Arkansas Business' 25 Cases of Mystery & Mayhem (25th Anniversary)

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Monday, Mar. 23, 2009 12:00 am  

A lot of strange stuff has happened in Arkansas in recent months – murders, attempted murders, arson, even an executive who simply vanished. But the truth is, a lot of strange stuff has happened during the past 25 years, and a lot of it is still unexplained. Here, starting with the most recent, are cases that still have us scratching our heads.

1. Dr. Trent Pierce
The car bomb explosion that nearly killed West Memphis family practitioner Trent P. Pierce occurred just last month, so there's still plenty of hope that this mystery will be solved.

Pierce, 54 and chairman of the Arkansas State Medical Board, was critically injured about 8 a.m. on Feb. 4 when a homemade explosive device detonated near the front of the hybrid Lexus SUV in his driveway. Pierce lost his left eye in the blast, and he also suffered burns and shrapnel wounds.

The Associated Press reported that Arkansas had not been the scene of a car bomb since 1982. That's when a blasting cap went off under the car of Alice McArthur, wife of Little Rock attorney Bill McArthur. Alice McArthur was shot to death in her home a few moths later, and one of the men convicted of her murder, "Yankee" Hall, confessed to his involvement in the car bomb.

Daryl Crouch, president of the Walsh-Lumpkin Drug Co., was killed in 1987 by a bomb planted in his car on the Texas side of Texarkana.

2. Anne Pressly
The murder of KATV, Channel 7, news anchor Anne Pressly became a staple of national news broadcasts for weeks in late 2008.

Pressly, 26, who had a bit role in the theatrical release "W.," was found near death from a severe beating in her Little Rock home early on the morning of Oct. 20. She died five days later at St. Vincent Infirmary. Only after her death did her parents confirm that she had been raped as well as beaten.

A month later, on Nov. 26, police armed with DNA evidence arrested a Marianna man, Curtis Lavelle Vance, and charged him with capital murder. Vance has pleaded not guilty, but he has not yet been tried. Maybe then Arkansans will learn whether Pressly was targeted or whether she was the victim of a random home invasion.

3. Bill Gwatney
Police have given up on ever figuring out a motive for the murder on Aug. 13, 2008, of Bill Gwatney, prominent car dealer and chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party.

Timothy D. Johnson, 50, of Searcy, who that morning lost his job in the stock room of a Target store in Conway, entered the Democratic Party headquarters near the state Capitol about noon. He asked to see Gwatney and then shot him three times.

Gwatney died about four hours later. In the meantime, Johnson led police on a 30-minute chase that ended when he wrecked his pickup truck near Sheridan in Grant County. Law enforcement vehicles surrounded the truck, and when Johnson emerged with a gun in his hand, he was shot to death by police officers.

The Little Rock Police Department and the Arkansas State Police closed their cases in November, saying they could never establish any connection between Gwatney and his killer nor any motive for the shooting.

4. Aaron Jones
Another mystery from 2008 is the fire that gutted the Chenal Circle home of young attorney and real estate developer Aaron Jones and his family.

Jones once described the 5,757-SF mansion, for which he paid $1.6 million in 2005, as his "dream home." But it was on the market with an asking price that had been reduced from $2.2 million to $1.85 million when, in the wee hours of May 30, Jones hopped to his neighbor's door and told a shocking tale of home invasion and arson.

Jones, whose wife and children were at their second home in Florida, said he was awakened by a gunman who used duct tape to cover Jones' mouth and eyes and to bind his feet and wrists. He said he believed at least one other intruder was also in his heavily mortgaged house, which quickly filled with black smoke.

No arrests have been made in the crime, but it is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation.

5. John Glasgow
One of the most baffling cases of the past 25 years is the disappearance of John Glasgow, chief financial officer of CDI Contractors of Little Rock, on Jan. 28, 2008. At the time of his disappearance, Glasgow, 45, was embroiled in a heated accounting dispute with James Freeman, CFO of Dillard's Inc., which owned half of CDI and has since acquired the other half. Glasgow's SUV was found the next day in the parking lot of Mather Lodge at Petit Jean State Park, but no trace of Glasgow has ever been found.

6. Olmstead Funeral Home
No, it wasn't an episode of "Six Feet Under." Dwight Olmstead, president of Olmstead Funeral Home in Heber Springs, really did shoot his father, Tom Olmstead, at the funeral home on a Saturday morning in February 2007.

What's more, Tom Olmstead, 76 at the time, also shot his 55-year-old son.

The shootout was the nadir of a relationship that had started to sour seven years earlier, when Tom Olmstead was removed as president of the funeral home business the family had operated since 1896. Dwight then fired his father in March 2006, spawning a lawsuit in which Dwight said his father's "tendency when he drinks to go out and spend huge sums of money" was threatening to bankrupt the business.

Dwight Olmstead was eventually charged with attempted murder and second-degree battery and has been held without bond since October – even running unopposed for re-election as Cleburne County coroner from his jail cell. He was scheduled for trial in February.

7. Huckabee's Hard Drives
Shortly before his 10-year tenure as governor expired in January 2007, Mike Huckabee ordered his staff to wipe clean and then crush the hard drives of about 100 computers in the governor's office.

The action was unprecedented, and it cost taxpayers more than $300,000 to buy new computers and hard drives to replace those that were destroyed. But it was not illegal or unethical; the Arkansas Ethics Commission cleared Huckabee of any wrongdoing.

Still, one has to wonder what was on those state-owned computers that needed to be destroyed so utterly.

8. Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb
South African heart surgeon Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb and his life-saving work at Arkansas Children's Hospital were the subject of a critically acclaimed four-part documentary series on ABC in 2002. But on the day after Christmas in 2004, Drummond-Webb killed himself in his Little Rock home with an overdose of a prescription painkiller.

A rambling, profanity-filled suicide note expressed frustration with the United States and with Arkansas Children's Hospital and indicted the competence of several other medical professionals on the hospital's staff. "It is useless to speculate on what prompted any of his specific statements," a written statement from a hospital spokeswoman said. "He was not himself when he wrote the note."

9. Ivory-billed Woodpecker
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture states unequivocally that the ivory-billed woodpecker, long listed as extinct, "was rediscovered in the Big Woods of east Arkansas in 2004." But the question really isn't settled.

To be sure, multiple sightings of the striking bird were reported during a year-long search of the Cache River and White River wildlife refuges. And a professor from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock came up with a brief video that helped convince experts from the renowned Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology that at least one male Campephilus principalis survived six decades after its last reliable sighting in the United States.

But the euphoria experienced by birders – and east Arkansas boosters with dreams of bundles of dollars from low-impact bird-watching tourists – gradually faded as reliable sightings ceased and other ornithologists expressed doubt that the big bird had been rediscovered at all.

10. Garrick Wales
The death in Little Rock of Garrick Wales, a 49-year-old computer programmer from Kilmacolm, Scotland, was much bigger news in Europe than in Arkansas.

The Little Rock Police Department quickly concluded that Wales died after being bitten by a poisonous snake. British readers, though, couldn't get enough of the story of the married son of a millionaire businessman who led a double life that included a reptile fetish and a secret relationship with a transsexual porn star named Joanna Jet.

Wales was supposedly in Little Rock for "a major business deal" when his vomit-covered body was found May 13, 2004, in a rented Chevrolet Blazer parked on Gregg Street east of downtown. A few days later, a wooden box containing four poisonous snakes was found about a half-mile away. Investigators determined that Wales had ordered the snakes online from a Florida dealer and had them delivered to Little Rock National Airport, where he picked them up shortly before his death.

But exactly why this deal went down in Little Rock may never be known.

11. David Howell
His career started as a banking wunderkind in northwest Arkansas and ended in a Beverly Hills hotel just as state regulators started to unravel his Ponzi scheme. But there's still much that isn't clear in the infamous case of Mace David Howell Jr., 54. For instance, the California coroner ruled his death a suicide, but a Little Rock jury settled a life insurance dispute by ruling it an accidental drug overdose by a known substance abuser. Which was it?

More than $80 million worth of claims were made against Howell's estate, but there's no way to know whether those represented all the outstanding promissory notes he issued to investors. What's more, some of the notes were so old that, if he had been paying the promised returns until shortly before his death, the investors may have actually made more in interest than they invested.

And, of course, the trial of his business associate Richard T. Smith of Hot Springs on four felony counts related to the Howell investment scheme is scheduled to start on May 4 – more than two and a half years after Smith was indicted by a federal grand jury. 

12. Ron Orsini
Ron Orsini, owner of a North Little Rock heating and air-conditioning business, had been dead for three years when Arkansas Business launched in 1984. But it wasn't until 2003 that his widow, Mary "Lee" Orsini, confessed to his murder, just a couple of weeks before she died in prison of a heart attack.

Lee Orsini's conviction for Ron's murder had been overturned, but she was serving life without parole for hiring two blundering hit men to commit the infinitely more sensational murder of Alice McArthur of Little Rock, wife of her defense attorney, Bill McArthur.

There are still a lot of people who suspect McArthur was involved in his wife's murder in July 1982, but a grand jury refused to indict him. After all, no evidence beyond the word of a murderess ever connected him to a crime that created a media circus the likes of which Arkansas has not seen since.

13. Carter Elliott
Conway police think they know who committed the execution-style murders of business owner Carter Elliott, 49, and his 26-year-old employee, Timmy Wayne Robertson, on May 18, 2002. They just haven't been able to prove their theory.

The bodies of Elliott, a founder of chemical manufacturer Detco Industries Inc., and Robertson were found in Elliott's home at 6 Shady Valley the next day. It was Conway's first double murder in memory, and the last until two students were gunned down on the University of Central Arkansas campus in 2008.

The murder of a well-liked businessman was destined to be unsolved until, a month later, a Salt Lake City woman was rescued from the Nevada home of her estranged husband, Richard Conte, an emergency room physician. As it happened, Conte's wife was also the ex-wife of Carter Elliott.

Conte was convicted of drugging and kidnapping Lark Gathright-Elliott, whom he kept chained to a bed at his home near Carson City for two days before family members persuaded him to release her. After his arrest, police found an online map to Carter Elliott's house on Conte's computer and a list of Conway police scanner frequencies.

Conte was denied parole in Nevada last year and won't be eligible for another hearing until 2011.

14.­ Melanie Steele
In April 2000, a headline in Arkansas Business asked, "Who Is Melanie Steele and Why Is She Buying This Stuff?"

Between February 2000 and July 2001, a North Little Rock woman completely unknown in money circles paid more than $4 million in cash for 12 houses in Pulaski County. She dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars on Cadillacs, Mercedes and Range Rovers. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that she left tips of $10,000 each for three servers at a Little Rock restaurant. She struck a deal – never consummated – to buy the Continental Building in downtown Little Rock for more than $5 million in cash, and she opened two short-lived businesses in the River Market District.

An interior designer called her the best thing that ever happened to the home-decorating business in Little Rock, although neighbors cringed at the sphinxes she installed in front of a $1 million home in Chenal Valley.

Steele, a 1980 graduate of Ole Main High School, never granted an interview to Arkansas Business, but she told the Democrat-Gazette that she had been romantically involved with bookstore mogul Louis Borders and that he gave her stock in Webvan, a dot-com company he founded in San Francisco. She said she cashed in to the tune of $14 million before Webvan crashed on the information superhighway.

The story could never be confirmed, but her dollars were green enough.

Steele was the living embodiment of nouveau riche, and by mid-2002, the party was completely over. Collection suits and breach-of-contract complaints started stacking up. The IRS came looking for more than $2.5 million, and even houses she had given to friends and relatives were sold – invariably at a loss.

These days, Melanie Steele is living in an apartment in North Little Rock with her mother and teenage daughter, or so we're told.

15. Disney in Arkansas
A persistent mystery in the Arkansas Business newsroom is this: Who keeps spreading an utterly unfounded rumor that The Walt Disney Co. is buying up real estate in Arkansas in preparation for building a centrally located theme park similar to Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida?

This rumor seems to crop up at least once a year, and reporters dutifully make calls and check records. But there has never been anything to it, and we'd wager a sizable sum that there never will be.

Still, it always brings back fond memories of Gary Wayne Johnson, also known as Ropin' Rodeo Bob, a former Osceola schoolteacher and children's TV show host who spent 1999 trying to interest investors in his vision for Johnson Country USA, a 1,000-acre theme park shaped like the 50 United States and located in Cross County.

16. Dr. Lonnie Parker
Normally, the case of Lonnie Joseph Parker wouldn't be categorized as a mystery. He acknowledges that he had possession of child pornography, and he was convicted in 1998 and sentenced to 37 months in federal prison.

But Parker insists that the images he received by e-mail while attending medical school in Little Rock were unsolicited and that he contacted the FBI immediately and was instructed to hold onto the evidence. His appeal of his conviction was rejected, but his story is so persuasive that he was honorably discharged from the Navy while incarcerated and he has an active, unrestricted license to practice medicine in Arkansas.

17. Morgan Nick
Across the United States, the name for an official police announcement concerning a missing child is an Amber Alert, officially America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, but actually named for 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas, in 1995.

But in Arkansas, these ominous announcements are called Morgan Nick alerts, in memory of a 6-year-old girl who was last seen emptying sand out of her shoes in the parking lot of a city park in Alma (Crawford County) on June 9, 1995.

No trace of Morgan has been found.

18. Oklahoma City Bombing
Timothy McVeigh told biographers that he considered bombing the 40-story building in downtown Little Rock then known as the TCBY Tower before deciding instead to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.

Then as now, the U.S. Attorney's Office was a tenant in the building, now known as Metropolitan Tower.

But other Arkansas connections to the horrific murder of 168 people are less well known and far more mysterious.

The bombing happened on the second anniversary of the fire that ended an FBI siege on a cultist compound near Waco, Texas, and prosecutors said McVeigh and his co-conspirators set out to retaliate for the government's handling of that incident. But the bombing also happened a few hours before the state of Arkansas executed Richard Wayne Snell, a member of a radical white supremacist group known as the CSA – the Covenant, the Sword & the Arm of the Lord.

Snell was arrested in 1984 and subsequently convicted of the murders of a Texarkana pawn shop owner and an Arkansas State Trooper. The next year, some 300 federal agents laid siege to the CSA compound in Marion County; the 10th anniversary of that siege was the day after the Oklahoma City bombing.

Whether McVeigh also hoped to avenge that government action or Snell's scheduled execution is a matter of speculation. But there's also this twist: In 1983, 12 years before McVeigh succeeded, Snell had been involved in an aborted plot to blow up the Murrah building.

There's also a little mystery left in the peripheral involvement of an ex-con from northwest Arkansas.

In 2004, Jim Bolt of Rogers was a witness in a preliminary hearing in the state murder trial of Terry Nichols, who was already serving a life sentence in federal prison for his role in helping McVeigh plan the Oklahoma City bombing.

Bolt was called to testify about one or more photographs that supposedly showed the Murrah building at the moment of explosion, evidence said to be in the possession of a business associate named John Culbertson.

According to the Tulsa World, Bolt testified that Culbertson told him that no such photographic evidence existed. Then Bolt testified that he believed there was a photo of the blast but that he had never seen it.

Bolt's testimony was cut short, however, when he began to complain of chest pain. He never returned to finish his testimony.

19. Herbert Jones Sr.
A Pulaski County jury concluded that it wasn't premeditated murder, and, ultimately, that's all that matters. Still, only two people knew exactly what happened in the locked office of car dealer Herbert Jones Sr. on the first day of June 1993, and one of them was dead.

This much is undisputed: Dan Stevens Baker, 47, had spent four years managing two apartment complexes owned by Jones, who was 72. One of the complexes, the Butler Apartments, had been shut down by the city of Little Rock less than two weeks earlier over multiple code violations. Baker – 6-foot-4, 260 pounds  and uncharacteristically unarmed – came to Jones' office about 3:45 in the afternoon to finalize a plan for Jones to hire a replacement apartment manager.

Jones told the jury that Baker demanded $100,000 for the "sweat equity" he had in Jones' apartments. When Jones refused to pay and threatened to report code violations at the second apartment building, according to Jones' testimony, Baker threatened to kill him and "came around the desk, fishing in his pocket."

Jones shot Baker through the heart with a .38-caliber revolver he kept in his desk drawer.

Prosecutors filed a first-degree murder charge against Jones, and Circuit Judge John Plegge wouldn't allow the jury to consider any lesser charges. Jones was acquitted in 1994.

Within a few weeks of his acquittal, Jones' lawyer confirmed that Jones had applied for $1.25 million in "key man" insurance policies on the life of Dan Baker.

Jones still lives in Little Rock.

20. Johnny Burnett
The murder of pool and spa retailer Johnny Burnett in his Little Rock home in July 1992 is still not officially solved although the case is long since closed. Burnett's estranged wife, Scharmel Bolling Burnett, was acquitted in a retrial in 1994, her first trial having ended in a mistrial. She still lives in Little Rock.

 21. Barrett Hamilton Jr. 
In 1996, Arkansas Business described the life of Dwight Barrett Hamilton Jr. as "almost a classic remake of Jesus' parable of the prodigal son."

Hamilton had inherited a fortune from his father, who founded Barrett Hamilton Inc., one of Arkansas' largest liquor distributorships, shortly after the repeal of Prohibition. He ordered his mother out of the family's California home, which was valued at over $1 million in the 1970s, and cut off her salary. He reduced his two sisters' dividends from company stock and increased his own salary, first to $500,000 and then to $1 million.

In January 1992, the 47-year-old Hamilton was found dead in his suite on the 17th floor of New York's luxurious Hotel Plaza Athenée. The official cause was an accidental cocaine overdose, and his substance abuse apparently dated back at least two decades.

But then there was this: Just weeks before his death, Hamilton had reported death threats to police in Aspen, Colo., where he had a home and had invested in what one newspaper report described as a "high-society" nightclub called the China Club.

22. Larry Ashley
James Larry Ashley is serving life without parole for shooting his wife, Debbie Shepherd Ashley, and leaving her body in the trunk of his Acura at the Little Rock National Airport.

Ashley insisted that the April 1991 shooting was an accident in the course of a tussle over a handgun his wife carried in her purse. A Pulaski County Circuit Court jury believed the prosecutors' version – that Ashley was deeply in debt, on the verge of losing his $80,000-a-year job and desperate to get his hands on some $200,000 in life insurance benefits.

But there's still this one nagging question: Was Ashley, who will turn 62 later this month, inspired by a similar case in Atlanta, where he and Debbie married just before moving to Little Rock in June 1990?

In that November 1989 case, the body of former TV anchorwoman Connie Vance Krause, then PR manager for the Arthur Andersen & Co. accounting firm, was found stuffed in the trunk of her car at a metro station. Her unemployed husband, Hans Krause, was suspected of killing her for the $380,000 in insurance on her life. Unlike Larry Ashley, Hans Krause was never charged with his wife's murder – but neither was anyone else. And Connie Krause's parents successfully sued in civil court to keep Hans from collecting the insurance.

And there's this curious fact: At the time of Connie Krause's death, the Arthur Andersen branch where she worked was conducting an investigation of irregular Medicare billing. That investigation would result in Larry Ashley being fired in March 1990 – just in time to take the job with The BridgeWay.

23. Doc Hale
Little Rock Police Chief Jess F. "Doc" Hale shot himself to death in the laundry room of his Cabot home in April 1988. He was on suspension at the time, awaiting trial on a charge of stealing money from the cash register of Buice Drug Store, a landmark in the Stifft's Station neighborhood of Little Rock.

How Hale died is no mystery at all. And there's no doubt that he repeatedly took cash from the register; hours of surveillance video clearly showed his hand in the till. But, for many in Little Rock, Hale's suicide didn't negate his claims that he had permission to borrow money when he needed to and was "set up" by the drugstore's owner, state Rep. George E. Wimberly.

Wimberly, a former Little Rock mayor, is nearly 90 but still practicing as a pharmacist at Buice Drug.

24. John Markle
A handful of conspiracy theorists remain unconvinced, but a lengthy police investigation confirmed what seemed obvious as soon as the crime was discovered: In the early morning hours of Monday, Nov. 16, 1987, Stephens Inc. futures trader John Markle, 45, unloaded 12 bullets into his wife and two young daughters in their Quapaw Quarter home, called his lawyer and then shot himself in both sides of his head simultaneously.

It quickly emerged that Markle had been fired three days earlier, on Friday the 13th, weeks after Stephens executives discovered that he had engaged in a long-term embezzlement scheme that seemed designed to benefit his mother, Oscar-winning actress Mercedes McCambridge.

Markle would order trades through a cooperative Chicago brokerage without specifying whether the trades should be entered on the Stephens house account or on an account he had opened for his mother. At the end of each trading day, Markle would assign profitable trades to his mother's account and losing trades to the Stephens account.

Next to the shocking deaths themselves, the most explosive element of the Markle case was a 12-page letter that he left behind for his mother. McCambridge spent a year and a half trying to keep the contents of the letter from being released under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, but it was ultimately printed in full in the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat in April 1989. The letter suggested that Markle had spent his life trying to please his mother and resorted to murder-suicide when she rejected a plan for paying restitution to Stephens Inc.

25. Mena Airport
The most mysterious thing about the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport is determining what is known and what is merely speculation.

A swaggering drug smuggler named Adler Berriman "Barry" Seal admitted using the Mena airport as a base of operation beginning about 1981. His best friend and co-pilot, Emile Camp of Slidell, La., died in a plane crash at Fourche Mountain north of the airport in February 1985. But the miasma of allegations – Mena as epicenter of Iran-Contra, Bill Clinton a drug-smuggling conspirator, Bryant teenagers Kevin Ives and Don Henry murdered because they stumbled into Mena-related drug dealing – may never be settled.

 

(Click here to see all the stories in our anniversary edition. Or click here to flip through each page of the edition in this special free electronic version.) 

 

 

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