I begin my post this week talking about the first murder victim in my book (Rampage along Route 66) – Mary Louise Hill (aka Mary Lou). As I mentioned in my last blog post, I will use this post to address some of the things that I wish I had known when I wrote the book but didn’t because of a lack of key witnesses. The first area I was planning to talk about was some of the unanswered questions I had about MaryLou’s family. But as chance would have it, I lucked out. My friend Blue Miller told me that one of MaryLou’s sisters had contacted her on her blog, Never Quite Lost. Blue helped to put me in touch with Adriana (Ann) Torri, who was one of MaryLou’s twin sisters born on the same day that she died. Ann is such a nice and sharing person, and she answered all the questions that I had. Thank you, Ann.
Before I share some of that information, I wanted to talk about the photographs accompanying the blog this week. I very recently found a website featuring yearbooks from Thomas Starr King Junior High School which served the Los Angeles communities of Silverlake, Los Feliz, Franklin Hills and East Hollywood. The younger looking photograph on the left in my blog was MaryLou’s class picture from the 1970-1971 school year. The other photograph was in that same yearbook in a dedication to their fallen classmate. The origin of the second picture was MaryLou’s maternal grandmother Ida Mae Prescott. The family called her grand-mère which is French for grandmother, acknowledging her heritage.
Mrs. Prescott had separated from her husband and moved into a small grandmother’s cottage behind MaryLou’s family’s home. She took that photograph shortly before MaryLou’s death in their back yard with a hedge in the background. I find it amazing how much MaryLou appeared to have matured between the class picture taken around September of 1970, and the backyard photograph taken around January 1971.
Ann told me that their mother was a classically trained pianist and organ player. Even though a marriage and children interrupted her concert career, she continued to give private piano lessons in spite of being a single mom raising a big family. MaryLou was also musically inclined, as were all of her sisters, and she was an extremely talented violinist and cellist.
Grand-mère took MaryLou’s death extremely hard, perhaps because she was the last family member who saw her granddaughter before her murder. Her health went downhill rapidly, and shortly after the murder she moved to Oregon to reunite with her estranged husband. She died there not long thereafter.
MaryLou’s mom went by her middle name, Lurline, and in 1973, her marriage to Paul Torri was annulled after discovering he was married to another woman. Then in 1975, another tragedy struck the family. A leaking gas line in the stove cause a fire that destroyed the home. Mary’s mom and the four of her five sisters, still living at home, were forced to move into the one-room cottage behind the main house where grand-mère once lived. The photo posted in my gallery of their home on Venango Circle was taken in 2007. Ann informed me that although it is the right location, it was not the same house they lived in back in 1971, it had been rebuilt.
This single mom worked very hard to provide for her girls. In 1981, Lurline took her two youngest girls and moved to Oregon, putting her closer to her father and her oldest daughter and family. Eventually, all of the family would end up in Oregon. In 1992, Lurline married an old acquaintance from California, and they lived together in Oregon for the rest of her life. She died in 2012 at the age of 77. It is unbelievable to think of the adversity she and her daughters endured in the years following Mary’s murder. As Ann told me, her mother was a very strong and determined woman.
One of the people I really wanted to interview for the book was Officer Ben Smith of Arizona DPS. In February 1971, Ben lived in a DPS mobile home in Houck next door to the Beckstead family. According to Sgt. Bob Harvey, Officer Smith was notified at his home about the struggle in the patrol car west of Houck and he responded to find Jim Keeton dead. While he was checking on Officer Keeton, he overheard Don Beckstead’s call for assistance over the police radio, so he sped away to the spot near Lupton where he found Don Beckstead collapsed and bleeding from a bullet wound. Officer Smith rushed his comrade to the hospital in Gallup. I am sure he would have provided interesting insight about those two shooting scenes.
Also, I would have loved to talk to Sergeant Scott Chesnut (AZDPS Criminal Investigations Division), who was the lead investigator at the Arizona crime scenes. He died from cancer prior to starting my book. Try as I might, I was unable to obtain a copy of his investigative report or any other information from the Arizona Department of Public Safety (AZDPS). I am sure Sgt. Chesnut’s report would have been just as informative as was the copy of the report I received that was written by Investigator Fred Garcia of the New Mexico State Police.
Another person who I really wanted to talk to from Gallup was Theodore Rushton, who had been the managing editor for the Gallup Independent newspaper at the time of the murders and who was with a Gallup police sergeant on the afternoon of the shootings. He responded with the sergeant to the Serna house where the wounded Dianne Brown had fled for help and the editor was later present at the abandoned coal mine later that night when they found Jim Brown’s lifeless body. He wrote two very detailed columns for the newspaper a week after the shootings. I located Ted’s home in Phoenix but, after several attempts to contact him, I never heard back. Two weeks ago, I saw a legal notice in the Phoenix newspaper that the estate of Theodore Rushton (deceased) was being settled.
The Brown’s Volkswagen
Dianne Brown was the only survivor of this horrible crime spree. She is a remarkably brave woman who unbelievably trudged nearly two miles for help while gravely wounded. Her brother, from Washington state, travelled to Gallup to be with her when she was released from the hospital, and they escorted James Brown’s body home to Missouri for his funeral. I always wondered what happened to the couple’s Volkswagen. It should have been in running condition when it high-centered on the lava flow near Grants, NM, albeit the car body was perforated with 27 bullet holes – did the insurance company total it? I could certainly see why Mrs. Brown would not have wanted it back.
In the coming months, I will be transitioning the blog to use as a tool to gather information in order to wrap up the manuscript to the book I have been working on for several years about the history of Mesa Airlines. For any of you who are airline fans, stay tuned.