Phyllis Jean Warren was missing for three weeks when she was found strangled in a brush pile 300 yards from her home. Wrenched around her swollen neck was her blue plastic belt and stuffed in her pocket were her own blood-stained panties. It was April 2, 1953. She was 11.
It was a short hunt before the police found their man in Warren’s neighbor, a 21-year-old Cherokee Indian named Buster Youngwolfe. Childlike himself despite being a husband and father, Buster was always friendly with his gleeful neighbor, no doubt suspecting he was the object of her adolescent affections. Already on probation for a botched burglary committed in his teens, he’d twice lied about his alibi for March 12, the night Phyllis disappeared. First he told the police he was at the movies. Then he admitted he was out drinking.
After five days and nights in a Tulsa County jailhouse, Youngwolfe broke. Re-enacting the crime, he confessed to taking Phyllis out to a field, crushing her jaw, then raping her. When she threatened to tell his wife, he covered her mouth until she stopped moving. Not sure if she was dead, he unfastened her belt and strangled what life she had left. He then dug a hole with his bare hands and buried her body in the brush.
Her daddy did always warn her to stay away from that Indian man.
The police made an announcement and all that remained was the formality of a trial. A penniless roofer, Buster was assigned a public defender named Elliott “Bill” Howe, only 33 and barely out of law school. Making $250 for 50 cases a month, he did this job part time without an office or secretary. But not much was needed for a case this cut and dried.
Attorney and client met the day Buster confessed. The case wasn’t even discussed, as the two men shared a cigarette and not much else. But the next morning Buster called his lawyer and said it was urgent. Not sure what to expect, Bill arrived as soon as he could.
“You had something to tell me?” Bill asked.
“Yeah,” Buster whispered, sticking his head through the bars. “I didn’t do it.”
But Buster had already confessed, which his lawyer pointed out.
“Sure I confessed,” Buster said. “They worked on me for five days. I only had two meals. I only slept four hours.” Besides, he was an ex-convict. Who’d believe him? The police told him the best he could hope for was a life sentence. Otherwise, he’d die in the chair.
Skeptical, Bill called in a reporter friend and the two grilled Buster for three hours. The more they talked, the more Bill found himself believing in Youngwolfe’s story.
“If you’re lying now,” Bill warned, “you will get the chair.”
Buster’s eyes widened. “I didn’t do it.”
Bill believed him. Most of Tulsa County didn’t—or couldn’t.
But Bill did. By defending Buster, he would be risking his reputation, something he valued as much as anything in the world. But Bill was convinced he had an innocent man.
The murder of Phyllis Warren and trial of Buster Youngwolfe was a huge story in its day, receiving national coverage ranging from Inside Detective to Redbook and Newsweek. Unfortunately, that is now about the only place you will find it—dusty, old magazines. And with each passing year, those who remember it are lost to time. I am lucky. I know this story because Bill Howe was my grandfather.
To know why my grandfather fought for this young man, you have to know the journey that brought him there. Four years old when his white father died, eight when his Creek mother followed, Bill was sent off to Chilocco Indian School on the Kansas border. The only reason he went was because he was well-bred Virginia relatives would take him–with his blond hair and blue eyes–but not his brown-skinned, raven-haired little brother.
My grandfather wouldn’t have it. Despite his quarter-Creek blood, he found himself the only fair-skinned kid in the school. According to him, he got his nose bloodied three times the first day. The combined weight of poverty, bullying, and loneliness made him bitter and rebellious. His headmaster told him, “Howe, you’ll be in the penitentiary before you’re 21.”
He may have been right. My grandfather could’ve become a Buster Youngwolfe. Ironically, it was this frigid comment that inspired him to prove the headmaster wrong. He set himself straight and became a lawyer, one in whose hands Buster had now placed his life.
THE MURDER OF PHYLLIS WARREN AND TRIAL OF BUSTER YOUNGWOLFE WAS A HUGE STORY IN ITS DAY, RECEIVING NATIONAL COVERAGE RANGING FROM INSIDE DETECTIVE TO REDBOOK TO NEWSWEEK.
Bill recognized in Buster the natural reticence he’d seen growing up around American Indians. His life at Chilocco, and among his own flesh and blood, taught him that even the most jovial among them could close off around those outside their group. Buster was no different, which made defending him difficult. The police were convinced he was hiding something.
Bill had no proof that Buster was innocent, except his word. That, and a gut feeling.
* * *
If Buster was convicted in the court of public opinion, Bill now hung next to him. Gossipmongers said he was just juicing up publicity, all the while defending a monster who had murdered a child. But my grandfather couldn’t worry about that. There was too much work to do.
Truth was, Buster had lied about his alibi. He didn’t go to the movies on March 12, but had spent the day scouring bars with his father and brother to celebrate his 21st birthday. Because drinking would’ve violated his probation, he lied to keep himself out of jail for two years.
Even after learning these facts, the sheriff never bothered to check the bars. Bill did, and found several waitresses who remembered seeing Buster. Buster’s father also remembered a traffic ticket they received that night, proving they were out driving as they claimed.
Bill also examined the crime scene, where Buster confessed to digging Warren’s grave with his bare hands. Even for a healthy young man like Buster, that would’ve been nearly impossible, as tightly packed as the dirt was. Finally, Bill visited Warren and Buster’s neighborhood, though to call it such is a stretch. A morbid collection of two-room tar paper shacks, this slum was home to at least six sex offenders. None were ever questioned.
My grandfather kept the facts close to his chest, even as public opinion grew vicious. By now strangers and friends alike would walk on the other side of the street simply to avoid him.
To ensure there were no doubts about Buster’s innocence, my grandfather petitioned for a lie detector test. At that time, the test could only be admitted as evidence if both sides agreed to it. County Prosecutor Robert L. Wheeler went along with Bill’s “crazy idea.”
The region’s best administer of lie detector tests was Kansas City Police Captain Phil Hoyt, who, it was said, had never been proved wrong in 6,052 tests. Buster, joined by the county attorney, a handful of deputies, and Bill, was driven 243 miles for the test. It was agreed the results would not be revealed until Hoyt took the stand as the last witness of the trial.
My grandfather was confident in Buster’s innocence and in the case he’d prepared. But the enormity of his responsibility was taking its toll. “I had convinced [Buster’s] family I would get him free,” he told Redbook. “They were sleeping nights. I wasn’t.”
* * *
His fears were unfounded. The county’s case against Youngwolfe unraveled from the start. Waitresses testified to Buster’s whereabouts on the night of March 12. Neighbors reported seeing him drunk when friends brought him home. On the stand, the sheriff admitted to pressuring him during his five-day incarceration. A local reporter even testified that Buster had confessed to him his innocence—a bombshell that never made it to print.
The trial was going in my grandfather’s favor. But then in an instant, everything fell apart. Bill had placed great weight on the traffic fine as evidence that Buster and his family were out driving on March 12. However, the county attorney produced the document, showing it was dated March 13—the day after Phyllis disappeared. The one recorded piece of evidence supporting Buster’s alibi crumbled.
The county’s victory was short-lived. As the record book made its way through the jury, one juror pointed out that the dates had been changed. It had read “March 12”, but had obviously been rewritten to “March 13.” Buster’s alibi stood.
Finally, Hoyt took the stand. He detailed his methods just shy of an hour, as silence and stifling heat swept the congested courtroom. Then he delivered his final statement. When he said he did not kill Phyllis Warren, Hoyt testified, “Buster Youngwolfe has been telling the truth.”
* * *
The county attorney threw in the towel, telling the jury, “I cannot conscientiously ask you to convict this defendant.”
“We knew you had it all the time!”friends told Bill,pretending they were on his side from the beginning. Politicians emerged, discussing this young defense attorney’s prospects. Bill would have none of it.
“I’m no hero, and don’t you forget it,” he told Redbook. “I had an innocent man, and that’s the most any attorney can ask.”
This story was a natural sell for the national media—a heinous crime, a wrongfully accused man, a crusading attorney, all set in the wildcatting, cowboys-and-Indians landscape of Tulsa. Pulpy true detective magazines, which covered the story before the trial, treated it as a noir-ish tale of sordid crime, depicting with a flourish Youngwolfe as a cold-blooded savage. Newsweek, which ran the story after the trial, used the exotic title “Lie-Detector Indian,” as if my grandfather possessed supernatural powers: half witch doctor, half defense attorney.
Justice is allegedly blind, but the court of public opinion follows no rules, now or in 1953. And, when the case involves a former felon and a murdered girl, the truth can be buried deeper than Phyllis Jean Warren ever could be.
My grandfather knew better. While, like any man, Bill Howe had his flaws, his trademark characteristic was an almost stubborn fairness. Certainly he understood how much he was risking in taking Youngwolfe’s case. Even so, I suspect it simply never occurred to him not to. He had an innocent man to defend and didn’t give a damn about the consequences, personal or professional. That sounds just like him.
Youngwolfe’s fate is unknown to me, and tragically Phyllis Jean Warren’s killer was never found. As for my grandfather, he never pursued politics, nor was there another Buster Youngwolfe in his career. What followed for him were two of the things he wanted most—a respected practice and a devoted family, like the one he lost as a boy. It was the latter that was by his side the day he died on January 21, 2007.
I don’t know why my grandfather trusted Youngwolfe, a man most of the city had condemned before even the trial. Maybe he saw in him what he easily could have become himself: a life left behind simply because no one believed in him. Buster Youngwolfe deserved justice. He deserved a defense. In my grandfather, he found it.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 13. July 1, 2013.