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The Devil was in the details

For The Madera Tribune This headline told readers that a gristly murder had been committed just off Hwy. 41 on Feb. 1, 1968. In the photo to the right, an investigator examines the spot where the body of Barbara Simons was found.


“Woman ‘sadistically’ shot to death near Coarsegold.”

This was the headline of The Madera Tribune on Feb. 1, 1968, which announced the murder of Barbara Alice Simons. The next day, it also carried the news that her boyfriend, Albert Samuel Owens, had been found murdered in Fresno. After three days of intensive detective work on the part of lawmen from Madera and Fresno Counties, along with a tip from an informant, Joe Hamilton, two men, Weldon Lee Hathcock, and Bruce Laverne Wisner, and four women were arrested on suspicion of murder. They were all members of a prostitution ring. Later, charges against the women were dropped and the men stood trial. What emerged was a scandalous tale of how evil descended on the Central Valley on the night of Jan. 31, 1968. The story began on that Wednesday evening.

Weldon Hathcock and his wife, Kathryn were at home when they received a telephone call from their friend, Bruce Wisner. Wisner told the Hathcocks that he was at the Oasis Bar and was in trouble; he asked Hathcock to bring him a gun. Wisner had apparently been involved in a fight at the bar earlier in the evening. In response to the call, Kathryn picked up a .45 caliber automatic handgun and put it in her purse, then she and her husband drove to the Oasis Bar.

When they got there, Kathryn gave the gun to Wisner, and he immediately got into a fight. Hathcock broke it up and took the gun away from Wisner. A few minutes later, Albert Owens, whom Wisner knew slightly, showed up at the bar. They all had a drink together and then went to Wisner’s home on Pine Street in Fresno. Soon after the arrival of the four at the Wisner residence, Joe Hamilton, the informant and friend of the Hathcocks, arrived; a few minutes later, Barbara Simons who had somehow learned that Owens was there, joined the gathering.

At that point, the party got rough. There was a lot of drinking and pill popping. There were some playful sexual antics and some talk about “business” that Owens and Simons should not have heard. Sometime later, a fight erupted between Hamilton and Owens, and Hathcock joined in by striking the latter on the head with the butt of his pistol. Owens fell to the floor, and Hathcock stomped him on his head.

Wisner, realizing that things had gotten out of hand, advised Hamilton that he should leave. Following Hamilton’s departure, Wisner and Hathcock dragged Owens out of the house. Kathryn and Barbara Simons were instructed to clean up the blood in the living room and kitchen. In addition, Wisner put a semi-automatic rifle by the kitchen door and told Kathryn to use it on Barbara if she tried to leave. Owens and Simons had strayed into the wrong place at the wrong time and heard too much.

Outside the house Hathcock told Wisner that he didn’t want Owens to “creep” on him, so they would take him for a ride somewhere. Both men opened the trunk of Barbara Simon’s car, put Owens in, and then, with Hathcock driving, drove out near the intersection of Palm and Herndon. They pulled off the road, opened the trunk, and pulled Owens out of the car.

Hathcock, who appeared to be the ringleader, told Wisner to get back into the car, which he did. After that he heard a number of shots, and Hathcock returned to the car alone; Wisner testified that he did not see the actual shooting, but after entering the car, Hathcock put another clip of cartridges into the gun.

During the drive back to Wisner’s house, as the two continued their drinking, Hathcock asked Wisner if he knew “the Simons girl”; when Wisner replied that he did not, Hathcock said, “she will have to go, too.”

When Hathcock and Wisner returned to the Wisner residence, one got in Hathcock’s car, and the other drove Simons’ Chrysler. They took it to Valentine Street and set it afire and then returned to Wisner’s place to take the next diabolical step.

The men told Kathryn and Barbara they were going to take a little drive up to “a cabin” in the hills. The four got into the Hathcock car with Weldon and Wisner in the back seat, and, initially, Kathryn and Barbara in the front.

Kathryn drove, following directions from the men. At that point, if not before, Barbara Simons knew she was in real trouble. On several occasions she asked them to stop the car so that she could get out; both Wisner and Hathcock told Kathryn to keep driving.

As Katherine drove toward the hills, Wisner instructed Barbara to join the two men in the back seat and, as Kathryn continued to drive, they forced Barbara into various sexual activities. When they reached a ranch road off Highway 41 in Madera County, Hathcock instructed Kathryn to stop. All four got out of the car, and while Kathryn stayed behind, Hathcock and Wisner walked with Barbara to the fence. In a few minutes, Katheryn heard several shots, after which Wisner and Hathcock returned to the car without Barbara, and the three drove away from the scene of the shooting.

As we stated earlier, Hathcock, Wisner, and Kathryn were all arrested on Feb.4, 1968. At their initial arraignment before the Fresno Municipal Court on February 7, 1968, all three were charged with two counts of murder and two counts of kidnaping. On May 7, 1968, Wisner and Kathryn made a deal. He agreed to plead guilty to one count of murder in exchange for a life sentence instead of death. Kathryn agreed to testify against her husband in exchange for full immunity. Hathcock was sentenced to die in the gas chamber, but the Supreme Court reduced his punishment to life in prison. So everybody got a bit of a break except Owens and Simons; they died.

In the course of the trial, the prosecutor asked Hathcock a question that answered the mystery of the sadistic killing on Highway 41.

“Isn’t it a fact that Barbara Simons was killed because she was not a trusted member of your statewide prostitution ring?” The answer was of course, yes. She had followed Owens into the wrong place at the wrong time.

Where else in the history of Madera County has a crime victim been treated with less regard for her humanity than Barbara Alice Simons, and where else has evil been so palpable?

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