No conviction after three trials in 1928 murders
(Editor’s note: This is the conclusion of a three-part series.)
The second trial of State versus Oberst began on March 17, 1930. An uncle of Owen’s testified no force had been used in compelling the youth to talk, and his confession had been voluntary.
The prosecution rested after consuming almost five days with introduction of evidence.
After deliberating 27 hours, the jury voted 8 to 4 to free Owen. It was becoming a familiar story - a deadlocked jury.
Owen, who was 19 by then, was out on a $10,000 bond and employed at a nearby farm when the story repeated a third time on Oct. 1, 1931. The failed to agree.
A report said it was “impossible to obtain a fair and impartial jury to listen to evidence at a fourth trial in this county.” The case was cleared from the docket.
County Attorney R. C. Woodward attempted to secure a change in venue to another county, but was unsuccessful.
One of the strangest cases in the history of criminal jurisprudence in Kansas, and perhaps, America came to a close.
Three jury panels failed to agree on convicting the young man. Although many people believed he committed the crime, there was never any evidence presented proving his guilt beyond doubt. And was Owen pressured into confessing? Questions remain.
His name appeared again on May 10, 1932, in a one-paragraph newspaper article. The Kansas Supreme Court allowed him to take possession of his father’s personal estate, valued at $9,500.
What became of Owen?
State census records and Wichita directories dating from the 1940s through 1963 list Owen R. Oberst, with the same birth date, Sept. 11, 1910, as the man who stood trial three times in Butler County. During the 1950s, the listing changed to O.R. Oberst and finally to Robert O. Oberst. The census listed his occupation as mechanic and the Wichita directories indicated he and his wife owned an auto repair business.
Research leads to Arkansas and his death in 1987, with burial in a Wichita cemetery. At the time of his death, he was survived by a wife, four children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Seasons have come and gone. Next month will mark 86 years. There is a single tombstone that contains seven names of the parents and five children who perished on that April night. The Ebenezer Methodist Cemetery is peaceful, with only the sounds of the grass moving in the prairie wind and the call of a meadowlark in the distance.
The Oberst murders occupy a place in local lore: a seemingly perfect crime that had once kept an entire country in suspense, but is now barely remembered.
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.