Hutchinson — More than 52 years after visiting her brother in a Hutchinson prison, a Florida woman returned to the institution last week while attempting to retrace the path her brother took on a five-state murderous rampage.
Emile Gail Campbell was 12 when she was last in Hutchinson, days after authorities arrested her brother, George Ronald York, in connection with the killing spree.
In all, York, then 18, and 19-year-old companion James Douglas Latham killed seven people and severely beat another. The two men became the last two people executed in Kansas.
Campbell is attempting to write a book about the history, while also challenging the story told by the author of another book about two other mass murderers who celled near her brother on the state’s death row — Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, the subjects of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”
Campbell believes numerous details Capote included in his story are actually from the story of York and Latham.
Campbell, who recently relocated from her lifetime hometown of Panama City, Fla., to Petal, Miss., attempted to follow the route of York and Latham as she returned to Kansas. She traveled in a rental car with her son, Dwayne Reeder.
She began the effort to write the book five years ago but was unable to travel due to her health.
Details of the murders
“The thing that stands out the most was visiting with Mr. Albert Reed’s daughter,” said Campbell, 64.
Reed, 35, was shot to death near Edwardsville, Ill., on June 8, 1961, the pair’s fourth victim.
“It was the car they wanted; a red ’61 Dodge Dart convertible,” Campbell said.
The vehicle they’d stolen from their third victim had broken down, Reeder explained.
“It was the one murder that bothered me the most,” Campbell said. “Ronnie said he was such a nice man.”
In his confession, Campbell said, her brother described how Reed begged for his life, telling the two men his wife was expecting. But the pair showed no mercy, shooting him in the head and then eating a lunch Reed’s wife had prepared for him that day as they drove away in his car.
Though killed near Edwardsville, Reed was from Litchfield, Ill., 33 miles north. In Edwardsville, Campbell learned at the police department that Reed’s daughter’s husband was an auxiliary policeman, and a meeting was arranged.
“We both just sat and cried,” Campbell said. “She asked me why? The only reason I know is that he was on Route 66 and they wanted his car. The route they choose was the common denominator of the people they killed.”
The girl, 8 at the time of the slaying, wasn’t allowed to attend her father’s funeral because the family had been split by divorce, Campbell said. She believed their meeting last week helped the woman find some closure.
The meeting also helped Campbell, who believes as a young child she shouldn’t have been allowed to hear details of the murders.
“I was a 12-year-old in the room they forgot about when the preacher convinced Ronnie he should confess,” she said. “I can’t think of words to describe that day. There just isn’t.”
York and Latham met and escaped together from a Texas military lockup, where officials held York for desertion and Latham for theft. Over two weeks, they murdered seven people, starting with the strangulation of two women — Althea Ottavia, 43, and Patricia Hewitt, 25, both of Georgia — fewer than four miles from the York family home.
Their first victim was actually 43-year-old Louisiana gas station owner the two beat with a wrench, robbed and left for dead outside a Baton Rouge cemetery on May 27, 1961. He survived, however. The pair later told FBI interrogators they thought they’d killed the man, so “they might as well keep going.”
The murder of the two women was followed by the June 7 robbery and shooting death of John Whitaker, 71, a railroad porter in Tullahoma, Tenn.; the June 8 shooting of Albert Reed, 35, near Edwardsville, Ill., and beating death of service station operator Martin Drenovac, 69, in Granite City, seven miles away.
York and Latham were tried in Kansas for the killing of their sixth victim, Otto Ziegler, a 62-year-old Union Pacific road master from Oakley, Kan., whom they robbed and shot three times just outside Wallace on June 9 after he stopped on his rounds to help two men pretending to have car trouble with that red convertible.
Their final murder was of hotel maid Rachael Moyer, 18, in Craig, Colo., on June 10.
It was for Ziegler’s murder the two were eventually hanged, 30 minutes apart, on June 22, 1965, at Lansing. Their executions came about two months after those of the infamous Hickock and Smith.
Return to Kansas
Returning to the Hutchinson Correctional Facility Central Unit, Campbell recognized a pond where she went to feed geese, a house on the grounds that used to be the warden’s — where her brother was allowed to call his mother — and the prison’s graying stone walls.
But the building has changed too much to enable a visit to the room where she listened, stunned, to her brother’s confessions.
She carried a newspaper clipping from The Hutchinson News that captured that June 29, 1961, meeting, Ronnie on one side of the table with a bottle of cola and she, her parents, Horace and Malzie York, and the Rev. J.B. Davis of the Jacksonville Assembly of God Church on the other.
Prison officials were unable to determine, however, which of several rooms the meeting might have occurred in. One has become an employee break room, another the prison’s mailroom. A third was inside the prison, where Campbell didn’t want to go, though Reeder visited a cell house to capture a photo of a cell he could share with his mother later.
“I want my facts to be as accurate as possible, and validated,” Campbell said.
After Hutchinson, Campbell and her son planned a visit to Nickerson to try to locate the rental home where the family lived for a month while York was held in Hutchinson, then home to begin writing.