Slain on Lovers Lane: The Unsolved, Century-Old Murder of Jazz-Age Lovebirds

 by Sarah A. Peterson-Camacho

“…the phantom slips in to spill blood,/even on the sweetest honeymoon…”
The Clash, “Death is a Star”

Forty-nine feet were all she had. 

From the moment he put two bullets in her boyfriend’s brain, Pauline Grass had only 49 steps left to take. 


A balmy summer night out on the town in Alex’s new auto, cruising the countryside under a full, white-hot moon, slipping out to that secluded spot by Faller’s vineyard. Climbing into the backseat to christen upholstery so new it squeaked, steaming up the glass in a heady potpourri of sweat, smeared lipstick, and Alex’s aftershave. 

Losing herself in his kiss…

And then BAM BAM. A ruby mist as Alex’s head was blown open, a spray of blood and brain matter coating those squeaky leather seats. 

And her terror…the taste of his sweat still on her tongue, her feet swift in the soft grass—and then a rough yank by hands not her lover’s, the rip of her dress and a brutal rain of blows…then BAM. 

Her last step taken in a cloudburst of bloody stars. 

Born on Nov. 24, 1906, Pauline Caroline Grass was the youngest of the seven children of Russian immigrants who had settled in the small town of Sanger, California, around 1901. 

Her parents, Christian and Marie had married as teens in Russia (having their first child at the tender ages of 14 and 13, respectively), and by the time they arrived in the Central Valley, they had become a family of six. Christian would go on to establish a grocery business in Sanger as Marie gave birth to three more children in quick succession. 

By the summer of 1922, Pauline was going on 16, and had just graduated from grammar school (the equivalent of today’s high school). She spent her summer days working in her father’s grocery store, and was popular with her peers, girls and boys alike. 

But there was only one young man she went steady with: 21-year-old Alexander “Alex” Winter, who had recently moved to Sanger from Fresno to work on his uncle’s ranch—and to be closer to Pauline. 

Winter, born in Russia on Oct. 8, 1900, had immigrated to California with his family as a child, settling in the Central Valley, much as Pauline’s family had. But unlike the Grasses, the Winters found the so-called American Dream elusive. 

Working long hours in the fields, from Armona to Fresno to Sanger, Alex and his family picked fruit and slept wherever they worked. 

But by 1922, things were looking up. With his mother and brother August settled in Fresno, Winter had jumped at the opportunity to work for his uncle on his ranch outside Sanger. Not only could he get a foot in with his prosperous relations, but he’d also be closer to his sweetheart Pauline, whom he’d met the previous year. 

If two things could be said about Alex, it was that he was a hard worker, and he was crazy about his girl. In fact, he was hoping to marry her soon, according to Sanger rancher A.S. Chiebelhut, his sometime employer (“No Clue Found,” 1922). 

But every man has a vice, and Alex Winter was no different: as devoted as he was to Pauline, and as reliable and hard-working a ranch-hand, the young man “had a bad habit of speeding with his automobile,” Armona rancher Thomas Jenkenson would later reveal to reporters (“Murdered Pair,” 1922). 

Saturday, July 8, 1922, was going to be a great day, Alex just knew it. Not only was it payday, but he was taking Pauline out that night in his brand-new automobile. Perhaps they would cruise on over to Fresno this time. 

Stopping by A.S. Chiebelhut’s ranch to pick up his pay, Winter arrived with an unknown youth in tow. As Chiebelhut counted out the crisp bills, he puzzled over who the youth was. Maybe a cousin of young Winter’s…?

The rancher shrugged to himself, instead asking Alex if he’d return for another day of work the following Monday, July 10th. The young man readily agreed, and off he went, the unknown youngster trailing behind him. 

Winter peeled rubber as he hit the road in his new auto, kicking up plumes of powdery beige dust on his way out. 

Alex Winter and his girl were indeed seen cruising the streets of Fresno Saturday night in his auto quite late, even though Pauline had to be work the next day. 

But that late night didn’t stop her from putting in a full shift at her father’s store Sunday, July 9th. In fact, she was better than ever; she would be seeing Alex again after work! 

When her shift ended that evening, Winter pulled up to the curb, grinning as she slid into the front seat beside him. Because tonight, they were going to park…

Monday, July 10, 1922, promised to be another unforgivable scorcher, so butcher wagon driver J.R. Baker got an early start as usual; by 7:00 am, he was on his delivery route, when he passed an auto parked on an embankment by the roadside, about two and a half miles south of Sanger. 

Was that a man slumped over in the backseat? Must be sleeping off a hard night on the bottle, Baker thought with a sideways glance as he drove past. 

But something was a bit off; perhaps it was the stiffened slouch of the vehicle’s occupant, or the richly metallic aroma of blood wafting by on the slightest of morning breezes. The butcher shop driver knew that scent well.

So, Baker made a U-turn and backtracked about a quarter of a mile, slowing to a stop on the shoulder of the lonely country road. Perhaps the young man had been injured…

But the poor fellow was dead. His head had been blown open, powder burn dusting his features an inky hue. 

Baker hailed down farmer Peter Faller, who came upon the body of a young girl, sprawled face-down in a vineyard, several dozen yards from the dead man in the automobile. 

The back of her head was caked with blood. 

Twenty-one-year-old Alexander Winter had two bullets in his brain, but only one hole in his head—both shots had been fired at close-range, into the same exact entry point. Death had been instantaneous. 

Fifteen-year-old Pauline Grass had been shot once in the back of the head, the bullet entering at the base of her skull, piercing the brain at an upward angle, before exiting at her forehead. 

Her clothing was torn and disheveled, and a large bruise was already blooming across her right thigh like a lush purple flower. 

Fresno County Sheriff William F. Jones had his work cut out for him. 

The little farming community of Sanger, pop. 2,600, was abuzz in the immediate wake of the double homicide, fanning the flames of small-town gossip like a lit match to dead grass. 

Jones’ first thought was that he had a murder-suicide on his hands: a lover’s quarrel turned deadly. Or a suicide pact, maybe. 

But the autopsy of Alex Winter, performed the night of Monday, July 10th, by a Dr. L.T. Fleming, quickly proved otherwise. Either of the two bullets found in the young man’s brain would have killed him instantly, precluding the suicide angle. 

Bethel Cemetery where couple are burried

Winter had most likely never known what had hit him, shot twice in the head at close range while making love to his girl, the prevailing theory now went. And terrified beyond reason, Pauline Grass had stumbled from the vehicle, running blindly into the pitch-dark vineyard when the killer lunged for her, tearing her dress and bruising her thigh. 

And when faced with the realization that she might escape, all thoughts of a sexual nature had fled the fiend’s brain, replaced by the urgent need to silence her at all costs, lest she later reveal his identity. 

So, the teen girl had taken her last step in flight, felled by a single bullet to the back of her skull—already dead by the time her body hit the earth with a muffled thud, face down in the dewy grass. 

And what about a motive? Robbery was out of the question, as young Winter’s pockets were still laden with his hard-earned cash, and nothing else of value had been taken from the vehicle, let alone either of the deceased. 

Even the theory that took root—that a jealous rival for Pauline’s affections had trailed them to their doom—was fast losing ground in the absence of enemies of either victim. The couple’s families got along with one another, and neither Alex nor Pauline were known to have been romantically linked with anyone besides each other. 

Pauline Grass and Alexander Winter were laid to rest in Sanger’s Bethel Cemetery on the morning of Tuesday, July 11, 1922, buried 49 feet apart—the distance between the two of them at the time of their murders. 

Their families and friends gathered to pay their final respects in the little country graveyard, surrounded as it was by serene vineyards, very much like the one in which a killer hunted down his human prey. 

Clues to the double slaying were tantalizingly few, and every tangible piece of evidence trailed off to a dead end. Tracks in the soft sand retraced Pauline’s desperate flight into the vineyard, and the shooter’s pursuit of her—undertaker J.R. Gain found—“extending as far as the girl’s body and returning” to the vehicle (“Murderer of Girl and Boy,” 1922.) 

The owner of a flashlight found near the dead girl could ultimately not be traced, despite several promising leads, and a pair of eyeglasses unearthed in the vineyard ended up belonging to a Fresno man named J.P. Lester, who claimed he had lost his spectacles on the site long before the murder ever took place. 

Rumors sprang up like weeds in the emotional wake of the double funeral, confounding Sheriff Jones and his officers as they desperately trailed the few clues they had, as far as they could go. 

Authorities questioned dozens of the dead couple’s friends and family, attempting to trace every rumor to its original source—all in dogged pursuit of the phantom fiend. 

Alex Scheidt, the son of a Fresno ranchman, was grilled by Jones about an alleged fight over a woman that was supposed to have occurred in Sanger Sunday night around 9:30, about an hour before the murders. 

Clarence Rice of Sanger reported seeing a “little auto” parked about twenty yards behind Alex Winter’s vehicle that night—what looked to Rice to be a Ford—but didn’t recall anyone being inside the small car (“Little Auto is Only Clue,” 1922). (Investigators would later determine that the mystery machine had actually been parked on a different road entirely.) 

Another rumor—that Pauline Grass had rejected the advances of two unknown youths at a Sanger park the night before she was killed—was also laid to rest, by witnesses who had seen the teen and her beau cruising the streets of Fresno that very same Saturday night. 

And then there was the mystery woman who had supposedly attended the young lovers’ double funeral, only to be overheard saying she knew the identity of the murderer but could not reveal it for fear of retaliation on the part of the killer.

But Mrs. Margaret Steinert, the wife of a Sanger merchant—who was alleged to have overheard the mysterious woman’s graveside admission—vehemently denied ever hearing such a confession, let alone reporting it to Sheriff Jones. 

And the unnamed suspect brought in for questioning the afternoon of Wednesday, July 12th?  His identity never came to light, or why he was interrogated in the first place.  

The proverbial smoking gun turned out to be a real smoking gun: a .25-caliber, nickel-plated automatic pistol, to be exact. 

The weapon used to snuff the lives out of Pauline Grass and Alex Winter was never found, but what it left behind would prove crucial: two spent shells and one live round were uncovered in the tonneau of Winter’s auto, near the crumpled form of his body on the backseat, indicative of a misfire. (The bullet that had killed Pauline, however, would never be retrieved, exiting her forehead into the great unknown.)  

The unspent bullet allowed the police to trace the automatic weapon; it was identified as belonging to Sanger pool hall proprietor Rolla Johnson, who claimed it had been stolen from his cash drawer several months previous. 

Johnson told investigators he had originally purchased the .25-caliber pistol from Sanger youth Edward Peterson, who in turn admitted to the transaction, and to the fact that the nickel-plated weapon did indeed tend to misfire. 

The pool hall owner also revealed to officers the names of two young men whom he suspected of the theft. They happened to be two prominent ranchers’ sons from neighboring Parlier, who had previously been identified by a couple of the dead girl’s friends as alleged possessors of the flashlight found at the scene of the crime.  

Sheriff Jones and his men rounded up the two young men the night of Wednesday, July 12th, as well as five other youths from prosperous Parlier ranching families. All seven had been acquaintances of Pauline Grass, and were known for using a flashlight at “night motor parties,” and for carrying a “small black gun” between the lot of them (“7 Suspects,” 1922). 

Officers grilled the seven until well after midnight, and by the wee hours of Thursday, July 13th, all of them had been released from custody, after producing a flashlight and gun of their own (NOT a .25-caliber, nickel-plated automatic pistol), and after each having provided a satisfactory alibi for the night in question: each other. 

And so the alleged smoking gun only led to more smoke and mirrors. All potential leads had dried up, and by Sunday, July 16, 1922, only one week after the double murder of Alex Winter and Pauline Grass, the tragic story of the young lovers’ violent demise had completely disappeared from the papers. 

The very last mention of the killings, in a news brief from The Madera Tribune, dated Saturday, July 15, 1922, summed up the sheer futility of Sheriff William F. Jones’ week-long search for justice, noting that the “failure to establish any possible motive for the crime had led officials to believe that the murder may have been unpremeditated” (“Sanger Murder Still Mystery,” 1922). 

And that was that. Life went on in the small town of Sanger, as those affected by the double tragedy slipped back into their daily routines, but irrevocably changed. 

Love soon blossomed between Pauline Grass’ older brother Henry and her best friend Elsie Steinert, whose mother Margaret had adamantly denied ever having overheard the mystery woman’s graveside admission of knowing who the killer was. 

They married several years later, brought together by the unsolved murders. 

Sheriff William F. Jones would go on to solve other infamous local crimes, including the 1923 serial poisoning case of black widow Elizia Potegian, and the 1924 Clovis First State Bank Robbery. 

He hung up his badge in 1931, retiring as the last Fresno County Sheriff to act as the primary criminal investigator for the agency. He died of a heart attack while on a fishing trip five years later, at the age of 61. 

So who killed Alex Winter and Pauline Grass as they made love under a full moon, parked on a lonely country road the steamy night of Sunday, July 9, 1922? 

Possible suspects ran the gamut from the unknown youth seen with young Winter when he collected his pay from Sanger rancher A.S. Chiebelhut, to the bearded hobo knelt in prayer in a grove of olive trees the morning after the murders, several miles from the scene of the crime. 

But what about J.P. Lester of Fresno, whose eyeglasses were found in the vineyard where the body of the teen girl lay? Or Rolla Johnson, the Sanger pool hall owner, from whom the murder weapon was supposedly stolen? 

It is not known if Sheriff Jones ever even considered these two individuals as potential suspects, let alone if he questioned them as to their whereabouts the night of the double homicide. 

The answers to these questions have all been lost to time, and what remains is the chain of events documented a hundred years ago—unearthed in the digital archives of century-old newspapers, some of which no longer exist. 

But out of all the rumors, reports, suppositions, angles, false leads, and eventual dead ends, one particular anecdote stands apart from the rest:

As reported to Sheriff Jones by Justice B.F. Cotton of Sanger, a young couple was returning home to Sanger in their automobile the night of the slayings, when they decided to pull over a couple of miles outside town, to snack on some watermelon they had purchased earlier that evening. 

Their vehicle was passed by a small car—a little auto, if you will—carrying a quintet of rowdy young men, who jeered at the couple as they sped past, before turning south down the road where Alex Winter and Pauline Grass were sharing their very last kisses on the so-new-they-squeaked leather seats, in the back of Alex’s hard-earned automobile. 

It was around 10:30 the night of Sunday, July 9, 1922: the approximate time that three bullets ended two lives—49 feet apart. 


“Clues Traced in Murder of Sanger Boy and Girl.”  The San Francisco Call, Vol. 112, No. 4: Tuesday, July 11, 1922.   

“Fresno Girl and Escort Slain; Police Seek Rival.”  The Stockton Independent, Vol. 122, No. 162: Tuesday, July 11, 1922.  

“No Clue Found in Double Murder.”  The Hanford Sentinel, Vol. 70, No. 101: Tuesday, July 11, 1922.  

“Armona Boy Murdered, Police Say.”  The Hanford Journal (Daily), No. 84: Tuesday, July 11, 1922.  

“Girl and Sweetheart Thought Murdered by Rival in Affections.”  The Sacramento Daily Union, Vol. 227, No. 26048: Tuesday, July 11, 1922.  

“Girl and Youth Found Murdered in Lonely Spot.”  The San Diego Union and Daily Bee, Tuesday, July 11, 1922.  

“Murder Mystery Still Unsolved.”  The Riverside Daily Press, Vol. XXXVII, No. 163: Tuesday, July 11, 1922.  

“Auto Ride Ends When Murderous Shots Fly.”  The Humboldt Times, Vol. LXXXI, No. 61: Tuesday, July 11, 1922.  

“Love Affair May Be Responsible for Killing.”  The Merced Sun-Star, Vol. 44, No. 87: Wednesday, July 12, 1922.  

“Girl and Boy Murder Still is Unsolved.”  The Madera Mercury, Vol. XXXVI, No. 90: Wednesday, July 12, 1922.  

“Little Auto is Only Clue to Murders.”  The Hanford Sentinel, Vol. 70, No. 102: Wednesday, July 12, 1922.  

“Second Car Sought in Double Murder.”  The Sacramento Daily Union, Vol. 227, No. 26049: Wednesday, July 12, 1922.   

“Phantom Auto, Flashlight Are Death Clues.”  The San Francisco Call, Vol. 112, No. 5: Wednesday, July 12, 1922. 

“Murder of Girl and Boy Sweethearts Not Apprehended.”  The Santa Cruz Evening News, Vol. 30, No. 61: Wednesday, July 12, 1922.  

“Question Man for Death of Young Lovers.”  The San Bernardino Sun, Vol. 50, No. 135: Thursday, July 13, 1922.  

“Question Two Boys on Sanger Slaying.”  The Press Democrat, Vol. L, No. 10: Thursday, July 13, 1922.  

“Hold Two Boys.”  The Morning Press, Vol. L, No. 240: Thursday, July 13, 1922.  

“2 Boys Are Sought for Auto Murder.”  The Humboldt Times, Vol. LXXXI, No. 63: Thursday, July 13, 1922.  

“Pistol Clew in Killing of Boy and Girl.”  The Madera Mercury, Vol. XXXVI, No. 91: Thursday, July 13, 1922.  

“Gun’s Owner is Sought in Girl Murder.”  The Sacramento Daily Union, Vol. 227, No. 26050: Thursday, July 13, 1922.  

“Clue Found to Sanger Murder.”  The Madera Tribune, Vol. XXX, No. 62: Thursday, July 13, 1922.  

“7 Suspects in Sanger Murder Grilled.”  The San Francisco Call, Vol. 112, No. 6: Thursday, July 13, 1922.  

“Valuable Clews in Murder Case.”  The Riverside Daily Press, Vol. XXXVII, No. 165: Thursday, July 13, 1922.  

“Arrest Suspect in Murder Case.”  The Morning Press, Vol. L, No. 240: Thursday, July 13, 1922.  

“Murdered Pair in Hanford on Fourth.”  The Hanford Sentinel, Vol. 70, No. 103: Thursday, July 13, 1922.  

“Fresno Sheriff is Seking Weapon to Unravel Murder Mystery.”  The Merced Sun-Star, Vol. 44, No. 89: Friday, July 14, 1922.  

“Sanger Murder Mystery Still Unsolved.”  The Madera Mercury, Vol. XXXVI, No. 92: Friday, July 14, 1922.  

“Seek Stranger Murder Probe.”  The Madera Tribune, Vol. XXX, No. 63: Friday, July 14, 1922.  

“Maniac Hunted for Dual Sanger Murder: Demented Man Seen at Spot Where Couple was Slain.”  The San Francisco Call, Vo. 112, No. 7: Friday, July 14, 1922.  

“Sanger Murder Still Mystery.”  The Madera Tribune, Vol. XXX, No. 64: Saturday, July 15, 1922.

Morrison, Scott.  Murder in the Garden, Volume II: More Famous Crimes of Early Fresno CountyFresno, CA: Craven Street Books, 2006. 

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Sarah A. Peterson-Camacho is a library assistant with Fresno County Library, with a Bachelor’s in English and a Bachelor’s in Journalism from California State University, Fresno. In her free time, she makes soap and jewelry that she sells at Fresno-area craft fairs. She has written for The Clovis Roundup and the Central California Paranormal Investigators (CCPI) Newsletter.