School shootings have grown common in recent years, but that wasn't the case in 1940, when a shocking case of multiple murder unfolded in quiet South Pasadena.
The arrest last month of two South Pasadena High students who authorities say threatened a mass murder at their school has revived memories of the killings 74 years ago.
Authorities received a tip of a planned shooting in the recent case. Back in 1940, there was no warning of the crime to come.
Roughly 14,000 residents lived in South Pasadena at the time. Serious crimes rarely occurred in the Los Angeles suburb. Pasadena felt so safe that many residents didn't lock their doors.
"It was a wonderful place to go to school and grow up," remembers former South Pasadena Junior High School student Glenice Hershberger, now 88.
The community's relative peace shattered on May 6, 1940, when Verlin Spencer, the junior high school principal, embarked on a systematic shooting spree. By the time he was done, five people were dead and one was seriously maimed.
Day of the crime
The 37-year-old Spencer was a troubled man, according to reports at the time. He had problems at work. Following confrontations with his staff, he struggled to keep his job. By one account, Spencer was fired from his principal's job just days before the shooting.
Accounts at the time described Spencer as suffering from headaches. To treat them, he took bromide, known to darken a person's mood.
As questions about the case emerged over the years, former South Pasadena Police Chief Bill Reese studied the shooting and tracked the killer's steps.
On the day of the killings, Reese said, Spencer got up early and slipped out of his South Pasadena apartment to fuel up his 1937 Ford.
"He'd been pacing up and down," Reese said."He did not awaken his wife, we know that."
Spencer drove to a bank and had a will notarized, police records show. He arrived at the school district administration building on Diamond Avenue at 2:15 p.m. for a meeting, one he either called himself or that may have been a hearing on his dismissal.
Hershberger said Spencer acted normally and showed no signs of what he planned.
"I was in his office that day and wasn’t concerned about anything," she said. “He was very pleasant.”
Spencer and the three administrators gathered in a meeting room. Shortly after they entered, a secretary seated outside the room, Dorothea Talbert, heard what she thought was a car backfiring. They were shots.
Superintendent George Bush (no relation to the former presidents), high school principal John Alman and business manager Will Speer were killed.
According to Reese, Spencer then came out of the meeting room alone, armed with a .22-caliber Colt Woodsman semi-automatic pistol. He turned to the secretary.
"He was an expert shot. He'd been practicing at the police range and so forth," Reese said. "He fired the first time. It seemed that he was waiting to see what the effect was going to be on her."
The secretary first thought Spencer was joking around; he was known as a prankster, Reese said. Spencer then fired a second shot, knocking Talbert to the ground.
According to witness accounts, Spencer headed down the building stairs and went out to his car. When the Ford wouldn't start, he recruited students who were unaware of the shooting.
"Some of the boys from the high school helped him get the car started," said Madalynne Wardlow, 90, who attended the local high school. "That was so ironic."
Spencer drove two blocks to his junior high school. What happened next is unclear, but by day's end, shop teacher Verner Vanderlip and art teacher Ruth Sturgeon were dead.
Hershberger remembers watching Sturgeon wheeled from the building.
"I happened to be in a classroom that looked out on the patio and saw her being taken out with a bandage on her head," she said.
Police got their first call at 2:34 p.m., according to The South Pasadena Review, a local newspaper. Officers found Spencer in the junior high cafeteria. Cornered by police, he shot himself in the chest and was wounded.
According to police records, Spencer had 50 rounds of extra ammunition with him.
"It was overwhelming," said Barbara Veir, 89, who attended the junior high school. She was ill at home the day of the crime, but lived in the same apartment building as Spencer.
"Stories were garbled as to who was injured or who was killed," she said. Veir remembers her mother's panic on the day of the crime, scared that Spencer would come after Veir and kill her.
Police later found Spencer's will in his car. It read in part:
I, Verlin Spencer, being of sound mind, according to the Ross-Loos Clinic, this is my last will and testament and I leave all of my property to my wife (Polly). This will be null and void if she spends more than $200 for funeral expenses.
"It was a sad time, it really was, and it made headline news all over the United States," Wardlow said.
Then and now
For the South Pasadena community, the Spencer shooting was the "greatest single tragedy in the fifty-year history of the city," the Review wrote in a front page story.
Many aspects of the shooting, like Spencer's keen gun knowledge and his systematic plan, could be repeated in schools today, says Richard Lee, South Pasadena police detective and officer. Lee has conducted extensive research on the Spencer murders.
"This was a great history learning lesson for us," he said. "It kind of helped not just the police department as far as tactics involved, but also the schools."
Spencer recovered from his self-inflicted wounds. He eventually stood trial and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. After his parole, he moved to Hawaii. Spencer later returned to California and died on Dec. 28, 1991 in San Diego County at age 88.
Reflecting on how the crime shaped his life and the community of South Pasadena, Reese says, "It upsets me because it was so unnecessary."
Even today, when Reese thinks about the crime, he said he's unsure how it could have been prevented.
"No matter how quaint a city is or how small it is, it is always susceptible."
On the morning of May 6, 1940, South Pasadena Junior High School Principal Verlin Spencer went on a shooting spree that left five dead and one injured. Click on the link to see his route and rough timeline based on police and witness reports.