One of Tulsa’s most notorious crimes occurred on Thanksgiving night, 1934. Twenty-one-year-old John Gorrell’s body was found around midnight slumped over the steering wheel of his car, which was jammed over the curb at the intersection of Victor Street and Forest Boulevard in the exclusive Forest Hills section of Tulsa. Two days later, 19-year-old Phillip Kennamer, accompanied by his lawyer, surrendered himself to the Tulsa police and admitted to killing Gorrell.
The sensational aspects of the case arose initially from the backgrounds of the perpetrator and the victim. Kennamer was the son of United States District Judge Franklin E. Kennamer. Judge Kennamer had previously been a colonel in the United States Army during the Spanish-American War and mayor of Madill, Oklahoma. He had also served on the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Gorrell was the son of a prominent Tulsa physician, J.F. Gorrell, and the case provoked an immediate media frenzy with banner headlines, photographs, and extensive articles in the Tulsa World. The story quickly became even more sensational and bizarre, involving a complicated extortion plot and other prominent Tulsa families. The media dubbed the case the “Society Gang Killing” and feasted on every available detail.
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Typical of the treatment given the case was a front page story on December 2, 1934, in the World: “A fantastic pattern of crime, that might have been woven by a drug-crazed denizen of the underworld but instead was the product of the thrill-mad sons of two of Tulsa’s most prominent families, proved the solution yesterday to the slaying shortly after midnight Thanksgiving of John F. Gorrell, jr.”
The evidence surrounding the crime revealed a plot involving Kennamer and Gorrell to extort money from wealthy Tulsa oilman, H.F. Wilcox, by threatening to kidnap, or kill, Wilcox’s beauitful 18-year-old daughter, Virginia. The statements of various witnesses were either released by the police or, in some cases, recited by witnesses directly to World reporters. Kennamer himself gave an interview to the World on the day he surrendered. These statements, along with evidence subsequently offered at Kennamer’s trial, established that Gorrell and Kennamer may have been involved in other criminal activities as well, including robbery and hijacking, and painted a picture of two hard drinking, hard gambling, and potentially violent young men.
The story quickly became even more sensational and bizarre, involving a complicated extortion plot and other prominent Tulsa families.
Kennamer’s story was that Gorrell, who was attending Kansas City Dental College, had given him an extortion note addressed to Mr. Wilcox that demanded $20,000 and threatened to kill one or more of his children. Kennamer was supposed to mail the letter to Wilcox from Tulsa. However, Kennamer did not mail the note. He was allegedly obsessed with Ms. Wilcox, despite her obvious disinterest in him. Kennamer then demanded a meeting with Gorrell, which took place at 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving Night.
He said that he confronted Gorrell with the note and told Gorrell that if any harm ever came to Virginia Wilcox or her family, he would turn the note over to the police. According to Kennamer’s version of the events, Gorrell pulled a pistol and aimed it at Kennamer, but the gun misfired when Gorrell pulled the trigger. Kennamer then wrestled with Gorrell for the gun. Gorrell was shot to death during the struggle. Kennamer then walked to the Owl Tavern, one of his favorite haunts, and obtained a ride to his parents’ house. He did not turn himself in for two days, claiming, “I was crazy with worry and didn’t know what to do.” Kennamer made this assertion in spite of stopping off for a cup of coffee with a friend after the shooting and going hunting with his father in Rogers County the next day.
Kennamer appeared calm, cool, and collected at the time of his surrender. But, physical evidence did not support Kennamer’s story. Gorrell was shot twice in the back at the head with a .32 caliber pistol. His clothes were not disturbed and there were no signs of a struggle. The gun itself was on the seat next to Gorrell — still in a holster.
To further sensationalize the case, a potential witness, Sidney Born Jr., was found dead two weeks after Gorrell’s death. His death was pronounced a suicide, but Kennamer contended that he had been killed to suppress testimony that would have helped exonerate Kennamer.
Due to the onslaught of publicity, the trial was moved to Pawnee. Fortunately, Pawnee had recently completed a new courthouse built for the then princely sum of $150,000. Pawnee
County Sheriff C.N. Burkwall described the courtroom where the trial took place as “the finest in the state.”
While the scene of the trial was in fine shape, Kennamer’s accommodations as a prisoner were not. In Tulsa he had received special treatment and been held in the matron’s quarters apart from the other prisoners and given a soft bed. In Pawnee, however, Kennamer was treated like any usual prisoner, placed in a cell with other prisoners and given a hard bunk.
From the opening day of the trial, Pawnee, population 2,500, was flooded with reporters, witnesses, lawyers, and spectators. Every hotel room in town was taken and citizens rented out their homes. Many scions of Tulsa society made the trip to Pawnee to observe the trial, and the courtroom was overflowing throughout the trial. There were 40 seats reserved for the media, and newspapers from all over the county sent reporters and photographers.
The spectators were not disappointed. The trial featured notable witnesses, flowery rhetoric, and sensational testimony. The case was prosecuted by Tulsa County Attorney Holly Anderson and his assistant, Tom Wallace, along with J. Berry King and Prentiss Rowe, who appeared as special prosecutors. Kennamer’s defense team included A. Flint Moss, J.A. McCollum, and C.B. Stuart. All of the attorneys involved were experienced trial lawyers, and the trial was hotly contested with vigorous cross-examination of the witnesses and dramatic arguments on both sides. The jury was composed of 12 white males, all farmers or residents of small towns located in Pawnee County.
By the date of the trial, Kennamer had developed a new defense, claiming insanity at the time of the killing. In support of the insanity plea the defense called several prominent physicians, including Dr. Karl Menninger from Topeka, Kansas, the founder of the famed Menninger Clinic and the foremost American psychiatrist at the time. Judge Kennamer also testified, trying to portray his son as mentally disturbed and incapable of knowing right from wrong when he killed Gorrell.
The prosecution established the facts of the killing and offered an array of witnesses indicating that Kennamer had threatened Gorrell’s life repeatedly, both prior to his trip to Kansas City and on his return to Tulsa, and had set out to kill Gorrell on the night in question. One witness, a Kansas City airplane pilot, Floyd J. Huff, said that Kennamer wanted to get Gorrell up in a plane, hit Gorrell over the head with a wrench, and parachute to safety, so to make the crime appear an accident. When Kennamer thought that Huff did not believe him, he pulled out an eight-inch dagger and a pair of rubber gloves and stated that when he killed Gorrell he would leave no fingerprints.
On the night he killed Gorrell, Kennamer was drinking with friends in the Owl Tavern. Kennamer displayed a hunting knife and told Randall “Beebe” Morton he was going to use it to kill Gorrell. Morton was able to take the knife away from Kennamer, but Kennamer still left, intent on meeting with Gorrell to face him about the extortion plot.
Gorrell’s roommate at Kansas City Dental College, Richard Oliver, said Gorrell introduced him to Kennamer, who was going by the name “Bob Wilson.” Oliver testified that Gorrell told him, “When this fellow comes in I want you to look at him and notice him so that when you see him again you will be able to recognize him, because if I ever get killed and murdered that will be the fellow that did it.”
The State also called a surprise witness, Mrs. O.L. Harman, who was brought to the court by Dr. Gorrell. Mrs. Harman took the stand, but then refused to testify because she said she and her family had been threatened. Her statement almost resulted in a mistrial of the case, but the State agreed to strike her testimony and the defense elected to proceed. Mrs. Harman never revealed the source of the threat.
To discredit Kennamer’s claim of self-defense, the State called an expert witness who testified that the two shots to Gorrell’s head occurred at least one minute apart. Expert witnesses, referred to as “alienists,” a term used at the time for doctors dealing with mental health, offered opinions on behalf of the State that Kennamer was not insane at the time of the crime.
The highlight of the trial was the testimony of Kennamer himself. He asserted his claim of self-defense and attempted to paint himself as a hero, who was attempting to stop Gorrell from extorting money from Wilcox. According to accounts of the trial, Kennamer came off as neither insane nor sympathetic, but rather as cold and aloof with no remorse for what he had done.
The evidence did show that Kennamer was moody, disturbed, and unhappy. He had dropped out of several schools, run away from home on a number of occasions, threatened to join the French Foreign Legion, and threatened suicide. Judge Hurst instructed the jury that they could find Kennamer guilty of murder or first-degree manslaughter. The prosecution argued for a murder verdict with a penalty of life imprisonment. After deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of first-degree manslaughter, but left sentencing to the judge. Judge Hurst sentenced Kennamer to 25 years in the penitentiary. The defense filed multiple motions for new trial, which were overruled. The defense then appealed to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which affirmed the sentence and conviction.
The spectators were not disappointed. The trial featured notable witnesses, flowery rhetoric, and sensational testimony.
Kennamer’s conviction and prison sentence were far from the end of the story. While incarcerated in McAlester, he made repeated attempts to obtain a parole from three different governors. In 1938, Kennamer was given a six-month parole by Governor E.W. Marland to be with his terminally ill mother in Arizona. He attempted to extend this parole, but the extension was denied by the next governor, Leon “Red” Phillips. Later, Govener Phillips and an investigator for the governor’s office, Robert G. Fitzgerald, were charged with conspiracy and bribery for receiving money to grant paroles to a number of convicts. Phillips was acquitted after two trials, but Fitzgerald was convicted of bribery. Kennamer appeared as a witness at the Fitzgerald trial and testified that Fitzgerald had visited him in prison and offered a parole for $5,000 to $10,000.
Finally in 1943, Kennamer obtained a parole from Governor Robert S. Kerr, on the promise that he would join the armed services. Kennamer joined the Army, became a paratrooper, and saw combat in Italy with C Battalion of the 460 Field Artillery, 517th Battalion Regimental Combat Team. After the invasion at Normandy, Kennamer and his unit parachuted into France on August 15, 1944. On that day, Kennamer and a Lieutenant Moore were mowed down by a Nazi machinegun. According to accounts, the two men were facing the machinegun position, armed with submachine guns. Lieutenant Moore began shooting at the Germans, revealing their position, and when his gun jammed both he and Kennamer were shot to death by the Germans.
Before leaving for Europe, Kennamer was quoted in the Tulsa World: “Something just seems to tell me that I won’t come back. I hope that if I die that those who have condemned me will hold me differently in their memories.” Kennamer’s premonition of his death proved to be true, and dying for his country may have marked a fitting ending for his short but notorious life.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 14, July 15, 2014.