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Dr. Arnold Asher AXILROD





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Rape
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: April 23, 1955
Date of birth: 1905
Victim profile: Elizabeth Mary Moonen, 21 (three months pregnant)
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Status: Sentenced to a minimum 5-year term 1955. He was released in 1964 because of his health and died in Ohio in 1972

The Body in Question

by Mary Ellen Egan

Forensic pathologist John Coe has spent a lifetime examining skin, organs, and bones for answers to how and why we die.

On the morning of April 23, 1955, John J. Cowles Jr., scion of the Cowles publishing empire, was backing his Pontiac out of his Lake of the Isles garage, in Minneapolis, when he noticed what appeared to be a bundle of clothes in the alley. When he got out of his car to inspect, Cowles discovered the lifeless body of a young woman.

When the police arrived, they turned the body over and discovered that the woman's face had been scratched and bruised, and that her throat bore a bluish mark. They dug through her coat pockets and found a wallet. Inside was a five-dollar bill, a doctor's prescription slip, and a driver's license identifying her as Elizabeth Mary Moonen, age 21, of 9 East 17th St. in Minneapolis. After securing the crime scene, the body was transported to Minneapolis General.

Coe chose a young intern, Dr. Fred Brauti, as his assistant for the Moonen autopsy. That afternoon Brauti began the procedure by making a Y-shaped incision in Moonen's chest, opened the rib cage, and removed organs for Coe to examine. The heart looked normal, but the lungs were congested--a possible indicator of suffocation. There was injury to the brain, too, caused, it seemed, by a lack of oxygen rather than a blow. Her facial injuries were consistent with a struggle.

Then Coe examined her throat. "Very commonly in manual strangulation, the small bone in the larynx is crushed or fractured," he explains. "On the outside, you look for bruises. On the inside, you'll find bleeding at the site." Coe found both, and declared Moonen's death a homicide.

During the course of the autopsy, Coe also discovered that Moonen was three months pregnant. Traces of semen in her vagina led him to conclude that she'd had intercourse just prior to her death. Since her husband had been stationed in Korea for the past year, Coe's findings were critical in drawing up a list of suspects. Police investigators first turned to the physician who'd signed the prescription, Dr. Glen Peterson.

Peterson confirmed that Moonen was indeed his patient, and told investigators that Moonen identified the baby's father as a local dentist by the name of Arnold Axilrod. Axilrod was 49 years old and had a reputation as a ladies' man.

His office was above the Hoop De Do nightclub at 16th Street and Nicollet Avenue, and his patients were mainly nightclub performers and hat check girls. Since he began practicing in 1928, the only blemish to his reputation appeared to be an anonymous phone call made to the police six months before Moonen was killed.

The caller told police that Axilrod had sedated her during an office visit and raped her while she was unconscious. Since Axilrod's accuser refused to reveal her name or to file a complaint, her allegations were never investigated.

When the police questioned Axilrod, he admitted that he'd given Moonen a ride on the evening of her death, and the two had quarreled. According to police records, Axilrod told the investigators that "[Moonen] accused me of being the father, and said she'd expose me to the world."

The next thing he knew, Axilrod continued, he'd blacked out; when he came to, Moonen was no longer in the car. When the police told him that Moonen had been choked to death, Axilrod replied, "If she was strangled, I must have done it. I was the only one there." He would later recant that statement.

In the fall of 1955, Axilrod went on trial for murder in Hennepin County District Court. By then the case had garnered national attention, and a seat in the courtroom was one of the hottest tickets going.

Defending Axilrod was local criminal defense attorney Sydney Goff, whom local newspapers took to calling "The new Clarence Darrow of the Midwest." Before the trial began, however, Coe contracted hepatitis, and his doctor refused to allow him to testify. The strongest piece of evidence, the autopsy report, would be delivered by Dr. Brauti.

"I felt so bad for him," Coe recalls. "I considered myself to be inexperienced, and he had even less training and had to go up against Syd Goff in open court." As Brauti struggled through his testimony, Coe worked on convincing his internist to allow him into the courtroom. "At first he said I could go to court in my hospital bed, but there was no way I was going to do that. I was finally able to convince him to let me testify in a wheelchair."

Ultimately, Coe's command of forensic pathology established his reputation as an astute expert witness, and sealed Axilrod's fate. "I explained to the jury how the bruises on her neck were consistent with strangulation, and that my internal examination confirmed that conclusion, given that this is the only way to break or fracture the hyoid bone. I'd conducted a very thorough autopsy and was confident of my findings," Coe says.

At the end of the weeks-long trial, the jury found Axilrod guilty of manslaughter--a verdict, accompanied by a five- to twenty-year sentence, based on police work and on Coe's irrefutable testimony.

"The Axilrod case made me realize how little I knew about forensic medicine," Coe says. "I realized that if I was going to be called on in the future to testify in court, I was going to have to be better educated."

At the time, however, the only formal training available was an eight-week course administered by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP). His coursework there was helpful, but fell far short of supplying him with the knowledge needed to conduct the kinds of investigations a rising violent-crime rate in the county called for.


The Dangers of Painless Dentistry

Was it a blackmail attempt gone horribly wrong or a perverted dentist’s lust that led to the death of Mary Moonen in 1955?

That Dr. Arnold Asher Axilrod strangled the 21-year-old woman in Minneapolis is not in doubt, and that Axilrod had a penchant for drugging his female patients into unconsciousness is indisputable. But what Axilrod did while the women were knocked out is less certain.

Like many crimes there are facts not in evidence. Axilrod was no saint. But just how clean were Mary’s hands? Of course she did not deserve to die, but it just might be possible that she unwittingly brought about her death by pushing the wrong button at the wrong time.

The state asserted that Mary, whose husband had been serving in Korea for the six months prior to her death in April 1955, believed that not only had she been raped by Axilrod while she sat unconscious in his dental chair, he had impregnated her, as well.
The defense tried to mitigate the crime by saying Axilrod was a shake-down victim.

For his part, Axilrod denied being the father of Mary’s unborn child.

On the surface (Axilrod’s preference for unconscious patients notwithstanding), it is hard to choose who was telling the truth. Mary was, according to her family, a devout Catholic who was in love with her GI husband. She lived with her parents while her spouse, Mathias, was in Korea, regularly attended church and was a doting mother to her 9-month-old baby girl.

Axilrod was known as a pillar of his community, served in the military during World War II, and was active in civic affairs. His wife stood by him during his trial and afterwards, and said she trusted him implicitly.

After Axilrod’s arrest four days after Mary’s body was discovered near his home, Fanny Axilrod confronted her husband in the Hennepin County jail. He denied impregnating Mary and essentially pleaded no contest before his wife about killing the woman.

“Did you do it?” she asked, referring to the pregnancy.
“No,” he replied.

“Will you swear to it?” Fanny asked her husband.
“By God, I swear,” he replied.

He never admitted killing Mary, but conceded that “if I did it, I did it. Everything will come out all right in the end.”

He claimed that Mary was going to expose him as the father of her child and that caused him to get “boiling mad” and “black out.” When he regained his composure, he told police, Mary had disappeared. He claimed not to remember anything from the time that Mary threatened “to expose me to the world,” he told police.

“From what you say, I must have pushed her out,” he told police during an interrogation. “There was no one else there.”

Mary made her threat during a late night drive, and when she was discovered early on the morning of April 22, 1955, the preliminary investigation showed bruising and finger marks on her neck.

The pathologist, brought into court in a wheelchair suffering from hepatitis, put Mary’s time of death between 7 p.m. on April 22 and 5 a.m. the next morning. The prosecution argued that her death occurred before midnight, while Axilrod’s defense team said it was after that time, giving the dentist a solid alibi.

The defense did establish that Mary had eaten a large meal and had engaged in sexual intercourse shortly before her death. There was no indication that the intercourse was anything but consensual, and of course, there was no way at the time to establish with certainty with whom she had made love.

Two other witnesses for the defense said that no body was at the crime scene between 9:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m.

For his part, Axilrod showed no signs of any “marks, scratches, or blemishes.”

The autopsy showed that she was strangled. The coroner testified at Axilrod’s murder trial that it was unlikely that Mary would have delivered the baby even if she had lived. He said it was probable that at some point in the near future she would have spontaneously aborted the fetus.

After Axilrod’s arrest for Mary’s slaying nearly 2 dozen women came forward to confirm that he gave them seconal in his operatory and that they passed out. Axilrod admitted giving the women tranquilizers, but said that their own fatigue might have contributed to their losing consciousness.

“Some patients get pretty jumpy when you start to drill,” he told the press from his jail cell. “I prepared the capsule myself. I ground up a combination of seconal or nembutal with Anacin.”

None of the women accused Axilrod of molesting them, and none showed any signs of sexual assault, even to the point where their clothes had been disarranged. A teenager told police that one time she was so drugged that she awakened in Axilrod’s office at 1 a.m. and that he had to drive her home. Another woman, Mary’s sister, testified that on one occasion Axilrod “talked suggestively” to her, and another time had “made a pass at her.”

Her concerns, however, didn’t stop her from referring Mary to Axilrod when she needed some dental work.

That doesn’t mean that Axilrod didn’t do something more sinister while the women slept. One woman falling asleep is chance, two is coincidence, more than that is conspiracy.
At Axilrod’s trial, two defense witnesses came forward that clouded the issue even more.

First Mary’s brother-in-law, Donald Newton, was brought from jail where he was serving a 90-day term for indecent exposure for entering a nurse’s residence “partially unclad.” While behind bars, he reportedly told two cellmate that he “could crack the case wide open.” These cellmates, one of whom was an alcoholic “unresponsive to treatment,” and the other who was under psychiatric care, claimed Newton told them that Mary knew Axilrod wasn’t the father of her child but that because he had money and a reputation to protect — as well as an opportunity thanks to the pills — she was planning to extort money from him.

However, on the stand, Newton refused to testify, taking the Fifth Amendment on the grounds that what he knew might incriminate him, while the prosecution successfully argued to have the prisoners’ statements excluded and to keep them off the stand.
Newton was eventually convicted of being a habitual criminal and was given a life sentence.

A second witness, a taxi driver, testified that he saw Mary get out of Axilrod’s car and into another vehicle driven by two men.

Axilrod was convicted of manslaughter after a six-week trial and sentenced to a minimum 5-year term. He was released in 1964 because of his health and died in Ohio in 1972.



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