On September 17, 1965, barely 20 years after Nazi Germany surrendered, CBS began airing Hogan’s Heroes, a sitcom set in Stalag 13, a fictional German POW camp during World War II. The show followed the antics of a group of international prisoners who were covertly running Allied spy operations from within the camp, right under the noses of Colonel Klink and Sergeant “I know nothing” Schultz. It was farce, very silly, slightly offensive, and initially very popular, finishing its first season ranked 9th in the Nielsen ratings. The POWs were led by the charismatic Colonel Hogan, who was played by Bob Crane. In the show, Hogan was able to outsmart the Germans every episode while performing operations that, if he were caught doing in the actual war, would have gotten him summarily executed. In real life, in 1978, just 7 years after the show was cancelled, Crane was found bludgeoned to death in his apartment in Scottsdale, Arizona, possibly as a result of years of antics not as a POW, but as a lothario.
Bob Crane began his career as a radio DJ in New York and Connecticut. After his offbeat morning show rose in popularity, he was offered a position in Los Angeles, and quickly made it a success, earning the nickname “King of the LA Airwaves.” He soon began acting lessons and found work in the theater, eventually landing guest spots on TV shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Donna Reed Show. In 1965, after being offered the role of Hogan, he gave up his radio career.
For 6 seasons (which is longer than US involvement in the actual war), the prisoners at Stalag 13 continually confounded their German captors, working with the Resistance, rescuing Allied soldiers behind enemy lines, stealing plans for German secret weapons, and, well, carrying out all sorts of farfetched schemes. They were able to accomplish these tasks via a network of secret tunnels running beneath the camp, constant radio contact with Allied forces (the Germans, fortunately, never looked inside the prisoners’ coffee pot), and access to the camp’s telephone switchboard. This was made possible via the over-the-top ineptness of the Germans at Stalag 13, led by the incompetent Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer), and assisted by the bumbling Sergeant Schultz (John Banner).
After initial success, 12 Emmy nominations, and the weekly use of their tunnels, Hogan’s Heroes began to lag in the ratings, and was eventually moved to Sunday night to compete against the popular Wonderful World of Disney. In 1971, CBS was in the process of altering its image and cancelled numerous hit shows from the ’60s, including The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction, in favor of programming that would attract more urban, young, and affluent viewers. It was known as the “Rural Purge.” Included in receiving the ax was Hogan’s Heroes.
After the show was cancelled, Crane’s career cooled off. Over the next few years, in addition to a failed sitcom and some guest spots on TV, he also appeared in a couple of Disney films, Superdad (1973) and Gus (1976). In 1973, he bought the rights to a play (Beginner’s Luck), which he directed and starred in as it toured the country for the next 5 years. In 1978, the tour landed in Scottsdale.
Bob Crane had a strong sexual compulsion throughout his life. He was a constant flirt, and was always at the ready with an off-color joke. Very much into pornography, he reportedly had a preference for blondes with large breasts. And he was not subtle about his hobby. Crane would crudely brag about his conquests, and was happy to show to almost anybody a photo album he had filled with naked women whom he had bedded. In addition, he filmed many of his encounters, very often without the woman’s (and sometimes women’s) knowledge. Crane’s proclivities certainly affected both of his marriages, including the one to his high school sweetheart, which ended in 1970, and the one to Sigrid Valdis, who played Hilda on Hogan’s Heroes and was in the process of divorcing him at the time of his death.
In 1965, Crane met John Carpenter, a sales manager for Sony who was instructing celebrities on the use of a new technology: the VCR. As a result of Crane’s interest in recording his dalliances, and of Carpenter’s interest in taking part in such episodes, the two became fast friends. They would go out together to bars to find women (Carpenter reportedly also preferred the buxom kind), and due to Crane’s fame, had little problem bringing them home. After Hogan’s Heroes was cancelled, Crane’s sexual compulsion took off. Carpenter would arrange business trips to where Crane’s play was being performed, and the two would go out, pick up women, and then videotape themselves having sex with them, sometimes together.
A Bloody End
On June 28, 1978, Crane was living in Scottsdale while Beginner’s Luck was playing there, and Carpenter was in town as well, along for more sexual adventures. The two had lunch together, and their waitress later reported that Crane and Carpenter had a very tense conversation. That night, fellow cast members noticed that Crane’s performance didn’t have its usual vitality. After the play, Crane and Carpenter went out drinking. The two then went back to Crane’s apartment, where Carpenter claimed that Crane called his wife and got into a very heated argument. This is partially corroborated by a neighbor, who later recalled, “I turned to my husband and said, ‘If he keeps screaming like that, he won’t be able to perform in the show tomorrow.'”
The men then went out to find women. They eventually found themselves at a club called the Safari around 1:00 AM. Crane was supposedly still very upset about his earlier argument with his wife and their pending divorce. However, that didn’t stop him from carousing. He left the club with a woman, as did Carpenter. Carpenter took his new acquaintance back to his motel, but struck out. Crane, uncharacteristically, also had no luck, as his date decided not to accompany him home. Nothing is known for certain what happened later that night.
On the following afternoon, Victoria Berry, an actress in Beginner’s Luck, stopped by Crane’s apartment because he had missed a Television Academy luncheon where the two of them were to be interviewed. After knocking and getting no answer, she tried the knob, and found the door to be unlocked. She entered the apartment and discovered a grizzly sight in his bedroom. Berry told police that “the whole wall was covered from one end to the other with blood. And I just sort of stood there and I was numb. He was curled up in a fetus position, on his side, and he had a cord tied around his neck in a bow.”
The medical examiner’s investigation later found that Crane had been struck hard in the head twice by a heavy blunt instrument. The cord around his neck turned out to be a cut piece of VCR cable, which had been tightly tied around his neck posthumously. The medical examiner believed the killer to be male considering the strength required to create such deep head wounds.
The police found no evidence of a forced entry, and believed that Crane had let his murderer into the apartment willingly. There was an empty large black bag found on the bed next to Crane’s body, and it was assumed that the killer had taken its contents. The murder weapon was never located. The VCR cable was a provocative clue, as the murderer had to walk past several electrical cords in order to find it, indicating that it may have had symbolic significance considering Crane’s habit of videotaping his promiscuous behavior.
John Carpenter flew to California just a few hours before Crane’s body was discovered. Later that day, he called the theater where Crane’s play was running, and was told that the police were investigating a problem at Crane’s apartment. He then called the apartment and spoke with a lieutenant; however, he did not ask why the police were there. Carpenter called back a half hour later, answered some more of the lieutenant’s questions, but again did not inquire as to why the police were at his close friend’s home. The ensuing police investigation quickly turned to Carpenter, whose relationship with Crane had been described by several witnesses as having recently grown tense.
The police located the rental car that Carpenter had been driving in Scottsdale. They found drops of dried type B blood in the car. Bob Crane’s blood had been type B, which has an occurrence of less than 10% of the US population. (In 1978, DNA testing was not available to definitively determine whose blood was found in the car.) The police questioned Carpenter, who vehemently denied killing Crane, and could not explain where the blood in his car had come from. Despite suspecting Carpenter, the police simply did not have enough evidence to proceed with a murder charge. In 1989, an investigation employing DNA profiling was undertaken; however, the results were inconclusive.
The investigation continued for years until a speck (1/16th of an inch) was located in an old photograph from the initial inspection of Carpenter’s rental car. Forensic experts believed that it was most likely human brain matter. In June 1992, John Carpenter was finally charged with first-degree murder. During a lurid trial in 1994, the prosecution argued that Carpenter “fed off the fame and energy of the actor. Bob Crane became a source of women that he could never obtain for himself.” They claimed that he feared Crane was going to sever their relationship, and that he killed him in a fit of rage, using a camera tripod that was never located. The prosecution also showed a 10-minute video of the 2 men having a sexual encounter with a woman, in order to show the sort of relationship they had. Expert prosecution witnesses testified as to the speck found in the old photo. However, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. The foreperson noted later that the key photographic evidence was inconclusive: “Nobody knows what it was, not even the doctors.”
John Carpenter died 4 years later from a heart attack. Does that close the case on Bob Crane’s murder? Probably not. Although the circumstantial evidence certainly pointed to Carpenter, the list of potential suspects couldn’t be much longer, considering Crane’s years of recording his womanizing. There were countless potential jealous husband and boyfriends out there at the time of his death, not to mention the many women who may have discovered that their private moments with Crane had not been so private after all. Colonel Hogan might have needed just one more secret escape tunnel.
- Bob Crane. Biography Web site. http://www.biography.com/people/bob-crane-9542342.
- Bob’s Cranium. Find a Death Web site. http://www.findadeath.com/Deceased/c/Bob%20Crane/bob_cranium.htm.
- Blood types in the U.S. Stanford School of Medicine Web site. http://bloodcenter.stanford.edu/about_blood/blood_types.html.
- Hogan’s Heroes. IMDb.com. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058812/.
- How did Bob Crane die, anyway? The Straight Dope Web site. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2795/how-did-bob-crane-die-anyway.
- Murray N. Hogan’s Heroes’ unceremonious finale comes from the era before TV “endgames.” A.V. Club Web site. http://www.avclub.com/article/ihogans-heroesi-unceremonious-finale-comes-from-th-96053.
- Noe D. The Bob Crane case. TruTV Web site. http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/classics/bob_crane/1.html.