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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Yesterday's Crimes: Penny Dreadful, the Blonde Thrill Killer

Posted By on Thu, Oct 1, 2015 at 11:35 AM

click to enlarge RANDY HEINITZ/FLICKR
  • Randy Heinitz/Flickr

August Norry of Daly City once dreamed of glory in baseball's major leagues, but he didn’t have enough of a fastball. After an unsuccessful tryout with the San Francisco Seals (the team that put Joe DiMaggio on the path to the Yankees), Norry settled down, got married, and started his own gardening business.

On Feb. 1, 1959, he took a Sunday afternoon drive on San Bruno Mountain, on the border of San Francisco and Daly City, where he frequently dumped lawn clippings back when people did that sort of thing.

The next day he made the papers in the worst possible way when his “bullet-torn, blood-spattered automobile” was found “abandoned on a lonely ‘lover’s lane,’” according to the San Mateo Times.

The headline on that same newspaper blared “POLICE HUNT BLONDE IN MULTIPLE SHOT MURDER,” with the kind of overwhelming typeface usually reserved for things like the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Crowding the paper’s masthead into a corner was a gruesome photo of Norry’s corpse lying in a patch of weeds on the downward slope of Mount San Bruno. A bullet wound is clearly visible in Norry’s cheek even when viewing a low-res PDF.

Norry was shot 18 times with a .38 Special, a six-shooter. That means the killer emptied the revolver once, reloaded, kept going, and reloaded again. A “good-looking blonde” driving a car that looked like Norry’s almost ran over a 12-year-old playing on the hillside the day of the shooting.

“We have information that there was another woman involved in Norry’s life,” San Mateo County Sheriff Earl Whitmore told reporters. Whitmore added that “the blonde woman might be married,” and there was the “remote possibility” that “Norry was slain by an avenging husband.”

Norry was murdered on a Sunday and found that Monday. On Tuesday, Sheriff Whitmore and Daly City police questioned Norry’s wife, Darlene Norry, for several hours. Augie was 28. Darlene was 20. They had been married only 18 months. They were expecting their first child. Indeed, police inspectors found a paperback on child-rearing titled The First Year of Life in the backseat of Norry’s blood-soaked sedan.

A day later, police found a cheap rhinestone necklace (probably belonging to the woman-of-interest) and Norry’s keys in the dirt close to where his car was discovered. Sheriffs and Daly City police kept questioning blondes, but none of the leads panned out. Hopes that this case would be brought to early justice started to fade as days turned into weeks without uncovering any new suspects.

(One of the women questioned in the Norry murder was my mother. You can read my more detailed personal essay on the crime here.)

Investigators finally caught a break when they tracked the maker of the cheap, hand-cast bullets (called wadcutters) that were used in the Norry killing. The bullets were bought from an auto mechanic in Colma, the suburban necropolis where San Francisco buries its dead. The mechanic told the cops that a box of bullets was stolen out of his car. The cops leaned on him. His story fell apart. He gave up the killer.

Her name was Rosemarie Diane Bjorkland. Her friends called her Penny. She was 18 and lived only blocks from where she left Norry’s car. The San Francisco Chronicle devoted nearly a full page spread to a celebrity-style profile of Bjorkland, with glamour shots flanked by lingerie ads. The Times Tribune out of Palo Alto deemed her “plump and pretty.”

“For about a year, or a year and a half, I’ve had the urge to kill someone,” she said. “I wanted to see if I could commit a murder and not have it on my conscience.”

She could.

“I’ve felt better ever since I killed him,” she confessed. “It’s like a burden has been lifted off of me.”

Bjorkland had met Norry on the hill before, but she choose him entirely at random. Norry just picked the wrong day to drive on the mountain.

After months of generating headlines while awaiting trial, Bjorkland was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison on August 6, 1959. She served just seven years before being released and fading into obscurity. 

"Yesterday's Crimes" revisits strange, lurid, eerie, and often forgotten crimes from San Francisco's past. 

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Bob Calhoun


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