In the Rearview: A Look at the Life and Times of OKC’s Most Notorious Bootlegger — Part 2
by Lynne Rostochil. Photos from the Oklahoma History Center unless otherwise stated.
This week, we continue our series about notorious Oklahoma City bootlegger Lindsey Chambless with the sad story of one of his loves, for whom he committed murder. Go here to read Part 1:
From Bootlegging to Murder
On the chilly Tuesday evening of January 7, 1947, “salesman” (i.e., bootlegger) Bill Eltzroth, 43, and his bride of five years, 35-year-old Stella, left apartment B of their charming, ‘20s-era building on NW 18th:
(Oklahoma County Tax Assessor)
The couple drove down the street to a party at Lindsey’s house located at 2914 NW 17th:
(Oklahoma County Tax Assessor)
By the time they got there, Lindsey and his other guests were imbibing large quantities of the bootlegger’s product, namely whiskey, and Stella and Bill joined in the fun. As the hours – and drinking – wore on, a more-than-tipsy Lindsey decided that he was going to drive to Kansas City to bring in a load of whiskey, and Bill opted to go with him and introduce his fellow bootlegger to his contacts in his hometown to the north. But, they nixed that idea in favor of staying at Lindsey’s cozy abode and drinking even more.
At some point in the evening, the two men began arguing, perhaps over the beautiful but luckless Stella. The fighting quickly escalated and Lindsey staggered to retrieve his deer rifle, which he aimed at Bill’s chest. Suddenly, the entire room exploded in blood and gun smoke, and when everything cleared, Bill was laying on the floor, mortally wounded. He was taken to Wesley Hospital, where he died the following morning.
Lindsey was arraigned for Bill’s murder and released on $20,000 bail. While he was out on bail, Lindsey and the newly widowed and obviously impulsive Stella ran off and got married. Stella was no stranger at visiting the altar; Lindsey was her fourth husband.
Poor, sad Stella was not the best judge of men.
Stella and Her Earlier Marriages
Stella Pearl Embry was her parents’ late, perhaps not-so-welcome Christmas present when she was born on December 28, 1911. Clint and Luvena already had seven children when they left their ancestral farm in Kentucky and moved to Chandler, Oklahoma just two years before statehood in 1905, where two more children were born before Stella came along. Here’s a photo of Stella’s parents that I found on Ancestry.com:
It wasn’t easy feeding 10 children on rented farmland, and the hardship was compounded when Clint died in 1926 at the age of 58; Stella was just 15. Although she had uncles who were prominent lawyers in Chandler, they could hardly afford to care for their dead brother’s kids, so Luvena struggled to find a way to manage in the aftermath of Clint’s death. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Stella left her sad surroundings as quickly as she could.
A young girl with little education had few avenues for escape in the 1920s, so Stella followed her mother’s lead and got herself pregnant then married in quick succession. Lucky husband number one was Leland Smith, who was 10 years Stella’s senior and a farmer like her dad. They married in December of 1928, and their daughter (and Stella’s only child), Mary Lou, was born the following May when the young mother was barely 17 years old.
The marriage wasn’t a happy one. Perhaps Leland was bossy, abusive, or not in love with his wife or perhaps Stella got bored with the endless chores and duties associated with farm life and craved some fun and adventure. Whatever the cause, by 1935, the attractive young mother with dark hair and forlorn eyes had left her husband and daughter, was working as a full-time waitress in Shawnee, and living at 512 N. Bell:
During her time in Shawnee, Stella met husband number two, Courtney “Corky” Orrell, a stocky man with strong arms, wavy dark hair, and a ready smile who labored as a rough neck in the nearby oil fields.
Corky was born on June 10, 1910 in Ft. Pierce, Florida to Raymond and Ethel, who quickly had three more boys in the next four years. Like Stella and Lindsey, Corky lost a parent when he was young. His mother died when he was just six, and overwhelmed with the situation, Raymond placed the four “interesting and handsome” little Orrell boys in the Christian Church Widows and Orphans home in Louisville, Kentucky. They spent at least a few years there but got a reprieve from institutional life when their maternal grandmother took them to her farm to spend the summers. Although he was moving around the country for work, Raymond also appeared to spend as much time as he could with his nearly orphaned children.
In early 1930, Corky enlisted in the U.S. Navy and headed to Illinois for training. While there, tragedy struck the family again when his youngest brother, John, died back home in Kentucky at the age of 15. Corky went home for the funeral then returned to training and served four years in the Navy in California before being honorably discharged in 1934. The following year, he was living with Stella and her young daughter, Mary Lou, in the quaint A-frame cottage on Bell Street in Shawnee, and the two married in 1938.
Apparently, theirs was a rocky marriage, perhaps because Corky, who now labored long hours in the hot and mucky oil fields of Central Oklahoma with one of Stella’s brothers, Dewey, was a heavy drinker … and when he was drunk, ole Corky wasn’t a very nice guy. After one particularly big battle in the summer of 1941, Stella kicked Corky out and moved to Oklahoma City and in with her brother to get away from all of the negativity surrounding the debacle that had become her second marriage. She found a job as a waitress at a nearby café, and tried to start life anew. Here’s where she and Mary Lou called home:
(Oklahoma County Tax Assessor)
Unfortunately for a lot of people, Corky wasn’t quite ready to let go of his beautiful wife
On Sunday, August 17th, Corky drove into Oklahoma City to cajole Stella into returning to him. When she balked at his attempts at seduction and desperate pleas, Corky hit the bottle – obviously, he had his own bootlegger like just about everyone else in the state. Who knows, maybe it was Lindsey who supplied the fuel that got Corky started that day.
The more he drank, the more Stella resolved to end the marriage, and the more angry Corky became. After not getting anywhere in the fight, a dejected Corky left Stella’s late in the evening and drove her brother to work at an oil well near Guthrie. He dropped off his brother-in-law at around 11:00 p.m. Still drunk and upset by the day’s events, Corky started up his brand new maroon 1941 Ford Super de Luxe coupe and headed down Route 66 back to Chandler.
Corky Meets Billie Grayson
Oklahoma in August can be hellishly hot, and even more so in the days before air conditioning. For 18-year-old Billie Grayson, the sweltering hot month was a chance to get away from her position as a domestic in Elk City and spend a few weeks with her favorite aunt on her farm in tiny Warwick just west of Chandler. Here’s a photo of Billie:
Dressed in a “gay print dress and pink slip” cinched with a black braided belt and wearing blue anklet socks with her shoes, the former high school choir singer was walking through her friend, Helen Grandstaff’s property one quiet Sunday afternoon when the 12 year old invited Billie to go swimming with her at a friend’s pool on a neighboring farm. Eager to escape the heat, Billie readily agreed and the two girls headed off for a chance to cool off and have some fun. Afterward, they were returning to Helen’s when the teens made an impromptu decision to walk four miles into Warwick to attend evening services at a church there.
On the way to church, the girls met up with a friend of Helen’s named John Terrell, who invited the girls to ride with him to Chandler to pick up a watermelon. That sounded like more fun than church, so the girls skipped the service and hopped into their friend’s truck for the seven mile drive down Route 66 to Chandler. They got the watermelon and headed back, where John dropped off the girls along Route 66 between Wellston and Warwick. Helen thought her dad might be in Wellston, so she and Billie started hoofing west to find him. They walked to the Pioneer Camp, a motor court and restaurant east of town (now home to the Butcher BBQ Stand)…
When they arrived at the camp, the girls decided that they were too tired to proceed into Wellston and turned around, heading back to Helen’s house to spend the night. A couple waiting for a friend to arrive by bus at the Pioneer Camp saw the two girls turn around and head east on Route 66. A few minutes later, they saw a dark colored car pull up next to them in the distance.
By this time, it was around 11:30 and the girls were tired and ready for bed. They started walking along the dark and lonely stretch of highway punctuated by the zoom of a car here and there. Perhaps they were chatting about their favorite movie stars or the thrilling and terrifying “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which had been released just days before:
Or maybe they were gossiping about their latest crushes or their feelings about school and work starting back up the next week. Whatever they were chatting about was suddenly interrupted when a man driving toward them in a two-door maroon Ford pulled up next to them and said, “Don’t you know you girls shouldn’t be walking on the highway? You’d better get in with me.”
Helen thought the man was a Highway Patrolman and perhaps Billie did, too. Billie would certainly have obeyed a Highway Patrolman’s order since her step-father was a member of the force in Chickasha. So, always taught to listen to their elders, the girls jumped into the car; Billie got in first and scooted next to the driver, then Helen followed and claimed the space by the front door. After walking for miles throughout the day, they were probably grateful to have this nice man chauffeur them the rest of the way to Helen’s house, just a few miles up the road. When she got into the car, Helen noticed the time on the man’s dashboard clock: 11:30.
The three listened to the country music playing softly on the man’s radio as he drove east on Route 66 back toward Warwick. Suddenly, he pulled off the highway and started driving south down a dirt road (likely FM 3370) and over a bridge at the Deep Fork River:
The man broke the silence by commenting on how far apart the homes in this area were, then he pulled his Ford coupe over to the side of the road, parked under a large pecan tree, and turned off the engine.
The same scene today:
Everything was deadly quiet for a few seconds, with the only sounds coming from the chirping cicadas and croaking frogs outside. Then, without warning, the man “grabbed Billie and they began to fight,” according to Helen:
“I knew then what was happening and I jumped out of the car.” Helen stated. She continued, “Billie tried to get out, too, but he grabbed her and pulled her back. Then he started his car. I had one foot on the running board and I began to run after them. I wanted to help Billie get out. But I couldn’t keep up with them and he drove on up the road. I could hear Billie screaming until the car disappeared.”
Desperate to save her friend, Helen ran a quarter of a mile to the nearest house, which was owned by farmer Luther Poole. Unfortunately, Poole didn’t have a phone or working car and Helen was too terrified that the man would come back for her to try to make it to another house. So, she stayed there and no one reported Billie missing.
The next morning at 8:15, Buster Devins, the caretaker at the Oak Park Cemetery in Chandler, was mowing the the grass when he caught a glimpse of something strange in the distance. He walked through a few rows of headstones and stopped cold in his tracks when he came upon the sight of a naked girl laying on a grave with her head propped up on a tombstone. “Even in death and with the unmistakable look of fright upon her rigid features, she was beautiful. Her unseeing eyes were gray; dark curls framed a face that once must have been piquant. Now a necklace of bruises grimly told the story of how she had died.”
The girl’s shoes had been carefully placed under her head as a pillow, various items of clothing were strewn around her, and it looked like she had a bloody nose. Devins also noticed scuffs on the poor girl’s knees and forehead. Here’s where she was found:
Devins immediately called the police, who retrieved the body and took it to the mortuary in Chandler. With nothing to identify the girl, the mortician carefully laid out the body in the main room of his parlor, and soon, over 200 curious townsfolk lined up to view the morbid scene. After two hours of steady traffic through the funeral parlor, the girl still hadn’t been identified, but all of that changed when a man from nearby Wellston stopped at a barbershop in Chandler to get his hair cut. Of course, the main topic of conversation centered on the young girl now being ogled at by housewives, kids, and men looking for a macabre diversion on this already-hot Monday morning.
The visitor told the barber that his niece and her friend had some trouble with a man the night before, and the barber and uncle immediately put two and two together and called the police. Surprisingly, even though Helen’s uncle knew about what had happened the night before, no one had reported Billie’s abduction to the police by mid-morning that balmy Monday, which is why she wasn’t identified sooner.
By that afternoon, the hunt was on for the “Chandler Graveyard Murderer”. Helen was interviewed by police:
The girl gave a good description of the suspect because even though it was dark when Billie was taken, she said she could see the man by the dashlight of the car. She also provided details about the car itself – a newer red or maroon Ford with a clock on the dash and a manual gearshift on the steering wheel.
As police got to work in search of the killer, Billie’s body was examined. The coroner concluded that she had a broken neck and had been strangled with a rope. The girl’s braided belt was missing, so they assumed that it was used to cause the ligature marks around her neck. Her underwear were also missing, but there was no sign of rape. After the examination, Billie’s remains were given to her grieving father:
The beautiful teenager was quickly laid to rest — so long, beautiful and fun-loving Billie:
Amid the frenzy, reporters looked for a new angle to the story. One wrote this, “Could the killer have been an acquaintance who repented after she was dead and fantastically sought to atone for his deed by giving her a solitary funeral with himself as the only mourner?”
On the Run
Corky was in a panic when he pulled into Stella’s driveway at around 1:00 a.m. that Monday morning. He banged on the door until she wearily answered. Still drunk and obviously desperate, Corky begged his estranged wife to run away with him so they could “start all over again.” They could go anywhere – up north, California – but they had to leave Oklahoma tonight. When she refused, Corky became angry, twisted her arm, and tried to drag her from the doorway to his car. Stella later said that Corky was “crazy drunk” and threatened to kill himself if she didn’t go with him, then he stormed into her bedroom and violently pulled the clothes off of her closet rack and raced to the car. Stella chased after him to try to reason with him, but he threw the clothes in the back of the Ford, hopped into the driver’s seat, and took off for the second time that day for Chandler.
Stella tried to make sense of what had just happened then called the police to report the incident. But before they could do much to help, her mother, who lived in Chandler, called Stella to let her know that a repentant Corky came by her house and dropped off Stella’s clothing and then headed out of town.
When Corky didn’t call in or show up for work on Monday, August 18th, his brother-in-law and other co-workers didn’t worry too much – maybe he was depressed about his failing marriage and had gone on a bender. But by Wednesday when he was still nowhere to be found, they grew concerned and put the word out that they were looking for him. Soon, Oklahoma County and Chandler police heard about the missing man with the maroon Ford and started investigating him.
On Wednesday, August 27th, Lincoln County Sheriff, Marvin Roberts issued a warrant for the 30-year-old’s arrest for the murder of Billie Grayson, and the press got the story three days later. Roberts said, “I don’t think he had (murder) in mind when he picked the girls up.” He also stated that the State had a “mighty fine case” against Corky. Now, all they had to do was find him.
The same day that the press learned about him, Corky sent a letter from Boston to Stella in Oklahoma City. It is a sad and rambling missive that provides a lot of insight into their relationship and his state of mind in the days after Billie’s murder. Here it is:
August 30th 1941
Dearest Stella Pearl-
I’ll bet you never expected to hear from me from this section of the country did you? I’m just aimlessly wondering around looking for something to do and have several things in mind that if they pan out everything will be O.K. I hope. I have worried and wondered about you ever since I left Oklahoma City. How are you getting along and how are you lined up at present. I’d give a months pay right now to talk to you for just one hour. I’m going to show you that I can make good just because I know you think that I can’t. I know that I’ve been an awful heel and have let you down plenty but if I can ever make the grade at all it will be now and if you haven’t already broken faith with me permanently by the time you get this I’ll be on my way to doing something right for a change.
My main idea for getting in touch with you is to straighten out some financial deals for me. I have twelve days pay coming that I want you to get from Poalie and make that $31.50 bank payment. Then you can get that $15.00 relief check from Chandler and give it and $36.00 to the O.K. Furniture Co. and get rid of them. In case the G.E. people haven’t already repossessed the ice-box ask Dude if he’ll pay that up and let me know what amount is necessary to get back in good standing with them. If you can take care of this for me I would appreciate it a whole lot for I’m not in a position to present myself just now. Tell Poolie that as soon as I’m located I’ll get in touch with him and that although things look bad right now that I don’t intend to let him down. I’m sorry that you are not out of the reach of my creditors for I know how they are going to pester hell out of you, I’ve firmly resolved to pay all my debts as quickly as possible and if I get the job I’m working on it won’t take very long to get on top again.
Did you ever file any more papers or withdraw that complaint that you had in against me? I hope so for I want to see you before too long. In case I get a job at $70.00 per week that will last quite a while would you leave Oklahoma to live with me again. School will be starting next week and I’m just wondering what you are going to do with Mary Lou. Every time I see a girl about her age or size I get the funniest feeling I’ve ever had. I know that she has a hell of an opinion of me but although most of it is justified I know I still have hers and your interest at heart.
Really Stella, I love you more than anything in the world and would like to make you the happiest girl in the world but I know that things can’t go on like they have and while I know your attitude on apologies I’m willing to apologize and try to start over where I got off on the wrong track if you will only let me. I’m only going to ask you for one more chance for I need your companionship and love to work for and I’m sure if you’ll let me try again I’ll profit by my mistakes and make you a good husband in every sense of the word. I’ve been so lonesome for the past two weeks that I’ve several times thought that I couldn’t got on but I want to hear from you again and see how you feel about things.
My present plans call for me to fly to Kentucky as soon as I hear from Marvin and meet him there for a couple of days and talk over a business deal so if you’ll write me a letter addressed to Courtney D. Orrell, c/o Marvin C. Orrell, Rye Beach, Huron, Ohio, I’ll get it with only about two days delay. That is, if you write back right away. I would give you my address here but I’ll only be here two more days and then I’m going to head south again. I haven’t any money to enclose in this letter but I’ll send you some just as soon as I can.
Tonight is Thursday night and I’d give anything to tune in KVOO and hear Bob Wills and the gang but my radio won’t get them up here. This Ford is getting to be a pretty poor hotel and I’ve slept so much in the front seat that I feel like my skin is just about as rough as the seat covers. How are Dude and Belle getting along. Tell Belle that I’m going to write her a letter before long. Please write to me honey and tell me all the news for I’m practically lost up here by myself and there are lots of things you could tell me. Goodnight and I want you to remember that regardless of how bad I have behaved that I still love and honor and cherish you and want you to come home and make me a home and let me show you that I can be as much of a man as you are a woman. Thanks a lot and with all the love that a man can bestow on a woman I am still as you would like for me to be.
The comment in the letter about Stella’s daughter, Mary Lou is particularly creepy, especially when considering she was the same age as Helen Grandstaff. Also, Corky never went to Boston – he had a friend mail this letter from there. This effort to mislead Stella would come back to haunt Corky in the months to follow.
With their prime suspect on the lam, Sheriff Roberts notified police precincts around the country to be on the lookout for the missing man. On September 4th, they caught a break when police who had been staking out Corky’s brother’s home 1,100 miles from the crime scene in Sandusky, Ohio, spotted a maroon Ford with Oklahoma tags pulling into the driveway. They watched as the man went into the house, and they waited. A few hours later, he exited the house and got into his car and pulled away. The man drove to a nearby ice cream parlor and went inside. When he exited a few minutes later, ice cream cone in hand, the police pounced and arrested him without incident. A few days later, Sheriff Roberts and Oklahoma County Sheriff, Bob Turner, drove to Ohio and returned with the suspect to Lincoln County, where Corky was locked up on the top floor of the 10-story jail behind the Courthouse.
When Stella heard that her estranged husband was back in Oklahoma, she hopped in her car and raced the 45 miles up Route 66 to Chandler to see him. Reporters were on hand to record the heartfelt and tearful reunion:
An Oklahoman reporter wrote this about the Stella and Corky’s first moments together:
Mrs. Orrell, maintaining her belief that her estranged husband did not murder the Grayson girl, met her husband with open arms as he stepped through the barred door…. (Corky) held her in his arms and kissed her repeatedly, then they went to a corner of the jail corridor.
‘Honey, tell me you didn’t do it,’ said his wife.
Orrell kissed her.
‘Tell me,’ she urged.
He kissed her again.
‘Tell me you didn’t do it,’ she repeated.
‘I didn’t do it,’ he whispered, and kissed her again.
Corky’s trial got underway just a few months after Billie’s murder. The case was pretty much a circumstantial one, but one where all of the various pieces appeared to add up to the oil field worker being the culprit. The sheriffs who picked him up in Ohio testified that they found newspaper clippings about the murder under a floor mat in Corky’s car, and the defendant tried to mislead Stella into believing he was in Boston when he was really in Sandusky when he wrote her the letter. Also, in spite of the defense’s vigorous attempt to discredit Helen, she steadfastly identified him as the man who picked up the girls on that sweltering August night.
However, the defense claimed that Helen had to be told who Corky was before she could successfully identify him. Also, Bill Taylor, Chandler’s chief of police, testified that Corky was a respected man in town and enjoyed a good reputation among locals there. Finally, Stella supported her husband’s story that he was driving around all night in preparation for a move to Ohio the next day and that he was certainly not “crazy drunk” as she had reported earlier.
After closing arguments, the jury began their deliberations. Hours then days passed with no verdict, until finally, on November 23rd, the judge announced that the jurors were deadlocked and declared a mistrial. Corky was released on bail and tried to reunite with his relieved wife, but even though she supported him during his trial, Stella was finished with Corky for good and filed for divorce.
Seven months went by, during which time the United States entered the war after Pearl Harbor. In June 1942, Corky’s second trial began. During the trial, Corky “divided his attention between the jurors and a large banner behind Judge Kenneth Jarrett. It read: ‘God Bless America – Life, liberty, and justice for all.”
While Corky remained calm and quiet, the Oklahoman stated the courtroom was aflutter with activity and people, “sitting in windows, standing in aisles, craning their necks for a glimpse of the dark-haired, handsome man with the big jaw…. Women held babies in their laps, men in overalls held larger children on their knees, a woman nonchalantly crocheted through the more tedious testimony, and outside in the corridor, a tired mother deposited her baby on the concrete floor.” I imagine the scene looked something like the small-town courtroom scene in one of my favorite movies, “To Kill a Mockingbird”:
During opening arguments, Assistant State Attorney General and the case’s prosecutor, Sam Lattimore got things off to an emotional start when he declared that “the body of Billie Grayson lying there in the cemetery calls not for vengeance but for justice.” Here’s a photo of Mr. Lattimore that was taken the year before the trial:
Defense lawyer, Jim Embry (who was Stella’s uncle), countered that “the Grindstaff (sic) girl was road-running that night. Don’t angelize her.” (I had to look up the term road-running, which the Urban Dictionary defines as “driving around the city making money; doing anything to make money fast from sun up to sun down.” I imagine that the definition was pretty much the same back in 1942.) He also claimed that, “every time she has talked, she has changed her story.”
The Oklahoman begged to differ with that assessment, however. According to the newspaper, when Helen was called to the stand, “the farm girl, wearing white cowboy boots, a red sweater, and a blue skirt, her hair in yellow ringlets, was definite and positive in her identification (of Corky as the man who abducted her and Billie).”
The State also offered up the testimony of two of Corky’s cellmates from the Lincoln County Jail, Silas Lowery and Howard Anderson. Both men stated that Corky admitted to taking Helen and Billie out but tearfully denied killing anyone. He claimed that Billie killed herself by flinging herself out of the car while he was driving at full speed.
In closing arguments, Corky’s defense attorney claimed that the state “is trying to build a house by erecting the roof first …. The roof has been crashing down into a bunch of theories of inconsistency.” But, the defense once again appealed to emotion when the prosecutor called Billie’s murder “one of the greatest atrocities ever committed in the state of Oklahoma.”
This time, when the jury — which consisted of nine farmers, one garage operator, and a car dealer — adjourned for deliberation, it didn’t take long for them to declare that Corky was guilty. Now a convicted murderer, the former oil worker was sentenced to life imprisonment. He unsuccessfully appealed and was sent to McAlester to serve out his term.
When he was up for parole in 1957, Corky admitted to murdering Billie Grayson. “I make no attempt to deny responsibility … but I was convicted for murder. I always believed that murder was for killing someone violently with the intent to do it. I never had any intention of harming her.” While Corky wasn’t released from prison after that particular hearing, he was eventually paroled and lived the rest of his days quietly near family in Cleveland then Savannah, Georgia. He died an old man at the age of 81 in 1991.
As for Helen, she spent most of her life in the same area where all of these events occurred. During World War II, she served in the Women’s Army Corp and worked as a jet engine tester.
Isn’t she lovely? Helen married and had three children, and her obituary says a lot about her scrappy personality, so I thought I’d share the last part of it with you:
Helen was feisty and ornery and was known for her practical jokes. She loved to fish and watch fishing programs, and enjoyed playing music with her late husband…. Helen was a great cook, Thanksgiving was huge for her – she’d start preparing food 2 weeks ahead.
As for Stella, her bad luck with men continued when she hastily married salesman and bootlegger Bill Eltzroth in Oklahoma City around the time of Corky’s conviction in June 1942. The two and Stella’s now-teenaged daughter, Mary Lou, settled into life in the flat on NW 18th Street, and all was quiet until Bill and Lindsey Chambless’ deadly quarrel on January 7, 1947.
Quotes about Billie’s death scene and Corky’s defense came from this fascinating article about the murder and trial from 1942 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer:
You can also read more about this sensational case in book, The Lonesome Death of Billie Grayson, and Other Killings in Early-Day Lincoln County by Wayne Pounds.
Next week in Part 3 of our series, Lindsey marries again, gets caught up with Cuban Revolutionaries, and continues his bootlegging ways.