The gruesome torture-murder of Artemus Ogletree in a Kansas City hotel has a mythical status among true crime geeks. We obtained access to the complete police case file for the first time. Deep in the downtown headquarters of the Kansas City Police Department, there’s a roll of microfiche that spits out a stack of copy paper a full five inches thick. The file is marked “Roland T. Owen” and dated by hand, “1-4-35.”
WORDS BY MARTIN CIZMAR | ILLUSTRATIONS BY KATIE HENRICHS
eep in the downtown headquarters of the Kansas City Police Department, there’s a roll of microfiche that spits out a stack of copy paper a full five inches thick. The file is marked “Roland T. Owen” and dated by hand, “1-4-35.”
This is the file for the unsolved murder of a man who wasn’t named Roland T. Owen. He died at the old General Hospital a day after his nude, battered body was discovered by a bellboy in room 1046 of the President Hotel in downtown Kansas City. “It’s really something,” says Sergeant Jake Becchina. “There’s really nothing here that I would compare to a modern incident report.”
The dead man’s real name was Artemus Ogletree. At age nineteen, he was really more of a boy—an adventurous kid who’d set off hitching across the country with a buddy. His brutal murder has long fascinated true crime writers and podcasters, probably because the facts are so bizarre—a victim who used his last breaths to deny being beaten to death, a mysterious man named Don Kelso who was later tied to another gruesome slaying, letters sent to the victim’s mother after he died but before she knew of his passing, and a mysterious donor who paid for a grave and a dozen roses with a card that read “Love for ever, Louise.”
Otto Higgins, the city’s police chief at the time, is quoted in an interdepartmental memo saying the case “came nearer to being the perfect crime than any other murder Kansas City has seen in his quarter-century as a detective.”
Police worked hard to solve the high-profile case: corresponding with departments from New York to Los Angeles, conducting dozens of interviews, interrogating prostitutes, strapping an Olathe man who’d been convicted of “crimes against nature” to a lie detector and sending handwriting samples to the FBI. Records show the department worked the case until December 1950, when the FBI cleared the “degenerate” whom the lead detective had been “satisfied” was guilty.
Fifty years after the case went cold, Kansas City magazine reviewed more than five hundred pages of witness statements and investigation records from the police department’s “Owen” case file which have never before been released to the public. The file offers a unique look into society and police work just before the Second World War and exposes some inconsistencies among the clues that have obsessed amateur sleuths from the days of detective magazines right up through the true-crime podcast era. It also shows that Ogletree‘s mother, Ruby, who very likely interacted with her son’s killer after his death, had nagging suspicions about a suspect who’s never been mentioned in other accounts of the case.
Along with this story, which attributes every detail included to the original police documents so as to strip away possible embellishments that have accumulated and been repeated over the years, we’re making newly released and organized police documents available on our website in the hopes that someone out there might solve this almost mythical murder case.
n December 1933, Prohibition ended across the United States. That didn’t matter much in ‘Kaycee,’ where locals had simply opted out of the amended Constitution, turning the city into a haven for debauchery and organized crime. Thirteen months into the new American era, Kansas City was still notorious as a “wide-open town,” where jazz clubs stayed open until dawn and vice ran rampant in a city controlled by boss Tom Pendergast. Then-police chief Higgins was mobbed up, later serving time in Leavenworth on tax evasion charges. Higgens still casts a shadow on Kansas City—his corrupt reign caused the city to lose control of its police department to a board appointed by the governor.
Kansas City was, in other words, the type of place that would draw a nineteen-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama, who was known to be “the adventurous sort.” His name was Artemus Ogletree. He left home with a friend named Joe Simpson in April of 1934 to hitchhike across the country. They made it to Los Angeles, where they went separate ways, according to Simpson’s account, recorded in his letters to a disinterested homicide detective and to Ogletree’s very suspicious mother.
According to Ogletree’s mother, the teen arrived in Kansas City in the middle of August. At first, he stayed at the St. Regis Hotel at the corner of Linwood Boulevard and The Paseo, which still stands today as an apartment complex. At several stops, police later learned Ogletree was in the company of a man who signed the hotel registry as “Don Kelso.” Around the start of the New Year, his circumstances changed. After a short stay at the Muehlebach Hotel, where he used a different fake name, Ogletree checked into the downtown hotel now known as the Hilton President hotel in the early afternoon on January 2, 1935.
A registration card shows his name as Roland T. Owen of Los Angeles. He used what a bellhop described as “good language.” His clothing was clean and nice, but his only luggage was a black comb, a black hairbrush and toothpaste. He requested a room without a window facing the street, at least a few floors up. He was shown to 1046 by a bellboy.
Over the next few days, bellboys and cleaning ladies reported strange behavior.
A maid named Mary Soptio reported the guest let her into his room and combed his hair while she was cleaning, then left, asking her to leave the door unlocked because he was “expecting a friend in a few minutes.” “My impression of this man from the expression on his face and his actions was that he was either worried about something or afraid,” the maid told police.
Later that afternoon, Soptio returned to the room with towels and found the guest sitting on the bed with the shades drawn and the lights off, fully dressed.
She returned the next morning and found the door locked but the guest inside, again in the dark. This struck her as odd: Based on the way the locks operated, if the guest had locked the door from the inside she would not have been able to open the door. “The man had been locked in the room from the outside,” she told police. On the room’s writing desk was a note, written in pencil, that read, “Don, I will be back in 15 minutes—wait.” While Soptio was cleaning, the man received a call. He told the caller, who he called Don, “I don’t want to eat, I am not hungry, I just had breakfast.” (Donald Kelso, as mentioned, was the name given by his companion at other hotels.)
When Soptio returned again that same day—hotel housekeepers were apparently far more attentive to towels in those days—she heard two men inside arguing. A man she described as having a “rough” voice told her they didn’t need any towels, and she left.
According to witnesses, the arguing continued into the night. A guest later told police that she heard “a lot of noise” that sounded like both male and female voices “talking loud and cursing.”
In the night, the hotel’s switchboard operator discovered that the phone in room 1046 was off the hook, so he dispatched a bellboy to alert the inhabitant. The bellboy knocked on the door and was invited in by a person he described as a man with a deep voice. The door was locked, and the man inside didn’t let the bellboy in, instead telling him to “turn on the lights.” The bellboy kept knocking. The man never opened the door. The bellboy yelled through the door, “Put the phone back on the hook!” He assumed the man inside was drunk.
The phone remained off the hook until the next morning when phone operator Della Cole took over the board. At about 7:10 am, a different bellboy was sent up. He yelled through the door and received a response: “‘All right’ or something like that.” The phone stayed off the hook.
Around 8:30 am, with the phone still off the hook, another bellboy, Harold Pike, was sent up. There was no answer when he knocked, so he let himself into the room. This bellboy saw the guest in bed, naked, breathing heavily. He saw a dark spot on the sheets, which he thought was a shadow. The bellboy believed the guest was passed out drunk, and so he put the phone back on the hook and left.
About two hours later, another bellboy went to the room—the phone was again off the hook—and discovered the guest on his knees near the door, with blood coming out of his head. “[I] saw blood on the walls, on the bed and in the bathroom,” he later told police.
The bellboy ran downstairs to alert the assistant manager. A doctor and the police were called. The doctor arrived first and made his way up to the room with the assistant manager and the bellboy. According to the doctor’s statement, when they entered the room they found that the guest was in the bathtub, with his legs sticking out. A clothesline has been tied around his neck, ankles and wrists, and he had been stabbed in the chest multiple times. His lung had been punctured and his skull was fractured by at least three blows to the head. Based on his dried blood, a doctor estimated the first wounds were six or seven hours old. According to a KCPD interdepartmental memo, all of the man’s clothing and other belongings were missing from the room, save a label torn from a cheap necktie, a hairpin, an unsmoked cigarette and “a glass bearing a woman’s fingerprints.”
With his last words (some witnesses called it unintelligible mumbling) the guest known as Roland T. Owen indicated that “nobody” had hurt him and that he’d simply fallen “against the bathtub.” He slipped into a coma and passed away the next morning.
f the circumstances surrounding the murder itself weren’t bizarre enough, what followed certainly was. It didn’t take long for Kansas City police to determine that no one named Roland T. Owen lived in Los Angeles. The body was kept at McGilley Memorial where, according to police, “thousands” of locals came to see it without anyone identifying the victim. KC cops launched a national search for his identity. Detectives corresponded with departments all over the country to find a missing man with a large hexagon-shaped scar on his head.
According to the interdepartmental memo from when Ogletree was finally identified, when police announced that the unidentified man would be buried in a potter’s field, an anonymous male caller instead asked that he be buried in Memorial Park. “I’ll pay for it,” the caller said. (In most published accounts of the killing, the caller also mentions paying for a plot near his sister’s—but if that detail was ever recorded by police detectives, it’s missing from the case file.)
The caller was asked about his connection to the case. “Owen hadn’t played the game fair, and cheaters usually get what’s coming to them,” the caller said, according to the KCPD memo. The money for the grave was sent. At the funeral, thirteen American Beauty roses arrived with a card that read “Love for ever, Louise.”
Kansas City police sent out letters across the country to try to match the victim to a missing person case. Letters poured in from Sturgis and Newark and Missoula—missing sons, missing brothers.
After the case was featured in American Weekly and Official Detective Stories magazines as “America’s strangest and perfect murder crime,” dozens and dozens of letters poured in containing tips and theories, many of them with purple prose and oddly detailed theories. A woman in Los Angeles wrote a letter that reads like a screenplay treatment about a young man who gets caught up with a mobster’s girl. An Iowa man wrote to implicate a civil engineer as the killer based on the shape of the “r” in a signature police tied to the killer. “I am positive of this and I cannot be mistaken,” the amateur sleuth stated. A Seattle man said that he was certain the victim was his boyhood friend and that his father had been “a high official in the German Army,” suggesting that the murder “might by chance tie in with some spy work.”
But, in this case, what actually happened was even weirder.
Someone—presumably the killer—began corresponding with Ogletree’s family in the nearly two years between his death and when he was finally identified. According to his mother, Ruby, in January, just weeks after his death, she got a typewritten letter from her son saying that he was going to New York City. The text of the letter struck her as odd, as did the fact that it wasn’t handwritten, given her son didn’t know how to type. In April, another typed letter arrived, this one saying Ogletree was sailing for France. On August 12, 1935, eight months after her son’s murder, she got a long-distance call from Memphis, Tennesee, from a male caller purporting to be a good friend of her son. The caller identified himself as Godfrey Jordan and said that he’d met Artemus Ogletree in Cairo, Egypt, where Ogletree had saved him from a “band of thugs.” The conversation lasted forty-five minutes and left Ruby unsettled.
The text of the letters sent to Ruby after his death, presumably by his killer, has never before been made public and didn’t seem of interest to detectives. Ogletree’s handwritten letters home, and the typewritten ones sent after his death, were among the materials Kansas City magazine was able to access for the first time.
The letters in Ogletree’s hand, sent while he was staying in the St. Regis Hotel on the Paseo, are simple and focused mostly on his job prospects. The flourishes in his stories are minimal: “I think that fellow I told you about was going to open a business and give me half interest in it has definitely made up his mind to open in the spring. He is about the best friend I have. He has a big Cadillac [unreadable] we are going to Excelsior Springs next week in it.”
The typewritten letters sent after his death, on the other hand, are rich with outlandish detail and period slang: “I got poisoned on something I ate in some dump. I was laid up for a few days and my stomach pained me a lot but I finally got over that. Then I got the flu and had to go to bed for almost 9 weeks and I guess I was pretty sick.”
Also unreported until now is how his mother responded. By November 1935, she had written to the state department to see if her son had a passport; to customs authorities to see if he’d set sail without a passport; to the American consulate in Cairo; and to the FBI. In January 1936, a year after her son was killed, she even wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt. “I fear he has fallen into some gang, or something has happened to him,” she wrote. “He has always been a good boy and has high ideals. I simply must find some trace of him, if he is in trouble I want to know.”
It took until November 1936, almost two years after the slaying, for Roland T. Owen to finally be confirmed as Artemus Ogletree. His photo had by then been in numerous national publications. He was identified by the large, distinctive scar on the side of his head, which his mother revealed to have been the result of a grease burn when he was eleven months old.
rue crime bloggers who’ve taken up the Ogletree case have repeatedly said that there was never a suspect in the case, but that’s not remotely true. Because detectives—and many of the people writing letters to the detectives after reading about the case in detective magazines—believed there was an aspect that suggested “sexual deviancy” men across the country were fingerprinted, questioned and asked for hand-writing samples.
In 1940, a man named Thomas Wilbur Barlow, who had been convicted of “crimes against nature” in Little Blue, Missouri, was investigated by detectives “having in mind a murder supposedly committed by a sex maniac in 1935.” The arresting officers thought his signature looked like the signature of “Donald Kelso” in the hotel registry. He was questioned for ten hours before “giving several conflicting stories.” Police eventually chalked up his confusion—after ten hours of questioning—to syphilis.
The point man on the case, chief of detectives T.J. Higgins, was preoccupied with a lead in New York, a convicted killer named Joseph Ogden, and eventually proclaimed himself “satisfied” Ogden had committed the crime.
Not in question is the fact that Ogden committed a gruesome murder of Oliver George Sinecal. Ogden shot his victim then dismembered him, cutting off a distinctive tattoo, then stuffed his nude body into a steamer trunk bound for Memphis. The suspicious trunk was held up at Penn Station where the body was discovered. The case was widely covered, including in the pages of The New Yorker’s January 8, 1938 issue, where a Reporter At Large feature followed the NYPD’s homicide division as it solved the killing.
Ogden’s admission records to Sing Sing prison, obtained by Kansas City magazine from the New York State Archives, show he served time in several prisons and two insane asylums—including one in Birmingham, Alabama. The admissions documents note that he’d escaped prison and had “a history of homosexuality.”
Among Ogden’s many aliases was Donald Kelso—a coincidence that convinced KC cops, and The New Yorker’s editor, he was the guy.
“From samples of [his] handwriting, Kansas City police identified him as Donald Kelso who had strangled a waiter named Ogletree in 1935, leaving the body nude, in a hotel room,” The New Yorker wrote. “For two years after this murder ‘Kelso’ wrote periodically to the victim’s mother in the South assuring her that her son was in good health and traveling in Europe.”
Except the handwriting didn’t match—at least not according to the FBI, which reviewed the case in 1950: “It was concluded that the signature of ‘Donald Kelso’ on the hotel registration card was not written by Joseph Ogden,” An FBI report states. Their prime suspect cleared by the G-Men, and the murder now fifteen years old, Kansas City cops seem to have stopped working the case.
In reviewing the documents, it’s striking that the detectives didn’t seem to put much faith in Ogletree’s mother’s intuition—or those odd letters sent after Ogletree’s death, seemingly designed to confuse the family into believing he was fighting “thugs” in Cairo.
Letters from Ruby to KCPD show that she suspected Joe Simpson, the boy her son had left home with. She went so far as to obtain his school records from Phillips High School. She spent years trying to meet up with him in Birmingham, being stood up several times. Cops politely assured “Mrs. L.E. Ogletree” that Simpson had been duly interviewed.
Ruby finally confronted Simpson on December 28, 1939 and became even more certain. “In talking with the boy, Joe Simpson, I was reasonably convinced that he is the person that talked to me from Memphis, Tennessee, seven months after my son was killed,” she wrote to KCPD detectives.
Ruby related her conversation with Simpson “as near word for word as I can remember.” The details are striking: “He did say he did believe the case would never break, as there were no clues and left nothing for the G-Men to work on. I said, ‘Kansas City can well boast of it being the perfect crime.’ He laughed and said ‘It is, they’ll never get the ones who killed him.’”
Ruby says she eventually “looked [Joe] square in the eyes and told him I would know the voice that talked to me from Memphis.”
“He turned red, dropped his eyes and was nervous,” she says.
Perhaps most damningly—if Ruby’s account is accurate—Simpson promised to pass Ruby a letter from Artemus Ogletree to him, which he claimed had been “badly typed.” He never showed up at the appointed time to hand over the letter he claimed he had. But, of course, Artemus never learned to type. His last letters home before his murder were all handwritten. The typed letters only started arriving a few weeks after he’d been killed—presumably, they were sent by someone who knew that Artemus Ogletree was dead.
Hundreds of never-before-released documents available below
Owen file: Witness statements and memos
Relevant correspondence and assorted docs
Owen file: letters from the public
Owen file: Letters from Artemus
Ogden file: Joe Simpson
Ogden Sing Sing