by Tim Gilmore, 3/11/2022
1. “A Couple of Nice Kids”
In the chapter called “The Corner,” the killing map of Truman Capote’s infamous 1965 nonfiction novel In Cold Blood veers off course to Jacksonville, Florida. In Cold Blood tells the story of how drifters Richard Hickock and Perry Smith murdered four members of the Clutter family – Bonnie and Herb and their teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon – on a Holcomb, Kansas farm. Capote detours to Jacksonville with two of Hickock’s and Smith’s fellow prisoners in Kansas toward a trajectory of death even bloodier than the one his book centrally chronicles.
Capote has just heard that George Ronnie York and James Latham, who as teenage soldiers had gone AWOL and embarked on a cross-country killing spree, had hanged. Hickock tells Capote the death sentence is “very popular in Kansas,” that “juries hand it out” like they’re “giving candy to kids.” Capote writes, “The scene of [York’s and Latham’s] first encounter was an Esso station on the dark outskirts of Jacksonville; the date was May 29, 1961.”
On June 8, 1961, The Jacksonville Journal published a map it labeled “The Route of Death,” showing the circuitous late-night journey Althea Ottavio and Patricia Anne Hewett made in their sleek Chevy before their bodies were found in the woods off Old Middleburg Road. The route began at a gas station at Blanding and Wilson Boulevards by Cedar River on Jacksonville’s Westside.
The Route of Death was the beginning of a much larger murder map. York and Latham hadn’t been identified as the killers yet. The Valdosta, Georgia women, in Jacksonville to bet on dog races, weren’t their first victims, but they were the first to die. By the time York and Latham were arrested, they’d killed seven people on their two and a half week road trip that led from Fort Hood, Texas to Jacksonville to South Carolina, Tennessee, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado and Utah. They thought they’d killed nine.
Their boyish, smiling, open-mouthed faces made front pages everywhere, with testimony that they were “a couple of nice kids” and the York family “good Christian people” who lived in a Jacksonville mobile home park. A police officer from Mauriceville, Texas, Latham’s hometown, said, “As far as we know, he was a nice kid.” When Sheriff Fay Gillette of Tooele County, Utah arrested them, the boys grinned and said, “Hiya, buddy boy!” Latham sported a tattoo on his left arm that read, “Mom and Pop.” The tattoo on his right arm said, “I hate the world.”
2. The Night Manager’s Map
Why did the two Georgia women so suddenly leave the service station at the corner of Wilson and Blanding after calling a relative for help? Who was the stranger who claimed to be “over from Arkansas on a jaunt,” who’d spoken to the women before they drove away? It was just after one in the morning, Memorial Day, when Thomas Gerald Howell, who worked part time at the station, saw the women drive off into the dark.
Ms. Hewett was driving Ms. Ottavio’s car and she was lost. Police would soon question whether she’d been holding the hand-drawn map backward. Ottavio, whose idea this trip had been and whom newspapers would soon call “a well-to-do Valdosta war widow,” was useless. Hewett parked at the station and came inside to ask the night manager, Clyde Vinyard, for directions. Then she called her brother-in-law, Robert Hewett, who lived nearby at 5245 Park Street and agreed to come up to the station and guide them out.
“She was annoyed at the other woman,” Howell told journalist Jimmy Walker. She told Clyde Vinyard her friend was drunk. “The other woman knew the way out of town, but couldn’t give the directions.” Howell could see Ottavio out in the car with her head slumped over, apparently unconscious.
While the women were waiting for Bob Hewett, who lived two and a half miles away in the Hillcrest neighborhood, a green pickup truck pulled alongside their car. The driver jumped out and headed into the station to buy some cigarettes. He said he and his buddy had been camping along the river. Howell said the man wore “Levis, rubber beach sandals and a sports shirt open at the chest.” (York and Latham are both wearing those “beach sandals” in the wirephotos from their arrests.) He told Vinyard they’d come from Arkansas on “a jaunt for a few days” and he thought he’d go over and talk to the disoriented women.
Casually the stranger wandered to the car, placed his arms up on the roof, and leaned down to the driver’s-side window. He started talking to Hewett and she threw her head back and laughed. Howell stopped watching and left the station for a nearby fast-food drive-through. Vinyard saw the man return to the pickup truck and drive off on Blanding Boulevard, heading north over Cedar River toward Lake Shore Boulevard.
A few minutes later, the women backed their car up and headed south down Blanding, just as Bob Hewett drove up, looking for them. He came into the station and Vinyard said the women had just left. Puzzled and mildly frustrated, Hewett got back in his car and drove off to find them. A short while later, Hewett returned, told Vinyard he couldn’t find them and was going home. He came back a couple hours later, worried and unable to sleep, and asked if the women had shown up. They hadn’t. He left Vinyard his phone number and went back home again.
A few minutes before she talked to Clyde Vinyard, Patricia Anne Hewett had asked directions at a gas station at Roosevelt Boulevard and Timuquana Road, four miles away. The women were heading back from the Orange Park Kennel Club. Hewett had a headache and said she was “very confused,” then asked Jerry Snow, the night manager there, how to get to Valdosta. Her friend, whose car she was driving, knew how to get home but had drunk herself to sleep. Snow drew Ms. Hewett a map.
Beneath the June 9th headline “Did Map Confuse, Lead Women to Strangler?” the Jacksonville Journal’s Lloyd Brown wrote that Snow’s map directed Hewett “to drive along Timuquana, turn right on Blanding Boulevard, cross a bridge (over Cedar River), then take a left on the second street and proceed to U.S. 90, leading out of the area toward Valdosta.” Hewett pulled into the station at Blanding and Wilson just before she would’ve reached the Cedar River Bridge and when she left, she drove the wrong way on Blanding.
Two days later, Ottavio’s car was found stranded in the sand along the side of Old Middleburg Road. A week later, police spotted Hewett’s and Ottavio’s partially clad bodies from a helicopter. Someone had strangled the women with their own stockings and underwear. Police had no prime suspects, but were looking for two men in a green pickup with Arkansas license plates, as well as a “heavy-set hitchhiker” whom they described as “scratched and very dirty.” He’d won money at the dog track and was asking directions to Valdosta.
3. “Cross-Country Trail of Murder”
The United Press International story published in The Jacksonville Journal on June 17th described York and Latham’s murderous path across the country as “scythe-shaped.” York was 18 years old, Latham 19, when they met up, “model prisoners,” at the Fort Hood Army Stockade. Latham was serving time for stealing $40 from a fellow recruit, York for being AWOL, for the second time, from Basic Training in Fort Benning, Georgia. Military police had yanked him out from under his parents’ mobile home.
Ronnie York had grown up in Florida, in Panama City and Jacksonville. His teachers described him as lazy and “very slow,” though he’d never gotten in trouble, and said he liked his parents. Latham was shorter than York. He said his parents had split up when he was a baby. He didn’t care for them too much. York did say he had an uncle he hated, but he didn’t say why. He wouldn’t have minded killing his uncle.
Latham was quiet, York talkative, but when it came to “the killing,” Ronnie York said, they might as well have been the same person. “We both killed all of them,” he said. “Regardless of who pulled the trigger, it was like we were both holding the gun.”
They’d wandered away from a stockade work detail on Wednesday, May 24th, crossed the 207,000 acre army base and walked into Louisiana. Two days later, 43 year old Edward Guidroz stopped to pick up two hitchhikers on the way home from his fish market. York and Latham beat him over the head with a wrench and left him for dead in a Baton Rouge cemetery, but failed to kill him.
They took Guidroz’s truck and headed east to Jacksonville, where the York family ran Atlantic Diving Company, specializing in “Marine Salvage – Welding & Burning – Under Water Demolitions & Repair – Inspection of Sewage Lines, Telephone & Telegraph Cables.” The AWOL teens thought they might visit Ronnie’s parents for a while, say hello, check in, but decided against it since Ronnie said his father had a temper. So they camped alongside the Ortega River, smoked cigarettes and drank beer.
They ran into 25 year old Patricia Anne Hewett, her 44 year old wealthy friend Althea Ottavio drunk and half conscious in the passenger seat of her Chevy Impala, in the first hour of Memorial Day. It seemed a lucky interaction for the teenage soldiers. It was supposed to be a lucky date for Ms. Ottavio too. She’d had a dream that a 5-2 combination would win the daily double on her birthday, May 29th, so she’d asked her young friend to drive down to Jax with her and try it out. They bought a two-dollar ticket and won $177.
That night, the boys stole $343 from Ms. Ottavio’s pocketbook, rings and watches from the women’s fingers and wrists, then found a .38 caliber pistol in the glove compartment. The money and jewelry were fine, but the gun was a godsend. They couldn’t believe their luck. They decided to keep killing and cut notches in the gun, including one for Guidroz, not knowing he’d survived, and two for the women in Jacksonville.
On June 6th, York and Latham tried to stop a Cadillac to rob its driver near Aiken, South Carolina, but the driver got away. They fired four shots at him, but missed. On June 7th, they robbed and killed a 71 year old railroad porter named John Whitaker near Tullahoma, Tennessee and stole his car. On June 8th, they robbed and shot to death Alfred Reed near Litchfield, Illinois and stabbed and beat to death Martin Drenovac near Chain-of-Rocks, Illinois. On the ninth, they killed railroad station manager Otto Ziegler near Wallace, Kansas.
Later that same night, an 18 year old hotel maid in Craig, Colorado named Rachel Marian Moyer told a co-worker how she’d met two handsome boys named Ronnie and Jim at the carnival and said she was going to California with them. They shot her to death sometime after midnight. On June 11th, police cut them off at a roadblock near Salt Lake City.
A United Press journalist in Utah called York and Latham “two young, bitter, world-hating Southern boys.” The teenagers said they’d been doing their victims favors, “putting them out of this world of misery.”
4. “The Route of Death”
York and Latham had driven through the trailer park where Ronnie’s parents lived, but nobody was home. Besides, Ronnie said he’d fled to the mobile home the last time he went AWOL and his father had a temper. He’d come back and talk to his mother later. So they drove out to see Ronnie’s friends in Nassau County and west of town in Macclenny.
On May 28th, they camped on the Ortega River near Collins Road between Roosevelt and Blanding Boulevards. Ronnie paid his mother a visit before the sun came up and told her where to find him. The boys swam in the river, visited friends in the rural suburb of Orange Park and on the night of the 29th, Ronnie’s mom brought the boys some dinner. Later, around one in the morning, they drove around for a bit and pulled into the service station at Wilson and Blanding Boulevards for cigarettes.
Ronnie tried to talk to the women in the parked car, but said, according to transcriptions of his confession, the driver gave him “the brushoff.” When they left the station, the teenagers saw the women were leaving too, heading the opposite direction on Blanding. The boys circled back and followed them past Confederate Point. When the sleek Chevrolet stopped again, its driver nonplussed, the pickup truck pulled up beside them one more time.
Ronnie told the women to follow them and they’d guide them out of Jacksonville. Patricia Anne Hewett’s brother-in-law, who’d offered to do the same, was driving around behind them, trying to find them. They drove instead to the boys’ camp on the river, eight miles in the wrong direction. Ottavio was conscious now and the two women argued, Ottavio wanting to find a motel, the younger woman desperate to head back home to Valdosta. Hewett pleaded with the boys, who then offered to split up, one of them driving the women’s car and the other following in the pickup. The women agreed.
They drove west on Collins Road, past Blanding, past Rampart Road, through all those dark woods full of moonshine stills, to Shindler Drive, back north to Hipps Road, then west again to Old Middleburg Road, where the women’s car got stuck in the sand. Then all four of them got into the pickup and, according to York and Latham’s confessions, “left the dirt road for a two-rut logging trail.”
They got seven-tenths of a mile down the timber trail, when, since Ms. Ottavio “kept fussing,” the boys choked the women with their bare hands until they were unconscious. Then they removed the women’s underwear and stockings, tied them around their necks, dragged them out of the pickup truck and across the grass and laid them side by side beneath a tree. Here their bodies would remain for the next nine days.
They filled Ms. Ottavio’s handbag with sand and dropped it into the river from “the double bridges” on Collins Road. Later they tossed the watches and rings into the Ortega River near their camp. They checked into a motel on Roosevelt Boulevard around dawn and slept until 11. Then they bought bullets for Ms. Ottavio’s pistol, excited to see how many notches they might cut into it as they drove across the continent. They ate steak omelets out west of Jax in Maxville and drove to some stables off Normandy Boulevard on the way back to town and went horseback riding.
5. “Where’s Mama?”
Anybody who knows anything of Truman Capote’s troubled genius knows he got lots of details in In Cold Blood flat-out wrong. In 2011, Dean Poling of The Valdosta Daily Times wrote a story headlined, “Killer’s Sister: ‘In Cold Blood’ Inaccurate.” Poling spoke with Emilie York Campbell of Panama City, Florida, Ronnie York’s sister, who’d spent the last half century haunted by her brother’s crimes and annoyed by Capote’s inaccuracies. Campbell said some of the things Capote said happened to Hickock and Smith had happened instead to York and Latham. She said her mother called Capote a “little weasel.”
Campbell said Capote’s original ambition was not to write about Hickock and Smith, but to focus his book on her brother and James Latham. According to Campbell, Capote first approached her mother, Malvie, “for the rights to write the story about Ronnie York and Jimmy Latham, but” Poling writes, “she turned him down because Mrs. York knew the extra publicity would further hurt the young Emilie.” In Poling’s story, Campbell seems as haunted by the fact that In Cold Blood didn’t center on her brother’s higher murder count as by the brutality of her brother’s crimes. The notion that Capote needed “the rights” from one of the killer’s mothers to write the story probably came from Malvie York herself, whose supposed refusal was necessary for believing Capote really wanted to focus his famous book on York and Latham.Nevertheless Capote clearly fictionalizes the truth. He says Ottavio and Hewett, whom he never names, were in town “for a day of shopping and pleasure in Jacksonville,” missing the rich narrative element of Ottavio’s “dream hunch” of a dog racing bet. Capote arms one of the killers with a bullwhip, “the property of the stolen truck’s rightful custodian, a cattleman.” Instead of notching Althea Ottavio’s pistol, Capote has York and Latham buy a pistol in New Orleans. Capote, despite what he thought of himself, was never a journalist, but a brilliant lyrical novelist whose work should never have been considered anything but.
And yet, half a century after the killings, Ronnie’s sister remembered when her brother went AWOL that final time, recalled accompanying her mother along the dark roads in the woods to the camp by the Ortega River to bring her brother and his friend something to eat. “She remembers,” Poling writes, “Jimmy Latham having a bullwhip.” Ironically she seems to have misremembered that tragic time through the fictional facts of the “little weasel.”
Campbell, who died in a nursing home in 2017, 69 years old, could remember, so long ago, but like she could walk into it one room over, that early morning in her bedroom in her parents’ house trailer in 1961, that knock at the front door. The sun had yet to rise. The world outside her window was dark. She opened her eyes, rubbed her face, found her way to the door and saw her brother Ronnie standing there, his big sweet smile and wide-open goofball stare.
“Where’s Mama?” Ronnie said and came into the trailer. He had, yes, gone AWOL again. His sister stood sleepy and confused in the front room, while Ronnie went back and talked to their mother without waking their father. When he came back through the trailer, Emilie said 50 years later, “Ronnie hugged my neck and said goodbye.”