Hwy. 41 execution a mystery
Madera County Historical Society Sheriff Marlin Young is seen here escorting a prisoner to court in 1958. Ten years later, he was trying to solve the murder of a young woman who had been executed gangland style on a side road off Hwy 41.
The 25-year-old redhead was on her knees begging for her life as she looked up into the faces of two middle aged men. One was pointing a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol at her forehead. He looked over at the other man and then fired. The woman crumpled to the ground, and the killer fired six more bullets into her body. Then they hopped in their car and their female driver sped away.
Five hours later, at about eight o’clock on the morning of Feb. 1, 1968, the woman’s body was found at the entrance to the Shaubach ranch, almost a mile south of the San Joaquin Experimental Range and four miles north of the 22 Mile House on Highway 41.
There were no clues to her identity at the scene. She was wearing a yellow sweater, gray jeans and tennis shoes. Sheriff deputies found powder burns on the sweater but no purse or weapon.
While the Madera County Sheriff’s deputies were sifting through the evidence in an attempt to identify the murdered woman, Fresno County deputies had their own mystery. At about the same time that the young woman was killed just off of Hwy. 41, a 40-year-old man was shot in the same execution style on Palm Avenue just south of Herndon Avenue. The Fresno officers, however, did have some clues — a wallet with some identification and tire tracks that remained near the body.
The murdered Fresno man was Albert Samuel Owens, and whoever killed him was driving a white, 1962 Chrysler, which they drove to Valentine Avenue and set on fire. By comparing the tire tracks of the torched vehicle with those at the scene of Owens killing, investigators determined that this car was somehow connected to his murder. The tracks matched.
This sent the Fresno police to Sacramento for the name of the registered owner of the vehicle. It belonged to one Earl R. Simons. Now they had a possible suspect in the Owens murder, but they needed to know more about the victim.
Owens drivers license showed that he lived at 402 ½ North Fruit Ave. The owner of the residence told investigators that Owens had been released from prison about three months prior and had lived at the Fruit Ave. residence with a Donna Wisner. The landlord said that Owens and Wisner split up, and she moved in with her parents at 1207 N. Effie. He didn’t know where Owens moved to, but Wisner might, so police paid her a visit at her Effie Street home. Here the officers struck pay dirt.
Wisner confirmed her past relationship with Owens and said she had seen his Studebaker parked in front of the home of one Barbara Curtis at Fourth and Harvey in Fresno. She also pointed out that Curtis had a house guest, a Barbara Simons who owned a white 1962 Chrysler! So off the police went to interview Curtis and hopefully Simons.
The interview with Curtis produced a bombshell. She said that Simon’s husband, Earl R. Simons, was in the Navy and was on sea duty. Meanwhile, she, Mrs. Simons, was dating Owens. Curtis said that Owens visited Simons at her house on the night of Jan. 31 and left about 9:00 p.m. Curtis said that Simons left about 10:45 p.m. in her Chrysler.
At that point, the Fresno police headed for Madera County. From the beginning they had wondered about the possibility of a connection between the murder of Owens and that of the woman who had been shot near the Shaubach ranch. After photographing the woman’s body, Madera County’s shooting victim was identified. The murdered redhead was Barbara Alice Simons. She and Owens, the man she was dating, were both murdered with the same weapon about five hours and 30 miles apart.
In the next 24 hours, the case was close to being solved, or at least some folks thought. The Navy confirmed that Earl Simons was indeed on active duty in the Navy and was at sea, so while his car had been used in the Owens murder, he didn’t do it. Neither did his wife, obviously.
As investigators in both counties threw themselves into the search, two names kept popping up, Bruce Laverne Wisner, and Weldon Lee Hathcock. Donna Wisner, with whom Owens had split up, was a former common-law wife of Bruce Wisner. It was also learned that Bruce was with Albert Owens at the Oasis Bar for awhile on the night of Jan. 31.
On Feb. 3, the police finally got the help they needed, an informant. One Joe Hamilton, who claimed to have personal knowledge of the killings, contacted the authorities. Based on what he told them, they sent an assault team to arrest the ringleaders of a prostitution ring, some of whom were allegedly involved in the two killings, according to Hamilton. On February 4, the swat team moved in, and six people were arrested:
Weldon Lee Hathcock; Bruce Lavern Wisner; Katheryn Willina Hathcock; Raulette Ann Calpito; Carolyn Ruth Wisner; and Darlene Alice Southerland.
Law enforcement had come a long way in five days, but they were far from finished. What actually happened after Albert Owens and Barbara Simons left Barbara Curtis’ home on the night of January 31, 1968? What did they do, or what had they done to get themselves killed; what connection could they have had with a prostitution ring?
The historical record gives the answers, but we will have to wait until next time to share them.