Murder Mystery: The Case of the Hitchhike Killer, Part I
Around noon on March 8, 1945, J.D. Newcomb, Jr., the chief boiler inspector for the State Labor Department, left Little Rock, Ark., headed for Clarksville where he was to make an inspection.
Newcomb was known for his friendliness, and giving a hitchhiker a lift was in his nature, so he didn’t hesitate to pick up the handsome young man thumbing rides on US 65 at Marche. The first part of the ride was fine. The amiable hitcher was all smiles and charm. But when they reached the south side of Stone Creek Bridge between Mayflower and Conway, the passenger drew a gun on Newcomb and ordered him to pull over and park the car. Newcomb complied, but then tried to make a break for it. During the short struggle that followed, a man and woman drove by. Mr. and Mrs. Earl Parks had just finished eating lunch at their home and were on their way to Parks’ office in Conway when they saw the two men scuffling. The hitcher jerked his victim into the backseat of Newcomb’s Oldsmobile. Parks slowed to stop, but his wife urged him to drive away. She thought the commotion was only a fight between two drunks. Her husband agreed, and the couple drove on. That split-second decision probably saved their lives, for the Hitchhike Killer shot Newcomb in the face with a .38 caliber pistol and put the body down on the floorboard of the car. He got behind the wheel and continued north on US 65. When a tire blew out on the car north of Heber Springs, the killer turned onto a logging road and stopped about 300 yards from the highway. After robbing the deceased of his overcoat, $70 and a watch, the killer torched the car with Newcomb’s body inside. He then went into Heber Springs, boarded a bus for Little Rock, and disappeared into the night.
When word of Newcomb’s murder reached Arkansas State Police Cap. J. Earl Scroggin, he recognized the crime as being very similar to three others that were under investigation.
The first had occurred several weeks earlier in Camden. The victim was Carl F. Hamilton, a barber and bootlegger, who had been shot through the heart with a .45 caliber gun.
On Feb. 2, 1945, Edgar McCollum, a country store proprietor north of Fordyce, decided to check out a Studebaker sedan that was parked off US 167, near the border between Cleveland and Dallas Counties. McCollum was a deputy sheriff, and he knew the vehicle had been there for quite some time. It looked as if someone had tried to start the car without a key by wiring the ignition. McCollum noted the Kansas license tag, and as he looked around, he saw footprints leading away toward a wooded area. It was there that he found the body of a man, lying face down with his pockets turned inside out. An autopsy later showed the victim had been shot in the back of the head with a .38 caliber weapon. Careful examination of the body at the crime scene revealed a set of car keys in a small, hidden pocket of the man’s coat. An empty wallet with the initials “E.C.A.” lay nearby.
McCollum notified Cleveland County Sheriff T.H. Glover and the state police. A run of the license number confirmed the identity of the slain man as E.C. Adams of Humboldt, Kansas. Adams, the father of a two-week-old baby, had left his home to take a job at the Naval Ordnance Plant near Camden. His missing belongings included two alarm clocks. Adams was an unusually sound sleeper and had packed a spring-driven alarm clock and a newer, electric clock. A cigarette burn had marred the older clock’s case.
A week after discovery of Adams’ body, 30-year-old Doyle Mulherin headed out of Little Rock on his usual run as a truck driver for the Western Meat Company. By noon, he had made enough deliveries and collected enough payments to fill three wallets.
Just outside of Humnoke, he picked up a hitchhiker at the Bayou Meto Bridge and proceeded on toward Stuttgart. But Mulherin never completed his rounds. Fishermen found his body in a ditch near the bank of the bayou. Like Adams, he had been shot in the back of the head with a .38. His truck was found abandoned on the outskirts of Stuttgart.
The Mulherin murder was one of the killer’s most profitable, garnering him $129, but it would also prove to be the one that gave detectives their first big break in the series of slayings. Mulherin was well known by people along his route, and they remembered seeing him in the truck with another man, described as young with wavy, red hair. A man matching that description had also been seen near the Bayou Meto Bridge and in the area where Mulherin’s body was found.
On March 15, state police detectives were tipped off that James Jones, an ex-con working as a Little Rock taxi driver, had loaned his car to a fellow cabbie on the day of the Hamilton murder. Jones always carried a .45 caliber revolver in the car, and when he got the vehicle back, a cartridge was missing from the gun. He knew the cabbie, James Waybern Hall, had been selling hijacked liquor to Hamilton, so upon hearing about Hamilton’s murder, Jones suspected the worst and confided in the person who relayed the information to police. When detectives got the call, they also learned that Hall often went by his nickname, “Red,” because of his wavy, red hair.
The Little Rock Police Department (LRPD) had already met Red Hall twice. After midnight on March 2, he was arrested for savagely beating and stomping a young man in an alley outside a bar and grill on Second Street. The victim was critically injured, but pulled through. Hall pled guilty to the charge of assault and was released after paying a fine plus court costs totaling $106.90. His vicious behavior during the bar fight was in memorable contrast to the courteous manner he had exhibited several months earlier when LRPD detectives questioned him about the disappearance of his wife, Fayrene Clemmons Hall. Her family reported her missing in September 1944. Hall claimed Fayrene had left him and gone to California.
After receiving the tip about Hamilton’s murder, Cap. Scroggin called LRPD Chief of Detectives O.N. Martin, who sent two of his best men, Herbert Peterson and Harold Judd, to arrest Hall. The 24-year-old suspect offered no resistance. In a jovial mood, he grinned a lot during preliminary questioning.
Meanwhile, a search of Hall’s apartment in North Little Rock turned up a watch with the engraved initials “J.D.N.” The timepiece belonged to J.D. Newcomb, Jr. Detectives also found a .38 caliber revolver among his possessions. Ballistics tests proved the weapon had been used to kill Adams, Mulherin and Newcomb. Further investigation produced Adams’ distinctively scorched alarm clock. With such irrefutable evidence staring him in the face, Red Hall confessed.
“I’ll tell you all about it,” he said, still grinning. “I killed them all.”
Just how many dead bodies did Red Hall leave in his wake?