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.