The Mystery of Sam Cooke’s Brutal Murder Remains Almost Six Decades Later

Sam Cooke
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The death of musician Sam Cooke was certainly not an open and shut case. Almost 60 years later, people still speculate on what truly happened that night, December 11, 1964. Police responded to a call at the Hacienda Motel, where someone heard gunshots. They found Cooke dead at 33 years old, shot three times in the chest. He was murdered by the motel’s manager, Bertha Franklin, who ended up getting off on a case of justifiable homicide.

Franklin said that she was protecting herself and other guests after Cooke threatened her life after attempting to rape a young woman he checked in with. In the years since, Cooke’s family and friends question what really happened and the entire story remains a mystery. The story was thrust into the news once again in 2020, after a film called One Night in Miami, detailing the the role that Cooke and other musicians had in the Civil Rights movement.

Photo of American Soul and Gospel singer Sam Cooke, 1950s or 1960s

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The musician, best known for songs such as “Wonderful Word,” and “You Send Me,” reportedly spent his last evening having dinner at Martoni’s with friend and producer Al Schmitt, and his wife. Schmitt said he last saw Cooke with a woman he didn’t recognize who turned out to be 22-year-old Elisa Boyer. He reportedly brought her back to the motel, unbeknownst to his wife Barbara, and two children. Boyer later told police that he was about to rape her when she got away and made a call to the police, after stealing his clothes containing his wallet.

(Original Caption) Police said Mrs. Berth Lee Franklin, 55, shown here 12/11, fired the shot that killed Sam Cooke, a popular singer with the teenage set, when he kicked in the door of her apartment. According to police, Mrs. Frankin, manager of a motel, had been warned previously on the telephone by another motel resident that there was a prowler on the premises. Officers said they learned he was searching for a female companion who was located later.

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Franklin said that he was drunk and angry, wearing only his sport coat, when he confronted her, asking where Boyer went. Franklin testified, “He grabbed both of my arms and started twisting them and asked me, ‘Where was the girl?’ I started kicking. I tried to bite him through the jacket. I was fighting, biting, scratching, everything.” That was when she shot him to his death. Experts have argued for and against the verdict of justifiable homicide over the years and those who knew Cooke best refuse to believe he acted this way. Some also believe that racism in the Los Angeles Police Department could have come into play, as they may not have investigated the matter as thoroughly as they should have.

Sam Cooke, singing on TV, circa 1963

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Cooke’s friend Muhammad Ali once said, “If Cooke had been Frank Sinatra, the Beatles or Ricky Nelson, the FBI would be investigating.” Other elements of the case didn’t add up as singer Etta James recalled at his funeral that his head was “practically disconnected from his shoulders. That’s how badly he’d been beaten. His hands were broken and crushed…They tried to cover it up with makeup, but I could see massive bruises on his head. No woman with a broomstick could have inflicted that kind of beating against a strong, full-grown man.” None of this was in the autopsy reports. Some believe that he was murdered elsewhere and dropped at the motel, with a new story. Others think that his business manager was involved, hoping to control his millions.

Photo of Sam Cooke

Jess Rand/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

What do you think happened? Unfortunately, the world may never truly know.

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