Governor Ronald Reagan Wanted To Pardon His Friend Convicted Of First-Degree Murder

Old Hollywood lore is full of scandals, each tale of excess and debauchery more sordid than the last. While many of the tales revolving around silver screen stars involve adultery, alcoholism, and rampant drug abuse, there are occasional examples of wanton violence sprinkled throughout the seedier side of Tinseltown's history. 

One such tale involves a legendary western swing musician and actor, beloved by fans and contemporaries alike. For the duration of his 30-plus years as an entertainer, Spade Cooley dazzled audiences in music halls up and down the West Coast and flooded the airwaves with hit single after hit single. 

But his hot temper and his paranoia would eventually lead to his downfall, trouble that even his celebrity card couldn't get him out of: a first-degree murder charge. Though it has been largely relegated to the dustbin of Hollywood history, Cooley was the subject of what was widely considered to be "the trial of the century" in 1961. And though he was convicted for the murder of his wife by a jury, his standing among his famous friends would work to find a way to get him sprung from prison. All it would take was a little bit of petitioning and some help from the man who would later become the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. 

Cooley rose to fame as a fiddle player

Cooley was the product of an impoverished rural Oklahoma household. His father helped to supplement the family's meager income by playing his fiddle at local dances, a talent that he passed on to his son. Part Cherokee, Cooley was sent off to attend a school for indigenous students in Salem, Oregon. The Bakersfield Californian tells us that, though Cooley wanted to learn to play concert violin or the cello, poverty was the stumbling block that made him continue in his father's footsteps of being an accomplished fiddler. While away at school, he met another student, who would soon become his first wife. Cooley and Ann married, and soon after brought their son John into the world. Seeking better opportunities, the young family left for California.

Now an accomplished fiddle player, Cooley began to experience a bit of the fame and fortune he dreamed about. His musical ability made him perfect for bit parts in western films that called for a fiddle player, leading to Cooley being cast in "Land of the Fighting Men" in 1938 (via IMDb). After his film debut, Cooley met up-and-coming film star Roy Rogers. Rocks Off Magazine reports that Cooley and Rogers struck up a friendship, helping to boost Cooley's career. As the two men looked quite similar, movie showrunners would often cast Cooley as a stand-in for Rogers. And when that wasn't keeping him busy, Cooley's fiddle playing was becoming more and more in demand in films. From 1938 until 1943, Cooley played the part of a fiddle player or other musician in two dozen films.

Cooley was a notorious womanizer

Cooley's career in music was beginning to gain notoriety as well. Under the management of Bobbi Bennett, Cooley was securing more work up and down the California coast (per The Bakersfield Californian). He secured a part in a big band at the Venice Pier Ballroom in 1940, playing shows in front of new audiences. Rocks Off Magazine reports that Cooley got an even bigger break in 1943 when big band leader Jimmy Wakely left the helm at the ballroom to pursue a career in acting.

Cooley recorded the first of many hit singles during the 1940s, "Shame on You." It hit the charts in 1944 and remained there for 31 weeks. The track was ranked #65 overall for the year (via Adding to his success was the migration of many Americans to California during the World War II years. Seeking labor positions in the defense industry, workers were clambering for entertainment after long hours. Cooley and his band were among musicians who sated these new California migrants, leading to huge successes at the Santa Monica Ballroom and the Aragon Ballroom at Ocean Park.

The increase in popularity and the influx of income might have been a bit more than Cooley's marriage to Ann could handle. His manager, Bennett, noted that Cooley was becoming a notorious philanderer, who acted quite carelessly as an adulterous husband. According to The Bakersfield Californian, Bennett reported that in just one year, she was forced to pay off as many as 10 different women, helping each one secure an abortion.

Cooley married a young singer from his band

One singer whom Cooley added to his "Western Swing Dance Gang" would suffer greatly at the hands of the popular star. Ella Mae Evans caught the eye of Cooley, who began an affair with the young and attractive singer. He soon divorced Ann, leaving behind his family and eventually marrying the young Evans (per The Bakersfield Californian). 

With a new bride in tow, Cooley was quickly approaching the peak of his success. He struck a TV hit with "The Spade Cooley Show" in 1948, making him a household name. Rocks Off Magazine tells us that within a few years, western swing was going out of style. The outlet reports that though his career might have been petering out, his reputation among fans was as solid as ever. With a giant house in rural Kern County, a yacht, and a whole host of celebrity friends that included not only Roy Rogers, but also Frank Sinatra, he had it all to lose, and he managed to do that one April night in 1961.

Cooley beat and tortured his wife to death in 1961

Paranoid that Ella Mae had been carrying on affairs behind his back, Cooley lost his temper and attacked her in an uncontrollable rage. The Bakersfield Californian reports that, for hours, Cooley beat and tortured his poor wife until she at last lost consciousness. To make matters even worse, the couple's teenage daughter witnessed the entire incident.

Due to her being unresponsive, Cooley phoned an ambulance. Ella Mae Cooley was taken to Tehachapi Hospital where doctors pronounced her dead. Cooley told investigators that the injuries his wife sustained were due to a fall in the shower. Not believing his improbable story, police arrested Cooley on charges of murder.

Cooley's trial was certainly one for the ages. A famed musician and TV star, just beyond his peak, was arrested and tried for the brutal murder of his wife in their California mansion. It was the sort of story sure to be read in the pages of a pulp novel, or the script of a noir film. But this was real life, and Cooley was forced to face the consequences of his explosive and disastrous actions that led to his wife's untimely death.

Reagan decided to give Cooley a pardon

After a month-long trial, the jury deliberated for almost 20 hours before Cooley was found guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison. The Bakersfield Californian reports that many of the jurors were crying when the verdict was rendered. Some of the same jurors rose to hug (and even kiss) Cooley before he was led away to serve his life sentence. In Vacaville prison, Cooley was treated like a star. He performed in the inmate band, playing a fiddle that he made in the prison woodshop. After serving only five years of his sentence, Cooley got a lucky break, however. Ronald Reagan, himself a former actor, was elected Governor of California in 1966, prompting many of Cooley's showbiz friends to petition for a pardon or an early release.

After several years of using their influence, Cooley's friends were successful in their efforts. Reagan helped to persuade the parole board to grant a release for Cooley at his August 1969 hearing, which would free him from prison in February 1970. But Cooley never would walk totally free.

Parole officials decided to allow Cooley to have a three-day furlough in November 1969 so that he could perform at a concert to benefit the Alameda County Sheriff's Department. After receiving a standing ovation from the 3,000-plus fans in attendance, Cooley went backstage, where he dropped his fiddle and collapsed. He was dead from a heart attack at age 58. Adding insult to injury was the fact that Cooley wasn't yet made aware that Reagan had decided to pardon the convicted murderer.