Boone County Murder Mystery
Seven decades later, the murders of a Boone County sheriff and constable remain unsolved.
(This story originally appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
Spring 1938, at the site of the murders, authorities re-enact the scene.
The plot is straight out of a Jimmy Cagney gangster movie. A small-town sheriff and his constable are lured to a remote spot, gunned down and their bodies left to bake in the hot summer sun. The killers — thought by some to be bank robbers or hired assassins — escape. Though the case offers several tantalizing possibilities, almost 70 years later the mystery remains unsolved.
Jim O’Brien was just a kid that warm June day in 1937 when Boone County Sheriff Lawrence Smoyer and Constable William Wathen were killed. He was helping his father move some threshing equipment when neighbors told them what happened. O’Brien and his father immediately headed to the pasture north of their farm.
There was no need to open the pasture gate. The killers had left the gate open, allowing cattle to wander out. The error had led authorities to the murder scene.
By the time O’Brien and his father arrived, others were on the scene, including Boone County Attorney William Keeshan. O’Brien’s father told him to sit in the car. He did so, but not before he had a chance to look at the bodies.
“I can still see them,” O’Brien told me. “Sheriff Smoyer was lying backwards… and Wathen was more foreword.” He thought both men were dead.
O’Brien would later learn that the two men had lain in the pasture for more than 24 hours, plenty of time for grasshoppers to chew holes in the men’s clothing and for Wathen, still alive, to scribble notes:
“Someone shot sheriff and me. Car No – 7-4897 Colorado. 2 men.”
Whether on horseback or behind the wheel of a pickup, O’Brien has been “riding the range” in these parts for most of his 79 years. Wearing jeans, denim shirt, straw hat and gloves, he fits easily into the rough countryside that has changed little since that day in 1937. O’Brien agreed to show me the crime scene, accompanied by Leona Buhlman, 85, who lives on a farm nearby.
The pasture where Smoyer and Wathen were murdered is along the eastern edge of the Sandhills — 13 miles west and a few miles north of Albion . In the 1940s, trees were planted to help slow the wind and keep the soil from blowing from one county to another. Today, cottonwoods, maple and spruce follow the fence lines, rising above blowouts and plum thickets and hovering over the bluestem and other prairie grasses that survive in the sandy soil. The narrow trail leading to the spot (where there is a trail at all) slips up and down hills of sand as fine and thick as that found in children’s backyard sandboxes.
O’Brien maneuvered his four-wheel-drive pickup off the gravel road and onto the narrow path. We bounced over the hills until we came to the spot where, a few days before the murders, Raymond and Norman Young, two local boys, helped pull the suspects’ black Ford out of the sand.O’Brien stopped the pickup, climbed out of the cab, pushed overhanging tree branches out of his way, tramped through the heavy sand and pointed to the approximate spot where the mysterious car was stuck.
“It’s about the same,” he said, referring to the worn trail and grassy pasture surrounding it.
Two days before the killings, the Youngs were sitting on their front porch at about 10:30 p.m. when they saw headlights on the road. Soon they heard the car engine racing and knew the driver had landed in a bad sand hole along the trail. Knowing the car wouldn’t get unstuck without help, the Youngs went down to see what they could do.
In a story in Detective magazine written by Louis “Scout” Smoyer, Lawrence Smoyer’s brother, the Youngs explained what happened:
“There were two strangers in a black Ford. One of them got out to help us push. He was about six feet tall, slim, had on a light shirt and straw hat. I noticed he was wearing black and white shoes. He was a pretty tough customer. He kept cussing the other fellow and when we finally got them out of the hole, they just said ‘thanks’ and drove away.”
Farmer Leonard Noble encountered the strangers the next day, Wednesday, June 16. He was checking fences and windmills in a pasture when he “saw a black car in a clump of trees off the road a bit. There were two fellows moving around the car.” Fearing the men were cattle thieves, Noble called Sheriff Smoyer, who investigated later that day. But by then, the car was gone.
Early the next morning, Noble spotted the car again and filed another complaint. The sheriff and deputy returned to the isolated pasture. Little did they know that would-be assassins were stationed just over the hill.
In those days, O’Brien said, it wasn’t unusual for a sheriff or his deputy not to communicate with staff or family. Patrol cars were not yet equipped with radios.
According to reports, Smoyer died instantly from a bullet through his heart. Wathen was hit in the groin area, the bullet grazing the spine and paralyzing him from the waist down. He scribbled four notes describing the car and giving a few other details about the assailants, including his belief that he had shot one of them, because “when they came to take the guns and the car keys, this man used just one arm.”
When a rain shower came along, Wathen tossed his notebook in the car in an effort to preserve his written record. Sometime later, he wrote a note for his wife on his handkerchief. Then, still awake and thirsty, he drank the ink from his pen.
The two men lay in the summer sun all afternoon. They were still there as the sun slipped behind the western horizon and night settled over the prairie. The next morning, a local man named George Blankenship noticed cattle in his yard that he knew belonged in a pasture several miles away. Mounting his horse, he was herding the cattle back to the pasture when he spotted a car. Thinking it belonged to the two mysterious strangers, Blankenship summoned help from neighbors.
Back at the courthouse, where the sheriff and his family lived, Lillian Smoyer had just spent the night worrying about her husband’s whereabouts. When the phone rang and Lillian learned of the car in the field, she called Boone County Attorney Bill Keeshan. Soon, Keeshan arrived at the scene to find Smoyer dead and Wathen barely alive.
“About noon. Am still alive. Unable to move… I was shot first. Three shots at other fellas. Lawrence never knew what hit him. Wm Wathen.”
To this day, Buhlman said, no one knows for sure why Smoyer and Wathen were gunned down. Some said that Smoyer was having an affair and that the woman’s husband hired the killers. Others said that gang members were seeking revenge for Smoyer’s involvement in getting several of the gang sent to prison. Still others said that the killers were cattle rustlers or bank robbers staking out the area.
A sense of unease and apprehension lingered in the community. “Everyone was afraid the gangsters were still lingering about,” O’Brien said. But the mysterious black Ford — with five bullet holes in it — was found abandoned the following Saturday in Cheyenne , Wyo.
A few days after the shooting, more than 3,000 people gathered on the Boone County Courthouse lawn to say goodbye to the man who had been their sheriff for more than 10 years. Louis “Scout” Smoyer was appointed sheriff in his brother’s place. William Wathen, meanwhile, was transported to Omaha where he had surgery to remove bone splinters and blood clots. There he told his story.
Wathen said he had just closed the pasture gate when the strangers in the black Ford drove over the rise of the hill toward the sheriff’s car. Smoyer sounded the car’s siren.
“I got out and started to the front of the car and one of them, the slim fellow, stepped out of their car,” Wathen told investigators. “Smoyer got out and took a couple steps when this slim fellow pulled a gun and shot him. He fell back and as I was pulling my gun, the same fellow shot me. I fell down and he shot me again but missed. I managed to empty my gun at them. The fellow who did the shooting came over and took my gun away from me, went around and took Smoyer’s out of the holster. They backed out, went around us and out of the gate.”
Paralyzed from the waist down, Wathen was powerless to help himself or Smoyer.
“June 17, 1937. One tall slim man. One medium heavy. Car No. 7-489 Colo. Two men in black Ford. Shot sheriff, myself. Smoyer dead. Not able to move. Two men. Am not able to move. They shot me first. I fired three shots after down. Goodbye. Wm.”
Wathen’s adult daughter, Helen Keller, was working in an attorney’s office when she heard her that her father had been shot. She saw him only briefly before he was transported to Omaha, where he died four months later. Now 95 and living in Denver, Keller has long wondered who killed her father. She is aware of the rumors but hesitates to place blame.
“It’s all just hearsay,” she said. “I think about it occasionally. But I’ve had a pretty good life.”
Juanita Kleibecer was eight years old when her father, Lawrence Smoyer, was killed. It was a time of confusion and a lot of crying, Kleibecer told her daughter, Joan White, of Tip City, Ohio .
“She doesn’t remember her mother telling her (about the murders),” White said, “but she remembers their home in the courthouse filled up with people, and she remembers her mother crying. She also remembers that at the funeral, she cried… and the 21 gun salute because she put her fingers in her ears.”
Lillian Smoyer and her six children lived in the courthouse apartment until Scout Smoyer married. They eventually moved to Fullerton, where the family lived on a veteran’s widow pension and on wages Mrs. Smoyer earned by working at a department store.
Joan White often thinks about the grandfather she never knew. “I wish I could have met him,” she said.
Seward County Sheriff Joe Yocum also thinks a lot about Lawrence Smoyer and Bill Wathen. He is writing a book about law enforcement officers who have been killed in the line of duty. Research and interviews have convinced him that the men who killed Smoyer and Wathen were bank robbers who were planning to rob an area bank, not hired guns bent on killing the sheriff.
Within hours, the pasture where Smoyer and Wathen were discovered was overrun with investigators and law enforcement officers. There, they took imprints of the tire tracks and discovered tin cans, milk bottles, a frying pan and spent shell casings, which they collected as evidence. The Boone County Commissioners promised a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderers. The state of Nebraska added another $200 to the prize.
Investigators, including Scout Smoyer, traveled to Colorado, Wyoming and California . Learning that the black Ford had been stolen on June 14 from a private garage in Denver, they identified a number of suspects. Warrants were issued for two men, Marvin Cooley and Charles Doody, who had served prison time together in Colorado prior to the murders. Cooley was arrested; Doody was never found.
Years later, Scout Smoyer — who resembled his brother — told of visiting Cooley in jail.
“Scout goes to jail,” Yocum said, “walks in and looks at him and he (the suspect) turns as white as a sheet. He was so petrified. He thought he was looking death in the eyes. Scout knew he was one of the men he was looking for.”
To avoid being sent to Nebraska to face murder charges, Cooley confessed to a 1932 bank robbery in Louisville, Colo. He served 10 years at a Colorado prison before being paroled in 1948. By then, Keeshan was no longer the Boone County attorney. And when Keeshan’s replacement heard from the Colorado prison warden that Cooley was about to be paroled, he wrote back that he “cannot find anything that indicates reason for taking the suspect into our custody.”
Cooley was released, having never been tried for the Nebraska murders. Yocum’s efforts to find out what happened to Marvin Cooley and Charles Doody were futile.
For years after the murders, Jim O’Brien rode his horse over the pastures and fields surrounding the murder site looking for abandoned weapons, shell casings or other evidence the suspects left behind.
Jim O’Brien visits the Smoyer-Wathen monument. He was 12 years old when he and his father arrived at the murder scene in June 1937. “I can still see them,: O’Brien said of the two bodies. At the time, he didn’t realize that Constable Wathen was still alive.
He wanted to add them to the collection of bean and sardine cans, targets and an empty shell box he found nearby about a month after the shootings.
O’Brien can’t prove the items belonged to the killers. Still, he said, it makes sense that the men hid out in that area. Back in 1937, the hill was 25 feet higher than it is today. Someone standing on top could see for three miles in almost any direction. It would have been a perfect lookout spot.
Unlike Yocum, O’Brien is convinced the men were in the area for a reason — to kill Smoyer and Wathen. “They wanted everyone to know they were there,” he said. “They wanted to arouse suspicion and lure them (the sheriff and constable) out there.”
Today, a lonely monument marks the spot where, almost seven decades ago, two law enforcement men lost their lives. The towering cottonwood tree that protected the site for more than 60 years lies in shreds near the monument, taken down by lightning.
The present monument is the second to be erected. The first, a cement pillar, succumbed to weather and vandals years ago and was hidden in the grass the day O’Brien, Buhlman and I visited. O’Brien picked it up and leaned it against the iron fence that surrounds the “new” monument, which was dedicated in 1976.
Mable Wathen Lawson, William Wathen’s daughter, was 30 years old when her father was shot. In 1965, she made a plea to area citizens to help her remember the men’s courage. “I want to do something, even if I have to do it on my own,” she told a reporter.
At one time, visitors brave enough to traverse the Sandhills trails could sign a guest book kept in a mailbox near the monument. Both have long since disappeared.
As we walked, O’Brien described the scene as he saw it through the eyes of a 12-year-old. He pointed to the hill just to the north where he suspects the gunmen lay in wait. He swept his hand back to the south in the direction of the trail we had just followed.
“The sheriff and the murderers would have come up the same path,” he said. And then he took a few steps toward the fallen cottonwood tree and brushed at the grass with his foot. “This is where they were,” he said, referring to the fallen lawmen.
Then he said he wanted to plant another cottonwood tree and replace the registration book. Buhlman agreed.
And then we loaded back into O’Brien’s pickup and headed south along the same Sandhills trail that, 68 years ago, led two law enforcement officers to their untimely and mysterious deaths.
Sheryl Schmeckpeper is a contributing writer for Nebraska Life Magazine. She lives in Norfolk. To date, 128 Nebraska law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty. Their stories can be found at www.nememorial.org. The Nebraska Law Enforcement Memorial Committee is raising money for a permanent monument at the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center and State Patrol Academy in Grand Island.
(This story originally appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)