About Never Quite Lost

The roads that led somewhere and now go nowhere. The history that you see out of the corner of your eye. The flicker where past and present collide. The time and the road and the world that is never quite lost.

THE LOST GIRL OF ASH FORK

On Valentine’s Day 1982, as people waited expectantly for the mail or for a florist delivery, a Arizona Department of Public Safety officer was looking for a blown out tyre shed by a motorist on Interstate 40 eleven miles outside of Williams, Arizona. It was a cold and frosty morning, the temperature just above freezing when, just 25 feet from the interstate, he came across a girl face down under a tree. He knew immediately she wasn’t just sleeping – not in the cold and wearing only jeans – and just one glance at the decomposition of the body and the damage wreaked by animals on her face and right ear was enough to send him scrambling for his radio. And so began a mystery which haunts the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office to this day.

The section of I-40 from which she was dumped.

The stretch of interstate where the body was found is a long incline and truck drivers would frequently pull over to cool their brakes. It was all too likely to investigating officers that the girl had been dumped from a passing truck; a belt loop on her jeans was broken indicating she had been dragged, while a stopped truck wouldn’t arouse any suspicion. She could have been killed anywhere across the USA.

Detectives nicknamed the girl Sally Valentine because of the day on which she was found.

Sally Valentine’s striped jumper was found near her body.

A red and white striped jumper and a 36C bra was found near the body, but there was no way of identifying the girl from those.

But then Patty Wilkins, a waitress and the daughter of the owner of the Monte Carlo Truck Stop just outside Ash Fork, came forward. Following a description and sketch circulated by police, she said that a girl fitting that profile had come into the truck stop around 3am on the morning of 4th February 1982. She was accompanied by an older man and, while Patty was used to runaways and would notify the police, she saw no reason to so do, thinking the man was a relative while the pretty blonde girl was clean, well cared for and didn’t fit the look of the typical runaway. The girl was suffering from toothache and the man was concerned about her pain, the pair staying in the restaurant for an hour during which Patty gave the girl a junior aspirin that she tucked in her mouth. Other witnesses thought the girl was with two men, but Patty only saw her with a man in a two-tone, brown leather vest and a felt cowboy hat with a large peacock feather on the front.

Patty Wilkins who was possibly the last person to see the victim alive at the Monte Carlo Truck Stop. [Photo courtesy of the Arizona Daily Sun]

When they left, Patty thought no more about the pair until the news of the discovery of the body broke some ten days later. She told police that the girl who’d come into the truck stop was suffering from toothache and indeed an autopsy had discovered that the girl had gone through preparation for a root canal procedure a week before her death. Patty would then identify the jumper and jeans as those worn by the teenager. The girl was buried in Mountain View cemetery, Williams, in an unmarked grave until Patty raised the money – $187 – to give her a headstone. It said simply, Sally Valentine.

The case troubled Sgt Jack Judd who had been involved with it from the start. It concerned him that the young girl had no name, that no-one had come forward to claim her. So, over the next two years he would spend a thousand hours, much of it his spare time, poring over some 1632 FBI computer print outs of missing girls, sending out more than 1650 teletype messages to other law enforcement agencies. And, in July 1984, he found her.

Melody Cutlip before her disappearance in 1980.

Melody Eugenia Cutlip had been reported missing in 1980 by her mother, Edith L Gervais in Istachatta, Florida, when she was just fourteen. When she was found dead, she would have been just a few days past her sixteenth birthday. His initial identification was confirmed by Dr Homer Campbell, an Albuquerque orthodontist who claimed to be an expert in identifying people through their teeth and did so by comparing photos of the victim and Melody Cutlip. It was, even at the time, a controversial and unorthodox technique, and Campbell would subsequently be found to have misidentified other people. But, with the comparison of Melody’s height, weight and characteristics, it seemed to be a slamdunk.

Judd informed Mrs Gervais who refused to believe the news, even when Judd flew to Florida to speak to her directly. “What is out in Arizona, I don’t think is my daughter. I haven’t seen one ounce of proof,” said Mrs Gervais. She pointed out that Melody had never had any dental work of which she knew and that she’d been told the Arizona body had moles, which Melody didn’t. Judd put it down to denial, to not wanting to believe the worst. A stonemason added the name of Melody Cutlip to the Williams headstone.

And then, in 1986, Melody Cutlip came home.

Melody Cutlip after her return from the dead. [Photo by Kyle Danaceau]

Whether through hope or mother’s intuition, Mrs Gervais was right. Now engaged to be married, the 18-year-old had been travelling the country as a crafts saleswoman, according to her employer, Mitch Kilgore of Franklinton, Louisiana. When she visited Florida for some shows, she decided to contact her relatives and they found her working at a crafts show in a Jacksonville mall. She had never been to Ash Fork, never had a root canal and was decidedly not dead.

In 1987, Sally Valentine’s body was exhumed to give investigators a chance to x-ray her skull. Her DNA was entered into the CODIS system, but it has so far failed to make a match with any relatives. No-one has ever come forward to report a teenager missing from their family. Although Melody Cutlip’s family asked to have her name removed from the stone, this was never done and the unknown girl last seen near Ash Fork lies under two names which do not belong to her.

She lived twice as long as people thought, but still died so young.

Sadly, for Melody there was no happy ending. She had settled in Metairie, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, where she worked as a customer service representative for Budget Rent-a-Car and was engaged to Harold Buras. Coming home from work on 11th September 1998 in a storm, her car hit water on I-10 and crashed into an oncoming truck, killing her instantly. She was 32.

On the day the body was discovered in February 1982, Sgt Jack Judd said, “We don’t know who she is.” Almost forty years on, we still don’t know.

 

In 2016, Carl Koppelman produced this reconstruction of Sally Valentine. She was indeed described as a very pretty girl who would ‘turn heads’ by Patty Wilkins. And yet no-one has ever missed her.

Coconino County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit is still investigating this case as a homicide. Any details can be passed to them on 928-226-5033.

WHEN HAWAII CAME TO ROUTE 66

The Hopi House Trading Post. This is from an advert in 1955 although the couple may have separated by the time it appeared.

On the edge of Joseph City, Arizona, on an orphaned stretch of Route 66, stands a ruined trading post. Until last year, the remains of a sign announced that this was once Ella’s Frontier. When people speak of this place, they mention Ella Blackwell and her eccentricities, but her husband (from whom she won the trading post in a divorce settlement) is generally just referred to as a ‘bandleader’. Ray Meany was far more than that.

Born to an Irish father and Spanish mother, Ray Meany was a sailor, musician, composer, teacher, publisher, author and motel owner. Oh, so many motels! He hadn’t even reached his teenage years before he lost his father in the Great War; however, as soon as he was old enough, Ray joined the Merchant Marine and for twelve years he travelled the world. While in Hawaii he fell for a hula dancer. The romance quickly fizzled out but Ray had fallen in love with the island. On board ship, he talked constantly of Hawaii and of its music until one of his shipmates gave him a cheap guitar and bet him that he couldn’t learn to play it.

Ray Meany in 1932. He may well have still been in the Merchant Marine at this point.

Not only did Ray learn to play that guitar, he learned to play it well. When he left the Merchant Marine, he started a steel guitar school in Oakland, California, where he introduced the lilting sound of Hawaiian music to pupils. Eventually the Honolulu Conservatory of Music of which he was the Director had some 70 branches and over 5000 pupils. In addition to the school, Ray had his own recording studio, music publishing company (which included many of his own compositions), organised large events, had his own band and produced the Music Studio News magazine. Even a brief sojourn to serve in the Second World War didn’t get in the way of his music – while serving at Camp Fannin, Texas, he continued to write a column for a national music magazine and was popular with all at the base.

Ray during a radio recording in 1936.

After the war, his music schools went from strength to strength and Ray might indeed have built a musical empire but for a fateful meeting with a woman who changed his life. Polish-born Ella Lenkova (who had come to the USA as a small child under her original name of Aniela Lenosyk) was a musician in her own right. She would claim later that she had trained at the Julliard School of Music and there’s probably no reason to doubt that. She wrote and arranged her own songs, among them Aloha Lei, My Hula Sweetheart and Goodnight And My Aloha To You and, as Ella Maile Blackwell (Blackwell was her first married name) she was the New York correspondent for Ray’s Music Studio News. She is still mentioned under that name in a Hawaii newspaper in April 1950, but by October of that year, as she descended the steps of a Pan-Am air plane at Honolulu airport, she was Mrs Ray Meany. Interestingly, although Ray was a regular name in his local newspapers which he courted and that followed his career and achievements keenly, there was no mention of his marriage, nor of Mrs Meany.

One of the few photos of Ella and the first in which she and Ray appeared together, taken in October 1950 in Honolulu.

Ray may not have known it then, but his life was about to change forever. It was still full steam ahead with his business and in 1951 he opened a new $100,000 Hawaiian music centre on Foothill Boulevard in Oakland where the building still stands. So it was a huge shock to all of his friends and pupils when he announced that he and Ella would be moving to Arizona to run a trading post. Ray explained that he felt he had a calling to help the Native Indians, saying, “I got tired of the hoopla of entertainment. I felt that there was so much I could do in Arizona among the Indians.” While Ray did indeed work hard on behalf of the locals, instigating a school and roads for the Indian tribes, the real reason was more prosaic. A jealous Ella didn’t want him mixing with the musical crowd or going off to Hawaii with his band. He would admit later in life: “Hawaiians are very affectionate people. They hug and kiss you at the slightest provocation. My wife was jealous, so I gave up the music business to keep my wife. But she didn’t like Indians either, so we separated.”

By 1952, Ella was already jealous of Ray’s career and his regular trips to Hawaii. This may have been the last time she accompanied him to the island.

For a couple of years, Ray and Ella ran the Hopi House Trading Post at Leupps Junction on Route 66. It was several cuts above the average trading post with a motel, trailer park, café and curio shop with murals by local artists. The grand opening of the refurbished Hopi House was on 20th March 1954, but, within a couple of years, the Meanys would be divorced. They may already have owned the Joseph City trading post (then called the Last Frontier) or Ella may have purchased it with a divorce settlement, but it seems dubious that they bought it in 1947 as several books claim. It’s very unlikely that they were married then and Ray was still expanding his music career at that time.

It was at this point that Ray embarked on an almost manic buying and swapping of motels that would continue for years. It was if, adrift from his beloved music, he couldn’t find anything to give him roots. After running the Hopi House on his own, he exchanged it for a motel in California in 1957. By January 1958 he had swapped that for the Rancho del Quivari, 65 miles south west of Tucson. He was there for less than a year, selling up and buying the Copperland Motel in Miami, Arizona in November 1958. A few months later he swapped that for the Shangri-La Motel in San Diego, but by the end of December 1959 he was in the La Casita Motel in Twenty Nine Palms. He didn’t settle there either, buying the Desert Vista Motel in Benson, Arizona, where he told a local newspaper, “I think this is it. I intend to stay in Benson.”

The Desert Vista Motel Trailer Park, Tucson, AZ. It couldn’t keep Ray rooted.

But just weeks later, in June 1960 he had sold up and bought the Sun Set Motel in Sedona where he managed to stay for two years, moving to a motel in Texas in July 1962. There were probably others in between, but in 1969 he was in Arkansas, desperately trying to sell the Riverside Motel in Lake Greesonak. Eventually he did, but at a loss. During this time, he had kept his contacts with the music industry and every once in a while might compose another song, but the glory days were over, although one of his songs, Hula Lady, was a big hit in Japan in the early 1980s. He tried his hand at writing once more, publishing Fasting and Nutrition, Vital Health, a book of the philosophical musings of Chang, his Lhasa Apso dog (who, by now, had been dead for twenty years) and a title called Vacation Land.

Vacation Land magazine, one of Ray’s last ventures.

But he still seems a man who was never able to settle down again. In autumn of 1975 Dr Elva S Acer offered him a job managing her Vita Del Spa in Desert Hot Springs, California. He was initially enthusiastic, even attending courses on the spa’s treatments, but by January 1976 he had taken off again. His last years were spent in various country clubs in Florida although he came back to California at the very end of his life, dying in Napa on 29th July 1987. His ex-wife had preceded him in death three years before, having never moved from the Joseph City trading post. Her headstone reads ‘Ella Meany Blackwell’; Ray Meany’s grave in St Helena Cemetery, Napa County, has no marker.

Ray’s grave in St Helena Cemetery, marked only by the plot number.

A dapper Ray Meany, returning from his time as an enlisted solder.

GOODBYE DESERT CENTER

The café and service station in Desert Center has long been one of my favourite stops, although it’s been shut up for years. The café has remained just as it did on the last day of business in 2012, with condiments on the tables and coffee mugs on the counter. For years a note on the door informed customers it was temporarily closed for building maintenance.

The iconic neon sign of the Desert Center Cafe.

The only food place for 50 miles, the café and service station was built by town founder Stephen A Ragsdale in 1921 and his advertising for the café claimed ‘We lost our keys – we can’t close!’, a boast that the café had been open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year since it opened. Desert Center went onto become the birthplace from which Kaiser Permanente, the world’s largest managed health care system, would rise. Despite being a noted businessman, Ragsdale’s reputation was shot down in 1950 when he was accused of a dalliance with one of his employees and he retreated to a log cabin in the mountains where he lived out his days. The café, meanwhile, featured in films and adverts and even a video game, but it never reopened after that final day seven years ago, I-10 rushing by just yards from its back door.

The bar stools sold for $300 and everything behind the counter (except for the milkshake machine) for another $300.

Last weekend, almost all the contents of the Desert Center Café and Service Station (not to mention the farm equipment and the cars in the junkyard which also belonged to the late owner of the town, ‘Desert Dave’ Ragsdale, grandson of Stanley) were auctioned off in an online estate sale, including the old cars and replica of a train that you could only previously see by peering through the dusty windows or holding a camera up to the window. The classic cars or the American LaFrance fire engine didn’t make much money, although the porcelain Eagle Mine Mountain sign that has been outside for years raised $3300 and four Texaco hand cloths printed with the Desert Center address made $250. The seven gas pumps which stood outside the service station made a reasonable $3300, but the wonderful old neon sign sold for a seemingly paltry $7400. You could have bought a a full-size wood and fibreglass replica of a Southern Pacific GS-4 steam locomotive, built as a prop for the film Tough Guys, for just $130. A Coke vending machine went for a mere $10, but a Los Angeles Times newspaper rack for $270. The nine bar stools which, the last time I was there, still butted up to the counter, fetched $300. Behind the counter, the whole backline of stainless steel tables, cupboards, Kelvinator freezer, soda fountain and coffee maker made $300, the whole kitchen set-up including the stove, fryer, griddle and prep stations just $375. Another lot consisting of deep friers, ovens, refrigerators, various cooking utensils, steamers and a deep freezer fetched just $40.

And there it is, everything gone from Desert Center, every last glass, every bit of scrap metal, every sign the café and service station ever existed. I guess they found those keys after all.

One of the seven National pumps which stood outside the gas station and were sold as a group lot for $3300.
The cafe had remained untouched since it closed in 2012. The wooden phone booths in the background sold for $1500.

This sign had been propped up against a tree at the back of the cafe for years. It fetched $3300.
This sadfaced 1959 GMC 550 dump truck made $700.
The 1950 Ford cargo truck saw $1400.
I knew where this porcelain sign was and I’m surprised it had escaped the light-fingers, but it made $800.
If you’d wanted a plywood replica of a train – and a movie prop no less – this one would have set you back just $130.
This 1948 caboose was one of the big sellers (the biggest was a 1930 Indian motorcycle which reached $42,000), going to a new owner for $4500.
This sign wasn’t listed in the sale so perhaps it had already ‘found’ a new home.
Neither were the tables and booths listed for sale, indicating that they will just be ripped out when the building is demolished as no doubt it will be at some point in the future.
Goodbye Desert Center.

THE LITTLE ORPHANS OF ROUTE 66

The Welch boys. L-R: Tommy, Billy, Jimmy, Johnny.

There are many stories born on Route 66 that tug at the heart, but perhaps one more than any other when, in June 1961, the lives of four little boys were changed forever.

James Dolphus (‘JD’) and Utha Marie Welch were a typical American couple in their early thirties. JD, a burly six-footer and 200lbs, was a truck driver for Trans-Con, while Utha was a housewife and stay at home mother for their four sons. Jimmy, 12; Billy, 9: Tommy, 8 and 5-year-old Johnny. (There had been another son, born between Jimmy and Billy, but Noble – named after Utha’s father – was a sickly child from birth and died in infancy.) This, however, didn’t stop both parents being involved in many local activities in their hometown of Spencer, Oklahoma.

JD and Utha Marie Welch.

Most of JD’s family lived in California and, in June 1961, the family set out from Oklahoma to drive to Tulare, California to see JD’s mother before she went in for surgery. Then they intended to return to Oklahoma via Colorado Springs. The boys were keen to camp during the trip and JD and Utha agreed they could take their Boy Scouts pup tent. On Thursday 8th June, a day into the trip, the family left Amarillo in the morning. It was late at night by the time they stopped for gas in Ash Fork, Arizona and enquired about a motel room. The owner would tell police that JD had thought the room too expensive and left. As the motel owner never spoke about the incident publicly (despite being the last person outside of the family and their murderer to see the Welches alive), one wonders whether, glancing at the family’s shiny two-year-old Oldsmobile – JD had only bought it two weeks earlier – and calculating the lateness of the hour and the small boys, quoted a price higher than normal.

Looking north-east across the Aubrey valley, close to where the Welch family made camp. [Image courtesy of Google Maps]

No-one will ever know why the family didn’t then stop in Seligman where there were more motels. It may have been cost or it may have been that the boys were nagging their parents to camp. But eventually, around midnight, JD pulled into the side of the road around 13 miles west of Seligman. Even now, it’s a bleak and barren stretch of road, the plain of the Aubrey Valley stretching for miles around. The only cover were two large piles of rubble and it was beside one of these that JD pitched his sons’ tent while he and his wife slept in the Oldsmobile.

The next morning, little Johnny was the first boy awake. He went over to the car where his parents were sleeping and tried to wake them. Confused, he ran back to his brothers, saying there was something on mommy’s face. Going to check, Jimmy found his mother’s face covered with blood. He lifted his father’s head and found that he too had been shot several times in the head. The little boys tried desperately to flag down help, but several cars would speed past before salesmen and race drivers, Jere Eagle and Dan Cramer from California, stopped and realised the horror of the situation.

The boys’ pup tent beside the Oldsmobile. Despite being so close, none of the boys heard the shots that killed their parents.

Highway Patrolman Dan Birdino and Deputy Sheriff Perry Blankenship were first to arrive on the scene, Blankenship having been notified by his wife, Bertie Lee, after a driver stopped at Johnson’s Café on the east end of Seligman where she worked as a waitress. Bertie would have a bigger role in this story than she could have imagined at the time. 

Although around $60 had been taken from JD’s wallet, Utha’s purse, which contained $147, and her expensive jewellery was untouched. Despite a few promising leads – a Greyhound bus had stopped at the same place although this turned out to be some hours after the murders – clues quickly dried up. The best that the local police had was a statement from Bertie Blankenship about a young man she had served late the previous night. He only had a nickel on him, not enough for a cup of coffee, but there was something about him that spooked Bertie so much she gave him the coffee for free. A few hours later, the same man returned to the all-night diner and this time ordered a full meal with tomato juice, paying for it with a $20 note and professing not to recognise Bertie.

However, a suspect did flag up on the law enforcement radar almost immediately. James Abner Bentley lived in Gilbert, Arizona. However, his mother and estranged wife claimed that he had been in Fresno, California, with them on the night of the murders. Arrested for the robbery and attempted murder of a Phoenix gas station attendant in late June, it transpired that Bentley had been in Fresno – but a month earlier, when he had killed the owner of a liquor store.

Shown a photo of Bentley by Sheriff Jim Cramer, Bertie Blankenship identifies him as the man who visited the diner twice. [Photo by Bill Nixon, Arizona Republic]

So, James Abner Bentley was already suspected of the Welches’ murders just days after they happened and local Seligman police had a mug shot of Bentley. For whatever reason, no-one thought to show that photo to Bertie Blankenship. Bertie didn’t see a photo of Bentley until a year later after a cellmate of the condemned prisoner had revealed that Bentley alluded to the murders, proudly saying he’d left the children alive. When Bertie was shown an image of Bentley, she immediately identified him as the stranger who had come to the diner – once poor and once with money in his pocket – the night of the murders.

James Abner Bentley. he would be described as a ‘mad dog’ by a boy who witnessed his attempted murder of a Phoenix gas station worker.

James Abner Bentley was charged with the murders of JD and Utha Welch while on death row in San Quentin, convicted of the murder of the Fresno liquor store owner. Had his death sentence been commuted – and that was a definite possibility at the time as Pat Brown, then Governor of California, was a firm opponent of the death penalty – then Arizona would have proceeded with the prosecution for both the Welch murders and the robbery and attempted murder charge in Phoenix. But, on 23rd January 1963, just after 10am, Bentley went to the gas chamber. It was little consolation to the four small boys (although Jim was, unsurprisingly, a lifelong supporter of the death penalty) whose childhood ended so brutally on the side of Route 66.

MIAMI, OKLAHOMA’S CRUMBLING TREASURE

Still looking very much as it did when it was built over 80 years ago, but the Riviera Courts is in bad shape.

In 1937, the newly opened Riviera Courts was one of the swishest places to stay in Miami, Oklahoma. With its wide V-shape, its white Mission Revival look and being placed on the curve of the road, it was designed to be conspicuous to travellers in both directions and, like many other motels, its destiny was inextricably tied to that of Route 66. It was built at the south west end of Miami at a time when virtually all the local motels were situated at the north end of town; the reason why lies with the date of when it opened. 1937 saw the opening of a new bridge over the Neosho river and a new alignment of Route 66. That traffic would run right past the Riviera Courts and for years it brought in motorists.

The motel had not only garage bays, but doors on those bays, too.

One of the elements of the Riviera Courts was that, next to each of the fifteen rooms, was a garage bay for the resident’s car. Not so unusual, except for the fact that the Riviera Courts’ garages had doors which was a feature rarely seen on motor courts of the time. Passers-by today might assume that those bays have been fitted with doors in modern times for the purposes of storage, but that’s not the case. The Riviera Courts looks very much as it would have done in the 1930s and ‘40s and, on most of the garages, there still exists the original sliding doors mounted on an overhead track.

A postcard of the 1940s states that the Riviera Courts was ‘All brick, modern, 100% fireproof with automatic steam heat, tile showers, Beautyrest mattresses, with cross ventilation and ventilating fans.’ The motel passed through several hands, for example, Mr and Mrs PA Janson, and then, in 1952, Adam Ried and his wife although they seem to have quickly passed it onto NC Sawyer. He would subsequently sell the motel to Marion and Nolah Roberts in February 1956 who gave him a promissory note and chattel mortgage on the property. The problem was that the Robertses then didn’t pay.

Sawyer took Marion and Nolah Roberts to court for the sum of $69,500 (which indicates they had never made a single payment). Nolah Roberts’ defence for not paying was that Sawyer had neglected to mention the Riviera Courts had been flooded by the Neosho river during the Great Flood of 1951 which killed 17 people, displaced over half a million others and resulted in millions of dollars worth of damage. Was the Riviera Courts under water? If so, surely it would have been restored in the intervening five years (during which time major flood preventions were also put into place to ensure it wouldn’t happen again).

The opening of the Will Rogers Turnpike would be the beginning of the end for the Riviera Courts.

Perhaps more telling for the defaulting on the motel’s mortgage is that, just months after Nolah Roberts (and it was very much her project) agreed to buy the Riviera Courts, the Will Rogers Turnpike opened, bypassing Miami. Mrs Roberts may not have anticipated just the effect that this would have on the motel and either wouldn’t or couldn’t pay. Sawyer was charged with perjury in 1958 on the ground that he did indeed know about the flooding but by then the Rivera Courts had been foreclosed and was the subject of an auction in November 1958. Sawyer had tried to sell the place in May of that year with no luck.

These were clearly not good years for the Robertses. In April of 1958, Marion Roberts was implicated in a land development scandal in which Cinema-Surf took several thousand dollars from investors for a half-a-million dollar scheme to build a luxurious drive-in theatre, swimming pool and amusement park in southern Oklahoma. Roberts handled the stock sales through his company Marion L Roberts Brokerage Co in Oklahoma City – or at least he did until the company’s license and bond were cancelled in 1957 –    while his son, also called Marion, was the main stock salesman for Cinema-Surf.

One wing of the Riviera Courts. The building to the right was the living quarters and office of the owners.

From then on, as is so often the case, the motel went downhill. It was renamed as the Holiday Motel – probably trying to cash in on the popularity of the Holiday Inn hotel chain – and would struggle on for another two decades, filling its rooms with long term residents, until it finally closed in 1978. It was a private residence for a while, as well as being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, but it has the air of general desertion each time I’ve passed recently. In a town which has devoured or demolished most of its Route 66-era motels, Miami’s Riviera Courts deserves to be saved and cherished.

This stylized postcard seems to be the only image of the Riviera Courts. It dates to around 1951 or ’52 when Mr and Mrs Adam Ried were the owners and operators. Postcard by kind permission of Joe Sonderman.

RETURN TO BERT’S COUNTRY DANCING

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There are many places on Route 66 that are better known, more flamboyant, historically more important, but my heart has always taken by Bert’s Country Dancing in Valentine, Arizona. I’ve written about it elsewhere on this blog and I never pass up an opportunity to stop, just to reassure myself it’s still there.

I never knew Bert’s Country Dancing when it was open – Bert Denton, the eponymous owner, was gone a decade before I started travelling Route 66 and I’ve missed the very rare occasion on which the bar has re-opened briefly, although even that hasn’t been for years now. But I think Bert would still recognise it all as his place. He wouldn’t approve of the dust gathering on the bar top or the grass growing over the benches out back, but it has changed little since his death nearly a quarter of a century ago. Not much changes around these parts and when it does, it does it very slowly. Why would anyone clear out the bar? It’s not as if the space is needed out here where you never see another soul. And who knows, one day there might be a call for a bit of country dancing in Valentine again.

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AN EXTRAORDINARY MURDER ON ROUTE 66

Jacob Nicklos ‘Ray’ Krentz

On a snowy afternoon in February 1960 a truck driver travelling the lonely stretch of Route 66 near Hyde Park, Arizona, spotted something out of place some yards off to the side of the road. He pulled over to investigate and what he found saw him heading to Seligman to call the police. Slumped against a fence was the body of a man resting in a pool of blood, his face covered in mud. Papers on the corpse identified it as Jacob Nicklos Krentz, late of Phoenix.

However, police had already been looking for Krentz after the 1958 Oldsmobile registered to his wife, Ila, had been found parked on a car lot in Roswell, New Mexico. It was unlikely to find any buyers due to the bullet holes in the windscreen and the interior being saturated in blood, along with a human tooth on the floor. It was clear that something had gone very wrong in this car and two days later the discovery of Krentz’s body proved that. Ila, who was initially thought to have gone missing with her husband, told Phoenix police that he had left a week earlier with “two old men” to find work on the Glen Canyon Dam construction project and had failed to telephone her at the end of the week as planned.

Jacob Krentz, who also went by the name of Ray (and indeed was referred to during subsequent trials as ‘Jacob Ray Krentz’) had only lived in Phoenix for a few months, moving there from California with Ila and his two stepsons to look after the children of his wife’s deceased sister. This wasn’t as straight forward as it might have been for Krentz’s parole officer had to agree to the move. Krentz had a record which went back to 1943 when he was charged with transporting 500 cases of whiskey in violation of internal revenue codes. In 1951 he was sent to jail for robbing a tavern in California and then placed on four years’ probation. The following year he skipped the state and it was three years before he was arrested in Las Vegas, Nevada, on vagrancy charges and charged with parole violation. His protests of innocence were shot down when the judge produced a photo of Krentz as a pallbearer at a funeral in one of his previous hometowns in Montana. Captain Peter Starasinic of the Alameda County Sheriff’s department described Krentz as “the best safecracker in the West” although there seems little to indicate that he was any more than a common or garden burglar. Because he had been fraternizing with criminals, the judge dismissed the idea of county jail and sent Krentz to San Quentin to serve his original 1-5 year sentence. While he was in prison, Ila filed for divorce although the couple were later reconciled.

Krentz may well have wanted to find a job as a bulldozer driver at the dam project in Page (he might equally have just wanted to get away from the small Phoenix trailer he was sharing with his wife and five children) but it seems that he never actually made it there. What is known is that he spent the last three days of his life drinking with his two companions in bars in Ash Fork and Williams before winding up dead on the side of Route 66.

There the trail might have gone as cold as Krentz’s frozen body had not a plump dishevelled 53-year-old man called Charles Francis Caldwell walked into the FBI office in San Antonio, Texas, the day after the grim discovery and said he had been with Krentz when he was killed. But he hadn’t done it. He had been driving on Route 66 when the killer, sitting in the back seat, pulled out a pistol and shot Krentz (who was in the passenger seat) three times, causing Krentz to collapse into his lap. He eventually named the killer as a Joe Brown. The authorities didn’t hold up much hope of finding ‘Joe Brown’, but just a few days later the FBI arrested Joe Brown – his real name – in his home city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Both Caldwell and Brown were charged with murder.

What elevated this incident from a sordid drunken killing to an extraordinary murder are two things; it was the first murder case to be tried in Yavapai County in eleven years and, despite the evidence, no-one was ever convicted of Jacob Krentz’s murder.

Brown, 57, went on trial first, with Caldwell due to be tried a week later. Caldwell – who had insisted on taking a lie detector test to prove his story – was the prosecution’s main witness, amid cries of “Liar, liar!” from Brown. But, although the judge gave the jury the options of either first or second degree murder, the court was stunned when, after eighteen hours of deliberation, it returned a verdict of innocent. The following day the murder charge against Caldwell was dropped. Brown was immediately rearrested and charged with being an accessory to a felony. Tried in October 1960 there was a dramatic twist when the jury had to deliberate in darkness due to a power cut, but they found him guilty. He served two and a half years in the state prison at Florence and then, released in April 1963, disappeared. Caldwell moved to Flagstaff and the following year was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. In April 1971 he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died a year later.

In retrospect, it appears that Joe Brown was indeed the murderer. As well as Caldwell’s testimony, the trio had been seen leaving Seligman with Caldwell driving and Brown in the back seat. Brown’s landlady had watched him pack a pistol in his case before leaving Phoenix, the teenage son of a Seligman service station owner had seen Brown move the same case from the trunk to the rear seat of the car probably just moments before Krentz was killed and Caldwell even produced the blood-stained trousers he had been wearing at the time that backed up his story that Krentz had been shot in the head and neck before slumping into his lap. It seems that the good jury of Prescott considered that an ex-con had simply got his just desserts.