30 Dec A TWISTED BEND IN THE RIVER A Story of Murder in a Small Town PART III-the end
A Story of Murder in a Small TownPART III-the end
That next morning Shedd watched from his usual spot at the diner, as Betty Jane got into a cab, carrying one small overnight bag. There was a part of him that felt silly for his suspicions and how they had consumed him to such unreasonable conclusions. However, he still couldn’t shake the feeling that something about this whole thing, explainable as it was, still just seemed so odd. There was still the fact that no one had seen Mrs. Kroeger or accounted for her appearance since before Betty Jane left town for St. Louis days ago.
Is wasn’t long after that Shedd again found himself sitting in Sizemore’s office, and the two men were discussing what they should do. Shedd still believed that some kind of harm must have come to Mrs. Kroeger and the two decided that they should bring in the law enforcement brains of the Missouri Highway Patrol.
Shortly after 10 o’clock that night Captain J.A. Tandy of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, in charge of the patrol’s district headquarters at Willow Springs was sitting in Sizemore’s chair listening to Shedd’s suspicion’s that he had gathered over the previous days. A circle of grim-faced men clad in patrol uniforms stood quiet as Tandy sat at the Prosecutor’s desk, his hands clasped together, his chin resting on them. He remained still, in contemplation for a few moments after Shedd had concluded. Suddenly Tandy pushed his chair back and stood erect, the other officers in the room took this as their cue to stand at attention.
“I’m convinced from what you’ve told me that Mrs. Kroeger is dead and that she never left Eminence,” the Captain snapped. “The key to this is locked away in the Kroeger home. I’ll take the responsibility for entering. Bain and Nichols, you keep an eye on the store for Kroeger and the girl, in case they return. The rest of you come with me.”
With that Capetian Tandy left the office and strode up onto the porch of the Kroeger home, and opened the door with a skeleton key. Then someone turned on the lights and the officers stared around the room. To their surprise the living room appeared to be in perfect order. Some of the officers noticeably slumped or placed their hands on their hips as if overcome with disappointment. But not Tandy. He continued to stand erect slowly moving his eyes across the room in a careful deliberateness.
Suddenly he crossed the room with decisive steps. He stopped just in front of the studio couch and pulled it away from the wall. As he did, he recoiled instinctively at the object that lay at his feet.
“Here’s Mrs. Kroeger’s body!” he announced.
The lifeless body of forty-eight-year-old Minnie Kroeger laid face down behind the couch. Wrapped around her head was a blood-stained cotton cloth, a mail order catalogue for a pillow to soak up the blood that seeped through. She had been shot through the head from temple to temple, and it appeared she had been dead for some time, likely the day she had not appeared for work.
The officers spread out and began to search the house. They were looking for a pistol, but did not find any firearms. In a bedroom closet they discovered a bedsheet and couch cover stiff with dried blood. In the kitchen they found two scrub buckets, both nearly full of foul, blood tinged water. It was obvious that the killer had successfully cleaned the crime scene of any trace of Mrs. Kroeger’s murder, leaving a nearly perfect living room that contained a dark secret.
“But it looks like someone interrupted Kroeger before he finished the job,” Shedd said to the Captain.
“Kroeger?” Tandy began to shake his head, “That clean-up has a woman’s touch. No man would have gone to the length of putting clean covers on the couch.”
With that Tandy ordered some of his officers to follow and hurried up the street to the Variety store. One of the officers broke the glass in the front door and the others swarmed in, Tandy taking up the rear. A brief search revealed a small trickle of dried blood that led to a discovery of Fred Kroeger’s dead body beneath the steel cot that Betty Jane had been sleeping on the night she returned to the store after wrecking the car in Salem.
Clad only in his shorts and undershirt, Kroeger, had been shot at close range, squarely in the center of the forehead. He had likely been shot as he slept. His head, just like his wife’s, had been bound around by a cotton cloth and pillowed on a mail order catalog.
Nearby in the utensil drawer of the gas range, Sergeant Huston found the once “stolen” .380 automatic. Two cartridges had been fired from the magazine.
Tandy instructed the officers to gather up and leave the store. “We will take up positions, and wait for the girl to return. It’s three AM now, and she’s expected here to open the store this morning.”
With that the officers left and took positions all watching the store. To all’s surprise it wasn’t but fifteen minutes later that a rich looking sedan pulled up in front of the store. In the car were two men and a woman that was not Betty Jane Kroeger. Tandy was close enough to hear the occupants talking about the store’s broken glass and what they should do. Tandy used a closed fist to signal to the other officers to remain still. Suddenly another voice, a female, spoke. She was urging the driver to go on. Shedd whispered into Tandy’s ear that that was indeed the voice of Betty Jane Kroeger. With that Tandy signaled for the officers to move, and shadows came to life from what seemed like every angle as officers, their service weapons drawn swarmed the car.
The other three occupants of the car would eventually be released. The driver was a car salesman from St. Louis. Betty Jane had attempted to buy the car, but when he declined to take her $2,000 check for payment, she had invited him to Eminence to show him that she was who she reported to be. The other couple had just been invited along for the ride and had decided to accept.
Betty Jane was interrogated there in Sizemore’s office. “My folks took me out of school and brought me down here where I was lonesome,” she sobbed. “I worked like a dog and never had any dates or nice things. My mother was worse than my father about it.”
She admitted she had stolen the pistol from the store and carried it with her for more than a week. The climax came on Tuesday morning, March 2. She was ironing a dress and arguing with her mother over a forbidden date as Mrs. Kroeger prepared to leave for the store. She just pulled out the pistol from the pocket in her dress in which she had been carrying it, walked up to her mother and shot her at close range to the side of the head.
She was able to move the large woman due to the strong muscles she had developed while working long hours on the family farm, and drug the woman over against the wall and put the sofa back in its place. After some hurried clean up, she would return later and do a better job, she went to the store where her father had slept the night before and reported to him that Mrs. Kroeger had become ill. She knew she had no hope of hiding her crime from her father and plotted on what she would do next.
She worked all day and into the night until the store closed that evening. She left and returned back to the Kroeger home, while Mr. Kroeger took up his spot on the steel cot at the back of the store. Betty Jane was able to better clean the crime scene at home. When she finished, she went back to the store and knocked on the back door until her father let her in. Once she entered, she told him that Mrs. Kroeger wanted him to check the register before the morning. Kroeger got up to go to the front of the store, as he did Betty Jane opened and closed the door so it would sound as if she had left. Instead she remained and hid in a cabinet. She listened for Fred Kroeger to return to his cot, which he did. When she heard her father began to snore, she quietly removed herself from the cabinet, walked over to him and shot him in the forehead as he slept.
She also admitted that the gasoline was purchased with the intent of burning both the store and the house in an effort to destroy the evidence of her crimes. Betty Jane would sign a confession for the officers that night, and Sizemore filed two counts of murder in the first degree.
When the sleepy town of Eminence woke the next morning to the news of what had happened in their town, diners and other places of congregation were filled with talk of the murder. Betty Jane would be in a jail cell in West Plains Missouri, the closest jail that had adequate facilities for a female inmate.
On Tuesday the 25th of March 1948, Betty Jane appeared at the Shannon County Courthouse with her attorney Ben Searcy. She waived her right to a preliminary hearing. The courtroom was packed with observers. By this time word of the case had appeared in newspapers across the country, and had drawn reporters from far away. They would soon find that Betty Jane had recanted her confession that she gave the officers that night.
She would claim at trial in May of that same year, that it was her father that had killed her mother, and that she only killed Fred Kroeger in an attempt to defend her self after she discovered his crime. The state only proceeded with one count of murder for the death of Fred Kroeger, and Betty Jane’s attorney did a masterful job with the jury. The jury, apparently sympathetic to Betty Jane’s age and situation, deliberated for three hours before returning a verdict of guilty, but only recommending a sentence of twenty years. Betty Jane served her sentence, was released from prison and lived a full life without incident.
This has been a joy to write about this case, and I have a few people to thank for helping find what information I could to tell it in a way that was as accurate as possible. First of all, I want to thank the nice ladies at the Shannon County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office that went to their closed files and sent me everything they had on the case. Also, The Shannon County Historical Society was a great help in trying to track down some answers for me. The Current Wave newspaper in Eminence. My Uncle Danny and Aunt Norma who were kids when this happened and gave me some great information. According to my Uncle Danny, his sister, who was friendly with Betty Jane, actually visited the Kroeger home between the time Mrs. Kroeger went missing and Betty Jane was arrested. She sat on the very couch that hid the body of Minnie Kroeger behind it.
This story so fascinated my Granny, who lived in Eminence then, and she followed the newspapers and local gossip about the case with enthusiasm. She always believed that B.B. Shedd (she called him “Snake” Shedd) had something to do with the crime. I come to find out that was a conclusion that many believed. Those that didn’t think Shedd had something to do with it believed that there had to be somebody else that was involved.
I considered this as I researched this story, but I’ve concluded that it is more likely that Betty Jane was the sole participant in the murder of her parents. I believe that she was able to move the bodies. The bodies were not moved very far from the place where they were killed. Also, Betty Jane was not a frail girl, she had spent the last couple years being familiar with hard physical labor, and likely relied on that strength to move the bodies. The way the bodies were cared for and preserved also indicates that it was her and not somebody else that did this, and she had the time to do all of it. Finally, I do know that Betty Jane did live a full life after prison, and I cannot find anyone to say that she ever spoke about this incident again. Her Brother Freddie, who would return to the area, also never was known to speak of what he thought happened that night.
What I find most interesting is the town of Eminence itself. There is very little you can find about this murder or the story behind it without some effort and digging. When I first started looking into it, I figured there would be all kinds of information about this crime. It would have been the biggest thing that ever happened like this in Eminence. But, to my surprise there just wasn’t that much information there. I had to rely on old newspaper accounts and court documents, and when I called and spoke to locals about what I was looking for, I didn’t find one person that knew what I was talking about. To me that was the most suprising, because I was speaking to people that told me they had lived there their whole lives and knew nothing about Betty Jane Kroeger.
It was as if the story of the murder of the Kroegers had just washed away down the river or faded into the deep oakpine forests and became forgotten.