to get what is referred to as a little action with Crane's women. The women were attracted to Crane's celebrity status, and Carpenter always turned up with the woman Crane determined was second best. Sometimes, they shared the same women.
People develop strange hobbies. Wherever Crane traveled, he brought along a tripod and a video camera so he could memorialize his hotel-room conquests and perhaps even savor them at a later date. Crane was quite a piece of work.
It is never a surprise when men like Crane are bludgeoned to death in their beds. The only astonishing thing is that they survive for so long. Crane was 49 when he met his maker while dozing on June 29, 1978.
You may wonder, then, why it took until 1992--14 years later--to charge Carpenter with the crime. First of all, the initial investigation was bungled by the Scottsdale police. Carpenter was finally arrested only after prosecutors decided that photos taken of Carpenter's rental car showed the presence of fatty tissue from Crane's body. They also claimed there were blood smears on the car's passenger-door panel.
But perhaps the vital force behind charging Carpenter with the crime was politics. Rick Romley was running for reelection as county attorney. Charging the killer of Bob Crane would give the ever-ambitious Romley, then worried about job security, an opportunity to demonstrate his desire to track evil malefactors to the ends of the Earth. Romley won his election. But that left his office stuck with the duty to get a conviction on only minuscule evidence.
Nothing that came out during the course of the lengthy trial was a surprise to anyone. There was, however, an uncomfortably prurient day when Judge Gregory Martin allowed the prosecution to show both Crane and Carpenter having simultaneous sex in bed with the same women. The prosecution denied it was attempting to prejudice the jury against Carpenter. With straight faces, prosecutors contended their only intention was to show not the sex scene but a tripod in the background that they claimed was the murder weapon.
This is charmingly disingenuous. It would be like claiming the director had filmed King Kong holding Fay Wray aloft in his hand on top of the Empire State Building only to show the New York skyline.
I went to watch the closing arguments. I expected the fourth-floor courtroom would be so packed with the curious that it would be impossible to find a seat. Not so. I counted only 15 spectators gathered in the building's largest courtroom at 9:30 a.m., the time scheduled for the start of the proceedings.
Several minutes later, a court bailiff ushered the jury members to their seats. Only because of the trouble in seating a jury for the O.J. Simpson case, I noted the racial makeup. The man accused of murdering television star Bob Crane, hero of the long-running Hogan's Heroes, would be tried by one black juror and 11 whites.
Deputy prosecutor Robert Shutts delivered the closing argument for the state. Shutts was very organized. He had neatly designed charts to place upon his easel to explain his case to the jury. His speech was well-organized, though delivered without apparent passion.
"Cowardly acts committed in the dead of night seldom have any witnesses," Shutts said, almost matter-of-factly. It was as though he were making a move on a chess board. What he was really doing was sending a subliminal message to the jury that the prosecution had no hard evidence against Carpenter.
Steve Avilla, the deputy public defender, charged the prosecutors with trying to prejudice the case with testimony and exhibits that emphasized only "sex, sex, sex."
Avilla was right. After weeks of testimony, jurors took only days to find Carpenter not guilty.
Avilla might have gone even further in his arguments, but that wouldn't have been politic. Avilla might have asked the question on the minds of all those spectators who displayed such vast indifference by boycotting the trial:
"Who cares who killed Bob Crane? After all, he got what he so richly deserved.