Last Updated on August 24, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1419
White still faced a significant problem: he had no witnesses and no physical evidence against Hale. Further, Hale’s network of corruption extended deeply and widely in the community and likely included Scott Mathis of the Big Hill Trading Company, a police chief, a banker, and the Fairfax mayor.
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Hoover, in his turn, desired a scientific investigation that met his progressive standards, which included a blend of organizational meticulousness and “social control.” Hoover’s rules extended far and wide, and his bureaucratic procedures were strict and scrupulous, often to a fault. He demanded specifically formatted reports from his agents and tolerated no variations. Yet he failed to notice that sometimes agents had a greater need for knowledge of a region or community than for exact regulations and even scientific methods, as important as they may be. Agents, including Tom White, often became annoyed by Hoover’s requirements, because they did not always match the needs of a particular case.
White decided to turn to a new group of potential sources: criminals. They often knew useful things, and they might be persuaded to make deals. Dick Gregg, for instance, had declared that he had information about the murders, and White met with him. Gregg said that Hale once approached gang leader Al Spencer with the offer of two thousand dollars to murder Bill and Rita Smith. Spencer had refused, but he was no longer around to corroborate Gregg’s story, having been killed in an altercation with lawmen.
Curley Johnson, another criminal with knowledge of the offer, was also dead, likely poisoned. White turned to Henry Grammer, who was supposedly with Hale at the time of the Smith murders, but Grammer had recently been killed in a car accident. Asa Kirby, an explosives expert who may have designed the bomb that killed the Smiths, was killed in a robbery attempt. Grammer’s, Johnson’s, and Kirby’s deaths seemed to have been set up by Hale.
The undercover cattleman told White that Hale was deliberately mocking the agents and their investigation. White felt the pressure intensify as Hale acted “like he owned the world.”
In October, prisoner Burt Lawson came forward claiming to have information about the murders. Lawson worked for Hale, and he claimed that both Ernest Burkhart and Bill Hale had asked him to kill Bill and Rita Smith with a nitroglycerin bomb. In time, Lawson agreed, and one night Hale got him out of jail with the help of a deputy sheriff and brought him to the Smith home, where he set the bomb, lit the fuse, and then ran. Hale and Ernest Burkhart brought him back to jail.
White still had questions about Lawson’s story, but he wanted to get Hale and Ernest behind bars. He was also increasingly concerned about Mollie, who was no longer going to church and had told her priest that someone was poisoning her. The Shoun brothers had been giving her insulin injections for her diabetes, but Mollie’s condition had only worsened.
White obtained an arrest warrant for Hale and Ernest. Authorities picked up the latter in Fairfax, and Hale turned himself in. White was certain that with his cocky attitude, Halewould never admit to what he had done. Ernest Burkhart, however, might eventually be led to make a confession. White and Frank Smith interrogated Ernest for hours, but Ernest denied everything, including Lawson’s story. White began to have doubts, worrying that he had made a mistake by believing what he wanted to believe instead of following the evidence. Hale and Ernest were on the verge of being released.
White made one last, almost desperate effort. He turned to outlaw Blackie Thompson. This was a risk, but he figured that Blackie might be holding important information. Blackie eventually told White that Hale and Ernest had approached him to murder the Smiths. White and Smith brought Blackie into the interrogation room to confront Ernest, but even this did not seem to work.
Finally, though, Ernest decided to make his confession. He explained the plot to kill the Smiths. Lawson was not involved, but Henry Grammer, John Ramsey, and Asa Kirby were. Ernest also identified Ramsey as Henry Roan’s killer. Confronted with Ernest’s accusation, Ramsey made a statement admitting to Roan’s murder. White also discovered that the third man with Bryan Burkhart and Anna Brown on the night of Anna’s murder was Kelsie Morrison, whom Ernest identified as the murderer.
Mollie was taken to a Pawhuska hospital. The Shouns denied any misdeeds, but Mollie soon felt better away from their care. When questioned, she refused to believe that Ernest had been involved in any plots against her family.
White further learned that Hale may have been the father of Anna’s unborn child, but Hale continued to deny all involvement. He would fight the accusations, he said, “with gleeful zeal.”
While White had made progress with the murders of Anna Brown, the Smiths, and Henry Roan, there were still many other deaths for which Hale was likely responsible. The focus now was on making sure that the judicial system functioned as it should without tampering, bribes, or coercion. The question of jurisdiction was at the forefront, and it was imperative that because of Hale’s influence, he be tried in a federal court. The question eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided that Roan’s murder case could receive a federal trial.
Both sides assembled their legal teams. White increased security in the face of threats orchestrated by Hale. Ernest was in special danger and thus was guarded around the clock.
The courtroom was packed for the preliminary hearing, and Hale’s legal team attempted all kinds of tactics and evasions. Ernest agreed to talk to Hale’s attorney, and the next morning, White learned that Ernest had changed his mind. He would not testify for the prosecution, and he denied everything he said in his confession.
At Ernest’s trial, Hale testified that Ernest had only confessed because the agents had tortured him. He said that he and Ramsey had also received brutal treatment. Morrison, however, admitted to the murder of Anna Brown. As the trial progressed, Mollie and Ernest’s four-year-old girl suddenly died, and this brought about another change in Ernest. He got a new lawyer, changed his plea to guilty, and read a statement admitting everything he had done. Ernest received the sentence of life in prison.
While these chapters focus primarily on the conclusion of the murder investigation and the beginning of the trials, Grann also continues to trace the story of Mollie Burkhart, which is tragic and designed to touch readers’ emotions. Indeed, Mollie is likely the most tragic figure in the narrative, and her suffering only increased as her own husband admitted his role in the murders of her family members.
Mollie herself was strangely ill at this point. Her diabetes had long been a problem, but for some mysterious reason, the insulin the Shoun brothers kept giving her was making her worse instead of better. Readers are strikingly aware of Mollie’s vulnerability. She was at the mercy of people who wanted her family—and probably her—dead.
Further, Mollie was unwilling to accept Ernest’s role in the murders, even though he admitted it. She could not seem to grasp that her own husband was partly responsible for the deaths of her sisters and brother-in-law. She continued to write to Ernest while he was in prison and under guard, and she maintained that his involvement could not have been voluntary. Yet as Mollie sat in the courtroom, she was forced to face the facts, especially after Ernest once again confessed. At this point, she showed a surprising strength of character. She remained silent and impassive, not letting any emotion show. Readers may infer that this is how she coped with what she was hearing.
Finally, though, Mollie was met with yet another tragedy—the death of her four-year-old daughter. She attended the funeral and then went right back to the courthouse, saying nothing to anyone. Mollie, in fact, seemed numb; she did not even respond to Ernest’s smile as he was led away.
Mollie’s story adds another layer of meaning to this part of the narrative. Murder investigations and trials usually focus on the fate of the deceased, but by including Mollie’s experiences, Grann reminds readers that there are also living victims in such cases.