A Special Christmas Gift

I have chosen several chapters from a book published this year, Into Oblivion.  The book dealt with many unsolved murders and missing women from decades ago.  In the spirit of Christmas, I am sharing them for no cost in the hope that someone, somewhere, might be able to at last put all the pieces together and find some closure for the families and friends who had loved ones taken from them.  Contact the local police if you have any information and lets...bring them home for Christmas...in solutions to their mysteries if not in any physical form.


It is just a theory but what if it is correct? A string of decades old unsolved murders yet there may be a shadow of a connection...  an excerpt from Into Oblivion by Marilyn A. Hudson.  "Here's opening that in the spirit of opening gifts someone will reopen these old cases and maybe find an answer."

The trail of a killer – a THEORY

Just as decades earlier (than the previous 1950's cases) police were stumped by the 1930's Cleveland Torso Killer, authorities in Texas, New Mexico, Florida and Georgia would be left scratching their head over a series of connected by unsolved brutal killings.  They began in 1959 and, according to most law enforcement reports, they continued until 1964.  Stepping aside a little to see the “big picture” hints that there is more to this story. Perhaps this killer did not start in Texas and, just maybe, he did not end there either.
What follows is my own theory about a particular set of crimes during a specific time frame.  I have looked for similarities in the methods used, processes employed, correlating circumstances, and other hints as to the nature of the person involved in these deaths.

From the early drama of the “Butchers of Kings Run” in Cleveland, Ohio through the “Black Dahlia” in Los Angeles, the dismemberment of human victims was not new.  What was increasingly clear with so many of these cases what that knowledge of the region was an important fact.  In the Cleveland killings the murderer returned repeatedly to the same area. Apparently, he never stood out in that setting enough to arouse suspicions.  Why did he not seem out of place in that area? The logical answer would be he was part of the area or astute enough to know how to blend in without causing alarm.

Kingsbury Row – Cleveland, Ohio
The Cleveland Torso Killer struck in an area not too different from  areas found  in Kansas City and Oklahoma City. The status of the occupants in these regions was low, they were termed the “working class poor” and both reflected elements of depression era “shanty towns.” These were popular terms to describe abysmal poverty and homelessness. In Cleveland the area where the killer struck was part of the “Flats.”  It was rough, wild and overgrown.
Each of the regions were speared by rail lines, dotted with developed factories and had jobs that brought people seeking better lives or simply a means to survive.  The regions around these magnets in the post-Depression era swelled with new, and often highly anonymous, people.

Packing Town – Oklahoma City
 In another town, along a similar geographic feature also called “The Flats” was another area rough, wild, and uncertain. “Packingtown” and the “Stockyards” are synonymous terms in Oklahoma City history. A 1911 postcard shows the corner of Agnew and Exchange with its arched street sign, with its long horn head symbol, marking the entrance to “Packingtown” and the “Stockyards”.  It was an area in central Oklahoma City, south of the river, where from the 1890’s, the animal stockyards and packing houses were found.  Its single purpose was to provide a place to sell, buy, invest and profit from the meat industry.
It occupied an irregular pattern along Agnew and Exchange Avenue. It stretched in early days from roughly from West Reno to about South 15th Street with Exchange Avenue at its heart.  Its location shifted as the river changed course, as it did, several times and with frequent flooding.  Roads were eventually straightened and Oklahoma City street names flowed down into the area even as it remained an entity to itself in many ways.  This area, according to the Register of Historic Places, covers today 220 acres, 19 buildings, and 1 object.
Around this area various neighborhoods emerged. The first neighborhood was established by ex-slave Freedman in 1880 and was called both “The Bottoms” and “Sandtown.” Researcher Ronald James Web in his “Oklahoma City’s Historic Sandtown Neighborhood” captures the diverse, rich, and now largely eradicated, aspect of history in the area.  Other neighborhoods were: Mulligan Flats, Packing House Park, Morrisville, and the Stockyards Addition. These were all north of SW 15th street. The common denominator for all of these housing additions was poverty. These were largely people who had little, had few prospects, and often struggled to survive. The few surviving residential examples seen in early 20th century photos are all small houses of about 800 square feet.  Their replacements, many constructed circa World War I, were equally humble.  Although the companies filling the packing houses constituted the city’s number one industry into World War II and had budgets in the multiple millions, many workers did not see as much prosperity.
In the Depression years the area south of the river, from Byers to Pennsylvania, would be turned into ad hoc settlements of the dispossessed and homeless.  It was called the “gray zone”, a no man’s land that nobody could use due to frequent floods, rough, overgrown terrain and free range trash dumps.  It became home to many families and individuals during the depression of the 1930’s.  Almost in its center runs South Agnew from Reno south to SW 59th Street.
Numerous rail lines spurred off to deliver thousands of animals for auction or for slaughter.  It’s most noticeable feature was the distinct aroma rising from the yards.  It was south, “over the river”, and away (it was hoped) from the delicate sensibilities of the people who enjoyed the end product in some of the finer houses and hotels in the downtown area.  The wind in Oklahoma seems to always be blowing from the southwest and the aroma enriched the memories of many early citizens and lingered well into the mid twentieth century.
It was also, significantly, “outside of town” to avoid paying city taxes. This was an arrangement made with local officials dating back to 1910 and one that continued until recent decades. The packing firms were wooed and won by any means necessary to build a strong Oklahoma economy. That meant to keep the cattlemen, workers, and buyers happy there was also ample supplies of liquor in a “dry” state. “Fringe” comforts were also seen to, locals said, with brothels a staple of every building with an upper story.  Oklahoma had been the “Badlands” before statehood and, in some pockets of the community, that ethos survived long into the modern age.
The major packing companies included industry greats such as “Morris & Co.”,  “Schwartzchild and Sulzberger (S&S) of Chicago”, “Armour”, “Wilson and Co.,” and local favorites such as “Butcher’s Packing Co.” and “The People’s Packing Co.”
In general terms, the area would retain a strong, blue-collar look and feel for decades. Today, it skirts Capitol Hill (an early community), it stands hesitantly on the edge of renovation of the nearby “Stockyards City” on its north side and a strong Hispanic presence on its east side. West, it has changed little, due to the highways systems and beyond the airport spanning many dozens of acres.

Some Cases
Called “torso killers”, “fiends”, “butchers”, or “butcher-killers” since the days of Jack the Ripper, murders displaying extreme violence done to the human body by another person have kept people fascinated.  It is like the two-headed snake that we cannot believe exists but keep looking at because it is so beyond our comprehension.  Who could do that to another person? Surely they would bear some stigmata, a mark of Cain, which set them apart?  Could they hide behind the smiling cab driver, the shop clerk, the construction worker or the business man?  “They seemed so normal and nice” is a reoccurring description for murderers and encapsulates the dilemma.  These killers are so often, too often, invisible because they look just like everyone else.  When the murders occurred in places where people stayed out of other’s business, did not pry or pay much attention to anything but their own survival, it becomes a little easier to understand how they might never be noticed.
1933-1938 – Cleveland, Ohio twelve (12) dismembered bodies were recovered. Although a topic of much speculation and investigation by Elliot Ness, and others, no one was ever charged with the crimes. Unsolved.
March 10, 1941 – In Kansas City, Missouri, a 24 year old nurse cadet was viciously murdered in her room. She had been mutilated, her skull crushed and her throat slit. In addition, part of her body had been removed and discarded elsewhere. Unsolved. [Update: One theory does try to link this to an individual who may have killed the 'Black Dahlia". See Eatwell's recent work on the subject.]
April 1, 1947 – Body of a woman found stuffed inside a sewer outlet near The People’s Packing Company, 130 SE 7th in Oklahoma City.  The company had been established in 1920. The body was found clad in just a slip and one sock. Unknown.
One of the attractive aspects of Oklahoma City for good and bad is the fact that bisecting it are two major continental transportation routes. East to West runs Interstate 40 (I-40) and North to South runs Interstate 35 (I-35).  These have been in place since post WW-2 and the building of the interstate infrastructure for transportation.  Prior to this, however, the great ‘Mother Road’ of Route 66 crossed the state heading toward California and the U.S. 80 provided ready access to points south into Texas and north into Kansas.
For companies shipping material, or for criminals transporting illegal goods or escaping law enforcement, the state was a natural for getting from point A to point B. In the 1950’s these roads were booming with cafes, gas stations, small towns with their motels, and ready exit onto smaller county and state roads when there was a need.  
If we look at just the 1950’s are there  any “interesting” events along some of these major arteries?

Just Off the Road
Getting around in the early 1950's was different and the landscape was often vastly different. There was no Interstate as it is known today.  Think of box placed over the modern Oklahoma City.  On the north side of this box would be Route 66 heading west toward Bethany, Yukon and El Reno.  I-40 heading west would go past turnoffs to Yukon, El Reno, Mustang, New Castle and further west. To the south the I-35 would head toward Moore, Norman, and south to Ardmore and on to Dallas.  and to the northeast the I-35
The major arteries of transportation were Route 66 (angling down from Tulsa skirting the northern part of OKC and then heading west to Bethany, Yukon, El Reno and then Amarillo in Texas) , HWY 77 (Skirted down on the eastern side of OKC, traveled along Route 66 briefly and then angled downward to go into southern OKC, Moore, and Norman and eventually into northern Texas, east of Dallas/Ft. Worth), and HWY 81 (it came out of north Texas and the Dallas/Ft. Worth Area heading north to Duncan, Chickasha, Union City, El Reno and Enid before heading into Kansas).
A person could take HWY 81 to Union City and then north to El Reno and get on Route 66 heading east into Yukon and make a loop by taking HWY 77 (roughly the route of the current I-35) to head back south.  If they wished, a driver could reconnect with US 81 if they used Newcastle Road, to go to Highway 92 (92 at Yukon) or HWY 152 to go through Mustang and on west to Union City. US 81 was a primary route south to Texas. In the center of this farther road "box" was the small farming community of Tuttle.

This map clearly illustrates the significance of the Agnew Avenue, Exchange Streets and the route to the Airport that would cross Newcastle Road. What this means is that in the case of Lois Depew who went missing in 1951, someone could have offered her a ride on South Agnew as she walked the few short blocks to her SW 32 street home that night. Further, this person could have taken her to Newcastle Road, and then easily deposited her body in Tuttle. He could easily have stopped at Newcastle to burn her clothes on the way back to the city.
Further it also lends itself well to the Betty Jack Stevens case.  What this means is that in the case of Betty Jack Stevens someone could have picked her up on HWY 81 (as is believed) and (as some believed at the time) brought her into the city to friends or a familiar haunt at a tavern on South Agnew.  There, someone may have offered her a ride as well.  Just as before, with the Depew murder, they could have easily exited the city and taken Newcastle Road to Union City to dispose of part of Steven’s body and then cut north to Route 66 and Yukon to dispose of the rest of her body west of Yukon. After that it would be a simple trip HWY 92 across to easily reconnect to the south side of Oklahoma City.  [Update: Another intriguing idea has been the use of railroads and the proximity of them to all these murders].
The question in both cases is where would this type of extreme murder and dismemberment take place?  A killer would need isolation or at least a sense that they would be uninterrupted while they proceeded to torture and then cut apart a human body. There would be mess, there would be a need for no witnesses, and the ability to concentrate on the process.  There was never any mention of a killing sight ever located and despite rumors of blood soaked cars that never panned out the question of where remains.
Strangely enough at the northern end of South Agnew is probably a perfect place for someone who might have worked in the area and for one of the companies.  At that area was the Stockyards, also known as Packingtown because of the slaughter houses and meat packaging companies there.  Wilson & Co., Armour and others would be there for decades to process the cattle brought into that area.   From South 15th and the Agnew Street area there is a short jump over to Newcastle Road and environs to the west of the city and to the places where bodies were discovered. 
All of this makes the missing butcher, or someone similar, an interesting wrinkle in the list of probable suspects.
Now, if a killer was operating in the area wouldn't there be other missing persons? Could someone who was that involved with the idea of not simply killing but in dismembering their victim simply stop at one or two?   A search of newspapers did reveal some people reported missing. 

Here is a list of some names :

May 1951 - Two teen girls, students at Capitol Hill High School, Charleen (Sharlene) Wright (17 SE 30) and Shirley Anne Cuica (40 SE 30) go missing. Although it is possible Shirley may have run away to rejoin her father there is no clear trace of her found.
Aug 1951 - Nancy Durkin, 600 SW 25, goes missing. She is later located on city directories in Kansas indicating that she may have had personal reasons for her sudden and seemingly mysterious disappearance. The prominence of the story suggests, however, that there were undercurrents of anxiety in the region. Even though these stories may not have made it to the papers, the way these are covered, seem to indicate  more than a little community uneasiness. What else was going on that authorities may have kept out of the papers or that they might have mis-labeled youth run-aways?
Oct. 7, 1951 - Lois Depew, 2708 SW 32, goes missing; March 1952 her body parts found in Tuttle in two shallow graves. [Update: 2016 Correspondence from family members have claimed that a deathbed confession by the husband of Depew has resolved this mystery.]
June 1952 - Mrs. Ruth Gee, Roberts Hotel,  15 N. Broadway, (Downtown area), missing. Her home address was Jones Street on the north side of the Stockyards.
Jul 1952 - Dorothy Moss, missing days before the body of Stevens is discovered.
July 1952 - Tillie Pennington, 7041 SW 7th, reported missing days before the body of Stevens is discovered.
July 29, Betty Jack Stevens, Dallas, body parts are recovered  in Union City and Yukon.
Sept. 1952 - 2 teen girls missing in Hobart ; the story may be an indication of a drug and prostitution (aka “white slavery”) ring operating throughout the region in this time.  While never spelled out, inferences in many news and police reports suggest such a possibility.
Searching local newspapers in OKC found no follow ups for these missing, and cemetery, city directories and other sources failed to find any evidence of their presence and beg the question did all these missing woman come home?  In addition, no other stories of missing persons emerged in the city that were not located in this time period in the south side. There were also, at the time of the Stevens murder, girls missing in the panhandle and in Enid.

1951 Was An Active Year
In March of 1951 the mutilated and headless body of a 63 year old local farmer was found north of Okemah in northeastern Oklahoma.    The farm of Jackson Hicks was found just four miles north of Okemah and easily accessible as a turn off of a major highway (now I-40).  He was found by his brother at the edge of a field in a creek bottom. His head was 100 yards beyond that in a shallow hole. He was partially dressed and there were what appeared to be stab wounds slashing across his abdomen. Description of how the body was positioned suggest the possibility it was posed.
 Sheriff Dewey Smith quickly called a coroner jury who determined foul play and suggested the body might have been there for up to five days before it was found.  Little additional information was found during research of this case.
As mentioned earlier, in April of 1951, 16 year old Charlene (sometimes spelled Scharline and Sharleen) Wright  (17 SE 30th) and her friend Shirley Anne Cuica (40 SE 30) disappeared from SW Oklahoma City.  They had left to make a hurried purchase for a school project and promised to be home early. One girl was in curlers when she left.  Six weeks later a follow-up article begged for information because neither girl had been heard from in the intervening time. Parents even sent a message that if the girl’s had run away they would accept that if only they would tell them they were well.   According to all indications, neither girl was seen or heard from again.
Against this background it is little wonder the disappearance of another girl would be run in a prominent place in local newspapers. In August of 1951, a 19 year old girl working as an optometrist’s assistant disappeared from her SW Oklahoma City home (600 block of SW 25 and worked at 324 W. Commerce).  She was described as red-haired, 5 feet tall and about 100 lbs. The only clothes they could determine to be missing were the ones she had been wearing when last seen the night before when her date took her home. In the previous decade a serial killer had preyed on victims   with red hair and so it is certain that police may have been concerned given the apparent stable nature of the young woman.
It was apparently a misunderstanding as she is found later living back in Kansas according to city directories and other public documents. It is assumed she may have been summoned home or left rapidly for reasons of her own. 
It is still noteworthy as possibly reflecting concern residing under the surface of the community.  It leads to questions of what was not being written about in local papers?  The 1950’s was a time where there was a placid exterior that fought desperately to project a solid normalcy after the years of want and war. The pressure to conform to that image was more than some could achieve but like the earlier Victorian and Edwardian era there was a lot seething below the surface.
In several locations in this decade there is a problem of narcotics, alcohol, gambling, and prostitution.  Oklahoma had a chaotic legal system related to liquor making it a prime target for bootleggers long after Prohibition had put most out of business.     
During the Victorian era young innocent girls heading off to the big city were often welcomed by grandmotherly figures who offered them help. These were not representatives of Traveler’s Aid but madams and those employed in the service of various bordellos and resorts catering to sexual merchandise. Just as able bodied young men were often bundled aboard a ship as unwilling sailors, young women were impressed into a different type of service.
This “white slavery” as it was called continued for many decades into the 20th century. The victims were drugged, coerced, shamed and beaten into submission.   Some ran away a ‘ruined woman’ , some chose to remain and hide their shame from families and some disappeared into oblivion.
There had been two world wars, technological and social advancements but it was a system often still used well into the later 20th century.   There were several stories of young girls seduced into running off with young men, some promised great jobs, and some merely drugged.  A few girls “wised up” and by reading through the lines of news accounts it is clear that something of sexual and illicit nature rests in the background of the stories.   
There is also evidence that some children fell prey to these monsters as well.  The market catering to pedophiles meant a national network of procurers was in place to acquire, transport, use and dispose of victims.   In the aftermath of a devastating tornado in Woodward, Oklahoma in the late 1940’s a little girl was removed by unknown men from a makeshift hospital.  Three children remained who were never identified. At the same time, children from Wisconsin and points south and west were disappearing. Police trying to solve the missing Oklahoma girl hurried to California to investigate one child.  She had been disposed of in an alley, horribly beaten and abused, with no memory of where she came from or who she was.  It may be that many of these crimes are never solved because the child is older when they are at last released from their prison and far away from where they called home.   
       If the same process was in use in the 1950s, as is suggested, than missing persons would often be more likely found in another location, across state lines, and far away from home.  This may be why that databases of missing persons and those of found but unidentified bodies are so huge.  Only now, through application of such things as DNA, fingerprinting, dental records, and shared information are some of these finally being closed.  The next important step in that process is to open more of the oldest, coldest case records to volunteer investigators committed to bringing closure to families and friends.  Empty Buildings sit where some of the giants of meat packing once dominated the area known as ”Packingtown.”

To sum up the theory presented here let’s review the common features. The major cases surveyed from Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, New Mexico, Florida and Georgia suggest -
-          The killer had some familiarity or skill in butchering; Oklahoma medical authorities noted it, and they thought it appeared more related to animal butchering than to human dissection (i.e., a doctor). The multi-state task force examining the Texas and New Mexico crimes also noted skill in this area.
-          The killer made little attempt to hide bodies; indeed some seem to be placed in places where they will be found quickly. Demonstrated through graves less than a foot deep, ground barely covering remains, placed to be seen, sent down water way regularly fished and into areas people often traveled.
-          The killer frequently used newspapers to wrap body parts and provide dating clues. A copycat act, inspired or drawn from the use of newspapers in the Cleveland murders?
-          The killer sometimes marked the body ; in later cases in Pennsylvania attributed to the Cleveland killer, one of the torsos in the boxcar had “Nazi” carved into the flesh; in the 1941 case of Welsh the writing in blood of an initial. It should be noted that if this is the same killer and he is connected in some manner with the packing industry, butchered meat is stamped as to grade; in 1952 with Stevens there was the carving of the word “RAT.”
-          The killer often took away body parts ; in 1941 a hand sized hunk of flesh was cut out and then tossed over a fence as the killer left (was he nervous? Afraid of being caught?); in the Depew and Stevens case there was indication that parts were not present; in the 1959-1964 cases in Texas there was also missing body parts.
-          The killer often hid parts of the body so they were never  found or found much later disassociated from the major crime; just like the Cleveland killer who hid many a torso or head to never be found, the Texas cases also saw parts that were not located.
-          The killer sometimes used grocery and dairy style boxes; butcher wrapping paper; plastic bags.
-          The killer used, at least once, a freezer or cooling unit. In the 1959 case, where the body parts were found in two states (Texas and New Mexico), there was evidence the body might had been refrigerated for as many as six days. Who would have access to a freezer or cooling unit of size and privacy enough to hold a body and its parts for a week?  Who might be traveling roads allowing one to dump body parts in two states?  Who would have the privacy to dismember a body in some isolation? A delivery truck with a refrigerated unit moving from one delivery site to another might have such things.  Someone who picked up  meat and delivered it to grocery stores and butcher shops might have such a resource.

-          The killer often removed hands, feet and heads; although often assumed to be a means of hiding identity, this might also be a signature or a ritual of a serial killer.
-          The killer’s actions often accompanied news of a strike, or threat of a sympathetic strike, from unions and employees associated, interestingly enough, with packing house workers. Such was found in the 1941 Kansas City death of Welsh. Rumbles of strikes were often as important as actual walk-outs, slow-downs and strikes.  Unions gained strength from workers collectively supporting the struggles of others. These might be events across the country but would impact local unions and employers. The first half of the decade saw a lot of press coverage of talks, threats, counter offers and strikes across the country. In the 1951 death of Depew there was both currents of Packing worker Union strike talk and a local bus strike.  In the summer of the 1952 death of Stevens, papers were once more filled with the threat and reality of major walkouts. It was the same, for the period of the 1959-1964 matching the deaths in Texas, Georgia and Florida.
-          Was the strike a trigger for this individual? Strikes were often very violent events; had something happened in one to push this killer off the edge? Did the fear of loss of wages, loss of jobs and the problems associated with a strike trigger his need to kill?  Did he kill and dismember then as a means of asserting his control and mastery of his environment?  Just as a butcher in a slaughterhouse masters the animals sent to him in his acts of violence was he taking apart his own personal problems?
-          The killer may have, like many serial killers, have inserted himself into the investigations.  In the 1962 case in Cleveland, Texas a truck driver identifies a “bushy haired man” as one seen tossing boxes over the bridge and into the water where later boxes of body parts will be found. The term became prominent a few years earlier when Dr. Sam Shepherd used it as his defense in the Marilyn Shepherd murder case near Cleveland, Ohio.  In the use of a Borden Dairy box investigative suspicion is then directed to a man who works at the nearby Texas plant; was that the killer’s intention?  Were there other instances, lost in the notes or investigation records of other cases, that reveal a similar mysterious or strangely helpful individual?
-          The killer on several occasions made use of suitcases.  In the 1959 case, just north of El Paso, a suitcase was used to carry part of the body.  In some New York City and New England cases in the early 1960’s suitcases are once more prominent as carriers of human remains. This is significant because by the early 1960’s the killings appear to  have stopped in Texas and the south. At that same time, however, strikingly similar cases crop up in the northeast. Suitcases may indicate travel and the killer may have picked up stakes and moved to greener pastures.

Could it be that…
A killer learns his ropes in Kansas City, spurred on by tales of the old Ohio murders.  He works in the meat packing factories learning the craft of butchering.  He moves on to Oklahoma City where, perhaps, he first works for The People’s Packing Company and kills a woman stashing her body in the sewer outlet.  He moves on to the better paying companies in The Stockyards.  He drives through the area regularly, maybe goes to the theater where Lois Depew works.  He goes to the local taverns where he may see other women and girls.  He has a normal, kind, and ordinary face.  He gives rides to women walking. Maybe he has keys to the killing floor or to some off site facility where there is privacy, equipment and the necessary tools to clean up.  He knows the area and uses local roads to discard the body parts across, at least, two counties.  
After the Stevens murder and its higher profile he heads out of town and heads west toward California.  Maybe he gets a job in New Mexico or southern Texas.  He may trade in his job as a butcher for driving a refrigerated meat or grocery truck that gives him mobility, storage and work space. He can travel the new Interstate 10 from California to Florida. As he gets a little older, he heads north (back home?) toward New York and Connecticut.
 It is all just a theory.  A theory with some interesting and logical links that give food for thought. Maybe it will spark some renewed interest in local police to dust off old notes, forage for forgotten facts, and find the proof necessary to finally stamp “closed” on some of these cases.
For murder, and for uncovering the truth murder strives to conceal, we should always remember that there is no statute of limitations.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  


Maybe if we all work together, a family can get the gift of closure this season?  An excerpt from 'Into Oblivion' by Marilyn A. Hudson with help from the family of the victim.

The woman in the pink suit

The Life and Death of Olive Ruth Tilotta (1926-1957)
With help from her daughter Mary Craighead Nolte
Picayune Mississippi.
All images courtesy of Mary Craighead Nolte

Photo of Ruth Taken May or June of 1957
     The weather in July of 1957 Louisiana was its normal warm and humid. Temperatures were set to hit the mid 90’s and only cool off to a sullen 75 overnight.  The skies were mostly clear but here and there fistfuls of clouds said the forecast for scattered showers and small thunderstorms just might come true.  Cars passed with their windows down to catch every breath of breeze. Often blaring as they passed one of the top two songs of the summer.  The soft and sensuous voice of Pat Boone crooned about “Love Letters in the Sand” and competed with the rock-n-roll Elvis Presley as he sang “Won’t You Be My Teddy Bear.”
     At Grand Isle south of New Orleans the annual “Tarpon Rodeo” was getting started. It would run from July 18-20 and bring in hundreds of fisherman and people looking for fun to fill the cooler nights. Of course, New Orleans was a city where there was always a party or some entertainment to be found.  The French Quarter, Pontchartrain Beach, dozens of restaurants and clubs added to the effervescent environment  defined by the phrase ‘Laissez les bons temps rouler’ or ‘Let the good times roll!’  People were ready for some fun by July of 1957. Just the month before one of the deadliest hurricanes had come inland in western Louisiana causing tremendous damage and loss of life; before Katrina in 2005 the worst hurricane had been Audrey of June 1957. Over 400 people in Texas and western Louisiana had died in that storm.
Olive Ruth Tilotta, Ruth to all of her friends as she did not use the Olive outside the family, was born to Walter Humphries and Minnie Griffith Humphries on June 28, 1926 in Uvalde, Texas.  She married Ronald Adair Craighead (1918-1947) and then Thomas Willard Tilotta (1916-2011). 
Olive Ruth Humphries was born on June 27, 1926 in Uvalde Texas to Walter Emery (aka Emery) Humphries and Minnie Olive Griffith. Ruth was the 5th of their 7 children. All of her siblings survived her: Kitty Lou Huggins (Mrs. Fred) of Lufkin TX, Ella Mae Zingery (Mrs. Guy) of Dallas TX, Willard Emery (aka Shorty, & his wife Reba) of Lufkin TX, William Bascom (aka WB or Dub, & his wife Norma) of Stoy IL, Ida Lee Galloway (Mrs. J C "Jack") of Houston TX, and Minnie Jeanne (aka Jeanne) Day (Mrs. R E "Bob") of Kenner LA. Ruth's grandparents predeceased her, her father's parents: Bascom Humphries and Ida Lee Mosley, both born in GA but lived in TX all their adult life; her mother's parents: William Bragg Griffith (born MS) and Mary Ella Moore (born TX, both lived in TX all adult life.
Ruth was the mother of 14 year old Mary Agnes Craighead and the step-mother of 15 year old Thomas Samuel "Tommy" Tilotta and 12 year old Virginia Louise Tilotta. She and her family lived in Houston, Texas. Ruth was loved by all her family and many friends. Ruth's first husband was Ronald Adair Craighead; her 2nd husband was Thomas Willard Tilotta. She was a very beautiful and talented person, being an excellent cook, seamstress, and artist. She was buried on Aug 9, 1957 near her mother; her father was later buried between her and her mother.  The difference in information is explained by Mary Craighead Nolte: “When tombstone was ordered, her true date of death was unknown so in my ignorance I ordered the date of her burial. She was killed on Jul 19 or 20, 1957.”

She willingly took on the raising of several step-children along with her own with both gusto and affection. Prior to that summer she died there had been some discord in the marriage.  “Even before the summer of Mother’s death there were problems in the marriage.  At least once a month Daddy came home drunk enough to hit Mama, once she was hospitalized.” Mary Craighead Nolte noted.  “They separated several times but she always went back.  That was the reason she went to Louisiana that last time.  Her intention was to never go back to him.  Before leaving she consulted an attorney because she wanted to take Virginia with her.  She was advised not to take her as there was never an adoption.  Daddy never gave Virginia any attention…  Virginia suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and was retarded.  Mama and I adored her!!!!  Mother fought for Virginia’s rights to go to public school.  She was very instrumental  in getting Houston’s public schools to start special education.”  
That spring, however, the low simmer of strife  began to build. It was if in the home was a mirror of the storm clouds of Hurricane Audrey that brewed and bubbled in the Gulf of Mexico.
In July of 1957 the tension in her marriage to Tilotta reached a tipping point. She sent her daughter to grandparents and before long she was in her grey and green 1950 sedan driving to Louisiana where her sister lived.  The decision was not an easy one for the loving mother but one made with a hope to make life better for them someplace else. She sent a postcard to allay worries in her daughter (see image).  She could not remain. A husband with a growing attraction to alcohol and an out of control teenage step-son threatening violence were the last straw.
In her last communication to her daughter she wrote:
“Don’t worry honey, everything will be alright. God saw to it that I made it over here, broke, no tires, old car, up-set, and no license to drive (and I was caught, but let go). I just feel that something GOOD will happen someday. I truly do. We will forget the unhappiness of the past. Just remember the good things, grow stronger with our wisdom and look to the future. It will surely be brighter…”

Like those love letters in the sand Pat Boone sang about on the radio, a tide was coming in. It would serve to wash away all those bright hopes and dreams of the loving mother Ruth Tilotta, and carry them away off into a sea of mystery.
She had gone to New Orleans to stay with her sister and start a new life.  Her plans included sending for her daughter as soon as she could.  A police officer had stopped her but instead of a ticket he took her name and phone number.  While she stayed with her sister she received many phone calls from the man she called “Trooper.”   The police officer made a date to take her out on Friday, July 19. The probable target was the large fishing festival, the Tarpon Rodeo,  held at Grand Isle. 
From family accounts it is known she went to this event. “Mother did not go to Grand Isle alone, “ noted her daughter, “one of Aunt Jeanne’s neighbors went for the week end, hence the 2 cars.  Mother followed Faye as she (Mother) was not going to spend the night.”    
At the inquest a man, Carl Cardinal or Gardinal, gave testimony he saw the woman’s car stopped along a road and she was with a man. She was, he said, apparently vomiting from alcoholic overindulgence.   Her daughter, however, adds significant information to this widely accepted scenario. “I, Aunt Jeanne, and all my family never believed Mother was drunk.  If she swallowed even 2 swallows of liquor, she would get very ill.  She might have tried to drink but could not drink enough for most people to become intoxicated.  I am the same, just one swallow of any type of liquor and I am vomiting.  She would not have willingly drank.” 
On Sunday, August 4, 1957, two men hunting wild hogs, were in a spot about two miles from Barataria Blvd. It was only about a block from a so-called ‘lover’s lane’ and two miles from Crown Point fitting nicely between Marrero and Lafitte in Jefferson Parish and across from Estelle Bar in Barataria.  As they walked the area they came across something laying in the undergrowth.  In the nearby field was the body of a woman, clad only in her red underwear, her body at the foot of an old oak and her head in the fork of a big limb knocked down by strong winds. It was apparent she had been there for many days.  Initial reports of the ‘headless body,’ identified the location only as an isolated wooded area in the Crown Point area of Jefferson Parish.
After some search the mysterious “Trooper” was identified as Barry Roberts an officer from nearby Luling.  At first he denied meeting or knowing the woman.  Evidence soon came to light that the man had been with the murdered woman on the last date anyone saw her alive, July 19.
He was fired from his position on the grounds of providing false information by denying he had met the woman and for conduct unbecoming on on-duty officer.    Charges would be brought against him but the Jefferson Parish Grand Jury inquiry in December 1957 returned a verdict that implied not enough probable cause or evidence had been presented to categorically charge him with the crime (a “no true bill” verdict).

 Strangely, a month after the woman’s body was found, a witness who had provided information to the Grand Jury, Carl Cardinal, committed suicide and left a mysterious note for the local sheriff. He had testified to seeing Tilotti apparently drunk at the side of the road. As her daughter affirms this could not have been the case and it calls into question his whole testimony.  “The letter Carl Cardinal left was very incoherently written.” Her daughter added in an interview. “It was read several times in my presence.  I do not remember all the content, I do remember it was written in a rambling manner and barely made sense.  I think Carl saw Mother’s car near one of the wharves but cannot remember if on east or west bank of the river.”
Despite the potential impact of the death of a major witness in an unsolved murder, the Sheriff refused to share the contents of the note. Instead, he indicated the witness had made a statement but its release was tied to the final conclusion of the Tilotta case.  What could that mean?  Had the witness been incorrect in what was seen? Was the witness, perhaps,  overcome by guilt for committing perjury? What could he have to say that was so important it had to wait till the crime was finally solved? Did he really commit suicide, or, did someone with something to hid silence the man?  Most importantly, where is that note today?
The state of law enforcement, and government in general, in Louisiana during the 1950’s was a volatile one. Headlines informing of sweeping executive attempts to clean up politics and do away with corruption vied with stories of business as usual.  Although, circumstantially, the local trooper seems the most likely suspect it may be that he was totally innocent.  It may have been that the dignity of the local law outweighed the career of one man and Roberts might have been the sacrificial lamb to preserve the appearances for local civic government and law enforcement.
It is interesting to note that there was a 1950 murder of a housewife in the area, the 1956 murder and disappearance of Thomas Hotard and Audrey Moate also in the area, and in 1959 there would be another housewife who disappears from just north of the region in Baton Rogue.
Ruth with Mary, ca 1947
Through the gracious act of her daughter, Mary Nolte, the true nature of this lovely and loving mother can be shared through images and memory. She was a woman of joy, kindness, and great love.  The world was made less when she was taken from it in such a cruel manner. Despite the attempts of the day to paint her in shades of scarlet, in truth, she was just an ordinary  woman who loved the world and loved color. She was so much more than a woman in red underwear. She was… The Woman in a Pink Suit.

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