Since being revived by Netflix, the true crime show Unsolved Mysteries has become extremely popular – just like when the original series aired on television in the late 1980s. As the title hints, the show details cold cases and other strange mysteries that detectives have never solved. But the series is more than just a source of entertainment. It’s actually helped solve some of the mysteries, including that of Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael.
Jerry Dean Michael
Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael was born Jerry Dean Michael in Indiana, in 1927. While identifying as Jerry, she wedded four times and had a total of 10 children across all those marriages. In 1959, Jerry married Vivian Barrett Michael and the two went on the run with their children in 1961 after Jerry was arrested for making counterfeit currency in Los Angeles, California. The pair jumped bail and were on the lam by 1962.
It was during this period that Carmichael transitioned from Jerry to Geraldine, faking a car accident to do so. For all intents and purposes, Jerry died and Liz Carmichael went on living with her “secretary” Vivian and their children. She declared herself a widow and said that her fictitious husband Jim died in 1966. Despite being a wanted criminal, she stayed in the Los Angeles area which is where she met Dale Clifft in 1973. Carmichael, no stranger to crime, then embarked on her biggest scheme yet.
The Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation
Clifft had created a three-wheeled car, called the “Dale,” which allegedly used very little fuel. This was an extremely attractive selling point as the US was in the middle of an energy crisis and gasoline prices had rocketed sky-high. Seeing that this could be easily sold to the public, Carmichael bought the rights to the vehicle in exchange for royalties. She established the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation and set out to sell this new vehicle to as many people as possible.
Carmichael claimed she had degrees in both mechanical engineering and business which made her seem like a reliable saleswoman. She quickly established a team and hired a publicist who helped her advertise the Dale extensively. The vehicle appeared in newspapers, magazines, and even on the popular game show The Price is Right. They began selling this “incredible” car to their clients, with the catch that they had yet to be produced.
Carmichael soon ran into trouble when she sold stock to the public without attaining the appropriate permit in advance. Forced to halt sales and facing mounting pressure from authorities in California, she moved Twentieth Century to Dallas. The kerfuffle she caused in the meantime, however, caught the attention of different news agencies, including that of KABC reporter Dick Carlson.
Carlson, Tucker Carlson’s father, was one of the reasons why the shadier financial practices at Twentieth Century were brought out into the open. He continually reported on Carmichael and her business. It was his reporting that also led the authorities to investigate her and her colleagues. She and five others were eventually arrested on numerous charges: grand theft, conspiracy, fraud, and counterfeiting.
Authorities close in
Carmichael was charged with 31 different counts. It was following her arrest that the police also discovered that Carmichael had transitioned, a fact that was heavily, and unfairly, used against her by the media and the police. Carlson, in particular, slandered her openly and was the one to out her on the air. He reportedly believed that Carmichael’s transition was all part of the scheme she was running to sell the Dale.
When this allegation was raised to her by a court reporter during the trial, she retorted, “Whatever claim to fame I have is that of a producer of automobiles, not as a sex change artist.” Despite the many charges against her for running a multi-million-dollar scam, Carmichael was released on bail and again fled. She was eventually found guilty in 1980 but wasn’t there to be sentenced.
Discovery and arrest
This time, however, Carmichael only traveled with her children as Vivian filed for divorce not long after the trial concluded, eventually going on to remarry. Carmichael and her children wouldn’t be heard from again for nine years. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1989 episode of Unsolved Mysteries featuring this infamous car dealer that she was discovered hidden away in plain sight.
Shortly after the episode was first broadcast – some sources say a few weeks, others a few minutes – an anonymous tip came into the studio phone lines saying that the image they showed of Carmichael was one that the viewer recognized. The caller said that Carmichael looked like a woman named Katherine Elizabeth Johnson who had been working in Dale, Texas as a florist. Police traveled to Dale where they indeed found Carmichael, just as the source said they would.
Prison and beyond
She was arrested and taken back to California to be tried. After being put on trial, she was sentenced to 32 months in prison, although was released after only two years served. Carmichael was forced to serve her time in a men’s prison, despite being recognized as a woman by the courts. The later part of her life, following her release, was detailed in the HBO docuseries The Lady and The Dale.
The series raises questions about what Carmichael’s life may have been like should the same events have occurred later, when her gender identity would have been more easily accepted by the public.
HBO reported that after prison Carmichael focused on spending time with her many children and continued to work as a florist as she’d been doing when she was apprehended by police. She died in 2004 from cancer.