Sal Mineo became a movie star overnight in 1955, when he starred with James Dean and Natalie Wood in “Rebel without a Cause.” He was 16 years old. By the time he was 21, he’d been nominated for two Best-Supporing Actor Oscars, one for “Rebel” and another for “Exodus,” in 1960.With his dreamy, exotic looks, Sal was a sensation. He even had brief success as a pop singer in the late 1950s. Like a lot of young stars, however, when he lost his juvenile cuteness, his career faded. “I’ll never be mistaken for Pat Boone,” he said. He paid the bills with guest starring roles on series like “Hawaii Five-0″ and “Columbo.”
Sal was also perhaps the first movie star ever to come out of the closet, albeit only as a bisexual and only after his career had faded. He still had enough drawing power to generate interest in the plays and small films in which he appeared, and he used that power to become a pioneer in gay theatre and film.
In 1969, he produced and directed “Fortune and Men’s Eyes” at the Coronet Theatre in West Hollywood. The play, which dealt with sexuality in a prison setting, starred Don Johnson — who would later find television stardom in “Miami Vice” and “Nash Bridges” — as Smitty, a newly arrived prisoner who is forced into a sexual relationship. In 1975, Sal played the role of Vito, a bisexual burglar, in a San Franscio production of the play, “P.S. Your Cat Is Dead.” According to the website, Crime Magazine, the play was well received:
Theater critic Bob Kiggins wrote that “Mineo all but steals the show with his outlandish, marvelously antic gestures, his facile facial contortions and his robust delivery.” In Touch magazine did a profile of him entitled “Sal Mineo, the Eternal Original.” Gratified to be starring in a hit, Mineo looked optimistically to the future. He believed his flagging career would revive and he would get more and better parts.
Early in 1976, the play wrapped in San Francisco and moved to Los Angeles. Sal rented an apartment in West Hollywood, at 8563 Holloway Drive at the corner of Alta Loma Road, one block south of the Sunset Strip. His roommate was Don Johnson. (Gary Sandy, who would not long afterwards gain fame as Andy on “WRKP in Cincinatti” also lived in the building.)
On Thursday, Feb. 12, Sal left rehearsals for “P.S. Your Cat is Dead” at about 9 p.m. He was in good spirits. When he got home, he pulled into the alley off Alta Loma and parked in the carport. That’s when the fatal encounter occurred, according to Crime Magazine:
Nine-year-old Monica Merrem was sitting at her desk in her bedroom when she heard a loud, frantic plea. “Oh, no!” a man shouted. “Oh, my God! No! Help me, please!” She looked out her window and saw a man running away. She would recall him as a white man with an unusually pale complexion.
From another apartment, Ron Evans heard a man scream. He ran in the direction of the sound to the alley. He saw Mineo bleeding on the ground. Evans, who was acquainted with the actor, exclaimed, “Sal, my God!”
Evans turned Mineo onto his back. The actor’s shirt was soaked with blood and he was having trouble breathing. Evans tried to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
A group soon gathered around the injured actor. Someone called for an ambulance, but it arrived too late. Mineo was dead at the scene. He was pronounced dead at 9:55 p.m. A single stab would that had cut into his heart killed him.
Others besides little Monica saw a man flee the scene of the crime. Security guard Stephen Gustafson would remember a white man with dark blond or brown hair. Scott Hughes would say he thought the man was Italian or Mexican. He also said he believed the man jumped into a yellow Toyota to make his getaway.
Police had no suspects in the murder for over a year. In the absence of facts, three areas of speculation emerged. One was that his death was related to his sex life — that an encounter with a hustler or a jealous lover had turned violent. A second line of thought was that a drug deal had gone south, or that he’d owed a dealer a lot of money. There was never any evidence to support either of these theories, however.
The third theory, that the murder was random street crime, was borne out in May 1977, when a woman named Theresa Williams turned her husband, Lionel, in for the crime. She claimed he had come home on the night of the murder with blood on his clothes, and that he had even confessed his crime that night.
But investigators had problems with Theresa Williams’ story. They were curious why she had she waited 16 months to report the crime. And her husband — who did have violent robberies on his rap sheet — was not a solid match with witness descriptions of the killer as an “unusually pale” white man. Lionel Williams was a light skinned African American.
And yet, there was a connection. Not long after the murder, Williams was jailed for an unrelated offense. But while he was in prison, he claimed to have information on the Mineo murder. He told police that associates of drug dealers he knew had killed Sal over an unpaid debt. In 1978, while he was serving a sentence for yet another crime, this time in Michigan, a deputy reported overhearing Williams tell another inmate that he had killed Sal Mineo.
Based on the jailhouse confession, Williams was returned to Los Angeles and charged with murder. The trial lasted two-and-a-half months, but his wife Theresa was not there to testify against him. Soon after his arrest, she killed herself with a bullet to the brain. In the end, Williams was found guilty of second degree murder, which spared him from the death penalty.
Still, there were holes in the testimony during the trial. One witness against Williams admitted that he’d lied under oath. No murder weapon was ever produced. And Williams did not resemble the suspect described by the eyewitnesses. Because of these doubts, many people close to Sal Mineo remained unsatisified with the verdict.
Williams was paroled in the 1990s, but was arrested and imprisoned on another charge. Since his arrest in 1979, he consistently denied killing Sal Mineo.