The tragic death of Mildred Ann Newlin Reynolds 60 years ago was, and still is, the mystery no one could solve. With rumors ranging from mob hits to secret lovers’ rendezvous gone wrong, to Northwest Oklahoma this was straight out of Hollywood. In homage to this gripping case, let’s revisit the circumstances of Ann’s death, but this time with the same information investigators had, in order to sort out the myths from the maybes.
Ann was a cousin to my fraternal grandfather, Bill Newlin. She is buried in Cherokee Municipal Cemetery, close to many of my other relatives. Her stone is tiny, ineffectual and I fear it goes less and less decorated each year, as so many who loved her have themselves passed away.
Ann’s hometown of Lambert, Oklahoma, is not far from where I grew up, so naturally I’d heard people talk about what happened in 1956. I had always been told Ann had been murdered in a mob hit because of information she overheard while working at a telephone company. Sensational, yes, but factual? I was in the market to find out. With the 60th anniversary approaching, I decided to dig into her death, and it’s a crusade that has spanned the last six months.
Fortunately, the Woods County Sheriff’s office was kind enough to grant me access to evidence and files from the initial investigation. They classify the case as unsolved — although the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation declared it an accident — so the files have just been sitting on a shelf for six decades. I have read the pages numerous times; I’ve even seen some of the crime scene video. In an effort to gain different perspectives, I’ve interviewed more than 25 people who were close to the case; no easy feat considering the time passed. The work paid off and my investigation has yielded more than I anticipated.
Ann, or Annie, as she was often called, was the daughter of Ernest and Marie Newlin. She was a senior at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, Oklahoma, majoring in chemistry.
“She was my little sister, the baby of the family,” said Barbara Newlin Gardner, the last of Ann’s siblings. “She was cute as a button and everyone loved her.”
Ann married Richard “Dee” Reynolds, a schoolteacher and basketball coach, in May 1955 and they settled in a farmhouse on a rural road near Avard, Oklahoma, 8 miles southwest of Alva. By 1956, the couple were hosting Ann’s nephew, Jerry Huckabee, in their home while he was also attending NWOSU. Although they were aunt and nephew, the two were close in age. Ann was 22 while Jerry was 20.
Ann and Jerry rode together to and from school, except Tuesday afternoons when Jerry had a botany lab. Since Ann only had a morning class, she’d leave after lunch and he’d catch a ride home with friends. March 13, 1956, just happened to be a Tuesday. After eating lunch with Jerry until about 12:30 p.m., picking up dry cleaning and purchasing brake fluid, Ann started for home.
She made it 1 mile south and 2 miles west of Hopeton, Oklahoma, in her Chevy Tudor sedan, when something pivotal happened. For reasons unknown, her car veered into the wrong lane where she came to a stop at the top of a hill. According to Highway Patrolman G.R. Brown’s report, the tracks on the dirt road showed she then put the car in reverse and began zigzagging backward. Eventually, she stopped, put the car in drive and ran it across the road, hitting a tree in the ditch. According to his records, she backed up onto the road again and performed the same maneuver, hitting the fence a few feet from the tree. Putting the car in reverse yet again, she started backing along the bank of the road in a straight line for 250 feet before centering the car back on the road and stopping, still facing west. This is the point where it was believed the car caught on fire. From there, the car drifted forward 14 feet where it rested until found.
Leroy Lancaster, a local farmer, first noticed the smoke a little after 1 o’ clock, but because several people were burning thistles in the area, he didn’t investigate. At 1:45 p.m., Loren Goucher, another area farmer, was driving down the road with his wife and young son, when he saw the burning car. Goucher approached the vehicle and realized a person was in the car, but was past help. The Gouchers rushed to Hopeton and phoned Sheriff Ed Doctor.
Authorities soon arrived and began to photograph the scene and try to decipher what had occurred. The scene was crazy, complicated, confusing and, worst of all, concerning. Perhaps one of the most worrisome details investigators first noticed was the way the deceased was positioned in the car. She was laying across the front seat, on her back with her head in the passenger seat and her feet near the steering wheel. The case file stated her arms were crossed over her chest, almost peacefully. The concern was if she had been placed in the car this way, or if she was debilitated to the point she just fell across the seat before the fire overcame her.
One of Ann’s shoes was found partially burned at the front of the left rear fender of the car. The other shoe was found near the fence. That shoe had a reddish stain on it, later confirmed to be human blood. Unfortunately, according to the case notes, the fire had consumed all of Ann’s blood within the car, making it impossible to compare her blood to the stain. However, with the circumstances they believed it to be her blood. Some blood was also found on a thistle and one drop was in the grass, near the bloodstained shoe. It was also mentioned in the same area the grass was matted down. Investigators suspected someone had either fallen down or had been attacked in that area.
Deputy Vernon Hackney located four scorched buttons, possibly from a blouse, 56 feet from where it was believed the fire initially started. Ann’s coat was found, 90 percent burned, on the left side of the car. Two metal bases from 12-gauge shotgun shells were found inside the car. However, it was difficult to say for sure if they had been fired or not.
Three empty 9 mm casings were discovered 75 feet west of her tire tracks. Initially, this was probably a major breakthrough for detectives, but a few days later a man came forward claiming the bullets were fired from his gun a few days prior to the tragedy. Ballistics confirmed the bullets were fired from his gun, and he was not pursued as a suspect.
Once all the evidence was collected, it was time to remove the body, which was so markedly burned it was unrecognizable. The case report indicated the left tibia was the only long bone still attached to her body, and one of her legs had burned off at the knee. It had to have been one of the most outrageous cases those detectives ever worked, but things only got more complex.
Deputy Sherriff Doss Gourley took casts of the tire tracks, but the OSBI identified all of them to be from Ann’s car. Investigators did not believe another car had crossed her tire tracks; however, Kenny Cole, former Alva chief of police, disagreed.
“I don’t care what they say, those tire tracks had been crossed over by another car,” he said.
Cole is the last living member of law enforcement initially at the scene. He says Ann’s death has haunted him ever since, even though it was not his case.
“I’ve thought about this case many a night laying in my bed. That girl was fighting for her life all the way up the hill and back down.”
At first, most agreed with his notion that another car was involved, but the OSBI insisted no other tracks were found. Even more perplexing, according to the case notes, no footprints were found leading to the fields or to the side of the road.
Still, it seems improbable investigators would not have encountered any other tire tracks or footprints since they didn’t rope off the scene. Cole says he regrets not stepping up and suggesting police keep civilians out of the crime scene, but since the case was out of his jurisdiction the rookie police officer didn’t intervene. One can only wonder what evidence might have been recovered if the crime scene hadn’t been tainted.
“People were walking all over the roads, fields and pastures, just trying to be helpful in finding evidence,” Cole said. “If there was any physical evidence out there, it got destroyed.”
It wasn’t surprising how many people showed up to see the crime scene; crimes, especially violent ones, were foreign to this quiet, rural community. Adjunctly, Ann’s death was front-page news and likely a frequent topic of conversation. I can just imagine the beauty shops and coffee houses buzzing with invented suspects and motives; most likely everyone had a different theory. But for Ann’s family, it was a nightmare from which they wouldn’t soon awake.
“My parents were so overwhelmed with the idea that someone could do this to our sweet Annie,” Barbara said. “My mother, till the day she died at 86, was still thinking God didn’t play fair because there should be somebody sitting in a corner of some jail cell suffering for what they did to Annie.”
The Newlin family posted a reward for $250 for information about Ann’s death. The sheriff’s office received plenty of tips; some were wild accusations, others clairvoyant intuitions. None panned out, so investigators hoped the medical examiner could shed light on the mystery.
Dr. Alfred M. Shideler performed the autopsy. He noticed carbonized material in the air passages of the lungs, indicating she was alive for at least part of the fire. The color of her blood showed she had inhaled a considerable amount of carbon monoxide as well. No signs of sexual assault were evident, however the equipment and forensic testing in 1956 probably couldn’t detect much, especially since the fire had destroyed the body. The official cause of death was the fire, but why didn’t she get out of the car to avoid the flames? The obvious answer was she had been incapacitated, but for what reason?
Initially, the coroner stated he saw no evidence of bullet wounds or fractures produced prior to the fire. Skull fractures were present, but he believed them to be a result of the intense heat. But after the radiologist examined the X-rays of Ann’s skull, he concluded one fracture at the back of the skull was caused ante mortem. He said the fracture could have been accidental or foul play. Still without a solid lead, the detectives turned to the car to learn more about the nature of Ann’s death.
An inspection of the vehicle showed no major problems, only some holes in the muffler. Special Agent James R. Sullivan, of the National Auto Theft Bureau, believed the fire began at the back of the car, near the left rear wheel. The reason the fire began was never fully established. The windshield had melted from the heat, so Sullivan and Kyle Morehead, deputy state fire marshal, agreed the fire had reached at least 1700 degrees Fahrenheit, the melting point of glass. For a fire to reach this temperature, it would need an accelerant, so investigators conducted experiments on a car similar to Ann’s, to try to replicate a fire of the same magnitude.
After setting a gasoline fire, which only peaked at 1400 degrees, they tried a quart of brake fluid, which she had bought prior to leaving town. Within two minutes, an explosion occurred and the temperature reached 1725 degrees, leaving no doubt what made the heat so intense. But was it used to set a fire or did the fire accidentally start and the brake fluid simply propelled it to extreme temperatures?
Just like almost all of the other evidence, both accidental and homicidal explanations could be argued and every question had at least two possible answers. However, after the initial findings were in, a coroner’s jury of six was assembled to judge whether Ann’s death should be investigated further as a murder or if it was just a tragic accident. The Coroner’s Jury Report read:
“Some folks endeavored to show the burning to be an accident, but others were more inclined to the theory of foul play. While it might be possible for this to have been an accident, certain features of the matter make the accident theory almost impossible, other than an extremely freakish one. The foul play theory seemed to rest most heavy in the minds of most of the investigators and the jury declined the accident theory and expressed themselves as believing it was not an accident and recommended further investigation in the matter and an attempt to arrive at a solution to the mystery.”
To reach that solution, investigators focused on Dee and Jerry, since they were so close to the victim. Both had corroborated alibis — Jerry was at the college, and later rode home with friends, and Dee was teaching school at Avard. Authorities also questioned 300 NWOSU students who were not in class at the time of the fire. The community was probed for possible suspects, but it seemed Ann had no enemies. Still, most believed her death to be foul play.
“The family always believed it was a murder although they wanted so badly for it to have been an accident,” said Diane Post, Ann’s niece.
In interviews conducted by Ivan Gates, lead investigator from the OSBI and W. T. Hughes, assistant state fire marshal, some of the questions suggested Ann had been meeting a beau the day she died. However, never in any of the statements attached to the case report did anyone suggest Ann would have strayed from her marriage. Actually, they conveyed the opposite.
By all accounts, she was known as beautiful, shy, intelligent and straight-laced; past boyfriends described her as the opposite of a “fast date.” Everyone who knew the couple said they appeared to be completely in love. So it seemed her only crime might have been she was alone on an isolated road at the wrong time.
Regardless of the strange circumstances revolving around Ann’s death, the OSBI later changed their classification of the case to an accident. They stated the reason for the actions of the car was that Ann had suffered a vertigo attack. She had never been diagnosed with the condition, but she had complained of some unusual symptoms to her doctor.
“She complained of a roaring in her head and that it would fade away and the sound would seem to be a great distance away,” the case file read.
Although her physician hadn’t noticed red flags while examining her in the past, he admitted he could have missed something. He said the roaring in her head could have been caused by an inner ear infection, impairing her equilibrium.
However, some questions arise with this assessment. Vertigo basically causes extreme dizziness and it can feel like the earth is moving, but it does not affect mental faculties. Most likely Ann would have just held onto something until the dizziness passed, not kept driving. Another concern is the number of times she shifted the car. If Ann were having a vertigo attack, she probably wouldn’t have been able to find the gearshift in the confusion, much less shift the car six times. Not exactly a satisfying conclusion with that taken into account.
“I don’t see how anyone could think this was anything other than a murder,” Barbara said.
Although the case was never solved according to Woods County, that doesn’t mean no one was punished for what happened to Ann. Dee eventually left the state in an effort to escape the sideways looks and whispers within the community. He later re-married and had a family, but LeAnn Newlin Stein, another of Ann’s nieces, said Dee never got over losing his beloved Ann.
“He would send flowers to her grave every year until he died,” she said.
And no matter what everyone else thought, the Newlin family never believed Dee could hurt Ann. They showed their support by maintaining a close relationship with him. Dee would even help Ann’s father harvest his wheat every summer.
Two years after her death, with the case still unsolved, Real Detective Magazine published a true crime piece about Ann’s death. No doubt adding their own editorial opinions and embellished story line, the article fueled Ann to an even higher level of posthumous celebrity. And still six decades later, people talk about that burning car. I predict they will keep on talking about it, but this time, hopefully, the chatter will include some truth as well. After all, Ann wasn’t the only casualty of the fire. Some of her character was assassinated by insinuations not based on fact.
By now I’m sure you’re ready to hear my conclusions; this is the part where I reveal the murderer, right? Wrong. Sure, I’ve got an opinion, but what I think doesn’t matter. I didn’t set out to solve this case. I figured there was a reason why it hasn’t been closed in 60 years. And although I pursued the case like a bloodhound tracking a scent, I didn’t have high hopes of heating up this very cold case. I knew it would take a spontaneous confession — if it was a murder — to find the culprit, who to be frank is most-likely dead.
This project started out as a mere curiosity, which later turned into a quest for facts, but in the process it also became a genealogy project. Through digging into the mystery of Ann’s death, I found a whole new set of relatives I didn’t even know I had. I’ve gotten to know one or two of them, but the one I feel a particular connection to is Ann. I’ve never seen her apart from photos, never heard her voice or shaken her hand, but I still feel a kindred allegiance to her from learning about her life and death. It’s a connection I foresee lasting a long time. If nothing else came from the revisit to her mysterious demise, one thing is sure. No one need worry about Ann’s grave going unadorned, at least not as long as I’m around.