Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Cold case (Part 2): The case against Perry DeGreene

Yesterday's post, "Cold case: The brutal slaying of John Clowser, Part 1," recounted details of the murder of John Clowser, 52, of Chariton, beaten to death by a traveling companion at a tourist camp in southwest Iowa's Glenwood on the night of Aug. 7-8, 1928.

Clowser left Chariton during May, 1928, in a newly purchased Ford roadster, bound for Kansas where he planned to work in the wheat fields. With the harvest complete, he was driving back toward Chariton with an unidentified younger man as passenger when they stopped overnight at the tourist camp. The next day, Clowser's brutally beaten body was discovered in a ditch adjacent to the camp. There was no sign of his companion, the roadster was missing and it was apparent that John had been robbed.

John's brother, Charles Edwin "Ed" Clowser, and Chariton undertaker Sam Beardsley traveled to Glenwood late Wednesday to identify the body and bring it home to Chariton, arriving back in Lucas County very early Thursday morning. On Friday afternoon, funeral services were held at the Beardsley Funeral Home with the pastor of First Baptist Church officiating and John's remains were laid to rest at the far south end of a lot in the Chariton Cemetery that Ed Clowser and his wife, Grace, had purchased during 1909 when their son, Clair Kade, died at the age of 3.

Back in Glenwood, and at the Lucas County Courthouse in Chariton, too, the search for the prime suspect --- the missing passenger --- was just beginning. Henry J. Engebretsen (1880-1974) was Lucas County sheriff at the time and although the murder occurred well outside his jurisdiction, he was determined to do what he could to ensure justice for one of his slain constituents. Henry's detective work would, in fact, lead to the arrest of a suspect a month later.

And it was Lucas County Attorney James D. Threlkeld who got on the telephone to Iowa Gov. John Hammill early the next week, asking that the governor authorize a reward for the arrest and conviction of John Clowser's killer.


William S. DeMoss was Mills County sheriff during 1928 and the man in charge of leading the investigation into John Clowser's death. He had a physical description of the traveling companion who was the only suspect in the murder and assurances from three witnesses that they would be able to identify the suspect if they saw him again. The witnesses were Millie Travers, who had served Clowser and his companion at the Cozy Corner Cafe on the evening before John was slain; Harry Norman, a former Chariton resident who had come forward to say that he had seen Clowser and the suspect enter the cafe; and service station attendant Will Meredith, who had sold the suspect gas and oil as he prepared to leave town early Wednesday in John's stolen Ford roadster --- with Lucas County plates.

There was little else to go on, however, and no way then to launch a prompt widespread search for a stolen vehicle. The Clowser vehicle never was located.


On Monday, Aug. 20, Sheriff Engebretsen, accompanied by Iowa special agent E.C. McPherson, of Des Moines, traveled west from Chariton to Glenwood to assess the situation for themselves.

They learned little new, other than the fact that Sheriff DeMoss had determined that John Clowser and his companion had been sighted in Nebraska City earlier in the day of their fatal overnight stop in Glenwood.

DeMoss was attempting to backtrack along the route of John's journey from Rexford in west central Kansas, where he had been working, to southwest Iowa, hoping to identify his passenger. Engebretsen and McPherson agreed during their August visit to Glenwood to accompany DeMoss to Rexford for personal interviews if attempts to obtain information by correspondence failed.

As it turned out, Engebretsen and McPherson made the trip to Rexford by themselves during the opening days of September, attempting to retrace Clowser's likely route backwards from Glenwood through Nebraska City and then southwest into Kansas.

At Rexford, according to a report in The Chariton Herald-Patriot of Sept. 13, Engebretsen and McPherson interviewed all 237 residents. But it wasn't until near the end the interview process that a lead developed. A telephone operator told Engebretsen that she thought residents of a nearby ranch might have useful information and sent the two investigators there.

"There they learned from the owner of the ranch," the Herald-Patriot reported, "that a man answering the description of the man wanted had been working during the summer. It is also stated that he had admitted to serving time in the Louisiana state prison for a crime in that state.

"A wire has been sent the prison officials at Baton Rouge and it is expected that information, finger prints and a photograph will soon be in the hands of the sheriff at Glenwood. The man's name, or the name he was using, was also learned."

The man's name was Perry Lee DeGreene Jr. Witnesses recalled that, like John Clowser, he had left the area as the harvest ended. None one could say that they had departed together, however.


It's not clear from newspaper reports exactly what sort of information Sheriff DeMoss received from Louisiana, but as soon as it was in hand he telegraphed a "wanted-for-questioning" notice across upper Midwest and the Plains.

Early in the week that commenced on Sunday, Sept. 16, 1928, Sheriff DeMoss received a telegram from Joe Sullivan, sheriff of Custer County, Montana, stating that he had taken Perry Lee DeGreene into custody and was holding him in Miles City.

That telegram set off a flurry of activity in Glenwood. Mills County Attorney Whitney Gillilland drove from Glenwood to Des Moines on Wednesday, Sept. 19, to obtain extradition papers from the office of Gov. Hammill, then drove home --- spending all of that night on the road.

At 11 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 20, Sheriff DeMoss, Special Agent McPherson, Gillilland and witness Millie Travers piled into the sheriff's department 1928 Dodge Victory Six for the marathon 800-mile drive to Miles City.

After a short overnight stop in Mitchell, S.D., Thursday, the party continued west and arrived in Miles City at 5 a.m. Saturday. Sheriff DeMoss had been behind the wheel for the entire drive.

Later Saturday morning, Millie Travers identified DeGreene --- then was put aboard a train that afternoon for the return trip to Glenwood. DeGreen did not resist extradition and DeMoss, McPherson and Gilliland --- and their prisoner --- left Miles City at noon Sunday in the Victory Six, arriving back in Glenwood early Wednesday evening.


Not long after the return to Glenwood, however, the case against DeGreene began to fall apart. In the first place, there was no hard evidence.

The young man, age 18, but reportedly looking considerably older, stated that his home was DeQuincy, Louisiana, and admitted to having been employed in the Kansas wheatfields at the same time John Clowser was employed there and to leaving the area at about the same time, but denied that he ever had traveled with Clowser. Instead, he said, he had traveled directly through Nebraska and South Dakota into eastern Montana, where he was employed in the harvest when his arrest occurred.

Further, he provided alibis --- and by Thursday afternoon, those alibis had been confirmed to the satisfaction of DeMoss, McPherson and Gillilland.

Finally, the witnesses who had remained in Glenwood failed to identify DeGreene and Mrs. Travers backed away from the positive identification that she had made in Miles City.

On Friday, Sept. 29, DeGreene was released from custody.


And that, so far as I've been able to determine, was the end of that. There are no further newspaper reports of investigations into the death of John Clowser.

Investigators apparently had invested all they had in the investigation that led to DeGreene's arrest and, barring unexpected leads, really had no where else to go.

Perry Lee DeGreene Jr. had returned home to Louisiana by 1930. He died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 31 on July 17, 1941, while incarcerated at the Webster Parish Penal Farm, Minden, Louisiana, according to Louisiana death records. Any secrets he may have had went to his unmarked grave in the Minden cemetery with him.

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