Tales form the Morgue: Deadly road trip

This is a 1926 Model T Roadster. The car driven by Peter Johnson in this series was a Dodge, probably a touring car since it had a back seat, and was made in 1921 or earlier. However, this gives the reader an idea of what Johnson was driving in the desert on unpaved roads.

Bruce McClelland/Arizona Daily Star file photo

Arguments were completed and a jury would now decide William Estaver's guilt.

From the Arizona Daily Star, Saturday, April 22, 1922:


Estaver's Fate to Be in Jury's Hand This Morning




Presentation of Testimony Ended Yesterday Morning


"Coward" and "despicable, dirty murderer"—a man fit only "for the hangman's noose"— were the terms applied to William S. Estaver, charged with murder, during the arguments to the jury in the superior court yesterday.

While the defendant's counsel conceded that Estaver had lied "here, there and everywhere," it was contended on his behalf that his version of the shooting was borne out by corroborating circumstances.

The arguments were completed last night at 9:30. This morning at 9:30, Judge Samuel L. Pattee will give the jury its instructions, and the case will then be submitted to the "twelve good men and true" who have been listening to the case for the last two weeks.

While good feeling has prevailed among the attorneys actually engaged in the trial, yesterday's arguments were characterized by unvarnished estimates of a number of the witnesses introduced by each side.

The presentation of testimony ended at about 10:30 in the morning, and the rest of the day and part of the night were devoted to the lawyers' addresses to the jury.

Deputy County Attorney Ben B. Mathews spoke first, and was followed by K. Berry Peterson and John L. Van Buskirk, in the order named, for the defense. County Attorney George R. Darnell last night closed for the state. Both attorneys for the prosecution demanded the death penalty for Estaver.

George Zavalla, constable in Yuma county, was the first witness offered by the state in rebuttal yesterday. He testified that during the month of November of last year, he was confined in the county jail at Yuma on a charge of robbery, and that he was acquitted on December 4, 1921. Zavalla is still constable in Yuma county.

Zavalla testified that he had a conversation with Estaver when the latter was first put into the jail; that Estaver woke him for a cigarette, and told him that the party with which he had been riding had been robbed in the desert.

Zavalla said that he told Estaver that he had seen him before, near Welton, last September, and that Estaver agreed that he had.

On cross-examination, Zavalla testified he had been acquitted, and that he did not give state's evidence in the case. He further testified on cross examination that he did not remember how Estaver was dressed, in September, or how the woman that was with Estaver was clad; that he did not remember whether Estaver wore a mustache; and that the car in which he saw Estaver in September was a red striped roadster, with two small separate seats, and with a tire rack containing three or four tires. When handed a picture of the Sheridan car that is alleged to have been Estaver's, Zavalla said that it was not the car in which he saw Estaver last September, adding that he did not know the make of the red car that he had seen.

Says Questions Asked Slowly

County Attorney H. H. Baker testified that at the inquest at Stoval on the night of November 16, the questions were propounded to Estaver in the ordinary manner, with the same speed as that used in propounding questions to others, and that these questions were given slowly. The witness said that the questions he asked Estaver in the county attorney's office were pronounced in an ordinary conversational style and in Mr. Baker's usual manner.

The state then rested, and the defense offered Undersheriff Charles H. Pogue as its witness in surrebuttal. Mr. Pogue testified that according to the records of the county jail, there was a person confined in the jail from June 27 to December 24 of last year by the name of James R. Burke.

The defense then rested, and the attorneys' arguments to the jury began.

The first speaker was Deputy County Attorney Mathews, whose argument lasted two hours and 37 minutes. He made a statement concerning the efforts of the county attorney's office to produce all the facts for the consideration of the jury, so that the jurors, having before them all the evidence, might be fair judges of the facts of the case.

The assistant prosecutor then traced the defendant's movements from Detroit, Omaha, Cheyenne, Denver, New Mexico, Juarez, and El Paso, and then to Tucson in October. From Tucson the attorney then followed Estaver's course to Ajo, thence to Los Angeles, with the woman who has been known as "Fairy," whom the defendant, Mr. Mathews said, had represented as his wife at the inquest. From Los Angeles Mr. Mathews traced the defendant's movements to San Francisco, and thence to Tucson. He spoke of Estaver's false registration, under the name of Beck, at the Willard and at the Heidel hotels, and then adverted to the defendant's various trips around Tucson, in which Mr. Mathews said the defendant interviewed six different persons regarding taking him to Sentinel in order to get his broken-down car and his wife, who was waiting for him at Sentinel.

Questions Statements

Mr. Mathews touched on the "falsity" of the defendant's statements to six different witnesses regarding the broken-down car on the desert, and the wife at Sentinel. He then spoke of the meeting of Peter Johnson, the dead woman's husband, and Estaver at Tucson; of Estaver's plans to "decoy" the Johnsons from their selected route through Blyth and Mecca on to the Ajo-Stoval-Yuma route. The assistant prosecutor referred to Mrs. Johnson's letter to her friend, stating that they had met a man with a car broken down on the desert, and a wife waiting for him at Sentinel.

The deputy county attorney then adverted to the trip from Tucson to Ajo, and from there to the scene of the crime. Followed an analysis of the defendant's version of the shooting, and a comparison with Johnson's account. A comparison was also made of Estaver's statements with those made by other state witnesses, showing absolute contradiction.

Mr. Mathews then read from the transcript of the defendant's sworn statement at the inquest in Stoval and also the statement made by the defendant in the Yuma county attorney's office, November 17, 1921. He then made a detailed comparison of this testimony and this statement with Estaver's statements made under oath during the present trial, pointing out to the jury many instances in which he contended that Estaver failed to agree with his former story, and many instances in which he said Estaver admitted he did not tell the truth, under oath and otherwise.

"The theory of the prosecution is that Estaver lured and decoyed the Johnsons on to an unfamiliar road to Stoval, and that in the still of the desert, where no eyes could see, he led Mrs. Johnson to the slaughter, and like a coward, shot her in the back and took away her life," Mr. Mathews declared in ringing tones.

"And like the same coward, he shot Mr. Johnson four times in the back, in order to obtain money from the sale of the car and to obtain money from the Johnsons, in order to have money to send again to the woman.

"Anna C. Johnson had no trial for her life; she had no attorney; she had no time to prepare for her Maker. The defendant has had a fair trail. He has had an attorney. We think that we have shown beyond a doubt that the defendant led these old people into a lonely spot and killed Mrs. Anna C. Johnson on the Ajo-Stoval road on November 15, 1921.

"Now we ask that you return a verdict of guilty against this despicable, dirty murderer, and assess the penalty of death."

Mr. Peterson, the first to speak for the defense, began by reminding the jury that every man is presumed innocent until proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, adding that this presumption continues to the end of the trial.

He then explained that the defense had no criticism to make of the conduct of the case as far as the county attorney's office of Pima county was concerned, but he objected to certain methods used by Yuma county officials. Specific objections mentioned by Mr. Peterson included an "inquisition," the alleged refusal to permit the immediate inspection of the scene of the crime, the alleged taking of the defendant to the morgue in the dead of night, and the alleged mentioning of the mob.

"Was the defendant given his rights there?" Mr. Peterson asked. "His purpose was to protect himself and the girl. The questions had nothing to do with the crime."

Reviews Estaver's Movements

Mr. Peterson then reviewed Estaver's movements immediately preceding his arrival in Tucson, and declared that the defendant's explanation as to why he had registered under the name of Beck was logical. He analyzed the testimony of several state witnesses at some length, especially that of Johnson, who he said might be mistaken as to what occurred.

Mr. Peterson referred to the bright lights on the Dodge car that Mr. Johnson was driving, and suggested that their very brightness might have interfered with Mr. Johnson's plainly seeing objects that were not within the radius of the lights.

Mr. Peterson also contended that the fact that Mr. Johnson was stunned and dazed by the wounds he had just received militated against the accuracy of his testimony, and that, furthermore, he could not see what happened since he was stooping over the gears. Mr. Peterson declared that the events happened so fast that no one could tell just how they occurred, and that discrepancies were bound to creep in.

"Why, if Estaver committed the crime, did he carry a gun into Stoval?" Mr. Peterson asked. "Certainly not to protect himself, for he had no shells. Was this the act of a guilty man?"

Mr. Peterson said that sympathy should not enter into the case, and that Estaver was not being tried for other moral delinquencies.

Mr. Van Buskirk began by complimenting the county attorney's office for its conduct of the case, but said that a number of the state witnesses suffered from "imagination."

The defense lawyer said that he had known some good men and women who would use assumed names.

Says Estaver Lied

After paying his respects to a number of state witnesses, Mr. Van Buskirk continued.

"Estaver lied from the time he came to Tucson until he came back to from Yuma. He lied about his name, and he lied about his money. I don't like the word, but he lied. Little lies—here and there and everywhere."

The defense attorney paid a tribute to W. F. Timmons, of Yuma, who had been formerly employed by the defendant, and who appeared as a defense witness in the present trial.

"Timmons has a greater grasp of detail than any other man I ever say," Mr. Van Buskirk said. "If County Attorney Baker of Yuma, or even his excellency, County Attorney Darnell, had had the same grasp, this case would have been handled differently."

Mr. Van Buskirk said that the cross-examination of Mr. Johnson was not relished by him.

"But they demand the life of my client, and it is my duty to defend him to the best of my ability," Mr. Van Buskirk asserted.

"Poor Mr. Johnson! He will never again be the same man he was before the night of November 15, 1921—physically or mentally. He told the truth to the best of his ability.

"No one will ever know what happened that night. You may convict my client—you may hang him—but you will never be able to clear up the mystery of what happened that night."

The defense lawyer handed the jury some bits of glass that were said by the state to have been part of the windshield of the Johnson car. He declared that they were not of the same thickness. He also exhibited drawings made by the doctors, showing the location of the bullets in the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. Mr. Van Buskirk argues that two of the wounds received by Mr. Johnson could not have been fired from within the car, either with the right hand or with the left hand.

Van Buskirk Resumes Argument

Mr. Van Buskirk resumed his argument at the night session. He went over the map prepared by W. G. Keiser, a defense witness, and argued that from the footprints found there, it was clear that there had been others at the scene of the killing besides the occupants of the Johnson car.

The defense lawyer contended that a man would not advertise the fact that he was going to make a trip with the people whom he planned to kill. He adverted to portions of the testimony in which it had been stated that Estaver had told others that he was going to Los Angeles in the automobile with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson.

Mr. Van Buskirk demanded that the jury either acquit his client or order him hanged.

"But you cannot condemn him to be hanged until you can explain exactly what occurred on the night of November 15, 1921; for until you are able to explain those happenings, there exists that reasonable doubt that the law says must be given to the defendant," the defense attorney concluded.

County Attorney Darnell closed for the state. He dwelt first on the motive for the shooting, reading two letters and a telegram from "Fairy" asking for money. He declared that despite the fact that Estaver had protested that he had money, his failing to send to the woman he cared for indicated that he didn't have it.

Says Assumed Name Used

The prosecutor declared that the defendant took an assumed name on his second trop to Tucson because he did not want to be connected with the W. S. Estaver of the first trip. He planned, Mr. Darnell said, to make away with the Johnsons, and then, for the purpose of selling the car, he would be George Johnson, for Estaver was the type of man that could easily put off an old name and put on a new one, the county attorney declared.

"It is the first time in my brief experience as a lawyer that I have heard an attorney admit that his client, charged with murder, has lied about everything except the fact of the killing itself," the county attorney asserted.

"It is a poor plea to say that a man has lied about everything except in telling how bandits came to the car [missing line of type in original] Mrs. Johnson and wounded Mr. Johnson; that makes an imposed on man of a fellow who appeared east of Stoval in a dapper condition without a scratch, and with the loss of only his watch and a roll of money that satisfied the bandits—who were men of discretion, who killed Mrs. Johnson, almost mortally wounded her husband, and let Estaver go on account of his riches!

"Mr. Van Buskirk has eulogized the Dr. Cook of Yuma county, one W. F. Timmons, because he has taken the oath to support the constitution of the state of the United States, but he has not applied the same reasoning to County Attorney H. H. Baker, of Yuma, who went through the same process to become a lawyer. If Mr. Van Buskirk felt free to attack one brother lawyer, I feel absolutely unhampered in discussing Mr. Timmons, who knows Estaver's footprints by sounds and smell, but has failed to recognize his own handwriting.

"Mr. Timmons is a Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and a Doctor Watson in a composite form, and this master has disagreed with Keiser, his chief witness, F. O. B. Yuma—with a camera—in that Timmons testified that Estaver's tracks were quite indistinct at the 'scuffle ground,' while Keiser testified that they were quite plain and prominent. Between them they have managed to bring into court a photograph of a solitary Estaver footprint, showing in the 'scuffle ground,' as the result of a titanic struggle between Estaver and cowboy bandits!

"A voice from the dead, evidences by a letter written by Mrs. Johnson, speaks louder than all Estaver's lies. The statements of Johnson, regarding who had shot him, which he testified he wrote on some cards in his pocket that night, on his ride from the scene of the shooting to Stoval, also refute the statement of the defendant's counsel that Johnson does not know who shot him.

"If we are to maintain what is known as law and order, we shall have to clear the state of Arizona of men like the defendant. Too often during the trial of a murder case, maudlin sympathy follows the rule of 'Be tender with the living; the dead is dead.'

"At such a time, only the defendant can be seen. Sympathy is oblivious to the dead. If sympathy must enter this case at all, it is certainly on the side of the woman who, when Peter Johnson drew her body over against his shoulder, gasped a few incoherent words, with her life-blood gurgling in her throat.

"For the man that made the future a barren waste for Peter Johnson and sent this woman to her death without warning, there is only one thing left—that is the hangman's noose. Unless this penalty is assessed we might as well set the defendant free to kill, unhampered, as his fancy wills."

The Morgue Lady wonders what the readers think. If you were a juror at this trial, how would you vote?

No sure? The jury agreed with you.

The term "hung jury" wasn't used even though it was a known term, but perhaps when the major form of execution was hanging, the jury didn't want to bring it up. In any case the jury could not reach a verdict after 12 hours of deliberation and was dismissed.

Judge Pattee set a new trial date for May 15, 1922. The county attorney said Estaver would be tried as many times as necessary to get an acquittal or conviction.

Estaver's attorneys asked the court to allow them to withdraw. Their reasons were financial. Arizona law did not provide for compensation for appointed attorneys. The court agreed and appointed Edwin F. Jones, Archie Conner and Louis R. Kempf. The names of the defense lawyers would change.

Next: This story has a big twist, and here it comes.