Death on Route 66: The Murders of Gene Reed and Martin Drenovac - Part two

(First published in Show Me Route 66, Vol. 23 No 4, 2013
Second published in the Prairie Land Buzz, February 2014)

In 1961, two AWOL Texas GIs went on a cross-country killing spree from Florida to Colorado, killing seven people in a two-week orgy of robbery, violence, and murder. Their travels brought James Douglas Latham, 19, and George Ronald York, 18, to Illinois' Metro East, where they made several tragic stops. Their senseless, brutal slayings of Albert Eugene “Gene” Reed and Martin Drenovac along Route 66 sent the Illinois communities of Litchfield, Edwardsville, and Mitchell/Granite City reeling. Reed and Drenovac were victims #4 and #5 respectively of nine victims assaulted (seven of which died) at the hands of Latham and York from May 26 through June 10, 1961.

On the morning of Thursday, June 8, 1961, Martin Drenovac was at work at his Twin Oaks Gas for Less service station on U.S. Bypass 66 in Mitchell, Illinois. The service station, along with a restaurant and motel, were all owned by the Drenovac family and were located just before the entrance to the Chain of Rocks Canal Bridge. The family – Martin, wife Ethel, son Sam, daughter Anne, and two grandchildren – lived in a large two-story house just west of the service station. Martin was 69 years old but was still working; he had spent decades building up businesses. Life was good.

Martin Drenovac with his grandson Richard and granddaughter Denise about 1959. Business signs can be seen to the right. Courtesy of Denise Madrid.
A native of Croatia, Martin Drenovac came to the U.S. in 1905. In nearby Hartford and Wood River, he operated grocery stores for 27 years before moving to Mitchell in 1947. He and his wife Ethel had two children, Anne and Sam. Sam grew up working in the family businesses. Ann became a school teacher; she married Alfred Madrid and they had two children, Denise and Richard.

Interior of Drenovac's general store in Hartford in 1932. Pictured (left to right) are Ethel and Martin Drenovac, their daughter Ann, and store employees. Courtesy of Hartford Public Library.

Granddaughter Denise Madrid recalls the restaurant: It had been built from an old barn and part of the front was remodeled with glass block; there was a matching glass block bar inside. Just inside the front door was a compass rose designed in the floor: as a child Denise liked to stand in the middle of it and twirl. Her grandmother, Martin's wife Ethel, grew up in Austria where she learned the fine art of baking. She was famous locally for her pies. A half-moon window between the kitchen and dining room was the spot where Ethel's fresh-baked pies would appear. Martin and Ethel grew some of the produce used in the restaurant, including about 200 tomato plants every year. Martin was ahead of his time, employing the “farm to table” concept popular now in many fine restaurants. The produce was grown organically. “We don't spray, we don't spray,” Martin would tell customers.

Martin called his businesses the Twin Oaks Restaurant and Rotel (“It's a hotel on the road!”). The Rotel consisted of about 8-10 cabins, one of which was an octagon. Although the whole business complex came to be known as Twin Oaks, Denise says that the service station was only named “Gas For Less” and was serviced by the Ashland Oil Company. The restaurant and rotel were called “Twin Oaks.”

Denise remembers her grandfather as a kind man with a big heart. The family was well off due to their businesses. During the Great Depression, he provided housing for a family who had nothing and nowhere to live. In the age of segregation, he allowed blacks to eat in his restaurant and if whites complained, he told them that they were welcome to take their food outside.

But on June 8, 1961, the Drenovac family's peaceful existence was shattered. For George Latham and Ronald York, their day had started with a brutal murder – their fourth in a rampage of terror across the country. That morning Albert Eugene “Gene” Reed from Litchfield had a fateful rendezvous with Latham and York, attempting to give the two “hitchhikers” a ride. But the killers had turned the tables. They killed Reed, took over his late-model Dodge, and dumped his body southwest of Edwardsville. From that spot it was only about seven miles to Twin Oaks.

Martin was watching over the service station that morning, while his wife Ethel and son Sam were at work in the restaurant. Sam was wearing his customary white shirt and white butcher's apron. Ethel was most likely baking pies. York and Latham pulled into the service station driving Reed's red Dodge. Meanwhile, Martin's grandchildren, nine-year-old Denise and six-year-old Richard Madrid were playing a game on the living room floor, their young world not yet shattered. It was about 10:00 am.

A few minutes later, Ethel looked out the restaurant window and saw a car at the gas station waiting for service. She saw the customers sitting in their car, but as she watched her husband Martin did not come out to greet them. Son Sam went over to the service station. It was Sam that found his father lying in a pool of blood in the service bay.

The parking lot was soon jammed with police and sheriff vehicles. An ambulance waited to load Martin's body as the investigation began. Sam walked over to the Drenovac home where his niece and nephew were innocently playing. Denise still remembers her Uncle Sam walking into the house with his white shirt and apron “covered with blood.” He told them, “Your grandfather's been killed. Call your mother and tell her to leave school and come. Tell her your grandfather's really sick. But don't tell her he's been killed.” Police investigations concluded that Martin had been hit on the head at least seven times. The family believes that the killers used the poker out of Martin's wood stove.

Emergency vehicles outside the service station and the ambulance waiting to load Martin Drenovac's body on June 8, 1961. Edwardsville Intelligencer.
Although Gene Reed already lay dead a few miles east, Drenovac's murder was reported first, and it would still be several hours before Reed's body would be found and reported. Initial investigations caused Madison County Sheriff George Musso to state that there “was apparently no connection between the Reed slaying and a fatal holdup and beating near the Chain of Rocks Bridge.”

Martin's wallet, believed to contain several hundred dollars in cash, was missing. Weeks later, a man in Missouri found the wallet where Latham and York had thrown it out. Knowing the story from the wide publicity after the murders, the man wrote a letter to the Drenovac family at Twin Oaks, alerting them that he had the wallet. Denise recalls the car trip to Missouri to pick up her grandfather's wallet. Later on, in their confessions Latham and York stated that they not only needed gas in the Dodge, but cash for the Chain of Rocks Bridge toll.

After their escape across the Mississippi River, the crime spree was not yet over. In Kansas, they robbed and shot to death Otto Zeigler, a 63-year-old railroad worker. In Colorado, they had sex with a teen-aged motel maid named Rachel Moyer. That was before they killed her, too.

The pair was finally apprehended in Salt Lake City, where they were still driving Gene Reed's red Dodge. York and Latham confessed to seven murders, two assaults, and six auto thefts. Madison County authorities went to Salt Lake City in an attempt to bring the killers back to Illinois to stand trial. “We feel that since the pair was arrested in the car taken from one of the Madison county victims that we have the best case against them,” State's Attorney Dick H. Mudge was quoted in the Granite City Press-Record. However, Kansas was given first chance to prosecute due to “witnesses, physical evidence, and evidence independent of the youths,” according to a later quote from Mudge in the Edwardsville Intelligencer. York and Latham were convicted in Kansas of shooting the Kansas man. They sat on death row with Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, another pair of murderers who were the subject of Truman Capote's book, “In Cold Blood.” After numerous appeals, the pair was finally executed by hanging in 1965.

Martin Drenovac's funeral was held on the Monday after his death. He left behind his wife Ethel, son Sam, daughter Anne, and the two grandchildren. Sam continued to run the family businesses for awhile and entered politics in later years. The family continued to live next door to the service station in the big house. Ethel passed away in 1984 and Anne in 1985. The grandchildren eventually moved away from the area. In recent years Sam stayed in the house as it deteriorated and the vegetation grew up around it. The crumbling gas station with the tall “Twin Oaks Gas for Less” sign in front has become an iconic image. The sign was damaged by a storm a few years ago and eventually disappeared. Perhaps it's safe in someone's memorabilia collection. Sam now lives in a nursing home as he approaches his 90th birthday. He hangs on to his dream of returning to the family home next to the station.

The Twin Oaks sign in the early 2000s--long after Martin Drenovac's murder but before a storm damaged the sign. Photo by Joe Sonderman.