Forgotten History

The Murder of Juanita Kelly Part II


Mary Helen McKnight

Tombstone of Juanita Kelly

Cheyenne Barnes, For The Tribe

“She’s dead?” questioned Sheriff Crockett. “Dead and buried on my farm!” replied Cooper miserably.

Deputy House asked Cooper when he found her body, to which he replied “Thursday”.

“I interviewed you Friday! Why didn’t you tell me then?” Deputy House snapped.

“You don’t know the hell I’ve been through! I was afraid I’d be blamed,” Cooper cried.

Cochran County Sheriff John Sharp Crockett

Cooper went on to tell how he came across tire tracks in his Sudan field, about half a mile north of his farmhouse, Thursday evening while driving out stray cattle from a neighboring field. To his knowledge, no automobiles had been in the field so he followed the strange zig-zag trail and finally came across a mound of freshly turned earth. He then dug in the mound with his hands until he touched cold flesh and panic-stricken, hastily covered the small hole up. “I knew it must be Juanita, even before I went there with my shovel and uncovered enough of the body so that I could tell for sure. I just didn’t know what to do!” He stated it was late Thursday night when he returned to the gravesite with his shovel and partially uncovered the body. He claimed he tried to lift it by the head, but the body was wedged so tightly he could only dislodge the upper part. He tried unsuccessfully to remove the body again early Monday morning.

Cooper was arrested and placed in the county jail. Within a quarter of an hour, District Attorney Dan Blair and his assistant, Burton Burks of Lubbock were racing to Morton.

Justice J. P. Taylor, Dr. R. E. Rushing, and Dr. D. T. Jordan, and Juanita’s father, Sam Kelly, were all waiting in Sheriff Crockett’s office when Blair and Burks arrived. The men traveled to Cooper’s farm, where Cooper’s uncle, Robert Fulton, directed the men to the grave.

Using a small shovel, Deputy House dug through the packed soil, noting out loud that the soil hadn’t been disturbed since the heavy rainfall a week before. He also noted the marks on the wall of the grave indicated it had been dug with a grubbing hoe. Once his shovel scraped flesh, House used his hands to remove the remaining soil from the body. Exclamations of horror rose from the circle of men as House completed the task and Sam Kelly fell to his knees and cried brokenly. Juanita Kelly’s nude body lay face up, wedged tightly into the fourteen-inch wide grave. A deep slash was across her cheek and her throat had been cut ear-to-ear. A vicious blow had crushed her right temple causing her eye to bulge from its socket. Shredded tatters of her blouse clung to her corpse, her cloak and shoes, which were placed toe-to-heel as if packed in a shoebox, lay at her feet. “Cooper never lifted her body from the grave to identify it, her body could not be moved without widening the trench or opening the blood-caked wounds,” House observed. Doctors Rushing and Jordan agreed. Juanita’s body was taken to a vacant business building in Morton so that Justice Taylor could conduct an inquest during which he found that Juanita’s neck had been broken and the cut on her throat encircled her entire neck, she had nearly been decapitated. Two large bruises were found on her back above each kidney, “telltale evidence that burly masculine hands had clutched and held the girl,” according to Taylor.

Clothing & shoes found in Juanita Kelly’s grave

Fearing mob violence if held in Morton much longer, Cooper was rushed to Lubbock County Jail to be questioned by Lubbock Sheriff Tom Abel and his chief deputy Bedford Carpenter, who began grilling Cooper immediately. Cooper would admit nothing other than knowing the location of Juanita’s grave.

At 4:00 a.m. the morning of Tuesday, October 27, 1936, Sheriff Abel, accompanied by Chief Deputy Carpenter, Sam Fort (a Lubbock police identification expert), Patrolman Brooks Penney, Dan Blair, and Burton Burks,  Cooper was back to Juanita’s grave in the Sudan field. They were soon joined by Sheriff Crockett and Deputy House, Mayor R. E. Rose of Morton, Cochran County attorney  Lloyd R. Kennedy, Sheriff Clarence Davis and Deputy Carl Crockett of Hockley County, and newspaper reporter, E. F. Huntsucker. The men stood staring at Cooper. “I’ve told you all there is nothing to tell,” Cooper simply muttered. He complained of being cold and was given a heavy quilt that had been removed from his car, which appeared to have a dollar-sized bloodstain on it. Cooper, wrapped in the quilt, was told to stand in the grave. “Do I have to get in there?” He asked. No one answered. “All right, but I don’t like it.” When the reporter took a photo of him standing in the grave, he cried, “That’s not fair!”.

Odus Cooper standing in Juanita Kelly’s grave. Behind him, left to right: Sam Fort, Patrolman Brooks Penney, DA Daniel Blair, and ADA Burton Burks

Cooper was then seated in a car, guarded by Penney, and continuously questioned by the men present while Fort, Blair, and Burks searched Cooper’s house, outhouses, inspected garbage and ash heaps, and sifted loose dirt. They discovered tracks made by a woman wearing sharp heels leading from the farmyard in an erratic course across an open pastor cluttered with mesquite and spiny growths to a dirt road 200 yards east of the grave. Here automobile tracks intercept her progress, and she was forced to turn back into the brush. The tracks showed each time the woman attempted to get to the road, she was turned around. Turning north, parallel to the road it appears she walked beside the car until coming to an intersecting east-west road which she walked down for some distance until she climbs back into the brush, the car following her at times, according to the trail. The woman turns back to the south, toward the farmhouse, and man’s footsteps could be found occasionally following behind her. The tracks led back to the house and then turned back in the direction of the grave. In the trampling of livestock, persons, and automobiles, the tracks are lost short of the grave. Juanita’s shoes were brought from town and fitted to the clear tracks, but it was unknown if they were identified as the shoes responsible for the tracks.

Cooper complains of hunger and is driven to Sheriff Crockett’s house where he is given a hot breakfast before being placed in the county jail at Morton to give Patrolman Penney a break from guarding him. George Smith, Asa Smith’s father, shows up to the jail and speaks with Patrolman Penney, “I’ve got something I want you to see,” he stated, and Penney accompanied Smith back to his farm where he was led to a flower garden in the front of the Smith house. Smith pointed out a heavy metal object on the ground, it was a heavy grubbing hoe without a handle, covered in dried blood smears, the same type which had been used to dig Juanita Kelly’s grave. Penney picked up the hoe with a gloved hand. “A few days ago, my wife told me she saw Odus Cooper pitching this hoe head into the flower garden, right where it lies,” stated Smith. “Because of that blood, I suspected something, and ordered that nobody touched it.” Patrolman Penney rushed back to Morton with his find, which was then turned over to Sam Fort.

They returned to Lubbock, where Sheriff Abel and others continue to question Cooper while Fort spent the rest of the day examining the fingerprint on the grubbing hoe head. By that evening Fort had recovered several well-defined prints, every one of them a match to Odus Cooper. When confronted with the evidence Cooper stated, “I haven’t been telling the truth, but the real story makes it look still worse for me than what I’ve already told.”

Sam Fort (seated) compares fingerprints found on the grubbing hoe to Odus Cooper’s while Patrolman Brooks Penney looks on.

Cooper admitted that he had thrown the bloodstained hoe into the Smith yard and concocted the story of Asa leaving the dance with Juanita so that suspicion would be cast on Smith instead of himself. Cooper claimed Juanita was murdered by two thugs who chanced upon them while he and Juanita were drinking in his car, which was parked in the lane adjoining his farm. He picked Juanita up at the post office in Morton after she had left her parents and they drove down to the highway, past the dance hall, and turned off on a dirt road to the Cooper farm. While they were engrossed in drinking and cuddling, a “big man” stepped out of the darkness and pressed a gun into Cooper’s ribs, and ordered him out of the car. Juanita was pretty drunk and the intruder got in the car tried to rouse her but failed and then pulled her from the car with the gun still leveled at Cooper. The man “tried to get fresh” with Juanita, which woke her, and she slapped him, enraging the man, who grabbed what Cooper said he thought was the heavy, studded bottle of wine he and Juanita had been sharing and cracked her in the head with it. The man then forced Cooper to help him carry her body into the Sudan field where took Cooper’s pocketknife at gunpoint and began savagely slashing her. Cooper said when he tried to get the man to stop, he told him “shut up, or I’ll shoot you!” Cooper was forced back to his car where the man asked him, “Now you’ve killed that girl, what are you going to do?” At that moment, Cooper claimed, the headlights of an approaching car turned into the lane. The car stopped when it reached Cooper and the man. The man jumped into the car and they raced away into the night, leaving Cooper next to the body. Cooper was unable to provide a description of either man. “What I’ve told you is the truth,” Cooper finished, “and if I burn for it, I’ll just have to burn.”

“What did you do then?” asked Sheriff Abel. “What could I do?” Replied Cooper, “I was alone with a body on my hands, there wasn’t anything to do but bury it. Then after I covered her over, I discovered her shoes on the mudguard of my car, so I had to dig again and put them at her feet. Somehow that was an awful shock, finding those shoes.” Sheriff Abel asked Cooper why most of Juanita’s clothing had been removed and why what she did have on was cut to ribbons, to which Cooper replied, “That was the way they left her, and I buried her that way.”

For Part I of this story

Watch for Part III coming in a few weeks

All photographs used in this article courtesy of Texas’ Last Frontier Historical Museum

Sources: 1937 Interview of J. S. Crockett by Jesse Simmons; 1937 Interview of J. S. Crockett and Tom Abel by Margie Harris; Lubbock Morning Avalanche-Journal: October 27, 1936; October 28, 1936; October 29, 1936;  October 30, 1936, & October 31, 1936