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Lambda Lore

State v. Sinclair

On Jan. 4, 2016, Jackie Biskupski became the first lesbian mayor of Salt Lake City. Nearly 53 years ago, almost to the day, a sensational murder occurred.

Don Foster, a 33-year-old married man who was carrying on an illicit affair with 32-year-old LaRae Peterson — a “divorcee” — was slain in an ambush in the parking lot of the Susan Kay Arms apartment complex, between 5th and 6th North on 2nd West (which, since street numbers were changed in 1973, is now between 6th and 7th North, Third West — the Marmalade Square condos). Returning from a movie date just after midnight, the couple had pulled into the Susan Kay Arms to continue their romantic tryst.

As the six-foot-tall Foster got out on the driver’s side, he turned to reach into to the rear seat for his overcoat, when a short-range gunshot blast came from behind some parked cars. The bullet hit him in the face and neck as Peterson watched in horror and cried out, “Oh God, she killed him.” Awakened by the noise and the cries for help, neighbors called the police. When they arrived, they found Peterson sitting on the ground, holding the victim’s head in her lap. Foster was taken to a Salt Lake hospital, but was pronounced dead on arrival. A witness told police he saw a man run from the parking lot and get into a white or light tan late model sedan and drive north on 2nd West. In questioning LaRae of whom Foster might have made an enemy, the name of Jean Sinclair came up.

Jean Sinclair was a single 44-year-old woman who operated a nursing home in Salt Lake City. Those who knew of her said that she appeared to be “perverted toward the masculine side; affected masculine character and appearance and wore mannish-type clothes.” She was said to be “a strong-willed individual, who usually got her way.” Her friends called her “King.”

The investigators of Foster’s murder soon came to the conclusion that Sinclair had an “unnatural relationship with Petersen for whom she had an inordinate attachment and concern.” The detectives felt that Sinclair was extremely jealous of Foster, and “harbored a violent resentment toward him.” In further investigation, detectives found that Sinclair had talked to friends of “various ways of compelling Foster to leave Peterson alone.” She even proposed a plan to drug Peterson, strip her, and put her in a “lesbian act” where Foster could witness it. Sinclair hoped this might break up their affair. Dissuaded from that idea Sinclair was said to have made proposals to two men she knew, Vaughn Humphries and Karl Kuehne, on separate occasions, that the three of them disguise themselves as Mormon “Danites” and kidnap Foster and castrate him or at least put a knife blade to his testicles and “threaten castration to scare him into keeping away from Peterson.”

Kuehne, an ex-convict, testified that in the fall of 1962, Sinclair told him “I think the son-of-a-bitch ought to be killed.” Around Dec. 28, 1962, “using the pretext that she wanted a shotgun to shoot some pheasants on the farm in Sandy,” Sinclair got Kuehne to buy her a 12-gauge shotgun and some shells. On Jan. 4, 1963, the evening before the crime, Kuehne stated that Sinclair brought the shotgun to his home and asked him to saw off the barrel, which he did. He said she left his home with the gun and shells about 11 p.m., and was “dressed in gray men’s pants, had on boots, and had a tan trench coat wrapped around the gun.” Sinclair was arrested and charged with first degree murder on mainly the testimony of Kuehne.

Sinclair was tried April 13, 1963 in the Third District Court, presided over by Judge Marcellus K. Snow with an all-male jury. The state claimed that motive for the murder was Sinclair’s “unnatural relationship with Peterson; that she had such an impassioned attachment to her and resentment of Foster that she wanted to resort to fiendish violence to get rid of his rivalry for her favors.” District Attorney Jay E. Banks told the jury “evidence of homosexuality in this trial provided the motive for the defendant to kill Mr. Foster.” “We are not trying Jean Sinclair for any relationship between herself and Mrs. Peterson but it does come into this case however as a motive to kill.” He then told the jury, “the love between women is a jealous love and there is no wrath’s like a woman’s.”

Over the next 16 days, witnesses testified of Sinclair’s jealousy over Peterson with whom she had had a seven-year relationship. Peterson had opened a beauty parlor in Sinclair’s rest home that she operated at 2300 S. State St.
The prosecutors were interested in Sinclair’s manner of dress and had one witness, Kermit Dubois, testify that he had sold two suits to Sinclair and even fitted them for her. He said “I thought she was a man.”

Other witnesses said they observed a person, resembling Sinclair, in the parking area near where Foster was killed, and who ran from the apartment into 5th North Street carrying an object extending 18 to 24 inches above the right hand and get into a two-toned car and drove away. Sinclair had owned a car of this general description. The district attorney provided evidence that the morning after the killing, Sinclair had taken a trench coat and some slacks, which had grease spots and dirt on them, to a cleaners.

Peterson was called to testify in the case but refused to answer any questions during the trial regarding her relationship to Sinclair, even when ordered to do so by the court. Her attorney Jim Mitsunga had advised her not to answer the questions put to her by the prosecutor on grounds they could incriminate her and “degrade her.” After the trial Judge Snow ordered Peterson to five days in jail for “contempt of court” for refusing to answer whether she had a lesbian affair with Sinclair.

The defense called Sinclair’s brother and sister-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Lamond Sinclair to testify. They claimed that Jean Sinclair was at their home the night of the slaying with Mrs. Lamond Sinclair saying, “Jean was not out of my sight 10 or 15 minutes.”

Nevertheless, on May 4, 1963, Jean Sinclair was convicted following the jury trial of the crime of first degree murder of “Don Leroy Foster.” Sinclair was found guilty after the all-male jury had deliberated for 17 hours. As the judge read the verdict, and the clerk announced the sentence, Sinclair sat “poker faced,” as “one female spectator in court gasped.” Following the jury recommendation for leniency, Judge Snow sentenced Sinclair to life imprisonment. She was received at the Utah State Prison in April, 1964. Sinclair appealed her conviction for many years even after it was upheld by the Utah State Supreme Court in 1967.

In 1973, Sinclair suffered a stroke while being held in the Weber County Jail. The Utah Board of Pardons then set May 15 as a parole date for the then 55-year-old Sinclair due to her illness that had placed her in a rest home in Weber County for several months. She died within months months, having maintained her innocence. Although cemetery records indicate July 13 as her date of death, she probably died July 3, as the following funeral notice was found, “The Salt Lake Tribune July 4, 1973 page 24, SINCLAIR – Funeral services for Jean M. Sinclair will be held Friday 10 a.m. at the Deseret Mortuary 36 East 7th South. Internment Salt Lake City Cemetery. Funeral directors, Deseret Mortuary.

The sensational and salacious trial of Jean Sinclair was noted as having a carnival atmosphere. It was one of the reasons she claimed she did not receive a fair trial. Even her defense attorney Sumner J. Hatch argued that she was tried for being a homosexual as much as for murder. “Can there be any plainer inferences that the jury ignored the evidence and convicted solely on the oft inferred but never proved innuendo that the was some kind of homosexual relationship between the defendant and Mrs. Peterson… an inference of a not understood and apparent undesirable sexual relationship for which the defendant was not on trial but for which she should be gotten off the streets and away from society.”

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Ben Williams

Ben Williams

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