Dumb and Deadly
Luther Jones, Five-time Loser

There is a television program called "America's Dumbest Criminals." A couple of books with the same title also points out stupid things lawbreakers do to get caught. Back on October 16, 1936, Luther Jones was one of them.

How did Luther get caught? He was playing cards at Max Sperlich's Saloon in Carlin when a bystander saw a pistol fall from his pocket and notified the night constable. That was the first mistake. With help from bar patrons, the lawman subdued Luther and took the gun away from him. He was taken to Elko where he was sentenced to 180 days for resisting an officer. Error number two was not cooperating with the constable.

Officials found Jones had bounced a ten dollar check in Elko. His third mistake.

His forth miscue was when he asked Constable A.H. Berning how they executed killers in Nevada. Berning told him gas was used for capital punishment. The question aroused suspicion in the constable.

Number five resulted in a bulletin from Ogden, Utah, police asking lawmen to be on the lookout for a stolen car and kidnapped driver. The car was found in an Elko garage and Jones was identified as the person who brought the vehicle in for repairs. Luther had forced the driver out of the car in Montello. Luckier than he knew, the automobile owner hopped an eastbound freight train back to Ogden.

While Jones is sitting in jail, local law enforcement officers are searching for three missing ranchers. A railroad official told them he had seen Jones and three men walking away from the corrals on the eastern outskirts of Elko. Deputy S.O. Giudici confronted Jones in his cell and the prisoner immediately caved in and started talking. He admitted to stealing the car and told Guidici the car had broken down east of Elko and he had the vehicle towed to town. He said he cashed the bad check.

Jones then related the chilling story of what happened to Manuel Arrascada of Elko, Carson Valley ranchers, Walter Godecke and Otto Heitman, and Johnny Elias, an old gentleman with an artificial leg who lived near the stockyards.

Luther was walking west along the highway toward Carlin when he saw two men (the ranchers) talking near the corrals. He headed toward them with robbery on his mind. Another man (Arrascada) joined the stockmen as Jones intercepted them. Pulling his pistol, he took $40 from the three men and forced them to walk to a nearby stand of willows.

His intention, he said, was to tie them up in the bushes and leave them there but things got out of hand. They came to a small shack and Jones herded them into the cramped quarters. He made the man who lived there (Elias) tie the stockmen up. When Jones tried to put a rope around Elias' wrist the fellow began fighting back. Luther shot him in the head with his .22 caliber pistol. He fell on the other three. One of them yelled, "Help! Oh, my God!"

Jones continued, "I then shot the three, each of them. I got some clothes hanging in the shack and covered them up. I shut the door and put some wood in front of it and went to the highway where I hitched a ride to Carlin where I was arrested."

FBI agent P.S. Bailey, Jr., and Jailer Ed Kendrick went hunting for the bodies but didn't find them. They returned to the jail where Jones gave them detailed instructions. Along with Deputy Guidici, they returned to the stockyards area and found the cabin. A horrible scene confronted them when they opened the door. 

Guidici said, "The men's bodies were lying in a heap - one on top of the other, soaked in blood, dead and stiff, it being over 24 hours since shot."

The lawmen pulled Johnny Elias' body off first. He had been shot in the back of his neck and in back of his left ear. Arrascada was next. His hands were tied in the back with a belt. He had been shot in the left cheek. Heitman was pulled off the pile, his hands also secured by a belt. He had been shot in the left belly, under his right eye, between his eyes, and through his left cheek. Godecke was on the bottom with bullets through his left hand, two in the left arm, in back of his left ear and through his right temple. His hands were also secured by a belt. Unless some slugs tore through more than one body, Jones had over killed with at least twelve shots.

There was strong talk about lynching Luther Jones. Between 150 to 200 angry citizens gathered outside the jail entrance. Sheriff Charles A. Harper told them that no good would come from vigilante violence. Frank Arrascada, brother of victim Manuel, and Joe Orbe talked to the mob and eventually calmed them down.

A quick hearing was held with no one in the courtroom but officials and the accused. District Judge James Dysart appointed local attorney C.B. Tapscott to defend Jones. Tapscott didn't want the job but had to take it. Elko county's district attorney, D.A. Castle, prosecuted the case.

At the beginning of his three day trial, Jones recanted his confession and blamed the whole episode on a friend, Bert Wilson. Witness after witness soon disproved Luther's new claim. 

Gertrude Roberts, a Pocatello, Idaho, hardware clerk, said Jones purchased a gun from her earlier in the week of the murders. He was alone.

On the morning of the crimes, Jones saw Wellington Weiland pay Manual Arrascada $57.50 for a bull. Weiland said he saw the defendant watching them. Later in the day, he added, he saw Jones again, trying to thumb a ride out to the stockyards. He was alone.

Patrolman Frank Carpenter noticed Jones on the highway after the killings. He was alone.

Manuel's cousin, Domingo Arrascada, remembered seeing Luther at the stockyards watching cattle loading operations on the day of the shootings. He was alone.

Jones then changed his plea to not guilty, by reason of insanity. On the stand, he claimed he had severe headaches brought on by sunstroke suffered when he was 14. He also had a fractured skull from a fight with another prisoner in Montana. Luther, using aliases, had served four sentences in Indiana and Montana prisons. The headaches caused him lapses in memory and he was foggy about exactly what happened. For someone with a fuzzy memory he had given an accurate account of the killings in his confession.

In 35 minutes the jury found Jones guilty of first degree murder.

On the day following his trial, jailers found a pistol in his cell. Jones had carved it from a bar of soap with a razor blade and colored it with a pencil. He had even drilled a hole in the barrel and pushed in a small screw below the opening. It looked real. A matchbox filled with pepper was also confiscated. Jones planned to blow it into the jailer's eyes.

On November 23, 1936, Judge Dysart sentenced Luther Jones to death by lethal gas at the state prison in Carson City. The following morning Jones was taken to Carson City. He cried several times during the 300 mile trip and repeatedly asked what would happen to his body.

His date with death came after only two months on Death Row. He requested coconut cream pie and a quart of milk at midnight, then slept soundly until awakened by Warden William Lewis just minutes before his execution. Justice was much swifter then - only 103 days had passed from the day of the murders.

He stepped in the gas chamber at 6:10 a.m, January 26, 1937. Heavy leather straps held him in the chair. When asked if he had any last words, he replied, "I would like to take the sheriff with me."

With those words, lethal gas began rising from beneath the chair. His face turned bright red as he breathed the first deadly fumes. Luther gasped twice. He was unconscious in two minutes. The man who was arrested before his murders were even discovered was dead in 12 minutes. 

 Luther Jones, four time loser who gained the big time in his fifth crime, making ten dollars a murder and getting star billing in the gas chamber at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City. Photograph, taken in November, 1936, courtesy of the Nevada State Prison.

Luther Jones prison photo.

Howard Hickson
May 27, 2000

Sources: Gayle Puccinelli wrote an article, "The Luther Jones Murder Case" published in the Northeastern Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, Winter, 1975. I used her story as the base for the above account with additional research from two local newspapers, Elko Daily Free Press and Elko Independent, published from October, 1936, through January, 1937. She wrote her narrative while a senior at Elko High School. Thanks to Gayle for making my job an easier one.

©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.

[Back to Hickson's Histories Index]