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

(First published in Show Me Route 66, Vol. 23 No. 3, 2013
Second published in Prairie Land Buzz, January 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, 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.

Stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, Latham and York each seemed to have a large chip on his shoulder and a big nose for trouble. As a result of theft and AWOL charges, both were serving terms in the stockade when they walked away in May of 1961. The soldiers were evidently determined to make someone pay for their troubles. They later claimed that being placed in a mixed-race unit in the army was the catalyst for their hatred and violence.

At New Roads, Louisiana, on May 27, the pair attacked Edward J. Guidroz, a 43-year-old fish peddler, with a wrench, leaving him for dead. (Apparently York and Latham thought that they had killed Guidroz. When apprehended, they had eight notches carved on a revolver, indicating eight killings. Seven of their victims were actually killed, Guidroz recovered, and another one got away.) The pair took Guidroz' money and pickup truck and headed for Jacksonville, Florida, York's home town.

In Florida on May 29, they strangled two women from Valdosta, Georgia, Patricia Ann Hewitt, 25, and Althea Ottavio, 44, and helped themselves to a .38 pistol from their car and their winnings from the dog races at Jacksonville. Next, near Aiken, South Carolina, the pair shot several times at a man in a Cadillac, but he got away. York and Latham arrived in the Tullahoma, Tennessee, area on or about Wednesday, June 7. There they encountered John Whittaker, an elderly porter for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. They shot and killed the 71-year old man.

During the night or early morning on June 7 or 8, York and Latham arrived in Madison County, Illinois. At some point they abandoned Whittaker's car near Troy and laid in wait for their next victim – someone with an automobile, of course, maybe even a late-model one.

And “Gene” Reed had one – a 1961 red four-door Dodge Dart. Family members recall that Gene bought that vehicle at Hittmeier Brothers' auto dealership on old Route 66. Long-time Litchfield residents remember Reed as a good-looking man with wavy black hair and a pencil-thin mustache. He was known as a “cowboy guitarist” and played at area venues including the Log Cabin in Taylor Springs and the Moose Club in Carlinville. He also performed on local radio station WSMI and was a member of the local musicians' union. Gene's daughter Jackie Reed Street remembers that her dad “worked all week” and “played [music] every weekend.” He played guitar, accordion, and saxophone.

Gene Reed (right) spend his weekends making music and playing gigs in Litchfield area venues with other musicians. This posed portrait with an unidentified musician dates from the 1950s.
Courtesy of Jackie Reed Street. 
Gene worked in the communications department for the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad at their Venice location. He had gained experience in communications while serving three years in the navy in the South Pacific. The World War II veteran was a member of the local VFW post.

Gene and his second wife, the former Martha Jane Clark, lived with their two young children, Jean Marie and Albert Eugene Jr., in an apartment at 320 ½ East Columbia Street in Litchfield. Married in 1954, Martha was pregnant with their third child. Gene also had two children, Gerald and Jacqueline “Jackie,” by his first wife, Vivian Darrah.

Gene Reed and his first wife, Vivien Darrah Reed, were captured in this late 1940s picture at their home in Butler, Illinois. Courtesy of Jackie Reed Street.
On Thursday morning, June 8, Gene dressed for work in a striped short-sleeve shirt, green work pants, and a pair of chukka boots. As he left their apartment about 6:45 am, his wife Martha gave him her usual reminder not to pick up hitchhikers. The tank of his Dodge was low on gas, but he had a litte cash with him and there were plenty of gas stations along his route. Near Troy, Gene spotted a couple hitchhikers and stopped. Gene never arrived for his 8:00 o'clock shift at Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad.

York and Latham, driving Gene's Dodge, pulled off Bypass 66 onto some low farmland at the foot of Sunset Hill, southwest of Edwardsville. There, they pulled Gene Reed's body from his own car and left it in a creek. He had been shot through the head with a .38 caliber, near his left ear. The killers left Gene's two rings on his fingers and his watch on his wrist and left behind his empty wallet, but the .22 caliber handgun from his glove compartment was gone. The stolen Dodge with its new occupants headed west. Their next stop, a few minutes down the road, would be at Mitchell – for gas and money.

About 2:15 that afternoon, Gerald Chapman Sr., who lived in a farm house near the bottom of Sunset Hill, was on his way home from work. He told the Edwardsville Intelligencer that he had the habit of driving onto a wooden bridge to check the creek level after a rain. That day he spotted something – or someone – in the creek and feared it might be his nine-year-old son Gerald. The father leaped out of his car without taking it out of gear. The car rolled forward another 25 feet before coming to rest in a field.

The body of 36-year-old Gene Reed was discovered in a shallow creek near the intersection of Bypass 66 and Route 157 southwest of Edwardsville, near the present-day location of the Mustang Corral.
Photo by Cheryl Eichar Jett.
It was not his son in the creek – it was Gene Reed, someone else's son, brother, and father. The crime scene was on a private road just southwest of the intersection of Bypass 66 and Route 157 and state troopers and county officials soon arrived. Papers in Reed's wallet provided identification which was verified that night by his brothers. Witnesses, including neighbors and a truckdriver, spoke to law enforcement officers and described cars they had seen in the vicinity. Madison County Sheriff George Musso was quoted as saying that there “was apparently no connection between the Reed slaying and a fatal holdup and beating near the Chain of Rocks Bridge” that same morning.

Gene Reed's funeral was held at the Carroll Funeral Home in Litchfield the following Sunday. He was buried in Sunnyside Cemetery at Sorento, where he had formerly lived. Besides his wife and four children, he left his mother, Mrs. Virginia Sloan Reed, and three brothers, Bill, Roland, and Jerry, and a sister, Mrs. Glen Deffenbaugh. His fifth child was born shortly after his death.

This photo of Albert Eugene "Gene" Reed is tattered and worn from the many years that his daughter, Jackie Reed Street, has carried it with her. Jackie was just seven years old at the time of her father's death.
Courtesy of Jackie Reed Street.
In the next post, follow York and Latham's route from the Edwardsville area to Mitchell, where their fifth victim was unknowingly waiting in their path at the Twin Oaks Gas for Less Hiway 66 service station.


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