Murder in canyon country: Eighty years ago, a sensational double homicide rocked the Four Corners

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Eighty years ago, a sensational double homicide rocked the Four Corners

HARRY GOULDING

Harry Goulding

Harry Goulding was a man who recognized opportunity when he saw it, and he saw it in the fall of 1921 when he first clapped eyes on Monument Valley. A Durango native, Goulding persuaded his wife Leone, whom everyone called Mike, to join him in opening a trading post in scenic Rock Door Canyon in 1925. What began as a dream in a canvas tent set amid the valley’s iconic buttes and mesas quickly grew into a thriving business run from a two-story sandstone building the Gouldings finished constructing in 1928.

Then came the 1930s, and a staggering one-two punch of drought and Depression. Worse yet for Mike and Harry, the Navajo reservation was extended northward in 1933 to include the socalled Paiute Strip, that portion of Utah territory lying south of the San Juan River. Because Goulding’s Trading Post had been built on a school section whose ownership remained with the State of Utah, Mike and Harry were allowed to stay. The flock of 1,500 sheep they’d amassed in their years of trading with their Navajo neighbors, however, would definitely have to go.

Some might argue that Harry’s decision to wait out the Depression by driving his sheep north of the San Juan onto grazing allotments already claimed by various Blanding-area cattle interests was the spark that, two years later, would ignite in a paroxysm of violence and recrimination. Others would point to events that were already unfolding over a thousand miles to the east, in the Red River Valley that forms the serpentine border between Oklahoma and Texas. However you look at it, the seeds had been sown for a classic range war to blossom in a land of high hopes and limited resources.

Lucile Garrett was born on October 10, 1920 in Wilburton, Okla. After her mother’s death in 1924, little Lottie, as the quiet girl was known, passed through various foster homes and then ultimately, at age eleven, into the custody of her father Dillard Garrett, a rootless laborer and sometimes moonshiner laid low by the Great Depression.

In May of 1934, homeless and hungry, father and daughter found themselves camped by a roadside near Hugo, Oklahoma where they were befriended by James Clinton Palmer, age 35, a charismatic psychopath and serial pedophile who’d just been released from the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan. The three agreed to join their meager estates, moving first to Palmer’s campsite at Roebuck Lake and then, at Palmer’s insistence, to a small rental house near the Palmer family farm outside of Peerless, Texas.

Bent on the seduction of 13-year old Lottie, Palmer lured Dillard Garrett to a shallow ravine near the Palmer farm and there murdered him with an ax, burning his clothing and stashing his headless torso in a cave. Palmer and Lottie then decamped for New Mexico, and later for Colorado, ostensibly to join up with Garrett who, Palmer told Lottie, had earlier fled in a stolen automobile.

While in Durango, Palmer informed Lottie that a letter from Garrett awaited her at the post office in Bayfield. The typewritten missive admonished Lottie to stay with Palmer, promising that father and daughter would soon be reunited in Missouri. The envelope, however, bore a Durango postmark, and what Lottie came to suspect was Palmer’s own handwriting.

First orphaned and now pregnant, Lottie accompanied Palmer to Utah, where Palmer drank and gambled and generally wore out his welcome in each of the small Mormon communities of Monticello, Blanding, and Bluff through which they passed. Then in the summer of 1934, the mismatched couple, now calling themselves Jimmy and Johnny Rae Palmer, or sometimes Montgomery, crossed the San Juan River on horseback into Monument Valley and there found employment tending the sheep of trading post impresario Harry Goulding.

DUGOUT SITE USED BY JAMES CLINTON PALMER

The site of the dugout used by psychopath James Clinton Palmer in John’s Canyon in Utah. Palmer befriended a 13-year-old girl and took her with him after murdering her father. Courtesy photo.

Finding the forage and water in the Valley of the Gods inadequate for the flock, Palmer repeatedly drove the Goulding sheep into nearby John’s Canyon, the winter range of Blanding cattlemen William and Harrison Oliver.

Bill Oliver, still a formidable presence at age 77, was a former sheriff of San Juan County legendary for his role in Posey’s War, considered the last Indian conflict of the American West. When the Olivers and their cattle returned to John’s Canyon in the fall of 1934 to find 1,500 head of Goulding sheep grazing on their allotment, tempers quickly flared.

Back in Texas, a group of boys out rabbit-hunting near Peerless made a grisly discovery on December 29, 1934: a headless human skeleton in an isolated ravine. Unable to make a positive identification of what were clearly the remains of a homicide victim, the Hopkins County sheriff ordered that the skeleton be placed on public display at the courthouse in Sulphur Springs.

With the onset of winter weather, and notwithstanding his frequent clashes with the irascible Texas sheepherder, Bill Oliver took pity on the pregnant girl and invited Palmer and Lottie to move into an old oil company shack inside John’s Canyon. Soon thereafter, complications with her pregnancy forced Lottie to return to Goulding’s Trading Post, where she remained from Thanksgiving until Dec. 11, landing finally in the care of a midwife in Monticello.

Her baby boy, whom she named James Dee Palmer, was born prematurely on December 31, 1934, and died seven days later.

During Lottie’s absence, Palmer had constructed a crude dugout shelter inside John’s Canyon, and it was to this dismal habitat that Lottie returned in mid-January of 1935. Then on February 28, 1935, just as Palmer and Lottie were re-entering the canyon in their wagon, they encountered Bill Oliver on horseback, once again evicting the trespassing sheep. Palmer and Oliver exchanged angry words, and when Oliver lashed at Palmer with a rope, Palmer drew his pistol and shot Oliver from his horse. He then took his rifle from the wagon and emptied it into the dying lawman before dragging Oliver’s body to the San Juan River gorge and shoving it over the cliff. Oliver’s grandson, Norris “Jake” Shumway, age 24, was also in the canyon that day, and either went into hiding following his grandfather’s murder or else remained blissfully ignorant of the event. That evening, Shumway carved what would prove to be his own epitaph – N.S. FEB 28 1935 – into a sandstone boulder near his campsite. The next day, March 1, 1935, Palmer found Shumway, shot him dead, and then decapitated his corpse with an ax before likewise pushing it over the cliff.

Lottie and Palmer loaded their effects into Harrison Oliver’s Model A Ford and fled John’s Canyon for Goulding’s Trading Post, where they arrived the next morning on three flattened tires. They procured at gunpoint all the Gouldings’ cash as well as their 1931 Chevrolet, in which the pair hastily decamped toward Flagstaff and then eastward into Texas.

Even with a Utah posse close on his heels, Palmer couldn’t resist the temptation to pick up three young hitchhikers in Wichita Falls, Texas. Two of them he deposited in Bowie while the third, Helen Smith, was still with Lottie and Palmer when they reached the Palmer farm in Peerless on the evening of March 4, 1935.

When asked by his father what he was doing back in Texas, Palmer explained that he was “hot in Utah,” to which his father replied, “You’re no hotter in Utah than you are here” as, indeed, a Hopkins County grand jury had indicted Palmer for Dillard Garrett’s decapitation murder only a month earlier.

Palmer, Lottie, and young Helen Smith immediately lit out for Oklahoma on back country roads, only to have the Goulding car drown out in a stream crossing. They were captured by police the following morning.

While Palmer freely admitted the John’s Canyon murders, he denied any role in Garrett’s death, and further denied that the skeleton found in December was that of Lottie’s father. His “skeleton murder” trial was a national sensation that began on April 9, 1935 and ended four days later in conviction. Lottie Garrett, appearing as the prosecution’s star witness, recounted her harrowing ordeal and identified the skeleton, by reason of a crooked finger, as being that of her father.

Palmer was sentenced to serve 99 years in the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, where he died on January 13, 1969. He was never prosecuted for the Oliver-Shumway murders. Although he became eligible for parole toward the end of his sentence, Palmer chose not to pursue his freedom because the death penalty, he knew, still awaited him in Utah.

For her part in the affair, Lucile Garrett was tried and convicted of associating with a known criminal and was remanded on May 23, 1935 – almost a year to the day from her first meeting with Palmer – to the custody of the Texas “Girls’ Training School in Gainesville until her twenty-first birthday.

As for Harry Goulding, the Oliver- Shumway murders marked the end of his cordial relations with his neighbors to the north, many of whom accused him of having recruited the Texas gunman, while others blamed him for delays in reporting the crime and for aiding the killer’s escape. Goulding biographer Samuel Moon would later write that Harry “never defended himself to the people of Blanding, and forty years later he would not speak to me on the record about his part in the Jimmy Palmer affair. True to his western values, he believed that a man should be judged by his actions, not by his words, and that his life would have to speak for him.”

Joseph Greaves lives in Cortez. “Hard Twisted” (Bloomsbury), his 2012 novelization of Lottie Garrett’s bleak odyssey, was hailed as a “taut and intriguing thriller” (London Sunday Times) and “a gritty, gripping read, and one that begs to be put on film” (Los Angeles Times), and was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award in Fiction. You can visit him at www.chuckgreaves.com.


 On Everett Ruess

On the same day – March 7, 1935 – that the San Juan Record first reported the Oliver-Shumway murders in a banner headline screaming “DOUBLE MURDER SHOCKS COUNTY,” it also reported, in the adjoining column on page one, the disappearance of a young, unnamed artist who had last been seen in November of 1934 near the Escalante River, where “[p]lanes were used to try and locate the artist’s camp and succeeded in finding what they thought to be the pack burrow [sic] which he used. No camp or other sign of the lost man have yet been found.”

That missing artist was none other than Everett Ruess, whose disappearance in the Utah wilderness remains one of the enduring mysteries of the twentieth century. Ruess’s trademark NEMO graffito was later found carved into the wall of an Anasazi granary near Grand Gulch, on the northern bank of the San Juan River, some forty-five miles due east of Ruess’s last known location at Davis Gulch.

That discovery puts Everett Ruess less than twenty miles from Jimmy Palmer’s dugout in John’s Canyon, and has Ruess heading in Palmer’s direction at a time (December, 1934) when Palmer was known to have been alone, heavily armed, and dangerously psychotic.

Although reams have been written about the life of Everett Ruess, by notables ranging from John Nichols to Wallace Stegner, no historian has, to my knowledge, yet posited a connection between the disappearance of the man Stegner called an “atavistic wanderer of the wastelands” and the nearby presence of a man who would, a few months later, reveal himself to the world as a ruthless and predatory killer with a penchant for disposing of his victims’ bodies.

Food for thought, it seems to me.

C.J.G.

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From March 2015.