Dear Mom: Grandaddy Bill Worries About a Serial Killer

January 22nd, 1943

Dear Mom,

Story in the Sunday World about the murders on North Cheyenne was certainly shocking. I immediately thought of the unsolved murder on North Main last summer. Please – for goodness sake, get a dog that will bark every time the wind blows. I don’t worry about you as long as Hugh is home but I won’t have an easy minute after he leaves.

From 1942 to 1948, Tulsa, Oklahoma was plagued by a monster. A violent and murderous necrophiliac took advantage of isolation the Second World War forced upon the women of this country and preyed upon lone, redheaded housewives living in Tulsa’s Northside. During his five-year reign of terror he murdered five women, sometimes committing multiple atrocities a night. In 1948 the murders ended with the arrest and confession of a 52-year-old trucker named Charles Floyd.

I discovered this string of gristly crimes quite by accident while perusing Grandaddy’s letters home to his mother Bernice (the snippet has been shared above). A quick Google search revealed this largely unknown, utterly terrifying serial killer. Like Floyd’s victims, my great grandmother found faced living alone in North Tulsa, with Grandaddy Bill in the Seabees, and his brother Hugh poised to join the 1st Marines. I brought it up to my Dad, who immediately said, “Oh yeah, I know about that. He killed one of Bernice’s employees! Dorothy Brown! I knew her!” He then followed it up with another story of how one night, Bernice heard someone fiddling with the screen on her kitchen door. The night was hot, and while the main kitchen door was standing open for some ventilation the screen door was – fortunately – locked. Frightened by the murders that had happened in her neighborhood, she took out her father’s Colt revolver and demanded to know who was there. She warned the intruder that she was armed. When she got no response, she fired several shots through the screen. She heard a male voice cry out in pain, followed by the sounds of him running away. She found blood on her door stoop. She reported it to the police but never heard anything more.

It all began in the summer of 1942. On the sweaty evening of July 10th, Mrs. Helen Brown was in her apartment at 825 North Main Street. Helen was 19 or 20 years old (sources vary on this) and her husband was away at war. However, she was not to be lonely for very much longer – the young redhead was very pregnant, only six days away from her delivery date. The fiend snuck in through a screen and bludgeoned the sleeping woman to death by repeatedly smashing her in the head with what police believed was a pipe and then raped the cooling body for some time. When he was finished, he had the audacity to go into the kitchen and make himself breakfast, having a meal of sausage and toast. The baby did not survive the ordeal and police ruled it a double homicide.

A six-month reprieve followed Helen’s murder. Then, on January 14th, 1943, he struck again, this time in a gruesome mother-daughter murder. Clara Steward, 48, and her 31 year old daughter Georgia Green lived together at 306 North Cheyenne Ave. Georgia’s husband was away at war. Beaten to death in their sleep, Floyd again spent several hours gratifying himself with their bodies. Afterwards, he made himself breakfast, this time having toast and seven scrambled eggs.

And then, for two-and-a-half years, all was quiet for the red-headed women of Tulsa. Had the double murder so satisfied Floyd’s vile appetites that he was satiated for a time? Or had his work taken him out of Oklahoma? If I had the resources to track him and discover his whereabouts (if elsewhere), would I discover other redheaded women murdered in a similar fashion?

Then came the spring of 1945, and spring time it was, but NOT for Hitler.

On April 30th, Hitler and his brand-new wife Eva enjoyed the world’s briefest and least romantic honeymoon EVER by promptly committing suicide following their wedding ceremony. The Russians had closed in on Berlin, and after some pathetic death-throes the Germans finally surrendered on May 7th. On May 8th, the world celebrated V-E Day.

Bettmann Archives

As the Reich cranked down, Floyd cranked back up. Was it mere boredom that prompted him? Or did the pervasive spirit of celebration drive him to “celebrate” in his own terrible way, and to commit his most sensational murder yet – the murder of the beautiful Panta Lou Liles, whose husband, William, was away serving in the Navy. Also known as Pat Cambell, the 20-year-old redhead worked at Douglass Aircraft during the day and shared an apartment with night-nurse located at 501North Cheyenne Avenue.

Floyd entered her home through a torn window screen and beat her to death in her bed approximately 3 AM. He then covered her ruined face in clothing and bedding and proceeded to satisfy his necrophilia with her dead body. Although I can find no record of Floyd having made himself breakfast, we do know that he took his time in her apartment, because when her roommate made her usual “wake-up call” to Panta, Floyd answered the phone. Flustered by hearing a male voice, the nurse asked him a few “code” questions. He quickly hung up. The nurse called the police. When they arrived, the killer had fled. They found grey hair and traces of grease.

Panta’s murder ignited a drive to action within the Tulsa Police. Sans any actual leads, they began to pull suspects from their books, focusing on murders and rapists.

This is the part where I, a mere historian, point out that murders and rapists are completely different from necrophiliacs. Rape is frequently about power, while necrophilia is often quite the opposite: the perpetrator is seeking an unresisting “partner.” While some necrophiliacs merely seek jobs or other opportunities that put them in contact with the dead, others – such as Floyd – have been driven to murder in order to procure said “partner.”

Regardless, that’s what the Tulsa Police did. Henry Owens, described as a “simple-minded drifter,” had previously been booked on sexual assault and was one of those scooped up in the dragnet. He was given a polygraph test that was deemed inconclusive, however, his lack of competence and violent past made him an easy target to pin the crimes on. He was later released when the final murders were committed while he was in custody.

Also caught in the dragnet was a 33-year-old Black man named Leroy Benham Benton. Although he was also a previous offender, I have been unable to discover the nature of his crime as most of the existing material on him focuses on the miscarriage of justice he suffered in this instance. Benton was arrested and held for twenty days without being charged, during which time he suffered “sweatboxing” and other unethical interrogation techniques. An enraged mob had begun to gather outside, demanding justice. The police threatened him that if he did not confess, they would hand him over to the mob. He confessed. With the addition of some shaky evidence (carpet fibers and alleged “negroid” hairs found in Panta’s apartment) he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Benton recanted his confession and appealed his case on grounds of coercion and questionable interrogation techniques, and with the help of savvy lawyers Amos T. Hall and B.C. Franklin, he was released in 1948.

With the supposed killer(s) in prison, Tulsa must have breathed a sigh of relief as the murders stopped; indeed, it would be a full three years before Floyd would strike again.

And again, I want to know – where was he? Had the unfortunate Panta Lou, whom he would later admit had been “special” to him, satisfied his appetites so thoroughly? Or had he wandered elsewhere? Had he been institutionalized for some other crime? Surely the Tulsa Police have these answers in their casefiles. I wonder if I could beg access.

On July 1st, 1948, Floyd struck for the last time and he struck terribly. He began at 2:30 AM by sneaking into the apartment of Mrs. J.B. Cole, 37, who lived in the 200 block of West Easton Street. Staying with Cole was her teenage daughter Doris and her friend, Levon Gabbard, who was spending the night. According to my sources, the girls were aged 13 and 14. Floyd beat them unconscious while they screamed but failed to kill them. When they were unconscious he began his vile business on Mrs. Cole, but fortunately for the women their screams had alerted a neighbor, who interrupted. Floyd fled. All three women were taken to the hospital with skull fractures, but as far as I can learn they all survived. Witnessed reported they had seen a hatless, middle-aged (presumably white) man in a white shirt and dark trousers fleeing the scene.

No doubt frustrated and possibly in a frenzy, Floyd found the 40 or 42-year-old Mrs. Ruth Norton (sources vary) in her home at 111 East Cameron Street, where he beat her death in her bed and raped her body. Her time of death was approximately 3 AM. She had been an elevator operator in a building downtown. At 9:15 AM police found her body, undressed from the waist down.

Detectives Bud Caffey and Bob Cleveland learned that a man matching their witnesses descriptions worked in a nearby truckyard – that man was Charles Floyd. However, he had not returned to work after his “triple event.” By November the detectives had tracked him down and arrested him in Dallas. Floyd would confess to all the murders. He gave important details about Panta’s apartment that only the killer could have known, describing her bedroom and possessions in detail. He said he first discovered her returning from a movie, undressing in front of her open window.

“I looked in a window, the shade was up, and I saw her standing there without any clothes on. I watched for a minute or two and then she reached down and picked up a nightgown and put it on,” Floyd told Tulsa World reporter Gilbert Asher.

He said he couldn’t work up the nerve to go in just then, but he found a pipe and put it in his pocket and procured a stiff wire to open the window lock. When he returned, the lights were out but he could see her sleeping form lit by the streetlight.

Floyd was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and was sent to a mental institution, where he spent the rest of his life. He died in 1968.


PS. An epilogue for the unfortunate Dorothy Brown

Now, kind reader, you may have noticed that I did not mention my Great-Grandmother’s employee, the unfortunate Ms. Dorothy Brown. She was NOT one of Floyd’s victims.

Which, quite frankly, I should have known from the instant Dad told me he knew her. Dad was born in 1951. There’s no way he ever knew any of these women. Furthermore, the Google Gods revealed to me that poor Dorothy Brown was murdered in 1970, and Floyd died in the mental institution in 1968.

But Brown also didn’t fit Floyd’s MO. She was in her 70s and a brunette. Dad was right in remembering that she had been raped and murdered, but it had been in that order: she was raped and then stabbed to death with a pair of scissors. Pretty awful. They never caught her killer.

May all of these women rest in peace. I hope their suffering was brief if it was there at all, and I am glad glad glad that Floyd’s victims were dead before they were violated.

ELA

11.24.22


Bibliography

*Note: Several of these sources contain errors and all are incomplete in some way or other. For instance, at least two of them have misspelled Panta’s last name as “Niles.” Several of them hold the crimes were never solved, which is flat out untrue as Floyd confessed and knew important details. Others only discuss Owens OR Benton, but not both. At least one leaves out Benton’s race, which was certainly a factor in his arrest and none include Owens’ race. None mention Benton’s prior crimes. The Podcast tries to connect the Race Massacre to these crimes, which is patently absurd, but it is otherwise pretty solid. Suffice to say, there is a lot of missing information and still things to learn here, but I did my best to present you, dear reader, with the best collection of facts I could.

Anil Aggrawal, “Necrophillia: Forensic and Medico-Legal Aspects (New York: Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Crime Museum,” https://www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/serial-killers/charles-floyd/

“Benton v State,” https://law.justia.com/cases/oklahoma/court-of-appeals-criminal/1948/56874.html

“Documenting Reality,” https://www.documentingreality.com/forum/f249/5-women-bludgeoned-while-sleeping-tulsa-1940s-194425/

Jackson, Debbie. “Throwback Tulsa,” Jackson, Debbie. “Throwback Tulsa, https://tulsaworld.com/news/local/history/throwback-tulsa-sweat-box-tactics-lambasted-in-reversal-of-murder-conviction/article_d04e097d-3906-5675-a1f8-1161a005a22f.html

Jackson, Debbie. “Throwback Tulsa,” Tulsa World, 2014,https://tulsaworld.com/article_d97081f9-747d-53e8-8454-9eb4df0d78ca.html

“Murderpedia,” https://murderpedia.org/male.F/f/floyd-charles.htm

“Mystorical,” http://mystorical.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-tulsa-northside-killer.html

Sirens: A Southern True Crime Podcast, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/sirens-a-southern-true-crime-podcast/id1485909695

“The Victory of Greenwood,” https://thevictoryofgreenwood.com/2021/08/02/the-victory-of-greenwood-amos-t-hall/

“Tampa Bay Times,” https://www.newspapers.com/clip/32830669/tampa-bay-times/

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