Alligator Joe

Hazel Brown

When Joe Ball of Elmendorf, Texas, killed himself in 1938, the answer to the question on everyone’s lips died with him.
 
Ball, 46, was the thrice-married proprietor of a local dive bar in what is now a San Antonio suburb that was considered a nuisance to locals because in addition to being frequented by “Mexicans and Negroes (as the local paper put it),” Ball liked to entertain his patrons by feeding live dogs and cats to his five alligators that lived in a cement pond behind his honky-tonk.
 
The wails of the animals being eaten by the gators and the cheers of the crowds that gathered to watch had long vexed the neighbors, but at the time there was no law against feeding live animals to legally owned alligators. There was, of course, a law against feeding people to alligators, and that’s why Joe Ball is remembered to this day by the good citizens of Elmendorf.
 
Ball’s tavern was avoided by most locals and operated almost as a private club, reporters wrote later. Although the place was a hot-bed of vice and crime, almost everyone who visited was either known to Ball or vouched for by a regular. Whenever the authorities sent someone in to investigate, the nefarious activities ceased until the investigator left.
 
The joint was known for its itinerant dime-a-dance girls who, for an additional fee, were willing to provide more intimate services. Ball, who admitted he was powerless over his desire for women, was a regular Lothario who enjoyed the services for free.
 
But Ball had a more sinister side, and the secret he took to his grave was just how many of his girls he murdered, and how many he probably fed to his gators once the patrons had left for the night.
 
One woman who managed to escape the alligator pit — but not Ball’s ax and butcher’s saw — was Hazel “Schatzie” Brown, a pretty, 23-year-old taxi dancer who showed up one day looking for “hostess” work and stuck around for a while until she vanished from the area. No one particularly missed Hazel, because women in her profession were by nature nomadic. They would work a place for a few weeks or months and then move on to someplace new.
 
Ball’s joint was apparently a regular stop on the tour. Once Ball was dead, police uncovered dozens of letters and risque photographs from women who had worked for the one-time bootlegger and had vanished.
 
Joe BallHazel’s murder was revealed almost by accident because Texas authorities were actually looking for Ball’s one-armed wife, Delores. Neighbors, fed up with the goings-on at Ball’s bar, told authorities that she had recently vanished (It later turned out that Delores, who lost her arm in a car accident years before — not to a gator — was visiting relatives in San Diego). Ball’s second wife, Nell, vanished mysteriously several years before.
 
It was a twist of fate that brought Ball to some semblance of justice and solved the murders of Hazel Brown and another barmaid, Minnie Mae Gotthardt, 22. Minnie disappeared from the tavern about 18 months before the Ball case broke.
 
Deputy Sheriff John Gray was tipped off to the mystery while dove hunting near Elmendorf. An “old Mexican man,” whose identity was not learned, told the deputy that he had seen Ball with a mysterious barrel in back of the home of Ball’s sister, Mrs. Jim Loap.
 
Deputy Sheriff Elton Cude, investigating an auto theft near Elmendorf, saw the mysterious barrel at Ball’s place, he reported. He stated it had a greasy appearance and gave off a vile odor. The barrel, a 55-gallon gasoline drum, was in back of Ball’s establishment at the time, Cude said.
 
The day after Gray was tipped to the strange goings-on, he and Cude went to Elmendorf to look for the barrel. Finding it had disappeared, they questioned Ball about it. He denied any knowledge of the barrel.
 
The officers then took Ball to his sister’s house and she told them Ball had placed a barrel in her barn. However, it was gone by the time the deputies questioned Mrs. Loap.
 
The tavern owner was informed that he was being taken to the jail for further questioning and asked that he be allowed to close up his bar. The deputies agreed and also acquiesced when Ball asked if he could drink a beer before going to jail. He downed the beer and walked over to the cash register. Rather than begin to count the receipts, Ball reached under the bar and drew a pistol. At first he pointed it at the deputies, but then turned it on himself and shot himself in the chest.
 
He was dead instantly.
 
At that point it appeared that the investigation was over before it really began, but Ball had enough enemies around San Antonio who were happy to come forward now that the violent barkeep was dead.
 
Their best witness was Ball’s “negro Man Friday (again, the local paper’s words)” Clifton Wheeler, who emphatically assured investigators that Delores Ball was not in the mysterious barrel. The victim in the oil drum was Hazel Brown, he said. At first Wheeler said he and Ball had dumped the barrel containing Hazel’s body over a bridge into the lazy San Antonio river, but a search of the area turned up nothing.
 
Then Wheeler admitted that he had watched Ball kill Hazel with an ax and stood by as his boss dismembered her body. At first the investigators assumed that Hazel had been fed to the alligators, but Wheeler added that he had dug Hazel’s grave and dumped her corpse. He was happy to lead them to its location.
 
The grave revealed that Ball had attempted to disguise Hazel’s face by placing her clothes on top of it and setting them on fire. It also revealed a rusty butcher’s saw that Wheeler said was used to cut up the girl’s body.
 
Clifton WheelerWhen he was asked why Ball had killed Hazel, Wheeler shrugged and said, “Maybe she knew too much about Miss Minnie.”
 
Wheeler tried to lead the authorities to Minnie’s grave without success. He knew the general vicinity — a giant sand pit — but was unable to find the exact spot. He took officers over a winding trail in the dunes, finally climbed a large one on the western edge of the sand field, stuck up a stick and said unemotionally, “Miss Minnie is right down below here.”
 
After watching Wheeler — who up to this point believed he was not an accessory to any crimes — dig for two days, and suffering a number of slides and cave-ins, authorities brought in a drag-line owned by the Texas highway department.
 
The excavation had reached a depth of 20 feet and a width of 30 without finding any trace of the body. Eventually, however, the operator of the digger dropped a load of sand and out rolled a few knuckle bones.
 
Officers then uncovered the rest of the body which was about half-decomposed.
 
Reporters who had been watching the search said Wheeler stood on the brink directly above the doubled-up body of the woman he buried.
 
“I knew she was there,” he said. “There she is.”
 
Searchers then put Minnie’s body into burlap sacks for transport to the San Patricio County morgue, where it lay unclaimed until it was finally buried by the county in a Potter’s Field grave.
 
Ball’s Man Friday told investigators that he, Ball, and Minnie had gone to the beach on the night she was murdered. As Wheeler stood by, Ball and Minnie sat on a blanket. For a reason Wheeler claimed not to know, Ball took out a pistol and shot Minnie in her side. The bullet passed through her heart and out the other side of her body. Then the two men wrapped the corpse in the blanket and headed for the sand pit.
 
Twenty years after the murder, Delores finally talked to a reporter, who found her in a two-room shack “clutching a jug of wine.” She also provided some details of Minnie’s death.
 
“I was living with Joe then and I guess you might say he killed her for me. Just before we got married (in September, 1937) he told me he’d taken her to Corpus Christi and killed her. He said she wouldn’t make us no more trouble,” she said. “He was drinking and I just couldn’t believe him. So I went ahead and married him. Minnie wasn’t around any more.”
 
She was equally cold about Hazel’s murder.
 
“I didn’t see it, but Clif told me about it. He said Schatzie kept throwing it up to Joe about Minnie,” Delores told her interviewer. “She said he’d killed Minnie and now I was gone, so he must of killed me. After a while, Joe hit her with his pistol and I reckon that killed her. Then they cut her up and buried her and tried to burn her head. I sure liked Schatzie.”
 
No other bodies were ever discovered and speculation was rampant that others, including a 16-year-old boy, had been turned into gator food. Wheeler (and later Delores Ball) denied this and only one person was willing to step forward and admit to seeing Ball feed a human to his pets.
 
The unidentified witness, whose name was carefully guarded by police because of possible revenge by Ball’s bootlegger friends, told this story:
 
He said that on May 24, 1932. he had called on Ball, walked around the roadhouse to the back yard, to surprise Ball dragging the body of a woman toward the concrete pit where Ball kept his alligators. Ball had already impressed him as a dangerous man, he said, and when he threatened to kill him, his wife, and his children if he did not keep his mouth shut and leave the state at once, he obeyed. He did not return to talk to authorities until he heard of Ball’s suicide.
 
Delores, in her one interview, explained why Ball would not have fed people to the gators:
 
“I do know this: Joe never put no people in that alligator tank.” she said. “I used to get in that tank with the alligators myself and clean it. I’d push them aside with a broom. They wasn’t mean. And anyway, alligators won’t eat human flesh. It’s sweet and they don’t like sweet meat. Everybody knows that.”
 
Wheeler was convicted of being an accessory after the fact and sentenced to 5 years in prison.