Part 2 of 1954 murder case
Editor’s note: This is part two of a three part series. Part three will be published in Saturday’s edition.
In his police duties Robert R. Stewart was required to carry a .45 caliber gun at all times and Elsie “Nan” Warner had always carried a .32 automatic pistol in her purse because of fear of her divorced husband and brother-in-law, who had reportedly threatened her. Nan was 35, about 5 and one-half feet tall, weighed approximately 135 pounds, and was strong for a woman. She had been married twice.
Stewart was in love with Nan and had never at any time threatened her life. They had lived in the same house and had planned to marry, but Stewart’s parents objected to the marriage because of the difference in ages and because Nan was a divorcee while he had never been married.
On the night of June 26, 1954, the couple, while en route to a drive-in theater, stopped at a liquor store and purchased beer, which they both consumed through the night. In the early hours of June 27, they drove to Santa Fe Lake, but found it crowded and unsuitable for swimming and they started to El Dorado Lake over “country roads.”
Stewart told officers Nan started “giving him hell” about his driving, and admitted he was driving too fast for the road. When she continued complaining about his fast driving, Stewart said he slammed on the brakes - and told officers they could easily find the location by skid marks in the gravel and sand - and brought the car to an abrupt halt near the ditch and shot the woman with the pistol lying between them on the seat.
He later changed his version of the story, however, and insisted he remember only “the gun going off.”
He then told the officers he felt the woman’s pulse, and found it beating so, he started north at a fast rate of speed, and mentioned something about El Dorado, indicating he might have started for help. He felt the pulse later up the road and it had stopped, according to his story, so he just kept traveling over “country roads” with the woman beside him. How far he traveled before stopping is not known, or how much time elapsed, but sometime before dawn he pulled to a stop in “southwest” Wichita and placed the body in the trunk of the car. In his first statement, he also told officers of ejecting the spent cartridge at this point and reloading.
Where he went from there is not clear, except he headed south and east and the next report was when he passed Leroy R. Newlin on K-15, three miles west of US-77, and slowed down for Newlin to pass him. Just as Newlin, an oil operator with a special antenna on his car, started to pass, Stewart took a shot at him, missing him only by a few inches.
The next report was from the Douglass area at about 7 a.m. when a motorist reported he left the road to keep from being hit head-on by the speeding car. Near Douglass the Stewart car clipped a service truck, driven by C.M. Varner of Augusta, and broke the bumper on the truck, damaged the tail light and other parts of the vehicle. The next incident in the wild ride was when he slammed into the Lamb truck at the south edge of Augusta and the gruesome night came to an end for the young Wichita policeman and he landed in jail and his companion was taken to the funeral home.
The spot where the skid marks were found, and where the shooting is alleged to have taken place, was 2.7 miles directly north of Santa Fe Lake. The scene, as others in the wild night’s ride, were revisited by Stewart and county officers.
Wichita police detectives also assisted in the investigation.
County Attorney Morris Moon prepared first-degree murder charges against Stewart following his statements and admission of evidence.
Stewart appeared before Judge Ralph B. Ralston and charged with first degree murder. Bond was fixed at $25,000 and Stewart was returned to the county jail upon failure to meet the bond.
County Attorney Moon decided upon the first degree charge after first considering filing second degree charges. The penalty upon conviction of first degree murder is either life imprisonment or death by hanging, while the sentence for conviction on a second degree charge ran from not less then 10 years up.
The defense attorney indicated a not guilty plea would be entered, as he did not believe the confession Stewart made to Moon after the discovery of the slaying would be of much value in light of the circumstances under which it was given.
A Leon man, L.R. Lamb, injured in the collision which brought about the discovery of the slaying was reported still in serious condition a few days following the crash. The full extent of his injuries had not been determined except for a punctured lung and abrasions.
Sheriff Tarrant reported Stewart told him that he was sorry about the whole thing and also showed regret over the disgrace he said he brought to the Wichita police force. He had only been a member of the force since the previous December, but told Tarrant it had been one of the best jobs and he liked the work.
When first arrested, Stewart told Trooper Fee he didn’t want a lawyer, but was ready to die for what he did. He later changed his mind, but was reluctant to speak to anyone else. Relatives visited him briefly at the jail and brought him clean clothes. He was also visited by two Wichita police detectives.
Tarrant reported Stewart had been eating little and smoking heavily. The sheriff said he was a model prisoner and was being agreeable, causing no trouble.
The trial of Robert R. Stewart charged with first degree murder of Elsie “Nan” Warner, began on Dec. 13, 1954 at the Butler County District Court.
Physical evidence was presented, including the gun alleged to have been used by the accused and the one found in Warner’s purse.
State Trooper John Fee, who questioned Stewart the morning of the auto crash that led to the discovery of Warner’s body in the trunk, took the stand for almost an hour.
He was followed by Don Whitlock of Don’s Studio, who took photographs at the scene and H.G. Hutcheson of the Augusta Gazette, was also a witness who testified. The photos were admitted as evidence.
Learn the identity of a surprise witness called by prosecutor Morris Moon and don’t miss the outcome of the trial of Robert R. Stewart in Saturday’s edition.
Sources: Augusta Daily Gazette December, 1954, and The El Dorado Times December 1954.