by Tim Gilmore, 7/22/2017
Finding Her Gone
Beverly June Cochran had been missing for a year.
“Unless I know for sure what happened to her, I guess I’ll always have hopes,” her husband James Cochran, a janitorial supplies salesman for All-Brite Sales Company, told the United Press International in 1961. “I can think of a thousand and one things that might have happened to her, but none of them makes any sense.”
James still lived in the three-bedroom house he and his wife and child had moved into just a few weeks before Beverly disappeared. The house was lonely.
Every day, he replayed the Wednesday he’d come home from work at 6 pm—February 24, 1960—to find his wife gone, the baby crying alone in her crib.
He had told The Jacksonville Journal that when he got home, “It was getting dark, and there were no lights on in the house. When I got to the side door, I found it unlocked. That was unusual, too.”
It was a terrible phrase, “finding her gone,” but it made a horrible sense. Sometimes he thought he could feel her in the house with him. What he felt, instead, was her not being there. Instead of her presence, he felt her absence.
A baseball cap had been left behind on the dining room table. “No signs of struggle,” the police and the newspapers kept saying. It was as if this 19 year old housewife had simply walked away from her life.
“There’s one thing I’m sure of,” James Cochran told the UPI reporter. “I’m convinced she didn’t leave of her own accord.”
The Cochrans had been married less than two years. Their 13 month old daughter Carolyn went to live with Beverly’s parents. James rented out a bedroom. No one ever saw or heard from Beverly June Cochran again.
An Orgy of Drunkenness, Robbery and Murder
In “Spencer v. State,” argued before the Florida Supreme Court on October 25, 1961, Emmett Spencer’s attorneys sought a reversal of the killer’s death sentence on the contention that two deputies were allowed to hear evidence in court before they testified against him.
In his statement, Justice Benjamin Thornal wrote that according to Spencer’s girlfriend’s testimony, the two “had traveled across the country and back again. They ultimately reached Jacksonville Beach and from there evidently headed for Key West. Their trip down the East Coast was an orgy of drunkenness, robbery and murder.”
Though Spencer is hardly remembered today, not even meriting a page on sites like murderpedia.org, the story bears striking parallels to that of Jacksonville’s Ottis Toole, who claimed to have traveled and murdered across the country and up and down Florida with his partner and lover Henry Lee Lucas in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Like Toole, Spencer was said to have a great talent for storytelling and duping investigators into thinking he’d committed more crimes than he had. Like Toole in relation to Lucas, Mary Catherine Hampton was Spencer’s dim-witted lover. Court psychologists said Toole’s IQ was about 75. They said Hampton’s was around 72.
Spencer and Hampton grew up in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, where the killer persuaded the teenage girl to leave her alcoholic and abusive father for a life of adventure on the road.
Spencer was only convicted for one murder, that of Johnnie Keen, having beat him to death with a hammer in Key West on April 15, 1960. “The record reveals,” wrote Thornal, “that, in addition to the murder of Keen, two other people, who started out as passengers in the [stolen] Spencer automobile, came to violent deaths en route to Key West.”
Thornal didn’t name the “two other people,” a bartender and a waitress, both from Jacksonville Beach. The Court denied the reversal.
New and Full of Promise
The subdivision was new. It didn’t even have streetlights. Today, Harbor View’s 1959 and 1960 ranch-style houses have faded, but many of them still stand handsome behind cedar trees and 50 year old cacti.
The Cochrans had been living in Springfield. James had just left the Navy and taken a job selling janitorial supplies. Springfield, that gorgeous turn-of-the-20th-century neighborhood immediately north of downtown, had already declined for decades when the Cochrans rented their small apartment there.
The young couple had recently married, Beverly in her late teens, James in his early 20s, had their first child, bought a new three-bedroom house in a new subdivision, and were hoping for a second child. Everything was new and full of promise.
Midcentury suburbanism, seen now retrospectively in terms of “white flight,” of young couples seeking to start families in new homes safe and secure from fears of the failing cities, promised couples like the Cochrans a protected, prosperous and virtuous world.
New suburban (and white) ranch-style subdivisions rose on cheap land north of urban black Jacksonville. Affordable houses, many split-level, dotted the slight hills and bluffs of Ribault Scenic Drive, a winding boulevard that snaked alongside the Ribault River.
On February 27th, the Saturday after Beverly’s disappearance, the UPI reported helicopters hovering over the Ribault River and the marshes surrounding the Cochrans’ home. “A mounted posse” also joined in the search.
“Investigators said there [had] been no trace” of “the teen-age mother” since “she left her suburban home Wednesday afternoon.”
Neighbors and family reported the Cochrans to be “happily married.” The police made more assurances there was “no sign of a struggle.” Neighbors had last seen Beverly watching TV in her home shortly before James returned home from work.
A few days later, March 1st, the UPI reported that a sketch of a “mystery man” seen parked near the Cochrans’ house “on numerous occasions” before Beverly’s disappearance had been distributed across the state.
Duval County Chief Investigator J.C. Patrick described the stranger as tall, thin, aged 40 or 50, with a mustache. Patrick said the “mystery man” had been seen wearing a ball cap similar to the one found on the Cochrans’ dining room table.
Neighbors said the stranger had been parking a blue 1958 Ford across the street from the Cochrans’ for three weeks and reading a newspaper for hours at a time.
Patrick had detectives interview employees of B.B. McCormick & Sons, a construction company run by Patrick’s close friend. They said they’d seen Beverly, accompanied by “some sailors,” at airports in Jacksonville and Miami.
According to Susan Clark Armstrong’s April 12, 2005 Folio Weekly story “Dead and Buried,” B.B. McCormick’s son Clarence had frequently driven past Beverly’s parents’ house when she still lived at her childhood home. His parents-in-law were Beverly Jarrell’s neighbors. A friend of Beverly’s reported that McCormick later tried to break into the Cochrans’ apartment on Market Street when Beverly was home alone and wouldn’t answer the door.
Clarence McCormick had stalked her, Beverly told her friends, and she was afraid of him.