RUSSELL, KS — On June 22, 1965, George Ronald York and James Douglas Latham, who embarked on an 18-day orgy of violence and death that claimed the lives of seven people, became the last people legally executed by hanging in Kansas.
Truman Capote wrote about the murderous duo in his classic In Cold Blood due to the fact that they were on Kansas’ death row with Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, the main characters of Capote’s famed book.
York, 18, and Latham, 19, were both soldiers who met as privates at Fort Hood, Texas, and then went AWOL together. The men bonded over their racist views: Both saw themselves as Southerners who could not handle sharing their barracks with Black soldiers.
On May 24, 1961, the men deserted the Army and set off for York’s Florida hometown. Two days later, they bludgeoned Edward Guidroz to near death in Louisiana, then stole his truck.
On May 29, they robbed and strangled two Georgia women, Althea Ottavio, 43, and Patricia Hewitt, 25, who were visiting Jacksonville to celebrate a birthday. On June 6, they fired shots at a man in South Carolina while trying to steal his Cadillac — but missed.
The next day, they shot and killed John Whittaker in Tennessee — and, once again, stole his vehicle. By June 8, the dangerous pair was in Illinois, where they hitched a ride with Albert Reed. They killed 58-year-old Reed and stole his Dodge Dart. They later murdered an Illinois gas jockey, Martin Drenovac.
Then they popped open the hood of their stolen Dodge on Highway 40 in western Kansas and waited for a Good Samaritan to stop. The men flagged down Otto Ziegler, a 62-year-old Union Pacific roadmaster, and said that they needed a ride into town. They stole $51 from him, and shot him a total of five times.
As they traveled westward on route 40 in the Dodge, they stopped in Craig, Colorado, the next day to molest and murder a teenage motel maid, Rachel Moyer.
York and Latham were finally captured by police on June 10 at a roadblock west of Salt Lake City, Utah. Investigators searched for a motive for the seemingly senseless crimes, but would not receive much information from the men.
Latham said, simply, “I hate the world.”
“They talked as if they might have robbed a peanut machine,” one policeman said. “There wasn’t any remorse.”
The defense attorneys for York and Latham tried to save the men’s lives via an insanity plea, but the rural Kansas jury didn’t buy it, and sentenced the pair to death.
They faced electrocution in Florida, Tennessee, or Illinois, and the gas chamber in Colorado. But Kansas, where Otto Ziegler had been murdered, was the chosen venue. On June 22, 1965, York and Latham climbed the 13 steps of the gallows and were executed by hanging.
In 2011, York’s sister Emile Gail York Campbell, who was 12 at the time her brother’s crimes were committed, shared a “Letter of Hope” written by York in towns affected by her brother’s murders. She expressed how his crimes affected her, saying, “It still hurts to think of all those children left behind without parents … I remember my mom and dad praying for the victims. It always broke our hearts.”
“I think because this happened to me that I have compassion in my heart and soul,” Campbell told the Valdosta Daily Times. “If this had not happened to me I wouldn’t have the compassion I have for people, but I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what I have been through.”
Main photo: JUN 16 1961; Aurora Police chief Spencer Garrett, George R. York, James D. Latham [The Denver Post via Getty Images]