The Case of the Wandering Widow

On the night of April 16, 1955 Mrs. Leota Werner picked up her husband after work as usual.

Joseph Werner was a cook at Triple “XXX” drive-in café at 801 North Main Street. Triple “XXX” brand root beer had opened a “thirst station” there in 1926. The company had a bottling plant on South Jennings Avenue. Today Coburn’s Cafeteria and Catering occupies 801 North Main Street.

The Werners had married in 1943, since 1946 had lived in a small frame house at 3109 McCart Avenue. Today an animal hospital occupies that site.

Joseph Werner had been a sergeant in the Army, had worked for an American oil company in Iran. Before he had gone to Iran he gave his wife power of attorney. She had never used it.

Leota Werner had grown up in Liberal, Kansas, where she had won beauty contests as a young woman.

In 1955 Joseph was forty-one. Leota was forty-four.

He was her third husband.

Later on the night of April 16 neighbors saw the Werners sitting on their front porch.

The two were holding hands.

The next day Joseph Werner did not come in to work. His paycheck of $44 went unclaimed.

That same day Mrs. Werner rented a two-wheel utility trailer from a West Side company.

Later that day neighbors saw Mrs. Werner back the trailer up to the back porch of their home and load onto the utility trailer a mattress and other furniture from the Werner house.

On April 18 Mrs. Werner drove back to the West Side rental company to have the hitch repaired. The company manager later said Mrs. Werner seemed “highly nervous.” He saw the mattress—which was about twenty inches above the floor of the trailer—and other furniture piled on top of it but could not see below the mattress because the trailer had wooden sides and a tailgate.

Mrs. Werner then drove to the farm of her brother, Ralph DeGarmo, in Delaware County, Oklahoma. She told him that she and her husband had sold their Fort Worth home and wanted to lease the farm.

Later that day neighbors of the DeGarmo farm saw Mrs. Werner “doing some building”: digging, piling boards, and moving cinder blocks near an unused chicken coop.

The next day, April 19, Mrs. Werner returned to Fort Worth, told neighbors that she and her husband had had a fight, showed them bruises on her arms and legs, and had the bruises treated by a physician.

Then she gave away her husband’s softball trophies, telling neighbors, “He won’t need these anymore.”

Yikes!

Then she sold the house, using her husband’s power of attorney for the first time.

On April 21 she moved out of the McCart Avenue house and vanished.

A week later her other brother, T. A. DeGarmo, filed a missing persons report on her.

On May 9 both brothers received letters from Mrs. Werner mailed from St. Louis. In the letters she indicated that she was going to commit suicide and added, “If I am found it will make sensational news. Old Joe [her husband] is doing nicely.”

The two brothers feared that their sister would kill herself at the farm, where she was last seen, and notified Oklahoma state police.

On May 14 investigators searching the farm for Mrs. Werner or her body found instead the badly decomposed body of Joseph Werner. The body was on a bed of slaked lime in a shallow grave where neighbors had seen Mrs. Werner “doing some building” on April 18. The body was covered with a blanket, rubbish, and cinder blocks.

Dan Hampton, county attorney of Delaware County, said of the farm’s neighbors: “They thought it was funny the way she was working with the concrete blocks, but now it looks as if she were building a tomb over the grave.”

A chef’s hat and apron were found nearby.

Based on this discovery, Fort Worth police searched the Werner house on McCart Avenue. Detective A. C. Howerton found bloodstains and two .22-caliber bullet holes in the ceiling and a wall of a bedroom. Mrs. Werner was known to own a .22-caliber pistol.

Examination of her husband’s remains showed he had been shot in the collarbone and head, but the examination failed to determine cause of death.

Nonetheless, there was enough evidence to charge Mrs. Werner with murder. She also was charged in federal court with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for murder.

Investigators theorized that Mrs. Werner had shot her husband in their home and hauled his body to the Oklahoma farm and buried him. That would not have been easy for her. His weight was listed at 300, 310, even 350 pounds. Mrs. Werner was described as having a “slight” physique. But police found no indication that anyone had helped Mrs. Cooper move the three hundred inert pounds of her late husband.

Meanwhile investigators suspected that Mrs. Werner’s threat to kill herself was a ruse. A nationwide search for her began.

The FBI monitored her bank accounts.

No activity.

Months passed.

In 1957 the FBI dropped the unlawful flight charge against Mrs. Werner.

Fast-forward to 1961. On March 9 the sheriff of Newton County, Missouri, received a phone call from a local motel clerk.

“Sheriff, there’s a woman here that wants to surrender to a murder.”

Mrs. Joseph Werner, now fifty years old, was now Mrs. James Cooper of Seattle. Until her marriage to Cooper six months before her surrender, she had been living under an assumed name.

Questioned by investigators about Joseph Werner’s death, Mrs. Cooper said, “We had a few words, and he jerked a gun out and shot at me a couple of times. One of the bullets hit my fingers.”

She pointed to a small scar.

“I guess he thought he’d killed me. He ran out in the back yard and fell. He weighed 350 pounds. He hollered for me to come help him in the house. I got him inside.

“He was a Catholic. He crossed himself and died right there. Then I blacked out. I don’t know how his body got to Oklahoma.”

She said she “came to reality” about June after her husband’s death on April 16.

When Mrs. Cooper surrendered in Neosho, she turned over to the sheriff a .22-caliber pistol. She said it was the pistol that Werner had used to shoot at her on the night he died.

James Cooper said he and his wife were driving to Fort Worth to clear up “some business.”

He said of her sudden decision to surrender: “We were on a business and pleasure trip and just happened to stop off here [in Neosho]. She called Oklahoma City and learned for the first time that her mother died four years ago.”

That news apparently prompted Mrs. Cooper’s surrender.

James Cooper said his wife had hinted at some trouble in her past, but he dismissed it.

Richard Lock, Delaware county attorney in 1961, said ticket stubs found at her home in Seattle showed that after she had disappeared she traveled extensively across the country by auto, train, and airplane.

“She traveled first class,” Lock said.

Mrs. Cooper was jailed in Oklahoma on the murder charge and ordered to undergo ninety days of observation in a state hospital.

On April 14 hospital superintendent Dr. P. J. Hays said, “It is our opinion that this woman is telling the truth. All of us agreed, during different examinations at different times, that she must have had amnesia that lasted over a period of years. At no time during the examinations were any of us able to find any discrepancies in her statement or any attempt at evasion.”

Oklahoma dropped the murder charge. In Fort Worth, District Attorney Doug Crouch did not think he could get a conviction and declined to try her for murder.

Mrs. Cooper was released and returned with her husband to Seattle.

And so ends the strange case of big Joe Werner and his softball trophies.

. . . two . . . three . . . four . . .

But wait! Just for reading this far, you deserve to know what became of James Cooper, husband number four.

Fast-forward to 1967. James Cooper was found strangled to death in Seattle, and Mrs. Cooper was jailed and charged with murdering him.

Mrs. Cooper told police that her husband had forced her to pose for compromising photographs. She said he had drugged her drinks, and she was unconscious two days. Mrs. Cooper said she thought that if she could tie up Cooper she could make him surrender the photographs. While he was asleep, Mrs. Cooper said, she placed a rope with a slip knot around his neck. When he woke she told him about the knot and warned him not to move. She said Cooper struggled against the rope, slid off the bed, and strangled.

She covered him with a sheet.

“It didn’t dawn on me that he was dead,” she said.

She pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. Her attorney noted she had been a mental patient.

A jury found her innocent of murder because of insanity at the time of the crime and recommended that she be committed to a state mental hospital because she was not safe to be at large. Her defense attorney agreed.

And there the trail of Mrs. Leota Werner Cooper goes cold.

Until . . .

The wandering widow is buried in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.

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2 Responses to The Case of the Wandering Widow

  1. Ray Washmon says:

    Enjoyed life, indeed….About 1968-69ish, a County Commissioner’s wife shot him…named Cowan, I think…it was hot headlines at both dailies….You know anything about how it all ended? I don’t think she killed him….Pay no attention the the “Ray” part of my name…email.com did that and I don’t know why….

    • hometown says:

      Gawd, it’s something straight out of Monty Python. County Clerk W. C. “Red” Cowen lost both legs in World War II. In 1968 his wife, Mary Belle, shot him outside the courthouse. They divorced the next year. She later fired some shots into his apartment. She received a five-year probated sentence. She committed suicide in 1971. He died of a heart attack in 1972.

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