Parents beat ‘devil’ out of 4-year-old
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
As Madera County Sheriff, Marlin Young was a busy man. Shown here on the right, he escorts a prisoner to trial. Not long after this was taken, he was investigating one of the most horrific crimes in local history: the whipping death of four-year-old Sandra Schindler at the hands of her parents.
Sandra Marie Schindler was 4 1/2 years old on Jan. 7, 1958, the last day of her short life. Her parents accused her of “sassing “ her mother, and gave her such a whipping that she died.
Claude and Opal Schindler explained to police that their religion demanded such punishment for their daughter in order to “save her from Hell.” He said after the whipping, he and his wife had been told to “anoint Sandra and pray for her.” It didn’t work.
The Schindlers were living in a two-bedroom house, owned by Ray Flanagan, near the Red Top Gin where Claude worked. In addition to Sandra, the Schindlers had four other children: ages six years, three years, and two years, and eight months. Claude was 29, and Opal was 27. Everyone was home on that fateful Tuesday afternoon.
It was about four o’clock p.m. when Dr. Herbert Leff opened his office door, and found the Schindlers standing there holding little Sandra. Upon examination, Dr. Leff pronounced her dead and called the Sheriff’s office. Deputy Dana Boomer was the first on the scene.
During the first round of interrogation, the Schindlers told Boomer that Claude had administered a whipping to Sandra because “she wouldn’t mind and kept sassing.” Claude admitted that he used switches and a leather strap to whip his daughter for approximately 45 minutes. According to this first account, Opal’s only involvement was to secure another switch when the one that Claude was using broke. That story was to change dramatically.
After two lie detector tests and several more hours of questioning, the whole sordid tale unfolded. Husband and wife finally admitted that they both took part in the beating.
Opal admitted that she was the one who initiated the punishment, whipping Sandra with switches for about 10 minutes on the kitchen floor. After that, Claude continued the beating for another 45 minutes using the switches and a leather strap. When he was through, Opal took Sandra to the shower where she gave the child a final 10-minute beating.
On Jan. 9, 1958, Deputy Coroner Vernon Worden announced that he found more than 200 welts, bruises and slashes on Sandra’s body. Worden determined that Sandra had been so traumatized that she vomited into her lungs. Police reported that they found pieces of brittle branches about the size of a man’s finger littering the floor of the living room.
Pathologist Dr. Zednek Fluss of Merced, one-time refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, termed the crime “the most vicious thing I have ever seen. I didn’t see anything worse under the Hitler regime.”
Murder charges were filed against both Claude and Opal Schindler, and Deputy District Attorney Edward Chidlaw said they showed no emotion. Opal was quoted as saying, “This is the first time I ever heard of a whipping hurting a child... I didn’t think it could kill it.”
On Jan. 13, Flanagan burned the house he had rented to the Schindlers and leveled the ground around it to put an end to the crowds that had gathered to see the place where the horrific whipping took place.
In October, the Schindlers went to trial for first degree murder. District Attorney Lester Gendron prosecuted the case, and H.P. Courtney of Merced, court appointed attorney, led the defense team. On Oct. 23, Gendron closed the prosecution’s case by putting six-year-old Paul Schindler on the stand. The young boy testified that his mother had whipped his sister with switches because she had “messed at the breakfast table.” The Schindler lad also testified that his father had hit his sister with switches, then a belt, and then with switches again.
Much of Courtney’s case was connected to Schindler’s extreme religious beliefs. He said his client was a religious fanatic who “felt bound to whip the child as he did because he thought he was following a biblical injunction to beat the child with a rod.” Courtney told the court that Schindler thought his daughter was possessed by the devil.
Schindler’s brother added fuel to the speculation that religion played a large part in Claude’s behavior. He said his brother had what he called “heavenly visions” and that he was a fanatic in matters of faith. He said Claude once took his youngest child home from a hospital where she was being treated for pneumonia because a voice had told him to do so.
On Nov. 14, the jury found the Schindlers guilty of 2nd degree murder, and on Jan. 7, 1959, the California Adult Authority sentenced them to prison terms of five years to life.
Opal appealed for a new trial and got one when the court ruled that her alleged confession had been “illegally obtained.” She immediately pleaded guilty to a charge of manslaughter and received a sentence of one to 10 years in Corona State Prison for women.
In March 1961, she was granted a parole to live with her sister in Chowchilla. Her husband did not file an appeal and remained in prison to serve out his sentence. Unfortunately, the record is silent on the number of years he served.
Three of the surviving children went to private homes as wards of the court, and one went to Porterville State Hospital. Meanwhile, little Sandra went to the graveyard where finally she was safe.