The Palisades’ Forgotten ‘Torso Murder’

And the Remarkable Young Woman Whose Killer Remains Unknown

By MATTHEW MEYER
Reporter

Research by
ALEKSANDAR PAVLOVIĆ
Special to the Palisadian-Post

It was a sense of adventure—or at least a disinterest in attending class that day—that landed three Palisadian teenagers on PCH on Nov. 2, 1973.

The ditching teens had skirted Palisades High School to check out what was left of a raging Malibu brush fire just down the road.

Juniors Gale Cruse and Elizabeth “Liz” Taylor hopped into James Levesque’s Jeep. One year older than the girls, Levesque was the admitted “lead troublemaker” of the gang.

When his car blew a tire just past the Chart House restaurant on PCH, he set to work on the Jeep while the girls gazed out over the ocean.

That’s when they spotted something bobbing in the water near shore.

At first Cruse thought it might be a doll. But as she and Taylor scrambled closer along the rocks, they realized with horror that it was a woman’s torso—separated from head and limbs.

“It was surreal,” Cruse told the Palisadian-Post last month. “We were freaked out.”

Levesque scrambled down alongside the girls to get a better look.

“[It was] frightening,” he later recalled. “How evil, and how ugly and how sad … Who the heck would do something like this?”

The teens knew they had to report their haunting discovery, but feared that calling the police might reveal their truancy. They settled on an anonymous telephone hotline at the local radio station, KHJ.

By the time they returned to the beach from a pay phone down the road, police had descended on the area.

Cruse called that day her “big secret”—a vivid memory that replayed constantly in her head, but one that she hardly spoke to anyone about, aside from passed notes to Taylor in class.

She scanned what limited access she had to news reports, but never discovered much more about what was later called the “torso murder” at Will Rogers State Beach.

Coverage of the incident was limited—but newspaper archives paint a clearer picture of the investigation that followed.

Sgt. Edwards in the LA Times
Photo courtesy of LA Times

The LA Times reported that a pair of shoes and a purse found near the body were the focus of a “massive effort” to identify the woman, said to be between 20 and 30 years old.

LAPD Detective Sgt. John Edwards told reporters that he suspected the woman was from out of town, and that she was likely killed elsewhere and dead for several hours before she was taken to the beach.

The front cover of the Palisadian-Post that week featured a lead story about the incident, noting that local lifeguards had assisted in gathering evidence for the detective.

In the Valley News of Van Nuys, an officer likened the killing to the horrors of the Black Dahlia murder, a still-vivid memory for many Angelenos at the time.

Then the news went quiet, as detectives searched for identification, and life and crime continued in one of the country’s most populous cities.

In December, police used surgical scars and dental records to finally identify the woman as Toni Elinor Brown Goman, a 28-year-old who had traveled to LA from Ohio with a male friend about a week prior to her death.

Toni Elinor Brown Goman
Photo courtesy of the Amos Family

Police told the LA Times that their investigation “would now be concentrated on her activities and associates” since her arrival.

A few leads emerged, but ultimately led nowhere.

Goman’s companion had reported her missing on Nov. 4, after attempting to pick her up from a Beverly Hills hotel known for seedy dealings. He had dropped her off at the hotel a few days prior, he told police.

The man, identified only as a former Ohio State University student, had a record with Columbus police of assault and battery charges.

While police sought to question him upon his return to Ohio, they never gathered the evidence to issue a warrant for his arrest.

And that’s where national coverage left off—detectives never convicted a killer, and Goman’s death slowly faded from the public memory, as so many victims tragically do.

But her memory didn’t fade for her family; nor her peers.

And outreach by Post researcher Aleksandar Pavlović this month has uncovered more about Goman than the details of her unfortunate end: a picture of a free-spirited revolutionary, with impassioned ideals.

Sisters Vicki and Bobbie Amos, cousins of Goman whose family raised her after Toni’s mother gave her up for adoption, shared their memories with the Post for the first time.

“Toni was a special cousin,” Vicki said. “She always made everything more fun.

“When Toni was a teenager, she spent time in her attic bedroom listening to her radio and her 45 LP records. She also liked to draw and sketch … she was a very good artist.”

Bobbie, too, recalled Toni as a fun-loving creative.

“Toni was like the rest of us cousins until she turned 12, 13, 14,” she said. “She then started blooming into being a free spirit. She would take walks in our woods—take off her top and [quote] poetry or sing.

“Once she met a hunter coming towards her and she tells me he turned tail and got out of there. She laughs saying he probably thought she was a crazy person.”

Toni’s carefree youth gave way to an at-times troubled young adulthood.

She battled with anorexia and depression for some time as a teen. Later she became pregnant with a son, Arthur, in an ill-fated marriage to a man named Ron Birchum.

She attended Ohio State University, where her free mind led her to the frontline of pacifist and feminist movements. Goman was a founding member of the campus’ Women’s Action Collective and an active member of a peer counseling service for women.

In a letter to the Columbus Dispatch newspaper after her death, a group of Goman’s feminist peers called her a beloved friend, and named a women’s center in the area the Toni Goman Feminist Rape Crisis Center, in honor of her contributions to their burgeoning movement.

Goman’s association with the day’s political movements was a distant and somewhat abstract pursuit to family back home.

But she remained deeply loved by all.

Bobbie said that Goman was considering moving to California when she left on her trip.

She and Vicki recalled the pain of her failure to return, and the days of wondering before dental records provided by their father finally proved Goman’s death.

“It took my sister Bobbie and I about 20 years to get over most of the trauma of our loss, of our special cousin,” she later told the Post.

And without ever seeing Goman again, there was always a flicker of doubt: “We would always look for her face in a large crowd of people.”

The Amos family raised Goman’s son, who went on to attend University of Utah and serve 20 years as a Navy pilot.

Questions surrounding her murder will always weigh heavily on the family.

But their fond memories shed light on a certain truth—Goman left the world too soon, but the lives she touched while living have assured that she’s far from forgotten.