On the evening of August 28, 1942, Margaret Senteney, a 20-year-old choir singer, went missing when walking from her home to a friend’s home in Carpinteria, California. Senteney’s body was found by a ranch caretaker in nearby Toro Canyon three days later. She had been beaten and strangled, and her neck was broken. It was reported that the perpetrator had attempted to rape her but this was later contradicted.
The search to find Senteney’s killer involved many members of law enforcement. Among those searching for her was Leonard M. Kirkes, a California Highway Patrolman. When Senteney’s body was located in Toro Canyon by the ranch caretaker, Kirkes went along with Sheriff John D. Ross to the site of the body. Ross and Kirkes were the first officers to arrive on the scene. Ross and Kirkes were friends and often worked cases together. As a native of Carpinteria himself, Kirkes seemed a natural officer to have involved in this case. He was a graduate of Vanderbilt University and had a good reputation on the Highway Patrol, where he was a high-ranking member of the force.
In the week following Senteney’s murder, Sheriff Ross had few leads. However, about a week after Senteney’s death, he received a call from a Carpinteria liquor dealer who claimed that a cop named Leonard Kirkes had killed Senteney. The liquor dealer said that on the afternoon Senteney disappeared, Kirkes had been in his store buying whiskey. He claimed that Kirkes returned the day after her body was found and told the liquor dealer that he was concerned because the car tire marks near Senteney’s body looked just like his own car tire tracks. The dealer claimed Kirkes had said he needed an alibi and asked the man to say that Kirkes had purchased whiskey from him at 7:30 on the night of Senteney’s disappearance, though he had actually been in the store earlier in the day.
In looking into Kirkes a bit following this call, Sheriff Ross discovered more information that made him suspicious of Kirkes. He learned that shortly after the murder, Kirkes had taken his 1939 Ford into an auto shop to have it repainted. It was reported to Ross that Kirkes had used an air hose to clean out the rear compartment of the car. Additionally, Senteney’s body had marks on it that appeared to be from the floor mat of a car. Ross noted that the mat in Kirkes’ car was missing. He also recalled that Kirkes had walked around Senteney’s body in a way that disturbed the existing footprints near her body.
After discussing this information, Ross and the district attorney approached Kirkes and accused him of committing the murder. Kirkes denied any involvement and the district attorney felt there was insufficient evidence to pursue the charge. Shortly after this, Kirkes joined the Red Cross and moved to the Aleutian Islands. Several years later, Kirkes moved back to California and began working as a salesman.
In September 1950, Kirkes was arrested on a morals charge, wherein a woman claimed Kirkes had molested her 8-year-old son. Sheriff Ross took Kirkes’ arrest as an opportunity to reopen the Senteney murder investigation. In doing so, Ross interviewed Dorothy Rosebro Egan, who had been a school friend of Senteney. Egan claimed to have seen Senteney get into Kirkes’ car on the evening Senteney disappeared. Egan claimed that her father, who was deceased by the time of her interview with Ross, had urged her to keep quiet about what she had seen.
The district attorney then decided to move forward and charged Kirkes with second-degree murder in Senteney’s death. The trial began in December 1950, more than eight years after Senteney’s death. In addition to Egan’s convincing testimony about the night of Senteney’s disappearance, several auto repairmen also testified. One stated that Kirkes had asked him to say there was no mat in the back of Kirkes’ car when the man had worked on it prior to the murder. Another claimed that Kirkes had come to him to have his car repainted, which the man said was not needed, and that Kirkes had insisted on having the inside of the rear compartment painted as well.
Kirkes maintained that he had spent the evening in question with his friend who died just a few months after the murder. Senteney had babysat once for Kirkes’ child prior to her death, but Kirkes denied knowing her beyond that. Kirkes’ wife and mother-in-law both testified that he had been discussing repainting his car for a substantial period of time before Senteney’s disappearance, and that his car mat had been removed and given to a rubber drive in July because it was torn. Other witnesses, including Kirkes’ father, a minister, confirmed both these pieces of testimony.
The jury returned a guilty verdict, and Kirkes was sentenced to spend five years to life in prison.
In October 1952, the California State Supreme Court reversed Kirkes’ conviction on the basis that the jury had been given inconsistent instructions on reasonable doubt and circumstantial evidence.
Kirkes’ retrial began in mid-April 1953. While much of the same evidence was admitted at the second trial, a significant piece of new evidence was brought to light. Dorothy Rosebro Egan, the witness who had testified to seeing Senteney enter Kirkes’ car the night of the murder, was unable to testify because she had been committed to Camarillo State Hospital in 1952 as a mentally insane person. Egan’s psychiatrist testified as to her mental state, describing that she suffered from delusions and hallucinations. The doctor also testified that Egan had been insane in 1946 when she was placed in a mental hospital for several months, and that her condition had worsened since that time. Egan’s testimony in the first trial had provided the strongest and most direct evidence implicating Kirkes in the crime, and the new information about her mental illness significantly discredited this crucial evidence. The jury deliberated for just 14 minutes before acquitting Kirkes on May 4, 1953.
– Meghan Barrett Cousino
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.