“Babes in the Woods Case” Murder in Montara: Part III

In the summer of 1946 the lifeless bodies of two little girls were found near a bed of wild lilies bordering the Havis Flower Nursery in Wagner Canyon in Montara.

Despite severe skull injuries, the children’s mother, 21-year-old Lorraine Newton, had survived the brutal attempt to murder her—and sought refuge overnight in an abandoned shack.

Next morning longtime Coastside resident John Kyne encountered the semi-conscious Lorraine, shoeless, wandering, and calling for Barbara Ann and Caroline Lee, the names of her children. It was Kyne who alerted authorities, and, Simmons, the constable from Half Moon Bay, arrived to take her to the nearby Community Hospital. (Community Hospital was run by Colonel Howard Roycroft, a military doctor, a reminder that the armed forces had had a presence on the Coastside during WWII.)

Constable Simmons noted that Lorraine was not wearing an engagement and wedding ring as most married women did in 1946. Had the murderer taken them?

At Community Hospital, Lorraine slipped in and out of consciousness, calling for her children and husband Vorhes. Colonel Roycroft wouldn’t let police question her. The head injury was severe and her survival was uncertain. More importantly after examining his patient, Dr. Roycroft had important information for police. Lorraine was pregnant. Lorraine Newton asked for her children and her husband Vorhes.

When she began to recover, police were permitted to ask a few questions. The only thing Lorraine recalled, she told them, was sitting in a car with her husband and daughters and watching the waves at Rockaway Beach in Pacifica. Everything else remained a blank.

Meanwhile a statewide search for Lorraine’s husband, Vorhes, was underway. The 24-year-old glazier had vanished and police were anxious to interrogate the man who had become a murder suspect in what the press dubbed “The Babes in the Woodsâ€? case.

Cops knew Vorhes had returned the car he borrowed from his sister, the car that he drove to the Coastside. A search of the vehicle produced a shovel, a possible murder weapon. They tracked Newton’s movements back to the couple’s apartment in Alameda. On the bed Newton had spread out one of his wife’s dresses and beside it, a baby bottle.

As Lorraine Newton recovered, police were permitted to ask her questions—but Dr. Roycroft wouldn’t let them tell her about the death of her daughters. Asked about her husband’s character, she said he was the most lovable man on earth. About the events which lead up to her injuries, she recalled little. All she could remember was sitting in a car with her husband and daughters, watching the waves at Rockaway Beach in Pacifica. Nothing else.

And that was what the newspapers reported.

Police fanned out to question Lorraine and Vorhes’ neighbors and friends in Alameda where the couple lived. The first reports offered nothing out of the ordinary, a picture of a happily married couple—but cracks in this picture emerged as a close friend said Lorraine hated her husband, adding that she wouldn’t be with him if it weren’t for the children.

The murder story was headlined in so many papers that San Mateo County police figured it wouldn’t be long before Vorhes Newton would be caught. His picture was posted everywhee. Cops were playing the waiting game.

And it was a short wait– a couple of days after the horrific crime, Auburn officials notified San Mateo County Deputy Sheriff Walter Moore that they had his man in custody.

How did they catch him?

Part of the answer came from Vorhes, part of it from several other witnesses.

A motorist offered Vorhes Newton a ride when he saw him, soaked and disheveled, wandering along the highway near Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe. Vorhes told the driver his clothes were soaking wet because he had slipped and fallen into the cold lake water. He had a black eye and visible abrasions so the driver took him to a tavern where a doctor gave Newton first aid. The doctor recognized Vorhes from the newspapers and alerted the Tahoe constable who took him into custody, driving him to the bigger jail at Auburn.

Elated with the news, Deputy Sheriff Walter Moore raced to Auburn to pick up His prisoner. Under questioning, Vorhes Newton repeated the same thing as his wife. He recalled watching the surf at Rockaway Beach, then, he said “everything went blank.â€? Afterwards he remembered waking up on a park bench in Reno [he had taken the bus or train there] and it was there that he read about the murders in a newspaper.

“I woke up in Reno, with a paper lying over my face,â€? Newton told Sheriff Moore. “I decided that I had better go back. I took a bus and hitch-hiked as far as a resort on the California side of Lake Tahoe, Eagle Falls, by Emerald Bay. I clambered up the rocks and fell into the lake, then climbed back to the road.â€? He complained of severe back pain, had one black eye and abrasions all over his body.

Sheriff Moore branded Newton’s story a fake. “He’s covering up and telling a lie,â€? Moore said. He told reporters Vorhes read his wife’s account in the newspapers. He’s just repeating her story. What he didn’t’ tell reporters was that he found Lorraine’s engagement and wedding ring in Vorhes’ possession.

Newton was driven back to the county jail in Redwood City. The sky was carbon black as three hours of heavy grilling began– but failed to break his story. When confronted repeatedly with the facts, Vorhes, by now weary and haggard, insisted “he blanked outâ€?. “I’m not a brute,â€? he swore, “I couldn’t have done it. I couldn’t have done it.â€? The same thing, over and over.

Making little headway, Sheriff Moore quit for the night. “What do I charge him with, “ Night Jailor Paul Jenson asked Sheriff Moore. “Oh, hell, charge him with murder,â€? Moore snapped.

The “Babes in the Woodsâ€? case was attracting national attention, becoming a big case. It was time for Walter Moore’s boss, Sheriff James McGrath to step into the picture and McGrath announced he was now taking the lead in the investigation.

“I think he [Newton] should be made to see his daughtersâ€?, Sheriff McGrath told a clutch of reporters. The little girls were lying in the William Crosby Mortuary in Burlingame.

Newton hadn’t hired a lawyer yet but money wasn’t a restriction as his father, Benjamin, was a prominent rancher near Lodi. At first the family hired Alden Ames, a former superior judge. Ames said his client was being put through the third degree and anything he said would be questioned in court as having been obtained under duress.

Alden Ames soon retired from the case and was replaced by the aggressive defense attorney Leo Friedman known for winning some tough cases.

Up to this point Deputy D.A. Fred Wycoff was handling the prosecution’s case. He told reporters he had enough evidence to convict and that it would be a quick trial.

Where Newton would be arraigned on two counts of murder was still up in the air. The plan was to take him to the court of Manuel J. Bettencourt in Half Moon Bay. But Vorhes complained of injuries sustained in the fall at Lake Tahoe and the doctor who examined him said he didn’t know if the prisoner “could standâ€? the physical pain of the ride from Redwood City to the Coastside.

He might not be able to make the bumpy ride to Half Moon Bay but there was no excuse why Vorhes Newton could not be taken to the Crosby Mortuary in Burlingame to see the bodies of his baby daughters. Face up to what he had down—and once there, he almost immediately cracked and confessed that he had beaten them to death after first attempting to kill his wife.

In the presence of six officials, with reporters banned, Newton confessed that he struck his wife and babies first with a baby bottle, then a shovel at the spot where they were found, a lonely ranch road in Wagner Canyon near Montara.

And the reason for the brutal crime was finally was revealed: The couple had quarreled over an abortion.

Sobbing, Vorhes said he struck his wife first but didn’t know why he took it out on the kids.

After the confession a decision was made: The arraignment on a double murder charge would take place in Half Moon Bay at the Court of Justice Manuel J. Bettencourt.

….To be continued