THE MAN WHO KILLED THE BEST OF HOUCK

Jim Keeton came from a local police family. The 27-year-old had been married for just ten months.

As you head east, towards Houck, Arizona, there are the remains of several handpainted billboards along the frontage road, sun-bleached and slowly falling to pieces. It was by one of these billboards that one of the more tragic episodes in Houck’s history unfolded on a cold February night in 1971, starting on the road that superseded Route 66 and ending on the old road itself in New Mexico.

That evening police patrol dispatchers received two messages almost at the same time. Both were from Highway Patrolmen in desperate circumstances, but these were separate incidents a couple of miles apart. Just west of Houck on I-40, Patrolman James Lee Keaton stopped a car for a number plate discrepancy. For the 27-year-old officer, who lived in Sanders, it should have been nothing more than a routine traffic stop on his local patch. From a police family – his father Homer had retired the previous year from the Highway Patrol and his brother Dennis was a patrolman in Holbrook – Keeton had served six years in the Army Reserve and had completed a degree in police science in 1968.

Marylou should have been at home that day, her mother was in the hospital giving birth to twin daughters. But fatefully she decided to go to school.

But behind the wheel of the ’68 Pontiac with the gold and vinyl top was 38-year-old Bertram Greenberg. That he was on parole after serving a prison sentence for extortion and had crossed the state line from his home in California might have been enough to warrant a stop, but Greenberg was the subject of an all points bulletin for a very different reason. Issued just hours earlier – and unlikely to have come to the attention yet of Patrolman Keeton – the APB declared Greenberg a suspect in the rape and murder of 13-year-old Mary Louise ‘Marylou’ Hill in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, on the afternoon of 4th February. A hiker had seen him dragging the body of the young girl into undergrowth and had noted the license plate of his car which was swiftly traced back to relatives of Greenberg.

 

 

Bertram Greenberg, serial rapist and sexual psychopath, was out on parole when he went on a spree that left four people dead.

Greenberg had a history of violence and mental illness that stretched back years. At the age of 23 he had been charged with robbery and battery after a bloodstained car in his garage was linked to an assault on a woman. As soon as he was released from jail he was arraigned on charges of raping a UCLA coed and a West Los Angeles housewife. He served just a year before being released and was swiftly rearrested on charges that he posed as a policeman to lure a woman into his car and rape her. He was once more imprisoned and paroled in 1963. Four year later he was returned to state prison after being convicted of extortion, having blackmailed a woman of whom he took nude photos. During that time he spent time at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, a special institution for mentally disturbed inmates.

 

The house in West Covina where Greenberg lived and from where he began his flight after the murder of Marylou Hill.

After killing Marylou, Greenberg had returned to his home in West Covina where he was visited by his parole officer, Robert Conway. During that visit, Greenberg was telephoned by relatives notifying that the car he was used was being sought by the police. Conway was suspicious enough to ring the police himself and ask why they were looking for the Pontiac. When they told him, he immediately advised them to put out a bulletin for Greenberg. But, by then, Greenberg was on the run.

At 4.14pm the following day, Officer Keeton pulled the Pontiac over on I-40 just west of Houck. A passing motorist saw the officer and another man struggling in the front seat of Keeton’s patrol car but, by the time he was able to turn around and return to the scene, the man was driving off in the Pontiac. Officer Keeton had managed to radio a distress call but he died at the scene, shot with his own service revolver. A few minutes later the Pontiac was stopped by Patrolman Don Allen Beckstead, this time east of Houck. Beckstead was also familiar with the local area as he lived in Houck with his wife and two young sons. Again, this should have been a simple traffic stop but, as Beckstead approached the car, Greenberg pulled out the revolver he had taken from Officer Keeton and fired. Shot in the stomach, Beckstead too managed to radio for help as Greenberg sped away.

Crossing into New Mexico on Route 66, Greenberg flagged down a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, telling the occupants he had a problem with his generator and that he needed a lift to Gallup. Once in the car, he produced the gun and then ordered them to drive up a dirt road towards an abandoned mine. Realising the peril they were in, James Brown and his wife, Karen Dianne, respectively a law student and school teacher on holiday from Missouri, lunged at the hitchhiker but were unable to disarm him. Greenberg forced Brown to strip to his underpants before sexually molesting his wife. Then he shot Brown in the back of the head before shooting Dianne in the head, too. James Brown died but Dianne was able to escape and would recover.

Aftermath in Gallup. Greenberg was shot down in a hail of bullets and trying to flee his car.

Stealing the yellow VW, Greenberg headed for Grants where he was finally stopped by local police and a barrage of handgun, carbine and shotgun fire at the junction of Highway 117 and I-40. The VW was virtually cut in half and skidded off the road. Greenberg tried to make a run but was cut down by police fire, some nine or ten bullets finding their target in his body and killing him on the spot. It transpired he had tried to stab himself with a pocket knife before the shooting, stabbing himself in the chest and wrist, almost severed his left hand.

 

Back in Arizona, help had arrived for Don Beckstead who was transported to McKinley Hospital in Gallup, New Mexico. Although his wound was extremely grave – a bullet from his fellow patrolman’s gun had punched through his small intestine, destroyed his left kidney and buried itself in the muscles of his back – Beckstead, against the odds, made it through the night and the following day was able to laugh and joke with his wife, Betty, and his boss, Lt Bert Zamborini, telling the latter there was no way he wanted a desk job. Betty spoke of her sorrow for Connie Keeton – the Keetons had been married just ten months – and how they’d all planned to have dinner together the following Wednesday.

Betty Beckstead (left) comforts Dianne Brown, the only survivor of that terrible night.

Beckstead was conscious enough to make a statement saying that he had only stopped Greenberg for an unsafe pass, not realising his colleague had been shot, as well speak briefly to a reporter. A story ran in the Arizona Republic on Sunday 7th February 1971 headlined ‘Wounded officer winning his fight for life’.

But later that day he went into renal failure. Although McKinley was a good hospital, the one thing it didn’t possess was an artificial kidney machine, so Officer Don Beckstead would have to be transported to Albuquerque. He died on the way. He was 28 years old.

A few months after his death, Officer Keeton’s widow, Connie (centre), and family set up a scholarship fund in his memory. Today the Northern Arizona University still awards the James L Keeton Police Science Memorial scholarship.

Both Betty Beckstead and James Keeton’s widow, Connie, would later take up positions as police dispatchers. Betty later said; “I’m pro-police, pro-patrol, so it was natural for me to come and work for the Highway Patrol and I love it. This is what keeps me occupied. Without this job I think I would have ended up in the state hospital.”

There was a poignant little coda to this story. A couple of days after Beckstead’s death, Reverend A.L. Dominy, the chaplain at Port Hueneme Naval Base in California received a package in the mail. Inside was a 15-inch wrench worth only a few dollars that was US Navy property. The writer of the note explained that the wrench had already been posted to his old Seabee outfit but had been returned to him because the unit had been decommissioned. He continued; “I am now a Christian and a highway patrolman and I just have to return this.” The note was signed Don Beckstead.

James L Keeton

Don A Beckstead

End of Watch – Friday 5th February 1971.

Don Allen Beckstead, father of two young boys, had no idea the minor traffic stop he would make would end his life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A WILD HONEYMOON ON ROUTE 66

The only photo thought to exist of Evelyn Mayer Blake and Donald Blake.

On 2nd June 1937, a Plymouth coupe with Ohio plates rolled up to the Lupton Port of Entry, the Arizona border checkpoint made famous in the film of The Grapes of Wrath. Inside were a teenage boy and girl. An inspector noticed that there were gun shells in the car and asked the pair to step out and hand over the gun to which the ammunition belonged. They did so – but then they each produced a pistol with which they threatened the checkpoint staff. Gordon Bartell and his wife, an elderly couple on holiday from Chicago, had the misfortune to be at the inspection station at the same time and soon found they would be continuing their trip to Los Angeles by bus when the teenagers stole their car.

The State Inspection point as the Blakes would have seen it.

When the car was searched, a marriage licence was found and the couple were named as Donald Blake, 16, and Evelyn Mayer, 15, both from Painesville, Ohio. Donald was a slender, cleancut youth who wore glasses, while his new bride was a sullen girl carrying several pounds of puppy fat. For the next two days, the search was concentrated on Arizona where it believed the honeymooners – they had been married in Greeley, Colorado, a few days before – were hiding out on reservation land. However, on 5th June they were caught in Valentine, Nebraska, after holding up a filling station attendant at gunpoint and stealing $80.96. They were still driving the Bartells’ vehicle when it slid off the road into a ditch. Theodore Witt, a passing trucker, went to their help but became suspicious of the pair and called the police instead. While they were being arrested, Evelyn shot at one of the police officers, grazing his hand.

The Cherry County Courthouse where the Blakes pled guilty in front of Judge EL Meyer. This is how it would have looked to the honeymooners; three years later it was remodelled and the tower removed.

Once in custody, the police found that they had four pistols, while Blake was carrying a rabbit’s foot and a billfold containing Evelyn’s picture, on the back of which was written ‘Evelyn Mayer, the girl I love’. Rather hopefully, Donald said; “I’m sorry this happened. I hope they won’t be too tough on us.” But the story had made headlines across the country and it was a misplaced hope.

As the pair confessed to filling station robberies in Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska and New Mexico, their families were shocked. “Evelyn is a good girl, she’s a church member, too,” said her mother. “I never dreamed that she would have done such a thing.” As Evelyn had stolen $100 from her mother and taken her father’s car as they left Ohio, one might have thought Mrs Mayer would have an inkling that Evelyn wasn’t quite the perfect daughter…

Their capture and subsequent confessions came as a relief to more than just law enforcement officers. In Bernalillo, New Mexico, one Herbert Campbell had been lanquishing in the county jail, protesting his innocence on a charge of robbing the Phillips gas station at 4th and Marquette in Albuquerque (he’d been arrested when visiting a friend in jail). It wasn’t until the District Attorney received a telegram from the Sheriff in Valentine that identified Donald Blake as the real perpetrator of the crime that Campbell was released. His friend, Walter Duerr, was however the real deal and pled guilty to armed robbery.

The Nebraska State Reformatory for Women in York would be Evelyn’s home for four years.

Five days after their capture, Donald and Evelyn were both sentenced to seven years in the reformatory. It was Evelyn’s 16th birthday. They both applied for parole in 1940 with each family blaming the other. Evelyn, by now 18, told the parole board that Donald was going to run away and she wouldn’t let him go without her. She also blamed that pulp novels and movies about the West were partly responsible for her running away, a tactic also used by Donald at his parole hearing where he said, “At the time I read a lot of trash books, detective stuff. When we ran out of money we had a couple of guns and started to get it the easy way.” Although no mention was ever made in reports of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow who had been shot to death just three years before the couple’s wild honeymoon, it seems quite likely that the pair may have taken them as inspiration.

The Nebraska Men’s Reformatory where Donald Blake spent six years.

At the parole hearing, Donald’s father put the blame squarely on Evelyn, saying that Donald had been doing fine in school until Evelyn, his first girlfriend, had come along, which was conveniently overlooking the fact that Donald had broken into several cars in the months before he went on his mad flight with his bride to be.

Both Donald and Evelyn had their sentences reduced to five and a half years which, with time removed for good behaviour, would see them released in early 1941. That wasn’t soon enough for young Donald. On 10th August 1940 he escaped from the Nebraska Men’s Reformatory, stealing a truck and a .22 calibre revolver. He used the gun to force Ronald Anderson to drive him

Briefly escaping in 1940, Blake carjacked Ronald Anderson and had him drive him to the Hill Hotel in Omaha.

to Omaha and then robbed him of $8.60. However, police later spotted Blake and, thinking he was acting suspiciously, arrested him. As he was taken into custody, a police broadcast came over the radio about the reformatory escape and he was identified. He had been free for just a few hours, but that escape and the armed robbery of Ronald Anderson would add another ten years to his sentence.

Evelyn seemed to have quietly made her parole in 1941 as her husband prepared to serve another decade behind bars. However, it was less than three years later that Blake walked out of the prison – this time legally – and immediately registered for the military, giving his current employer as the Gooch Milling Company in Lincoln, Nebraska. A few months later he enlisted at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana, by which time he and Evelyn were divorced.

 

The Gooch Mill in Lincoln, Nebraska, which Blake gave as his workplace on leaving the reformatory

Little is known of Donald and Evelyn in later life. By the time that Evelyn died in 1997, she had also been known as Evelyn Otte and Evelyn Kramer. After his military service, Donald returned to his home town of Painesville where he lived for the rest of his life, marrying twice, both times to women more than ten years older than he and both of whom he outlived, dying in 2009. His wild honeymoon must have been a very distant memory by then.

 

Northern Arizona may have greeted the renegade honeymooners but it would soon regret that.

 

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.

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

img_0611

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.

img_0608img_0599img_0595img_0587img_0580img_0573img_0565

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.

THE THOREAU TRADING POST MYSTERY

a

This is another example of how recent history can vanish so quickly. This trading post stands to the west of Thoreau in New Mexico and is rapidly falling apart. Yet even its name is already lost, or so it seemed.

Part of the problem with identifying the building is that Thoreau was a town which, despite its tiny size, thrived on trading posts (at least six to my knowledge). But, putting my faith in Jack Rittenhouse and his 1946 guide, I figured that this place must have been either the Thoreau Trading Post or the Beautiful Mountain Trading Post, both of which Rittenhouse mentions as being on Route 66.

To be honest, I really hoped this place would be the Beautiful Mountain Trading Post, if only because it seemed that someone had at least made an effort with the name. The Thoreau Trading Post was, well, just a little short on imagination. For a while, that seemed likely. Even the Northern Arizona University digital archive had a modern-day picture of the building which it titled ‘Beautiful Mountain Trading Post’. But it had then attached a question mark to that title which didn’t inspire confidence.

Then, tucked away on an inside page of a 1945 edition of the Gallup Independent I found a single mention of the Beautiful Mountain Trading Post in which it was described as at the intersection of Route 66 and the road into Thoreau. That, of course, is where the now closed Red Mountain Market and Deli stands … and ‘Red Mountain’ is close to the original name, if a little more economic on paint.

The reason why the place was even mentioned in the paper was because it had just been sold to Mr TM Lane by one Jake Atkinson, member of one of the two famous trading post families of this part of New Mexico. If you read the post on the Atkinsons on this blog, you’ll see that the timing matches – 1945 was the year that he and his wife Maxine bought the Brock Trading Post in Bluewater and turned it into the famous Rattlesnake Trading Post. Even more intriguing, by the mid-1950s, the Beautiful Mountain was owned by Blake Bowlin, from the other famous trading post family, and brother of the remarkable Claude Bowlin.

So, that seems to solve the mystery of the Beautiful Mountain Trading Post, but it leaves me little the wiser about the history of this sad place. As well as the Atkinsons and Bowlins, John H ‘Bill’ Bass operated a trading post in Thoreau as well as opening the Thunderbird Bar in Thoreau on 4th July 1964. Bill Bass and his wife Lorene had moved to New Mexico in the 1940s and Bass ran the Top of the World Cocktail Lounge at Continental Divide. In 1948, he was charged with ‘operating a confidence game’ at Willard Neal’s zoo, although it doesn’t seem to have hurt his future career. For many years he was either the McKinley County Sheriff or Under Sheriff (once working for his son amid calls of nepotism). Was this his business? And did it ever have a name to call its own? Given how I have watched this building deteriorate over the last few years, that may soon not even matter.

kjihcdg

GOODBYE TO THE WAYSIDE MOTEL

Soon the sun will go down over the Wayside Motel for the last time.

The Wayside Motel, with its sad lightbulb arrow, is one of the familiar sights on the east side of Grants, New Mexico. But not, it would seem, for much longer. In September 2018, City of Grants code enforcer Robert Windhorst announced that the Wayside Motel was on its hitlist for demolition – or, at least, what remains of it. The motel itself is long gone, what is left is the two-storey white building that served as motel office and living quarters for the owners.

If this did represent the original Grants Motor Lodge, the office and living accommodation building had yet to be built. [Postcard by very kind permission of Joe Sonderman and his splendid 66postcards.com web site]

It originally started life as the Grants Motor Lodge in 1945 and is said to be the first motel that wasn’t a campground on the east side of Grants, although that seems quite a late date for such a claim. Over its lifetime it appears to have been a relatively run of the mill place; nothing made it stand out, no murders, no fires or the excitements that various other motels seem to attract. The one postcard I have been able to find is a generic drawing that could depict a motel in any town – and probably did.

In more prosperous times, the motel would even advertise – this was in the Gallup Independent of 1959.

The Grants Motor Lodge ran through a number of owners and managers with one of the most memorable being the Lesters in the early 1960s. Clint Lester and his wife stood out in Grants because of their size. They were little people. That’s not an insult; Clint, at just 4 foot 8 inches tall (his wife was two inches shorter) was the Director for District 10 of The Little People, an organisation founded in 1958 by Billy Barty.

Perhaps its slow decline started with the change of name to the It’ll Do Inn. However quirky or amusing it might mean to be, that really doesn’t show a lot of pride in your establishment… It was still the It’ll Do Inn in 1974 when the owner was clearly keen to sell, even offering to take a house in Albuquerque as payment. By the time it was rechristened the Wayside Inn, the place was firmly going downhill.

Here in its It’ll Do Inn incarnation, the building in the middle is readily identifiable as the last surviving part of the Wayside Motel. [Photo from unknown source]

The 15-room motel accommodation was eventually torn down, leaving the main building marooned. Anyone passing by might notice the collection of cars that nuzzle up to the building – an old Mercedes, a 1950s Jaguar Mk2, an MG Midget and some older vehicles. It was these cars that recently gave the Grants Police Department one of its less glorious moments.

The motel office.

On the morning of Wednesday 26th September 2018, just days after the City announced it wanted to tear down the house, some enterprising thieves rolled up in broad daylight and made away with a two door 1933 Ford, a 1927 Packard and a 1929 Model T. It seems they did this in quite a leisurely manner – if I recall rightly, the ’33 Ford and the Packard were parked on trailers, so the thieves took those too – no-one took any notice. Someone did eventually call the police and Lt Jeff Marez made his way down to East Santa Fe to enquire what the gentlemen were doing. They assured the Grants Police Department officer that they were moving the vehicles for the owner. They then reeled off the owner’s name and details and Lt Marez went away satisfied. The three cars, the trailers and the thieves were long gone by the time that the Grants Police realised that those details were all on the zoning notice that the City Council had pasted to the Wayside Motel’s door and all the thieves had had to do was memorise them…

The rear of the building where the owners could sit on their hacienda-style balcony and gaze out over the railroad just feet away.

The Wayside Motel isn’t a grand building. To be honest, it’s not even a really very interesting one. But it is part of the history Route 66 through Grants and the chances are that the next time you pass this way it will probably be gone.

 

 

 

 

Well, for $12 a night, you’d want free cable and HBO!

wayside 3

 

 

 

THE MAN WHO WALKED TO GLENRIO

John D Hearon, a remarkable man.

The snow started falling over the Texas Panhandle on 1st February 1956. Within hours it would herald one of the worst blizzards in American history as snow fell for four straight days over Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico; by the time it began to thaw, at least eighteen people and hundreds of cattle were dead. The little town of Vega bore the brunt of the storm, recording a staggering 61 inches of snow, but everywhere was affected. But life had to, somehow, go on and that meant Route 66 had to keep rolling.

If the road was open for business, then so were the companies that used it, among them the bus line, Continental Trailways. At 5.30am, John D Hearon, 38, pulled his Vista-Liner out of Amarillo, heading to Tucumcari. He knew that the conditions were dire, having already done a run in the opposite direction, arriving in Amarillo two hours behind schedule. There are varying estimates as to how passengers he had on board for that return trip – contemporary accounts state between 14 and 35 (although the lower figure is probably the correct one) but all agree that among the passengers was 21-month-old Patricia Henderson, travelling with her mother, Ruth.

Ohio company Flxible built just 208 Vista-Liners between 1954 and 1958. Continental Trailways purchased 126 of them and it was one of these buses John Hearon was driving on the Amarillo-Tucumcari run.

All was well until around 9am when, John Hearon related; “I was going about 25 miles an hour when I hit this drift in a deep cut. Snow was about waist high and we couldn’t move the bus. No-one got excited, though. We had about a half tank of fuel, so there was no immediate worry about heat. We figured we’d just sit tight until help arrived.” But more than five hours passed with not a single vehicle in sight – the blizzard had closed down Route 66 and even snow clearing machinery couldn’t get through – and Mr Hearon started to worry that the bus was running low on fuel. Once that ran out, the bus would become a freezing metal box – and possibly a tomb. The only food on the bus was two sandwiches which the passengers gave to the little girl. Mr Hearon decided that he had to go for help. Norris Turner, a passenger from Houston, offered to go with him, but Mr Hearon urged him to stay behind and help keep up the morale of the other passengers. John Hearon opened the door and set off into the storm.

920x920

Plainview, to the south of Amarillo, at the end of the five-day storm.

Adrian was the closest town, but John Hearon realised that he would be walking uphill and into the freezing wind and blowing snow, so he headed west for Glenrio. He was wearing only his bus driver’s uniform of low cut shoes, unlined gloves, woollen trousers and a light regulation jacket and within minutes he had to return to the bus to find a piece of cloth to wind around his head to protect his ears and neck. Then he set off again, finding his way by the telephone poles along the now hidden road, often slipping and falling. He came across a couple stranded in their car who tried to persuade him to seek refuge with them, but Mr Hearon was adamant his passengers, especially the little girl, needed help and he pushed on.

The Brownlee Diner rallied around to feed the stranded bus passengers.

He would later tell John Phillips of the Reader’s Digest, “About nine o’clock my eyes felt strange. There was a beacon north of Glenrio I’d been using as a guide, but suddenly I stopped seeing it … my right eye had gone blind.” Not long after, his left eye began to cloud up as he began to succumb to snow blindness. Slapping his face to keep himself awake, he finally saw distant spots of light just after 10pm; he had been pushing himself forward for hours with thoughts of steaming hot coffee and he passed Joseph Brownlee’s gas station, stumbling towards the diner next door. But his strength finally failed him and he fell to his knees in the snow. He managed to whistle a couple of times and this saved his life. A young man in the diner heard him and found him in the dark, dragging him into the gas station. Joe Brownlee said; “He looked nearly dead. His face was blue, his eyes closed, his lips swollen. I’ve never seen anyone look like that.

The Brownlee gas station where John Heardon was taken when he reached Glenrio.

John Hearon had staggered through the storm for almost nine hours. Frostbitten and snowblind, he could barely speak, but he managed to tell his rescuers exactly where the bus was, how many passengers were on it, how long they had been without food and how much gas had been in the tank when he left. Joe Brownlee loaded up his Power Wagon with food and blankets and, putting chains on the wheels, fought his way to the bus, arriving at 2am. Thanks to John Hearon’s incredible bravery, everyone was well and in good spirits and the engine was still running, although they were no doubt pleased to see Joe Brownlee. Over several trips, all the passengers were ferried back to the diner where the town donated food for all of them.

Mr Hearon spent just four days in hospital. After six more days at home, he resumed his Tucumcari-Amarillo route. His courage was recognised with an all-expenses paid holiday to Treasure Island in Florida (Continental Trailways let him have the extra week off, which was mighty big of it) where he was feted and presented with an engraved medallion and his wife, Winnie, with an orchid and a pendant. Other gifts were a little odder; as well as money, the town of Sudan, Texas, presented him with a bale of cotton.

However, there was no long happy ending for John Hearon. On 12th March 1965 he passed away from pneumonia while suffering from lung cancer. He was just 47 years old. But to his four children, the oldest of whom was just 12 when he died, to the passengers of that bus and to the people of Glenrio he was and always will be a hero.

The diner (the place was built to resemble a Valentine Diner) and the idea of steaming hot coffee kept John Hearon going during his courageous trek.