The Real Crimes Behind L.A. Noire Cases:“The Nicholson Electroplating Disaster”

Beyond just the name of the plant being changed in our fictionalized interactive version (changed from O’Connor to Nicholson, in a direct nod to– guess who) ours also adds a ton of intrigue, twists and turns far beyond what investigators discovered in the real case– which was much more straightforward, if shocking and embarrassing to the plant’s executives.

On the morning of February 20th, 1947– the O’Connor Electro-Plating plant at 926 East Pico Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles erupted in a terrific explosion that rocked the city for miles around. The mushroom-shaped cloud that formed over the area led many to initially panic with the thought of a nuclear bomb having been dropped on L.A. News reports told of planes ten miles away that were said to have felt the shudder, and of neighboring buildings’ windows that shattered for blocks around. In all, 151 people were injured and 15 were killed– the casualties ranging from innocent pedestrians (including a twelve-year old boy riding his bicycle two blocks away who was struck by a stray pipe from the blast) to the very person inside who the police concluded was responsible for the disaster…

The man who would become the primary person of interest in this case was the plant’s chief chemist, Robert Magee.

Magee had attained his position by impressing plant executive, Robert O’Connor, during an interview with his weighty credentials (a bachelor of science degree from the University of Indiana, a master’s from the University of Pittsburgh, a Ph.D from M.I.T. as well as graduate credit from Caltech) and with his presentation of a remarkable new chemical compound he’d created– a special blend of perchloric acid that could plate aluminum to gleam like silver without the costly expense of a polishing and buffing process.

O’Connor was sold– Magee and his magical new metallurgic formula would be his secret weapon to revitalize the business and give them a clear edge on the competition. 

That fateful February morning, however, Magee was practically evaporated along with his assistants in the blast.

And O’Connor truly learned that all that gleams is not gold.

Who was this Doctor Robert Magee, investigators wondered…

According to reports, they discovered that M.I.T. had no transcripts or record of him ever having attended the school…

Checks with the other schools returned similar results– the closest to validating his academic history was Caltech who said that he had taken a short night war training course there, but that was it.

According to the police investigation, it turned out Magee had never even graduated high school– having dropped out of Steubenville High School back in his native Ohio.

His knowledge of and knack for chemistry was all purely self-taught, and indeed had impressed even some of his genuinely accredited scientist peers at the plant– according to testimony gathered in the lengthy inquest that followed the disaster. But nevertheless, it was determined that this was clearly a case of tragic negligence, as the dangerous formula was ultimately mishandled by Magee and his team (a team which included a newly hired young assistant, Miss Alice Iba, who also had dubious academic qualifications according to detectives assigned to the case)– chalked up to the ineptitude of an unqualified chemist, and a critical lack of due diligence by the plant itself on a human resources level.

A vilified Robert O’Connor was sued by blast victims and would plead the fifth amendment during the official inquest on the explosion, responding in the affirmative to Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney S. Ernest Rolls question,“Do you mean to tell me that you refuse to testify on the grounds that the testimony might tend to incriminate you?”

In the meantime, check out some historical photos from the disaster which appear in the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society’s Flickr photostream slideshow.

  


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