The Peculiar Case of Charles “Sonny” Lee Guy III

“Last night as I lay sleeping I dreamed a dream so fair,” croons a young Charles Lee Guy III. “I dreamed I left this prison, started life anew…”

“It was only a dream,” the chorus cuts in.

True to its title, The Prisoner’s Dream was recorded in the auditorium of the California prison where the 24-year-old singer was serving an indeterminate sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

The landscape of Los Angeles is imbued with famous homicides. There is also the uncanny tenor of Hollywood, which tinges the stories of peculiar people who lived, died, and killed in the surrounding area. In these tales, fame and violence often coexist in a queasy tension fitting to the sunny, ostensibly season-less showbiz capital.

Six odd years before his country music debut, Charles “Sonny” Lee Guy III found himself at the center of a salacious Santa Monica murder trial.

On August 15, 1957, the 19-year-old confessed to shooting his mother’s boyfriend, ad-man Guy F. Roberts at the Bluebird Motel.

Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 15.09.22.png

“I don’t know why I did it. I was very fond of him,” he allegedly told Santa Monica Police Detective Ward Bell, hours after he and his mother Nina Angus were taken into custody. Sonny directed police officers to Ocean Park Pier, where they salvaged two guns, a briefcase and clothing from the water.

On August 20, he abruptly repudiated the signed confession. His estranged father, North Carolina attorney Charles Lee Guy, Jr., had just arrived in California to defend him in court.

In the weeks leading up to her would-be-husband’s death, Nina Angus was embroiled in a precarious love triangle — living simultaneously with Roberts and local lounge pianist Billy Miles. To make matters worse, the two men knew one another.

The night leading up to the murder was a raucous family affair. By his account, Sonny drank copiously throughout the afternoon and into the evening. Around 9:30 pm, his mother’s fiancé fell asleep at the Bluebird, and Nina and Sonny set out in Roberts’ 1956 DeSoto.

The pair cruised around West Los Angeles, making pit stops at various bars in the area. They ended up at a jazz club called the Flame Room, where Miles was booked to play a set. Sonny said his mother planned to break things off. “The reason I went with my mother was to protect her from Miles,” he told detectives. “He had broken her nose once and I didn't know what he would do when she told him she was going to marry Roberts."

Nina’s paramour arrived shortly after they did and told Sonny to “get lost.” He begrudgingly complied, and headed back to the motel to return the car. Speaking to two court-appointed psychologists, he claimed to down a few more drinks at the Bluebird, blackout, and wake up to find his would-be stepfather dead. He described disposing of the evidence in a liquored panic before returning to Miles’ Ocean Park residence.

At 3:30 am, police officers arrived at the pianist’s house, where they took Sonny and Nina into custody. Detective Robert Holborow claimed the teenager said, "I don't understand why I killed him. It should have been Miles."                                                      

Familial melodrama continued to unfurl in the courtroom in the fall and winter months of 1957. Lee Guy Jr. staunchly defended his son, and two additional father figures came out of the woodwork. Nina’s second and third husbands, John Angus, and Fred Austin, both testified on behalf of their former stepson.

Questioned by his father on November 27th, the defendant denied killing Roberts and suggested that his mother or Miles was responsible. The pianist ranted to him about “teaching Roberts a lesson,” he claimed.   

In late November, Nina arrived in court with a sixth husband by her side: Billy Miles. Testifying for the prosecution, she alleged her son told her, “Gee, mom, I’m sorry, I don’t know why I did it” in the police car they were held in the night of Roberts’ murder.

Arguing before the jury, Lee Guy Jr. and his associate, North Carolina attorney Everett Doffermyre characterized Nina Miles as “a so-called mother who has pointed the finger of suspicion from the very start at her own son.”

“What greater tragedy can befall the human race but that your own mother turn against you?” Doffermyre asked.

Los Angeles based historian, Kim Cooper, also believes the defendant’s mother was responsible. “She creates this scenario in which [her son] becomes the fall guy for what was almost certainly a murder that — if she didn't commit, she caused to be committed,” she tells me.

After a brief five hours of deliberation, the jurors returned December 5 with a verdict of involuntary manslaughter. Nina Miles was not present in the courtroom, but told reporters she was “heartbroken” and mulling an offer to tell her story in a magazine.

Lee Guy, Jr. remained a steadfast advocate for his son long after the jury was dismissed. In a 1960 letter to Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Coates, the North Carolina attorney bemoaned two unsuccessful pleas to California parole boards.“God willing, you someday will come home here” he wrote to the boy. “People will welcome you and you can make the kind of name that when you marry will be carried proudly by your children, just as I am proud that you carry my name.”

Sonny spent five years behind bars before he was released in April 1963. Known as “Chuck” by his fellow inmates, he picked up music to keep himself occupied.

“I want so much for the album to be good,” he told North Carolina papers. “Not just because of the money or success —but because my father believes in me.”

In an October 1963 review, Time deemed the The Prisoner’s Dream “a remarkable album.” Despite the buzz about his twangy new beginning, Charles Lee Guy III returned to North Carolina after his release to help out at his father’s law practice. His music career had effectively come to a close.

The 1957 trial has since all-but-faded into obscurity: subsumed by lore of the Manson family, O.J.’s white bronco, and countless other crimes that peppered papers and were optioned by studios.

The Prisoner’s Dream was reissued by German record label Bear Family in 1991, but has otherwise vanished into relative obscurity. Hank Snow’s 1964 version of its title track is easier to find, and lands somewhere more upbeat than the Lee Guy III recording.

"I imagine he got what he needed,” says Cooper. “In a way, continuing down that path, he would have to be the prisoner with the prisoner's dream forever. And his father offered him something different, a very different life."

Words: Lucy Tiven