George Ronald York and James Douglas Latham PHOTO BY SALT LAKE TRIBUNE STAFF

 The Killers

Jacksonville’s Forgotten Teenaged Spree Killers

Words by Scott Grant

 

On the afternoon of May 29, 1961, 43-year-old Althea Ottavio and 25-year-old Patricia Ann Hewett left their homes in Valdosta, Georgia, and headed to the Orange Park Kennel Club to place a bet. Ottavio had a dream about the numbers two and five. Hewett was not supposed to go. She was a last-minute replacement. Ottavio was a wealthy widow and Hewett’s landlord, and she liked to bet on dog races. The women drove in Ottavio’s 1959 Chevy Impala to the dog track, just outside Jacksonville, and bet the 2-5 daily double. Ottavio’s dream paid off. The two women won over $300. It was their lucky day.

Their luck changed when the pair crossed paths with George Ronald York and James Douglas Latham. The two high-school dropouts had deserted from the Army four days earlier at Fort Hood, Texas. The troubled teens fled the stockade and were hell-bent on what the Associated Press would ultimately call “a cross-country orgy of crime.” The day before meeting Ottavio and Hewett, the two teenage boys had attacked a “fish peddler” named Edward Guidroz outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  The teens beat Guidroz nearly to death with a wrench and left him for dead beside a cemetery. York, 18, and Latham, 19, then stole Guidroz’s white pick-up truck and continued toward York’s hometown of Jacksonville. 

Ottavio and Hewett’s luck changed when they got lost on the drive back to Valdosta. The two women stopped at a gas station to call Hewett’s brother for directions. It was late, after midnight, and he told them to stay put and he would come get them. When he arrived, his sister and Ottavio had vanished, after last being seen talking to two young men in a white pick-up truck. On May 31, a county patrolman found Ottavio’s Impala abandoned at the end of a desolate dirt road, stuck in the soft sand. 

Relatives feared the worst. Initially, law enforcement was disinterested in investigating the case. Hewett’s husband, however, was insistent. He and other family members scoured the surrounding area on horseback. Their efforts were in vain until a helicopter spotted two decomposing bodies a couple hundred yards away from the abandoned vehicle. The two women were found in a palmetto thicket, partly dressed, strangled with their own stockings. A picture of infamous Duval County homicide detective J.C. Patrick standing over the dead bodies ran in the local paper.

After they were caught, York and Latham admitted to raping and killing Ottavio and Hewett. One of the boys drove Ottavio’s Impala, while the other had followed in the stolen truck. They drove out Old Middleburg Road and then turned off down the deserted dirt road. After they finished their heinous deeds, the boys dragged the two bodies into the brush.

During the crime spree, the murderers stole Ottavio’s winnings and a .38 revolver from her glove box. They also took the victim’s pocketbooks and jewelry. They filled the pocketbooks with sand and threw them off the old double bridge on Collins Road. The watches and rings got tossed into the Ortega River. The pair had spent days hiding out on the banks of the St. Johns, but that night the killers slept in a comfortable motel on Roosevelt Boulevard. They slept in until 11 a.m. and then had breakfast at a popular restaurant in Maxville. In the afternoon, the psychotic teens went horseback riding at a stable on Normandy Boulevard.

The spree killers were next spotted trying to flag down a Cadillac in Aiken, South Carolina. When the driver did not stop, they shot at him four times with Ottavio’s .38. They missed, and fortunately, he got away. Seventy-one-year-old John Whittaker, a porter for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, was not so lucky. The pair gunned him down in Tullahoma, Tennessee on June 7. Later, Latham, who sported a tattoo that read “I hate the world” on his arm, snidely told investigators about killing Whittaker, “He was Black. We don’t feel bad about killing a nigger.” They killed Whittaker for $40 and his 1956 model car.

In western Illinois, the boys decided they wanted a new ride, something sportier.  They abandoned Whitaker’s car not far from the Mississippi River and began to hitchhike west on Route 66. Thirty-five-year-old Gene Reed picked them up in his 1961 red Dodge Dart. The car had a whip antenna and a two-way radio, and they wanted it. Reed was a local musician who worked for the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad. He had three young children and a pregnant wife at home. York and Latham shot him with the revolver and then dumped his body in a creek. The murderous pair took a small amount of money from his wallet, a .22 caliber target pistol from the glove compartment and his car. The deserters left his watch and two rings.

The maniacal murderers did not need jewelry. They needed cash, for gas and for the toll on the Chain of Rocks Bridge across the Mississippi. The teenagers stopped at the Gas for Less a few miles down the road owned by Martin and Ethel Drenovac. Martin, who was 69, was manning the pumps that morning at the gas station when Latham and York bludgeoned him to death with a fire poker and left him in a pool of his own blood for a tank of gas and the money in the register.

The next day, June 9, the pair raced across the high plains of Kansas on Route 40. There, they targeted another railroad worker. The boys noticed Otto Ziegler and his yellow Union Pacific truck. Because he was wearing a tie, they decided he was likely to have money on him. The cold-blooded youths set a trap for the 63-year-old man. A mile down the road, they pulled over and lifted the hood on the stolen Dodge Dart.

When Ziegler drove by, they waved him down claiming a problem with their gas line. The good Samaritan railroad worker offered the pair a ride. Once in the car, they pulled their guns. “So that’s the kind of boys you are,” Ziegler exclaimed in disgust. They had Ziegler pull off the road near a clump of trees and took $51 dollars from his wallet. “I’ll see you two boys are gotten for this,” the old man said as he turned over the cash. “You said the wrong thing,” York responded angrily. “Now, you son of a bitch, we are going to have to kill you.”  

They ordered Ziegler out of the truck, and he turned to run. York told him to follow orders, or they would kill him right there. “I don’t want you to kill me,” the doomed man responded. The boys led him across the railroad tracks, and when he looked down, York shot him through the heart. He then shot him again in the head. Latham added two more shots with the .22 caliber, but Ziegler was already dead. They drove the pick-up back to the red Dart and parked it in a ditch. The spree killers searched the truck and found a pair of gloves and a 100-foot steel measuring tape. Those items would later be introduced at trial.

York and Latham then sped off west in the Dodge. The next day they were in Colorado where they met an 18-year-old hotel maid at a carnival. She agreed to go to California with them and ran home to pack a cardboard suitcase. Eventually, both boys raped her, later claiming it was consensual. The heartless deserters led her down a desolate trail in the woods, robbed her, killed her and threw her dead body and the blood-stained cardboard suitcase into a ravine before speeding onward toward Utah.

Later that day at Grantville Pass, west of Salt Lake City, the police were waiting for the pair. There was an alert out on the stolen Dodge Dart. The County Sheriff set up a roadblock. Latham was driving. Initially, York reached for the guns in the glovebox and then thought better of it. The killers surrendered without a fight. The deserters had picked up a hitchhiker a few minutes earlier, a soldier on leave and would later claim that they surrendered to spare his life.

Held in Salt Lake City, pending extradition, the two young killers proudly told their tale of mayhem and murder to anyone who would listen, and the nation was shocked by what it heard. The teenaged spree killers smiled and joked and bragged about how they had killed eight people. The pair showed no more remorse than one would about “going out and shooting a rabbit.” Both were surprised to learn the man in Louisiana had survived. The murderous pair had carved eight notches in Althea’s revolver, as it turned out one too many. Ironically, York suggested that had they known their first victim had survived, they may not have continued killing.

If anything, the cold-blooded killers became more animated when authorities rolled in the cameras. A local TV station interviewed the homicidal duo. The boys smiled and laughed as they described the seven-state killing spree. The boys must have felt like celebrities. They joked on air about who would go to the “hot seat” first, deciding in the end that they would “both go together.” It seemed to some as if the pair were glad to be caught. When asked why they had done what they had done, York responded “we thought we were doing them a favor by putting them out of their miseries in this rat race.” 

While the spree killers talked, representatives from five states vied for the right to put the killers on trial. Illinois, with two victims, felt they should have the inside track.  Additionally, the murderous teens had been driving a car stolen in Illinois when they were arrested. York and Latham preferred York’s home state of Florida. In Florida, Tennessee, and Colorado the boys would have been sent to the electric chair. In Illinois they would have faced the gas chamber. Kansas held forth the prospect of death by hanging.  Kansas won. The pair would be tried in Kansas. No trials would take place in the other states. Families of the victims elsewhere were told; Kansas was taking care of their loved one’s murderers.

The jury deliberated for less than seven hours before rejecting the teenager’s insanity defense. The killers had confessed. York and Latham were sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. For the next two and a half years, as the appeals process wound through the courts, the pair were held at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Leavenworth County. The death row cell block was known as “the Corner.” In the cells nearby were two other famous killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock.  Smith and Hickock, infamous for the 1959 mass murder of the Clutter family, were featured in the true crime novel “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote. All four talked to Capote and the two deserters make a cameo appearance in the book. It was as if Latham and York and their five-state murder spree was a well scripted sideshow to Capote’s more famous killers.

George York’s mother and father, who were described as “good Christian people,” came to visit at the end of June. They brought George’s 12-year-old sister and their minister, J.B. Davis, pastor of the Southside Assembly of God in Jacksonville. Davis urged the young man to confess his crimes, presumably to God, since he had already confessed to everyone else. As the young sister cowered in a corner in terror, plugging her ears, York recounted his grisly crimes to his parents and pastor. George’s mother would visit her son in prison several more times. Mrs. York became friends with Dick Hickock’s mother. York and Hickock both found God while awaiting execution. York’s mother wept inconsolably in court when the death sentence was pronounced.

For over two years, the four murderers lived together on “the Corner.”   Then, in March of 1965, Smith and Hickock had their date with the hangman. Less than 3 months later, Latham and York walked up the same 13 steps to the gallows. Before the boys died, they would order a “sumptuous last meal.”  York requested oyster stew and crackers, lettuce and tomato salad with mayonnaise, chocolate milk, fried shrimp, barbecued chicken, fried okra, corn on the cob, fresh peas, French-fried potatoes, deviled eggs, fresh strawberries with whipped cream, a soft drink and sweet rolls. Latham ordered chicken noodle soup with crackers, lettuce and tomato salad with mayonnaise, two fried quail, two cans of Vienna sausages, cheddar cheese, fried okra, black-eyed peas, French-fried potatoes, deviled eggs, chocolate cake and chocolate eclairs, chocolate milk, soft drink and sweet rolls. The Warden vowed to fulfill their requests, “even if we have to send to Kansas City.” Fortunately, they farmed quail at the prison farm.

The sentences were finally carried out on June 22, 1965. “You can’t blame us, and you can’t blame our parents,” Latham pronounced before he died. “It’s the whole damn world’s fault.” The two callous youths had repeatedly vowed they would die together. Warden Crouse offered to flip a coin to determine the order of execution. In the end, Latham and York were hanged alphabetically, making York the last man executed in the State of Kansas, and for almost three decades the last man to be legally hanged in the United States.

The hangman, called in from another state, was paid $600 apiece for his services. Hanging a person is a science. The key is the drop. A good hangman will weigh his victims and then calculate how far the body needs to fall or “drop” when the trap door opens in order to snap their neck. Lighter people require a greater drop. In general, if the condemned drops too far, their head will pop off. If the drop is not long enough, the prisoner will strangle slowly. An Irish doctor worked out the science of hanging in 1866.

Outside the prison there is a graveyard.  Every year, hundreds of people come to view Mount Muncie’s most famous occupants, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. A few feet away is the grave of Charles Douglas Latham. York is not buried there. His family took his body back to Florida and buried it in the Greenwood Cemetery near Panama City. His epitaph reads: “OUR LOST IS HEAVEN GAIN.”

 

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