In The Shadows

In The Shadows

It was a very odd story. On the evening of October 4, 1919, about twenty-five miles west of Seligman behind a small hill along the National Old Trails Road, a shepherd tending a flock made a startling discovery: the smoldering body of a man. Yavapai County sheriff department investigators determined that the victim had been shot in the back of the head with a .38-caliber pistol, wrapped in a blanket, dragged about a hundred feet from where a car had been parked, doused with gasoline, and set afire. Though the body was badly charred, officers determined that the victim was wearing a military uniform with insignia indicating that he was a member of the Twentieth Canadian Battalion of Infantry. Tracing the serial number of the military insignia, Canadian authorities helped identify the deceased as Arthur De Steunder.

Nostalgia and the perception of simpler times may underlie the popularity of Route 66, but for many enthusiasts there is also an interest in its history. Occasionally that interest is tinged with a bit of morbid curiosity.

In the era of Route 66 renaissance where the old road is viewed as America’s longest attraction there is a myopic view that often centers on neon lit nights, tail fins, and I Like Ike buttons. It is easy to forget that this highway was marketed as the Main Street of America for more than five decades. Even more obscure is the origins of that moniker. Judge Lowe of the National Old Trails Road Association penned that slogan in about 1913 to promote that pioneering coast to coast road.

Today iconic Route 66 may be a living, breathing time capsule, a destination for tens of thousands of enthusiasts seeking the romanticized image of an authentic American experience. But before being replaced by the interstate highway system it was a corridor of commerce, legal and illicit. It was traveled by vagabonds and vagrants, vacationing families and serial killers, movie stars and murderers, escaped convicts and people simply seeking a better life in the promised land that was sunny California. It was known as bloody 66, and not just because of the staggering number of traffic fatalities.

Route 66 also served as the backdrop for countless headline grabbing tragedies, disasters, and industrial accidents. Even though Nat King Cole crooned about getting your kicks on Route 66, Todd and Buzz cruised it in search of adventure, and Lucy and Desi followed it west to California in a series of comedic episodes on their popular television program America’s most well known highway had a dark side.

Blink and you will miss Budville, located a few miles west of Laguna, New Mexico. Budville never amounted to more than a garage, service station, and store complex with a roadhouse across the highway, the Dixie Tavern & Café—but this tiny service center is linked to several murders. Many enthusiasts are aware of the story about the murder to the trading posts founder and owner. But there was another bloody incident a few miles to the west.

On January 10, 1956, Ralph Henderson Rainey, a forty-six-year-old butcher from Santa Monica, was found dead along Route 66 just west of Budville. He had been shot twice in the head, and his body run over by a car. Weeks later an incident in Las Vegas, Nevada led to the arrest of Rainey’s killer and unveiled a string of murders along Route 66 and in Nevada.

Shortly before dawn on January 23, 1956, Police Sergeant Dick Barber was on duty in North Las Vegas near the Nellis Air Force Base and stopped a Buick with California plates. He estimated that the car had been traveling at more than seventy miles per hour. The driver, a man of about thirty-five with wavy brown hair, responded politely when asked for his driver’s license, which identified him as Kenneth Short of Burbank, California. Unbeknownst to Officer Barber, Kenneth Short was listed as a missing person last seen in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Then, without warning, the driver of the Buick fled the scene, and Barber pursued at high speed.

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On East College Street, the driver of the Buick lost control, rolled the sedan, crawled from the wreckage, and vanished into the residential neighborhood. Soon a massive manhunt was underway, but the driver had taken shelter—and a hostage—in the home of Loren E. Tracy. For several days the driver eluded police, but on January 24, the man who had identified himself as Kenneth Short was apprehended in Caliente, Nevada. By this time police had learned that the real Kenneth Short was an electrical engineer who had purchased a new Buick in Michigan in early January and headed west to meet his wife, Mira, in San Francisco. He had been due to arrive on January 21.

In Caliente, the mysterious driver introduced himself as Samuel Stuart and claimed that he suffered from amnesia. When pressed during interrogation in Las Vegas, he said, “I got this darned amnesia. Now I recall finding this car of Short’s parked in the hamlet of Santa Rosa in New Mexico. Any papers you found in it must have been there when I drove it off.”

On January 26, the FBI reported that Samuel Stuart was actually David Cooper Nelson, whose lengthy record included six years served in the Montana State Prison for armed robbery. Additionally, his fingerprints matched those found in Ralph H. Rainey’s blood-spattered, abandoned car. Agents then discovered that Nelson had cashed travelers’ checks belonging to Short in Lowe, Utah, and Santa Rosa, New Mexico. Nelson steadfastly stuck to his claim of amnesia until February 6. Though he would later recant the confession, Nelson outlined a trail of murder through several states.

Rainey had picked him up hitchhiking near Flagstaff, Arizona, on January 9. They later argued, according to Nelson’s testimony, over his refusal to drive, and Rainey ordered him from the car near Grants, New Mexico. Nelson said, “Then I reached in the back seat and took my gun from my suitcase. Then I took over the wheel and put the gun between my legs. At one point Rainey reached over for the gun and I hit him in the wrist with a judo blow. I told him not to goof off again. Later he reached for the gun again and I used a judo blow and hit him across the nose with the edge of my hand. Then I got a little mad and shot him in the head. I guess I had driven about fifteen miles when Rainey moaned, ‘Why did you do it?’ It was then that I fired the second shot.”

It was more than horrendous car wrecks that gave U.S. 66 its recognition as Bloody 66. Photo courtesy Joe Sonderman

While making the confession, Nelson was unaware that police had recovered the .38-caliber revolver used to murder Rainey. When confronted with evidence of his involvement with the murder of Short, Nelson again claimed amnesia. Then, as with Rainey, a few days later he launched into a rambling confession about killing Short west of Tucumcari and dumping the body in an arroyo along US 66. Nelson said, “Kenneth Short picked me up up hitchhiking near Sapulpa. Oklahoma. Some twenty-five miles west of Amarillo he parked the car on a farm road. I slept in the front seat, Short in the back. I overpowered Short while he was sleeping. I tied his hands in front of him. He opened his eyes and asked what I was doing. I told him I needed the car and if he did what I said nothing would happen to him. Then I thought, they can’t hang me any higher for two than they can for one. So, I shot him in the back of the head with the .38.”

Then Nelson dropped another bombshell: “And I also killed a fellow named John Valente on January 4.” Police listened intently to his story, as Valente had been found in the bathroom of his home at Pioche, Nevada, on January 5. Investigators had been working to determine if his death was a murder or suicide.

Before the trial for the Rainey murder, Nelson disavowed his confessions. Then, at his first trial, Nelson maintained an insanity defense, but after evaluation was found sane and guilty. At the second trial, the confessions were disallowed, but he was again found guilty. After his conviction, before pronouncement of a death sentence, Nelson tried to escape from prison. Prior to his execution, he requested that Warden Cox provide two prisoners in the cells next to his with special meals after his death. Nelson was executed in the gas chamber at 12:20 on August 11, 1960.

These are just a few of the macabre stories uncovered while conducting research for the book Murder & Mayhem on the Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66. The dark side of Route 66 is also the subject of the next episode of Coffee With Jim, our live stream program on the Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook page. And soon I will be sharing more true crime stories on a special pay per view program, the first in a new series of Jim Hinckley’s America programs that highlight unique chapters in Route 66 history.