Part 1 in series
Editor’s note: This is part one of a three part series. Part two will be published in Thursday’s edition and part three in Saturday’s.
A call to the police station around 7:30 a.m. on June 27, 1954, disrupted what had been a quiet, typical summer morning in Augusta.
Officers were called to an accident at the south edge of town, near the Willing Service Station. A late model Mercury failed to make the curve and crashed into an H & M Drilling Company truck, which had been thrown near the Socony-Vacuum refinery property, and the car landed on the highway.
Augusta policeman Bruce Wiseman arrived at the scene to make the routine investigation and found the car on its side.
R.L. Lamb of Leon, driver of the truck, was removed from the vehicle, placed in a Dunsford ambulance and taken to Susan B. Allen Memorial Hospital in El Dorado. He was in critical condition.
A bystander advised the Mercury had turned over and pinned Stewart between the back of the front seat and the top. With help from others at the scene, the car was turned onto its right side and Stewart, unconscious and gasping for breath, was lowered to the lower side so he wouldn’t fall.
Stewart soon became conscious and his first words were to the effect he had “killed the woman he loved” and he was “trying to get away from a dope gang” or “dope ring.” He seemed to be addressing anyone who would listen. It was also reported he used abusive language toward Office Wiseman.
One of the bystanders, who had arrived first on the scene, picked up a fully loaded .45 caliber pistol and a woman’s purse, which they immediately handed over to officers. The purse was found to contain a .32 caliber pistol with a loaded clip, but no cartridge in the chamber.
The man threw two billfolds from the car, one of which revealed he was Robert R. Stewart, 24, 727 S. Crestway, Wichita, and the other holding a badge and identification revealing he was a member of the Wichita Police Department.
In reply to a question, he stated his girlfriend was in the car, but a search for her proved futile.
Noticing blood running from the trunk of the car onto the pavement, Officer Wiseman asked Stewart for the keys to the trunk. He did not respond to the request so officers pried it open. Doubled up in the rear compartment with her arms folded behind and smeared with blood was the body of a woman clad in a swim suit. A blanket was also in the back, but whether or not she had been wrapped in it or not could not be determined. Because the car had rolled onto its top in the crash and then back on its side, the original position of the body was not known.
Debris and some full cans of beer were picked up and in response to a request by Stewart, a witness gave him a cigarette, which he smoked. Stewart was told to give the burning cigarette back to the witness when gasoline was observed leaking from the car’s tank.
A while later when a state trooper arrived at the scene, Stewart was still in the car jumping back and forth between the front and back seats, digging through things in the car, and he refused, upon request, to speak to anyone less than a sergeant.
Stewart appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or narcotics and his actions alienated between sullen and belligerent, and “posing” for photographers through the broken rear window of the car. He had cuts and abrasions on his right elbow, on both hands, both sides of his face and forehead, and there was blood in his hair. Stewart seemed to be in shock.
One witness stated he was in a stupor and could not orient himself most of the time at the accident. Stewart had said to the witness, “You know how it is, you are a police officer, you probably have to carry your gun while off-duty, too. You know how it is. She was 11 years older than I am.”
He finally came out of the vehicle voluntarily.
Chief of Police Frank Bennington and other officers from the city and county took over the investigation and Stewart was removed to the city jail and the body of the woman taken to Dunsford Funeral Home.
Identification papers and information obtained from Stewart revealed the woman was Elsie “Nan” Winifred Warner, 35, a Wichita divorcee, who operated a printing plant in Wichita. She had been divorced recently, according to Stewart, and married to a man named “DeHay.” Papers in her purse, including a driver’s license, revealed that to be correct. Information given to a Gazette reporter later that day revealed the woman operated the Keystone Press at Rutan and Lincoln Streets in Wichita. The same address was listed as the residence of the woman.
Although not confirmed by her relatives, Stewart indicated some type of business partnership between the deceased woman and himself. He also indicated he was in financial difficulties, a statement later confirmed by his superiors at the Wichita Police Department.
An autopsy was performed by a Topeka pathologist and findings confirmed the woman had been shot once in the neck, near the base of the skull with a .45 caliber bullet. The slug came out at the rear of her head, right of center. The gun had been at least six inches away; it could have been eight to ten inches or even farther.
The time of death was not fixed, although the condition of the body at the time of discovery indicated she had not been dead over a few hours.
Before Butler County Sheriff Glen Tarrant and Deputy Ercel Reed removed Stewart to the county jail in El Dorado, the prisoner told officers a story of being out with the woman at a drive-in theater near Wichita and of the two drinking a malt liquor while watching the show. Although the woman was clad in a swim suit, Stewart insisted she had not been swimming, saying she had on the suit to keep cool. At the same time, however, he spoke of a drive from Wichita to a place in the Santa Fe Lake area that once contained water and was dry, probably for the purpose of going swimming and of drinking more of the malt. He seemed to remember something about a “school house,” which indicated the area he was describing was near Central Baptist Church.
He was unaware of any specific time, but according to his story, the couple left the lake area in the early morning hours and started north “over country roads.”
Find out in Thursday’s issue what led up to the shooting and death of Elsie “Nan” Warner.
Sources: Augusta Daily Gazette June, 1954, The El Dorado Times June 1954, http://law.justia.com State v. Stewart: 1956: Kansas Supreme Court Decisions