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.
Hazel’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.
When 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.
Tag Archive for Texas
When Joe Ball of Elmendorf, Texas, killed himself in 1938, the answer to the question on everyone’s lips died with him.
When Jesse DeWayne Jacobs said he was being murdered by the State of Texas in 1995, he knew of what he spoke. After all, he had done time in Illinois for killing a developmentally disabled man and had helped his sister kill her lover’s 25-year-old estranged wife — the mother of two young children.
Jacobs was executed for his role in killing Etta Urdiales, but not before igniting a firestorm of protest that led many people wrongly to believe Texas was putting an innocent man to death.
As Stuart Taylor Jr., a writer for American Lawyer Media wrote after Jacobs’s punishment was carried out, “in short, the word ‘innocent’ does not fit comfortably in the same sentence with the late Jesse Jacobs, except perhaps in a narrow and technical sense.”
Before getting into the facts of the case that resulted in Jacobs’s execution, let’s see what kind of a man he was — while remaining cognizant that being a bad person should not automatically condemn one to death.
- In 1964, while a juvenile, Jacobs was placed on probation for stealing five cars, two motorcycles, and three bicycles. He escaped from the juvenile detention facility, stole another vehicle, and was placed in a youth correction center.
- In 1967, Jacobs was convicted of burglary, for which he received probation.
- In 1973, Jacobs was convicted in Illinois for murder, for which he received a 25-50-year sentence.
- In 1977, Jacobs was convicted of attempted escape from the Illinois penitentiary, for which he received an 18-year sentence.
- Six years later, he moved from Illinois to Texas in 1983 while on parole and was under the supervision of a Texas parole officer from December 1983 through February 1986.
- While in Texas, Jacobs became romantically involved with a fourteen-year-old girl, who gave birth to his child. Her parents eventually signed a complaint against Jacobs, who was arrested for inducement of a minor.
His sister, Bobbie Hogan, posted his bail and they hatched the plot that would result in Etta Urdiales’s death. At the time, Etta and her ex-husband, Michael, were embroiled in a bitter custody dispute. Jacobs later told police that Hogan had offered him $500 and a place to stay if he killed Etta for her. Finding his motorcycle missing, Jacobs stole a pickup truck and went looking for Etta Urdiales.
Shortly after Jacobs was released on bail in February 1986, Etta disappeared from her apartment in Conroe Texas. Searching the apartment, police found blood spatters in the bedroom and bathroom matching Etta’s blood type. Her car was missing, but a stolen pickup truck was found in the parking lot.
Jacobs subsequently engaged in a crime spree with an accomplice. They kidnapped a woman from a store parking lot and tried to use her ATM card to get money. Then they robbed three fast food restaurants at gunpoint, kidnapped a man and robbed him and finally engaged in shootout with police in Oklahoma after an armed robbery of another restaurant. Although his accomplice was wounded and captured, Jacobs managed to elude police for a few more days.
He was caught in September 1986 after stealing a car in Hudspeth, Texas. When he was questioned about Etta’s disappearance, he confessed to killing her.
According to Jacobs, soon after his release from jail he went to Etta’s apartment, struck her on the head, abducted her, and drove her to a clearing in the woods. She was still “dizzy” when they arrived in the woods. He took a sleeping bag from her car and put it on the ground for her to sit on, then grabbed her left hand and shot her in the left side of the head with a .38 caliber revolver.
Jacobs took the police to where he had buried Etta, a small clearing in a wooded area in southern Montgomery County, and pointed out an area of the ground covered with pine needles and limbs. The police found a blue sleeping bag containing the remains of the victim, whose body was in the same position as Jacobs had described: face down with her head pointed southeast. An autopsy showed that her death was caused by a gunshot wound to her left temple and that there was a tear in another part of her scalp.
At his trial, however, Jacobs recanted his confession and blamed Hogan.
He testified that he called Hogan to tell her that he was fleeing the state. He met with her in a parking lot and agreed to help his sister “deal with” the victim. According to Jacobs, he thought Hogan merely wanted to scare Etta into giving custody of her children to Michael Urdiales.
Jacobs testified that his motorcycle had been stolen, so he stole a pickup truck the next day. He admitted that he waited outside Etta’s apartment, abducted her, drove her to the woods, tied her up, blindfolded her, placed her in a sleeping bag in a tent he had erected, and then left to return her car to her apartment. Seeing police outside the apartment, he parked her car in a parking lot one-half mile away.
He then telephoned Hogan. Both he and Hogan went back to the woods. Then, Jacobs testified, he told Hogan to go to a nearby abandoned house. Jacobs untied Etta, took her to the house, and made her sit on a bed. He went outside and sat on the porch.
Jacobs testified that he heard a shot and then saw Hogan with a gun. Hogan told him that she did not mean to kill Etta. Jacobs took the gun, told Hogan to go home, and said he would take care of things. According to this version of events, Jacobs buried the victim’s body but did not actually kill her.
However, during a visit with his 14-year-old girlfriend, Jacobs told her that he did kill Etta. Jacobs later wrote her a letter again admitting that he killed Etta “for the love of a sister.”
In his closing argument, prosecutor Peter Speers told jurors that Jacobs’s last story was incredible and that his original confession was supported by the evidence
“The simple fact of the matter is that Jesse Jacobs and Jesse Jacobs alone killed Etta Ann Urdiales,” he said.
The jury convicted Jacobs of capital murder and sentenced him to death.
Shortly after, Hogan was put on trial for her part and Jacobs was a key witness against her.
In that trial, prosecutor Wilbur Aylor told Hogan’s jury, “I changed my mind about what actually happened. And I’m convinced that Jesse Jacobs is telling the truth when he says that Bobbie Hogan is the one that pulled the trigger.”
Hogan was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, based on a jury finding that she had pulled the trigger.
In his final statement, Jacobs, 44, said: “I have news for you. There is not going to be an execution. This is premeditated murder. I hope, in my death, I’m that little bitty snowball that starts to bury the death penalty.”
After Jacobs was executed, Hogan told The Dallas Morning News that her brother had falsely accused her and that she “did not shed a tear when they executed Jesse Jacobs.”
Others, however, did.
The day after Jacobs was executed, The New York Times wrote: “Texas has just executed a man with full knowledge that he was not guilty of the crime for which he was put to death. State and Federal courts and the Supreme Court, also fully aware of the facts, let the execution happen.”
An editorial in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, entitled “A Grave Defeat of Justice” called the execution “not only incredible but monstrous and absurd.”