Tales from the Morgue: Deadly road trip, Part 2

2014-08-07T00:00:00Z 2014-08-09T13:03:12Z Tales from the Morgue: Deadly road trip, Part 2Johanna Eubank Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Peter Johnson was seriously wounded and his wife killed when they were shot east of Yuma while on the road between Tucson and Los Angeles. Johnson accused their passenger, William Estaver.

The Arizona Daily Star reported Johnson's story as told by the deputy county attorney, who pieced it together from witness reports.

The Morgue Lady will warn you that this entry in the series is quite repetitive. Readers may skip to the second article reprint and miss very little. Both articles are presented because there are some differences that may be of interest, especially to true-crime aficionados.

From the Arizona Daily Star, Saturday, Nov. 26, 1921:

 

Graphic Story of Shooting of Johnsons Told Arizona Star
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WOUNDED HUSBAND DROVE MANY MILES WITH CORPSE OF WIFE UPON HIS LAP AFTER SHOOTING
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Assailant Escaped After Crime; Estaver Arrested; Mathews Gets Story Through Report of Witnesses
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With three serious wounds in his body, and with his wife's bleeding corpse on his lap, Peter Johnson, of Denver, drove his car for an entire night over a poor and little travelled road between Ajo and Stovall, following an attack in the dark in connection with which William E. Estaver, alias J. C. Buck, is locked up in the county jail on a charge of murder.

The first complete official version of the shooting so far published in Tucson was graphically give to The Star last night by Deputy County Attorney Ben B. Mathews, following the receipt of reports from witnesses.

The shooting of Johnson occurred when Johnson protested to Estaver that after traveling 61 miles from Ajo, presumably toward Sentinel but actually in the direction of Stovall, "they had gotten no place," according to Mr. Mathews.

Just as she was mildly chiding her husband for having taken a stranger aboard, Mrs. Johnson next was shot and almost instantly killed.

Estaver will be taken before Justice of the Peace Oscar L. Pease and arraigned some time today, Mr. Mathews announced.

Estaver, alias Buck, spent the night of November 14 at the Willard hotel. 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.

Estaver Urged Them On

The party traveled all day on the 16th, 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 deputy county attorney. He 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 9:30 that night, Johnson called Estaver's attention to the fact that the speedometer showed they had driven [unreadable number] miles and that they had "not gotten any place." Mrs. Johnson was holding her watch to see the time.

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

"Now you see, dear, what you get for picking up strangers," Mrs. Johnson is said to have exclaimed.

Estaver then turned on her and fired, killing her almost instantly, according to Johnson's version, as related to Deputy County Attorney Mathews. 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 in 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 caliber 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, also of .32 caliber.

Estaver told Sullivan that Mexican bandits had attacked the party and shot the Johnsons, had held him until Johnson drove away and then turned him loose. He didn't know how the bandits got there or how they left, he is reported to have stated.

Johnson was shot by .32 bullets, Mr. Mathews said. There were no tracks except those made by the defendant, according to the account said to have been given to the county attorney by the Yuma sheriff.

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, and is said to have had about $1,000 on his person. The wounded man had no weapon except a small hatchet, which he kept in the car for "domestic purposes," it is said.

Polhamus is reported as saying that he went to Sentinel and found that Estaver or Buck had no wife or no car there.

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. Lefebrvre announced yesterday, following a joint survey made by him and Norman Conway, county engineer of Yuma county.

After Johnson was shot the first time, his wife said "Now you see, dear, what you get for picking up strangers." Earlier in this story the line was described as "mildly chiding." Shouldn't she be screaming?

At the preliminary hearing, the story would be heard directly from Peter Johnson, and perhaps Estaver would be able to tell his side.

From the Arizona Daily Star, Saturday, Dec. 11, 1921:

 

Estaver Pointed Out By Johnson as Slayer of His Wife
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ACCUSATION IS MADE IN COURT BY AGED MAN
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Details of Auto Trip and Shooting Is Again Reviewed
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"Who shot you wife?"

"Why, that fellow did."

With trembling finger, Peter Johnson of Denver, his face twitching with emotion, pointed to William S. Estaver, charged with the murder of Mrs. Anna C. Johnson, on the Ajo-Stovall road, Nov. 15, during the preliminary examination of Estaver before Justice of the Peace Oscar L. Pease, yesterday afternoon.

The accusation marked the climax of a four-hour session, held in a crowded courtroom during which the state, represented by County Attorney George R. Darnell and Deputy County Attorney Ben B. Mathews, presented its preliminary case-in-chief in an effort to have Estaver held to face trial for his life in the superior court of Pima county.

Examination continued

The examination will be resumed tomorrow morning at 11 o'clock when the defense, according to W. F. Timmons of Yuma, Estaver's attorney, will be prepared to announce whether if intends to present any evidence.

On the stand about two hours, Peter Johnson never referred to Estaver by name, but invariably pointed to him, frequently adverting to him as "that fellow" or simply using the personal pronoun. Time and time again, the accusing finger was leveled at the defendant, sometimes several words ahead of any direct reference to him.

On his part, Estaver looked straight ahead or down at the table in front of him. Only once did the accused man open his lips, and that was during a brief discussion as to the correct pronunciation of his name. The defendant pronounced it with the accent on the first syllable.

Johnson is a man past 60, with scarcely a gray strand visible in his blond hair. He speaks with a marked Scandinavian accent, and his examination as a witness was further rendered difficult by the fact that one of the four wounds he received at the time his wife was killed has seriously affected his hearing.

Defense Springs Surprise

After the state had rested its case, shortly before 5 o'clock, the defense sprang a surprise by demanding that the prosecution produce all the exhibits it intends to introduce in the superior court, especially a piece of glass from the Johnson car's windshield and bullets and empty shells.

While declaring that the request was unique in Arizona jurisprudence, Judge Pease said he was ready to listen to arguments, and would give the defense time to produce authorities in support of its contention.

Carey S. Cox, one of the proprietors of the Willard hotel, was the first witness on the stand. He testified that Estaver had registered at the hotel under the name of J. C. Beck.

J. N. McCain, a barber of East Congress street, testified that Estaver had entered his shop on Nov. 11 or 12 and that as he was getting a shave and a haircut, he told McCain that he had just walked in from Ajo, his car having broken down at the other side of that town. He said that he had started from Ajo at 7 o'clock in the morning and had reached Tucson about 3 o'clock, explaining the shortness of the time by saying that he had taken a short cut of 26 miles "across the mountains," according to the witness.

Johnson Takes the Stand

The third witness was Mr. Johnson. He said that he was [unreadable word], his home address being [unreadable number] West Twenty-ninth avenue, Denver, and that he was born in Sweden.

After preliminary statements as to his trip to Tucson and his registering at the Willard hotel, Johnson told of his first meeting with the accused man, which he said took place across the street from an automobile agency. He said that when he stepped back to his car after leaving the shop, he found Estaver talking to Mrs. Johnson, having just introduced himself as "Burgmaster."

Estaver told the Johnsons that his car had broken down on the other side of Ajo, and that service men wanted to charge him $73 to take parts out to the machine, according to the witness, who added that Estaver said his wife was waiting with the car at Sentinel.

Johnson said he told Estaver that he was already overloaded, but that later it was agreed that if Estaver would pay express charges on a trunk Johnson had in his machine, he would take him along.

Mr. and Mrs. Johnson started out the next morning and reached Ajo at 4 o'clock that afternoon, Estaver riding in the seat directly behind Johnson, who was on the left side of the front seat, the witness said.

"When we got to Ajo, that fellow said that Sentinel was 40 miles away, and that he wished we would drive on, since his wife was waiting for him there, and that the people with whom she was staying were good people and would provide accommodations for all of us," so Johnson said. "I told him that for his sake I would go on, thinking that I could make those 40 miles in two hours. He told me that the last 11 miles was hard road. We figured that my speedometer would show 70 miles when we reached Sentinel.

"So we started out, at about 4 o'clock. Between 8 and 9 o'clock I noticed that my speedometer showed 60 miles. "I told him that my speedometer showed 61 miles and that we were still in the sand, although we had only 9 miles to go and the hard road was supposed to commence 11 miles this side of Sentinel.

"Then I felt a stinging sensation in the back of my neck."

At this juncture it was that Peter Johnson made his dramatic accusation against Estaver.

After the first or second shot, Johnson said his wife screamed and exclaimed:

"That's what we get for trying to help out a stranger."

The witness said that after his wife was fatally wounded, he received three more wounds, and that he turned halfway round in his seat, and reached back to get hold of Estaver, but that he was gone.

"He must have jumped out," Johnson said.

The witness added that he drove on about 8 miles, stopped and turned off the lights, because he was afraid that Estaver would try to follow him and kill him in order to get the money that he and Mrs. Johnson had on their persons. Johnson said that his wife had expired by the time he stopped the car.

The next morning the witness said, he drove into Sentinel and saw Estaver in the custody of the Yuma sheriff.

The Accusation

"What did you say to him?" Mr. Mathews asked.

"You scoundrel, why didn't you finish me last night like you did my wife," Johnson quoted.

The witness added that Estaver then replied that he had not done the shooting.

On cross-examination, Johnson denied that during the conversation he admitted to Estaver that he was too excited to know who had shot him and his wife.

Mrs. Eliza Cronk followed Johnson on the stand. She testified to the conversation between the wounded man and Estaver at Stovall, saying that Estaver had asked Johnson:

Defendant Denies Guilt

"You don't think I did the shooting, do you?"

Mrs. Cronk testified that Estaver had reported that two men had jumped on the side of the car on the right and the other on the left but that later Estaver had said that he had only seen the shadow of the second man. The witness described the wounds of Mrs. Johnson saying that the dead woman had been shot three times.

County Engineer W. C. Lefebvre testified that the spot where the shooting occurred was pointed out to him by Deputy Sheriff Pat Holland, of Yuma county, and that it was 3 and one half miles east of the Pima-Yuma county line and four miles south of the Maricopa-Pima line.

Other witnesses who testified for the state were Walter F. Cronk, C. E. Middleby and Carmen Leon.

County Attorney Darnell said last night that as far as the state was concerned, Estaver, in case he is held to the superior court, will be tried in Ajo, the shooting having occurred in that district. The defense may, however, produce good reasons why the trial should be held in Tucson, the prosecutor said.

While we haven't heard Estaver's side of the story, surely it will come up sooner or later.

Next: Battling attorney's.

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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