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Litigation Journal

Winter 2023 | Timing


Charles Joseph Greaves


  • When a lawyer stumbles across the evidence of an old murder it leads him to pursue a writing career.
  • The story was compelling in its own right and contained a number of intriguing elements.
  • Research began with archived newspaper accounts of the 1935 murders.
SL_Photography via Getty Images

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This is a tale of two fateful road trips, nearly 60 years apart.

In November of 1993, my wife and I drove from Los Angeles to a remote bed-and-breakfast in southeastern Utah’s stunning red-rock country, where we’d planned to spend the Thanksgiving holiday weekend with friends from Colorado. On our second day there, while we were hiking in an area known as John’s Canyon, it began to snow. As we headed back to our car, muffled in the cottony silence, we stumbled upon two human skulls. And just as we bent to examine our grisly discovery, a thunderclap rolled down the canyon, shaking the ground beneath our feet.

We assumed that they were Native American skulls—Navajo, Ute, or Paiute, given the location—and both bore evidence of violence in the form of jagged fractures at the back of each skull. After reporting our discovery, we were introduced by our hosts to a local historian named Doris Valle, who ran the trading post in nearby Mexican Hat. We were not, according to Doris, the first hikers to find those particular skulls, which Doris believed were connected to a notorious Depression-era double murder.

The incident, as Doris described it, occurred in 1935, when a 36-year-old sheepherder named Jimmy Palmer and his 14-year-old “child bride,” whom he called Johnny Rae, both newly employed by Monument Valley trading-post impresario Harry Goulding, clashed with some local cattlemen on whose range the Goulding sheep had trespassed. Palmer shot 77-year-old William Oliver, the former sheriff of San Juan County, and decapitated his 25-year-old grandson Norris “Jake” Shumway, tossed both their bodies into the San Juan River gorge, and fled with Johnny Rae to Texas in a car he’d liberated at gunpoint from Goulding. (The John’s Canyon skulls were alleged to be those of two Navajo sheepherders who’d been working for Goulding at the time of Palmer’s arrival and whom Palmer had killed in order to get the job.)

Doris’s story—and my rather dramatic introduction to it—haunted me long after I’d returned to my law practice in Los Angeles, and so I set out to investigate the many questions it raised. Who, exactly, was this Jimmy Palmer? Who was the girl? Where had they come from, and what had become of them?

My research began with archived newspaper accounts of the John’s Canyon murders, from which I worked backward, following the outlaws’ trail to Texas and thence to Oklahoma’s Red River Valley. The story I uncovered—via newspaper accounts, court and prison records, museum archives, site visits, and oral histories—proved far more dramatic than any I might have imagined.

That story begins in May of 1934, outside of Hugo, Oklahoma, where a homeless man and his 13-year-old daughter are befriended by a Texas drifter newly released from the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. The drifter, James Clinton Palmer, lures father and daughter to Texas where the father, Dillard Garrett, mysteriously disappears and where his daughter Lucile begins a year-long ordeal as Palmer’s unwilling accomplice on a crime and killing spree that traverses the Depression-era Southwest, eventually leading to the two (and possibly four) Utah murders and culminating in Palmer’s Texas trial for the murder of Lucile’s (a.k.a. Johnny Rae’s) father.

Not only was the story compelling in its own right, it contained a number of unexpectedly intriguing elements, including its Dust Bowl origins, Lucile’s Stockholm syndrome captivity, her pregnancy and childbirth while on the run, Goulding’s later fame for introducing film director John Ford to Monument Valley in 1937, Sheriff Oliver’s central role in Posey’s War (America’s “last Indian uprising”), and the notoriety attendant to Palmer’s 1935 Greenville, Texas, “skeleton murder” trial, so called because Dillard Garrett’s decapitated remains, once discovered by some boys out rabbit hunting, had been placed on display at the county courthouse. In the courtroom, Lucile was the state’s star witness against her psychotic captor.

The upshots of this obscure but compelling saga were (a) Palmer’s murder conviction and 99-year sentence to the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, where he died in 1969; (b) Lucile’s own conviction, astoundingly enough, for “associating with a known criminal,” and her confinement in the Texas Girls’ Training School in Gainesville until age 21; and (c) my decision, in 2006, to leave the law after 25 years and pursue a writing career. Hard Twisted, my novelization of Jimmy Palmer and Lucile Garrett’s bloody road trip, was published in 2012. With stories like theirs to tell, I haven’t once looked back.