The month of August came and went in Stephenville, Texas, without mention of an event that terrified every resident of Erath County in 1974 more than 45 years ago when three Colorado prison escapees went on a murderous rampage of revenge killings and murdering witnesses from their court trials.
Terrifying might be an understatement as the trio’s escape was straight out of a Hollywood movie. The event sparked one of the biggest manhunts ever in Texas and involved more than 200 peace officers.
Two days after their escape, one of the killers would hover over his victim and tell him he was there to kill him for his trial testimony. Further adding fire to the flames of terror was how the men left people alive with instructions to tell police why they had done their crimes and that they were not finished with their revenge.
When word reached Stephenville that Dalton Williams, Jerry Ben Ulmer, and Richard Mangum had murdered Gordon resident Lena Ott things reached a fever-pitch as Erath County District Attorney Bob Glasgow was said to have been one of the names on a list dropped by the men at a murder scene in Rotan.
There may not have been an Internet in 1974, but it’s hard to imagine word could have spread much faster as the “granny-network” lit up, and party-line telephones went to blazing.
Those who had firearms were out patrolling, and many who didn’t have the “right” shooting iron made their way down to at the Western Auto Store on the courthouse square where business boomed. There were stories of pickups with 2-3 men each in them at various spots across the county. Some folks elected to set just off the road in the bushes protecting their families, and each passing hour brought some new horrifying detail of the murders committed.
The three men had fashioned “mannequin” like figures in their bunks and made their way over two walls and razor wire before stealing a car outside the prison. Later they would obtain firearms when they burglarized a home and headed into New Mexico toward their destination of Texas.
Dalton Williams had been serving a prison sentence after being convicted of assault, robbery, and conspiracy in Colorado. His conviction came about mainly based on the testimony of Rotan, Texas rancher T.L. Baker.
Jerry Ben Ulmer was out on bond, appealing a burglary conviction of the home of Gordon, Texas residents Ray and Lena Ott when he killed a man in Colorado. For unknown reasons, Ulmer believed Mrs. Ott to have been responsible for his murder conviction. Mrs. Ott did testify against Ulmer in the burglary trial, and perhaps he blamed her for his entire predicament.
Richard Mangum was a Denver resident and had no ties to Texas, but he was a talented car thief, and it was through him the trio was able to make their way to Texas so easily. Mangum was in jail for a two-year stretch and made a fatal mistake when he decided to join forces with Williams and Ulmer.
Using a series of stolen cars, the three men made their way to outside Albuquerque, NM, and kidnapped two young women raping them over and over as they made their way to the Baker ranch two days later.
On a Saturday morning before sunrise Williams and Ulmer crawled through the dew-filled grass to about 35-45 yards from the front of the Baker home. When T.L. Baker made his way out to begin his day — it was the last thing he ever did.
Williams shot Baker, and as he lay dying on his front porch the killer walked up and poked him with the barrel of a .303 rifle.
“Mr. Baker, do you recognize me?” Williams asked. “I wanted you to know why I killed you. I told you I was going to do it.”
As Baker’s dog was licking his face, Ulmer shot it, and then the two men tied up Baker’s son and stole more weapons and fled with their female hostages. They instructed Baker’s son to tell everyone in the country that “they were back.”
Later in the day, the trio decided the women “were more trouble than they were worth,” they showed their only act of humanity and put them on a bus back to New Mexico.
That night the men arrived at the Ott home in Gordon firing through the front door and severely wounding Ray Ott.
After entering the home, Ulmer found Lena Ott and shot her dead. Ulmer is rumored to have left the same message of “being back” with the wounded Mr. Ott.
By this time, law enforcement across the state had been alerted to Baker’s murder, and rumors were running wildly about the men’s “death list” that included Glasgow – some even saying Ulmer has penned the list and included Glasgow’s name in capital letters.
The District Attorney had flawlessly hacked through Ulmer’s defense at trial, and after police found the killer’s car smashed into an embankment — roadblocks went up on every road leading into Erath County.
Texas Ranger Captain GW Burks was quoted in a UPI story as saying, “They’d just as soon kill anybody that gives them any trouble whatever.”
Glasgow and his family were placed into protective custody, and deputies were dispatched to warn people who had served on the jury during Ulmer’s conviction.
Few people slept over the next 30 hours as more than 200 police officers used everything available to track the men. Helicopters buzzed through the air, and deputies took to horseback and Jeeps to look through tree and brush filled terrain.
Rumors ran a dime a dozen, and a person couldn’t buy a firearm in Stephenville at any price as gun dealers were sold out.
Over the next two days, the three escapees were involved in running-gun battles just outside of Stephenville, and it wasn’t only law enforcement officers they were exchanging bullets, which made law enforcement officer’s jobs that much harder as they had to worry about scared citizens making an error and possibly shooting each other by mistake.
The situation needed to be handled quickly before innocent lives were lost.
On August 26, west of town officers Larry Brandenburg, Jim Elmore, Freddie McDonald and Richard Trail caught up with the escapees, and began exchanging fire with the men who were “running from hedgerow to hedgerow.”
A barrage of shots followed the men, and Mangum was hit in the jaw with a high-caliber bullet that was reported to have, “blown off his face.” His two fellow criminals were shocked by the destruction of their friend’s head and threw down their weapons and raised their hands in surrender.
Williams and Ulmer were later sentenced to multiple life terms missing a date with an executioner because the death penalty had been ruled unconstitutional two years earlier.