Monday, January 29, 2018

Adolph Ruth: A Tragedy

January 22, 2018 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The Superstition Wilderness Area can be a confusing maze of deep canyons and lofty mountain spires to the novice. A new explorer can easily be disoriented in this rugged terrain. Did Adolph Ruth become disoriented in June of 1931? Researchers continue to disagree and speculate about this bizarre case.

Adolph Ruth
The Journal of Arizona History photo
Adolph Ruth was first reported missing on June 18, 1931, by William A. “Tex” Barkley. A search of the region around Willow Springs was started on June 19, 1931, but to no avail. Ruth remained missing for almost six months before the first real clue to his disappearance surfaced.

Richie Lewis and George “Brownie” Holmes were guiding an archaeological expedition into the Superstition Mountains on December 10, 1931. Near the “Spanish Racetrack,” at the north end of Bluff Springs Mountain, one of Lewis’ dogs began to bark and bay. At first, Holmes and Lewis thought the hound had picked up the scent of a lion. The night before it had rained heavy and usually scent was best at this time. As George “Brownie” Holmes, Lewis’ co-guide, rode over closer to the baying hound, he immediately saw what the hound was barking at. Under a small Palo Verde tree, on the moist ground, laid a human skull. Brownie dismounted so he could closely examine the skull and the site. Immediately Odds Halseth, an archaeologist, called out not to touch or disturb the skull.

Brownie noticed the previous rain had erased all sign, so he reached down and picked up the skull at the ire of two of the expedition members. He immediately noticed two large circular holes in the temporal regions of the skull and commented to the others in the group that it looked like this poor fellow must have been shot in the head.

George “Brownie” Holmes with the
skull of Adolph Ruth.
The Journal of Arizona History photo
Odds Halseth and another member of the expedition, wanted to examine the skull. Halseth studied the skull momentarily. He declared the skull appeared very old and was probably Native American. Brownie could not understand how Halseth could make such a determination when pieces of dried skin tissue still clung to the skull. It was Brownie, who announced to the group, he believed they had found the skull of Adolph Ruth, the missing prospector. Brownie later claimed he made the statement because he recognized a ridge on the top of the skull that was similar to the ridge on the forehead of Adolph Ruth, whom he had met at Barkley’s Ranch almost six months earlier. Halseth denied the fact this skull could be that of the aging treasurer hunter, who had been missing since June 15, 1931. E.D. Newcomer, a free-lance photographer for the Arizona Republic, asked Holmes to cradle the skull in his hands so he could take a photograph of it.

Controversy soon developed between the members of the expedition over what they should do since the discovery of the skull. Some wanted to continue the expedition while others wanted to return to Phoenix. Harvey Mott, staff writer for the Arizona Republic, wanted to return immediately to First Water. Richie Lewis explained to the members of the expedition what two or three more days would do if they continued into the mountains. Lewis believed whomever belonged to the skull would never know the difference. Finally, it was decided to continue on to Charlebois Spring and spend the night.

Holmes and Lewis set up the expedition’s camp at Charlebois Spring. All the while camp was being set up, Halseth fretted about the security of the skull. He was afraid coyotes might steal into camp and carry off the skull. Finally Lewis solved the problem for Halseth. Lewis tied a piece of baling wire through the skull’s gaping holes and hung it in one of the Sycamore trees high above the ground. Ruth’s skull dangled from the tree casting an eerie spell over the camp. The night of December 10th was extremely damp and cold. A ground fog completely hid the skull high in the tree at dawn. As the ground fog slowly lifted, the skull was revealed, suspended in the air, dangling by a piece of baling wire. The expedition members would never forget the ghostly site that morning.

Most of the expedition’s participants wanted to return to Phoenix that morning. Mott and Newcomer had a story, Halseth thought he had found an Indian skull and Richie Lewis, along with Holmes, was sure they had found part of “old man Ruth.” It was soon decided that the expedition would return to Phoenix. They would then confirm their find.

The archaeological expedition was well on its way by 10:00 a.m. They arrived at First Water Ranch about 3:00 p.m. The trip from First Water to Phoenix was about seventy miles. The members of the expedition finally made their way into the city editor’s room of the Arizona Republic around 10:00 p.m., December 11, 1931. It was too late in the evening to have a pathologist examine the skull to determine if, in fact, it did belong to Adolph Ruth.

It was on December 12, 1931, Dr. Orville H. Brown examined the skull and pointed out many characteristics that agreed with the photos they had of Ruth.

Dr. James J. Lasalle corroborated Dr. Brown’s opinion. Dr. Claude M. Moore, a dental surgeon, felt sure the skull was that of an aged white man who had worn dentures.

Odds Halseth continued to disagree with the three doctors, and therefore claimed the skull. He immediately planned to ship it to the National Museum of Anthropology in Washington D.C. and have it examined by an expert. Halseth sent a telegram to the Science Service, Washington D.C. at 6:43 a.m. on the morning of December 13, 1931, claiming the skull could be a Native American or an old Caucasian. Halseth also claimed the skull had tissue, odor, and attracted flies. Halseth further said he was out of funds and offered the story to the Science Service. They replied by turning his story down and refusing to become involved. Halseth at first was very disappointed with the news media.

When Halseth received his answer from the Science Service Bureau, the Arizona Republic Sunday’s front page read, “SKULL BELIEVED THAT OF MISSING PROSPECTOR FOUND IN THE MOUNTAINS.” Halseth received a telegram from Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, anthropologist and pathologist for the National Museum stating, “Skull unquestionably that of aged white man, recently shot possibly.” The Arizona Republic had gambled on the skull and had won. Dr. Ales Hrdlicka said, “recently shot possibly.”

Dr. Thomas Jarvis in 1978, forensic pathologist for Maricopa County, studied close up photos of Ruth skull and said he was not shot. The shatter pattern didn’t fit a bullet impact zone. Dr. Jarvis never actually examined the skull but did discuss it with other professional forensic pathologist and they concurred with him.

They didn’t need Halseth or his story for they had their own. The National Wire Service picked up the story and it began to appear in newspapers all over the United States. Ruth had put the Superstition Mountains on the map, but he had died tragically during the summer of 1931 to do so.

Upon the discovery of Ruth’s skull the search for his remains was once again undertaken. Jeff Adams and William A. “Tex’ Barkley found Ruth’s other remains on January 8, 1932, in a small tributary canyon on the eastern slope of Black Top Mesa. The map Ruth had was eventually published in the Arizona Republic. This finally ended the mysterious disappearance of Adolph Ruth in the Superstition Wilderness.

The search for Adolph Ruth concluded, his remains found, still there were those who believed he was murdered for a map to a lost gold mine. Erwin Ruth, Adolph’s son, was a very melodramatic individual. He continued for the rest of his life to believe his father was murdered for a lost gold mine map. Erwin worked hard to convince people of these events and often changed them to fit his story of that hot summer of 1931.

Much of this information came from a personal interview by me with George “Brownie” Holmes in 1979, a year before his death. Some information came from journal notes kept of the incident by Harvey Mott, editor of the Arizona Republican. Also personal information my father pasted on to me about the incident.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Murder in Apache Junction

January 15, 2018 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The murder of an Apache Junction widow on December 29, 1947, led to the first execution in Arizona’s new gas chamber at Florence, Arizona. This is a sad story of a pitiful man who was willing to take an innocent life to live a brief moment of success. The events leading up to the murder of Mrs. Katherine M. Gohn at her home on December 29, 1947, relives an early part of Apache Junction’s history.

The man who committed a shooting and homicide in Apache Junction worked for Julian King (above) out at King’s Ranch in 1947. Angel “Rocky” Serna, the perpetrator of the crime, was the first to be executed in Arizona’s new gas chamber.

You might say this story began at the King’s Guest Ranch near Dinosaur Mountain in the area we know today as Gold Canyon. Julian and Lucy King had begun construction on their guest ranch in 1945 and continued to improve the place. During the summer of 1946, they were asked to give Angel “Rocky” Serna a job. The county probation officer, a friend of the Kings, explained to the Kings that Serna was an ex-convict and needed another chance to go straight. The Kings gave Serna the job.

 “Rocky” as he liked to be called, helped the Kings put in their water system at the guest ranch. He worked all summer without any problem. When the weather cooled off, Rocky usually went to town on the weekends. He was very interested in horses and was a good jockey. He also owned his own racehorse for a while. Early in September of 1947, Rocky found the racehorse he wanted to buy. The only problem was the horse cost $400.00. Rocky didn’t have $400.00 or any way of obtaining it. Julian King tried to explain to him that it was a lot of money for a horse. Rocky insisted he would earn or find the money to buy the horse somehow. He quit working at the King’s Ranch near the end of October and took a job in Apache Junction. It was about nine miles out to the King’s Ranch in those days from Apache Junction.

Serna spent most of the morning at the Apache Junction Inn. His first trip down to the Superstition Mountain Chevron Station was to borrow the $400.00 from Mrs. Gohn to buy a racehorse in Chandler. Johnny Baker, the cook at the Apache Junction Inn, drove Rocky down to the service station. Mrs. Gohn wasn’t at the station.

Rocky was intelligent enough to know he could not earn $400.00 no matter what he did. It was on his second trip that he decided to rob the Superstition Mountain Chevron Station, one mile west of Apache Junction. Rocky stole a pistol from Grady Haskins and walked down to the station on Monday morning, December 29, 1947. He then walked into the Superstition Mountain Chevron Station and demanded money with a gun in his hand. Mrs. Fairy Thompson, 32, the daughter of Katherine Gohn, knew Rocky and thought he was joking around. When Mrs. Thompson laughed and said, “You are kidding Rocky,” he shot her in the left breast. Mrs. Thompson’s two young daughters were in a back room of the station. After the shot, Rocky rushed out the door. The two young girls found their mother lying on the floor. The oldest girl, Bonnie told her young sister to stay with their mother while she went to the Apache Junction Inn for help. She ran out the back door and toward Jack Anderson’s Apache Junction Inn to summon help. The police were immediately contacted.

After shooting Fairy Thompson, Rocky proceeded to the home of Katherine Gohn. Serna shot Mrs. Gohn in the hand, dragged her into the bedroom where he raped her and then shot her in the head. He then stole her car and headed east on Highway 60. He turned up King’s Ranch Road and drove up to King’s Ranch. Serna arrived at King’s Guest Ranch and confronted Paul Marchand, asking him for help to get to Safford. He further told Marchand he just killed “two women.” Marchand told Serna to go to Sand Tanks and wait for him. Marchand immediately contacted the Kings and they called the police, reporting what had happened. Sheriff Lynn Early and Sheriff Cal Bois were both involved in the search for Serna.

Earl Parrish, a Chandler constable and Highway Patrolman Coy Beasley captured Angel “Rocky” Serna several hours later. When arrested, Serna had fifty dollars in his possession. Rocky immediately confessed to killing Ms. Gohn and shooting Ms. Thompson. He was booked into Pinal County Jail at Florence.

Angel “Rocky” B. Serna was born in a small town near Douglas, Arizona, called Franklin. He had been in trouble with the law before. He was on parole from the Arizona State Prison for robbery at the time he shot Fairy Thompson and murdered her mother, Mrs. Gohn.

Angel B. Serna was tried and found guilty of murder in the First Degree and the punishment was set at death. The Pinal County Superior Court set the execution date for Serna on May 22, 1948. The Arizona State Supreme Court then gave Serna a temporary stay and then ordered Serna to be executed on January 21, 1950. Governor Dan E. Garvey granted Serna a Reprieve of Execution on December 10, 1949, and another on April 13, 1950.

Katherine Gohn’s luck ran out on December 29, 1947. Angel “Rocky” B. Serna’s luck ran out at 4:05 a.m. on July 29, 1950, when he became the first man to be executed in Arizona’s new gas chamber.

I received a letter several years ago from a retired librarian named Patricia Shively Elmore who inquired about the killer that murdered her grandmother in Apache Junction in 1947. She and I began researching the topic and the foregoing information surfaced. Today is a lot like yesterday. The victim is often forgotten and the criminal is remembered. Katherine Gohn, her daughter Fairy Thompson, the Superstition Mountain Chevron Service Station and their work have not been forgotten, nor was it in vain. Let’s hope that good will triumph over evil. My friend, Lynn Early, who was Sheriff of Pinal County in 1947, told me this story several decades ago and how tragic it was.

Another interesting twist occurred in this story. Just recently, in 2007, when Patty Brewer Simmons gave me some of the original stories and letters written by Angel “Rocky” Serna between 1948 and the time of his execution on July 29, 1950. Serna’s had hand written letters that revealed a lot about his character. Also more research revealed that 10,000 signatures were gathered in hopes of getting Angel Serna’s sentence commuted to life in prison. Even this effort by friends and family did not help Angel “Rocky” Serna escape the gas chamber at the Arizona State Prison.

Ironically, the wheels of justice move much more slowly today and it is much more difficult to bring criminals to justice. Our court systems today are overtaxed with criminal cases therefore incapacitating them from administrating justice like it should be. The court system of our county needs much stronger support from its citizen. We need more Superior Court judges to handle the huge case load the courts now deal with.