Part two of 1928 crime
(Editor’s note: This is the second part of a three-part series, and the third part will be in Saturday’s edition.)
El Dorado Times Editor Burns Hegler was granted an interview with Owen and the account ran in the Times and the Augusta Gazette.
Hegler found the young man on the upper floor of the county jail, all alone, in probably the best cell in the jail.
When Hegler approached the cell, Owen was playing solitaire and smoking a cigarette. He was dressed in overalls, the attire of county prisoners. His frame was small and his brown hair was long and pompadoured when combed.
“...His smile is not that of a murderer, and one wonders how he could laugh that carefree laugh with the blood of a family of seven on his hands,” Hegler wrote.
The newspaper man believed Owen did not realize what he had done - that his mind was numb. Owen told him he wanted to put everything back like it was. He liked the farm and he expected to grow up to be a farmer.
When Owen answered questions, he would look the newspaper man in the eyes - with one exception. When asked about his mother and if she had been good to him. He answered “yes” softly and his eyes filled with tears.
The reporter left thinking Owen had not yet come to realize the horrible crime committed. He appeared more interested in his game of solitaire, his cigarette and the nice suit of clothes that hung in his cell, than in the thing he had done or what people thought.
Arraignment brings surprise
On May 5, Owen Oberst stood before Judge George J. Benson of Division No. 2 of Butler County District Court. He did not plead guilty, however. He surprised everyone in the crowded courtroom by claiming his confession had not been made voluntarily.
When Judge Benson recovered from his surprise, he asked Owen, “Why, then, did you confess the crime?”
“They made me do it,” he responded.
He entered a plea of not guilty and was ordered back to jail, where he was placed in solitary confinement.
With yet another surprise, in district court on May 16, Owen pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to “serve the remainder of his natural life in the state penitentiary at Lansing.”
Owen faced a life behind bars and prison officials said the young man was scheduled for the coal mines.
Sheriff McKnight, with Owen on the drive to prison, reported the prisoner maintained a sullen attitude throughout the trip and displayed no emotion until he was inside the prison.
The young man wasn’t finished changing his mind. On May 20, the day he arrived at Lansing and while being processed, he told the record clerk he was not guilty.
He returned to his courtroom tale of being threatened and beaten into confessing, and demanded to be taken before Judge Benson. He recanted his guilty statement.
Authorities were right back where they started. From that time until early 1929, the defense counsel was engaged in efforts to have Owen returned for trial in district court. The Kansas Supreme Court decided that he was entitled to trial because he pleaded guilty without having counsel. The case was remanded Jan. 12, 1929.
Back in Butler County
The accused returned to Butler County on Feb. 28. The case started anew on May 21, Owen waived formal arraignment and was bound over.
When the case came back for trial in Butler County, Owen was placed on trial upon the express charge of murdering his father.
He went on trial for murder Dec. 2, 1929. The state was represented by County Attorney Stanley Taylor, W.N. Calkins, and R.T. McCluggage. The defense by Gabbert & Madden and C.L. Aikman. An all-male jury was selected. The state moved to introduce Owen’s first confession as evidence.
Judge Benson ordered the bodies be exhumed and a new examination showed bullets had penetrated at least two of them.
There wasn’t any direct evidence. No living person had seen the shots fired. No one had seen the house set on fire. The State was reliant on circumstantial evidence and promoting the idea Owen had struck out because his father refused him use of the family car.
The defense held Owen couldn’t have killed so many people at one time and confession under duress was a big issue.
At one point during the trial, the crowded courtroom became unruly and Judge Benson cleared the courtroom of all but a few.
The jury was confused and couldn’t agree. On Dec. 13, a hung jury resulted after 27 hours and 42 minutes of deliberation. The jurors voted 10 to 2 for acquittal.
The jury was discharged and Owen was going to trial a second time.
What would be the result? Would what actually happened to the Oberst family ever be revealed?
(Editor’s note: In Saturday’s edition, learn the conclusion of sensational case against Owen Oberst.)
Sources: El Dorado Times, Augusta Daily Gazette, The New York Times, St. Petersburg Times, Lawrence Journal-World, Woodville Republican, Butler County Genealogy Trails, Ancestry.com, Southeastern Missiourian, San Antonio Light, The Lincoln Daily News, The Abilene Morning Reporter, The Bee of Danville, Va., The Chicago Tribune, and the Dunkirk Evening Observer.
Belinda Larsen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.