Motive for tangled web of West Texas murders remains unknown

EDITOR’S NOTE: Christena Stephens, a writer and nature photographer who lives in Sundown, looks back at the mysterious 1943 murders of Dr. Roy Hunt and his wife, Mae, in Littlefield.

 

In May 1942, local news spread quickly about the attempted murder of a prominent Littlefield physician who had been shot twice along the Lubbock Highway. The doctor identified a Central Texas doctor as the one who pulled the trigger — causing immense intrigue.

Dr. Roy Hunt, 36, survived the attack. Local prosecutors brought Dr. W.R. Newton and his wife, Ruth, of Cameron to trial for the attempted murder.

In August 1943, Newton was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. Ruth was set to stand trial in November 1943.

Then the chilling, horrific news of a double murder hit local and national newspapers all the way to Washington, D.C.

On Oct. 26, 1943, Roy and his wife, Mae, 26, were found brutally slain in their tiny five-room brick home in Littlefield. What made the murders more shocking was the discovery that their two daughters, ages 5 and 2, were in the home during the murders.

Law officials, after finding the battered and blood-soaked bodies, declared the double murder to be the most brutal, gruesome and fiendish crime in the history of the South Plains.

As Texas Rangers and local law enforcement officers began investigating the murders, what was discovered was horrifying. Both victims were tied up with an assortment of materials, first separately and then tied together.

Roy Hunt was shot at point-blank range. He died instantly. Mae suffered for hours before dying — tied to her husband after she’d been bludgeoned.

Roy Hunt was born in Lubbock. Of his family, George M. Hunt was one of the pioneers in the city after moving his family to the South Plains in the 1880s. Mae Franks Hunt was from Houston.

After Roy became a partner in the Littlefield Hospital, he and Mae were married in May 1937. They had two daughters, Jo Ann and Jane, who were described as the darlings of Littlefield.

As fear set in the town of Littlefield as to who would kill the couple, doors that had remained unlocked were now locked. Residents were afraid to venture out of their houses at night for fear of encountering the killer.

Like most West Texas towns in 1943, Littlefield was a quiet little farm community, busy only during cotton harvest when hundreds of migrant workers would pass through in the fall.

During the investigation, detectives discovered numerous things. One chilling fact was that the killer entered the residence through a back window of the children’s nursery and passed by their beds as they slept.

The tangled web of these murders led investigators to the Newtons and another suspect, 49-year-old Jim Thomas. Thomas had a criminal career dating back to 1917 from a felony theft in Sweetwater. He served a good portion of a 25-year sentence in Nebraska for a bank robbery. He was last sent to prison for the attempted murder of Baxter Honey in Lubbock County in 1942.

It took authorities only hours to establish that Thomas was in Littlefield at the time of the murders. He was brought to Lubbock under heavy Texas Ranger guard on Oct. 28, 1943.

Thomas was charged with the Hunt murders in early 1944. Due to judicial error and appeals, he was granted three trials that kept the case tied up in courts until 1951 in Hale, Dawson and Nolan counties. He was sentenced to death twice and life in prison once.

Thomas never served time for the murder of Roy Hunt, and the state of Texas never got its opportunity for another conviction. In August 1951, he was gunned down in Durant, Oklahoma.

Dr. Newton was tried two more times after his first conviction was overturned. Newton was found guilty of assault, with intent to murder by a Swisher County jury. The jury assessed his punishment at two years in prison.

The state never prosecuted Ruth for her role in the attack.

The 1943 Hunt murders was by far one of the most heinous crimes on the South Plains, and it left many questions unanswered.

Reasons for the Hunt murders remain mysterious and unknown, with few clues available.

More information can be found in “A Journey from Small Town Murder to Mystery,” by Christena Stephens.

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