CRIME: Footprints in the Foothills

Monday, Jan. 08, 1951

It was odd how clumsy a first-rate state highway cop could be when it came to investigating a murder. The thin body of 20-year-old Margaret Senteney, bruised and garroted, lay sprawled face upward in the sagebrush, when Undersheriff John Ross and Highway Patrolman Leonard Kirkes got to the scene one day in August 1942. The place was a desolate corner of Maestro Leopold Stokowski's rambling foothill estate, high above Margaret's home town of Carpinteria on the Southern California coast. The only clues were a couple of big footprints and a tire track —and despite Undersheriff Ross's warnings, Patrolman Kirkes managed to trample all over them.

Nonetheless, Ross was glad to have his old friend as a partner on such a tough police case. Kirkes, a handsome, strapping fellow, knew everybody in Carpinteria, where his father had been pastor of the Community Church. Patrolman Kirkes was himself a good churchman, the father of a six-year-old youngster, a helper in Boy Scout activities, and member of the Lions Club. He was pretty bright, too: a Vanderbilt University graduate (letterman in football and basketball), he had been top man in his examination for the California state highway patrol.

Whisky & Coke

The two of them worked together on the Senteney murder until they ran out of hunches. Then one night Undersheriff Ross's telephone rang. A scared and breathless Carpinteria liquor dealer had something to tell him: "It was a cop that did the murder. I know which one. It was Leonard Kirkes." Kirkes had bought a pint of whisky and two Cokes from him on the afternoon of the day Margaret disappeared, said the dealer.

"On the fourth day after the body was found he comes back into my store," the liquor man went on. "He walks up & down, nervous as a cat, while I'm serving the other customer. Then, when the other guy's gone out, Kirkes says that the tracks near the body looked just like the tread of his car's tires. So he needs an alibi, and he tries to get me to say I sold him the liquor at 7:30 p.m. on the night of the murder. That isn't true."

John Ross kept the news under his tan Stetson and went to work. He discovered that right after the murder Kirkes had ordered his coupe repainted, though the garage man insisted it didn't need paint. That same week the big patrolman grabbed an air hose away from a service station man and cleaned out the rear compartment of his car himself. Moreover, a faint mark on the dead girl's legs looked like the pattern of a rear-compartment floor mat found only in Ford coupes. The mat in Kirkes' 1939 Ford was missing.

John Ross huddled with the district attorney; together they confronted Kirkes and accused him of murder. He refused to say anything. Privately, the D.A. shook his head and admitted that he would need a lot more evidence before he could make a case stand up against a man of Patrolman Kirkes' reputation. Kirkes went blithely back to his motorcycle, left town six months later for wartime Red Cross duty in the Aleutians.

Two Who Saw

The year after Len Kirkes got back to Carpinteria, John Ross was elected sheriff of Santa Barbara county. He and Kirkes would chat together whenever they met, but Ross never took the Senteney murder file off the top of his desk. One day last September, a woman reported that Kirkes had tried to molest her ten-year-old son. The sheriff jailed Kirkes and prayed that some timid murder witnesses might turn up, now that the big ex-cop was locked up.

They did. One was a school chum of Margaret Senteney's who had taken a walk on the night of the murder. She had seen Margaret get into a car. "It was Mr. Kirkes' grey car," she said. Another witness, an aged Italian truck farmer, swore to watching the patrolman drive down out of the foothills early on the morning after the murder.

Last week, after listening to Sheriff Ross's evidence and Kirkes' denials, a jury found Kirkes guilty of second-degree murder and recommended no leniency (mandatory penalty: five years to life). John Ross went back to his office in Santa Barbara's stucco courthouse and locked up the Senteney file, which he and Len Kirkes had begun eight years before.