On April 28, 1955, 14-year-old Stephanie Bryan left Willard Junior High school in Berkley, CA at 3:30 pm on her way home. As she reached the Claremont Hotel she and her friend parted ways and she took her usual shortcut across the grounds of the hotel. She never arrived home.
The police launched a massive search but failed to come up with any leads as to her whereabouts. With few clues to follow the case remained in limbo for the next two months.
On the night of July 15, 1955, in Alameda, California, Georgia Abbott was entertaining guests, Otto and Leona Dezman, in her home. She lived with her husband, Burton W. Abbott, an accounting student at the University of California, and his mother. During the course of the evening Georgia talked about an amateur play she was writing and decided to go down in her basement and look for material to make a costume. In one of the boxes she found an unfamiliar red leather handbag. When she opened the purse she found a wallet which contained photographs of teenage girls, a half-written letter, and a student identification card with the name Stephanie Bryan on it. She took the purse along with its contents upstairs and showed them to her husband and guests. Otto Dezman took one look at the wallet and called the police.
When the police arrived and took possession of the evidence they questioned the occupants of the house who stated they had no idea how the handbag ended up in the basement. Burton Abbott went on to suggest that their garage had been used as a polling place during the May election and anyone could have hidden the bag at that time. The police indicated that they would like to return the next morning in order to search the basement and garage. Burton Abbott readily agreed and resumed playing his game of chess with Otto Dezman.
The next day as Abbott calmly worked on a crossword puzzle upstairs the police were busy digging in his basement. There they discovered more possessions belonging to Stephanie, including her glasses, bra, and some school books. Again they questioned Abbott and again he professed no knowledge of how they came to be found in his basement. He even offered to take a lie detector test which results were inconclusive. The police pressed Abbott for details as to his whereabouts on the day that Stephanie went missing. Abbott stated that he left his house that morning at 11 am and drove up to his family's cabin in Trinity County over 300 miles away.
While the police contemplated their next move, two newspaper reporters drove up to the cabin and enlisted the aid of local hunter, Harold Jackson. Jackson's two bloodhounds led the men to a mound on a hill about 300 yards behind the cabin. It turned out to be a shallow grave which held the body of a half-naked young girl. A pair of panties were tied around her neck. Her skull had nearly been caved in by several severe blows from a heavy object. Because of the state of decomposition the girl had to be identified by her remaining clothes. It was the body of Stephanie Bryan. Evidence of sexual assault could not be determined but was presumed to have happened. Burton Abbott was soon arrested and charged with her kidnapping and murder.
As the authorities investigated Abbott they were unable to uncover any evidence directly linking him to the death of Stephanie Bryan. Even though all of the evidence was circumstantial it did not stop the prosecution from going forward with the trial on November 7, 1955.
During the trial noted criminologist, Dr. Paul L. Kirk testified that he found fibers in Abbott's car that matched the sweater Stephanie Bryan had been wearing the day she disappeared. He also found head hair that matched Stephanie's and blood evidence, which could not be matched to Stephanie, in the fabric of the seats. Through the trial Abbott sat in the defendant's chair with an air of indifference giving little hint to whether or not he was concerned about the proceedings.
When he took the stand to proclaim his innocence he appeared arrogant and condescending towards the prosecution going so far as to claim that he had been framed by the police.
Abbott was found guilty of murder and kidnapping and sentenced to death in the gas chamber. He showed no emotion when the verdict was read.
At 11:15 am on March 15, 1957 Burton Abbott walked into the gas chamber at San Quentin. In a last ditch effort to get a stay of execution, Abbott's lawyers attempted to reach California's Governor Goodwin J. Knight who was aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hancock. When the lawyers finally reached him on the ship-to-shore radio he agreed to grant only a one hour stay. He placed a call to his clemency secretary, Joseph G. Babich.
Babich placed a call to San Quentin and spoke with the warden. He asked if the execution had already started and the warden applied in the affirmative. When asked if it could be stopped he was informed that it was too late. The gas had already been released. Burton W. Abbott was pronounced dead at 11:25.