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.

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.

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.