Three murders in 2 years prompted public outcry
This is the second in a series about a web of violence and vice in Grand Junction, or as some called it, “Little Chicago,” that came to a head in the late 1930s with the formation of a grand jury investigation.
Early in the morning of Aug. 14, 1937, Jeanette Morris was found murdered in her room in the 100 block of Colorado Avenue in the heart of the notorious “Barbary Coast” district.
The murder of Morris, 22, was the first in a series of three bizarre deaths that rocked peaceful small-town Grand Junction during a two-year period and precipitated the formation of a grand jury.
Morris’ nude body was discovered lying across the bed with an apron string wound around her neck, along with fingerprints on her throat. It was obvious that she was a victim of strangulation. Morris had been renting a room from Jennie Ward, who said Morris had been working for her as a housekeeper and chauffeur for three to four weeks.
Several men were brought in for questioning, but there was insufficient evidence to arrest any one of them. The investigation plodded on for 18 months with few results.
Meanwhile, following the murders of Jim Patsios on Aug. 17, 1938, and Walter “Big Kid” Eames on Dec. 19, 1938, irate Grand Junction citizens demanded and got a grand jury investigation.
Morris’ murder was one of the crimes brought before the grand jury.
After the grand jury began hearings on Jan. 4, 1939, the public learned that Walter Byron, a special investigator from Denver, had been looking for clues in both the Eames and Morris murders.
After pinpointing suspects in the Eames slaying, Byron began a serious investigation of Morris’ death.
On Feb. 13, 1939, Cecil McHolland was arrested in Pueblo at Byron’s urging and was returned to Grand Junction. McHolland, one of Morris’ friends, previously had been questioned and released on two occasions by police Chief Hardy Decker.
In addition, police questioned a second Morris friend, W.D. “Chief” Miller. Officers were confident they had solved the case when Miller and McHolland implicated a third man, J.D. Lumpkin. Morris had reportedly told her brother that she was going to a movie with Lumpkin the night of her murder.
First, McHolland decided to admit his guilt in the case, exonerating Miller and Lumpkin. He was alone with Morris, he said, when “we got into a fight and I choked her with a rag as near as I can remember.” Soon after, his memory was jogged, and he again implicated Miller in the death.
For nearly two weeks McHolland and Miller traded stories while the case became more perplexing with each new revelation. In the process, both men confessed to first-degree murder, according to newspaper stories.
A Daily Sentinel story summed it up with this headline: “Who Killed Who, When, Where and How, Officers Want To Know As Principals In Jeannette Morris Case Keep Changing Confessions.”
When McHolland was being tried, The Daily Sentinel reported that “somewhat sordid details of the events in Jeannette’s room that night were told during the trial, barred from the general public because of the nature of the testimony.”
McHolland and Miller were both tried for and convicted of murder and sentenced to life of hard labor in the state penitentiary in Cañon City. Lumpkin, who was not tried, faded into the sunset and presumably returned to Tulsa.
Kathy Jordan is retired from The Daily Sentinel and involved in many preservation efforts, including the railroad depot and the North Seventh Street Historic Residential District.