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 was 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.

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.