Forgotten History: The Murder of Juanita Kelly

Cheyenne Barnes, For The Tribe

Juanita Kelly
Juanita Kelly, date unknown
Photo courtesy Texas’ Last Frontier Historical Museum

By all accounts, twenty-one-year-old Juanita Kelly was a lively, beautiful, fun-loving young woman with big brown eyes, dark curly hair, dimples, and a “distinctly feminine” figure. Juanita had moved to Clovis, New Mexico to work as a waitress where she had fallen in love and gotten engaged. Excited to tell her father and mother, Sam and Dollie Kelly, the good news, Juanita returned to her parents’ farm eight miles northeast of Morton. Always willing to lend a hand, Juanita spends her time at home helping her mother with the housework and her father in the fields.

 

The Kelly family spent Saturday, October 17, 1936 picking cotton and the family quit work early and loaded up in the car and headed for Morton to conduct business and celebrate the end of the week. With business finished the family decided to attend the only entertainment in town that night, a cowboy movie at the Wallace Theater. Juanita chose instead to go to the dance hall five miles west of Morton to attend a widely advertised dance. After agreeing to meet her parents and siblings at eleven o’clock, Juanita drove the family car to the dance. She returned, alone, from the dance at eleven-thirty, and informed her parents that she had a date with Asa Smith and wanted to return to the dance. Her parents reluctantly consented after agreeing that the Smith boy was an intelligent, well respected young man and could be trusted to escort their daughter. “I’m going to meet him at the post office,” were the last words Juanita ever spoke to her parents as they watched her walk away from the Wallace Theater in the direction of the post office.

Sunday morning it was discovered Juanita had not returned home, but her parents were not worried, thinking she must have stayed over at one of her girlfriends. Worry began to set in when she did not return later that day; Juanita was not the type of girl to worry her parents, and would typically send word of where she was. The anxiety increased on Monday morning when Dollie Kelly, Juanita’s mother, became distraught over a dream she had Sunday night in which Juanita was lying in a shallow grave naked, blood-smeared and mutilated. In an effort to console his wife, Sam said to her, “Remember the old saying, the dream of a marriage and it means death, the dream of death and it means marriage. Juanita’s going to marry that fellow over at Clovis, that’s what your dream means!” Her fear was not eased, nor was his worry.

On the morning of Tuesday, October 20th there was still no word from Juanita, her mother was inconsolable and her father had grown so worried he dropped his work in the middle of the harvest and set out to make inquiries among Juanita’s friends and relatives. None of them knew where she was.  He headed to the Sheriff’s Office in Morton where he spoke with Deputy Reed House. Deputy House suspected the girl had gone back to Clovis to her fiancé. The deputy phoned the Clovis police and asked them to check with the girl’s fiancé to see if she had returned home. Sam asked the deputy to check with the Smith boy.

Later that evening a Clovis officer spoke with Sheriff John Crockett, stating that the girl’s fiancé had not seen Juanita since she left over three weeks ago and was genuinely worried when told she was reported missing. The officer stated they would check with officers in Hobbs to see if Juanita could be traced through other friends.

Officers in Hobbs contacted Sheriff Crockett on Wednesday, Juanita was not in Hobbs.

Sheriff Crockett thought it possible Juanita had gone Lubbock, so he contacted the Lubbock County Sheriff’s Office Wednesday evening, who in turn contacted the local radio station and newspapers to broadcast the girl’s description and circumstances of her disappearance.

Lubbock AJ clipping
Bulletin published in the
Lubbock Morning Avalanche describing Juanita Kelly
Thursday, October 22, 1936

 

Sheriff Crockett decided to go speak with Juanita’s fiancé himself while Deputy House interviewed others who attended the dance. According to those interviewed, Juanita seemed to be having the “time of her life” and even though more than a dozen young men had danced with her, no one had seen Juanita leave the dance or who she left with, and no one remembered seeing her at the dance after 11:30. Deputy House saveSmith for last and questioned him carefully. Smith was irritated at the questioning, stating “I didn’t take Juanita home. Furthermore, I don’t like the talk that is going around town. It seems like I was supposed to take Juanita home, well, I didn’t!” Smith went on to state that he had taken his girl and her friend to the dance with him and between dancing with his girl and finding partners for the friend, he kept busy. He took both of the girls home, stopping in town at a local café first to get something to eat. Smith went on to say he had seen Juanita dancing with Odis Cooper, who was at the dance without his wife. Interviews with the two women Smith escorted to and from the dance revealed that Smith and the girls left the dance hall at 11:30 and he dropped them off at home around midnight.

 

Deputy House stopped by the Cooper farm to question Odis, who he found supervising a gang of cotton-pickers. Cooper was nervous, fidgeting foot to foot. “I don’t like to be mixed up in this affair any more than I have to, I left my wife at her mother’s that night, and she didn’t know I was going to the dance.” Cooper went on to admit he danced with Juanita several times that evening. When asked if he had seen Juanita leave the dance, Cooper stated “I did see her leave in a car with Asa Smith somewhere around 11:30. I had gone to my car to take a drink and had to back up so that Smith could get his machine out of the jumble of cars.” When asked if he was sure it was Asa Smith he saw leave with Juanita, Cooper replied, “Dead sure.”

 

Lee Odis Cooper
Lee Odis Cooper 1936
Photo courtesy Texas’ Last Frontier Historical Museum

Questioning associates of Cooper revealed that Cooper was “head over heels” in love with Juanita and the two had been having an affair for over a year and Saturday night was not the first night Cooper had taken his two daughters and wife to her mother’s home when he had “special work” to do. Further investigation revealed Cooper and Juanita were able to meet without arousing widespread gossip because Cooper’s wife, Lois, and Juanita were cousins.

 

Saturday, a week after the dance, Sheriff Crockett and Deputy House had given up hope of finding Juanita alive and spend that day and the next scouring the county roads and lands around the dance hall searching for evidence of her body or a grave but found nothing. Juanita’s disappearance seemed fated to remain a mystery.

 

On the morning of Monday, October 26, 1936, a trembling Odis Cooper, his face twisted in grief and horror, burst into Sheriff Crockett’s office and shouted: “I’ve found the body of Juanita Kelly!”

 

To be continued….

 

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, Heraldo de Brownsville, and the Dallas Morning News

Cheyenne Barnes & Mary McKnight 2020