Girl Held, Mate Hunted in Hitchhike Slaying

Diana Jean Heaney

“Girl Held, Mate Hunted in Hitchhike Slaying”

The very first article in the Los Angeles Times about the famous murder of Elizabeth Short, the “Black Dahlia,” was printed on January 16, 1947, the day after she was found. It was written before they’d nicknamed her, before they’d even identified the body — she was just “girl victim of sex fiend.” (Girl Victim, p2) It is fascinating and gruesome and sad. It talks of the detective’s plans to examine the history of every known sex offender in the area, of tire tracks that might offer clues, and of a bundle of women’s clothes found nearby that, the article explains, turned out to have nothing to do with the case. Reading it is like knowing the future, knowing the answers to questions and also knowing we still don’t have answers to some of the questions.
This sort of article, this piece of history written while it was happening, is why I love searching through old newspapers. With my library card, I can access ProQuest and comb through archives of the LA Times, New York Times, and all sorts of other publications, going back to the 1800s. It can be incredibly interesting; I constantly find wonderful things, and sometimes grotesque things. And so it was that I looked up that first Black Dahlia article.
Towards the end of the article, I read this: “…the body definitely was not that of Diana Jean Heaney [it gives her home address because they did that back then], reported missing Oct. 19 and earlier yesterday afternoon believed to have been the victim.” I wondered what might have happened to this Diana Jean Heaney, so I searched around the papers a bit, and the first hit I had was this headline: GIRL HELD, MATE HUNTED IN HITCHHIKE SLAYING. (Girl Held, p22)

Well.
I dove in. I got access to more old archives and searched and searched and read and read. And as I read, my heart started to pound and my stomach started to hurt. I’m so angry and sad about this. I want to tell you this girl’s story.

In October 1946, two months after Diana Jean Heaney’s 15th birthday, she met 26-year-old Evald Johnson. Evald was in the Air Force; he had flown during the war. According to Evald in his May 12, 1949 testimony, they became a couple the day they met. (The age of consent in California was 18 (Palmer). If that came up in court, the newspapers didn’t mention it.) Evald says she was always running around with other men, and this worried him so much that he repeatedly went AWOL to check up on her, to make sure she wasn’t sexing it up (he didn’t use those exact words). Because that’s a reasonable way for a 26-year-old with a 15-year-old girlfriend to behave. He mentions in his testimony that at one point there was “trouble” with a guy she showed up to a bar with, and that they ended up at the police station. I could swear I found a tiny piece in the newspaper about that, but I cannot find it anywhere now. Anyway, what we know for sure is that he was a big jealous jerk.

In February 1947 he was discharged from the Army (due in large part to his constantly going AWOL, though apparently it was an honorable discharge) and they left California to hitchhike around the country. They got married in Utah (where it was legal) on February 12, 1947. She was still 15; he turned 27 the day after the wedding. This is disgusting, in case you didn’t realize. You probably did though.
It’s not very clear how they spent the next couple of years; they traveled around a lot, visited his family in Michigan (but they didn’t like Diana) and her family in Southern California (but they didn’t like Evald), and he claimed to have worked a truly remarkable number of different jobs in so short a time (I really hate this guy, okay? I’m not going to pretend to be all objective).

On June 22, they were in New Mexico, hitchhiking, and got picked up by W.A. “Tex” Thornton. Tex was a big rich oil man. He was the absolute epitome of the big rich oil man from Texas, from what I’ve read. Large and jovial and boisterous and famous for using explosives to… do something with the oil, I don’t know. John Goodman would play him in a movie. I didn’t find any information on whether he had steer horns on the hood of his car, but it seems likely. Tex drove Evald and Diana from Tucumcari, New Mexico, to Amarillo, Texas. According to later court testimony, this took them about six hours. According to my Google Maps, the drive takes about three hours even if you avoid highways — but maybe things just took longer back then. They stopped at a bar and, according to the bartender’s testimony, became quite drunk. Then they drove to a motel, the Park Plaza Tourist Court, and the three of them got a cabin (two bedrooms and a shared bathroom) together.

Now, this is just me — not from the newspapers. Because most of the newspapers failed to even suggest what was obviously going on. Nowadays, we know EXACTLY what it means when a 29-year-old and his child bride check into a motel room with a stranger. The possibility that Tex WASN’T paying to have sex with Diana is slim to none. Like, seriously, come on. Diana’s mother later testified that Evald had pimped her daughter out regularly, and that he defended it saying it was done in the Bible, but it didn’t seem to be treated seriously at all by the press.
None of the newspapers present Diana as anything other than a slut who chose to have sex with a strange (old) man while her husband was passed out in the next room. They all unfailingly point out how pretty and blonde she was, but not one defends her honor.

But I haven’t gotten to that part yet.

So back to the definite facts: They checked into Cabin 18 at around 8 p.m. According to the testimony of the motel employees, Diana and Evald left less than two hours later, and took Tex’s car. The next morning, June 23, 1949, the maid went into the room and found Tex Thornton’s dead body face down on the bed, his head bashed in and a t-shirt tied tightly around his neck.
There was of course a multi-state search for the hitchhikers. The car was discovered, abandoned, a couple days later in Dodge City, Kansas, but Diana and Evald were nowhere to be found. The next six months are a mystery. Evald later claimed they didn’t realize Thornton had died of the injuries until they read it in the newspaper a few days later. What a dick. Anyway, it sounds like they split up sometime in December, maybe in Florida.
But here’s what we know: In January 1950, Diana was in Washington, D.C. She walked up to a police officer and told him that she’d watched her husband kill a man in Texas. And then the cops checked her into a mental hospital for two weeks. Because of course they did.
But she didn’t give up; on February 8 she found another police officer and told him the same thing. This officer bothered to call Amarillo and learn that her story checked out — back then there was no real reason cops in D.C. would know anything about a murder in Texas — and arrested her.
The next day, the LA Times printed that “Girl Held, Mate Hunted in Hitchhike Slaying” headline.

Diana told the police her story, that her husband had beat Tex Thornton’s head in with the butt of his own gun (the newspapers kept using the word “slug,” saying that Evald had “slugged” the man repeatedly. It struck me as a sort of silly, old-timey word to describe something so gruesome. But then I remembered that this was 70 years ago, and it probably wasn’t an old-timey word yet).  She told them that Evald could probably be found at his family’s place in Michigan, and then she tried to jump out the window of the police station. She was on the fifth floor, so the fall would have killed her, but there were a lot of police officers around and they grabbed her and pulled her back. As far as I know, that was her only suicide attempt. But how would I know.

Texas police quickly went up to Michigan and grabbed Evald. He denied everything at first, but eventually admitted he’d killed Thornton. Diana and Evald were taken to Amarillo to be charged with murder, fleeing the scene, and car theft.
The trial started in May, in Amarillo. Murder charges against Diana were quickly dropped; she was still charged with fleeing the scene of a crime and taking a stolen car across state lines, but no one thought she’d had anything to do with the killing.

Evald’s trial began May 8th. They spent a couple days selecting a jury, and opening statements were made May 11th. The trial ended May 17th.
Evald did not deny beating Thornton to death. His main defense was based on article 1220 of the Texas Penal Code: If a man catches his wife and another man in bed together, it is justifiable homicide if he kills the man. (Ravkind) (This law was sometimes referred to as “the unwritten law” [it was an actual statute in Texas, but an unwritten law most other places, apparently] and sometimes as the “paramour statute,” which is awesome. The statute was repealed in 1974. While reading up on it, I found an article by Molly Ivins from 1971, titled “Women’s Lib in Texas,” (Ivins, p23) in which she talks about some feminists in Texas who wanted the law to be changed so that it would also be ok for a woman to kill her husband’s mistress.)
Evald told the story of the incident like this: The three of them checked into this two-room motel cabin, then Evald passed out in one of the rooms. When he woke, he saw his naked wife standing in the other room, near the bed on which Tex was lying, also naked. Filled with rage at the shocking notion that they’d had sex, Evald rushed into the room and then, he says, everything went black and next thing he knew the guy was beaten to a bloody pulp in front of him.
There was more to his defense — he claimed Tex threatened him, and he said he often got fuzzy and confused since the war (they didn’t have the term PTSD then, but it was understood that men could come back from the war with emotional and mental problems due to trauma).

But the crux of his story was that Diana had cheated on him, so naturally he was compelled to kill the man.

The prosecution argued that the motive was theft; the couple took the car and a great deal of cash from Tex’s wallet. It’s hard to say whether they suggested that Tex had paid Evald in order to have sex with Diana. Diana’s mother did testify that Evald had talked openly about pimping Diana out, but the papers barely mention it, much less speculate on whether that was happening the night of the killing. Instead, they report on Evald’s 72 air missions over Africa and Europe; his war medals; his firm, clear voice and straight posture; and, most of all, how betrayed and sad he felt that his beloved wife cheated on him. They report in full on the life story he told in court, but mostly concentrate on his heroism during the war. The papers mention when they got married — but most leave out the fact that she was 15 and he was 27 at the time of the wedding.

Diana was not called to testify. She was still married to Evald, so the prosecution couldn’t make her testify against him, and the defense did not want her to testify, as her story was so different than his. (She claimed she hadn’t had sex with Thornton at all, which also seems unlikely to me, but it’s hard to imagine an 18-year-old girl admitting she’d had sex with a man for money at the suggestion of her husband, especially when she was never asked about it while under oath. Or maybe she didn’t sleep with him. I don’t know.) She never got to tell her side of the story in court, never got to defend herself.

It took just over three hours for the jury to decide that it was justifiable homicide. At the time, women could not legally serve on juries in Texas. I wonder if the verdict would have been different if some of the jurors had been women? Maybe not; it would still have been 1950. But women might have recognized the unlikelihood that Diana would have chosen to have sex with the elderly oil man just for the fun of it.

By the time of the verdict, the papers seemed to love Evald. The top headline on the front page of the Amarillo Daily News on May 17th, 1950 read: “EVALD FREE IN MURDER CASE.” (Evald Free, p1) Below that is the photo captioned “Congratulations in Order for Johnson” showing a smiling Evald shaking hands with his lawyer. The Washington Post headline, also on the front page of their May 17th issue,  was, “Hero Betrayed By Wife Here Freed In Killing.” (Hero, p1) Puke. On May 14, the Daily News ran a photo of Evald with the caption “Tells Story of Slaying,” and a photo of Diana with the caption “She Caused Husband’s Arrest.” (Killer Pleads, p4

There were still the other charges. Evald and Diana were both charged with stealing a car and taking it across state lines, and fleeing to escape prosecution. Evald ended up getting sentenced to four years in jail; Diana got probation.
Newspapers reported her saying that she planned to divorce Johnson and go home to her parents. I can’t imagine what it was like for her to face anyone at all, after people all over the country had read the story of her husband finding her naked in bed with another man.

I don’t know what Diana Jean Heaney was like as a person. She may have been unpleasant or mean, for all I know.
But here’s what I do know for sure: She was a child, thrust into adult situations by a grown man, and then had her name dragged through the mud by the same man.
At 18 she was divorced and on probation, she’d seen her ex-husband beat a man to death and then watched him get away with it by calling her a slut, and seen countless newspapers repeat his accusations. She’d been institutionalized and attempted suicide and spent months in jail, all before she was 19 years old.

Thousands of people read the lies Evald told about his wife. Thousands of people believed him, thought she was a cruel adulteress who had sex with a stranger the day they met, while her trusting husband slept nearby. I told you her story because every person who reads this, that’s one more person who knows better. Knows that Diana Jean Heaney was a child, the victim of a horrible man, the victim of many people. I don’t know if she was a good person or a nice person, but I do know that not a single thing that happened was her fault. I want you to know it too.

Diana Jean Heaney

I wasn’t able to find any more about Diana in any newspapers (I found a bit more elsewhere but  nothing exciting and nothing to do with this story, and I want to respect her family’s privacy).
But here is this:  On Find-a-grave.com, her grave is listed. She died in Arizona, with a new last name, at the age of 39. There is one comment on the page; in 2013 a woman posted, “Miss you Momma!” So we know that she moved on and remarried, and we know she had a daughter, who misses her.

 

 

References

“Evald Free in Murder Case.” Amarillo Daily News, 17 May 1950, p. 1, www.newspapers.com.

“Evald, Diana May Leave Jail Today.” Amarillo Daily News, 19 May 1950, p. 1, www.newspapers.com.

“Girl Held, Mate Hunted in Hitchhike Slaying.” Los Angeles Times, 9 Feb. 1950, p. 22. ProQuest.

“Girl Victim of Sex Fiend Found Slain.” Los Angeles Times, 16 Jan. 1947, p. 2. ProQuest.

“Hero Betrayed By Wife Here Freed in Killing.” Washington Post, 17 May 1950, p. 1. ProQuest.

Ivins, Molly. “Women’s Lib in Texas.” Boston Evening Globe, 25 Oct. 1971, p. 23, www.newspapers.com.

“Killer Pleads Unwritten Law.” Daily News [New York], 14 May 1950, p. 4. , www.newspapers.com.

Man Named by Wife Held in Killing of Texas Oilman.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester, NY], 10 Feb. 1950, p 4

“Oil Trouble Shooter Slain in Motel.” Brownsville Herald, 23 June 1949, p. 1, www.newspapers.com.

Spayde, Norton, and Lewis Nordyke. “Review Thornton’s Last Day.” Amarillo Daily News, 12 May 1950, pp. 1–18.

Spayde, Norton. “Evald Tells Life Story.” Amarillo Daily News, 13 May 1950, pp. 1–15, www.newspapers.com.

Swain, Paul. “Prosecutor Rattles Defendant’s Version of Amarillo Slaying.” Daily Oklahoman, 14 May 1950, pp. 1–2, www.newspapers.com.

Swain, Paul. “Wife of Slaying Suspect Freed in Texas Court.” Daily Oklahoman, 13 May 1950, pp. 1–2, www.newspapers.com.

“Thornton Murder Case May Reach Jury Today.” Amarillo Daily News, 15 May 1950, p. 1, www.newspapers.com.

Photos:

Top photo, Diana Jean Heaney, head in hand: Associated Press. “Girl Held, Mate Hunted in Hitchhike Slaying.” Los Angeles Times, 9 Feb. 1950.

Diana and Evald: Associated Press. “Killer Pleads Unwritten Law.” Daily News [New York, NY], 14 May 1950, p. 4.

Evald with lawyer: Associated Press. “Evald Free in Murder Case.” Amarillo Daily News, 17 May 1950, p. 1

Diana with hands cupping face: Associated Press. “Man Named by Wife Held in Killing of Texas Oilman.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester, NY], 10 Feb. 1950, p 4

Author: Sarah McKinley Oakes

Sarah McKinley Oakes is an L.A.-area writer, nanny, and library clerk. Her other blog is RemainsofLA.com, where she writes up old restaurants but barely mentions the food.

3 thoughts on “Girl Held, Mate Hunted in Hitchhike Slaying

  1. Captivating piece. I love your humor and diligence and admire your devotion to women, dedication to truth, and commitment to justice.

    Thank you

  2. Great story. I also found this story in a recent book entitled “Murder Most Texan” by Bartee Haile 2013. “Tex” Thorton used explosives to put out oil well fires. He also played with explosives as part of a rain making side-line.

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