May 20, 2024 | By: Jillian Lombardo

This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and the University of North Florida’s Applied Journalism class.

Earline Johnson Bagler was a protective, caring, and loving mother who prioritized her family above all else. She was gifted in the arts and a loving auntie to her extended family.

Earline strode through downtown Los Angeles, exuding the confidence of a runway model. Despite not having a home, her attire radiated the glamor of a star.

“The last time I saw her, she was happy and laughing, and in good spirits,” said her sister Karen Thompson. “She was downtown LA… in an environment where many people had migrated to that were homeless, but she was the best dressed homeless person down there.”

Two weeks later, the once iconic Frontier Motel became the final setting for Earline’s life. The circumstances of her murder unfold with stark brutality; Earline was found beaten and suffocated in a downtown Los Angeles motel room. The modest refuge from the streets had transformed into the site of a heinous crime that has now left Earline’s family grappling for answers.

Earline had secured a room at the motel through state-issued stay passes— a fleeting respite from the harsh realities of the streets. The limited information available, due to the case’s open nature, emphasizes the family’s challenges in their quest for justice.

Her daughters, wrestling with the pain of their mother’s untimely death, raise unsettling questions. How did the assailant get close enough to commit such a brutal act? There lingers an assumption that the killer had some familiarity with Earline, hinting at a connection that may hold the key to unraveling the mystery.’

The unexplored DNA found under her fingernails has become a poignant symbol of untapped potential for answers. The family’s impassioned pleas resonate – they wonder why the authorities didn’t question everyone about what they saw or knew.

Two weeks before the murder, Earline had been in the company of her sister Karen and her youngest daughter, Starkeisha Watkins, who had visited her in downtown Los Angeles. They had discussed moving her to Texas, offering her a fresh start. Sadly, this was a second chance that Earline never could embrace.

Earline came from a large, stable family. Her father owned a dry cleaner to provide for their family. Earline was the fifth out of seven children.

She had a unique charm, an infectious smile, and a body that “just didn’t quit,” said Karen. She was a woman who placed her family above all else. For Earline and her family, Sunday dinners were a must. The meals were almost as large as Thanksgiving, the echo of laughter filling every corner. Her loved ones remember the aroma of fried chicken, mac and cheese, collard greens, cornbread, yams, banana pudding, and anything else the family wanted that would waft through the house.

Earline would always be first in the kitchen helping prepare the food and the last to leave, staying back to help clean up. She would go outside with the kids to play hopscotch, hide, and seek, or paint with them.

Earline’s daughters recall their first Christmas tree. Kawain Payne and Monique Kloweit, Earline’s oldest daughters, were given a tree by their teacher on the last day before Christmas break. Those two girls hauled that Christmas tree home. Earline got to work creating the most beautiful paper ornaments. “I remember we couldn’t have lights on the tree. She said it would catch the ornaments on fire, but I don’t think we could afford it,” said Payne. “It was still the most beautiful tree I had seen.”

“She should’ve been an interior designer,” said Karen. They all shared stories about how Earline created beauty out of so little. A discarded brass lamp became a beautiful floral masterpiece, so perfect that the original owner begged for it back after seeing what Earline did with it. She was incredibly gifted in the arts.

“She did the best with what she knew,” said Kloweit. Earline used to take her children to the Rose Garden and the Natural History Museum across the road. It was free then. The girls recalled taking the bus and spending the whole day there with their mother. Sometimes, their cousins would join; it would be five children and Earline. She would take all five of them on the bus or, if she felt impatient, they would hitch a ride with a stranger.

She was also a mother who instilled the value of family in her children. Payne remembered a time when she excitedly told her mother about her new best friend, to which Earline responded firmly, “If I hear you say another girl that isn’t your sister is your best friend, I’m going to beat your butt. Don’t you ever put another girl above your sister.” It was advice that the daughters still hold close to their hearts.

Earline was clean and put together. Her daughters never saw her use drugs nor were they ever put in jeopardizing positions for the sake of the drugs. She physically harmed only herself in this addiction. “She fell victim to the one foe her arms were too short to defeat,” said Kloweit.

Watkins was just 20 years old when her mother’s life was cut short. She recalled Earline discussing relationships and boys with her when she was only 16, not thinking about such matters yet. At age 45, Watkins still carries the wealth of her mother’s advice, realizing how it continues to be profoundly relevant in her life. “She shared insights with me even before I realized I needed them. I think she had an inkling that she wouldn’t be around to impart them herself,” said Watkins.

The news of their mother’s death brought Payne and Kloweit immense grief. They initially suspected an overdose, only to learn the horrifying manner in which she had died. Payne’s pain still seems palpable. “Why, God, did you have to punish her this harshly?” she asked.

Kloweit shares her frustration. “This she did not deserve,” she said.

Earline’s funeral was a poignant gathering that bore witness to her profound influence on those fortunate enough to know her. “The church was filled with people,” Kawain Payne said, “I remember getting up to say a few last words and scanning the room.” The church overflowed with attendees from all facets of Earline’s life.

Even the fathers of her children, who had led separate lives, came to pay their respects, sitting together to honor her memory. Monique Kloweit remarked, “All the baby daddies came alone and sat together.” Earline’s former junior high teacher attended, underscoring the enduring impression she left on everyone she encountered. Kloweit said, “Earline’s impact was undeniable at that point.”

Earline’s legacy lives on in her family. Earline left behind seven children and six grandchildren. “She won’t be able to tell stories about their grandmother because they never knew her,” Kloweit said. Heartbreakingly, three of the children experienced a life where their mother was trapped by addiction. As Kloweit said, “Whoever took Earline’s life robbed her family of the hope that she would one day get permanently clean and come home.”

The family is tormented by the fact that they may never discover their mother’s killer. Law Enforcement believes they know who did this, but they do not have enough to move forward with prosecution. Earline’s mother died not knowing, as did Earline’s son. “My brother was murdered not knowing who killed his mother,” Kloweit said. “We are not getting any younger.”

From sunrise on July 18, 1952, to sunset on October 27, 1997, Earline’s light shone brightly on earth.  It wasn’t long enough, said her sister Karen.” She didn’t deserve this. We were a loving family, and this loss is a big loss for us,” she said.

Anyone with information on Earline’s case is asked to contact LAPD’s Central Bureau Homicide Division at (213) 486-8700. To remain anonymous and possibly be eligible for a reward, call Crime Stoppers at (800) 222-TIPS.

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Funeral Program

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Image provided by the family of Earline Bagler

Image provided by the family of Earline Bagler

Image provided by the family of Earline Bagler

Image provided by the family of Earline Bagler

Image provided by the family of Earline Bagler