Each month, John Horner digs into the Missouri Valley Special Collections to unearth a story from local history and look at it in new light. This month, John looks at a little-known, unsolved murder that took place in the heart of downtown Kansas City. Click for part one of the story.
Around 10:30 to 10:45 Friday morning, January 4, 1935, a telephone operator at the Hotel President in Kansas City reported to Betty Cole, the head operator, that the phone for room 1046 was off the hook … again.
It was the third time that morning. Around 11 o’clock Randolph Propst, the bellboy who had gone to the room the first time, a little after 7:00, headed back up to the tenth floor and the room of Roland T. Owen. As Propst approached 1046, he noted that the “Don’t Disturb” sign was still on the door. He knocked loudly three times but got no response, so Propst unlocked the door with his passkey and entered. From his statement to the police—
[W]hen I entered the room this man was within two feet of the door on his knees and elbows – holding his head in his hands – I noticed blood on his head – I then turned the light on – placed the telephone receiver on the hook – I looked around and saw blood on the walls on the bed and in the bath room – this frightened me and I immediately left the room and went downstairs …
Propst rushed to the assistant manager, M.S. Weaver, and told him what he had found. Joined by Percy Tyrrell, they hurried back to 1046, but could only open the door about six inches—apparently Owen had collapsed on the other side of the door.
Newspaper accounts, however, conflate the action, having Propst discovering Owen sitting on the edge of the bathtub, his head resting on the top of the sink, which occurred a short while later.
The police arrived in short order—Detectives Ira Johnson and William Eldredge, and Detective Sgt. Frank Howland—and at some point in this time Dr. Harold F. Flanders arrived from General Hospital. They were later joined by Detective D.C. King.
Owen had been restrained with cord—around his neck, his wrists, and his ankles—and looked like he had been tortured. Knife wounds bled on his chest from over his heart. One of these had punctured his lung. His skull was fractured on the right side, where he had been struck more than once. There was bruising around the neck, suggesting strangling as part of the torture. Besides the blood that was on the bed itself, more blood had spattered onto the wall next to the bed, and a small amount of blood could even be seen on the ceiling above the bed.
When Dr. Flanders arrived, he cut the cords around Owen’s wrists. His hands freed, Owen turned on the bathtub spigot, which Flanders shut off. Detective Johnson asked Owen who had been in the room with him. Owen, semiconscious and barely able to talk, said, “Nobody.” How had he gotten hurt? “I fell against the bathtub.” Had he tried to commit suicide? “No,” he mumbled, and then started to slip fully into unconsciousness.
Owen was rushed to the hospital.
Dr. Flanders later put the inflicting of the wounds at six to seven hours earlier, since a lot of the blood on the body had “dried to a hard mass,” and the blood on the walls and furniture had “solidified.” This would place the stabbing and cutting at well before Propst’s 7:00 trip to 1046.
As the detectives searched Room 1046 they began to realize that what they did find might not be as telling as what they didn’t. There were no clothes in the room, anywhere—no black overcoat, no shirt, no undershirt, no pants, no shoes or socks. The closest thing to clothing was the label from a necktie. Also missing were things like the usual hotel-supplied soap, shampoo, and towels. And any sort of knife or other weapon that might have been used in the stabbing and cutting.
This last, along with the cords that had bound Owen, early caused the police to set aside the possibility of suicide.
Beside the label (which showed the tie as originating from the Botany Worsted Mills Company, of Passaic, New Jersey), the only items found were a hairpin, a safety pin, an unlighted cigarette—and a small, unused bottle of dilute sulfuric acid.
There were also two water glasses. One remained on the shelf above the sink, and the other lay in the sink, missing a jagged piece. The glass top of the telephone stand yielded four small fingerprints, possibly from a woman.
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Journal-Post, the city’s evening papers, both carried the story on page one that day. The Journal-Post quoted Detective Johnson as saying that “There is no doubt that someone else is mixed up in this.”
Jean Owen was held for questioning, and was finally released when police were able to verify her account with Joe Reinert.
Roland Owen slipped into a coma before they got him to the hospital. He died a little after midnight that night, Saturday, January 5.
During the night the police queried the Los Angeles police, who found no record of any Roland T. Owen. Before the night was over, via the wire photo process, the photo lab at the Star sent Owen’s fingerprints to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (the future FBI).
Doubts were already being raised as to whether Roland T. Owen was the actual name of the victim. A woman had called the Hotel President during the night to ask for a description, and said the victim was a man who lived in Clinton, Missouri. By Sunday the Journal-Post reported that “Police believe Owen registered under an assumed name.”
This was just the start.
On Sunday people viewed the body at the Mellody-McGilley funeral home. One report says 50—another says over 300. One of the viewers was Robert Lane.
Lane identified the victim as the man who had stopped him on 13th Street. He saw the deep scratch on the arm that he had noted Thursday night. He was sure that this was the man who had waved him down under such unusual conditions.
Detective Johnson, though, dismissed the identification, not believing that the passenger was “Owen,” though I haven’t found anything that indicates he doubted that Lane picked up somebody.
Police said they did not see how “Owen” could have gotten out of the hotel without any of the staff or passersby noticing him. (This, of course, presupposes that “Owen” was dressed the way Lane describes when he left the hotel.) Another account says “enter” the hotel.
The story had been picked up on the wire services, and more and more people started contacting the Kansas City police to see if the victim might be the relative or loved one who had gone missing.
Most of these either included no description or picture of the missing relative, or they sent a description or picture that bore no resemblance to “Owen.” The police began requesting that people send pictures to help speed the identification. The KCPD also started sending letters and telegrams to police departments in cities throughout the country, trying to track down the large number of leads they were amassing.
The police established that “Owen” had been “seen in certain liquor places on 12th street in the company of two women.”
As the detectives started to hear back from other police departments around the country, they began to close out the huge number of leads they had received. The rate of new leads slowed.
Upon re-examining the room on Sunday, police briefly thought they had come upon an important clue when they found a discarded towel that was covered with blood. They concluded, though, that the towel had been left by a hotel employee who had been sent to clean after the initial forensic examination by the police. I assume that someone remembered Soptic’s statement that she had picked up the soiled towels on Friday morning and had not been allowed to deliver the fresh ones that afternoon.
At some point the detectives followed up on the statement that “Owen” had stayed at the Hotel Muehlebach the night before he came to the President. They found that no one named Roland T. Owen had registered at the Muehlebach. But on the night in question, a man who looked like the picture had stayed there, insisting on an interior room—and he had given Los Angeles as his home address.
His name in the register was Eugene K. Scott.
The police contacted the LAPD again, this time concerning Eugene K. Scott, and received the same response as they had gotten for their query about Owen.
The Los Angeles police found no record of anyone living in Los Angeles named Eugene K. Scott.
The detectives tried to find out more information about the other man, the one who was coming to be known as “the mysterious ‘Don.’”
Was he the same man who was in Owen/Scott’s room with the unnamed woman Thursday night and Friday morning? Were they the couple who both stood about five foot six—he all in brown, she all in black except for a light fur collar on her sealskin coat? Could he be the rough voiced man who told Mary Soptic through the locked door that room 1046 didn’t need any towels when she knocked on the door Thursday afternoon? Was “Don” the man that the man Robert Lane identified as Owen told Lane (Lane told police) he was going to kill?
We know that Owen/Scott told Soptic that he was expecting a visitor, and to leave the door unlocked when she finished cleaning the room. She later heard him talking with “Don” on the phone.
The search for “Don” continued.
Others came forward and identified the body. Ernest Johnson of Kansas City viewed the body and positively indentified Owen/Scott as his cousin, Harvey Johnson, formerly of Dallas. Ernest Johnson’s sister, Mrs. Anderson, came to view the body later, and told police that her cousin Harvey had died five years ago. Ernest was surprised and indicated that Owen/Scott looked exactly like Harvey.
On Friday night, January 12, Toni Bernardi of Little Rock, Arkansas, viewed the body at Mellody-McGilley. Bernardi was a wrestling promoter, and he identified Owen/Scott as the same man who had approached him several weeks earlier, wanting to sign for some wrestling matches. Bernardi said the man had given his name as Cecil Werner, and had said he had wrestled for Charles Loch of Omaha.
On Saturday, Loch looked at pictures that had been sent to Omaha, but did not recognize Owen/Scott as anyone who had ever wrestled for him.
On Tuesday, January 15, Lester W. Kircher and Clarence T. Ratliff, two city detectives were reassigned to the homicide squad. The squad was investigating two other murders beyond the one at the Hotel President.
On Monday morning Vincent J. Cibulski, manager of the Mid-State Finance Company, was in his back yard when he was shot in the abdomen and shoulder after getting out of his car. Monday night carpenter John Logan was found near Missouri Ave. and Harrison St. in an alley. Logan appeared to have been killed with an ax.
As time went by, the detectives continued to follow up leads, but the Owen/Scott case seemed to grow colder and colder. On Sunday, March 3, the Journal-Post published an announcement that Owen/Scott would be buried the next day in the potter’s field. Detective Johnson said he still hoped someday to identify the man who had been so mysteriously murdered.
The burial did not take place as announced.
Mellody-McGilley received an anonymous phone call. The caller asked that the body not be buried immediately, and promised that he or she would soon send funds to cover the costs of a funeral. On Saturday, March 23, Mellody-McGilley received a special delivery envelope containing cash wrapped in a newspaper. It was enough to pay for the funeral and burial. The sender remained unidentified.
The funeral home shared the information with the police, and the funeral was held and Owen/Scott’s body was buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Kansas City, Kansas. On Wednesday, a woman called the Journal-Post, refusing to identify herself, and told the paper that “Roland Owen was not buried in the potter’s field. Call the undertakers and the florists and you’ll learn that Mr. Owen’s funeral expenses were paid and that a floral tribute was placed on his grave.”
The flowers were secured from the Rock Flower Company, in much the same way as the funeral and burial were set up, although the anonymous money to cover the bouquet of 13 roses had to be sent twice. With the $5 payment for the flowers was a card to be placed with the flowers on the grave. It read, “Love for ever—Louise.”
The Rev. E.B. Shively of Roanoke Christian Church conducted the funeral, and the only people who attended were police detectives.
The police continued to try and track down the elusive “Don,” looking into different possibilities, but with no conclusive success.
In mid May, The American Weekly magazine, a Sunday supplement published by the Hearst Corporation, carried a sensationalistic account of the murder titled “The Mystery of Room No. 1046.” This contained a photograph of Owen/Scott’s profile, presumably taken as he lay on the coroner’s table.
(In the police file on the case I have also found a letter from Harry Keller, editor of Official Detective Stories to Chief of Detectives Thomas Higgins, KCPD, indicating that his magazine later had also published a review of the case.)
And that’s where things stood, with little real progress towards finding out Owen/Scott’s real identity or finding his killer.
Nothing obvious happened for another year and a half.
In the fall of 1936, another woman thought she recognized Owen/Scott’s picture when she came across the American Weekly article, or the Official Detective Stories review. The picture looked very much like the son of a friend of hers, whom the family had not seen since he left Birmingham, Alabama, in April of 1934.
For over a year Ruby Ogletree had not received anything from her son, except three short, typed letters, the first of which was mailed in the spring of 1935—after Owen/Scott had died. Mrs. Ogletree had exchanged more than one letter with J. Edgar Hoover, and she had written to the U.S. consul in Cairo, Egypt, seeking help in finding her son.
When she received the magazine from her friend, she finally verified what she had long feared—her son was dead.
Mrs. Ogletree exchanged letters with the KCPD, and on November 2, 1936, twenty months to the day that he had registered at the Hotel President, several newspapers around the country carried the story that let us know that Roland T. Owen’s real name was Artemus Ogletree. His mother gave Ogletree’s age as 17. She also explained that the scar in the scalp above his ear was the result of a childhood accident when he was burned by some hot grease.
Over time other facts came out. One of the most important of these was that, during his time in Kansas City, Ogletree had stayed at a third hotel, the St. Regis, sharing a room with another man, who may have been the mysterious “Don.”
But the main questions remained unanswered. Who killed him? Why was he killed? What exactly happened in room 1046 that night? Was “Don” the rough voiced man? Who was Louise? Was she the woman whose voice was heard?
The case remains unsolved. There are reports that are dated into the 1950s in the case file that usually end with the detective writing something along the lines of “I will continue to pursue the investigation.”
And that’s where things stand today.
About eight or nine years ago, when the Main Branch of the Library filled the northern half of the Board of Education Building on 12th St., and the Missouri Valley Room was located on the third floor, I took an out of state phone call from someone who asked about the case.
This person and another had been helping itemize the belongings of an elderly person who had recently died. They found a box with several newspaper clippings about the case. The caller said that, besides the newspaper clippings, something mentioned in the newspaper stories was also in the box.
The caller tantalizingly refrained from telling me what that something was.