Originally Published: April 16, 2010 9:30 p.m.
Winnie Ruth Judd became a name that held virtually every Phoenix household spellbound for four decades.
From the time this woman stepped off a train that she rode from Phoenix to Los Angeles in October 1931, the blood seeping from her baggage trapped her in a bizarre murder mystery that captured attention around the world.
The press called her "Trunk Murderess," "The Tiger Woman" and "The Blond Butcher."
Yet, an enigma surrounding Winnie Ruth Judd persisted from the outset - that she could not, alone, have killed her two best girlfriends - and stuffed them, one chopped to pieces, in steamer trunks in hopes of masking a heinous crime.
Widely acclaimed author and journalist Jana Bommbersbach moved to Phoenix in 1972, just as Winnie Ruth Judd was winning her freedom after 40 years, much of them spent in the Arizona State Hospital - "the insane asylum" as people once called it.
When Bommersbach heard the Winnie Ruth Judd legend - a person "who was part of the whole history of Arizona" - the saga stuck in her mind.
"It was interesting to me," Bommersbach said in a recent telephone interview. "There were questions that should have been asked before we took her life away."
Her quest to get to the truth began one day when she was in the office of defense attorney Larry Debus, who happened to be hanging on his wall a framed front page of the Arizona Republic with the lead story proclaiming Winnie Ruth Judd's freedom.
"Why?" Bommersbach asked about the significance of the framed newspaper page, and Debus answered, "I am the attorney who got her out of prison."
"He got her out in 1972," Bommersbach said. "He finally got her free."
As Bommersbach delved into the story, "One of the things I was struck by was the incongruity between what history said about her and the person I was looking at," she said. With persistence, Debus finally was able to talk Winnie Ruth Judd into an interview with Bommersbach, who flew to her California home and spent three days with her.
And, when they met face to face, Bommersbach said, "There was nothing in her countenance that told me she was a bad woman. The look in this woman's face - she looked like a sweet grandma. She was soft spoken, well dressed and she had a kind manner about her."
This impression matched a lot of speculation over the years that "whatever she did, she did not do it alone."
Nobody had any evidence that Winnie Ruth Judd had hacked one body to pieces, Bommersbach said. There were no autopsy photos. In fact, she said, "The list of ridiculous things in this case would make anybody laugh out loud. Everybody, all along, knew something was wrong here."
She heard people say, "Boy, if the truth of this ever came out, it would ruin a lot of good ole boys," or, "She was covering up for somebody important," or "It was a powerful man who really was responsible, but you know how women were treated in the thirties."
So, the question remained in Bommersbach's mind, "Why was no one else ever charged?"
Determination to get to the truth took her to Arizona's state archives, where librarians and archivists had saved every word written about this infamous murder case and Winnie Ruth Judd.
Bommersbach reconstructed the pieces of the case, beginning with the original police reports from 60 years before. "No one realized these documents were available," she said. Not only did she spend time with Winnie Ruth Judd, but she also interviewed countless others who would help her untangle this spider's web that convicted Winnie Ruth Judd of murdering two women who were her rivals for the love of a man, as the tale went.
Her three years of research and writing culminated first in a newspaper series and ultimately her book, "The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd."
Bommersbach will be in town Tuesday, April 20, to tell all about her award-winning book, chosen by Arizonans as the one book they want to read in 2010. Her first presentation will be from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Crystal Meeting Room of the Prescott Valley Library. At 7 p.m. she will be at the Prescott Public Library's Founders Suite.