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License Plate Sparks Crime Wave

This story pivoted on a stolen license plate. An investigation over the errant license plate was the catalyst to a one hour-long murderous rampage that took place in less than 35 miles along the Arizona/New Mexico Stateline. This sad story originally started the previous day (Thursday February 4, 1971) when Greenberg murdered teenage schoolgirl Mary Hill in Griffith Park. After he learned that the LAPD was looking into him as a murder suspect, while talking to his parole officer at his house in West Covina, he took off in his wife’s car under the pretense of going to his parent’s downtown LA produce business to find out who had been using the parent’s 1966 Chevy Caprice. Of course, he knew full well who had been using the car – it was him when he committed the kidnapping/murder. But going to look for the “real” perpetrator was a good ruse to use in order to make his escape. He fled the LA Basin eastbound, and very likely was heading to Albuquerque, a place where years earlier he had attended the University of New Mexico. His chosen escape pathway was Route 66, and its replacement, Interstate 40.

He was driving his wife’s car, which was a green 1968 Pontiac LeMans with a black vinyl top. It had 1971 California license plate (yellow numerals on black background) with the number VGG-822. Somewhere along the route, sure that police would be looking for him and that car, he stopped at Two Guns, AZ, where he stole an Arizona license plate (CC-5087). He snatched it from a truck belonging the National Cash Register Company and his big mistake was using a commercial truck plate on his passenger car. The two photos displayed with this post show generic non-commercial and commercial Arizona license plates from 1971. Although the average citizen would very likely have not noticed the odd plate/car combination, a commercial plate on a passenger car would stand out like a sore thumb to a trained law enforcement officer. The commercial plate had blue numbers instead of black numbers on a yellow background, it had two letters followed by four numbers versus the three letters and three numbers on a passenger car plate, and it had the designation C-2 at the top center of the plate next to the state name.

No one knows exactly why Patrolman Jim Keeton stopped Greenberg just west of the Houck exit, but the patrolman’s last radio transmission was to ask for a check on Arizona license CC-5087. He knew that plate didn’t belong to that car. The dispatcher called Keeton back with the information on the registered owner, but the officer did not answer. The plate was not registered to a 68 LeMans, and at that point it had not been reported stolen. When Keeton’s lifeless body was found in his patrol car after the shooting, Bertram Greenberg’s driver’s license was located on the floorboard between his legs, where it obviously landed during the struggle. Keeton was preparing to do more checking, and that is likely why Greenberg decided to attack him. He knew Keeton would eventually discover that he was wanted for murder.

We know that Patrolman Beckstead stopped the Pontiac for making a wild unsafe passing maneuver only moments after Officer Keeton’s death, and Beckstead did not know the driver was wanted for murder, nor that he had just killed one of Beckstead’s peers. After Greenberg shot officer Beckstead, the murderous villain immediately exited the freeway at the Hawthorne Road exit. He could have stopped just below the underpass or continued east along the frontage road on the south side of I-40 (old Route 66), but it is most likely he stopped at some point to take the stolen license off of the car and toss it aside. When the Pontiac was found minutes later, abandoned alongside the freeway just west of Gallup, and after he had kidnapped the Browns, it bore the original California plates. The stolen Arizona license plates were never found.

Stay tuned to my blog next week, I will talk about what I have learned, since my book was published, about the location of the Serna’s house where Dianne fled after her husband’s murder and after being shot herself. I was contacted by a great witness who corrected the location of the Serna residence and had some additional details of what happened that night from the perspective of the family who aided Ms. Brown. The new information does not change the trajectory of the story, but I plan to correct the location for the record.

Disclaimer: The license plates shown were advertised for sale on the Internet and have no connection to this story. They are only used for demonstrative purposes.

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