The Killer was a Nice Guy
Elko, Nevada - May 6, 1928

   Around midnight, Mike Connis was looking for his friend and gambling associate, "Louie the Greek." He had last seen Louis Lavell leave the Commercial Hotel with Bob White a few minutes before eleven p.m. Louie's second floor room at the hotel was padlocked on the outside. For more than three hours Mike searched various clandestine gambling places in downtown Elko.

Commercial in about 1940.
Although this photograph was taken about1940,
the Commercial looked much as it did in 1928. 
Photograph from Milo Taber Collection, 
Northeastern Nevada Museum, Elko

   In 1928 gambling was not legal in Nevada. That didn't come until 1931. This fact of law has  never discouraged those who pursue Lady Luck. Elko boasted several dimly lighted places where bets could be made around card tables. 
   Mike, Louie, and Bob, weren't taking any chances when it came to playing poker. They hatched a scheme to tilt the advantage toward them - as one might say, a sure thing for the trio. Bob took marked cards to his friends who worked in some of the joints. The cards were slipped into play. Louie and Mike, if they recognized their crooked cards, sat in on the games and raked in a bundle of money almost every time they played. Mike and Louie were between games that fateful night and sitting in the lobby of the Commercial.
   In his early fifties, Lavell was truly the epitome of a successful gambler. The evening of May 6, 1928, he was wearing a custom tailored blue suit, blue knit tie sporting a gold stick pin, gold cuff links, a fashionable light gray hat, and a belt with a fancy monogrammed buckle. His attire was perfect for his profession.
   Connis was not nearly as flashy. In fact, he was plain in dress and personality. Totally opposite of Louie, they made an effective team at the poker table. 
   Everybody liked White. Bob would do just about anything for a friend or even a stranger in need. With his honest looking face most people tended to accept him at face value. He ran a taxi service from the Mayer Hotel, where the Stockmen's stands today. He took sick school kids home, even drove the school bus. Bob sure had people fooled. For three months, he and his partners, had been making a darned good living at night with the marked cards. 
   While Louis and Mike were at the Commercial, White purchased a flashlight and loaded five cans of gasoline into his car trunk. He then drove to the Commercial where he stood just outside the door and peered in. Lavell saw White and went out to talk with him. After talking for a couple of minutes, the two got into White's Packard and drove off. It was a few minutes before eleven p.m.
   Less than twenty minutes later two married couples were driving up the Hesson Powder House road east of town. Nearing the powder house, they saw the interior light of an automobile glowing just ahead of them. As they passed they saw Bob White, alone, sitting inside his Packard. They continued up the road until they found a turnaround. Starting back down they saw White's car speeding back toward town.
   Early Monday morning White's wife boarded the eastbound train.
   Monday evening, Connis was eating at the Commercial when he saw White walk in. He asked if Bob had seen Louie. White told him he hadn't. Connis pointed out that he had seen Louie and him talking and then both left in Bob's car. White turned and stalked out. Mike dropped in at the Sheriff's office around eight p.m. and reported that Lavell was missing and he feared that something awful had happened to his poker partner.
   Bob and Mike had another confrontation Tuesday morning in front of the Mayer Garage. Connis accused White of doing something to Louie. The cab driver angrily denied seeing Louis, claiming he had been home all night.
   After the incident, Bob headed for Secret Pass. He stopped at the 71 Ranch and talked with William Wright for a while. On his way again he spotted a car with a flat tire and pulled over to help the people change it. He continued his drive up Secret Pass to the Ryan Place where he was leasing a cabin.
   During the night the structure had burned to the ground. It was an extremely hot fire scorching poplar trees fifty feet away. People from Halleck and Ruby Valleys stopped to sightsee. There wasn't anything anyone could do by now but look. They could see an iron bed, some chicken wire, and five blackened gas cans.
   About the same time, three rabbit hunters were out near the powder house east of Elko and saw a light gray hat on the ground. Two areas of dried blood were found nearby. Returning to Elko and learning that a local gambler was missing, one of the hunters called Sheriff Joe Harris. Harris drove out to the powder house, retrieved the hat and saw that it had a bullet hole through it. Powder burns around the hole meant that the gun had been held very close to the hat when fired.
 Wednesday morning found Harris and his deputies in Secret Pass at the Ryan cabin. Digging around the cold ashes, they found a cuff link, stick pin, the knot of a blue knit tie, a pocket knife, a glasses case, a tobacco sack, a platinum dental plate, some charred bones, and a belt buckle engraved with "Louis." 

Robert H. White prison picture.
Prison photograph of Robert H. White. Information on the back:
NSP No. 2901, white, age 39, born 1889, light brown hair, bald,
gray eyes, fair complexion, height 6'1 1 1/4", weight 241, shoe size
9, teeth fair, boil scars on back of neck. 
This is a restricted photo provided by and used with the permission of the Nevada State Prison, Carson City.

   A warrant charging Robert H. White with murder was issued and local law men swarmed all over town looking for him. He had disappeared.
   A week later he was arrested in a farm bunkhouse near Arlington, Illinois. Police had found him by tracing a telegram sent by his wife who had been arrested in New York. The Packard was missing.
 Sheriff Harris and his wife traveled by train to New York and Illinois to bring Bob and his wife back to Elko. When the sheriff stepped down from the train with the two prisoners they were met by a large unruly crowd. Smiling and as pleasant as ever White, without handcuffs, carried his own luggage. 
   A drunk, probably an acquaintance of Louie, yelled, "There goes the bloody murderer now!" He was promptly kicked in the seat of the pants by a friend of Bob White and a fight broke out. Three pugilists were arrested and ended up paying fines in Justice Court for disturbing the peace.
   As Harris and his charges were going up the courthouse steps a local newspaper photographer stepped out from the crowd and snapped their picture. When the flash went off White, thinking someone had shot at him, ducked and the sheriff's hand dropped to his pistol. It's a shame that the photograph didn't turn out.
   White's car was found three weeks later in Rawlins, Wyoming. It was returned to Elko. White, of course, could no longer make payments and employees of Parker Motor Company were cleaning it for resale when what looked like bloodstains were found on the rear door molding. Harris had the piece removed and sent to a California crime laboratory. 
   Case #945 started on October 8, 1928. The state's case depended mainly on two pieces of evidence. A dentist from Salt Lake City identified the platinum dental plate found in the ruins of the cabin as one he had made for Louis Lavell. He graphically showed how it fit perfectly to a section of scorched jawbone, also found at the cabin.
   A criminologist from Berkeley, California testified that he tested the blood spots on the molding of White's Packard. He said the blood was Louis Lavell's.
   Based on hearsay evidence, the motive had to be robbery because, on the evening of his death, Louie was carrying more than one thousand dollars with him. Plenty of people saw the impressive roll of bills that evening.
   Ten days after the trial started the jury was given the case and returned a verdict the same day. White was guilty of first degree murder. On October 22 he was sentenced to die in the gas chamber at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City.
   Then, as now, there were several appeals but justice was much swifter in those days and his date with death was set for June 2, 1930. He was to be the second man executed by gas. Passed by the legislature in 1921, Nevada was the first state to sanction lethal gas for capital punishment. Gee Jon, from Mina, Nevada, was the first murderer to enter the gas chamber. Before that, those convicted to die for their crimes were given a choice of being shot, hanged, or poisoned.

Nevada's first gas chamber.
Nevada's first gas chamber. Also the nation's first. Two others have been constructed since this first crude structure. 
Photo courtesy of theNevada Historical Society, Reno

   At 4:30 a.m., Bob was strapped into the gas chamber chair. He was calm and had offered no problems. Warden M.R. Penrose asked him if had a last request.
   Pleasant and smiling to the end, White said, "Yes, would you please bring me a gas mask?"

Howard Hickson
October 24, 2000

Source: Most of the work on this story was done by Robert E. Edgar in his story "Case 945" published in the Northeastern Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, Fall 1973. This is a condensation of his superbly researched narrative. He was a student at Northern Nevada Community College (now Great Basin College) and wrote the article as a class assignment. My sincere thanks to Bob.

©Copyright 2000 by Howard Hickson. If any portion or all of this article is used or quoted proper credit must be given to the author. 

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