For nearly a half-century, a cloud hung over the grave of Linda Louise Cummings.
Cummings, a nurse’s aide with aspirations of moving up in the medical field, was found nude with a clothesline knotted around her neck in her Santa Ana apartment in 1974. A coroner’s investigator concluded she committed suicide, a conclusion based mostly on gossip.
The investigator later changed the cause of death to “undetermined,” which did little to ease the pain for Cummings’ family, who insisted she would never kill herself.
Finally this month – after decades of pressure from a band of police investigators, prosecutors, a retired reporter and Cummings’ relatives – Orange County’s chief pathologist reclassified her death as a “homicide,” removing the stigma of suicide.
That likely is the closest Cummings will come to winning justice. The man many believed killed Cummings, her former assistant apartment manager, died in 2018.
But that doesn’t bother Cummings’ half brother, Paul Broadway, because now he has proof that Cummings – a devout Catholic – did not die by her own hand.
She did not give up on her dreams at the age of 27.
She did not abandon then 10-year-old Broadway, but she was stolen from him.
The cloud now is gone.
“It was a dark day. … (But) a huge weight has been lifted. Food tastes a little better. I have hope,” said Broadway, 56, of San Diego. “It was a human being that took my sister, not just some random, unknown thing.”
Broadway added, “The system works. It may take 46 years, but it works.”
The “system” had help from advocates such as victims rights attorney Michael Fell; prosecutor–turned-judge Larry Yellin and retired Orange County Register reporter Larry Welborn, who dogged the case for most of his adult life.
They researched, collected documents, consulted pathologists from New York to Santa Ana and pestered officials long after others had declared the case cold and dead. They fought for Cummings’ memory and for Broadway’s peace of mind.
The group gathered recently at Cummings’ gravesite at El Toro Memorial Park, hugging and remembering the woman for whom they fought so hard.
They put roses on her headstone and reminisced about the road that had brought them there. Broadway thanked them all – these old warriors – calling them his new family, brought together by their refusal to let pain be Cummings’ legacy.
“This is the best thing that has happened to our family in 46 years,” Broadway told Welborn.
The tale of Linda Cummings was reported by Welborn in an eight-part series, “Murder by Suicide,” published in 2005 by the Register.
The story begins in Unit 8 of the Aladdin Apartments on 17th Street in Santa Ana.
Cummings moved there in January 1974 to be closer to her job at Doctors Hospital. It was also close to her school and to her best friend, registered nurse Harriet Nieves.
Cummings was quiet, sweet and, perhaps, a little naive. She never dated and gave others the impression she was a virgin. She was laser-focused on her plan to become a full-fledged nurse.
And she was like a mother to Broadway, teaching him his ABCs and taking him to Del Taco for the pintos and cheese cup.
Nothing in her demeanor hinted that she was depressed or suicidal. She loved to write poems and was looking forward to life in her new apartment.
Her new home also brought Louis “Louie” Wiechecki into her life. Wiechecki was the assistant manager and worked as an orderly at the hospital where she served as a nurse’s aide.
Cummings was barely settling into her new apartment when her lifeless body was found Jan. 24, 1974, by Wiechecki. She was hanging in the middle of a clothesline tied on one end to a door hinge and on the other end to a closet rod. A no-slip knot held the clothesline to her neck.
Wiechecki had used his master key to get into the room after she failed to show up for work that morning. After calling police, Wiechecki stationed himself in the courtyard where he told anyone within listening distance that Cummings committed suicide … that she had recently self-committed to a hospital for depression … that she was taking the powerful anti-psychotic Thorazine.
Police took Wiechecki’s story to a young coroner’s investigator named Joe Stevens, who verified it by calling Cummings’ purported doctor. Stevens got the phone number from a police investigator, who got it from another investigator, who got it from … Wiechecki.
It is unclear who Stevens talked to – but it was not Cummings’ doctor. None of the information was true.
So with a bit of well-planted gossip and some sleight of hand, Wiechecki controlled the narrative of how Cummings died. Largely based on Wiechecki’s efforts, Stevens concluded the death was a suicide.
Case closed. It wasn’t even considered newsworthy for the local papers.
Then a second woman from the apartment complex was found strangled five weeks after Cummings’ death. The body was wrapped in a blue bedspread and tied with the same type of clothesline used on Cummings.
The bedspread had come from Wiechecki’s apartment. Less than eight hours after the second body was found, Wiechecki was arrested for the killing of Marion Camilla Morgan, 78.
Based on Morgan’s death, detectives took another look at Cummings and had her body exhumed. A second autopsy found sperm in her and Thorazine, which had not been prescribed for her and which Wiechecki had in his possession.
All roads pointed to Wiechecki in Cummings’ death. But his wife, Sandy, would only testify against him in Morgan’s slaying and not in the Cummings case. Sandy was afraid that multiple murder convictions would bring the death penalty, according to court records.
Wiechecki was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter after the jury bought the defense argument that the killing could have happened during a quarrel.
No charges were filed in Cummings’ death, but Stevens changed her manner of death to “undetermined.”
Wiechecki was paroled after four years in prison.
Justice had again overlooked Linda Louise Cummings.
Surrogate little sister
Most journalists would have shut their notebooks and moved on – but not 25-year-old Welborn, who later became a courthouse legend for his insightful reporting and his knack for developing sources.
Welborn, just a few years out of college, was mesmerized by the innocent face on Cummings’ driver’s license. Suicide just didn’t fit. There was no suicide note. And Cummings had too much to live for.
The case bothered him. So he bothered those in charge. Through the decades, he bugged prosecutors and investigators, he sent case records to noted pathologists across the country, he caused Cummings’ body to be exhumed a second time.
Welborn even tracked down Wiechecki in 1994 to Fremont in Northern California, where he was living under the name David Louis Stanley. Welborn watched from 25 yards away as Louie smoked a cigarette outside his garage.
But Welborn didn’t approach. He wasn’t ready. Not yet.
Over the years, Welborn grew to think of Cummings as his surrogate little sister. He kept digging, combing through records for Louie’s ex-wife’s Social Security number, by which she could be tracked.
In 1998, he found Sandy Wiechecki and she told him what everybody suspected: Wiechecki killed Cummings. But she had no hard evidence.
Welborn felt the body needed to be exhumed again to find the sperm evidence that had been lost over the years. He turned to homicide prosecutor Larry Yellin, who specialized in cold cases. Yellin reviewed the file and became convinced it should be prosecuted. He obtained a court order to again exhume the body.
But this time there was bad news, the $98 wooden coffin at El Toro Memorial Park had decayed so badly that any chance of recovering DNA evidence was lost.
Still, Yellin soldiered on. He got nationally recognized pathologists to review the files and photographs of the body. The doctors concluded that it appeared from marks on her neck that she was strangled and then hanged.
In 2005, investigators for the Orange County District Attorney and Santa Ana Police Department visited Louie at his home in Henderson, Nevada. They bluffed Louie by saying his DNA had been found in Cummings’ vagina. Louie bit on the bluff, saying they had sex shortly before her death. Louie was arrested for suspected rape and murder.
“There was never a time I thought it was a suicide. I knew it was a homicide,” Yellin said in a recent interview. “I didn’t need to be convinced that it was worth taking a shot.”
Yellin explained that some victims just get to you, and he could see Cummings had gotten to Welborn.
An Orange County Grand Jury confirmed the charges with an indictment two years later. But Louie got off on a technicality: A judge dismissed the case, ruling that too much time had passed, that evidence and witnesses had been lost.
“That was the darkest day of my journalism career,” said Welborn, who discusses the case each summer with high school students at the California Scholastic Press Association Workshop in a class called “Why Journalism?”
“I pushed the boulder up that hill, and it rolled back down.”
‘No one gets away’
Disheartened, Welborn put the file away, later moving it to the rafters in his garage.
Louie then died in April 2018. It is unclear from what. That same year, Welborn, who retired in 2014, retrieved the files to see whether Louie might have been the Golden State Killer. He wasn’t. But the effort got Welborn thinking about the Cummings’ case again.
He coordinated with Broadway, who didn’t seem too disappointed that Louie had passed without answering for Cummings’ death.
“No one ever gets away with it,” said Broadway, a former federal correctional guard. “You don’t need to be in a concrete cell to be in prison. If you’re looking over your shoulder every day and know you’ve got it coming, that’s prison. No one gets away, not even monsters.”
Broadway and Welborn turned to setting the record straight on Cummings’ death. They worked with attorney Fell on lobbying Orange County’s top pathologist Anthony Juguilon to modify the manner of death.
Fell submitted a 31-page argument assembled with everything they had learned over the decades. The document was so compelling that Juguilon called a meeting of sheriff’s officials, prosecutors and pathologists to consider the request. It was unanimous. Cummings was slain.
This time, the boulder stayed up the hill.
“We righted a wrong, we exposed the truth,” Welborn said.
They also gave Broadway back his life.
He had blamed himself for his half sister’s death, because he had called her “mommy.” This angered his real mother, who forced Cummings to leave the family house. She ended up at the Aladdin.
Broadway spent most of his life feeling guilty.
“Now,” he said. “I can sleep better at night.”
Source: Orange County Register