Dead Man Walking (and Driving and Flying and Paddling)

He captured headlines in Fort Worth newspapers on and off for twenty years with his byzantine life story: a charred corpse, a “love nest,” assorted criminal charges, fugitive warrants, and aliases, one clerical collar, two prison terms, and seven wives.

Not bad for a dead man.

Buttoned-down pipe-smoking David Fred Hagler was born in Fort Worth in 1917. As a child he lived on Ashland Avenue in Arlington Heights and attended W. C. Stripling High School before the building housed a middle school.

He later attended Tarleton State University in Stephenville, served in the Army in World War II. After the war he became a salesman and executive of U.S. Asphalt Company.

On the night of October 10, 1954 Hagler was murdered in Oklahoma. Then his station wagon, with his body in the front seat, was set on fire and pushed down the embankment of an isolated road. The body and the car burned for four hours before being discovered. An examination of the car showed that it had not been involved in a collision or otherwise damaged—no dents, no broken headlights. There were no skid marks or tracks of a second car.

An autopsy showed that the victim had been alive, although unconscious (probably drunk), before the car burned.

Foul play was suspected.

Although the body was burned beyond recognition, it resembled Hagler in height and weight and age. The car was registered to his ex-wife. A Veterans Administration document and a bag, both bearing Hagler’s name, were found near the car. Hagler’s company confirmed that he had been in Oklahoma at the time of the death. Now he could not be located.

RIP, David Fred Hagler.

But then investigators discovered that the victim’s bridgework did not match Hagler’s dental records. His status was upgraded from “dead” to “missing.”

Indeed. On the morning of the third day Hagler rose from the dead. In Waco, no less. Lazarus on the Brazos!

On October 13 he telephoned Fort Worth Police Chief Cato Hightower from a Waco hotel. Hagler said he had seen news stories about his suspected death and offered to come to the Fort Worth police station.

He came—with Byron Matthews. Matthews was one of Fort Worth’s most successful criminal defense lawyers.

Quickly the tables turned: Hagler, initially the suspected victim, became the suspected killer: In Oklahoma he was charged with murder of the unidentified person.

After initially balking, Hagler told his story to police: He had driven his 1954 Mercury sedan—not his ex-wife’s station wagon that the corpse was found in—to Oklahoma and checked into the Cedarvale Cabins. Then he rode a bus back to his home in North Richland Hills. The next morning he left home driving his ex-wife’s station wagon. He was hauling white gasoline in the car to conduct tests on asphalt. He stopped at a tavern on North Main Street and began drinking with two strangers. The three drove to Grand Prairie, where one stranger left and a third stranger joined Hagler and the other stranger. The third stranger’s last name, Hagler thought, began with an H.

(A belt buckle with the monogram H was found in the burned car.)

Then came more drinking, more driving. The next thing Hagler knew, he was in Oklahoma at Turner Falls Park one mile from the Cedarvale Cabins and not feeling at all chipper. His car, money, and watch were gone.

He could not say how he came to wake up in a Waco hotel on Monday morning registered as “Dale Waggoner.”

Meanwhile, one of the two strangers Hagler claimed to have met in a North Main Street bar disputed Hagler’s story, saying that (1) Hagler approached him at a traffic signal and wanted to hire him to drive Hagler out of town in his station wagon and (2) neither Hagler nor the other stranger was drunk.

(Why would Hagler, who had just driven to Oklahoma in his Mercury sedan, need a driver for the station wagon? Did he need a driver . . . or just a body?)

Hagler’s girlfriend, Elisabeth Bergmann, had flown back to Fort Worth from Germany upon news that Hagler was first dead and then arrested. Bergmann, a German war bride, acknowledged that she and Hagler, both recently divorced, were living together in a “love nest” at 7013 Manor in North Richland Hills. Hagler’s mother lived next door.

Bergmann refused to believe the murder charge against Hagler: “Dave is wonderful in every way. You should see the care he gives our pet dachshund.”

Hagler, free on bond, was jailed again for questioning after Bergmann was found in possession of an $800 ($8,000 today) diamond ring that she earlier had reported missing and that Hagler had collected an insurance payout on. Bergmann was jailed in Dallas after she failed to declare three diamond and two gold rings to Customs upon her return to the United States.

A double-duty banner headline: Governor Shivers granted extradition to Oklahoma. David Fred Hagler was going to stand trial for murder.

And Hagler and Bergmann were wed in a civil ceremony in the Parker County courthouse. Both had been out of jail only a few hours. The wedding was her second, his fourth. Photo shows Hagler and Bergmann on their way to the courthouse. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)

The ring that Bergmann wanted to use for the ceremony was still in custody in Dallas, so Hagler’s mother slipped a ring off her finger as a loaner. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)

Vernon Daniels, manager of the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, offered the couple the hotel’s bridal suite for the night.

The couple politely declined.

Hagler was keen on insurance policies: jewelry, his life, even furniture. He once tried to take out a policy on the balance he would owe on some furniture he wanted to buy: If he died, the balance would be paid off. But the furniture store owner said he had never written such a policy and wasn’t about to start. Hagler said “no deal.”

Hagler had recently taken out three life insurance policies naming his mother, his ex-wife (mother of his four children), and a business associate (see below) as beneficiaries.

Meanwhile, while Hagler was in jail an insurance agent visited him and gave him back his first premium check on another life insurance policy for $90,000 ($850,000 today). The agent told the Star-Telegram that the company always investigated a policy applicant’s financial, physical, and moral condition.

Hagler did not pass the smell test.

In November Frank A. St. Claire admitted to investigators that he and Hagler had plotted an insurance scam: The two men had taken out reciprocal double-indemnity life insurance policies with a total payout of $200,000 ($1.9 million today). The two men would buy a body from a funeral home for $500 and fake Hagler’s death with the body. St. Claire would collect the insurance money. Hagler would then “disappear,” and the two men would use the insurance money to go into business together.

St. Claire said he had followed Hagler when Hagler drove the Mercury sedan to Oklahoma and parked it. St. Claire said Hagler returned to Fort Worth with St. Claire, not on a bus.

Investigators determined that although St. Claire was involved in the insurance plot, he was not involved in the murder of the unidentified man in Oklahoma.

St. Claire was not charged with any crime.

A month later he committed suicide.

(Of course, David Fred Hagler didn’t invent that insurance scam. For example, serial killer Dr. Henry Howard Holmes stole cadavers from a medical school and used the dead persons’ identity on life insurance policies, naming himself as the beneficiary. He then set up the cadavers to appear as if they had died in an accident and collected the money.)

On November 24 the charred corpse was buried in a cemetery in Oklahoma. Only a minister and some funeral home employees were present.

For the cemetery’s records the unidentified body was labeled “Joe Nwonknu.” Nwonknu is Unknown spelled backward.

Meanwhile, if David Fred Hagler was not the charred corpse, who was?

Investigators had few clues. They theorized that the corpse’s bridgework was made in Europe.

That made a German man living in America who had not been seen since August 1954 a candidate for a while.

The autopsy showed that the victim, although drunk at the time of his death, was not a chronic drinker.

The victim was well-muscled, perhaps a merchant seaman or a ranch hand whom his killers got drunk just long enough to incapacitate him and burn him alive.

Also a candidate was William Reed Matthews, a former American soldier who had served in Germany. Sometime before the Oklahoma murder Matthews had complained of dental problems and planned to have dental work done in Germany when he returned there to marry a German woman. He also wore high-topped shoes like those found on the charred corpse. Also one of Matthews’s legs was shorter than the other, and investigators had found an arch support near the corpse.

With these ties to Germany and Elisabeth Bergmann’s German birth, newspapers in Germany began to publish the Hagler saga.

But both of these hot leads went cold.

Fast-forward to 1956. With delays by defense attorneys, David Fred Hagler did not go on trial for the October 1954 slaying until April 1956.

The state argued that Hagler burned to death the unidentified victim in the station wagon as part of a plot to fake his own death and collect insurance money. The state believed that Hagler had purchased his Mercury sedan using the name “Dale Waggoner,” parked it near the crime scene in Oklahoma, and escaped in it after setting his ex-wife’s station wagon and the victim on fire.

Oklahoma prosecutor Owen J. Watts told the jury, “I want you to write a verdict which will tell playboys from Texas they can’t come up here and violate the laws.”

The state called more than forty witnesses. The defense called none.

One of the state’s witnesses was the manager of U.S. Asphalt Company, where Hagler worked. Hagler was carrying more than one hundred gallons of white gasoline in the station wagon before it burned. He had claimed the white gasoline was for conducting tests on asphalt. But the manager testified that white gasoline is not used in tests on asphalt.

Hagler’s lawyers called the circumstantial evidence against their client weak. Said David Tant: “There’s not a member of this jury who would take away the life of a yellow, egg-sucking dog on this kind of evidence.”

The jury agreed.

Hagler walked.

Three months later wife Elisabeth divorced Hagler, citing mental cruelty.

In September 1956 Hagler was sentenced to six months in prison for making false statement on loan applications to the Federal Housing Authority.

Hagler was credited one month for good behavior, and on Valentine’s Day 1957 former inmate 5963-ST left the federal prison in Seagoville carrying his pipe and some architectural sketches for a motel he hoped to build. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)

At this point, dear reader, I hear you say, “This is all well and good, Hometown, but no story about Fort Worth crime in the 1950s would be complete without some connection to the hoodlums of Jacksboro Highway. And surely this buttoned-down pipe smoker, who looked like a junior college English teacher in a 1950s sitcom, was no associate of the mobsters of Jacksboro Highway.”

Maybe so. Maybe no.

While David Fred Hagler was in Seagoville prison planning his motel, Gene Paul Norris was on the Jacksboro Highway planning the biggest caper of his career. Norris was one of the dark lords of Cowtown’s underworld. He was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, had been called a “madman,” “the no. 1 triggerman of the Southwest.”

Norris planned to rob a bank. But not just any bank. No. Norris planned to rob the branch of Fort Worth National Bank that was located in Carswell Air Force Base and held the base’s payroll of $225,000 ($1.8 million today).

But the FBI found out about the plot from John Wesley Taylor, who had been manager of Fort Worth National Bank’s branch at Carswell until he went to prison for embezzlement. Back on the outside, Taylor worked with participants in the robbery plot—Norris, William C. Humphrey, and James Papworth—while serving as an informant for the FBI.

Police kept Norris, Humphrey, and Papworth under surveillance. When Norris and Humphrey made a practice run along their escape route on April 29, police were waiting. Norris and Humphrey were killed in a shootout with police after a high-speed chase on—where else?—Jacksboro Highway.

After the robbery was foiled, police questioned others who might have participated in the plot.

Those others included Papworth and David Fred Hagler.

Hagler on April 30, 1957 as he walked to the police station for questioning in the Carswell robbery plot. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)

Papworth and Hagler had met as inmates in the Seagoville prison. After Seagoville, they shared a suite of offices on Race Street in Haltom City.

Informant Taylor said the Carswell robbery plot was Papworth’s idea and that Norris planned to hide out in a cabin at Eagle Mountain Lake if he could not get out of town with the loot after the robbery.

Papworth was under surveillance by police when he and Hagler drove to Eagle Mountain Lake. Soon after, Papworth was seen with Norris and Humphrey just before their fatal shootout with police.

The manager of the Cruise Inn at the lake testified that he rented a cabin to Papworth and Hagler on the day Norris was killed.

Police questioned Hagler and searched his office, but he was not charged in the robbery plot.

Papworth was convicted of conspiracy in the Carswell robbery plot.

(Police said Papworth, Norris, and Humphrey had a plan B: They also had planned to steal valuable paintings from millionaire Kay Kimbell.)

Fast-forward to 1964. On March 9 David Fred Hagler was to go on trial in Dallas for using a stolen credit card to pay for an engine overhaul. Having developed a distaste for the criminal justice system, Hagler, with Mrs. Loretta Anderson of Euless, instead went to Corpus Christi, where on March 10 they rented a Cessna 210 airplane. They planned, they told the aviation company, to take aerial photos of Padre Island, which is south of Corpus Christi.

The next day the airplane was found in Matagorda Bay, which is north of Corpus Christi.

David Fred Hagler was nowhere in sight.

But Mrs. Anderson was.

She told police that over Matagorda Bay the airplane encountered turbulence, and the engine sputtered. Hagler ditched the plane in the bay. She said Hagler cursed her and kicked her in the face as they attempted to escape the plane. The plane carried an air mattress. She and Hagler climbed onto the mattress and began paddling. But she said he soon kicked her again, forcing her off the mattress. He consented to allow her to hold to the side of the mattress with one hand and tread water as he paddled to shore only after she promised to tell authorities that he had died in the plane crash.

She told police that Hagler planned to disappear into Mexico with the hope that Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade would think he was dead.

On shore Mrs. Anderson and Hagler parted ways, and he disappeared.

Fast-forward one year and several time zones. In 1965 Hagler was arrested in Australia. He was wanted back in the States for the original Dallas stolen credit card case but also unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, not to mention charges of destruction of personal property in the crash of the rented Cessna airplane.

Hagler was deported to Hawaii. As Dallas County Sheriff Bill Decker was arranging to have Hagler brought back to Dallas to stand trial, Hagler posted a $100 bond in Hawaii and—you guessed it—again disappeared.

Fast-forward two years. The “elusive” Hagler was back in town. Or was he? In 1967 two men held up a Haltom City coin shop, handcuffing and gagging the victims. The victims picked a photo of Hagler, who had not been seen since 1965, out of a mugbook, and he was charged with armed robbery.

And police in Dallas said Hagler was a suspect there in several robberies with a similar MO: Victims were handcuffed and gagged.

But he continued to live up to the adjective “elusive.”

Fast-forward to 1976, twenty-two years after “the Case of the Charred Corpse,” as newspapers called it. Hagler had now been married six times and was living in Port Angeles, Washington. There he met eccentric Leif Erik Ellington, who was well-to-do and detested paying property taxes. Hagler suggested that the two of them organize a church to benefit from the tax exemption granted churches. They organized the Science of Life Church, and Hagler traded his button-down collar for a clerical collar and began calling himself “Reverend David Lee Douglas.”

On the night of January 8 Ellington was shot to death—with a pistol registered to Hagler. Hagler claimed he had lost the gun several years earlier. Hagler claimed an alibi in the killing, but at his trial two witnesses testified that he had asked them to lie for him about his whereabouts. The motive for the murder? Prosecutors said Ellington was in possession of $50,000 to be used for the church project, and the temptation to “lay hands” on all those shekels was just too great for the reverend.

He was convicted of second-degree murder.

Sometime after 1982 Hagler was released from prison. In 1985 he married for the seventh time.

And the next year, in Oregon on June 4, he died.

Or at least that’s what he claimed.

The charred corpse who was buried as “Joe Nwonknu” thirty-two years earlier in Oklahoma was never identified. No one was ever convicted of his murder.

More on crime in the 1950s:

Cadillacs and Caskets: Fort Worth’s Highway to Hell

Dark Lords of the Underworld: Close Shaves and Shallow Graves

The Gray Scourge of the Southwest (Part 1): “Banditos!”

“If You Can’t Serve Time, . . .” (Part 1): “Lights! Camera! Robbery!”

Once Upon a Prominence: Murder in High Places

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