June 14, 2007 -- La Cañada Valley Sun

"Around Town:
The Mystery of the Missing House"

By Anita Susan Brenner

A lady named Denise Charlan Hovland called with new information about the Rattlesnake James case.

Rattlesnake James, also known as Raymond Lisenba, was the last man hanged in California. He was hanged in 1942 for murdering his wife, Mary Busch.

The murder took place on Verdugo Boulevard in La Caņada in 1935.

La Caņadans were closer to nature back then. First, Lisenba tried to kill his wife with two Diamondback rattlesnakes. The snakes' names were "Lethal" and "Lightning." When this did not work, Lisenba drowned Mary in six inches of water.

The fish pond.

The next day, Lisenba returned the snakes to the snake farm, an establishment in Pasadena owned by "Snake Joe" Houtenbrink. Lisenba received a partial refund.

One issue at trial was "the propriety of the prosecution in bringing into the trial courtroom a box containing rattlesnakes, whose hissing and general effect on the jury was such that the defendant was denied a fair and unbiased trial, according to the defense argument."

La Caņadans who grew up in the late 1930s have vivid recollections of the snakes, the scandal and the location of the house. For years, kids avoided the side of the street in front of the house. They always crossed to the other side of the street, even if it took them out of their way.

Over the years, La Caņadans have opined as to the present whereabouts of the Lisenba house. The reason? Although the house is listed in the court reports as "1329 Verdugo Boulevard," today, there is no house with that address.

Some say it was "taken by the freeway."

Christy Baxter, a member of the La Caņada Elementary School eighth-grade class of 1938, once told me that the house was 200 yards south of the Church of the Lighted Window. She was sure it was not torn down when the 210 Freeway was built.

John Klann, a retired bricklayer, race car driver, and Foothill Leader columnist, once told me that his research showed that the house was at 1329 Verdugo.

State Senator Carol Liu, intrigued by the local lore, once walked the area. No house.

But then, Denise Hovland called. Diane solved the mystery of the missing house.

Denise's great grandmother, Pauline Cruickshank, told her kids that she lived next door to Rattlesnake James. This story became part of family lore.

Mrs. Cruickshank had excellent credentials: her daughter, Lucille Charlan, was a member of the La Caņada Thursday Club, a philanthropic and social organization that was founded in 1912.

In 1935, the police interviewed Mrs. Cruickshank. She heard nothing on the night of the murder. But she knew about the fish pond, and she knew the whereabouts of the house.

Anita Susan Brenner is a La Canada resident and a partner with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena.