THE TRAGEDY OF THE STATE LINE BAR, GLENRIO

Early days at the State Line Bar where you buy a glass of whiskey, a gallon of gas or a postage stamp. [Photo with very kind permission of Joe Sonderman]

The State Line Bar in Glenrio on the New Mexico/Texas border is today an unprepossessing building, but it’s actually one of the oldest commercial buildings in the town, along with the motel behind it and the neighbouring Boyle’s Mobil Gas Station. The State Line Bar was built in 1935 and some thirty eight years later, the bar would be the scene of a tragedy that saw it close forever.

Two men featured prominently in the history of both Glenrio and the bar; in 1939, Homer Ehresman – who would later build the ‘First and Last’ Texas Longhorn Motel – bought and ran the State Line Bar (which had been built by John Wesley Ferguson and boasted Texaco petrol pumps and a small post office on one side which Mrs Ehresman ran) before selling it to Joseph Brownlee. In 1960, the bar was remodelled and became a much plainer building with a concrete block veneer and narrow high windows.

The former Glenrio Post Office which was attached to the State Line Bar.

A few years later it was purchased by Albert Kenneth and Dessie Leach, a couple who had come to Glenrio in the late 1950s and made their living ranching before purchasing the bar. Married in 1945, Albert and Dessie never had children of their own, but they raised a son, Nolan, and a daughter, Margaret, from Dessie’s first marriage to Nolan Terrill. 10th July 1973 was probably much the same as any other day at the bar. No doubt the Leachs were concerned about the interstate which would cut Glenrio off in a few months, while they must also have been aware that any business was a target for criminals. Just a couple of months earlier, the Standard Service Station in Glenrio had been held up in an armed robbery – while hunting for the perpetrator near Vega, police got a little trigger happy with the result that they shot a hole in the door and the transmission of a Mazda pickup belonging to one Gene Putz, an innocent motorist who just happened to be passing.

But business is business and on that morning 58-year-old Dessie was tending the bar on her own. Her only customers had been a couple from Amarillo, passing through in their RV. While the couple chatted to Dessie, a blond young man in blue jeans and a flowered shirt came in and asked the husband to play pool. He then, as she said, ‘made eyes’ at the Amarillo woman and, thinking the young man was trouble, the couple left.

Did Dessie choose the carpet and booths? It’s quite likely.

Some minutes later, in an apartment behind the bar, Cornelia Tapia was getting ready to go to work when she heard a noise. To her horror, she saw Dessie Leach stagger out of the back door of the State Line Bar holding her stomach, her dress covered in blood. Mrs Leach gasped that she had been robbed and shot, although when she collapsed to the ground it was found she had been stabbed, not shot. She died before she could be transported to hospital in Tucumcari.

Her murderer was apprehended just a couple of hours later in Vega, where it was found that, as well as a long sharp knife, he also had two guns in his station wagon. He was covered in blood and, it seems, made little resistance to arrest. John Wayne Lee was 31 and gave his address as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, although he was actually from Tennessee. He never explained why he had stabbed Mrs Leach – she was a small woman and neighbours described her as crippled with arthritis and unable to put up any struggle. In fact, they thought she would probably have simply opened the till and yet Lee stabbed her four times.

The decaying interior of the bar, sun streaming through through narrow windows.

At that time, a new law in New Mexico allowed for homicide during the course of robbery to be charged as a capital offence. Yet Lee was charged with the lesser offence of second degree murder and, on 31st October 1973 he was found guilty. He was sentenced to two consecutive 10-50 year prison terms for the murder and armed robbery which, you could imagine, would have keep him behind bars for some considerable time. How long do you imagine Lee served for the murder of Dessie Leach? I can bet that you’re wrong. For stabbing to death Mrs Leach, John Wayne Lee served less than four years. In May 1977, he was granted parole although that meant he then had to begin his sentence of 10-50 years for armed robbery. How long he served is not on record but if Lee is still alive, he has been a free man for a long time.

Dessie Leach’s death meant the end of the State Line Bar after almost forty years. Her husband moved to San Jon and spent the years until his death in 2004 raising race horses. The State Line Bar is now derelict, a few shreds of the carpet and furniture that Dessie had no doubt picked herself now mouldering away, and the terrible crime that took place here now merely a whisper on the wind.

The State Line Bar, Glenrio, NM. 2018.

THE MURDER OF LUCILLE HAMONS’ BOY

Lucille and Carl Hamons, reunited in death, along with their only son.

I recently visited the Oklahoma grave of ‘The Mother of the Mother Road’, Lucille Hamons, not expecting that visit to be the start of another quest into times gone by. I was intrigued by the fact that she is reunited in the Hydro Masonic Cemetery with the husband from whom she had been divorced for over a quarter of a century. Of course, it could be that the plots had been purchased while they were still together and Lucille didn’t see the point of selling hers, but a nearby headstone made me wonder whether, even after death, they wanted to be in the same place. The stone reads simply, ‘CARL HAMONS JR, 1935-1962’.

Carl Jr’s headstone in the Masonic Cemetery in Hydro, Oklahoma.

Lucille and Carl Sr’s two daughters are quite often mentioned in articles about the Provine Service Station; it was the late Cheryl Hamons Nowka who persuaded her mother to write her memoirs, not only preserving those memories for posterity, but making enough money to bring the gas tanks underneath the station up to EPA standards and ensuring that Lucille could keep the place she had run since 1941, while oldest daughter, Delpha Dene Martin has operated a music store in Grants, New Mexico, for over 50 years. But, other than one comment that he was an ‘excellent mechanic’, few histories mention Carl Jr and not one explains his death at the age of just 27. When I started out, I thought the cause of his demise would be a car crash or perhaps illness. The truth was far more startling and dramatic. Unlike his father who was born and died in Hydro, Carl was almost a thousand miles from home when he met his death.

In this photo by an Arizona Republic photographer, Gila County Sheriff Jack Jones (left) and Coroner Clyde Shute bend over the body of Carl Hamons Jr. He was asleep on the bar stool when his ex-wife shot him nine times.

In his early twenties, Carl moved from Oklahoma to Globe, Arizona, where he found employment with the Magma Copper Co. Then he met Yetta Jean Aragon, a petite brunette who had four children and had run through three husbands by her mid-20s – by the time she was 16, she was on her second husband. If two people should have been kept far apart from each other, it was Carl and Jean. But they fell for each other and were married in August 1961. The marriage lasted just seven months and they were divorced in February 1962. Jean moved to New Mexico where she married her fifth husband in short order, but returned to live with Carl in the middle of 1962 because, she said later, “I couldn’t live without him”.

Yetta Jean Aragon had shot her ex-husband just minutes before an Arizona Republic newspaper man took this photograph in the Double-N bar.

Carl, who also had four children by a previous marriage, wasn’t the easiest man to live with; he’d been undergoing psychiatric treatment while married to Jean but he seems to have turned to alcohol as a cure. In the summer of 1962 the couple embarked on an epic two day drinking spree that ended at the Double-N Tavern in Globe on 29th August. Carl had passed out on a bar stool when his ex-wife drew a .22 calibre revolver and shot him – nine times. Eight of the bullets found their target and, with entry, exit and re-entry wounds, coroner Clyde Shute would find 13 gunshot wounds in Carl Hamons’ body.

Jean Aragon made no effort to escape. She told officers that night that she had decided to kill him because she was scared of threats he had allegedly made towards her and that that fear was, she said, “like a blue-flame whirlwind that kept getting bigger and bigger until the moment I shot him.” She added that she had been thinking about killing her ex-husband for some twenty minutes, and had drunk four glasses of beer very quickly in order to get up the courage. As she stood beside him, “he lifted his head from the bar, looked at me, then passed out again. That’s when I shot him.”

Jean Aragon behind bars following her trial. The photo was taken by Arizona Republic photographer Wade Cavanaugh who had also taken the image of Jean just after she had shot Carl.

Although it constituted premeditated murder, Jean’s defence counsel built his case on a plea of temporary insanity and that his client had been forced to this breaking point by Carl Hamon’s violent behaviour, claims against which, of course, Carl could not defend himself. This, along with the fact that Jean was, as one contemporary newspaper described her, ‘a trim, attractive brunette’, seems to have swayed the jury which, after deliberating for just six hours, convicted her of second degree murder, rather than the first degree murder with which she was charged. On 19th January 1963, she was sentenced to 12-20 years in the Arizona State Prison. On hearing the verdict, 29-year-old Jean said; “I’m glad it’s over. Now maybe when I get out of here I can live the life like I’ve always wanted.” For Lucille Hamons’ only son, that wasn’t an option.

 

 

Carl Jr was only six years old when his parents bought the Provine Service Station and he would grow up here.