3 Years After This Hollywood Actor Was Murdered, A Series Of Strange Events Led Police To The Killer

It’s February 12, 1976, and actor Sal Mineo is heading back to his Hollywood home after rehearsing his latest play. A former teen heartthrob, his career has taken a strange trajectory since earning an Oscar nomination for a performance alongside James Dean. But his bright future is about to be cut short by a gruesome murder – and the crime will baffle authorities for the next three years.

Born in January of 1939, Mineo grew up in the New York borough of the Bronx. One of four children of Sal Sr. – a coffin maker – and Josephine, he had two brothers, Victor and Michael, and a sister, Sarina. And although Mineo’s mother was American-born, both of his parents were of Italian descent.

As a boy, however, Mineo began courting trouble, meaning he was ultimately kicked out of his religious school. And even though his mother encouraged him to perform by enrolling him in dancing classes, he had joined one of the Bronx’s notorious gangs by the time he was eight years old. Mineo was arrested for his part in a theft two years later.

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At that point, it appears as though Mineo faced an unusual ultimatum: he could either be sent to a juvenile detention facility or attend a school for professional actors. He seemingly chose the latter and soon embarked on a promising career. And in 1951 the fledgling star made his stage debut on Broadway in The Rose Tattoo – a play by Tennessee Williams.

Next, Mineo appeared alongside Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence in the stage production of classic musical The King and I. And according to legend, Brynner himself took the young actor under his wing. Then, after a number of television roles, Mineo made his first big-screen appearance in the 1955 crime flick Six Bridges to Cross as Jerry Florea – a role for which Clint Eastwood had also auditioned.

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Following Six Bridges to Cross, Mineo’s career went from strength to strength. And after co-starring with Charlton Heston in The Private War of Major Benson, the up-and-coming actor appeared in his third – and biggest – movie of 1955. Yes, as John Crawford – or Plato – in Rebel Without a Cause, Mineo finally became a star.

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Appearing alongside Hollywood heartthrob James Dean, Mineo earned himself a nod for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar – as well as a legion of admiring young fans. And for the rest of the 1950s, he continued to command high-profile movie roles, including another turn opposite Dean in the 1956 Western drama Giant.

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That same year, Mineo also appeared in the movie Crime in the Streets – a tale of juvenile criminals that eerily reflects his early years in the Bronx. And in this role, the actor earned himself a nickname that would stay with him throughout his career. As the “Switchblade Kid,” the boy from New York was now one of Hollywood’s big players.

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However, Mineo soon found himself pigeonholed, playing versions of the same rebellious teenager that he had portrayed in his breakout movie. In 1957, then, he decided to take his career in a new direction with a foray into the music business. And, somewhat surprisingly, the actor-turned-singer became a successful recording artist, with two of his releases appearing in the Top 40 in America.

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But Mineo’s acting days certainly weren’t over. In fact, in 1960 the star received a Golden Globe – along with a second Oscar nomination – for his role in the epic movie Exodus. On film, Jill Haworth, an actress who was six years his junior, played his love interest. Off set, meanwhile, the pair fell for each other for real, sparking an on-again-off-again relationship that would last a number of years.

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At one point, in fact, it seems that Mineo and Haworth were set to be married. However, things came to an abrupt end when the actress allegedly caught her fiancé in bed with his friend, the singer Bobby Sherman. After that, the wedding was called off, and rumors about Mineo’s sexuality began to spread.

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That said, it seems that Mineo and Haworth remained fond of each other. And when she began a relationship with Aaron Spelling – a producer some 22 years her senior – it’s clear that her former lover was opposed to it. In fact, Mineo allegedly once hit Spelling in a Beverly Hills nightclub, calling him out on the inappropriate age gap.

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Yet despite Mineo’s success early on in the decade, his career began to slow down as the 1960s progressed. As time passed, you see, the actor became too old to play the teen rebels that he had become famous for. “One minute it seemed I had more movie offers than I could handle; the next, no one wanted me,” he reportedly once said of this downturn.

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Indeed, after having been rejected for a role in Lawrence of Arabia, Mineo spent much of the 1960s appearing in a handful of small movie and television parts. Then, in 1965 he portrayed a crazed stalker in the thriller Who Killed Teddy Bear – a picture that has since gone become a cult movie. Mostly, however, the actor’s glittering career seemed to disappear before his eyes.

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But Mineo’s advancing years may not have been the only factor that put the stops on his career. Despite his relationship with Haworth, you see, stories persisted that the actor was engaging in sexual activity with men. And due to the climate in Hollywood at the time, it’s likely that these rumors affected his popularity with casting directors.

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In a bold move for the time, however, Mineo refused to hide his identity and instead became one of the first Hollywood stars to be open about his bisexuality. In fact, many of his later career moves reflected his orientation. In 1969, for instance, he turned once more to the stage; this time, Mineo starred in and directed the controversial play Fortune and Men’s Eyes.

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In the play, Mineo tackled themes of homosexuality within the setting of a men’s prison. Yet even though critics praised the production, the actor nevertheless returned to Hollywood to appear in Escape from the Planet of the Apes in 1971. And the following year, Mineo gave a candid interview in which he spoke frankly about his sexual orientation.

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“I got a girl in every port and a couple of guys in every port, too,” Mineo told the LGBT author Boze Hadleigh in an interview for Conversations with My Elders. However, the star insisted that being bisexual had not significantly harmed his career. “Everyone’s got those rumors following him around – whether it’s true or not,” he added.

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Then in 1972 Mineo headed for Detroit, where he became director for The Medium – a dramatic opera by Gian Carlo Menotti. Interestingly, he also appeared in the production, playing a mute character named Toby. Ever the career chameleon, though, the actor followed this highbrow diversion with a stint on mainstream television.

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Then, after appearing in minor roles on shows such as Columbo and Hawaii Five-O, Mineo returned to the theater once more. And in 1975 he appeared on stage in San Francisco in the comedy play P.S. Your Cat Is Dead. Starring as a burglar who identifies as bisexual, the actor found success in the role and moved to Los Angeles the following year.

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By February 12, 1976, things therefore seemed to be going well for Mineo. According to reports, he had been dating fellow actor Courtney Burr III for six years, and his performance in P.S. Your Cat Is Dead had won him critical acclaim to boot. On that day, however, the former teen heartthrob’s life took a tragic turn.

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That evening, Mineo had been attending rehearsals for the latest performance of the hit play. Afterwards, the actor had gone back to his apartment in West Hollywood and parked his vehicle in the building’s car lot. But at around 10:00 p.m., Mineo’s neighbors heard loud cries coming from the area.

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Having rushed out of the building, one resident discovered Mineo sprawled bleeding on the ground. And, apparently, other witnesses had heard the actor’s desperate last words moments before. “Help! Help! Oh my God!” he had reportedly cried. Sadly, however, assistance came too late, and the star died at the scene.

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As it turned out, Mineo had been stabbed in the chest. This single wound had tragically penetrated his heart, causing a fatal hemorrhage. The next day, The New York Times reported that the coroner’s office had identified the murder weapon as a “heavy-type knife.”

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And in the aftermath of the heinous crime, police collected statements from Mineo’s neighbors. Some of them had apparently spotted a white man – who had been wearing a dark-colored outfit and sporting long brown hair – running from the scene. In addition, although investigators recovered Mineo’s wallet, they initially suspected that the murder could have been the result of a mugging gone wrong.

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Soon, rumors began to spread that the killer could have been an addict who, when hanging around in Mineo’s middle-class neighborhood, had been intent on robbing a wealthy resident. However, the police were unable to track down any leads. And without a mugger to lay the blame on, the authorities began pursuing different lines of investigation.

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Early on in the case, it’s thought for example that investigators suspected a link between Mineo’s murder and his involvement in prison reform. Perhaps, then, law enforcement wondered whether this work might have brought the actor into contact with some unsavoury – and dangerous – characters. Yet this line of thinking also unfortunately proved to be a dead end.

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With few leads, police thus turned their attention to Mineo’s colorful private life. A search of his home had, apparently, recovered many images of naked men – an art collection that was considered rather taboo at the time. Rumors swirled, too, that the actor’s lifestyle had somehow played a part in his demise.

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Still, investigators failed to identify Mineo’s murderer for years after the star’s death. Then, thousands of miles away on the other side of the country, the authorities heard a strange story. A pizza delivery man named Lionel Williams had been arrested over in Michigan for dealing with bad checks. And it turned out that Williams had been keeping yet another alarming secret.

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Apparently, you see, Williams had been spending his time in jail boasting about how he was to blame for Mineo’s death. And while he later denied any involvement in the crime, his wife nevertheless came forward with a chilling revelation. According to her, the delivery driver had returned home on the night of Mineo’s murder drenched in blood.

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Finally, the officers assigned to Mineo’s case had a lead to follow. There was one big problem, though. While Mineo’s neighbors had claimed to have witnessed a brunette white man at the scene of the crime, Williams was African-American and wore his hair in an afro. So, would their investigation falter just as it had finally begun?

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Luckily, however, there was another twist in the tale still to come. During their investigation, police were able to recover an old photograph of Williams that showed one crucial detail. Apparently, you see, the pizza delivery man had dyed and treated his hair in the past, leaving it brown, long and curl-free. And that wasn’t all; the suspect’s wife also told the authorities about a knife that her husband had owned.

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Luckily, too, the description of Williams’ knife apparently matched a cast of the weapon that had been used to fatally stab Mineo three years previously. And so, on March 15, 1979, Williams was handed a guilty verdict for the murder of the Hollywood star. In another bizarre twist to the tale, the accused stated that he had not known the identity of his victim when the crime had taken place.

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Devastatingly, Mineo had indeed been the victim of a mugging gone wrong, according to prosecutors. Williams had reportedly been involved in a string of thefts over a two-month period in 1976. And as well as Mineo’s murder, the man was also convicted of involvement in ten further crimes, including robbery in the first and second degrees.

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In all, then, Williams received a total of 57 years behind bars for his terrible actions. And Superior Court Judge Bonnie Lee Martin seemed to agree that the criminal should receive the harshest punishment. “The defendant should be committed to state prison for as long as the law allows,” she announced to journalists back in 1979.

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Mineo, meanwhile, was interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery some 25 miles outside New York City. And for many years, the story of the Switchblade Kid remained just a sad footnote in the annals of Hollywood history. In 2011, however, the American writer Michael Gregg Michaud released a biography about the actor’s life.

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In the book, Michaud revealed intimate details about Mineo and his struggles to gain acceptance at a time when the movie industry was steeped in prejudice. And heartbreakingly, the biography confirmed that the actor had finally found contentment when tragedy struck. The author even quoted Haworth as calling her ex-lover’s current partner the “love of [his] life.”

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According to Michaud, he had also spent a decade working on Mineo’s biography. And today, the writer continues to speak out against those who perpetuate homophobic narratives about the actor’s untimely death. “I have pondered the way gay people are depicted in movies and on television screens,” he wrote in The Advocate in 2011. “It’s important that creative people are conscious of the way minorities are depicted for public consumption.”

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Later in 2011, the movie Sal came out – a biographical account of Mineo’s final hours. Partially based on Michaud’s book, the flick was directed by James Franco, who also appears in a supporting role. It was the up-and-coming actor Val Lauren, however, who impressed critics as the titular character.

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But despite the star power behind the movie, Sal opened to mixed reviews. And without a wide theatrical release, it did little to correct the popular narrative surrounding Mineo’s death – despite Michaud’s admirable ambitions. “Sal Mineo achieved greatness as a gay man,” the author wrote. “He did not die because of it.” And one thing is for certain: Mineo’s legacy will indeed live on.

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