Dumb Luck

Weston G. Frome probably thought good luck was responsible for his winning a shiny new 1938 Packard in a Community Chest raffle. How else could he explain spending 50 cents on a ticket and driving away with a luxury car?
 
There was luck attached to the Packard, but it wasn’t the kind Frome expected, and he probably went to his grave cursing the day he won the auto. Frome was a well-to-do Berkeley manufacturing executive with a loving wife and family when he won the Packard in a Delaware raffle. Because he didn’t need the car, he gave it to his 23-year-old daughter, Nancy, who had recently graduated from college.
 
When Nancy decided to take a cross-country trip to visit a sister who lived back east at Parris Island, S.C., she had first planned to make the trip by herself by train. Her mother, Hazel was concerned that Nancy would not be safe on the long trip. Instead, they decided to travel together taking the new Packard. Hazel and Nancy were experienced travelers who enjoyed taking long motor trips and seeing the sights along the way.
 
(The sister would later suffer a tragic loss during World War II: Her husband, a U.S. Marine, was a prisoner of war aboard a Japanese ship that was sunk by an American sub.)
 
Bidding Weston goodbye in Berkeley in late March 1938, the women first headed south along the California coastline until they reached San Diego. Then they took the road then known as “The Dixie Overland Highway,” U.S. 80, which ran across the southern United States from California to Georgia.
 
The trip was uneventful until they reached El Paso, Texas where the Packard apparently developed some sort of trouble. It would take a couple of days to repair the car, so Nancy and Hazel decided to take a jaunt south of the border to Juarez, Mexico.
 
One day turned into five as the Packard underwent repairs and the ladies took several trips across the border to kill time. Finally, on March 30, the Packard was ready and the Fromes headed east from El Paso toward Dallas. The two women never made it.
 
The next day the 50-cent Packard was found abandoned about 60 miles outside Van Horn, Texas, the sleepy county seat of Culberson County. The women were nowhere to be found and the only clue left behind in the car was a slashed spare tire that was missing its inner tube.
 
Searchers combed the sparse region near the Big Bend area of the Rio Grande on foot, horseback, and plane for three days without luck. Then a long-distance trucker heard about the missing women and contacted the Texas Rangers. He thought that he had seen the Packard and a smaller car on the side of the road back a bit closer to Van Horn.
 
The Rangers eventually found tire tracks matching the tires on the Packard running off into the brush. It wasn’t long before they uncovered the bodies of the two women about a half-mile off U.S. 80.
 
“This cruel country is the perfect place for cruel murder,” wrote AP reporter Robert Johnson, Jr. 15 years after the crime. “It is a land where only the Mexican eagle and the coyote feel at home.”
 
It was cruel murder. The women both died from a gunshot wound to the temple fired from a Spanish-made .32, but each had been tortured before they were slain. Both mother and daughter were clothed only in their underwear, but neither had been raped.
 
Nancy had been burned on each knuckle of her right hand by either cigarettes or cigars and a couple of additional burns were seared into the back of her hand for good measure. She had apparently put up a good fight because black hair complete with roots was found clutched between her fingers, and skin and blood were caked beneath her nails. The bones and muscles in her abdomen were broken and torn as if someone had jumped hard on her stomach. In the hand with the hairs, Nancy also held a man’s handkerchief embroidered with the letter “F” and a matchbook.
 
Hazel was also brutalized. She had been beaten and a chunk of flesh was torn from her arm.
 
At first it appeared that robbery was the motive for the murders because some jewelry and cash had been stolen from each woman. However, the killer or killers left equally valuable jewelry that was in plain sight.
 
The Rangers believed that the Fromes were killed by more than one person based on several accounts given by witnesses. The best lead came from the truck driver who was able to describe both the other car seen with the Packard and the couple who it apparently belonged to.
 
The sighting stuck in his mind because he had been passed by the Packard and a blue coupe that appeared to be traveling together. The cars pulled ahead of him and several miles later apparently doubled-back, passing the trucker a second time. He told investigators that one woman was driving the Packard and a man and two women were riding in the blue coupe.
 
The Frome murder hit the news wires and was prominently reported across the country. A $10,000 reward for information leading to arrests prompted hundreds of tipsters to contact the Texas Rangers, who dutifully ran down each and every fruitless lead. Eventually the case file filled three drawers of a filing cabinet.
 
Only one tip really helped the case, and it was only good enough to give authorities another theory for the motive.
 
Around the same time that the Frome Packard was being repaired in El Paso, a similar Packard was seen roaming around Van Horn. The informant believed that the occupants of that car were involved in smuggling narcotics from Mexico.
 
Although that information never led anywhere, it did seem to make sense. Was it possible that a drug dealer was expecting a shipment smuggled inside a Packard — in the spare tire, perhaps?
 
Perhaps that dealer thought Nancy and her mother were trying some kind of double-cross and tortured them to get them to tell him where the drugs were hidden. If so, the women died because they were unable to tell what they didn’t know.