Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Mystery on Route 66

Infatuated Uncle Kidnaps, Murders 11-Year-Old Niece

By Robert A. Waters

On November 17, 1954, Jeanette Earnest disappeared. She’d been waiting for her mother to pick her up at a Fort Worth, Texas washateria after school. But when Nadine Earnest arrived, Jeanette was gone.

The hairs on Nadine's neck stood up. She knew immediately who had taken her daughter.

A few months before Jeanette went missing, Nadine had developed strong suspicions about her brother-in-law, forty-eight-year-old Thurman Priest. She abruptly moved her family's worshipping place from the Baptist Church they attended to a nearby Methodist Church. It wasn’t because of doctrinal issues—it was because Thurman, married to Nadine's sister, had started attending eleven-year-old Jeanette's Sunday School class. It seemed so weird that even the minister got involved, asking Priest to take part in one of the adult classes instead.

Married to Nadine’s sister, Priest worked as a bookkeeper for a local airline company. Newspapers characterized him "as a strange little man." In his spare time, he'd begun coming over to the Earnest home to play with Jeanette and her brothers and sisters. After it became obvious that Priest had developed a crush on the young girl, Nadine forcefully warned him to stay away.

The concerned mother had even considered moving out of state to eliminate the problem.

Now that Jeanette had vanished, Nadine called police and reported her daughter missing. She  informed investigators about Priest, describing his obsession with Jeanette. Then she called her estranged husband and Jeanette's father, H. M. Earnest, who became so upset he had to be administered sedatives.

Fort Worth Police Department officers began a frantic search for Priest. He had a head start of several hours and could be anywhere. But cops knew the danger and made the case a top priority. In addition to launching a manhunt locally, they contacted surrounding states asking that their lawmen "be on the lookout" for Priest.

As he drove out of Fort Worth, Priest told Jeanette they were moving to Ohio. She asked if "Auntie" was coming. (Auntie was Priest's wife, Etta Mae.) Priest informed the child that when he found a job, Auntie would join them.

After less than an hour on the road, Priest stopped at a motel in Irving, Texas, but spent only an hour there. No one knows what happened in that room because Priest never told.

Their next stop was a tourist court called the Holiday Motel, in Baxter Springs, Kansas. Priest rented a cabin for one night. In a later interview, the manager, Mrs.  Johnnie Page, told investigators a frightening story. She said Jeanette ran out of the cabin Tuesday afternoon, in obvious distress. Priest chased her down, shoved her into the car, and sped off. Later, a maid found bloodspots on the bathroom floor of the cabin, a small bloodstain on a towel, and an earring cops identified as Jeanette's. (Inexplicably, Page had not called police. With a phone call, Jeanette's life may have been saved.)

A few hours later, Priest stopped at a tourist court in Stanton, Missouri. There he registered the two as man and wife. At about 6:00 A.M. Wednesday morning, they left.

Jeanette was never seen alive again.

Mount Vernon, Missouri police arrested Priest after he stopped at a motel and called his wife. Etta Mae spoke to the manager and asked if a little girl was with Priest. When the manager responded that Thurman was the only person in his car, Etta Mae asked her to call police.

Detectives interviewed the suspect. At first, he claimed he didn't remember what happened to Jeanette. But when one of the interrogators mentioned that she was a "beautiful girl," it was like turning on a faucet. He turned "dreamy-eyed" and assured the detective he was right.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Priest "admitted Sunday he killed his 11-year-old niece, Jeanette Earnest, and led officers to a spot four miles east of [Lebanon, Missouri] where he had hidden the body."

The reporter wrote that "the child's fully clothed, unburied body was found in a heavy oak grove about three hundred yards off U. S. Highway 66 and almost eight miles from where the girl's blouse was found Wednesday. She had been shot once in the right temple with a .32 automatic."

During the police interview, Priest told cops where they could find the gun used to murder Jeanette. The Star-Telegram reported the FBI "identified a .32 automatic pistol and an empty cartridge found near the girl's body as having microscopic marks which showed it had been fired in the chamber of the pistol." 

The community of Fort Worth reeled in horror. Her classmates had prayed en mass for Jeanette's safe return at school on Tuesday. Her father was still bed-ridden. But Nadine remained stoic in public. Her focus was on bringing Priest to justice.

Priest claimed he and Jeanette were in love. "The last two years," he said, "I [was] always so lonesome and depressed when [Jeanette] wasn't with me. I just couldn't stand it. I was afraid the family was going to take the girl away from me. If I couldn't have her, no one could."

He claimed he loved her like a father and had never "raped" her. But Dr. Paul Jenkins, who performed the autopsy, stated he "could not determine whether she had been criminally assaulted. [He] also could not definitely show that she hadn't been."

On April 29, 1955, Priest was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

On July 6, 1960, Thurman Priest died of a heart attack while still in a Missouri prison.

In his confessions, Priest alleged that Jeanette "loved" him. That is doubtful. When she was younger, she may have been flattered by his attentions as they played children's games, but later she told her mother she viewed him as a nuisance. She also said she was embarrassed when he began attending Sunday School with her.

After abducting Jeanette, it's likely he made sexual advances toward her. At the cabin in Baxter Springs, he almost certainly attempted to molest the child. She likely fought back and tried to escape. In addition to the constant threat of sexual assault, Jeanette likely felt uncomfortable spending hours and hours alone in a car with Priest. 

Perhaps Nadine said it best: "I think he was mad at her because she was crying and wanted to go home. He decided that if he couldn't have her he didn't want anyone else to have her and decided to kill her." 

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