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Lady You Shot Me - The Final Night And Questions Surrounding Sam Cooke's Death

On the evening of December 10, 1964, at 9 p.m. in Los Angeles, all eyes were on Sam Cooke at Martoni’s Italian restaurant. The 33-year-old R&B singer, impeccably dressed in his Sy Devore suit, and enjoying the attention he was receiving. Riding high on the success of his recent Live at the Copa album, Sam was poised to make a leap into the major leagues, positioning himself as a crossover artist alongside legends like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Sam was enjoying dinner in the company of producer Al Schmitt and Schmitt’s wife, Joan. Despite the interruptions from well-wishers drawn to Sam's magnetic presence, the trio engaged in conversation. With three or four martinis already in, Sam eventually got lured away to the bar.

As their orders arrived, Al Schmitt sought out Sam, discovering him in jovial spirits with a group of friends and music industry associates. Sam, with a roll of cash that seemed like thousands of dollars, was treating the gathering. Not wanting to leave his conversation, Cooke told Schmitt and Joan that they should go on ahead and eat their food and that he’d soon be joining them.

At a booth near the bar, there was a baby-faced 22-year-old Asian girl, sitting with three guys. Sam caught her eye. He’d seen her around. One of the guys, a guitar player Sam knew, introduced them. The girl’s name was Elisa Boyer. Before long, the pair were cozied up in a booth.

They left Martoni’s around 1 a.m. in Sam’s brand new red Ferrari and headed to a nightclub called PJ’s, where they were going to meet the Schmitts. By the time they arrived, the Schmitts were gone. In the club, Sam got into a heated argument with some guy who was hitting on Boyer. She asked Sam to take her home, and they left at 2 a.m.

According to Boyer, Sam raced down Santa Monica, and against her protests, pulled onto the freeway. She later told police that she asked again to be taken home, but Sam said, “Don’t worry now. I just want to go for a little ride.” He stroked her hair and told her how pretty she was.

They exited the highway at Figueroa Street, near LAX. Boyer asked again to be taken home, but Sam drove straight to the Hacienda Motel. He got out of the car and walked up to a glass partition at the manager’s office while Boyer remained in the car. He registered under his own name with the clerk, Bertha Franklin. Franklin eyed Boyer in the car, and told Sam that he’d have to sign in as Mr. and Mrs.

Sam drove around to the back of the motel. Boyer claimed he then dragged her into the room, pinned her on the bed and started to tear her clothes off. “I knew he was going to rape me,” she told the police. She went into the bathroom and tried to lock the door, but the latch was broken. She tried the window but it was painted shut. When she came out, Sam was already undressed. He groped her, then went into the bathroom himself. Boyer, wearing a slip and a bra, picked up her clothes and fled.

Partially undressed, Boyer ran to Franklin's office and pounded on the door. Bertha Franklin was on the phone talking to the owner of the property, Evelyn Carr. She told Carr "wait a minute" and went to answer the door, but no one was there. Franklin then picked up the phone and continued on with her phone call. Boyer, knowing that Cooke would be coming after her, didn't wait around for Bertha to open the door. She ran around the corner and up the street.

Elisa Boyer

About a block away from the Hacienda, she paused to put her clothes on and stash Sam's clothes under a stairwell. She then went to a nearby pay phone and called the police. Boyer’s call was logged in at 3:08 am. "Will you please come down to this number. I don’t know where I am, I’m kidnapped."  At that instant, Sam Cooke roared up to Franklin's office in his Ferrari, he left the motor running and the driver's door open. He was wearing his sports jacket, one shoe and nothing else.

Meanwhile, Sam, wearing one shoe and a sports jacket, had come out of the room, frantically looking for Boyer. He drove the Ferrari back to the manager’s office, and he banged on the door, yelling "Is the girl in there?" Franklin still on the phone with Evelyn Carr, tells Cooke that she doesn't know. Franklin recounted her experience to the police,  "He just kept saying where was the girl, I told him to get the police if he wanted to search my place"  He said, 'Damn the police,' and started working on the door with his shoulder ... It wasn't long before he was in. ... When he walked in, he walked straight to the kitchen, and then he came back and went into the bedroom. Then he came out. I was standing there in the floor and he grabbed both of my arms and started twisting them and asking me where was the girl."

Through it all, Evelyn Carr is listening over the phone. Bertha Franklin would later tell police:  “He fell on top of me … I tried to bite him through that jacket: biting, scratching and everything. Finally, I got up, when I kicked him … I run and grabbed the pistol off the TV, and I shot … at close range … three times.” Two of the bullets missed their mark, but one passed through Cooke's heart and right lung. Sam fell back, and then yelled at Franklin "Lady, you shot me!" he then rose and charged  at her, but she repelled his attack with several hard blows to the head and face with a broomstick.

Sam Cooke slumped to the floor next to the damaged doorway, Evelyn Carr then hung up and called the police at 3:15 a.m.,  advising them that "I think she shot him" This was  just minutes after Eliza Boyer had called the police to report that she had been kidnapped. The  police arrived with wailing sirens and flashing lights to find Sam Cooke dead. Just minutes after police arrived at the scene, Boyer walked up and presented herself to them.

An inventory of Cooke's belongings showed that he had a wristwatch, a money clip with $108 and some loose change. Cooke's wallet containing his driver's license and credit cards was never found, (nor were any purchases ever made with the cards)  A search of Boyer's purse showed that she had only a twenty dollar bill. Sam Cooke is believed to have retrieved $5,000 in cash from a safe deposit box earlier in the day. Al Schmitt reported that Sam was flashing about $1,000 at the bar. It has never been determined where that money went.

At 6 a.m., Sam’s widow Barbara greeted the news with hysterics, trying to shield their two young children from reporters and fans who were gathering at their house.

Five days later, at the coroner’s inquest, Boyer and Franklin recounted their stories in a hasty proceeding that barely allowed Sam’s lawyer one question. Tests showed that at the time of death, Sam had a blood alcohol level of .16 (.08 is considered too drunk to drive). Sam’s credit cards were missing, but a money clip with $108 was in his jacket pocket. The shooting was ruled “justifiable homicide.” Case closed.

Cooke’s body carried out of motel

There are many problems here. Let’s start with Elisa Boyer. She testified that she met Sam at a “Hollywood dinner party” and that he sang a song at the party. No mention of Martoni’s or PJ’s. She said she was “kidnapped” by Sam and couldn’t escape because his car was going too fast. Yet when Sam went to the motel window to register, Boyer was left alone in the car. She could’ve escaped or yelled for help. Moreover, if it was Sam’s intention to rape Boyer, why would he have registered under his real name? Boyer said she mistakenly took Sam’s clothes from the room when she grabbed her own. Wouldn’t it make sense that she was merely trying to prevent his pursuit? And what about the wad of cash that she spied earlier in the night? Surely she knew right where it was.

A month later Boyer was arrested in Hollywood for prostitution. The Hacienda Motel, which offered $3-per-hour rates, was known as a hangout for hookers. One theory of what may have happened is that Sam paid for Boyer’s services, and when he stepped into the bathroom, she ran out with his cash and credit cards. In 1979, Boyer was found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of a boyfriend.

Bertha Franklin, an ex-madam with her own criminal record, was forced to quit her job after receiving several death threats. She filed a $200,000 lawsuit against Sam Cooke’s estate for punitive damages and injuries, but lost.

Elisa Boyer testifying during the coroner’s inquest, Dec. 16, 1964

As for Barbara Cooke, her husband’s infidelity was nothing new to her. But she also had some action going on the side with a local bartender. On the day of Sam’s funeral, this guy was seen wearing Sam’s watch and his ring. Two months after Sam’s death, Barbara had dumped the bartender and married Sam’s friend and back-up singer Bobby Womack.

For Sam’s part, he was always a womanizer. As his friend Bumps Blackwell once said, “Sam would walk past a good girl to get to a whore.” There were all kinds of theories around his death—a drug deal involving someone close to Sam in which Sam tried to intervene, a Mafia hit, a set-up devised by a jealous Barbara Cooke. Many believed it was a racist plot in the entertainment business. As with any rising star (not to mention one of colour in the early 1960s), Sam had made some enemies. As one woman friend of his said, “He was just getting too big for his britches for a suntanned man.”

There are some things about this case that just don’t add up properly.

  • If you’re wondering about the large wad of cash that was seen in Cooke’s hand on that fateful night – then you might be unsurprised to find out that it wasn’t found.

  • Cooke was killed by a .22 pistol. However, the gun registered to Bertha Franklin was of a completely different caliber (.32).

  • The single bullet that killed Cooke disappeared while in police custody.

In her memoir, Etta James recorded some of the awful injuries that she saw on Cooke’s body at his funeral. However, none of these visible injuries were ever recorded in the official autopsy report for Cooke.

This includes broken and crushed hands, and his head being almost entirely detached from his shoulders.

With everything considered, it’s no surprise that many people have questioned whether Cooke was, in fact, murdered off the property by someone else. If this was the case, Sam Cooke’s body might have been unceremoniously dumped outside the motel. 

Franklin after shooting Cooke

Aside from being a political spearhead, Cooke also founded his own publishing branch and record label. Both of these creative avenues paved the way for other artists to own the rights to their work while also generating larger profits.

This made Cooke very unpopular in the eyes of existing record companies. Though he was but one man, Cooke was the embodiment of an economic and social threat as he opposed everything that the record industry stood for at the time. Specifically, the way it was structured.

Add in his political stance, and it’s quite easy to see why he was unfairly put on the bad side of some powerful figures of the time.

A lot of the mystery shrouding Cooke’s death comes from LAPD’s single cursory investigation into the happenings of the evening.

Their apparent lack of interest in discovering what actually occurred to result in the death of an otherwise healthy young man implies that the authorities just wanted to put the case out of sight.

The problem was that the case was seen to be unworthy of their time. Norman Edelen even questioned the authorities, asking them whether they may have even felt some sort of gladness that Cooke had died.

It does make us question whether the FBI did have some sort of involvement. Although this theory has never been ruled out or proven.

In addition, it’s also important to reference the way that the FBI viewed Civil Rights and minorities during this period. And, by extension, how they saw Cooke himself.

During this period, the FBI was led by a deeply paranoid man who felt it necessary to keep close tabs on people who opposed or undermined his position, including Cooke. His name was J. Edgar Hoover.

This is an especially relevant fact in the half-hearted investigation into Cooke’s death, mainly because the singer had a strong rapport with other high-profile and influential black people during the 60s, such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, who were both under constant FBI surveillance.

While Cooke was less overtly political than his friends, he used his position in the public eye to push boundaries in order to achieve equal rights. By association, these associations made him a target for the FBI.

Add in the fact he was a very strong-willed man who was more than likely seen to be a threat to popular culture, and it really isn’t hard to believe that there was some kind of racially motivated plot against Sam Cooke by those in authority. 

Cooke was noted for his defiant attitude in the face of an oppressive white society. He began to make a statement by publically embracing his natural hair and, by rights, his black heritage, too.

In addition, his single – A Change Is Gonna Come (1964) became an early protest anthem of the Civil Rights movement. The Civil Rights movement continued, and although Cooke’s song became an anthem, not much of change came.

Still, it was, and still is, a song used for fighting injustice, and it’s played as often today as it was over six decades ago

Two Funerals

Sam Cooke's funeral included three full days of viewing in L.A. his $4,000 casket was fitted with a glass top to allow his fans one final look at "The Father of Soul" The body was then flown to Chicago for a funeral in his hometown. Cooke's remains were then returned to Los Angeles for another funeral and burial. The  Staple Singers, Lou Rawls, Billy Preston & Ray Charles all presented musical tributes to Sam Cooke. The most poignant being Rawls rendition of  "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."

Was Sam Cooke lured into a trap at the Hacienda Motel? Were Elisa Boyer and Bertha Franklin working in tandem? Was Barbara Cooke involved somehow? Or was it all just a tragic accident? Over the years, various investigators have made noises about reopening the case, but with most of the principle players dead and gone, it seems unlikely it will ever be solved.


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