The Oberst Family Murders, Kansas 1928

Owen Oberst and siblings, courtesy Constitution Tribune

Owen Oberst and siblings, courtesy Constitution Tribune

The Oberst Family Murders, Kansas 1928 – A Case Study Update. Please welcome back guest blogger Sue Baillie. Sue is researching her family and wrote about it for us here. Her ancestry journey took her to Tremont Township, Illinois, 1860, That is where her Greta-Great-Great uncle Jesse Chainey settled with his family after travelling from Kent, UK.

Sue stumbled upon the Feb 1878 marriage of Jesse’s daughter Mary Ann to Lewis Roberts. Their daughter Elsie May married William Oberst, a farmer from Illinois. While checking up on them, Sue discovered they, and 5 of their 6 children aged (between the ages of 6 and 16), all died on the same day – 20 April 1928.

Sue wrote an update about her family history. Her book will be released soon. She has kindly given us the first look.

UPDATE: her book just launched and can be found here.

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The Oberst Family Murders, Kansas 1928 – A Case Study Update

At the time of my previous guest blog, there was very little ‘official’ documentation available to me, so I relied on newspaper archives 1928-1932 (perhaps too heavily) to give any quotes which journalists attending court proceedings had published. This dependency has constantly troubled me since I first discovered the grim mass murder of my relatives in April 2014.

My challenge was always to try to bring qualified supporting information to the case. On occasions, during the quest for copies of court papers I was lied to and in many instances I was rudely ignored by other authorities – but I persevered because I couldn’t give up on my gut feeling that Owen Oberst was innocent.

I now have (some) Butler County District Court and Kansas Supreme Court transcripts which raise questions on whether due process of law was followed and if Owen was subjected to involuntary self-incrimination, or that he made a voluntary false confession.

In my humble opinion, these transcripts highlight just how inadequately some of those in authority carried out their duties in public office. I am not a lawyer and understand very little about the legal system, but even I can see the peppering of injustices throughout Owen’s case. It seems that a catalogue of errors by those in authority tipped the balance of the Liberty Scales against a 17-year-old farm boy, who I believe was conveniently used as a scapegoat to protect the real felon(s).

I believe Owen Oberst was innocent of murdering his parents and siblings; that he was a victim of circumstances; that he was manipulated or coerced into making a false confession by those who were looking for a quick and easy result. None of the evidence found at the scene was attributed to Owen; officials couldn’t even agree on what weapon was allegedly used.

These questions are expanded upon, together with revealing in-depth profiles of officials, jurors, commission members, witnesses and neighbours in my Kindle book “Follow the Evidence – Not the Story” which will be available from Amazon on 20 April 2018 – the 90th Anniversary of this tragedy.

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The Oberst Children: Back L-R: Owen, Ralph, Dorothea Front L-R: Edith, Herbert, Hugh

The Oberst Children: Back L-R: Owen, Ralph, Dorothea Front L-R: Edith, Herbert, Hugh

On the evening of Friday 20 April 1928, the El Dorado (KS) farmhouse of William and Elsie Oberst was on fire. When the flames died down, the bodies of Will, Elsie and five of their six children were discovered in a gruesome pile among the charred debris in the kitchen.

At around midnight, the oldest and surviving child, 17 year-old Owen, after an evening out with friends, drove home but was alarmed when he saw a red glow in the direction of the 240-acre family farm. A neighbour stopped Owen as he approached the lane leading to his home to tell him of the 7-fold tragedy.

23 April 1928: The funerals of the seven victims took place, after which, Owen, a minor, was interviewed by Sheriff Emory McKnight, Undersheriff Eldon Jarnagin, County Attorney Stanley Taylor, and a reporter for the Times (Will Feder). They took Owen to a remote part of his Uncle Fred’s farm and questioned him for over three hours, without having legal representation or a legal guardian present. Newspapers reported afterwards that Owen had been completely exonerated of all blame for the tragedy.

4 May 1928: Following further intense interrogation by Sheriff McKnight et.al, Owen confessed to the seven murders. On 5 May 1928 he was arrested on the charge of having murdered his entire family with a .22-calibre rifle. Again without having legal representation or a legal guardian present. I would have expected Uncle Fred to step up as guardian for the boy; but it seems Fred was following his own opportunistic agenda.

As soon as news of the ‘confession’ became public knowledge, many people in and around El Dorado at once began questioning the officers’ conduct; intimating coercion and third-degree methods.

7 May 1928: In response to this public outcry, Judge George Benson of the Butler County District Court officially appointed an 8-member Commission “To investigate and confer with the defendant as they desired and to report generally as follows: whether any undue influence or coercion was used by any of the officers in securing any confessions or admissions from the accused in the above action.” I believe this was merely trying to quash public disquiet. Interestingly, Eugene W Grant was appointed as a member of the ‘Commission’. Mr Grant had also been accepted into the law firm of Kramer & Benson. Surely a conflict of interest here?

Subsequently, on the subject of this Commission, the Supreme Court held “that such a procedure was grossly erroneous, altogether unknown to and unauthorised by the penal code. We can give it no countenance whatever”.

9 May 1928: Owen appeared before Judge Benson in the District Court and, “following the reading of the ‘Information’, and being enquired of his plea under said charge, by the court, entered a plea of not guilty to each and all of the charges”. Once again, without having legal representation or a legal guardian present.

Later, the Supreme Court noted: “It does not appear what next ensued upon defendant’s plea of not guilty, but a week later, according to the judge’s minutes, the following transpired:” [Referencing the next district court appearance for Owen on 16 May 1928]

15 May 1928: Owen asked to see his Uncle Fred Oberst and it was arranged that they conferred at the county jail where Owen had been kept. His only companion there was his cellmate, Harvey Miller.

It is my belief that Fred took this opportunity to tell Owen that he should plead guilty at his next court appearance.

Owen Oberst (L) with a guard

Owen Oberst (L) with a guard

16 May 1928: Owen appeared before Judge Benson in the District Court. The court asked Owen how he wished to plead and he replied he wanted to plead guilty to the offences charged in the ‘Information’. The plea of not guilty was set aside.

Consequently the court adjudged that the defendant be confined in the Kansas State Penitentiary for term of his life on the first count and a like separate sentence on counts two, three, four, five, six and seven, and to pay costs. Again, he was without legal representation or a legal guardian and was taken back to Butler County jail where he remained until he was transferred to the State Penitentiary on 10 June 1928.

Of interest:

28 May 1928: “Following a conference with Fred Oberst, uncle of Owen, William A Smith, Attorney General, announced today that he had advised the elder Oberst to make no move to prevent his nephew obtaining a new trial”.

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20 May 1928: Owen acquires a strong team of defence attorneys (Lewis Gabbert; John Madden Snr; John Madden Jnr; Christopher Aikman; Fred Ice; Ezra Branine; Alden Branine).

Although counsel for Owen appeared in the case for the first time on 20 May, they were unable to learn the status of the case until 22 May 1928. I have to ask: why? Did they come up against resistance from Sheriff McKnight? They probably did.

Firstly, on 23 May 1928, defence filed “Motion to Remand for Preliminary Hearing” at the District Court claiming that their client “was entirely ignorant of his rights, wholly ignorant of the procedure and of the language employed and used in said proceedings. Defendant states that he is a farming boy of unlearned parents, just arrived at the age of seventeen years, and was ignorant of the proceedings of courts, and of all rights of defendant”. Court’s response: Judge Benson “denied and overruled” the motion.

Secondly, on 25 May 1928, defence filed “Motion to Vacate Judgement” at the District Court in order “to allow and let the defendant to withdraw his plea theretofore made in this cause”. Court’s response: Judge Benson “denied and overruled” the motion.

Thirdly, on 1 June 1928, defence filed “Motion to Require Sheriff to Permit Defendant to Confer with Counsel” at the District Court “moves the court to require its officer and sheriff, E E McKnight to permit above counsel for defendant [John Madden Jnr and L C Gabbert] to interview and confer with said defendant, now held in the Butler County jail without bail”. Court’s response: Judge Benson “sustained” the motion.

However, on the matter of the third motion, it wasn’t until 5 June 1928 that counsel was given written permission to confer with Owen. This meant that for 16 days Owen and his attorneys were prevented from conferring. Why would Sheriff McKnight block access to Owen for as long as he did?

2 June 1928: Under Judge George Benson’s instructions the bodies of the Oberst family were exhumed so the County Coroner could investigate “to determine whether Owen told the truth when he said he killed his father, mother and five younger brothers and sisters”.

(Later, at Owen’s 1929 Preliminary Hearing, County Coroner Dr Dinsmore testified with evidence from x-ray images that there was just one bullet in the heart of William, 2 bullets in the heart of Elsie, but no bullets in the bodies of the children).

Benson probably realised that it would only be a matter of time before his integrity came into question surrounding the validity of Owen’s ‘confession’ which, in Benson’s own words during the trial were “I have never seen the original confession I understand you signed, though I have read in the newspapers about it. In that confession, as I remember it, the statement was made in substance that you had killed all of these people with one shot each of a target rifle”.

10 June 1928: Owen was received into the Kansas State Penitentiary. As with all new prisoners, Owen had to complete a form. To the question “Give particulars of the crime for which you are committed”, Owen responded “I am not guilty of the crime and do not know who did it. I made a confession but I was tired of the questioning of the officers and did not think of the gravity of the statement I made. After I had made it I thought that it was up to me to stick to it. Father had at various times had trouble with officers [McKnight?] and he may have had some one enemy who did this. Father was very quiet about his personal affairs and never told any of the family of these matters, and if we heard of it, it was through some outside source”.

24 July 1928: counsel for Owen filed a “Motion for Rehearing” at the Kansas Supreme Court, in effect: to have the case remanded to justice court for preliminary hearing and to have the sentence set aside. This case was heard on 4 October 1928 and filed January 1929:

12 January 1929: In the Supreme Court of the State of Kansas

Journal Entry of Judgement

 “This cause comes on for decision and thereupon it is ordered and adjudged that the judgement of the court below be reversed and that this cause be remanded with instructions to grant the defendant’s motion to withdraw the plea of guilty and for further proceedings in harmony with the courts written opinion filed herein. It is further ordered that the Appellee pay the costs of this case in this court taxed at $           and hereof let execution issue.

Signed: D A Valentine, Clerk of the Supreme Court of Kansas”.

[The opinion of the Supreme Court was delivered by Judge John Shaw Dawson]

In my opinion, Owen was kept in the State Penitentiary far longer than he should have been (nearly seven weeks) because of delaying tactics used by Judge Benson, Sheriff McKnight and the Warden of the Penitentiary. He should have been delivered into the custody of the Butler County Sheriff as soon as it was practicable, but this didn’t happen until 28 February 1929, five days after the Clerk of the Supreme Court issued a Mandate to the Warden, commanding the speedy return of Owen (at the request of defence counsel).

4 June 1929: Preliminary Hearing began. Justice W H Coutts Jnr. presided. Owen waived formal arraignment and was bound over. The Court dismissed ‘without prejudice’ six of the murders, now only charging Owen with the murder of his father, Will Oberst.

New Trial set for 2 December 1929

I had assumed that Judge A. T. Ayres’ official involvement in the Oberst case began in December 1929 with the first of three trials by jury, but further research has brought to light that he was ‘active’ in the case as far back as May 1928:

Judge Ayres brought to the attention of County Attorney Stanley Taylor a “Writ of Attachment” calling for the appearance of J W McCartney, Deputy State fire marshal who took part in the Oberst investigation, to answer charges of indirect contempt of Butler County District Court, which was granted by the Court on 19 May 1928.

The writ was based on two affidavits sworn to by C C McDiarmid and T J McKinney both of Howard Township, Elk County, charging McCartney came to Howard after Owen Oberst had confessed killing his family of seven and uttering statements “calculated to impeach the integrity of the Butler County District Court and of Judge Benson who presided over Division two”. In my opinion this was a damage limitation exercise through the ‘old boys network’ to clear the somewhat tainted reputation of Judge George Benson.

Coincidentally, Thomas J McKinney was the son-in-law of Judge Ayres. By 1930, McKinney’s career took him from previously being a farmer and cattle feed merchant to the dizzy heights of President of the First National Bank – an institution in which Judge Ayres was a stockholder and a Director for many years.

The following three Butler County District Court Trials were presided over by Judge Allison Thompson Ayres

2 December 1929: First Jury Trial began. It lasted 10 days. 130 jurors were summoned and 106 were examined before the jury was secured. The jury took 27 hours and 42 minutes to deliberate; the vote was 10 to 2 for acquittal.

17 March 1930: Second Jury Trial began. It lasted 5 days. 236 jurors were summoned and examined before jury was secured. The jury took 27 hours to deliberate; the vote was 8 to 4 for acquittal.

17 November 1930: Third Jury Trial began. It lasted 16 days. 496 jurors were summoned before a jury was secured. The jury took 26 hours and 30 minutes to deliberate; the vote was 7 to 5 for acquittal.

2 March 1931: In an attempt to bring Owen to a fourth trial, Judge Ayres issued an “Order of Removal” which meant Owen was to be removed from Butler County to Elk County citing “That it is impossible to secure a fair and impartial jury in Butler County, Kansas to try said action”. Owen was duly delivered to the Sheriff of Elk County.

4 March 1931: Owen’s attorneys wasted no time to counter the “Order of Removal” by making an application to the Supreme Court for a “Writ of Habeas Corpus” so that Owen could be taken back from Elk County to Butler County.

6 June 1931: The Supreme Court opinion was delivered by Judge William A Smith: “The writ will issue and the sheriff of Elk County is directed to deliver the body of Owen Oberst to the sheriff of Butler County, there to be dealt with according to law”.

It took more than three months for Owen to be returned to Butler County.

October 1931: It was impossible to obtain a fair and impartial jury to listen to evidence at a fourth trial in Butler County, and the case was cleared from the docket. Owen Oberst was a free man.

Questions:

Was it materially wrong for the District Court to continue with three jury trials when there was clear difficulty in securing ‘better qualified jurors’?

Why would a wealthy oilman (and jury foreman) believe Owen was innocent and co-sign for his bail bond of $10,000?

Likewise, why would a farmer and his wife believe in Owen’s innocence strongly enough to take him into their home with their seven children and treat him as one of the family, even though they didn’t know him?

The behaviour of Owen’s uncle Fred Oberst was highly questionable from the beginning. Did he want the estate of his dead brother, Will?

Why would Santa Fe Special Agent Ira Bowen make it his business to inspect the murder scene with Sheriff McKnight?

Why would Sheriff McKnight order that Owen should have no visitors in the County Jail and block the defence team from conferring with their client? Why did he not follow up on the evidence found at the scene? It is my opinion that McKnight, like Fred Oberst, had his own agenda which he was keeping close to his chest.

I believe Owen Oberst was innocent of murdering his parents and siblings; that he was a victim of circumstances; that he was manipulated or coerced into making a false confession by those who were looking for a quick and easy result. None of the evidence found at the scene was attributed to Owen; officials couldn’t even agree on what weapon was allegedly used.

These questions are expanded upon, together with revealing in-depth profiles of officials, jurors, commission members, witnesses and neighbours in my Kindle book “Follow the Evidence – Not the Story” which will be available from Amazon on 20 April 2018 – the 90th Anniversary of this tragedy.

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Sue Baillie

Sue Baillie

This post was written by Sue Baillie from New Forest, Hampshire, England, UK

I began researching family histories in 1998 – and today, my enthusiasm for finding people, places, and stories is just as passionate. Whether it’s discovering an entire tree, a bough, a small branch, a little twig, or an emerging leaf bud; each and every fact or record uncovered gives me a sense of empathy with that person and their family.

My own family tree has revealed so much about how my ancestors lived and worked. It has uncovered the good; the bad; and the ugly – which inevitably includes the occasional ‘skeleton in the cupboard’!

Life events should be recorded for future generations, because without knowing where we came from, how can we better see where we go in life?