Forgotten History: The Murder of Juanita Kelly  Part III

Headline+from+the+Thursday%2C+October+29%2C+1936+Lubbock+Morning+Avalanche.

Headline from the Thursday, October 29, 1936 Lubbock Morning Avalanche.

Cheyenne Barnes, For The Tribe

Sheriff Abel holds Juanita Kelly’s skirt after it is unearthed. (Photo credit: Gordon Webb)

After burying Juanita, Cooper said he took the shovel and grubbing hoe he had used to dig the grave back to the house, stopping along the way at the windmill to wash the blood from his hands and the handles. He then discovered he forgot to put Juanita’s jacket and purse in the grave with her, so he buried them somewhere between his house and the grave, those two items were never recovered. Next, he dropped the wine bottle in the water barrel to remove the blood then he went home and removed all his blood-soaked clothing, rolling them into a bundle that he kid under his kitchen cabinet. Cooper stated he then made a lot of noise, pretending as he had just gotten out of bed, put on clean clothes, and went to fetch the milk. After separating the milk, he stated he went back to the grave where he discovered blood-soaked dirt which he scooped up and placed in a gunny sack and hid it behind the barn, he later soaked it with oil and burned it.

 

He went back to his house to remove his bloody clothing, but all he could get from under the cabinet was his shirt before his wife came in. He told her he had been in a fight and that was where the blood came from. He took the shirt outside and burned it then threw the grubbing hoe head into Asa Smith’s yard and dropping the handled brush. Later she found the rest of the clothing Cooper had hidden under the cabinet, and Cooper told her it was also from the fight. 

When asked what happened to Juanita’s skirt, which was missing from the grave, Cooper replied, “I had to hide her skirt twice, once an automobile came along as I was burying it in a ditch, and I had to grab it up quick and run. Later I buried it in the road then ran my car over it several times to pack the earth down so it wouldn’t show. That’s all I know, now let me have some rest.” Cooper seemed to have lived in a mental hell following Juanita’s murder, torn between horror and fear, spending the days before confessing the location of her body returning to the grave to make sure she was still in it and moving the skirt and knife out fear they would be found.

Sheriff Abel stood up and looked at Deputy Bedford and told him, “We’re going back, bring him along.” For the second time that day, Cooper was driven back to Cochran County. In the car Sheriff Abel said, “We’ve quit fooling now, Cooper, you’re going to take us to the places where you buried those things and you’re going to dig up every last one.”

 Two and a half miles from the dance hall Cooper told them to stop, where they got out while Cooper searched for a few seconds in the brush, and came back with a heavy,

The wine bottle, grubbing hoe handle, pocketknife & clothing worn by Cooper the night of Juanita Kelly’s murder.

studded wine bottle which he handed to the sheriff. “Here, I washed it several times, there won’t be any prints but mine on it.” Cooper had thrown the blood-stained shovel handle in the brush with the bottle but was unable to find it. Juanita’s skirt was dug up from a rut a road two miles from Cooper’s home. 

Cooper then directed the men to his mother-in-law, Addie Spickard’s home. A hundred yards from her house Cooper asked them to stop, stating he didn’t want to get his family all stirred up. He led them to the chicken coop, where he dug up a white-handled two-bladed pocketknife which he gave to the sheriff, and said “That’s what he killed her with. It had been boiled and washed.” Cooper looked for his pants in the cottonseed bin before remembering he had asked his wife to burn them. He called her out of the house and asked if she burned them, to which she stated “No, I got the pants and that other thing and buried them under the floor of the outhouse.” A few minutes of digging revealed Cooper’s pants, which had been washed, and a seat canvas seat cover stiff with dried blood. The grubbing hoe handle was recovered from the brush near the Smith farm, where Cooper had planted the bloody grubbing hoe head.

The men returned with Cooper to Lubbock, stopping along the way for food and coffee. Sheriff Crockett, Deputy House, Blair, and Burks were waiting for them in Sheriff Abel’s office when they returned to continue the questioning. Thirty-six hours of continuous interrogation had passed. Blair spoke to Cooper, “Sheriff Abel told us about the things you’ve dug up. I’ve looked them over carefully; we’ve been over the ground carefully. There’s no physical evidence of anyone being in that field but you and Juanita. The story about the two me who killed her don’t wash. I think it’s time you confessed.” Cooper threw himself back in the chair, his eyes closed, and hands hanging limply at his side, and said “I can’t go any further. If you’ll let me sleep, I’ll finish this up in the morning. You have any more to ask then.” Blair nodded and Cooper was turned over to Deputy Parum Posey with orders to put him in the hospital ward and make him comfortable for the night. He was the only prisoner in the ward. 

The morning of Wednesday, October 28th, Deputy Posey went to feed Cooper only to discover Cooper, dressed only in his long underwear, crumpled on the floor between the bed and the wall in a pool of congealed blood. His left hand-laid in the pool of blood, and his left foot and leg were drawn up beneath his torso, his head and neck not visible. Blood spurts more than five feet high were seen on the white walls. His right shoe lay on the bed.  A razor blade lay beside his foot.

Around midnight, nearly the exact hour of Juanita Kelly’s murder, it is believed Cooper removed a razor blade from in between the soles of his shoe and slashed open a two-inch gash on the inside of his left arm, just above the elbow, severing the artery. He sat on the bed until blood loss weakened him and he toppled over. His death was ruled a suicide. Cooper left no note and never admitted guilt. 

 

Headline from the Thursday, October 29, 1936, Lubbock Morning Avalanche.

 

In an explanation from Cooper’s widow, Lois, the mystery of how Cooper obtained the blade was solved. She stated that on Monday, before driving into Morton to inform officials of the location of Juanita’s body, Odus had slit the stitching holding the two soles of his right shoe and inserted the razor blade. She went on to say she appreciated the way her husband had been treated by members of the sheriff’s office both in Cochran County and in Lubbock and that she was satisfied with the efforts they had made to ensure he had no weapon in his possession while he was in custody and that she had not informed anyone after seeing her husband hide the blade in his shoe.  Examination of the shoe did not show readily that the stitches had been cut and the two soles fit together tightly. 

Two days later, on October 30th, Sheriff Crockett and Sam Fort announced new evidence by an out-of-state investigator had been found that indicated more than one person was involved in Juanita Kelly’s death. Part of the evidence discovered by the investigator included “men’s footprints with a very distinguishable sole found on only one brand of shoes” that had been overlooked. Another piece of evidence uncovered by the investigator soil that had been hidden that didn’t match soil on or anywhere near the Cooper farm. Sheriff Crockett stated “most of the information is not suitable for print, but neither Mr. Fort nor I believe this case has come to light in its entirety.” 

In a letter to Juanita’s parents, professing his undying affection, her fiancé in Clovis wrote how his happiness had been severed simultaneously with her life. “We had planned great things together” he penned. 

No further information regarding this new evidence ever came to light and no new suspects were ever named. To many, Cooper’s suicide was his confession, the actions of a man with a guilty conscience and a heavy heart filled with remorse.

Tombstone of Juanita Kelly (Mary Helen McKnight)
Tombstone of Odus Cooper
(Photo credit: Mary Helen McKnight)

The story of Juanita Kelly’s murder was followed in newspapers across the state and the country.

Juanita Kelly and Lee Odus Cooper are both buried in Morton Memorial Cemetery. 

 

 

 

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

Part I of this story

Part II of this story

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