Saturday, January 2, 2021

Bernice Felton, Half of a Serial Killer Couple – Illinois, 1937

 

Wikipedia:  Lester Warfel Brockelhurst, Jr. (1914–March 18, 1938), known as The Crime Tourist, was an American serial killer who, together with his girlfriend Bernice Felton, killed at least three men in holdups during a six-week crime spree across multiple states in 1937. Found guilty of the final murder, Brockelhurst was executed at the Tucker Unit the following year.

~ Early life ~

 

Lester Jr. was born in Galesburg, Illinois, the first son of Mormon couple Lester Warfel Brockelhurst, Sr. and his wife Edyth (née DuPree). Another son, Karl, was born in 1930. Little is known about Lester's upbringing and early life, but after graduating from school, he took on a job as a teacher at a Sunday school in Galesburg. In 1935, he was arrested and convicted for armed robbery in Chicago, for which he served a two-year prison term at the Joliet Penitentiary. Brockelhurst was paroled in 1937 and went to Rockford, where he met 18-year-old Bernice Felton, who was also from Galesburg. The two quickly befriended and fell in love with each other, and on March 31 of that year, the couple embarked on an 18-state wide crime spree.

 

~ Murder #1: Albin Theander ~

 

On the same day as their sudden disappearance from the city, a 47-year-old local tailor named John Albin Theander disappeared along with his car. Some time later, his body was found on the outskirts of Rockford, with a single bullet hole in his head.

 

~ Murder #2: Jack Griffith ~

 

After killing him, Brockelhurst and Felton travelled to Salt Lake City and then onto Dallas, before winding up in Fort Worth on April 28th. There, they held up a tavern owned by a man named Jack Griffith, who attempted to defend his property from the two criminals. In response, Lester shot and killed him on the spot, and the couple fled the state.

 

~ Murder #3: Victor A. Gates ~

 

Their next destination was Little Rock, Arkansas, and on May 6th, they ditched Theander's car and travelled to Memphis, Tennessee on foot. There, they were picked up by Victor A. Gates, a wealthy landowner who resided in Little Rock, who drove them there. When they reached Arkansas, Brockelhurst shot Gates in the head, robbed him of his money and valuables and then threw the body into a ditch.

 

~ Arrest ~

 

From this point onward, the couple wandered around the country, committing about 40 robberies and hold-ups, but no other known murders were recorded. After robbing a bakery in Philadelphia, Brockelhurst and Felton arrived in Dutchess County, New York.

 

On May 13th, a state trooper named Joseph Hunt noted that their car was missing a license plate and stopped them. When he noticed that there was a loaded revolver in the car, he took the couple to Fishkill for further interrogation. Not long after his arrest, Brockelhurst admitted to being the outlaw who had been robbing various establishments in the past weeks, and additionally confessed to the three murders. The contemporary press likened the arrest to that of bank robber Merle Vandenbush, who had been arrested at nearby Katonah for a minor traffic violation.

 

Two days after his capture, a nervous Brockelhurst was detained in Poughkeepsie as officials from Illinois, Texas, Arkansas, New York and the Federal government were discussing on which jurisdiction would house and subsequently charge the accused with murder. Due to his frequent faintings, he had to be sedated by jail physician George E. Lane, who told the press that his behavior was caused by "overexcitement". While incarcerated at his jail cell, Sheriff Paul Johnson of the Rockford Police Department travelled to Poughkeepsie so he could interview Lester about his possible involvement in the murder of gas station operator Herman Luhrsen on February 12th, in the small town of Rockton, which was located not far from Rockford. According to Johnson, Lurhsen had been murdered with the same type of gun used by Brockelhurst.

 

In the end, a decision by New York's then-governor, Herbert H. Lehman, concluded that Brockelhurst should be extradited to Arkansas and handed over to prosecutor George Hartje, reasoning that they had the strongest case against the killer. Brockelhurst had no objections over this, as he "wanted to get it over with" and was assured that in any case he would end up in the electric chair. Prosecutor Hartje publicly stated that he would demand the death penalty for both Brockelhurst and Felton, which prompted Abraham Felton, Bernice's father, to tell the press that his daughter had allegedly been told a sob story from Lester about how his parole officers were "hounding him" until he got married, and so, to get rid of them, he took her so they could get married.

 

~ Trials ~

 

The pair's trial was scheduled for June 14th, and was to take place in Lonoke, Arkansas. During this time, both Lester and Bernice were kept under suicide watch, as both had declared that if one of them took their life, the other would do the same. They were kept in separate cells, but were still allowed to share meals together under the prison guard's supervision. Twenty days before the trial was due to start, Brockelhurst's attorneys notified the Circuit Judge W. J. Waggoner that they would petition the Supreme Court to stop the trial, after their previous request for a 30-day continuance had been denied. On the eve of the trial, Lester and Bernice had a quarrel, and as a result, she was allowed to be present as a state witness against her former partner. Brockelhurst's attorneys' defense was based around the claim that their client was insane, but the prosecution countered their claims with an affidavit from the State Hospital for Nervous Diseases, which, upon examination, determined that the defendant was completely sane.

 

At the end of the trial, Lester Brockelhurst was found guilty of killing Victor Gates and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Upon hearing the verdict, he fainted and had to be carried to his cell while unconscious. His father, who was also present, also collapsed.

 

The following day, Bernice Felton was also put on trial for the murder of Gates. Much to the public's dismay, after deliberating for only 80 minutes, Felton was acquitted by a jury of 11 farmers plus a merchant of the murder charge and set free. She and her father were transported to stay the night at a tourist camp, as the locals were likely to attack them if they were seen on the streets.

 

~ Brockelhurst’s execution ~

 

Over the following months, an appeal was lodged to the Supreme Court for the commutation of Brockelhurst's sentence, but on November 30th, it was promptly shot down. Upon hearing of the decision, Lester received the news calmly, saying that nothing he could say would help him. While awaiting his execution at the Tucker Unit, Brockelhurst was interviewed about yet another murder, that of an unidentified man found dead in Poughkeepsie around the time that the pair were seen in the area.

 

On March 2, 1938, Brockelhurst's attorneys presented a petition, signed by two Little Rock doctors and more than 50 Galesburg residents, which claimed that Lester was mentally ill, and thus, illegible for execution. Despite their last-ditch attempt, the Jefferson Circuit Court threw out the petition, thus confirming the death verdict for the final time. On March 18th, Lester Brockelhurst was electrocuted at the Tucker Unit. Before being strapped to the chair, he gave a 12-minute statement, ending it with a rant about his affair with Bernice. His last words were reportedly the following: “The only thing that brought me down to this was a slight love affair with a girl. I don't want her to get the chair, but she is just as guilty as I.”

 

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FULL TEXT: Tucker Farm, Ark., March 18 – Lester Bockelhurst, 24-year-old confessed hitch-hiking killer, was electrocuted Friday protesting his crimes did not warrant the death penalty.

Brockelhurst was convicted of the hitch-hike slaying last May of Victor A. Gates, Little Rock landowner. He was arrested in New York state on a minor traffic law violation a few days after the Gates killing, together with his sweetheart, Bernice Felton of Rockford, Ill. He confessed killing Gates, Albin Theander at Rockford and Jack Griffith at Fort Worth, Texas, during a hitch hiking tour across eighteen states.

He was placed in the electric chair shortly after sun-up.

"I did not merit the electric chair" said the one-time Sunday school teacher of Galesburg, HI.

~ Makes 12-Minute Statement. ~

Brockelhurst made a twelve-minute statement after being strapped in the chair.

At its conclusion, two charges of electricity were applied, the first at 6:37 a.m.

In his final statement, Brockelhurst spoke with bitterness of his romance with the Rockford girl who accompanied him on his hitch-hiking tour and who was acquitted of a charge of murder after Brockelhurst had been convicted at Lonoke, Ark., of the slaying of Gates.

He blamed his predicament on the newspapers, particularly those in Little Rock.

~ Charges Unfairness. ~

“They’ve accomplished they set out to do in putting me in this electric chair. They were unfair in every respect,” he said. “My trial I know was unfair and not impartial. I never had a chance. Everyone knew what the verdict would be. I’ve killed three men, but God knows I know and you know that I should have been given the chance to prove to the world that I could rehabilitate myself and become a useful and law abiding citizen.

“My parents were good people. They were always religious and brought me up in their church – the Mormon. I’ve been criticized in Arkansas for belonging to that creed, but I love it. I’m not ashamed of it. I can truthfully say my troubles started over a little love affair.”

“When I started going with that girl (Bernice Felton) my parents told me her character and morals were not what they should be. I went with her anyhow. I didn’t mind my parents. For two long years we kept company and then she led me astray. I never touched her until then. She seemed to have a spell over me, I finding it impossible to resist any of her suggestions. Then came the killing.

~ Blames Bernice Felton. ~

“Mrs. Victor A. Gates, a good man for whose murder I’m to get this electricity in a few moments, never would have been harmed had it not been for her. She told me to kill him and I did. She was the motivating cause in my wrong doings. Don’t think I would want her to share my fate.”

When his inquiry whether any of Gates’ relatives were present went unanswered, he asked that his sincere and deepest regrets and sympathy be conveyed to them.

“I’m suffering hell these few moments strapped down in this chair, but my worries will cease suddenly. I know God has forgiven me and that he will give me a fair and impartial trial, something I should have had in man made courts. The Bible never reads ‘an eye for an eye, a life for a life.’ That’s a mosaic law. I defy anyone to find such a phrase in the Good Book.”

~Last Night Sleepless. ~

Brockelhurst went sleepless during his last night, spending most of his time in writing and prayer in which Joe Newt Sims, wife slayer, who followed him to the chair and four condemned negroes joined. He told them all goodby as he walked out.

He never mentioned Griffith by name, but admitted he had killed him. At one time he denied killing Griffith. “He committed suicide,” he said, I told him to stop where he was, but he kept coming so he got himself killed.”

Fifteen witnesses were admitted to the executions. A crowd of the curious stood at the prison gates.

Brockelhurst had a Methodist minister as his only visitor during his last hours. His family, in Illinois, asked that his body he sent to Galesburg today for burial.

~ Fainted Repeatedly. ~

Brockelhurst fainted repeatedly after his arrest and several times attempted suicide while in custody, making it necessary to chain one foot to the floor during his final weeks in the deathhouse. He was calm Friday, however, and walked to the chair unassisted, making his statement there in a clear and fairly steady voice.

Brockelhurst’s last hope for an escape from death faded late Thursday when Federal District Judge T. Trimble refused to interfere in the execution after hearing after hearing a petition for a habeas corpus writ.

His attorneys based their plea on grounds that the question of his sanity was not fully gone into last June when he was not fully gone into last June when he was convicted at Lonoke of the Gates’ slaying near there after the landowner had given Brockelhurst and his sweetheart Bernice Felton, a ride at the outskirts of Little Rock. 

[“Brockelhurst Blames Girl, Dies in Chair,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX.), Mar. 18, 1938, P. 1]

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CHRONOLOGY

Bernice Felton, from Galesburg, Illinois.

Feb. 12, 1937 – Herman Luhrsen murdered; Rockford, Illinois.

Mar. 1937 – Bernice Felton (18) meets Lester Brockelhurst (23).

Mar. 31, 1937 – Albin Theander murdered, gunshot; Rockford, Illinois.

Apr. 28, 1937 – Jack Griffith murdered; Fort Worth, Texas.

May 6, 1937 – Victor A. Gates murdered; (from Memphis, Tn.), murdered in Arkansas.

May 1937 – unidentified man found dead in Poughkeepsie around the time that the pair were seen in the area.

May 13, 1937 – couple arrested, Brewster, Dutchess County, New York.

Jul. 1, 1937 – Couple extradited to Lonoke, Arkansas.

Jun. 18, 1937 – Lester Brockelhurst declared sane.

Jun. 24, 1937 – Lester Brockelhurst trial; Lonoke, Arkansas.

Jun. 25, 1937 – Bernice tried. Acquitted. Much to the public's dismay, after deliberating for only 80 minutes, Felton was acquitted of the murder charge and set free.

Jun. 28, 1937 – Bernice arrested on Federal charge of transporting solen car across state lines.

Aug. 27, 1937 – Lester Brockelhurst sentenced to death.

Dec. 16, 1937 – Bernice gives birth to a girl.

Mar. 18, 1938 – Lester Brockelhurst (24) executed. His last words were reportedly the following:

“The only thing that brought me down to this was a slight love affair with a girl. I don't want her to get the chair, but she is just as guilty as I.”


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http://unknownmisandry.blogspot.com/2012/07/serial-killer-couples.html

Links to more Serial Killer Couples

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For similar cases, see: Female Serial Killer Bandits

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