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Badman Billy Cook – Podcast #148

I typically ask what I refer to as the Question of the Day in each podcast. For today’s question, I thought I would do something a bit different. That is because this story is referenced in the second verse of a hit song from 1970 by one of rock’s most famous acts. So, what I am going to do is drop in sections of the lyric throughout the story. Let’s see if you can name that tune…

A good place to start this story is on Wednesday, January 3, 1951. That was when Osage County Deputy Sheriff Warren Smith was driving on a seldom traveled road on the outskirts of Tulsa, Oklahoma and spotted a blue 1949 two-door Chevrolet. It appeared that the car had been backed into a ditch and abandoned. He stopped to investigate. Smith was horrified by what he saw. The car was blood-stained and riddled with bullet holes. Yet, there was not a body within sight nor were there any fingerprints, footprints, or blood trails leading away from the vehicle. Even more puzzling was the fact that the ignition key was still hanging from the car’s dashboard.

The two-door Chevrolet owned by Carl Mosser after it was towed to a garage.
The two-door Chevrolet after it was towed to a garage. Image originally appeared on page 18 of the January 29, 1951 publication of Life magazine.

The car was registered to 33-year-old Carl Mosser, a successful tenant farmer from Atwood, Illinois. This was further confirmed by $200 in traveler’s cheques made out in Mosser’s name that were scattered through the car. It was quickly learned that Mosser, his 29-year-old wife Thelma, and their three children – 7-year-old Ronald Dean, 5-year-old Gary Carl, and 2-year-old Pamela Sue – were on their way to Albuquerque to visit Carl’s twin brother Chris, who was, at the time, an Army lieutenant there.

And here is lyric hint #1: “Take a long holiday. Let your children play.”

The Mossers had last been heard from via a postcard that had been mailed five days earlier, on December 30th, from Tulsa.

Thelma and Carl Mosser with their children.
Thelma and Carl Mosser with their children. Image originally appeared on page 18 of the January 29, 1951 publication of Life magazine.

Every clue at the crime scene implied that none of them would ever be heard from again. Three bullet holes were found in the backseat, one in the front. Five shell casings from a .32-caliber revolver were lying on the floorboard. A bloodstained pocketknife was also found. A bloodied checkered dress appeared to match the one that Pamela Sue was wearing in a photograph that was found in the car. Another picture showed one of the children wearing a cap, which was similar to a green one picked up about one hundred yards (91.4 meters) from the car.

One of the most peculiar discoveries was that a service station had affixed a mileage sticker to the car the day before the family began their trip. It showed that the car had 15,500 miles on the odometer. Tulsa was about 600 miles from their home, yet the mileage was now 16,600 miles. That’s 500 miles (805 km) that were unaccounted for.

Deputy Smith told the Associated Press, “If that car was driven anywhere as far as that difference shows, the bodies of those people, if slain, could be hundreds of miles from here.”

In another interview, Smith stated, “We’re almost certain we’ve got a whole family dead somewhere. It’s just a question now of finding them.”

He theorized as to what may have happened. “It looked to me like the occupants were traveling through Tulsa and may have been attacked by a hitchhiker. Somebody or something certainly lost lots of blood to cause all that mess.”

The car was taken to a garage in Tulsa where Chris Mosser positively identified it as being owned by his brother. “I’ll get the man who did this. I can’t understand this. My brother was one of the jolliest men alive. Someone must have tried to stick him up and Carl swung on him. He and I have always been like that – we never did like anyone who would lie or steal.”

There were several witnesses, although none were present when the shootings took place. The first was Tulsa resident Pete Essley.  After seeing the Mosser car stuck in a ditch, he stopped and the suspect asked him for the location of the nearest place to get help. Fifteen minutes later, another unnamed man stopped and was asked for assistance in pulling the car from the ditch. “He was extremely nervous. He asked for a lift to [the] nearest telephone.” The man drove him to a drugstore. Two employees at the drugstore told police that the man asked to use a phone, stating that he wished to call for a cab. All described the suspect as having light hair, 5’6” (168 cm) tall, 150 pounds (68 kg), and that he was wearing a leather jacket. Most distinctively, the man in question had a drooping or squinty eye.

Possible Second Crime?

About 450 miles (725 km) southwest of the Mosser crime scene, near Lubbock, Texas, detectives there were investigating another crime. Could the two crimes somehow be related? There, on December 30, 58-year-old car mechanic Lee B. Archer made the mistake of stopping to pick up a hitchhiker. Almost immediately, the man then pulled a gun on Archer and forced him into the trunk of his car. The hitchhiker then drove the vehicle 350 miles (560 km) northwest, at which point Archer was able to pry open the trunk and safely jump from the moving vehicle. Three miles east of where Archer escaped, the engine threw a rod and the hitchhiker was forced to abandon the vehicle near Luther, Oklahoma.

It wasn’t long before police located Archer’s car. The suspect was long gone but he had left behind his duffel bag that contained a lot of significant evidence. First, all of his clothing had his laundry mark on them. Also, there was an empty box and a receipt for a .32 caliber Colt automatic, serial number 39198, which had been purchased by “W. E. Cook, St. Louis” the previous day at the Boston Dry Goods Store in El Paso, Texas.

Farmer Kermit Mackey told investigators that he had seen a man leave Archer’s car and then thumb a ride with another vehicle. That car had Illinois plates on it. That, coupled with the fact that .32 caliber shell casings had been found in the Mossers’ car, strongly suggested that the same man had committed both crimes.

Who Was Billy Cook?

So, just who was W. E. Cook? The world was about to find out.

Bad Man Billy or Cockeyed Cook, both nicknames that the press ascribed to him, was born William Edward Cook Jr. on December 23, 1928, in Joplin, Missouri, which was at one time considered to be the lead and zinc mining capital of the world. He was the second youngest of his mother Laura May’s eleven children, the six youngest of whom were from her second marriage to Billy’s dad, William Cook, Sr.

Unfortunately, on November 10, 1933, the unexpected occurred. His mother suddenly died from a cerebral hemorrhage. Billy was a month shy of his fifth birthday when this happened. Shortly after this, dad relocated his family to live in an unused mine but caring for all of the children became too much of a burden and he abandoned them. Years later, Mrs. Vernie Goff Bryson, a social worker, testified that she had found young Billy living in a cave with seven of his siblings. The family was then broken up and the children were either sent to live with other families or placed in orphanages.

Billy spent several years in a juvenile boarding home, but his foster mother found him to be impossible to live with. In 1939, the court took him away after he was found in “rags and tatters, appeared to have been neglected and abused, his clothes so dirty that they would stand alone.”

Billy Cook at age 18 at the Missouri Intermediate Reformatory.
Billy Cook at age 18 at the Missouri Intermediate Reformatory. Image originally appeared on page 17 of the January 29, 1951 publication of Life magazine.

Billy was then placed in another boarding house but that didn’t last long. He refused to both stay in that home and go to school. A judge then gave him a choice: go back to the home and continue his education or be sent to reform school. 12-year-old Billy chose reform school.

After spending ten months at reform school, Billy was released into the care of his eighteen-year-old sister Beatrice, who had recently married. That arrangement didn’t last long. Beatrice was unable to deal with the incorrigible Billy and soon asked juvenile authorities to take him back. Billy would spend the next few years bouncing between various homes and orphanages.

His first run-in with the law occurred in October 1943 when he whacked a cab driver on the head and robbed him of $11 (approximately $167 today). That got him a 5-year stint in reform school, from which he ran away in 1946. After being caught, he was placed in an industrial school but ran away once again.

Billy was picked up for stealing a car in Jefferson City, Missouri, and an additional five years was piled on to his sentence. He would serve the bulk of his time in the state penitentiary before being released on parole in June 1950, six months prior to committing the violent crimes that he was now accused of.

Upon his release, he went to live with his dad for a short time. The elder Cook said that his son told him that he planned to “live by the gun from now on. I’ll hold up people and get lots of money. Any time they say I’ve done something, you tell them I was with you.” His dad refused the offer. “I don’t want anything to do with it.” He added, “I wouldn’t turn him in. He’s a dangerous man. He would kill me.”

Perhaps the tattoo on the fingers of Billy’s left hand spelled out his attitude on life best: H-A-R-D L-U-C-K.

The HARD LUCK tattoos on Billy Cook's left hand. The actual letters were much lighter and were darkened for this photograph.
The HARD LUCK tattoos on Billy Cook’s left hand. The actual letters were much lighter and were darkened for this photograph. Image originally appeared on page 17 of the January 29, 1951 publication of Life magazine.

Now that you have met Billy Cook, more of the lyrics of today’s mystery song make sense: “There’s a killer on the road. His brain is squirmin’ like a toad.”

The Manhunt

A nationwide manhunt was underway for both Bad Man Billy and the missing Mosser family. Authorities attempted to reconstruct their whereabouts before the bullet-ridden car was found on January 3. From what they were able to piece together, Billy Cook and the Mossers had driven aimlessly throughout Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas for several days. Here are a few of the substantial sightings that were believed to be legitimate:

On Saturday, December 30, two men walked into a Witchita Falls, Texas convenience store operated by 63-year-old E. O. Cornwell. As one of the men grabbed the other from behind, the second man blurted out, “Help me! Help me! He’s going to kill me and take my wife.” A tussle broke out between the pair and a window was broken. Cornwell then drew his own gun and demanded payment for the window. The two men then ran outside and speedily drove off.

“I thought it was just a squabble between the men and maybe a ruse to hijack me.” Cornwell continued, “I would have shot them but I thought I might hit someone and I didn’t think it was too serious of an offense.”

Customer Claude Skinner gave chase in his pickup truck but stopped after someone in the car began firing at him.

A hat was left behind in the store. It bore a label that read, “The Famous Store” in Decatur, Illinois. Carl Mosser was known to purchase his clothing there.

At 6 PM on Monday, January 1, two men, one positively identified as Billy Cook from an Associated Press wire photo, stopped at the Winthrop Café in Winthrop, Arkansas. A woman and three children remained behind in the car. The men filled a Thermos with coffee and a quart jar with water, and purchased food and two packs of cigarettes. Investigators later found both an empty Thermos bottle and cigarette packaging bearing an Arkansas revenue stamp in the Mosser car.

Around 8:50 that same evening, two men, a woman, and three children stopped for gas at a service station near Okmulgee, Oklahoma. That would be the last time that anyone would see the Mossers alive. At 10 PM, a man identified through police photographs as Billy Cook purchased gas in Henryetta, Oklahoma. Cook was alone. The two towns are about twenty minutes apart.

Almost Got Him…

Investigators learned that prior to December 24, 1950, Billy Cook had worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Blythe, California. Acting on a hunch that Billy may have returned to the same motel apartment that he had been staying in, on Saturday, January 6, 27-year-old Sheriff’s Deputy Homer Waldrip went to check it out. Waldrip was correct and upon his arrival, Billy pulled a gun on him and took the deputy hostage.

“Get in the car,” Billy ordered. “I’m going with you.” They drove southward as Billy told his story. “I’ve murdered seven other people and I would just as soon murder you.” In addition to the Mosser family, he claimed to have killed two men in Oklahoma and buried them in a snowdrift, although those two bodies would never be identified or found. After driving for about 40 miles (64 km) into the desert, Cook ordered Waldrip to stop the car and get out. Billy tied him up, took his money and gun, and then sped away in the cop car. Cook apparently spared the deputy’s life because Billy had worked in the same café where Waldrip’s wife was employed.

Billy raced off in the police car. It would later be found in Ogilby, California, just north of the Mexican border. The body of 31-year-old Robert Hilton Dewey of Seattle was found in the trunk. Dewey had been in the area to visit his dad. Tire tracks suggested that Billy had driven off in Dewey’s blue 1947 Buick.

The next day, El Centro, California Police Chief Guy Woodward decided to drive southward into Mexico to search for Dewey’s car. He saw nothing on his trip downward through the desert but spotted the car when returning. Tracks around the vehicle suggested that Billy had flagged down another car that was heading north.

Two More Victims?

Around the same time, the Imperial County Sherriff’s Office received a report that two California prospectors, Forrest Damron, 32, and Jim Burke, 33, were missing. They were on a hunting trip and had last been seen in San Felipe, Mexico on Saturday, the same day that Cook killed Robert Dewey. Police feared that Damron and Burke could also be victims and combed the region by air and ground for Burke’s maroon 1950 4-door Studebaker. The families of the missing men offered a $500 (approximately $5,000 today) reward for finding them or for arresting Billy Cook.

James Burke (left) and Forrest Damron. The image appeared on page 1 of the January 16, 1951 publication of the Los Angeles Daily News.
James Burke (left) and Forrest Damron. The image appeared on page 1 of the January 16, 1951 publication of the Los Angeles Daily News.

Day after day, the search for Billy Cook, the two miners, and the Mosser family continued. On Sunday, January 15, the governors of Arkansas and Oklahoma proclaimed the day as the “search for the Carl Mossers Day.” An estimated 3,000 citizens combed eastern Oklahoma and Western Arkansas but were unsuccessful. It would take the tip of a man named Harold Suman, who had served time in the Missouri Reformatory with Cook, to find them. Suman informed Detectives Carl E. Nutt and Walter Gamble that Cook had once threatened to throw him down an abandoned mineshaft in Joplin. Suman’s hunch was correct. On Monday, January 16, the detectives found the bodies of the Mosser family and their dog floating in a 50-foot (15.2 m) deep shaft that was one block from Billy Cook’s former home. A $1500 reward that friends of the Mossers had put up for finding the bodies was equally divided among the three men.

The bodies of the Mosser family after they were recovered from the mine shaft in Joplin, Missouri.
The bodies of the Mosser family after they were recovered from the mine shaft in Joplin, Missouri. The image appeared on page 1 of the January 16, 1951 publication of the Los Angeles Daily News.

Finally Caught

Just hours earlier, Tijuana police chief Francisco Kraus Morales had followed three men into a Santa Rosalia restaurant. He simply walked up behind Billy Cook, took the .32 caliber pistol from his belt, and arrested him. Cook, suffering from dysentery, put up no resistance. His two hostages, Damron and Burke, were unharmed.

Mexican police picked up on their trail after Javier Gonzales, a mine paymaster, reported having struck up a conversation with three men in the then semi-abandoned mining town of El Marmol. Gonzales later saw a wanted poster in Tijuana and recognized Cook as being one of the men he had spoken to. It was believed that Cook had been temporarily holed up in a nearby onyx mine before moving on to Santa Rosalia. The monetary reward offered up by the Burke and Damron families was equally divided between Javier Gonzales and Police Chief Morales, the latter half being donated to children’s aid society.

After his arrest, Billy was flown to San Diego, California, and claimed to have no memory of killing anyone. He had no recollection of the Mosser family and insisted that after he released Deputy Waldrip in the desert, his next memory was that of waking up on the side of the road in Mexico in a car that wouldn’t start.

Billy Cook being led into a San Diego jail by two FBI agents. Image appeared on page 1 of the January 16, 1951 issue of the Springfield Leader and Press.
Billy Cook being led into a San Diego jail by two FBI agents. Image appeared on page 1 of the January 16, 1951 issue of the Springfield Leader and Press.

Damron and Burke were flown back on a separate flight. Burke told a reporter, “We saw him standing by the side of the road apparently in need of help. Seeing that he was an American we stopped to assist. Cook produced a pistol and climbed into the back seat. During most of the seven days following, Cook kept the gun in his lap with it cocked. At night when we camped, he sat with his back against a tree or rock with the gun cocked. We were afraid to try to escape.”

What Really Happened

Several days after his arrest, Billy Cook admitted to his crimes and told investigators what had happened. It all started on Christmas Day of 1950. Billy became homesick, got drunk, and left Blythe, California. On December 30, he held up Lee Archer and locked him in the car’s trunk, from which he escaped. Billy continued driving until he spotted a police car. Panicking, he abandoned the car, leaving behind all of his personal belongings. He was then picked up by the Mossers, forcing Carl to drive along Route 66 westward, ultimately arriving in Wichita Falls, Texas where convenience store operator E. O. Cornwell chased them out with a gun.

Time for mystery lyric number 3: “If you give this man a ride, sweet family will die.”

From there, they initially headed southwest until Billy decided to turn around and head toward Albuquerque, New Mexico but ended up farther south near Carlsbad, New Mexico. That’s where the Carl Mosser tried to overtake Billy. He warned them if they ever tried that again, he would kill them all.

They then continued on to El Paso, Texas but reversed direction toward Houston after spotting a police car. From there, it was on to where they were sighted in the Winthrop Café in Arkansas. As they approached Joplin, Missouri, Thelma Mosser became hysterical and the children started screaming. He tied up the entire family, excluding the driver Carl.

After passing another police car, Mrs. Mosser once again became hysterical and Carl stopped the car. Cook began shooting them all to death. He remembered the old mine shaft in Joplin and disposed of the bodies there.

He then headed west until the car broke down outside of Tulsa where the vehicle was later discovered by police. Cook hitchhiked back to Blythe, California, arriving on January 4.

Two days later, Deputy Sheriff Waldrip arrived at his door and Billy kidnapped him, ultimately abandoning Waldrip in the desert. He used the sirens of Waldrip’s police car to pull over Robert Dewey, forcing him to drive toward Yuma, Arizona. Dewey was incredibly nervous and accidentally dropped his cigarette. As Dewey bent over to pick it up, Cook thought he was reaching for a gun and shot him. Dewey attempted to fight back, fell out of the car, and Cook fired a shot into his back and killed him. From there, Billy drove Dewey’s car into Mexico where it broke down and he hitched a ride with the prospectors.

Tijuana police chief Francisco Kraus Morales escorting Billy Cook from an airplane in San Diego.
Tijuana police chief Francisco Kraus Morales escorting Billy Cook from an airplane in San Diego. The image appeared on page 1 of the January 16, 1951 publication of the Los Angeles Daily News.

The Punishment

On January 22, Billy Cook exited a train in Oklahoma City to stand trial for the kidnapping of the Mosser family. (The murders took place in Joplin, Missouri, so he could only be charged with kidnapping in Oklahoma.) Initially, Billy entered an insanity plea but changed it to guilty, his lawyers believing that would allow him to avoid the death penalty. On Tuesday, March 20, 1951, Billy Cook was sentenced to 300 years – 60 years for each of the five counts of kidnapping – to be served consecutively in “Alcatraz or another safe prison where he has no chance of escape.”

It was soon realized by federal authorities that Cook could be permitted to leave jail in as little as twenty years, so the decision was made to place him on trial in El Centro, California for the murder of Robert Dewey. On November 23, 1951, a jury took just fifty minutes to find him guilty. 23-year-old Billy Cook was executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin on December 12, 1952.

Crowds Gather

Cook’s body was taken to the Comanche Funeral Home where funeral director Glenn E. Boydstun arranged for a public viewing. The town of Comanche, Oklahoma, population 1,300, was not prepared for what came next. Over the next few days, an estimated 10,000 curiosity-seekers came to view the body of Bad Man Billy. Two hundred high school students from nearby Byers, Texas arrived in six school buses. Others came from thirty-eight different US states, Canada, and as far away as Alaska. Thousands more were expected to attend Billy’s funeral. $25 (about $250 today) in small change was left in a collection jar that had been placed on top of the casket, supposedly to purchase flowers for his funeral. An estimated 250 letters were received from various church groups saying that they had all prayed for Billy and his family.

This all proved too much for Billy’s family. They arranged for a hearse to transfer Cook’s body back to Joplin where he was secretly buried one day earlier than originally scheduled. Only a priest, Billy’s 75-year-old father, his sister Bertha, and a sister-in-law were in attendance. Billy was placed in an unmarked grave in Joplin’s Peace Church Cemetery in a family plot, not far from where his mother was buried.

Two years to the day after Billy Cook locked Lee Archer in the trunk of his car and kidnapped the Mossers, the final case against him was closed in Oklahoma City. Having been charged with armed robbery, Justice of the Peace Ben La Fon dropped the charge on the grounds that “the subject is now deceased.”

Yet, Billy Cook did manage to cause a bit more chaos from the grave. The Oklahoma State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors charged Comanche funeral director Glenn Boydstun with soliciting for Billy Cook’s funeral and then displaying his body. On February 2, 1953, Boydstun was found guilty of “gross malpractice” and had his license suspended for three years.

Immortalized in Song…

This leads us to the answer to today’s question of the day. Were you able to name the song that has a verse inspired by Billy Cook?

Here is that complete verse:

There’s a killer on the road

His brain is squirmin’ like a toad

Take a long holiday

Let your children play

If you give this man a ride, sweet family will die

Killer on the road

That is the second verse from Riders on the Storm by The Doors, which reached #14 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart back in 1971. Jim Morrison had written these words as part of a poem he had titled The Hitchhiker and from which he planned to base a movie on. Clearly, Billy Cook’s murderous crime spree was a big inspiration on what he wrote.

Riders on the Storm by The Doors.

The whispered lyrics that Jim Morrison recorded to create the echo effect in that song would be the last he ever recorded. 27-year-old Morrison would die on July 3, 1971 in Paris. Since no autopsy was performed, his cause of death was listed as heart failure, although witnesses said it was due to an heroin overdose.

I’ll end this story with a statement Billy Cook made at the time of his arrest: “I never had a friend in the world.”

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

The 1953 movie The Hitch-Hiker, directed by Ida Lupino, was loosely based on the crimes that Billy Cook committed. A review of this movie was featured in Podcast #149 – Bad Apples #2 – The Hitch-Hiker. Click on the link below to listen to the movie review.

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