‘Just one more ring…’ examining the use of phone records in Columbo

Columbo Swan Song

Ever wondered how Columbo was able to use phone records to nail the Paris twins in Double Shock, but never definitively pinned Nadia Donner’s hypnosis suicide call on Dr Collier in A Deadly State of Mind?

Likewise, how can phone calls be so pivotal to the story in Murder by the Book, but similar ones in Candidate for Crime fade into the background? If these apparent inconsistencies have vexed thee greatly, you’ll definitely want to dial in to this guest post by Glenn Stewart, a long-time reader and regular contributor to the comments section of this blog.

Glenn has read the extensive and heavily technical vintage phone manuals so you don’t have to! In doing so, he sheds light on how the telephony systems of 70s California worked, and the direct impact those systems had in helping or hindering the good Lieutenant in the course of his investigations.

Without further ado I’ll hand over to Glenn, who has patiently been waiting on hold for several months for this article to appear. Connecting you now, Glenn. Take it away…

Columbo Greenhouse Jungle Arlene Martell
“Hello sir. Is this you, Mr Glenn Stewart, to whom I speak?”

I think we can all agree that Columbo is a smart television show. Yes, the character of Lieutenant Columbo is iconic – sharp, subtly devious, humorous, and relatable. And Peter Falk’s superb portrayal of the character imbues him with added warmth, depth, steely resolve, and mischievous charm. But I’ve always felt that the core of the show’s success is in its clever and intelligent plotting, at its best laying out a trail of understated clues that are patiently followed and ultimately paint the murderer into a corner with unassailable evidence.

Results in accomplishing this goal varied, of course, but Columbo’s writing (and I speak of the 70s version) generally had great respect for its audience. For the show to truly resonate with fans over multiple decades, it would have to treat its audience with the same intelligence as Columbo himself and the killers he encountered.

So why do we see such a smart show have seemingly obvious inconsistencies for the audience in its use of telephone records? It’s not that Columbo has never used telephone histories in crime-solving. There are several occasions where he mentions phone records, so we know they exist in his universe. He even uses them to finger the Paris twins in the gotcha of Double Shock.

As anyone who has watched an episode of Law and Order knows, such records can instantly and definitively build a criminal case. But when Jim Ferris calls his wife in Murder by the Book, it’s from Ken Franklin’s cabin. When Dr Collier calls Nadia to cue her death leap in Deadly State of Mind, it’s direct from his apartment. When Dr Mason calls his home to sic the dogs on Charlie in How to Dial a Murder, it’s from his doctor’s exam room. Why isn’t Columbo smartly using those phone accounts to help nail the killer?

Columbo Last Salute Robert Vaughn
Just let me get Mrs Columbo off the line and we can cuddle some more.”

For a long time, I thought this was the writers taking advantage of 70s viewers’ lack of sophistication with how phone records could be used. And, of course, several episodes would be much shorter if Columbo got all his answers this way, and not from painstaking clue-gathering. Or, perhaps these were simple oversights from sloppy writers? But Deadly State of Mind was penned by Peter S. Fischer, generally accepted as the show’s best scribe, and Murder by the Book was from the legendary Steven Bochco. These guys weren’t slouches in the plotting department.

Through discussions with fellow Columbophile blog commentators, I was reminded that back in the 70s, many local calls were billed on a flat fee, so records – such as those needed for billing long-distance calls – might be unnecessary, depending on the specific billing plan; and also that pay phones weren’t billed, so their records also may not have been needed.

With these key starting points, I decided to dive into the bowels of Google for more answers. Here’s where I must note that I am not in any way, shape or form an expert or specialist when it comes to telephone records. Consider this post the effort of a dedicated amateur who spent a few hours going down many rabbit-holes pursuing any information on 70s-era California telephone tracking and records. Clarifications, confirmations, or corrections from contemporaneous telephone professionals are welcome.

Fortunately, there are some answers, at least enough to draw some general inferences about Columbo phone records. Spoiler Alert: in most cases (but not all), there is no sloppiness, ignorance, or lack of intelligence on the part of our Lieutenant or the show’s writers. First let’s investigate, then take a closer look at some specific Columbo episodes.

Columbo Beth Chadwick
After being on hold for 12 hours, Beth’s nerves started to fray a little

The technical stuff

The most specific information I could find comes from a very dense and technical website that serves as a tribute to the Bell Telephone System. The Bell System (colloquially, “Ma Bell”) served much of the United States until it was ruled a monopoly and broken up in 1982. In California, this was dubbed The Pacific Telegraph and Telephone Company, distinguished, as all Bell systems were, by their blue bell logo.

The site’s “Survey of Telephone Switching” has 13 (!) chapters devoted to telephone switching, whereby “a talking path must be set up between the calling and the called telephone. The method of making this connection, known as switching, has progressed from the simplest of hand operated switches through the more complex manual systems to the present mechanical switching systems.”

With such switching, the Bell system could determine how to bill their customers. Preparing this data was the purpose of Automatic Message Accounting (AMA). “AMA recorded messages presented to the accounting center fall into two main categories; one type of message is charged on the basis of message units and ultimately bulk-billed to the customer, and the other type is itemized individually on the subscriber’s toll statement and referred to as detail-billed messages.”

This is the fancy way of describing that local calls are bulk-billed, and toll (long-distance) calls record the details needed to determine the amount the subscriber will be billed. According to Bell: “For calls that are billed in bulk, it is not necessary to record the office and number of the called subscriber, since the duration of the call and other billing information provided in the call record is sufficient to determine the charge.”

Columbo Emmett Clayton
You’re doing it all wrong, Emmett!

Finally (for our purposes) they note: “As the metropolitan areas grew larger and subscribers began to call regularly beyond their local areas, zone registration was adopted… Although zone registration is an economical method of charging for short calls, it does not leave any record of the details of the various calls.

“For calls requiring more than five message register operations [i.e. longer distances], it has generally been felt desirable to have a record not only of the point to which the call was placed but of the day and time it was made. To secure such a record… an automatic ticketing arrangement was developed. With this system a ticket is automatically printed for each chargeable call, and thus all essential information pertaining to the call is permanently available.”

Los Angeles itself, the setting for almost all Columbo episodes, was served by one area code – 213 (as Ken Franklin helpfully notes in Murder by the Book). According to the McQuilkin College website: “The L.A. area phone calls were based on ‘message units’ according to distance and length of call. A call of less than about 4 miles was local. From 4 to 8 miles counted as 2 message units. Thus a 15-minute call from Westchester to Manhattan Beach was 8 message units, and cost about 32 cents.”

I have found no absolute “scale of message units”, but I would conjecture that there would have been a range where the number of units would increase with longer calls at greater distance. If a call didn’t reach that threshold noted above of 5 message register operations, then there would be no detailed record.

The practical examples

With all the above as our foundation, we can look at specific Columbo episodes through the 70s, examining those times when phone calls could prove crucial to an investigation.

NB – Since we have no way of knowing details of any specific, different phone plans being used by any episode characters, from hereon in we’ll treat all local calls the same – not logged with identifying details.

Ransom for a Dead Man

Columbo Leslie Williams
“Hello, yes, I’d like to hire a hitman to bump off my troublesome step-daughter.”

At her home, Leslie Williams gets the automated ransom call that was set up at her law office. We are shown the machine making the call, but can’t draw any conclusions about the number of digits used in dialling. Columbo knows that the machine was used in the crime but doesn’t look for phone records, so we can assume that Leslie’s office and domicile are not far apart within the same area code.

It should be noted that the actual Bell System Card Dialer Automatic Dialing Telephone, as cutting-edge as it was for the era, cannot itself dial a number at a specific time. However, Leslie is clearly more tech-savvy than she lets on. She expertly rigs a timer and 8-track tape to the device, with a pre-inserted card for her home phone number to allow the “ransom call” to be made without her assistance. Columbo figures this out and does the same thing to her in a demonstration later in the episode.

Murder by the Book

Columbo Jim Ferris

On their way to Ken Franklin’s cabin, he and partner Jim Ferris stop at the small grocery store located nearby. At the pay phone in the back, Ken calls Jim’s wife Joanna long-distance – “operator, a station-to-station call” – claiming to be phoning her from his cabin. The purpose of this becomes clear later on. At the cabin, soon after arrival, Ken convinces Jim to call Joanna to tell her that he’s working late at the office. And Ken knows his phone tricks, because he tells Jim to ditch using the operator and dial direct, or else Joanna will suspect he’s not at his workplace.

This works, and it appears to Joanna that Jim is indeed at the office, and while he’s on the line, Ken guns him down. This sets another series of calls in motion, as Joanna immediately rings the police, then Ken at the cabin.

There’s a lot to digest here. Although writer Bochco has the mechanics of phone call records correct for Ken to establish an alibi with Joanna, it’s those phone call records that theoretically should also blow his alibi with the police. The ruse was to fool Joanna into thinking that Ken was at the cabin at the time that Jim was being killed/kidnapped in his office. Ken knows that long-distance phone records will establish one call from his cabin, and he needs Joanna to verify to the police that this was a call from Ken, and not from Jim.

Franklin arrogantly suggests that Columbo look into this, and the Lieutenant appears to speak with Joanna about it because we later see him tell her: “I told you how he could have done the phone trick.” Joanna doesn’t confirm that Columbo’s right about this, though, so I have to assume that the grocery store and the cabin must be very close to each other. Otherwise, if Joanna is told, for example, “We have a record of a call from Ken’s cabin to you at 2:06”, she would say, “Oh no, Ken called me much earlier than that.” Joanna must not be sure of the exact time of Ken’s grocery-store call. So, Ken’s trickery was successful – to Joanna.

Columbo Ken Franklin
Oooh, you silver-tongued devil, you…

But phone records should have indeed tripped up Franklin (and Bochco). In a Columbophile blog comment of June 26, Rich Weill notes, “He [Columbo] found the record of the call from Franklin’s cabin to the Ferris house. Why didn’t Columbo notice that the time of this call matched the time of Joanna’s call to the police?”

I concur, and this is where Ken’s alibi takes on water. The timing of the calls Joanna made after hearing the gun would almost certainly imply that it was actually at Ken’s place that she heard the murder shot. The police would surely keep, at a minimum, written logs of all their incoming famous-writer-might-be-getting-murdered calls.

And, to add insult to injury, Ken not-so-wisely made sure that Joanna had his cabin number, and so she called Ken right after calling the police – another long-distance record to cross-check, but missed by Columbo. For argument’s sake, I think we can assume that Jim’s office and home are within a few miles in the same area code because there seem to be no phone records used to verify a call from that office to Joanna.

But wait, there’s more! We also have the grocery store call to consider. As an operator-assisted long-distance call, there would presumably be another record for Columbo to check. As Richard explains, “Finding the record of Ken’s call to Joanna from the grocery store initially might have been more difficult (as the phone company might not have been able to search by recipient, only by sender, at the time), but once Lilly LaSanka entered Columbo’s investigation, that was possible, too.”

Although I’m not a fan of using phone records for gotchas, it might have worked in this instance to bolster the circumstantial case Columbo has made (with the identical murder plan found in Jim’s old notes). Ken wanted to establish an alibi, but the very phone records he used to do that should also have done him in at the moment that Joanna made her subsequent calls.

The Most Crucial Game

Columbo Paul Hanlon
“I’d like to talk to the subscriptions department for Handlebar ‘Stash Monthly, please.”

The episode hinges on an alibi phone call that Paul Hanlon claims he made from his stadium skybox, but was in actuality made from a phone booth nearby Eric Wagner’s mansion. I have been screaming, “Columbo, check the phone records!” for years on this one. However, I was wrong. At the show’s start, we see Hanlon make his first call to Wagner to wake him up. Clearly and deliberately, only seven digits are punched – a local call, and if within those 5 “message units”, no detailed records. But why didn’t the Lieutenant check records of phone booths near Wagner’s place?

The closest answer I could get came from a 1993 article in the Chicago Tribune. “There are two types of pay phone technology currently being used in the industry, that used by Illinois Bell pay phones and that used by non-Bell pay phones. On Illinois Bell pay phones, calls paid by inserting coins are not recorded and cannot be traced. However, coin calls on non-Bell pay phones create the same call record of the date, time, duration and receiver of the telephone call as any other home or business phone. Any drug dealer or other criminal seeking to use non-Bell pay phones for the purpose of anonymity is unwittingly providing law enforcement authorities with a readily accessible record of his/her transaction.”

Obviously, we can only try extrapolating this to 70s California, and it may not be accurate. But in the episode, we see that Hanlon is indeed using a booth with a Bell logo.

Double Shock

Columbo Dexter Paris
“Hello? Is this the Hairy Armed Men’s Society hotline?”

Here, phone records are used by Columbo to establish that the Paris brothers have lied about not speaking to each other. We can therefore assume that Dexter and Norman lived far enough apart to establish that they’ve talked to each other “about 20 times in the last 10 days”.

The use of phone records here is, however, not very satisfying, as it doesn’t establish what they talked about, comes from out of nowhere by Columbo, and feels like a cheat used by the writer to quickly wrap up the story threads.

Lovely But Lethal

Columbo Viveca Scott

Moments before Viveca Scott puts chemist Karl Lessing’s skull under the microscope, she appears to make a phone call to her “personal friend” the police chief, so she can report  the totally commonplace wrinkle-free-miracle-beauty-cream-formula theft. I’m convinced that this is a feint to try to scare Karl into giving up the precious recipe. Viveca angrily bangs the phone down when Karl calls her bluff while she fakes waiting for the chief to come to the line.

Candidate For Crime

Columbo Nelson Hayward
Hayward’s magic hankie immediately obscured his ultra-recognisable voice

After offing his campaign manager, Nelson Hayward goes back to his place, where he muffles the phone and calls the police to report the crime. This is a seven-digit number, feasible to avoid call specifics. One could speculate that for all calls to the police, local or otherwise, it would make sense to have a system that would automatically establish all the details, but I could find no information about the auto logging of phone records for incoming police calls, and we can’t simply assume this was possible in that era.

Also note that Columbo specifically mentions that any call from Hayward’s beach house would have been a long-distance call with a phone company record attached. No record, no call from the murder scene by the phantom “mob killer”.

Double Exposure

Columbo Bart Kepple
Dr Kepple’s vocal impression of a pre-pubescent boy was suspiciously convincing

Mr (sorry, Dr) Kepple rings up Mrs Norris and, using the expertly nuanced skills of a highly-trained vocal impersonator and mimic, tries to implicate her in the killing of her husband. He dials 7 numbers, so you could assume it’s a local call. But you might also wonder how Norris’s sprawling suburban mansion is within local calling distance of downtown LA…” 

An Exercise in Fatality

Columbo Milo Janus
“Yes, this is the Handsome Beefcakes Association of America, how may I help you?”

Milo Janus simulates a call to his home from Gene Stafford. Janus claims that the call is from Gene’s gym, when in reality it originates from Janus’ home study. No records would be associated with either element of this, as long as the gym and Milo’s home are close enough to each other. However, given that Gene’s franchise was in Chatsworth and Milo lived near the beach (at least 16 miles away), this seems a bit of a stretch.

Deadly State of Mind

Columbo Nadia Donner
“…when I count to 3, you will stand on your head and scream like a chicken…”

Dr Collier punches up a 7-digit number to reach Nadia, so this could theoretically be an untrackable call. Of course, the real chutzpah is Collier making the call while standing about 15 feet away from Columbo! The Lieutenant later accuses Collier of making the fatal phoning after Nadia’s receiver was found off the hook following her death, but there seems to be no actual proof.

Old Fashioned Murder

Columbo Old Fashioned Murder

Columbo is investigating a voicemail call, faking a shooting, left by Milton Schaeffer for his brother. The call was made from a city phone booth (not Bell), but the Lieutenant explicitly says: “We don’t know where the call came from, and we’re trying to track it down.”

How to Dial a Murder

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
Dr Hunter quickly discovered that the cute widdle doggies didn’t want a widdle cuddle

We never actually see Dr Mason ring up the entire number to his home from his doctor’s exam room to sic his dogs on poor Dr Hunter, so we’ll have to assume that they are in close enough proximity. Columbo’s work-around – looking at Mason’s chart spike while hooked up to the heart machine – will have to do.

To conclude

In summary, it is quite easy for present-day Columbo watchers to see the show through a 2020s prism, taking for granted our now-commonplace technological efficiencies. We could easily assume these tech efficiencies to be part of the earlier era, particularly since Columbo himself touts the existence of phone records at several points in the 70s.

Scouring the available evidence, it would appear that the show did indeed generally follow the rules when using phone records. Or perhaps we should just say that it was very convenient that the show’s killers and victims and offices often wound up close enough to each other to make sure phone records wouldn’t end a Columbo 45 minutes too early. That would have been the real crime.

Glenn Stewart spent 25 years in the music radio business across the United States specializing in classic rock. For the past 15 years he has been working in History, English and education assessment in the juvenile justice system. He has also taught ‘Issues In Media Industries’ as adjunct faculty at a New England university. His favorite pre-1980 TV rewatchables are Columbo, Mission: Impossible, Batman, The Prisoner, and The Twilight Zone.

Well folks, if you’re anything like me you’ll have found this article highly educational and enlightening. My sincere thanks to Glenn for his diligent research and for shining a spotlight on some of the series’ pivotal phone shenanigans. If any of you would like clarification on any examples not given in this article, shout out to Glenn in the comments section below and I’m sure he’ll be happy to provide some insight.

It’s been lovely chatting, but it’s now time to say farewell. I’ll see you around. Are you still there…? I’m not going to hang up first! No, you hang up first…

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Columbo phone
Whaddya mean you heard I was foolin’ around with a sailor called Charlie Clay?
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