Cold case finally closed after 80 years

Published: Oct. 3, 2017 at 1:29 PM CDT
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The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office announced Tuesday a resolution to an 80 year old cold case.

The case involves the murders of Boone County Sheriff Lawrence Smoyer and Boone County Constable William Wathen, who were shot on June 17, 1937 in a field northwest of Albion.

Mike McKnight first reported on this mystery 25 years ago and now he reports the case is closed.

Phyllis Schroeder grew up with the stories of her grandfather a Sandhills Sheriff gunned down in the line of duty. Interviewed at her Omaha home, Schroeder said, "4,000 people at his funeral and that was the days of horse and buggies because not everybody had a car."

Eighty years to the day after Wathen’s death, the identity of the suspects is now officially confirmed.

“Today brings clarity to these deaths and provides justice for these families,” the Attorney General stated. “These men died in the line of duty and we honor the memory of their service.”

The officers were investigating a suspicious vehicle and trespassing complaint in a cattle pasture reported several days in a row by a local rancher. Both officers were shot by two well-dressed men driving a stolen black 1937 Ford Coupe with Colorado license plates. Sheriff Smoyer died instantly while Constable Wathen survived 108 days before succumbing to his wound on Sunday, October 3, 1937. It was Wathen’s detailed, written account that provided many clues that led to eventually solving the case.

The suspects responsible for the homicides were Charles Orville Doody and Marion Armstrong Cooley, who are tied to the crime scene by numerous articles of evidence.

Both of these men were named in a Colorado arrest warrant for the theft of the vehicle used in the commission of this crime. Additionally, both men were career criminals at the time of the murders, each having served two terms in the Colorado State Penitentiary System for crimes including in armed robbery, auto theft, business burglary, forgery and armed assault on officers, collectively.

Their identities were discovered by investigators within three days of the crimes but it would take just over a year to collect enough evidence to issue Marion Cooley an arrest warrant for first-degree murder. By this time, Cooley was serving his third term for armed robbery in Colorado and according to the laws at the time, Nebraska had to wait until he was paroled in 1948 before they could take him into custody. A warrant for Doody was not obtained by investigators because his whereabouts were unknown.

The original investigation into these murders would have resulted in the prosecution of these suspects 80 years ago if it were not for numerous circumstances, including the interference of World War II.

When Cooley was paroled in 1948, the original investigators who would have served as witnesses were retired to places unknown, had died or been killed, or were still in the military stationed at unknown posts.

Researching criminal records in other states black found the suspects lied about their whereabouts the day of the shootout and a shoe one of them wore in a Colorado bank robbery matched an in print at the murder scene. The technology to share that information didn't exist in 1937

Phyllis Schroeder said, "For us to be able to say that's who did it,we're happy with that its settled, its closed."

“The original investigation of these crimes was outstanding,” the Attorney General said. “While world events slowed justice from immediately being carried out, today, our office as well as the Boone County and the Seward County Sheriffs' offices are grateful the facts can be revealed.”