The girl in a red plastic belt
The death of Betty Jack Stevens
Canadian County, Oklahoma, July 29, 1952
Late July 1952 in northern Texas and Oklahoma was fairly normal. The mid to high nineties It was the kind of weather locals called ‘leaving the door to hell open.’ Electric fans sold well and water cooler air systems were kept damp and freshening by barefoot children eager for any excuse to get wet in the soaring heat.temperature range and humidity.
In the news was a story a of surprise strike of Packinghouse Workers at the Oklahoma City Stockyards on July 22. Other news included the high temperatures, news of Egypt’s King Forouk ousted, the Air Force assurances that the strange “UFO blips seen over Washington D.C. were nothing but “cold air”, and a Houston chlorine gas plant leak that sent over three hundred to treatment; all in all it looked like the month would end much on a pretty average note.
On Tuesday, July 28, 21 year old Betty Jack Stevens was hitchhiking. She was the daughter of O.S. Stevens and had been born in Waxahachie before her family moved to the Dallas area. Her mother had died several years before but her aging father still lived in Grapevine and several siblings were in north Texas. She had left home at age 16 for a short, and soon annulled, marriage. Ever since then she had been working the odd waitressing job and moving around in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. She had a police record in a few locations in Texas but mostly for vagrancy and a couple for public intoxication.
Her exact timetable on that Tuesday is hazy in spots. Witnesses placed her leaving a West Dallas motor court early morning. Later, around mid-afternoon, she would tell people in she had been to Odessa. What is known is that she arrived in Henrietta, Texas over the weekend. That was where she purchased some new clothes. She discarded, perhaps because of the heat, a dark skirt and blouse. She replaced them with a new blue sweater, blue jeans, lavender shoes and a red plastic belt. The colors went well with her dark eyes and dark hair with red highlights worn in a shoulder length cut, and her brown eyes. Her eyes were one of her best features; piercing and direct with a no nonsense bravery.
Hitchhiking she arrived in the small town of Alvord where she stopped at the local Café. Alvord was a small community on US 81 and located northwest of the Dallas area. The male owner spoke with her and she told him she needed to get back to a job. Around 5 p.m. she finished a meal, as she had done so many times before, headed out the door to find a ride. No one ever saw her alive after that.
On Wednesday July 30, 1952 the forecast in the center of Oklahoma was more hot and sweltering. The Stockyards section of the metropolitan area was still struggling with the effects of a strike of union workers at the Oklahoma City Armour plant. Competition from non-union Wilson & Company was creating some tension. With many workers off or on the picket line the yards were busy but sales were “lame.”
J.P. Brooks, of Yukon, was traveling along a minor county road (Richland Road) that Wednesday not far from the old West Point School (near SW 15th). Along that stretch was a small bridge over the usually dry and sandy bedded Shell Creek. As he drove down the road that day, something in the ravine caught his eye. A nude human torso was there in the ravine on a slight incline of the bank. Oddly enough, it could be seen from the road if the driver came from the south but was not visible to vehicles coming from the north. The nearest telephone was down the road at the farm of Lee Florence and Brooks hurried there to report his find to the County Sheriff.
At this time the community of Yukon did not even have a police force. All law enforcement came through the Canadian County Sheriff or state police in the form of the State Crime Bureau (a predecessor of the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation). Tiny Royse, the county sheriff, had never encountered any crime scene like that which awaited in the dry creek bed. Local doctors seemed thrown off their game as well. Early examination of the mutilated female body described it as belonging to a young teenager of perhaps 13-16 years.
If they were off their game, they had good cause. The woman’s body was nude, headless, handless, and someone had attempted to cut off at least one of her feet. There were obvious marks of beating and torture on various parts of her body and incised in the flesh of the abdomen were the letters “R-A-T”.
Soon the small road was clogged with District Attorney’s, law officers, news hounds and the curious. One early photo clearly shows a hodge-podge of onlookers, searchers, and others wandering up and down the area where the body had been left. Despite all this traffic, they did find evidence the torso had been dragged across the dirt road and thrown down into the ravine. It was apparent that the person had then climbed over into the creek bed and pulled the body up further into the ravine. This might indicate some posing of the remains especially since it visible from one direction and not the other. Did the killer want his work found? Uncertain but after that, with hands or perhaps a branch, the killer had rubbed away his foot prints.
The remains were taken to a local funeral home while attempts at identification were made. Calls from several states and from Oklahoma communities (Enid, Woodward, Oklahoma City and Guyman) flooded local switchboards as worried parents, brothers and husbands attempted to find missing daughters.
Apparently there was an appalling number of missing women in this time period. One early wrinkle in the case was the firm conviction and publication that the mutilated woman had been the 20 year old daughter of an Oklahoma City woman, Mabel Pennington. The mother was desperate searching for her missing daughter, Tillie Mae Pennington, who was also the mother of a two year old child. The young woman had gone missing the previous Friday (July 25) in the late afternoon. Yet another OKC mother was also concerned it was her missing daughter, one Dorothy Moss, who had not been seen since Monday, July 27.
Police were stumped and clearly not sure where to go with the case that left everyone so horrified and fearful. Repeatedly the stressed that it was unclear if the individual had even been killed in Oklahoma. Unspoken was heard loudly seemed to be a prayer: please not have been done here.
On Friday August 1, at about 11 a.m., a local Oklahoma City salesman, Fuller R. Cummins, was traveling the north-south run of U.S. 81. The road comes up out of Texas (and Alvord) through Duncan into Union City and north to El Reno. About 4 miles south of Union City, south of the South Canadian River Bridge, he saw something bobbing in a shallow pool of stagnant river water. His immediate thought was the headless victim found just days before.
Authorities found there the badly decomposed and battered head of a young woman with shoulder length dark hair. Nearby were two female severed hands. Searching along the brush and in the water they found several items of women’s clothing; one a now faded blue item.
Texas authorities, near Decauter, had meanwhile discovered a man’s dead body. It had been dumped in Texas not far from U.S. 81 and so the Texas investigators entered the picture wondering if the two deaths might be related. Local law enforcement officials in Oklahoma made hearty and hopeful statements to the press. They hoped, that through the partnership of Texas authorities, there would surely be a swift end to the sad situation.
With just a torso and no hands identification of the victim had ground to a halt. She did not seem to match any known Oklahoma missing person reports. Now, after the discovery of the head and the hands the case gained new impetus. Through fingerprints she was identified. At the start of the new week, the story had now grown to include the fact the woman was an out of work waitress from Dallas with a penchant for hitchhiking.
The victim of this appalling ‘butcher-murder’ was 21 year old Betty Jack Stevens. The autopsy would only add to the horror as it became clear she had been beaten savagely, tortured, and beheaded while still alive. The carved letters may have been incised prior to death or just after.
In the way of the times, the fact she was ‘known to police’ in Texas and Dallas was titillating fodder. The degree of her trouble with police ranged from a claim that charges had been only minor vagrancies and drunken fines in her home state of Texas, all the way to the allegations of Oklahoma newspapers that she had also been a prostitute. Verification for the later was never offered in print by any news writers.
The letters carved into her abdomen, spelled “R-A-T”, and was seen as significant by many police investigators. The term was one then popular among the underworld and criminal classes for an informant. Searching into the life of the victim it was found the year before she had witness the murder of one man by another and had given testimony that put the murderer away in a Texas facility. Yet police were never able to make any connections to the prisoner or the death of Stevens.
A ghost lingered, however, in the minds of many of the law enforcement personnel. As they stood by the side of the dry creek bed or searched among the stagnant water pools and walked the muddy banks of the river they knew they were too close to another unsolved crime. One that had many similarities to the one they now faced.
Just a dozen miles away was the small farm northeast of Tuttle where just that previous March 13th the bones of another dismembered woman had been found. Had Lois Depew been a victim of this same butcher? There were just too many parallels. As they searched in that sweltering heat of the early days of August many felt certain that a local man was responsible. Not all agreed and just as many knew deep in their bones that it had to be some out of state maniacs or criminal types.
Some were firmly convinced that the woman must have been killed in Texas. Then, instead of disposing of the body anywhere between the state line and the many miles of lonely highway, the murderer had driven deep into central Oklahoma. Finally discarding their kill there along obscure lonely roads few but locals would know existed.
The case was severely hampered in several important ways that would negatively impact the course of the investigation. Convinced, as they were by the word of the local doctor that the victim was far younger, they may have missed linking her sooner with potential witnesses. The mother claiming her daughter was the victim distracted the investigation. As a result law officers became fixated on a local man who showed a lot of interest in the case. Out of left field, a Lawton woman apparently tried to pin the killing on a man with which she had some quarrel. She gained her five minutes of fame by claiming she was friends with Betty Jack Stevens. She claimed to be an eye witness to torture and Steven’s fearful confidences of fear about a menacing “Spanish looking man.” Despite her written testimony, Dallas police quickly found serious holes in her claims. Additionally, a man being held in the Oklahoma City jail “confessed” but soon proved false and officers in both Texas and Oklahoma busily searched for cars (largely non-existent) tracking down reports of blood on benders or in back seats.
Worst of all was the assumption, one made so frequently in the time, that such mutilation was solely the attempt of the killer to disguise the identity of the victim. A simple and logical assumption that would prove to be less than comprehensive in all cases. Repeat offenders who killed in the same manner or location were called “chain killers.” The era of understanding the “sadist killer” was just dawning.
There are logical fallacies in assuming the mutilation was an attempt to send a message to ‘underworld informers’ about the dangers of ‘ratting out’. The most obvious problem in the assumption is the message depends on being found and understood. The body was left in a low traffic area and dragged further back into a ravine. Investigators noted it could only been seen traveling from one direction. Unless the message was directed at someone a third party knew would be coming down that road, at the right time, and understand its meaning, it was risky.
Then, there is the obvious fact that letters carved into flesh in late July are not going to survive long as a readable message anyway. Decomposition and the work of natural scavengers would see to that in a short time. The assumption the head and hands were similarly removed to retard identification is then made a mote point when they are discarded, and found, together. Again, they are tossed off a bridge into a shallow pool of water in an otherwise drought stricken waterway along the most traveled highway of that area. These points all tend to present a killer who wanted his work found and knew enough about travel routes to know the chances of it being found were high. An argument for a local man or men.
The case provided so little information and generated so many unanswered questions. Where, for example, was she killed? There was no blood on her or around her when her body was found. To kill, drain the blood and dismember a human body would require some privacy, access to running water and drainage, and some degree of being recognized as normal for the killer(s) to be in that location to not raise alarm. This could be, as police suggested at the time, a house or farm. It might also include access to a slaughterhouse, a butcher shop, a veterinary clinic or office, or some similar location allowing the necessary privacy and tools.
Interestingly enough, the location of where her torso was found, that Richland Road and SW 15th area may provide a significant clue. Although SW 15th does not go straight through due to the North Canadian River, the street is picked up again in south Oklahoma City, running right past the Packingtown District.
Along the journey of this dramatic story, a lot about the young girl who changed into a cheerful blue outfit with a bright red belt and fun lavender shoes became lost. As this victim of human inhumanity was reduced to a collection of body parts her essential personhood was forgotten. As this object of fragments she is distanced from her context as daughter, sister, and a girl too much like someone we know for own peace of mind.
These crimes make us uncomfortable and so they should. They should make us so uncomfortable we do not stop until they are solved and the person, or persons, responsible is revealed.
Until then remember Betty Jack Stevens not as the “nude, headless torso”, the “mutilated” victim of a “mad-butcher”, not the girl with a few run-ins with police for not having a place to sleep or drinking, but on the life that should have been for the girl with the red plastic belt.