Wednesday, May 28, 2008

West Texas Murder Mystery by Bartee Haile

While I usually write my own stories, I sometimes stray and publish someone else’s work. While researching the case of Hazel and Nancy Frome, I ran across a man named Bartee Haile. What a great writer! He had already done the story and I knew I couldn’t improve on it so I asked permission to use it. He graciously agreed. For 25 years, Haile has written a column entitled “This Week in Texas History.” is his website and contains lots of info about him and his work.

On April 9, 1938, six days after two women were found murdered in Far West Texas, the El Paso sheriff announced "the first real break" in the sensational case.

Hazel Frome, 46-year-old wife of a power company executive, and her daughter Nancy, 23, arrived in Texas’ westernmost town on March 25, 1938. The women were driving cross-country from their home in Berkeley, California to Parris Island, South Carolina to visit a second daughter and her husband, an active-duty Marine.

Nancy’s showroom-new Packard, a college graduation present, developed engine trouble in the New Mexico desert. While it was being fixed, the two tourists took in the sights of El Paso and its sister city Juarez, Mexico.

The car was ready on March 30. The Fromes picked it up at the repair shop, asked for directions to Dallas, and resumed their transcontinental trip.

The next day, the Packard was found abandoned alongside the San Antonio highway a few miles west of Balmorhea. Gone were Hazel and Nancy Frome, their luggage and any clue to their whereabouts. The car had been wiped clean of fingerprints, and a painstaking inspection failed to detect a single drop of blood.

Within hours an exhaustive air-and-ground search was launched. There was no progress until a truck driver came forward with a clear recollection of a roadside incident the day the women disappeared.

He pointed out the very spot, where he had seen the Packard and a smaller automobile parked on the highway east of Van Horn. Two sets of tire tracks led a search party half a mile into the sagebrush and straight to the bodies of the missing women.

Both had been badly beaten, shot in the head, and laid side-by-side face-down in the sand. Much of their clothing had been removed, but autopsies would show neither victim had been sexually assaulted.

The bodies bore signs of torture. "The flesh looked like it had been bitten from the forearm of Mrs. Frome," read the coroner’s report. He added that her daughter’s "right hand was seared to the bone by flame or embers from a burning cigar or cigarette."

The day after the gruesome find, Gov. James V. Allred offered a thousand-dollar reward for the arrest and conviction of the persons responsible for the heinous crime. He did so in part "because it is the second instance in recent years of the disappearance of motorists in that area of the state."

The governor was referring to two couples from Illinois last seen in Albuquerque in May 1935. Their car turned up in Dallas weeks after the quartet vanished without a trace.

Half of the Texas Ranger force joined the highway patrol and the sheriffs of the far western counties in the unprecedented manhunt. Motorists gave them descriptions of a car that seemed to be following the Fromes on that fateful day. The number of occupants ranged from two to four, but the witnesses all agreed that one of the suspects was a woman with blond hair.

It was the sighting of a "nervous blonde" at Sonora that caused the El Paso sheriff to jump the gun on April 9. "I believe we have located the trail of the killers for the first time since the bodies of Mrs. Frome and Nancy were left on the desert," Chris Fox confidently assured an army of newsmen. But the female and her male companion slipped through the borderland dragnet.

Other blondes were the source of similar false alarms. A yellow-haired hitchhiker was hauled in for questioning at Temple but let go after convincing authorities she was thumbing her way to San Francisco. The report of a blonde passing through Carrizo Springs resulted in the closure of all roads in and out of Laredo.

From the start, most investigators felt the Fromes were the target of a random robbery that got out of hand. However, the fact that a diamond wrist watch and a gold wedding band were left behind prompted some lawmen to theorize the women were mistaken for drug smugglers and tortured to divulge the hiding place of their dope.

As the investigation dragged on, new theories were presented by the hard-pressed sheriff of El Paso. For a time he argued that the brutality of the slayings suggested a crime of passion, most likely revenge killings committed by somebody from California known to the victims. Then he briefly tossed around the idea that the Fromes might have met their murderers in a Juarez bar. But after awhile, even Sheriff Fox ran out of straws to grasp.

The closest Lone Star lawmen came to cracking the case was the 1943 extradition of two men and a woman from California and the arrest of a woman in Mexia. Charges were filed for the first and last time only to be dropped after everybody’s story checked out.

In a 1953 interview, Col Homer Garrison, head Ranger and director of the Department of Public Safety, stated for the record that Texas’ most baffling murder mystery of the Twentieth Century would not be solved until somebody finally talked.

Fifty-five years later, no one has said a word, and the killers, if alive, remain at large.

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at or P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.


Will Howard said...

Well, by golly, by gum. Glad you revived my memory or Bartee. Must have coffee. His slow and revealing writing style is alluring.

Robert A. Waters said...

Bartee Haile is a great writer and a generous person. I'd never heard of him until I read his article. Now I'm a big fan. Thanks for your comment. Robert A. Waters