My article entitled Trona – Murder House? was cause of a recent storm of protests and angry comments. People in the town of Trona were not happy about this Urban Legend of a beheaded body being shared on the internet. They insisted it wasn’t true. Others insisted it was.
Many Urban Legends have some basis in fact. Of all the houses in Trona why would this one have been singled out for such a gruesome tale for the sake of making something up? There had to be a reason and I set out to find the answer.
I think I may have found it.
In 1940 a married couple by the name of Thomas and Mary (Leete) Hilton lived in Trona at 204 Yucca Street, just around the corner from her parents, Frederick & Ruth Leete, who lived at 207 Mariposa Street. Also residing with Thomas and Mary were their two young children. Their third child, a son, would be born in 1941.
Mary did not have an easy or happy marital life with Thomas, and on ten separate occasions during their union had reason to phone the Sheriff and report him for various offences. Five times she reported him for disturbing the peace, once for being drunk and disorderly, once for kidnapping, once for rape, once for insanity, and once for simple assault. He had spent 6 months in jail for one of these charges and was then released.
At some point Mary ended the marriage, either by divorce or simple separation and eventually became the wife of Oscar Ovila Brunelle, who adopted the third child she had by Hilton in 1941. Although purported to be married Mary continued to use the Hilton surname up until sometime in the late 1940’s to early 1950’s, when they moved to Chico, CA.
Sometime between 1944 and 1945 Mary and Oscar moved to what was being called the Argus Town Site, located on the outskirts of Trona proper. Some employees, fed up with living in company houses, began to form a squatters colony and built their own homes in a bid for freedom from corporate enslavement.
Town Directory for 1944 showing Mrs. Mary A. Hilton living at Argus Town Site. She is also shown here in the 1945 directory. No address is listed as these were not officially registered homes.
December 5th, 1945 was a clear, crisp night in Trona, with a mild temperature of 48 degrees. But nearly 300 miles away, in the town of Santa Maria, the temper of Mary’s husband Thomas wasn’t nearly so cool. As he sat drinking and talking with Sue Fouts, a new acquaintance, his mind drifted to other, less pleasant thoughts, and the more he drank the more unhinged he became. Thomas and Sue next went to a Chinese cafe for a meal, left, and went in Thomas’ truck to a place called Rosemary Farm in Santa Maria, where they talked about “juke box” records “and things.”
The next thing Sue Fouts realizes is that she is being stabbed in the neck. Eventually Thomas’ attack became vicious enough to kill her, which included slitting her throat from ear-to-ear and then further attacking her face, head and body with a hatchet. Some accounts state that she was nearly beheaded from the force of the attack.
Thomas now had a body to dispose of so he drove to what is known as the Cuyama-Santa Maria Highway, a winding, narrow, mountainous road. This is where he decided to dump the body of Sue Fouts. When the body was found days later it had been partially devoured by animals.
After disposing of the body of Sue Fouts, Thomas heads for Bakersfield, where his truck runs out of gas. But he is on a mission now and will not be stopped by a lack of transportation. He simply heads for the road, sticks out his thumb, and hitches a ride to Trona, where his ex-wife Mary lives, the source of all his mental torment. Sue Fouts was just a scapegoat. The real target of his murderous rage is Mary, and his intent is to kill her.
Thomas Hilton had been planning for over a year to kill his former wife, and apparently his talk with Sue Fouts had finally triggered him to do it.
Upon arriving in Trona Thomas went on a burglary spree, ransacking houses in search of a gun to shoot his ex-wife with. For a number of days he hid is various areas around Trona, and eventually he found a house to hide in one block away from where Mary and Oscar were living, in the Argus Town Site, just waiting for an opportunity to murder his wife. But somehow he learned that the Sheriff’s Department and police were now looking for him, so he took off before he had a chance to carry out his intended deed, hitching a ride to Lone Pine and then assaulting the man who gave him a ride. After making a weak attempt at committing suicide he was arrested at Lone Pine.
The Madera Tribune, December 14th, 1945. The paper mistakenly refers to Mary as “Bernelli” at the end, when it should have read Brunelle.
Thomas fully admitted his guilt in the murder of Sue Fouts and gave a full confession of his intentions for ex-wife Mary Hilton-Brunelle.
The San Bernardino Sun, December 15th, 1945.
At his trial Thomas was found guilty of First Degree Murder and sentenced to death. He was sent to San Quentin prison to await his fate.
The San Bernardino Sun, February 26th, 1946
Hilton’s inmate record from San Quentin.
Thomas Hilton was executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber on February 26th, 1947. He was 29 years old.
The San Bernardino Sun, February 27th, 1947.
So, how does the “Murder House” urban legend fit in to this scenario?
This is what I propose as a possible, and highly likely origin for this story. I suspect that Thomas’ wife Mary lived in her hand-built house at or near the current house that has been called the “Murder House.” The current house was built in between 1945 and 1947, when the local government finally decided to make the Argus site official, and as part of this had safer, more durable homes built, starting in 1946/47. However, Mary’s house, being an unofficial and unregistered squatter’s abode, was never recorded with the county, and therefore had no deed of record, nor any other traceable documentation. We know from city directories that sometime after 1945, and before moving to Chico, Mary moved back to Trona and away from the Argus Town Site. It is possible that she did not wish to take up the offer being put forth by the local government that she could stay at her Argus location, and so her home was torn down and the current one put in it’s place. However, since Thomas had also gone into hiding at a home within one block from where Mary lived, it is also possible that a previous house at the location of the current house is where he holed up.
So, Thomas probably became known as the man who “beheaded” a woman and hid in Trona waiting to murder his ex-wife, and over time all of the pertinent facts became forgotten or lost in the re-telling of the story, leaving us only with the urban legend of the “Murder House,” where a murder was planned to happen but didn’t actually occur. This is the perfect genesis of an Urban Legend!
What was known as the Argus Town Site in 1945 when Mary Hilton lived here and her ex-husband Thomas planned to murder her somewhere in the area. The “X” marks the location where the “Murder House” of urban legend is located.
It would be interesting if anyone could actually find out exactly where Mary lived within this area in 1944/45.
You can view the actual Supreme Court trial transcript here: People v. Hilton