by Susie Hodgson

In 1944, the film noir classic Double Indemnity, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, was nominated for seven Oscars. The film was based on a 1943 story written by James Cain, who also wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce. Interestingly, Cain did some of his writing in a small home on Bel Aire Drive, right here in Burbank.

The term “double indemnity” is used in life insurance lingo to describe when a beneficiary receives twice the benefit. Also often called “accidental death and dismemberment” (AD&D), it means if the injury or death was caused by an accident, the pay-out is doubled. In James Cain’s novel, the married Barbara Stanwyck character embarks on an affair with insurance man Fred MacMurray and together they plot the “accidental” (appearing) murder of her husband. Double indemnity.

Fast forward to real life, 1968. Bar owner and one-time cop and insurance man, Paul Perveler, is newly married and living in Burbank. On Grismer.

Perveler was what you might call a “smooth operator.” He had a way with people and could win women over with ease. An only child, he had a lot of problems with his parents and claimed to hate them. He also didn’t do well in his career. He had a way of getting fired after the initial charm wore off. They say he was fired as a cop for arranging an illegal abortion. He was fired from another company for allegedly embezzling money.

But Paul was working wonders with the women. He had a brand-new wife named Cheryl, who you will learn died young. Far too young. At the time of Cheryl’s death, Paul was also involved in a long-term affair with widow Kristina Cromwell, a curvy, one-time co-worker with a young son. Her husband had been mysteriously killed two years earlier in a fire. The cause of the fire was never quite figured out. His death resulted in a big insurance pay-out to his widow Kristina, who was involved with Paul. You know, double indemnity.

Paul’s new wife, 22-year-old blonde Cheryl, had only been married to Paul for less than two months. That’s when she was found shot to death in her car in the carport of her and Paul’s home on Grismer. It was at night and she had had just gotten off work at the couple’s Sunland bar. Because her death was an accident, Paul was set to receive twice the life insurance money. You know, double indemnity.

Paul had been married before he married Cheryl. His first wife, Lela, swears he tried to kill her at least once – and as many as at least three times. They were supposed to be accidents. You know, double indemnity. When Paul married Cheryl, Lela wanted to warn Cheryl of her new husband’s violent tendencies. She never got to. Besides trying to kill her, Lela also always suspected he tried to kill his own parents in what would look like an accident. You know, double indemnity.

Burbank detective Harry Strickland (who would later co-found The Burbank Historical Society!) was assigned to investigate the Perveler murder case. Strickland said that Perveler was a particularly cold-blooded man, remarking that, “Once I went to his apartment and was met at the door by the man pointing a 45-caliber pistol at me.”

All the cops had was circumstantial evidence. No witnesses, no DNA (certainly not then!), just good old-fashioned police work. They were able to tie Paul’s presence at the Grismer home to coincide with the arrival of Cheryl. They had plenty of people who were scared to death of Paul. They had gullible women. They had Paul’s extensive knowledge of life insurance and especially how the double indemnity clause works, plus his affair with Kristina, not to mention the suspicious previous deaths and near-deaths. Kristina and Paul started their affair when they were both married (to now-exes) and working at the Auto Club. They learned that Kristina’s previous husband had actually been shot to death before being burned in a cover-up fire. They discovered that Kristina used her life insurance “winnings” to fund Paul’s bars. They knew Paul had guns. And they had proof that at the time of Cheryl’s murder, Paul needed money. Badly.

But it wasn’t just outstanding police work that was at play in this case; it was also top-notch prosecutorial work. And that was performed by world-famous DA Vincent Bugliosi – he of Manson family fame. The Perveler murders came before Manson’s, cementing Bugliosi’s reputation as a “killer” prosecutor.

Kristina Cromwell was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Paul Perveler was also found guilty and sentenced to death. But when California’s death penalty law was overturned in 1972, Kristina’s sentence was downgraded allowing for parole -- which she got and was released in 1976. They say she changed her name and moved to Sacramento. It is claimed her son has experienced many problems with the law.

Perveler’s death sentence was changed to a life sentence, with the possibility of parole. His first wife, Lela, fights every time he comes up for parole stating she is “terrified” he’ll kill her. She says he has even threatened her from prison. So far he is still locked up.

The Perveler case was made into a 1992 TV movie entitled Till Death Us Do Part, which is also the title of Bugliosi’s book about the murders. Treat Williams played Perveler. Investigation TV featured the story on its program A Crime to Remember in 2017.

And in a truly eerie piece of Hollywood irony, Perveler’s first cousin was world-famous moviemaker Stanley Kubrick, known for his very dark films. Remember A Clockwork Orange? How ‘bout The Shining?

They called the Perveler murders “The Double Indemnity Murders.” You can see why. And for a while it put Grismer on the map. But not a good map.

Want to learn more about Burbank? Come visit us!

The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
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