The 13th Floor

The Bizarre But True Story of “The Killer Grannies of Santa Monica”

When Kenneth McDavid met Helen Golay and Olga Rutterschmidt, they must have seemed like guardian angels. Homeless, schizophrenic, and estranged from his family, McDavid probably wasn’t used to many people showing him kindness, but the little old grannies he met in 2003 at the Hollywood Presbyterian Church’s homeless program were different. Rather than begrudging him a hot meal or averting their eyes as he passed in the street, Golay and Rutterschmidt seemed only interested in helping him. Soon after meeting him, they found McDavid an apartment in Hollywood, paid his rent and bills, and asked nothing in return… nothing except for his signature on a few legal papers.

Golay was a millionaire who owned a number of expensive properties in tony Santa Monica, California. She wore her hair in a throwback bouffant and rented out her properties to Westside yuppies. Her friend Olga Rutterschmidt was not as wealthy, but lived comfortably in Hollywood in an apartment near the Chinese Theater. She spoke with a thick European accent and was described as flighty and less serious than Helen. They’d been close friends for over two decades, and were using their sunset years to help Los Angeles’ homeless, one hobo at a time.

“They seemed like somebody’s grandmother and the kind of folks you might respect,” Hollywood Presbyterian Pastor Chuck Suhayda told NBC News. He knew them from their volunteer work at his church’s homeless program.

With his own apartment courtesy of wealthy benefactors, Kenneth McDavid lived a stable life for nearly two years… until tragedy struck. Soon after midnight on June 22, 2005, McDavid was found dead in a Hollywood alley, the victim of a hit and run. His bicycle lay nearby. It looked as if he’d been fixing a flat tire when the car ran him down in the dark alley.

The cops opened a file on the incident, but a homeless dude dying from a hit and run is fairly common, and there were no witnesses to the accident, so the LAPD basically shrugged their shoulders and filed it away as “unsolved.” It might have stayed that way — if not for the life insurance policies.

Soon after McDavid’s body was found, Helen Golay showed up to claim the corpse at the coroner’s office. McDavid had several life insurance policies that named Golay and Rutterschmidt as beneficiaries — one for over a million dollars. The documents said Golay was his fiancé and Rutterschmidt his cousin. The age difference maybe seemed a little odd, but not enough to raise police suspicion. On the surface, it seemed McDavid wanted to repay the old crones for the generosity they’d shown him. Insurance companies, though, don’t give away money easily, so they sent private eye Ed Webster to do a routine check on McDavid’s policy.

There was little reason for suspicion. Webster’s job was simply to verify the victim’s identity and confirm the circumstances of the death before the checks were cut to Olga and Helen. This is standard procedure for a policy that’s less than two years old, and this one was just shy of “maturing.” The last thing Webster expected to uncover were clues leading to a pair of serial murderers.

Something in the investigation set off Webster’s alarm. Little things about the crime scene didn’t seem right. First there was McDavid’s bike tire — it wasn’t flat. Why would he be bent down fixing a tire that wasn’t flat? Then there were the autopsy and toxicology reports. Usually, car accident injuries are below the waist, but most of McDavid’s injuries were above the waist, suggesting that he was lying down when he was run over. The toxicology report was similarly suspicious. He had a little alcohol in his system, but also a host of other drugs, including sleeping pills — not exactly a common cocktail for a homeless dude on a midnight bender.

The deeper Webster looked into McDavid’s life, the stranger it all seemed. On paper he owned a business with Helen and Olga, and had an income, even though it was clear that he was destitute. He didn’t actually live where it was reported he lived, nor did he work where the paperwork said he worked. Webster requested a meeting with the two beneficiaries on his policy, but Helen and Olga refused to meet him. Who turns down a meeting with someone who ostensibly owes them a million dollars? So Webster called the cops.

Image Credit: CNBC
Image Credit: CNBC

The LAPD Steps In

No one at the station could quite believe these lovable little old grannies would be mixed up in a murder-for-money plot. “You deal with gang members and convicts and this and that. And you got two little old ladies here, and I’m not really sure what we have anything,” said Det. Dennis Kilcoyne. “I mean, maybe we just have a couple of good Samaritans that are lookin’ out for people.”

But Webster convinced Kilcoyne to look into Helen and Olga, and he soon found that they had taken out 18 life insurance policies on McDavid — totaling over 5 million dollars. It wasn’t looking good for the nanas.

As Kilcoyne worked the case, the LAPD started gossiping. A pair of black widow grannies pulling an ARSENIC AND OLD LACE move in modern Los Angeles is bound to get people talking in the break room at the precinct, and before long, a homicide detective overheard the chatter and recognized a ton of details from the death of Paul Vados, an unsolved hit-and-run he’d worked six years earlier.

More Victims: Paul Vados and Fred Downie

73-year-old Paul Vados was found dead in a Los Angeles alley in 1999. Like McDavid, he was homeless, hit by a car, and had a surprising number of life insurance policies — eight in all, worth nearly a million bucks. The beneficiaries were Helen and Olga. He too had befriended the pair at a local church and moved into an apartment they paid for.

There was another case, too: 97-year old Fred Downie was under Helen Golay’s care when a car struck him. It seems Downie was their first victim, and he had been bled dry while he was still alive, with Helen and Olga pocketing his life savings before the accident. Downie’s death was caused by a legit accident — he wandered into traffic and was mowed down — but it’s easy to see how Downie’s death might have given Golay and Rutterschmidt the idea for a way to make millions. It was easy: Take out life insurance policies and push the old guys into the street. What could go wrong?

With the revelation of these two other victims, the net closed on Helen and Olga quickly. The pair was placed under surveillance, and cops quickly learned they were trolling local churches and shelters and asking about the homeless men there, seemingly setting up another victim. With the help of the FBI (insurance fraud is a federal offense), Olga and Helen were taken into custody.

The Old Canaries Sing

Soon after their arrest, the wizened murderers were placed in an interrogation room together. The police hoped they’d incriminate themselves, and it only took them a few minutes to do just that. The following dialogue, transcribed from LAPD tapes, reveals that they might have been good at insurance fraud, but the pair was terrible at keeping their stories straight.

Olga Rutterschmidt: You did all these insurances extra. That’s what raised the suspicion. You can’t do that. Stupidity. You’re going to go to jail, honey. They going to lock you up.

Helen Golay: Listen, you are talking too much.

Olga Rutterschmidt: I know, but it’s your fault that our relationship ended up like this and you ended up like this.

Helen Golay: And you better be quiet. You better not know anything.

Olga Rutterschmidt: I do not know anything.  I don’t know.

Helen Golay: Are they going to find anything bad on your computer?

Olga Rutterschmidt: No, no hmmm. Well, um, nah. Not too many.  No, no.

Olga Rutterschmidt: They will confiscate the money that they paid you and me.

Helen Golay: Who cares?

Olga Rutterschmidt: Who cares? We have nothing left!

Helen Golay: Be quiet. They could be listening.

Helen Golay:  He signed for these policies. And we happen to be punished because of what he wanted. That is not right. Now, remember the bottom line.

Olga Rutterschmidt: I was the cousin. You were the fiancé. Baloney!

The Trial

At the trial, the prosecutors nailed the murderous old crones to the wall. They had a history of minor insurance fraud that dated back 20 years. The crime lab found McDavid’s blood on the underside of a 1999 Mercury Sable connected to Golay. And they even dug up a living witness.

Jimmy Covington, 48, testified that Rutterschmidt and Golay gave him a place to live, but he moved out when he grew suspicious about the paperwork they asked him to sign. When he left, they’d already taken out a life insurance policy on him.

Helen’s lawyer argued that Helen was too frail to have murdered anyone, and the real culprit was her daughter. Olga’s counsel maintained that her client was a stooge under the spell of mastermind Helen. But the jury wasn’t buying it, and both women were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. They live to this day behind the bars of a federal prison, counting out their final days behind the walls of the stony lonesome.