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Peter Pianezzi


Convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, Peter Pianezzi served thirteen years before being paroled in 1953 and pardoned on the basis of innocence in 1981. Pianezzi’s 1940 conviction ultimately rested on the testimony of two eyewitnesses who claimed Pianezzi had been a shooter in a double homicide three years earlier.
 
At 12:20 a.m. on October 25, 1937, two men walked into the Roost Cafe, a Los Angeles beer joint, and shot Redondo Beach’s gambling czar, George Lester Bruneman, sixteen times. Bruneman was killed by the shots. As the two perpetrators raced out and joined a third man in a getaway car, Frank Greuzard, a Roost Cafe employee, ran after them to try to obtain their license plate number, but he was promptly shot dead as well. Bruneman had been sitting with his nurse, Alice Ingram, who suffered three gunshot wounds to her legs but eventually made a full recovery. Ingram had been taking care of Bruneman for three months after he was previously wounded when an attempt on his life had failed. In the weeks following the slayings, the Los Angeles City Council appropriated $10,000 to the police secret service budget to aid in the apprehension of the perpetrators.
 
Police attempts to find the killers had been fruitless for the nine months after the murders, but in July of 1938, Peter Pianezzi and Joseph Barry — both ex-convicts who had at one time been cellmates — were indicted on murder charges. Detectives claimed they were “positive” that Barry had killed Bruneman and Greuzard. They believed Barry had done so with the help of Pianezzi, who had reportedly already been positively identified by five witnesses, and that the two men had been hired to put the hit on Bruneman. However, despite a full-scale man hunt along the Pacific coast, neither Pianezzi nor Barry were anywhere to be found at the time of the indictment. Neither was located until Barry surfaced in September of 1939, nearly two years after he had been first wanted for questioning. Soon after he was taken into custody, it was proven that Barry had been in the San Francisco jail when the slayings occurred, and his indictment was erased. Authorities, however, did not doubt Pianezzi’s guilt, and the search for him continued.
 
Two months later, Pianezzi was arrested in Los Angeles after eluding police for more than two years. In addition to the Bruneman murders, Pianezzi was also accused of spearheading a bank bandit ring that operated up and down the coast. After another two months, the murder trial was set to commence in February 1940.
 
Out of the eleven witnesses in the Roost Cafe on the night of the killings, two claimed they had seen Pianezzi pull the trigger. The testimonies of Elaine Huddle, the wife of the café’s owner, and Dean Farris, the café’s bartender, were the prosecution’s primary evidence. Huddle claimed that she would never forget Pianezzi’s face because it had been illuminated by a 250-watt floodlight that hung above the doorway where the killers entered. Farris testified that Pianezzi was definitely the man who kicked over the body of George Bruneman as it lay on the floor and cold-bloodedly fired a .45 caliber bullet into his head. After the prosecution rested its case, the defense presented a strong alibi supported by three witnesses who claimed that, at the time of the crime, Pianezzi was five miles away from the Roost Café, in a Los Angeles cocktail lounge being serenaded as he sipped drinks. On February 26, 1940, after Pianezzi took the stand to deny his involvement, the case was handed over to a jury of eight men and four women.

After fifteen hours of deliberation, the jury – standing 9-3 in favor of acquittal – was discharged by Superior Judge A. A. Scott, and a new trial was ordered.
 
Before the second trial even began, the case was making newspaper headlines because of the prosecution’s star witnesses. Judge Scott had ordered a bodyguard for Huddle after an apparent threat on her life, and Farris had mysteriously gone missing from his home for approximately twenty days.
 
Despite Pianezzi’s claims that neither he nor any of his friends had anything to do with the molestation of the witnesses, these pre-trial incidents may have influenced the new jurors. Everything about the trial itself was essentially a repeat of the first one except for the verdict. After retiring on a Monday, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on the following Friday, April 19, 1940, and Pianezzi was given two life sentences in Folsom Prison.
 
Pianezzi sought a new trial, claiming his had not been fair, and, on April 27, 1940, shortly after Judge Scott denied the request, a jury convicted Pianezzi of two bank robberies and sentenced him to twenty-four years in prison. In the following weeks, Dean Farris’s wife came out and said that her husband had told her that Pianezzi was not one of the gunmen but that he was going to testify against him anyway because “he has done enough things in life to deserve the gas chamber.” This piece of information seemed to be disregarded as the Appellate Court denied Pianezzi’s request for a new trial in 1941.
 
The case took a turn later that year when Jimmy “The Weasel” Frantianno, a hit man turned government informant, alerted police that the real killers were “walking the streets while another man takes the rap.” He revealed that his former associates, Leo Moceri and Frank Bomponsiero, were the real killers, and that Los Angeles Mafia chief Tom Dragna had put the contract on Bruneman’s life.
 
Nevertheless, Pianezzi did not walk out of prison until May 29, 1953, and his release was not based on innocence; he was paroled as a result of his “excellent readjustment” in prison. After spending thirteen years in prison and determined to never go back, Pianezzi became a newspaper distributor in Mill Valley, California. In June 1964, Governor Edmund G. Brown Sr. commuted Pianezzi’s life sentence. Pianezzi then received a full pardon from Governor Edmund G. Brown Sr. on December 29, 1966, based on rehabilitation.
 
Finally, in 1981, the State of California declared Pianezzi, then 79 years old, officially innocent. His second pardon, granted on the basis of innocence by Governor Edmund Brown Jr. on October 28, 1981, came forty-four years after the killings at the Roost Cafe. “Since the time of the conviction, there has been substantial new evidence of innocence that has led a number of people to conclude that Pianezzi was wrongfully convicted. Were the jury to hear the case today,” said the Governor’s legal advisor, “he would not have been convicted...”
 
Pianezzi died on February 18, 1992, at the age of ninety.
 
– Researched by Billy Warden
State:CA
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1937
Convicted:1940
Exonerated:1966
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:35
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation