California

Musician and inmate serving life for killing wife dies after singing at sheriffs benefit concert

November 23, 1969
Oakland, California
Musician “Spade” Cooley dies of a heart attack after singing “It’s Time to Live, It’s Time to Die” at a benefit show for the Deputy Sheriffs Association of Alameda County

At the time of his death, Cooley, known as the “King of Western Swing,” was on 72-hour leave prison to perform at the benefit show. Cooley was serving a life term for the murder of his wife Ella Mae Cooley on April 3, 1961.

Ella Mae had been burned, strangled, beaten, and kicked to death. Cooley admitted to “slapping (her) around a little bit,” but denied killing her. His 14-year-old daughter testified against him in court, however, stating she had watched her father drag her mother from the shower, smash her head against the tile floor, burn her with cigarettes, and stomp on her abdomen. The teen attempted to revive her mother but was unsuccessful, though she managed to flee the home and call police after Cooley threatened her as well.

Cooley pleaded innocent by reason of insanity, claiming Ella Mae had confessed to multiple extramarital affairs, including a long-standing affair with movie star Roy Rogers. (Rogers denied the claim.) Cooley himself had a prior conviction of sexual assault months after his marriage to Ella Mae as well as consensual partners.

The jury deliberated for 20 hours before finding Cooley guilty after Cooley withdrew his insanity plea. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison. Cooley had a history of heart problems and had been hospitalized multiple times before his death, which occurred during an intermission shortly after he finished his final performance.

Sources:

  • Beitiks, Edvins. “Spade’s Forfeit.” The San Francisco Examiner. [San Francisco, California]. August 14, 1994
  • “Donnell (Spade) Cooley Dies.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch [St. Louis, Missouri]. November 24, 1969
  • “Jury Convicts Slayer ‘Spade’ Cooley.” The Salt Lake Tribune [Salt Lake City, Utah]. August 20, 1961

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