Sex, Murder, Scandal, and Celebrities on Route 66

In the 1940’s, W.A. “Tex” Thornton was a living legend, an almost

mythical figure whose exploits in the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma made him seem larger than life. During the 1920’s he had perfected the use of nitroglycerin and dynamite to extinguish oil field fires, and in the era of the Great Depression, developed a steady rainmaking business using balloons, timed charges, and explosives.

The Park Plaza Motel on Route 66 in Amarillo was the scene of a murder that became a media sensation. Courtesy the Joe Sonderman collection.

Shortly after WWII, Thornton and wife Sara moved to Amarillo where the reputation for wearing diamonds, carrying large rolls of cash, and driving flashy cars eclipsed that of his oil field exploits. The couple were also prominent community leaders and a member of the local chapter of the Will Rogers Range Riders. So, when Thornton’s nude body was discovered in the Park Plaza Motel at 612 Northeast 8th Street in Amarillo by a maid, Jessie Mae Walker, it was immediately a front page story.

The investigation was badly bungled from the beginning, something that would fuel the media circus that commenced during the trial. Minutes after the police arrived, Al Dewlen, city editor of the Amarillo Times, was allowed into the crime scene. To obtain a positive identification of the body members of the range riders were brought into the motel room. Blood was tracked throughout the room, souvenirs were taken, and fingerprints were left everywhere.

As the police investigation commenced, a contingent of the range riders began looking for Thornton’s car. In a few weeks a time line preceding death was established but the unknown suspects were still listed as John Doe and Mary Roe.

On June 19, 1949, Thornton left home for a potential job in Farmington, New Mexico. On the 21st, during the return trip, Thornton called Frank McCullough of Myers Motor Company in Amarillo to discuss possible distributor problems encountered on the climb to Cline’s Corner from Moriarty. The next day he picked up a young couple hitchhiking along Route 66 west of Tucumcari. That afternoon he stopped at a San Jon roadhouse to drink and visit with Torrance Popejoy, a friend and the proprietor. The young couple joined in on the festivities. Early that evening he stopped at Briggs Service Station in Adrian, and 8:20 P.M. arrived at the motel in Amarillo. A young woman paid for the room in cash, and filled out the registration card using the name E.O. Johnson of Detroit, Michigan. The manager saw two men in the car. A few hours latter the young couple inquired about a good restaurant, and asked for help in pushing starting their car. The next morning Thornton was found dead in cabin 18.

Thornton’s car was tracked east along Route 66 to Elk City, El Reno, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Then the trial went cold.

On February 17, 1950, an obviously confused women, 18-year old Heaney Johnson, turned herself into the police in Washington, D.C. The rambling, contradictory story she told about the Thornton murder wasn’t believed and Johnson was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Still, officer Porter Beale sent a telegram of inquiry to the police department in Amarillo. Further investigation left little doubt, the young woman was one half of the murderous duo. With her assistance, Evald Johnson, her husband, was arrested in Michigan.

Extradited to Amarillo, the trial commenced on May 7, 1950. Almost immediately sensationalist news stories had created a media frenzy. “Bristling and with eyes blazing, red-haired Evald Johnson testified …” read one story in an Amarillo newspaper. Adding to the chaos of the trial were vocal and intense courtroom arguments between attorneys, evidence that the investigation was mishandled, and then, a confession that Evald Johnson had beaten Thornton to death with his own gun after discovering him naked in bed with his wife.

Incredibly, largely due to the botched investigation, jurors returned a verdict of not guilty. That in itself was reason enough to generate banner headlines nationwide. The verdict, however, did not mean that the husband and wife team were set free. Evald received a four year sentence for the stolen car, and his wife four year probation.

Sex, celebrities, murder, and mayhem are all a part of the Route 66 story. They are also the subject of a new book project for Rio Nuevo Publishing. If you can’t wait for the books completion and publication, join me for a Promote Kingman sponsored walking tour in Kingman, Arizona, or a presentation of my program Murder and Mayhem on the Main Street of America.

 

 

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