Updated: Nov 3
Hometown Murders and Mysteries | March 2023
Murder of a Somerset waitress February 1959
Mrs. Martha Franklin VanHook was born on December 10th, 1930, in Wayne County, where she grew up with her parents, Dewey and Lorie Brumley Franklin. After moving from her parent's house, she moved to Somerset, married Clarence VanHook, and worked as a waitress in several restaurants around Somerset. Martha was only 28 at the time of her death; she and Clarence had two children.
On the night of February 3rd, Willard James Hargis (20) and Sidney Kenneth Phelps (26) were northbound on Crab Orchard Road when they saw a half-dressed woman in the roadway dead. They immediately turned around and headed to the police station to alert them of "a woman's body sprawled on the road across the yellow line."
The two traveled up the road to the next driveway and turned around to get a better look at what they thought they saw in the roadway; however, they met another car on the road on the way back who had also stopped when he saw the body in the road—the man confirmed to Hargis and Phelps that the woman was dead. The two men made fast tracks to the police station and told them what they saw. The Somerset police dispatched officers and called the coroner and the State Police.
Coroner Kenneth Gibbs, City Police Sgt. Frank Massey, Patrolmen Ed Cowan, Ted Brassfield, and Earl Marcum arrived on the scene along with State Trooper Ellis Ross and KSP Detectives James Yaden and Sam King.
The man Hargis and Phelps spoke to on the roadway was Sam Randolph (51), of Science Hill. Mr. Randolph worked at Southern Bell Dairy and left work around 11:00 pm, taking Crab Orchard Road home. Randolph said he saw the body a little too late and thought he had run over Mrs. VanHook's legs.
After thinking he ran over a body in the road, Randolph stopped his car, and that is when he saw Hargis and Phelps headed back toward town. Randolph stayed with the body until authorities arrived on the scene.
When the officials arrived, they found her body on the east side of the highway, 60 feet south of the intersection with Pumphouse Road. The two young men who first saw Mrs. VanHook were on their way home after a Pulaski County-Burnside basketball game, where they were following another car driven by Wilburn Thompson. Hargis and Phelps saw Thompson brake and swerve to the left, so they slowed down, and that is when they saw the deceased lying in the road.
To Randolph's relief, officers said they saw no evidence that a vehicle had run over her legs.
So far, it sounds like a terrible accident. After that, however, the investigation took a completely different turn.
Not an accident
Shortly after examining the body at the scene, the Pulaski County coroner, Kenneth Gibbs, attributed the death to the noticeable strangulation marks found around her neck. Mrs. VanHook was also badly beaten and still warm to the touch. The coroner said that the death occurred between 10-11:00 on the night of February 3rd, 1959, not long before her body was found. Gibbs approximated her death to have happened 30-40 minutes before he arrived on the scene.
Gibbs said Mrs. VanHook was found facedown on the road and only had a light gown or dress on, which was gathered around her neck and shoulders. KSP noted a deep laceration on the right side of her head and several bruises and abrasions, which was inconsistent with a vehicle striking her. However, the ring of bruises around her neck was an obvious indication that she had been strangled. During the first statement, KSP said it appeared that she had been strangled with a chord, and rather than being struck by a vehicle, she had been thrown out of a car on to the roadway.
Closest of Kin
The investigation started, as it usually does, by interviewing those closest to the victim. In this case, that was Clarence VanHook, the recently divorced husband. Clarence told the detectives that the couple's divorce was finalized just days before the murder, but they had talked about working things out and re-marrying the evening before the murder. During that discussion, Clarence gave her $20 for groceries or whatnot, and Martha told him that she was meeting a man named Frank Leaver later the same day. That was the last time Clarence talked to his ex-wife.
The detectives also interviewed Martha's sister, Mrs. Evelyn Kilpatrick who told them that Martha had known Leaver for about four years and that the two had dated before she married Clarence. In addition, Martha's sister said, "Leaver had threatened Martha Mae."
From these two accounts, Martha and her ex, Jeff Leaver, had been communicating recently.
Suspect Number One
After interviewing Martha's ex-husband and sister, the same night she was found dead, officers found Leaver and brought him in for questioning. Leaver was found to be uncooperative and denied having seen Martha the previous day. Interestingly, the officers found a spot on his hand and a spot on the band of his wristwatch that was believed to be blood. The spot on the hand was inclusive, but the spot on the wristwatch was positively identified as blood and sent to the lab for testing. During questioning, police learned Leaver had been sentenced to "life in the pen" for armed robbery. He served 15 years in prison and was released seven years prior.
After several hours of late night - early morning questioning, officers took Leaver back to the tourist court (hotel), where they had picked him up to examine the company truck he was driving. In the truck, they found Mrs. VanHook's blood-spotted coat, a shirt, which was also spotted with blood, and two pieces of rope. In addition, the officers said the area behind the seat was loaded down with dirty uniform shirts and bundles of rags, which appeared to have been pressed down—assumedly from the weight of a body. Leaver denied any knowledge of the coat and shirt and said he signed in at the tourist court about 4:30 the previous day, headed to Science Hill around 7:00, and returned to his room shortly after. Later, he went to two restaurants in Somerset and got a sandwich and several cups of coffee before returning to his room around 10:00.
Officers arrested Leaver on the charge of wilful murder and lodged him in the County Jail, where he was held without bond.
Leaver acquitted by Lincoln Circuit Court
Shortly after his arrest, Leaver was indicted by a Pulaski County Grand Jury. Apparently, a radio broadcast of an interview with Leaver and his wife from the Pulaski County Jail led the prosecuting attorney, Russell Jones, to ask for a change of venue. Jones said it would have been impossible to obtain an impartial jury after the radio broadcast; therefore, the venue was changed to Lincoln County, where the trial began on June 8th, 1959.
Witnesses said that Mrs. VanHook called Leaver about 5:00 pm on the evening of her death, and later that night, she was seen getting out of Leaver's Central Overall Supply truck at the Fleet Station on West Highway 80, where she used the restroom. After that, witnesses said she was seen getting back into his vehicle, and the two drove back toward Somerset.
Martha was not seen after the witnesses saw her at the service station on West Highway 80 until her body was found on Crab Orchard Road. However, other witnesses said they had seen Leaver's truck parked on Crab Orchard Road near the Pumphouse Road intersection the same night and saw the truck drive off to the north as a car approached Crab Orchard Road from Pumphouse Road. In addition, one person testified that they saw Leaver's truck turning around at Norfleet's Service Station about two miles north of where Martha's body was found the night of the murder.
During the trial, officers testified that Martha's coat, underwear, and work shirt were found in Leaver's truck and were spotted with blood. An agent for the FBI said that chemical analysis showed that the blood on the clothing was the same type as Martha's.
Even with all the evidence, the jury acquitted Leaver in June 1959. After confirming that, the only thing I could think was, "what have they done?" I have only a certain amount of trust for any justice, and this time, the jury may have turned a monster out to live his life free to commit more crimes. It now seems that may have been an understatement. We can't blame it all on a jury's verdict; they can only act on the evidence given and the question of reasonable doubt. From the records available, it seemed like Leaver was cunning. Cunning, like a psychopath.
Was Leaver a serial killer?
While researching Martha's murder and the alleged killer, I found several reports of nude or partially nude bodies found along roadways in Kentucky and Indiana. I initially found the serial killer question posed on Reddit, which is not a trusted source by any stretch. However, much of the writer's conclusions were interesting, so I tugged on some of the threads.
The following information comes from an unreliable source; however, the news surrounding each case would be a good reason to open the investigation if Leaver was still alive and a threat to gentle society.
James Henry Sanford (27) | August 29, 1933 | Shooting
Anita Christine Barmore (21) | November 8th, 1962 | Strangulation (waitress from Louisville, cornfield)
L.Q. Roberson (17) | December 3, 1958 | Shooting
Martha Mae Van Hook (28) | February 3rd, 1959 | Strangulation (Waitress from Somerset)
Julia Ann Dawson (22) | May 21st, 1962 | Poisoning (Waitress from Louisville, found in a ditch)
Judy Gardner (22) | June 1962 | Strangulation (Waitress from Louisville, found next to road)
Nancy Webb (21) | October 15th, 1962 | Strangulation (Waitress from Louisville, roadway)
Edith Johnson (46) | October 18th, 1964 | Strangulation (Found in the Ohio River)
Source: Serial Killer Database
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During Leaver's interrogation in the Somerset case, he told investigators that he had been charged and convicted of robbery and spent 15 years in prison. This would line up with the first confirmed victim on the list, James Henry Sanford. However, feeble attempts on my part to track this one down led to dead ends. Nevertheless, we marked this one as the plausible conviction Leaver spoke of during the investigation.
We will get to the Anita Christine Barmore murder in a bit.
L.Q. Robertson was a co-worker of Leaver's who worked with him at the Central Overall company in Louisville around the time Leaver was suspected of killing Martha VanHook. L.Q., just a kid of 17, was shot twice in the head while taking a deposit to the bank. He was found dead with around $2600 missing. I found unsourced posts that say Leaver was a suspect, charged, and later released for lack of evidence, but that is unconfirmed.
We know what happened to poor Mrs. Martha Mae VanHook, as she is the origin of this post. May she (and the others) rest in peace. IF Leaver was responsible for the strangulation deaths listed, is Martha's case the one that set him off? Were there more that haven't been uncovered? According to his story, he was in prison for 15 years. This is a good case for taking a broader look at similar crimes committed before his first incarnation.
Now as to the three waitresses from Louisville found all in the same time frame, in various states of undress, and found near roadways—it certainly looks like the same person's work. Julia Ann Dawson, Judy Gardner, and Nancy Webb were reportedly found within 10 miles of each other. It is undoubtedly the same M.O. used in the case of Martha VanHook. From the limited research initiated for this post, it appears that the authorities had other suspects on the list for each case, but we know that Frank Leaver was not convicted of their murders. Even so, we believe it is entirely possible and if we weren't limited on time, we would go down each trail to find more details. For now, we will leave the "unconfirmed" open to revisiting when time allows.
It is the same for the last woman on the list, Edith Johnson. At first glance, it seemed that THEBONESOFAUTUMN was on a good lead, but I ran into dead ends during a limited search for Ms. Johnson's case. However, I found a couple of instances where Edith was said to have been dating Leaver when her body was found in the Ohio River. She was supposedly in her 40s and divorced. I would not have added her to the list if not for the strangulation cause of death and possible direct connection to Leaver. She doesn't precisely fit the victim profile, but I don't rule it out.
The one on the list that was quickly confirmed through open-sourced court records was Ms. Barmore. Compared to the other female victims on the list, her case sends up red flags and seems to connect the murders to the same sick individual.
Anita Christine Barmore was a 24-year-old bartender and waitress murdered in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1962. On November 8th, 1962, Barmore's body was found early in the morning on the edge of a field on a farm located in Charlestown, Indiana. Barmore had been strangled with her own belt, and her body had been sexually assaulted.
WARNING: sensitive descriptions below
" An autopsy on the body of Anita Christine Barmore, the deceased, was conducted at 10:00 pm on November 8th, 1962. The pathologist testified that she had been dead at least eight (8) hours, and probably between eight (8) and thirty-six (36) hours. The pathologist testified the left breast had been amputated, most of the pubis, the skin of the pubis and the vulva had been excised. The pathologist further testified that the deceased died as the result of strangulation."
On November 10th, 1962, police brought Leaver in for questioning. When they arrested him, they noticed severe scratch marks on both sides of his face. Leaver said he had been in a car accident which resulted in scratch marks on his face. However, that didn't hold water with the police. After they examined Leaver's vehicle, they found Anita's clothes, fecal matter, and hair. As the investigation went on, the evidence piled up against Leaver.
Leaver was tried and convicted of the murder of Anita Christine Barmore in the first degree in April 1966 and sentenced to be imprisoned in the Indiana State Prison for and during his natural life. Leaver went on to appeal the conviction on claims of the adequacy of the indictment, alleged unlawful search and seizure, jury instructions, the handling of the jury, and questions relating to the counsel's handling of discovery, procedural and evidentiary matters, and the overall handling of the defense.
Leaver v. State (1968)
Leaver v. State is an important case that illustrates the importance of proper jury instructions in criminal trials and the potential impact of such instructions on the outcome of a trial. The case also underscores the need for judges to carefully consider all jury instructions requested by the parties and to ensure that the instructions given accurately reflect the law applicable to the case.
Death of a monster?
Not much is found about Leaver after he was incarcerated the last time—outside of his appeals. His wife, Rose, purportedly received a divorce from him shortly after the Anita Barmore murder, but that is unconfirmed. One story I read about Rose said the police received a call to their home for an attempted suicide around the time of most of the murders (1962-3ish, I believe). When they arrived, they found Rose unconscious in the home. When she woke, she said she stuck her head in the oven to try to kill herself because she couldn’t live with her husband anymore. Another story said that Rose and her two boys, who were teenagers and Frank’s stepsons, gave testimony during a trial against Frank in the shooting death of L.Q. Roberson. The story said that Rose and the boys all testified that Frank admitted the murder to them and wasn’t concerned about getting caught because of Mr. Roberson’s race. If even some of these suspicions and accusations are true, Leaver had no regard for any life other than his own.
Frank Leaver died on November 2nd, 1988, and was buried at the Indiana State Prison Cemetery in LaPorte county, Indiana (Row 28 SP 3 to be exact).