The shootings of J.C. Dunn

After my earlier post about 1950s minor leaguer J.C. Dunn, SABR member Kevin Johnson of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, came to my aide with a valuable reference tool:  the digital archives of The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City’s major newspaper.  There’s a fee involved, but you get access to scans of stories from the paper going back to 1901, thus making it a wonderful resource to find out more about Dunn.  I’ve also made contacts in Ardmore and Ponca City in an effort to get more source information, but let me summarize what I’ve learned from The Oklahoman.

Dunn’s shooting during the Ardmore Cardinals’ game at Ponca City on August 8, 1957, was front page news in the next day’s Oklahoman:

From the unbylined story:

PONCA CITY, Aug. 8–A volley of pistol shots broke up a Sooner State League baseball game here Thursday night, and the manager of the league-leading Ardmore Cardinals fell wounded in the dugout.

J.C. Dunn, 31-year-old Oklahoma athlete, fell with two .38 caliber slugs in his back and leg as a Negro hotel porter opened fire with a pistol.

Fans first identified the pistol shots as a bundle of firecrackers until someone shouted “stop that man.”  A Ponca City police officer seized the porter.

The porter was identified by police officials here as James Johnson, 38.  He fired five times.  Only two shots found their mark and there were no other injuries.

Dunn had just scored a run for Ardmore [in the top of the second inning], when the shots rang out….

Police officer Harold Goodman, who is official scorer for the Ponca City baseball club, said the crowd of 400 in the baseball park sat motionless during the shooting.  He said there was no panic since it all happened so quickly.

Goodman said both Ardmore and Ponca City players threw themselves on the ground and “froze.”  Goodman said Johnson was sitting behind the Ardmore dugout.  In the second inning he went to the screen separating the stands from the dugout.  He began firing into the dugout, the officer declared.

The shots were fired with a five-shot Iver-Johnson revolver.  When the gun was emptied, Goodman said, Johnson turned and started to walk out a ramp when police officer George Andrews, 43, slapped a pair of handcuffs on his wrists.

Goodman said Johnson offered no resistance….

Police officers said Johnson had been in a fight with three Ardmore players at the [Jens-Marie] hotel, where the team is staying and Johnson is a porter.  They said it was their belief the fight started in fun and turned serious.

How about a police officer serving as official scorer?

A photo of a "Third Model Safety Hammerless .38 S&W" from the Iver Johnson page on Wikipedia

Dunn was immediately taken to a Ponca City hospital and underwent surgery.  A follow-up story on August 10 said Dunn “met news photographers with a smile in his hospital room here Friday” (although, alas, the Oklahoman did not use a picture) and “appeared bright and chipper after emergency treatment for two bullet wounds” in the thigh and shoulder.  According to the story, Dunn was expected to spend two to three weeks in bed, and indeed, he would be out of the Ardmore lineup for two-and-a-half weeks.

Meanwhile, Dunn’s assailant, Johnson, was taken to the Kay County jail in Newkirk and arraigned on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder.  Bond was set at $7,500.

The Aug. 10 story (again unbylined) had more detail on what was believed to have led to the shooting:

Friday, officers said the shots apparently were fired at Coy Smith, one of three Ardmore players believed involved earlier in what was described as a good-natured “rough-housing” with the porter.  Tempers flared, however, and police here said Johnson was struck on the jaw in the pre-game incident.

An undated photo of the six-story Jens-Marie Hotel in Ponca City

The Cardinals and Ponca City Cubs resumed Thursday’s suspended game Friday night, with 21-year-old Jim McKnight taking over as acting manager.  McKnight was Ardmore’s best player, with the possible exception of the 31-year-old Dunn, and was one of two Ardmore players who would go on to play in the majors.  (The other was Chris Cannizzaro.)

Johnson was bound over to district court on August 27…according to a story filed October 30, after a second postponement of Johnson’s district court arraignment, the charge against him was “assault with a dangerous weapon with intent to kill.”  He pleaded not guilty November 1.

The next mention of the case in The Oklahoman, at least that I found, came February 18, 1958, the day after Johnson testified in his trial.  Here’s the lede of the unbylined story:

NEWKIRK, Feb. 17–James Johnson, 32, former Ponca City hotel porter, Monday testified he took four tranquilizer pills shortly before going to the Ponca City baseball park the night an Ardmore Baseball player was shot last summer.

A physician who prescribed the pills for Johnson said they were to be taken three daily.  The doctor added that if the former porter took four of the pills at one time, it could possibly produce homicidal or suicidal tendencies.

The story went on to say both the prosecution and defense presented and rested their cases that day, calling a total of 19 witnesses.  Seven character witnesses took the stand on behalf of Johnson.  Dunn testified for the state, as did teammate Jim Bradley.

Bradley and Dunn told identical stories in describing an altercation that took place at their hotel early in the morning of the same days [sic] as the shooting.

They said they played cards in their hotel room until about midnight, then went out to get something to eat.  When they returned to the hotel they found the elevator unattended and the hotel manager called Johnson, instructing him to take the men to their floor.

On the way up, the witnesses said, one of the men, Coy Smith, kidded Johnson about “catnapping” on the job.  As the conversation progressed remarks became more heated and as the men left the elevator Smith made an insulting remark to Johnson.

While they were approaching their room and before they had opened the door, Bradley and Dunn said, Johnson followed them.  Smith turned around and “let him have in [sic] the mouth with his fist.”  Bradley tried to break up the fight but not before Johnson got a head hold on Smith.

Johnson complained to the hotel manager about the fight and he spoke to Dunn about it.  Police were called to the hotel but brushed it off as just a minor incident and the hotel manager gave Johnson two days off to “cool off.”

A county undersheriff testified he took ten unfired shells from Johnson’s pocket after the arrest.

The day after the testimony, a jury of seven men and five women deliberated two hours and 40 minutes before acquitting Johnson.  The Oklahoman did not mention the racial composition of the jury; it also did not include any comments from the jurors.  I’d be interested to see the Ponca City coverage to see if any of the jurors talked about their decision.  The Oklahoman story on February 19 (“Ball Manager’s Attacker Freed”) said “Johnson testified he had taken eight of the [tranquilizer] pills” on the day of the shooting, even though the previous day’s story said Johnson testified he had taken four.

J.C. Dunn was born in 1926 and raised in Spiro, a small town in east-central Oklahoma about 15 miles from Fort Smith, Arkansas.  He served in World War II, then in the fall of 1946 he enrolled at Southeastern State College in Durant (now Southeastern Oklahoma State University).  He earned all-conference football honors as an end for the oddly-named Savages in his sophomore and junior seasons, 1947 and ’48; his wife Betty was named homecoming queen in 1947.  Dunn left school to start his pro baseball career in 1949, as detailed in my earlier post.  At some point the Dunns settled in Ardmore; about 1955 he began working in the school system there, then in 1956 he took over as manager of the local minor league team.  He spent time as coach of the high school baseball and basketball teams, taught shop at the high school and was involved in the city’s American Legion baseball program.

Dunn was back on the front page of The Oklahoman on October 25, 1973, in a story by Jeff Holladay:

Police Probing Coach’s Death

ARDMORE–An Ardmore high school teacher and coach was found shot to death at his residence Wednesday and authorities say they believe the death was a homicide and not a suicide as they had originally thought.

The body of J.C. Dunn, 40 [sic], one of the state’s best known minor league baseball players and a coach, was found by his wife, Betty, when she returned home.

Police Detective Capt. Ed West said Dunn has been shot in the neck with a shotgun.  His body was found in the bathroom but authorities were unable to explain why no spent shotgun shells were found there.  Three empty shells were found in the den of the Dunn home, about 40 feet from the bathroom, authorities said.

The shooting happened on a Wednesday, during a time when Dunn would normally be in school.  (That’s where his wife was; she also taught at the high school.)  J.C. Dunn had gone to school that morning but went home after his first-period class, saying he wasn’t feeling well.

The day after the shooting, the district attorney said Dunn was killed in “an ‘execution-type’ slaying set up to look like suicide,” according to The Oklahoman.  Dunn had been found with a shotgun in his right hand that had been “wiped clean of all fingerprints except those of the deceased.”  His wallet was missing and his money clip was empty.  Investigators said he was killed by a single blast from a .12 gauge shotgun that hit him behind and below the right ear.

Police questioned and cleared a 68-year-old rancher, Dewey Lindsay, “whom Dunn had befriended and who authorities said had spent two nights this week in the Dunn home,” according to the October 26 story.  “Police Chief Frank Lindsay, no relation, said Dunn had befriended the elderly rancher because he had been despondent over the recent death of his wife.  The two often played checkers and dominoes, he said.”  The October 26 story also said investigators had determined the empty shotgun shells found in the den “had no connection to the case.”

On October 31 The Oklahoman reported a $5,000 reward was being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Dunn’s killer.  That story also added this tantalizing tidbit:

Officers investigating the death had found shreds of several checks signed by the rancher [Dewey Lindsay], one of them in the amount of $685 and made payable to Dunn.  Several others were filled out and signed by the rancher but the name of the payee was left blank.

The only other reference to the murder I found in The Oklahoman was a story published December 9, 1973, by James Johnson (in a bizarre coincidence, the same name as the man who shot Dunn in 1957):  “Ardmore Teacher Slaying Probe Stumps Investigators.”  Johnson wrote investigators had recovered eight .34-inch buckshot pellets:  five in Dunn’s neck, three more in the bathroom wall.  The shotgun Dunn was found holding belonged to his son, but Johnson doesn’t say which son; Dunn had two.  And Johnson reported the gun “had been used since its last cleaning” and hadn’t been ruled out as the murder weapon.  Earlier reports had said that gun had not been fired.

The new revelations in the story, among other things, told us why Dunn wasn’t feeling well the morning he was killed:  he’d had maybe an hour of sleep.

Attempts to retrace Dunn’s steps over the last hours before his death showed that the former coach and one-time promising minor league baseball player had been gambling.

“He did quite a bit of gambling,” said Dist. Atty. James Clark.  “He gambled all night long the night before he was killed.”

West says Dunn generally played gin rummy with townspeople either at the country club or at the Sports Club in Ardmore.

“His wife didn’t like him to play at home,” Clark said.

Investigators couldn’t find that Dunn owed any gambling debts, however.

“He won a lot and he lost a lot,” said [Ardmore police Capt. Ed] West.  “But he hardly ever owed anyone.”

West said investigators had been told that one gambling partner once paid off a $6,500 debt to Dunn and that on another occasion Dunn was owed $10,000.  But no one was telling police they owed him any gambling money now….

West said the investigation showed that Dunn was in the Sports Club playing cards with Milo rancher Dewey Lindsay the night of Monday, Oct. 22.

He said the two again played cards there the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 23.  Then after a break for dinner they met at Dunn’s house about 7 p.m. for an all-night card game.

The game terminated about 6:30 a.m. Wednesday when Dunn turned in and bedded down Lindsay in a spare bedroom.

Not long afterward, Dunn awakened and drove to school with his wife, Betty, who also was a teacher there.

When Dunn went back home after teaching his first class, he woke up Lindsay, who left the Dunn home about 9:30.  An hour after that, Dunn called the school to ask his sub to ask if someone at school had been trying to call him, saying the phone at the house had rung but “whoever was calling hung up.”

When he left school Dunn had said he would probably return at 1:30 p.m.  Investigators found his alarm clock set for 12.

“I believe he had gotten dressed and was combing his hair and was intending to go to work when the killer came in and caught him in the bathroom,” West said.

“He wasn’t a belligerent man but you couldn’t bluff him.  He was the kind of man that if you said you were going to kill him, you’d better do it.”

By the time of this article police had checked and cleared a dozen suspects.  More than 36 years later, the case remains unsolved.

I’ll add to this post as I learn more.  If you have access to any source material, by all means let me know.

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10 thoughts on “The shootings of J.C. Dunn

  1. Pingback: The night a minor league game was suspended when the manager was shot « The J.G. Preston Experience

  2. Dwain Fuller

    Thanks for the story. I was raised in Ardmore and my Mom still lives there. I was in 7th grade when Mr. Dunn was shot and was attending Junior High across the street from the shop building where Mr. Dunn taught. In fact I had a shop class in the same building with Mr. Dunn, but I did not know him personally. I remember what a mystery it was and the rumors surrounding it. As a kid my friends and I would often walk past the house where Mr. Dunn was murdered on the way to a local park that the house backed up to. It was kind of creepy. Mr. Dunn was the first of two teachers that were murdered in Ardmore. Neither crime has been solved and they don’t appear to be related.

    Reply
  3. J.C. Dunn

    This is the story of my grandfather which i am his namesake. I found this a very interesting read, i’ve had a lot of questions throughout the years with unfortunately no answers. I never got to meet him, but through my wonderful grandmother Betty i learned that my grandfather was a very liked and honored man. This has brought some closure, but i would like to know more and as much as i can about this subject. Thank you for the story.

    Reply
  4. jethro

    commentary above stated that J.C. went home and played poker all night. I was told by a person that he saw J.C. playing cards with the regular crew at the pizza place that he worked out after hours. I was told this again approximately 15 years later by another person in Ardmore.

    Reply
  5. Dean

    I should have also noted in my earlier comment that Harold Goodman, the police officer/official scorer mentioned in the original post, was not exactly an ordinary beat cop. He was well known in the community and was particularly active in the schools and as a sponsor of local youth groups. I knew him as a young man in Ponca City, though after the events described here. He apparently became official scorer during the tenure of a previous minor league team, the Ponca City Dodgers. He first got the job because he was the brother-in-law of the Dodger manager, Boyd Bartley. Perhaps instead of musing about a police officer serving as official scorer, we should be wondering about the manager’s brother-in-law serving as official scorer.

    Reply
  6. G Lloyd Smith

    Thanks for this story! I just happened upon it while browsing thru the Alabama-Florida League rosters. I recognized J.C. Dunn’s name and I saw him play many times in Dothan, Al. I thought he played first base, but not sure. Interesting story!

    Reply
  7. Pete Pierce

    I stumbled across this researching another book. I’ve written books on the Sooner State League (Baseball in the Cross Timbers-2009) and about pro ball in Ardmore 1947-1961 (Indians, Cardinals and Rosebuds-2011) both available on Amazon. The Dunn story is covered but not in the detail you have done. I teach the History of Baseball at the University of Oklahoma.

    I have a website http://www.soonerstateleague.com that needs updating. Former D.A. Jim Clark and defense attorney Burke Mordy are both friends and I’ve discussed the Dunn murder with them as well as with former students in his shop class and members of the high school baseball team. You’ve done a good piece of research. I’ve gotten views from “it’s a tragedy” to “good riddance.”

    Reply
  8. Ashley

    Very interesting! JC was my father’s half brother. I’ve heard stories through the years but never knew there was additional information to be found online. Thanks for your research! My Dad remembers going to see JC play as a small child. I believe he has a picture at a game.

    Reply

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