Tales from the Morgue: Deadly road trip, Part 4

2014-08-11T00:00:00Z 2014-08-11T07:18:20Z Tales from the Morgue: Deadly road trip, Part 4Johanna Eubank Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

William Estaver went on trial in April 1922.

Of course, there was much speculation about the trial, so when Estaver's testimony at the coroner's inquest was made public, The Arizona Daily Star ran most of it in the paper the day before his trial began.

From the Arizona Daily Star, Sunday April 9, 1922:

 

Estaver's Version of Killing of Woman Made Public Here

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ALLEGED SLAYER OF MRS. ANNA JOHNSON WILL TELL JURY THAT ROBBERS ATTACKED AUTO PARTY

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Detroit Dentist Will Start Fight for Life Tomorrow

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For the first time since Mrs. Anna C. Johnson, wife of a Denver contractor, was shot on a lonely road between Ajo and Stoval on the night of November 15, 1921, an authentic statement of the version of the shooting given by William S. Estaver, Detroit dentist, who will face trial tomorrow in the superior court on a charge of first degree murder in connection with Mrs. Johnson's death, was obtained for publication in Tucson yesterday.

It is expected that when Estaver takes the stand at the coming trial he will adhere to the story already told by him.

His version of the shooting is to be found in the transcript of the testimony given by Estaver at the coroner's inquest that was held in Yuma the day after the shooting. Up to yesterday no part of this transcript had been made public in Tucson.

To Blame Robbers

Estaver's version of the shooting was that the automobile in which he and Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were riding was attacked by robbers who fired at the occupants of the car from both sides of the machine. In answering the fire, Estaver reached out of the side of the car and, his foot entangled in a grip on the floor of the car, he fell out, according to his version.

He was dragged by one of the men, turned face downward in the sand and robbed of about $520, Estaver said.

Estaver's trial will begin tomorrow morning at 9:30. That there will be a titanic legal battle was indicated yesterday, when counsel for both sides expressed confidence in the outcome and readiness to plunge into the fray.

The prosecution will be handled by County Attorney George R. Darnell and Deputy County Attorney Ben B. Mathews, who have been working on the case for months. Estaver will be defended by John D. Van Buskirk and K. Berry Peterson, appointed by Judge Samuel L. Pattee several weeks ago.

After one of the sharpest legal skirmishes ever fought out before a committing magistrate of this county Estaver was held to answer to the superior court, without bond, by Justice of the Peace Oscar L. Pease, on December 30, 1921.

Held in Jail Here

Estaver has been imprisoned in the county jail here since the latter part of last November, when he was brought here from Yuma, to which town he was taken after his arrest.

Hints that there would be some surprises in store for the prosecution have been dropped by the defense camp, which, however, has maintained hermetic secrecy regarding details.

The state already has given the public an inkling of its plan of attack, being compelled to reveal at least part of its case in order to hold Estaver at the preliminary examination before Judge Pease.

According to Estaver's testimony at the coroner's inquest, he is "American and Spanish," 30 years old, and married. His wife's maiden name was Grace Gaynor, and their home address is 85 East Euclid avenue, Detroit, Michigan. They have one child, a boy. His father is dead. His mother lives in Jackson, Michigan, but he declined to give her street address.

Was Oil Man Too

Estaver testified that he had practiced dentistry for the last three years, and had "worked with oil leases" for two years.

After considerable preliminary matter, in which he went into details regarding his movements before leaving Tucson with the Johnsons, Estaver gave the following account of the events immediately preceding and following the shooting:

"I was just speaking to Mrs. Johnson at the time—that is, we were figuring on how fast we were going and what time we were making. She had a watch in her hand, and she told me we were making eight miles an hour, and the speedometer registered 61 miles; but he had not set it back at Ajo, so we could not tell how far we had gone.

"While we were talking, I was wedged in the back seat. We had a heavy load of bedding and suit cases, and everything was piled around me and over me, and part of the back curtain was up. I could just squeeze in there—couldn't move at all, and was closed from view.

"At this particular time when I was speaking to Mrs. Johnson, a man stepped up on the running board on the left hand side. He fired two shots at Mr. Johnson from the side, but the gun was very close. At that time, the car stalled, probably the shock or the shot made him take his foot from the accelerator. Anyway, the car came to a stop.

"As it did, I reached for my gun in my hip pocket. When I left Tucson to start out in the desert I had this gun. I always carry it in my traveling bag. I had a package of cartridges in there. The paper or box broke, and they were wrapped up in my suitcase in front of me. I opened the grip, took out three of them. I never carry my gun loaded. I put three of them in the gun, the rest of them I left in the grip. I got out my gun as quickly as I could, and as the car stopped and Mr. Johnson went down, another shot came from the other side of the car.

"About that time, I tried to get free action. I raised myself, and was reaching out to shoot at this man on my side, and as I did, my foot got tangled up in the grip, and I fell out on my back. As I fell, the gun dropped. It fell out of my hand. I had fired all the shots in it at that time. I fired one at the right hand side, and two on this side.

Fell Out of Car

"As I fell out of the car, a man immediately grabbed me, dragged me just a little to one side, behind one of those cactus shrubs, turned me on my stomach, and shoved me right down in the sand. As he was holding me there, he went through my pockets. In this pocket I had a roll of bills . . . He reached in there and got my watch . . . He couldn't get this chain loose, so he unsnapped the watch.

"At this time, I heard Mr. Johnson blowing the horn, and he said 'Doc,' and I could not answer. It might have been a minute or two minutes. I heard the motor start, and after the motor started the car moved on down.

"I don't know how far they got, not very far, as I could see the lights, and as the car moved on, this fellow said, 'I got it,' jumped up and ran back towards Ajo. I started to run after the car and hollered for Mr. Johnson.

"Then I heard a car move off in the opposite direction, and from the distance it seemed to be a Ford."

Estaver then told of his all-night walk to Stoval and his arrest.

The prisoner stoutly maintained his innocence at the inquest.

In answer to a question, "Don't you know you shot that woman?" he replied:

He Denies Slaying

"I certainly do not. I certainly did not have any malice against them—I only met them the day before."

Again the question was asked him:

"When you go out there and see that woman lying on the ground with her mouth open, and you think about shooting her last night, how do you feel?"

And Estaver replied:

"If I shot her, I think I would feel mighty bad about it. I think I did everything any one could do."

"What if Mr. Johnson positively says you shot him and you shot his wife?"

"He will not say that."

In brief, the state's case is approximately as follows:

Mrs. Johnson, wife of a Denver contractor, was instantly killed and her husband seriously wounded just as she was mildly chiding him for having taken a stranger aboard.

Estaver spent the night of November 14 at the Willard hotel in Tucson. He left here the next morning in the car of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, telling them that his wife was at Sentinel, about 60 miles west of Ajo, and that his car had broken down there, it is alleged.

The party traveled all day on the 15th, reaching Ajo in the afternoon. The Johnsons wanted to stay over at the New Cornella hotel, but Estaver is said to have urged them to push on, saying that his wife's friends at Sentinel, at whose home she was staying, would have accommodations for the entire party.

Mr. Johnson accordingly drove on from Ajo, Estaver directing the way, according to the prosecution. The car is said to have followed the road toward Stovall, which is south and west of Sentinel, instead of taking the Sentinel road. The road over which the Johnsons were driving was poor and little used.

At about 8:30 that night, Johnson called Estaver's attention to the fact that the speedometer showed they had driven 61 miles, and that they had "not gotten any place." Mrs. Johnson was holding her watch to see the time.

Johnson, according to his story, then heard the report of a gun and felt a stinging sensation in his head.

"Now you see, dear, what you get for picking up strangers," Mrs. Johnson is said to have exclaimed. Mrs. Johnson was then struck by bullets and died almost instantly. The woman's body fell against her husband's.

The defendant is then said to have leaped from the car and fired at Johnson twice again, wounding him in the head and in the neck. Estaver, according to reports, then disappeared in the darkness, and Johnson, holding his wife's corpse on his lap, drove on.

Johnson reached Stovall on the morning of November 16, and reported the shooting to a tourist named Cronk, also from Denver, who, with his wife, was en route to El Paso. Mr. and Mrs. Cronk notified J. J. Sullivan, special agent for the Southern Pacific, and Signal Maintainer Jack Sleeths reported that he had seen a man walking east on the Southern Pacific tracks.

Alleged Slayer Arrested

Sullivan and Sleeths drove to a point about two and one-half miles east of Stovall, overtook Estaver, arrested him and took his gun, a .32 calibre Mauser, from him, it is said. Sheriff J. M. Polhamus of Yuma county, is reported to have found several exploded shells in Johnson's car.

Estaver told Sullivan that Mexican bandits had attacked the party and shot the Johnsons, had held him and had robbed him of $520.

Johnson was wounded in the right side of his back. According to Estaver's alleged version of the shooting, the bandits mounted the car from the left side, which is said to have been filled with luggage and other tourists' belongings. Johnson was driving a new Dodge car. The wounded man had no weapon excent a small hatchet, which he kept in the car for "domestic purposes," it is said.

The spot where the Johnsons were shot has been definitely fixed as being 37 miles west of Ajo, on the Ajo-Stovall road and two miles north of Tony's Well, County Engineer W. C. Lefebvre announced, following a joint survey made by him and Norman Conway, county engineer of Yuma county.

It is an enthralling tale and might be entertaining if someone had not died or if the story were just a story.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About this blog

"Tales from the Morgue" is a way for the Star to share stories from the treasure trove of information held in its old files.

Johanna Eubank, aka the Morgue Lady, was a research assistant in the Star Library — also known as News and Research Services — for 18 years before becoming an online content producer. She has had her share of sneezing fits after digging into dusty old files, so she's sure to find a few old stories to re-examine.

If you have suggestions, comments or questions about this blog, e-mail jeubank@tucson.com

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