Case NOT Closed

Dan Noble grew up near the murder site north of Akron. Stories heard in his youth come to mind while visiting the scenic but solemn site.

Alan J. Bartels

The People of Boone County look out for their own. The escape of the men who killed Boone County Sheriff Lawrence Smoyer and Constable William Wathen near Akron on June 17, 1937, didn’t sit well with locals. The state of Nebraska offered $200 for information leading to the capture of the perpetrators. Boone County commissioners offered $500. As if the injustice has been passed through generations, area residents – most not even alive at the time of the murders – still want to see justice served.

More than 3,000 people gathered on the Boone County courthouse lawn to pay respects to the victims a few days after the crime. Eight decades later, the community joined on that green grass once again, this time to dedicate a memorial to those men who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Members of the American Legion marched in with the flag and rifles as Patriot Guard riders stood stoically. The crowd bowed their heads in prayer. Boone County Sheriff Denny Johnson spoke. So did Albion-native Nebraska State Sen. Tom Briese. Descendants from near and far arrived to honor men they never knew. With their own identities not important for the solemn ceremony, blue and white name tags simply read “Smoyer” or “Wathen.” 

Phyllis Smoyer Schroeder grew up in Fullerton and lives in Omaha today. She is a granddaughter of Lawrence Smoyer but never met the man. She remembers her father being proud to be the deceased lawman’s son, and how he wished he had been able to spend more time with him. The dedication of the first marker in the hills north of Akron was closure for him. “We never missed a Memorial Day. Mom would pick a jarful of peonies and iris flowers, and we would head to Albion,” Schroeder said. “I think it is so awesome that 13 of his 14 grandchildren from across the United States are here. The people of Albion and Boone County are so amazing for doing this. We couldn’t be more grateful.” 

Dan Noble grew up a little more than a mile north of Akron, where his great-grandfather homesteaded. He has heard the stories of when Akron was a thriving community with a store and six nearby schools. A couple of homes, one former school building, the Akron Presbyterian Church and a granite marker dedicated to the memory of the 1880-1980 Akron Store are all that remain. He grew up taking the sandy trail between his home and the murder site to work in family pastures. 

“My generation grew up hearing neighbors talk about what happened on that deadly day in June of 1937,” Noble said. “I can’t imagine how those murderers ended up way out here. It was remote and still is. My folks used to take visiting friends for drives out there, and the scenery would just blow them away.”

“I was only 3 ½ years old when Grandpa Wathen was shot,” said Donald Robinson, who along with his wife, Alva, made the trip to the dedication from Whitewater, Wisconsin. “My memories of him are few. I do remember visiting him in the hospital before he died.” Smoyer was killed instantly in the ambush. Wathen died in Omaha several months after the shooting. “I grew up imagining that I might be the person to finally solve the mystery,” Robinson said. 

Seward County Sheriff Jo Yocum would like that. He’s been researching the case since 1992. Career criminals Marvin Cooley and Charles Doody were suspected of the crime. Lack of evidence led to Cooley being paroled from a Colorado robbery sentence instead of being handed over to Boone County. Doody, if he was involved, may have been hit by one of the shots fired by Wathen. He was never found. 

For the rest of the story see the September/October 2017 issue of Nebraska Life.


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