Perhaps none of my blog entries so far has elicited as much comment as Preacher’s Kid, Part One, the post about West Terre Hautean Cozzie Merrill Jones who killed 12 year-old Edith Barton. Since that post I have been contacted by readers who knew Cozzie (both described him as a “creepy man who made them uneasy. They have given me some interesting leads (and I have requested his Indiana prison records) that may lead to me being able to learn more about the psyche of the young preacher’s kid who turned out so badly, who was described as totally insane and a con man par excellence.
In the meantime I thought I should continue with at least the bare bones of the Cozzie story.
When we left Cozzie he had been convicted of the murder of young Edith and sentenced to life. He entered the Indiana State Prison North at Michigan City on November 20. 1942. For the next 19 years he was 22194. He escaped in September, 1960. One Hoosier newspaper reported that he simply “walked away” from the prison’s Summit Farm. But did he?
Is it that easy to just “walk away.” Does a prisoner who escapes and evades recapture have to have help? Where did he get clothes (outside of the clichéd stealing them from an unattended clothesline)? Who gave him money. How did he obtain a car (which he was later reported to have repainted by hand to escape capture?
It has been long rumored in Indiana corrections circle that he had inside help. Some believe that as the consummate con man Cozzie was able to convince some prison officials of his innocence. It was they, it is said, who aided and abetted his escape. And escape he did.
Little is known of the immediate aftermath. Did he immediately leave the state? Where did he “hole up.” At this point I can only concretely place his whereabouts at any given time by the crimes he committed. By 1961 he was living in Arizona, where he had adopted the name “Steve Palmer.” Cozzie was a very talented piano player and supported himself by play in bars and bands. As Steve Palmer he was hired out of a local musicians union hall to play in a big band. The daughter of the bandleader reported he was an excellent player but the family came to fear him.
In March, 1961 a pretty young eight year-old named Marguerita Bajarano went missing while on her way to school in Tucson. He body was found four days later. Cozzie eventually confessed, recanted and then re-confessed to her murder.
Cozzie continued to roam, whether it was due to his life as an itinerant musician or the need to keep moving. Did he perhaps return to Indian for a visit? He was driving along a highway near Joplin, Mo when he picked up a young Canadian hitchhiker named Robert Fillmore in October, 1962. Fillmore was headed to California. He never made it. Cozzie murdered him and left his body alongside the road.
The Steve Palmer identity was stripped away in Arizona in December, 1962, when two men saw a man trying to abduct a young girl. They chased the perpetrator who abandoned his car and ran. Eventually he forced his way into the home of a retired rancher and forced him to drive him away. Later Cozzie killed him, leaving his body in the desert near Casa Grande, Arizona. It was for this crime that Cozzie was initially arrested and his identity revealed.
The story of Cozzie Merrill Jone’s conviction, sentence to be executed and long legal battle is for a further chapter. In the meantime, as I find out more about I will post updates.
When I was six, Elvis lived in West Terre Haute. In a whitewashed house with blue trim and a cinder block garage. On an alley on Fifth Street between National and Riggy, just behind a gas station. I know this because I saw him. Sideburns perfect, wearing khaki, pegged chinos and an unusual colored shirt. I never actually heard him singing, but once when he came out of the house and got into his convertible I heard him, hum,ming to an Everly Brothers’ tune on his car radio. Even as a six year-old with a very limited understanding of the expanse of the world I thought it odd he should be living in my home town. Wasn’t he supposed to be in the Army or something?
As I said this revelation came about because that was about the age when I was allowed to leave the yard on my own (as long as I let Grandma know). What was there to fear? West Terre Haute in 1959 or 1960 was not home to sexual predators, drive-by shootings, or cocaine dealers hissing seductively from the bushes. And besides, most people knew me and would take me home to McIlroy Street should I become lost.
I took full advantage of my new “grown up” freedom. I loved walking and exploring. In the ensuing years my long legs helped me cover literally every street in town. My routes depended on whether there was a purpose to my journey, or merely whimsy.
Purposeful trips most often involved obtaining comic books (Superman, but especially WWII comics. Sgt. Rock was acceptable, but by far the most sought after was Sgt. Nick Fury and His Howlin’ Commandos) and MAD Magazine. I bought my comics at two drug stores, Berry’s on Paris Avenue and Dodge Drugs on National Avenue.
Dodge Drugs was the more upscale of the two. Brighter, bigger, with a long soda fountain bar. If I went there I crossed McIlroy into the alley that ran between Riggy and National . I would take that to Fifth Street (where Elvis lived), then slide through the gas station up to National. I would vary the routine on the return trip. Clutching my brown bag of comics I would walk along National Avenue, past the drive-in with car hops, the liquor store and the little house that always seemed to have strange cooking odors reaching out to you as you walked past. When I got to 3rd Street (also known as Market St.) I would once again head to the alley to home.
Berry’s Drugs was on the north side of town, on Paris Avenue. In addition to comic-buying forays, I sometimes was entrusted with $3.06 to get Grandma’s vitamin prescription (Bectin with C). The Berry store was a much darker venue. The Berrys (perhaps because they had dealt with generations of squirmy, indecisive kids hoisting up 12 cents for a comic) were never quite as welcoming. I remember Mrs. Berry, a dark, fatigued looking woman) emerging reluctantly from behind a curtain (they lived in the back of the store) when an old bell announced my arrival. The route to and from Berrys was unchanging. Up the alley to Church street, then past some nice homes and the high school to Paris Avenue, then reversing the journey.
Probably because of the book and my growing older, my youth and the streets of West Terre Haute increasingly invade my dreams. Nearly every night I walk different streets in various guises, Tim at 6, at 13, at 58. Sometimes Mom is there. Sometimes Grandma. Often it is me and Gramps, walking up McIlroy to Snacks Tavern to pick up a couple of pints of Falstaff or to ray’s to get our hair cuts.