The Oberst Family Murders

Owen Oberst and siblings, courtesy Constitution Tribune

Owen Oberst and siblings, courtesy Constitution Tribune

The Oberst Family Murders happened in 1928, Kansas. Introducing us to the case is guest blogger Sue Baillie.

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Researching my family history took me to Tremont Township, Illinois, 1860 where my Greta-Great-Great uncle Jesse Chainey settled with his family after travelling from Kent, UK.

As this branch of my family was now overseas I hadn’t devoted much time on researching further although I did trace the marriage on 11 February 1878 of Jesse’s daughter Mary Ann to Lewis Roberts. Their daughter Elsie May married William Oberst, a farmer from Illinois.

Whilst searching for the deaths of Elsie and William Oberst I discovered that they, and 5 of their 6 children aged between 6 and 16 years, all died on the same day – 20 April 1928.  What I discovered was a chilling and barely credible set of events which resonated across Kansas and beyond and continues to be reported upon more than 86 years later.

The shocking truth was that 17 year-old Owen Oberst, the only surviving child, reportedly shot his parents with a .22 calibre rifle and bludgeoned his five siblings; then piled their bodies on top of each other in the family’s kitchen, and set fire to the farmhouse in trying to cover up the crime.

Owen Oberst - Courtesy of the Butler County Times-Gazette

Owen Oberst – Courtesy of the Butler County Times-Gazette

The facts of this extraordinary case are as follows:

A coroner’s jury was empaneled on 21 April 1928.  Owen Oberst was interviewed by Sheriff McKnight, Under-sheriff Eldon Jarnagin and County Attorney Stanley Taylor on 23 April 1928.

On 4 May 1928, Owen confessed to murdering his parents and 5 siblings and on 16 May 1928 he pleaded guilty to murder at the court of Judge George J Benson. Owen was admitted to the state penitentiary in Lansing, having been convicted of Murder 1 and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour.

On or about 11 June 1928, Owen told the record clerk that he was not guilty and a statement to this effect was taken down by O. C. Payne, secretary of the Warden and signed by Owen.

However, on 12 January 1929 the Kansas Supreme Court set aside the youth’s plea of guilty and life sentence in the state prison at Lancing and remanded him to the Butler County District Court for trial.

With three justices dissenting, the high tribunal, in an opinion written by Justice John S. Dawson, upheld the contention of defence counsel that Judge George J. Benson of the Second Division District Court for the thirteenth district in Butler County, was guilty of

  • an “abuse of discretion” in failing to appoint counsel for the pleading youth;
  • in appointing a commission “in lieu of counsel” to determine if officers used undue coercion in obtaining his confession, and
  • that error was committed in “denial of defendant to consult with counsel”.

The majority of the Supreme Court described appointment of the commission by Judge Benson following Oberst’s confession as

  • “grossly erroneous and unauthorized by law”
  • characterised former Sheriff E. E. McKnight’s refusal to allow access to private consultation with Oberst as “peculiarly reprehensible,” and said
  • the attitude of County Attorney Stanley Taylor towards the sheriff’s actions was “not commendable”
.22 calibre rifle used to murder the family (found in ruins of farmhouse) – Courtesy Butler County Historical Society

.22 calibre rifle used to murder the family (found in ruins of farmhouse) – Courtesy Butler County Historical Society

The first trial opened on 2 December 1929 after a preliminary hearing on 4 June 1929 (Owen waived formal arraignment and was bound over). Judge Allison T. Ayres presided and the charge against Owen was specifically on the murder of his father William Frederick Oberst.

Immediately the defence attempted to prevent the jurors summoned for the hearing to serve by filing a challenge, charging they were improperly drawn for service (e.g. jury duty/AdS).

Judge Ayres ordered the trial of the Oberst case to proceed with the jurors who had been summoned to attempt to qualify to hear the evidence. The ruling of the court was a blow to the defence, which had attempted to point out that the jurors had not been drawn in the proper manner.

Judge Ayres said in part: “I find that the drawing at the county clerk’s office was perfectly legal. The jurors supplied by the towns of El Dorado and Augusta and El Dorado Township may have not been certified in exactly the proper manner. There is no evidence however to preclude the presumption that the Mayor of El Dorado did not help select the jurors from this town.

I am in doubt as to the validity of the jury box list, but this case is ready for trial and the court finds it necessary to secure a jury.” [This case had set a precedence in the legal profession and has been cited in many other later and similar cases].

When the excitement to this had quieted down, Attorney Lewis C. Gabbert announced that he would file a plea in abatement.

On 13 December 1929, the jury was hung and voted 10 to 2 for acquittal. Owen was freed.

On 17 March 1930, a second trial began. It lasted five days and the jury voted 8 to 4 to free Owen, who was bailed on a $10,000 bond.

On 3 December 1930, a third trial was convened and again the jury failed to agree; voting 7 to 5 for acquittal. So, again, Owen was freed.

On October 1931, the case was dismissed as “it was impossible to obtain a fair and impartial jury to listen to evidence at a fourth trial in this County” and the case was asked to be cleared from the docket.

This case has had more twists and turns than a snake could ever perform but without access to the original case documents (which are now archived in the salt mines) I will not know for sure whether Owen committed these murders or if somebody else did it. Either way, the perpetrator literally “got away with murder”.

Something went seriously wrong and it is hard to believe that most of the legal professionals in this case went on to have brilliant careers and accolades.

The saddest thing for me is that those innocent little children, who were brutally murdered, have been forgotten and never received justice. I really hope that I can finally shed fresh light on this, if only for the sake of their memories.

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Sue Baillie

Sue Baillie

This post was written by Sue Baillie from New Forest, Hampshire, England, UK

I began researching family histories in 1998 – and today, my enthusiasm for finding people, places, and stories is just as passionate. Whether it’s discovering an entire tree, a bough, a small branch, a little twig, or an emerging leaf bud; each and every fact or record uncovered gives me a sense of empathy with that person and their family.

My own family tree has revealed so much about how my ancestors lived and worked. It has uncovered the good; the bad; and the ugly – which inevitably includes the occasional ‘skeleton in the cupboard’!

Life events should be recorded for future generations, because without knowing where we came from, how can we better see where we go in life?