The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Murder didn't happen in Portales then

Muncy story still fresh 50 years later.

 

August 26, 2018

Louise Shoemaker

Marge and Elbert Muncy are buried on the west side of the Portales cemetery.

Editor's note: Portales druggist Elbert Muncy was murdered 50 years ago. This is the second of a two-part story that began in last Sunday's paper.

It's been 50 years since the murder of Elbert Muncy. For Waide Davis, it seems like it was yesterday.

Davis was only 27 when he was elected to his first term as sheriff of Roosevelt County in 1964. He was 32 and within months of finishing his second term on Aug. 18, 1968, when he learned that his friend, Muncy, had been killed.

The Roosevelt County sheriff's department was a much smaller operation back then with only five people actively involved, Davis said. The payroll included the sheriff, one deputy, an office clerk, a jailer and his wife, who cooked for inmates. Another couple filled in once a week for the jailer and his wife so they could have time off.

Davis had a camera, which he used in his investigations and, he recalled, Muncy was the one who talked him through the process of buying used equipment and installing a dark room in the courthouse for processing and printing crime-scene photos.

"He told me how to set it up and develop pictures just by telling me what to do, what to buy, how to do it," Davis said. Muncy furnished Davis with long strips of exposed negatives so he could practice rolling them.

Ironically, "I processed his crime scene photos in that same dark room," Davis said.

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B and J Drug was open for business seven days a week in 1968. Muncy had worked a full 12-hour shift on Sunday, Aug. 18, and closed up the store at 7 p.m. to head home for supper.

When he received an after-hours call to fill a prescription for a child who had broken an arm earlier in the afternoon, he headed back downtown to the pharmacy.

"It wasn't him not to help," Davis said.

"I had worked the Sunday he was killed," Reta Hardin Cooper said in a phone interview last week from her home in Ruidoso. "I went in 1 (p.m.) that day. Penny (Carlton) had worked that morning, and our shifts overlapped a little."

Carlton and Cooper walked together a few doors over to Portales Drug to pick up a mid-day meal for Muncy from the lunch counter there.

"She was telling me how much she loved Muncy," Cooper said, "and how he was a father figure to her."

Late that afternoon, Cooper said, Penny and her husband Dennis came in and were talking to Muncy. "They purchased a few items that I rang up. I saw them walking that center aisle to go out the back door, but never saw them actually leave."

Davis, now 82, and many others believe that Penny Carlton slipped into a store room at that point, and stayed hidden while the store was locked for the evening.

The back doors were secured inside of the business each night with a heavy 5-foot length of doubled-up 2-by-4s that hung in steel brackets. The night of Muncy's murder, that wooden beam had been removed from the inside.

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In a town where murders were rare, those who saw and heard some of the goings-on that evening weren't immediately concerned.

Weldon Jones and Bob Bridges, the two men who were waiting at the front door to meet Muncy and get that prescription, saw Muncy inside and saw him being followed by a small woman, and even heard some popping noises that they attributed to distant fire crackers.

In the Aug. 21, 1968, Portales News-Tribune, they were interviewed.

In part, the story read: "Weldon asked, 'Was that a shot?'" Bridges said. "I said, surely not. Not here in Portales. Things like that just don't happen in Portales."

Several witnesses saw a light-colored 1960 Ford car with a trailer hitch that obscured part of the license plate behind the store, and later leaving with headlights out until it was a few blocks away.

By early morning, a vehicle matching that description had been found. It was registered to Dennis Paul Carlton, and parked outside the couple's home on Sixth Street.

Sheriff Davis and multiple members of local law enforcement had already been in B and J Drug for hours by then, processing a gruesome crime scene with a victim most of them knew, and whose only mistake had been walking in on a robbery that was under way.

Muncy died from eight bullet wounds, one to his jaw, one to his shoulder, two to his side, and four to his back.

Davis quickly determined that the weapon was a .22-caliber gun, but the whereabouts of that gun was to remain a mystery that haunted him for almost 27 more years.

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"I worked all night that night," Davis said. "The next morning, I went home, shaved, showered, and put on a suit because I had to open court that morning."

It was during that long exhausting Monday that followed when Davis first interviewed the Carltons, and he said it quickly became clear that "their stories did not add up."

With 50 years of hindsight, though, Davis says, "If they had lawyered up and refused to talk, I might never have been able to prove it. They lied themselves right into the penitentiary."

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Wheeler Mortuary funeral director Scott Reeves was a new hire at the mortuary that summer, and happened to be on call by himself the night of Muncy's murder.

"I was watching 'The Greatest Show On Earth' by Cecil B. DeMille on the television in the back of the mortuary when the call came in," Reeves recalled. "Since I was by myself, I ran across the street to Phillip George's apartment, Preston and Anita Dunn's nephew, and asked him to come with me on this call. We went to the back of the drug store and picked Muncy up and brought him back to the mortuary."

Given the circumstances, Reeves said, "Once he was dressed and placed in the casket, because the gun had not been found, we were instructed to not allow anyone to go back to view without a staff member present in order to insure that the gun was not dropped into the foot of the casket."

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Many in the community remember being spooked by this out-of-nowhere act of violence.

B and J Drug's store manager at the time, Walter Chambliss, was out of town for the weekend with no way of being reached. Lou Sikes of Portales said her mother Doris Lovelady, who was the bookkeeper at B and J Drug, was called in late that Sunday in Chambliss' absence to help determine what might be missing.

"Mother took me with her," Sikes said. "Waide Davis was not happy about that, but Mother didn't want to leave me alone."

Sikes said her mother pulled a chair from her office to the front of the store, well away from the crime scene, and told her daughter, "Sit down in that chair and don't move from that spot."

Reta Hardin Cooper, who worked in the store at that time, said her family had the same concerns.

"My dad followed me everywhere for a while," she said. "He was afraid somebody could be coming after me."

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Scot Stinnett was a 12-year-old paper boy for the Portales News-Tribune that summer. By 4 p.m. that Monday — the usual delivery time for weekday newspapers then — the news was all over town. Coincidentally Stinnett had both the Carltons and Muncys on his regular route.

"The Muncy house was my next-to-the-last delivery," Stinnett said. "I remember wondering if Mrs. Muncy was home and if she had anyone there to comfort her. I don't remember there being a lot of cars at the house or anything like that. Just real quiet. Kind of eerie, I guess."

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Walter Chambliss and his family arrived back to Portales that Monday afternoon from a family vacation near Ruidoso, and were met at the city limits by a friend and co-worker who flagged down their car to break the news.

"Walter was just stricken when he got back in the car," his wife, Frances, said. "He didn't tell us because we had the kids with us. He dropped us off and went to the store."

Their daughter, Lynn Chambliss Lindsey, was only 5, but has vivid memories from the life and death of Muncy, who affectionately called her "Little Girl."

His death "has always haunted me," she said.

"My sister and I ... both of us have always thought if we had not gone out of town that weekend, that could have been our dad," she said. "That was a hard time - a really hard time."

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By the evening of Aug. 20, 1968, the Carltons had been arrested and charged with first-degree murder, Davis said, confined to separate cells in the Roosevelt County jail, then located on the top floor of the county courthouse. Penny Carlton's cell overlooked the side of the square where B and J Drug was located.

"When we walked to the post office to get the mail," Cooper recalled, "Penny would be standing in the window of the jail waving to us."

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Muncy's funeral was held in the Starlight Chapel at the old Wheeler Mortuary on the Wednesday after he died. Reeves said 400 people could have fit into the chapel and its side rooms; and likely every space and then some had been taken.

The Rev. Homer Akers from First Presbyterian presided.

"At the funeral, they had a section for B and J employees," Lou Sikes said, "and us families must have sat with them."

n n n

What happened that night in the back of B and J Drug?

Davis is convinced that Penny Carlton hid in the storeroom, then lifted the beam to turn her husband inside after hours so the two could make off with a large quantity of cash she knew was locked inside a filing cabinet.

The loaded .22-caliber Colt Woodsman automatic pistol that had been given to Muncy as a birthday gift was kept in the pharmacy. Most of the employees - including Penny Carlton-knew it was there.

Davis surmised that when Muncy unexpectedly returned during the attempted robbery, Dennis Carlton used that gun to silence the man who knew him and his wife.

Others, like Walter Chambliss, are equally certain that Penny Carlton fired the gun that night.

No fingerprints were ever found — the perpetrators wore gloves taken from a box on the pharmacy shelf — and neither Carlton ever confessed.

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There were three trials — two in Clovis and one in Lovington — all before District Judge Dee C. Blythe.

The first ended on Jan. 17, 1969, with a hung jury, due in part, Davis said he was certain, to two jurors he observed sleeping through portions of key testimony.

The Carltons were found guilty of second-degree murder on June 6, 1969, at the conclusion of the second trial, but the jurors asked for clemency for the pair.

"Waide Davis did a hell of a job," Portales newspaper Publisher Marshall Stinnett said, "but he couldn't get a first-degree murder conviction because there was no weapon."

Blythe sentenced both Carltons to the maximum penalty of 10-50 years in the state penitentiary.

"I have heard the evidence in this case twice, and some of it three times," Blythe was quoted in newspaper accounts. "I agree with the verdict of the jury that they are guilty of the murder of Elbert Muncy.

"I also feel possibly that they should have been convicted of first-degree murder," the judge went on. "They have gotten a break already. They could be standing before the court facing the death penalty."

After a year in the state penitentiary, the Carltons and their attorney won an appeal to have that conviction overturned because "the court had erred in its instruction to the jury," according to the story in the Jan. 11, 1971, Portales News-Tribune.

The final trial, held in Lovington with most of the same witnesses and testimony, again yielded a second-degree murder conviction.

While Blythe called the murder "a horrible crime," he was quoted by the Portales News-Tribune on Jan. 17, 1971, as saying he was sure the Carltons "had never dreamed of committing it," and that "this is the sort of thing that can happen when people start stealing."

They were sentenced again to 10-50 year prison terms, and were paroled sometime in the 1970s.

On Dec. 5, 1978, then-Gov. Jerry Apodaca included the Carltons in a slew of full pardons he granted before finishing his term in office, providing "for restoration of citizenship rights," according to an Associated Press article at that time.

Stories about what happened to the Carltons after that differ greatly, depending on the source. Their location today is not known.

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In May of 1995, a few months shy of the 27th anniversary of Elbert Muncy's untimely death, that long-missing gun surfaced through a set of circumstances almost impossible to believe.

Davis considers it one of the happiest moments of his life.

College students were by then renting the house the Carltons had called home in 1968, Davis said. A visitor to the house lost his balance and fell against an interior sheetrock wall in the house, caving it in.

When the students tried to straighten it, "that old 3/8-inch sheetrock fell out," Davis said, "and a gun was hanging there."

It was a .22-caliber Colt Woodsman pistol, suspended by a leather shoelace tied to the wiring of an electrical outlet.

The story could have stopped there, except that the coeds who found the gun were overheard soon afterward talking about it ... and the person who overheard them happened to be someone who remembered the murder that had taken place long before those students had been born.

That fortuitously situated eavesdropper knew Waide Davis and gave him a call.

It took some juggling on the former sheriff's part, but when he finally laid his hands on the gun (and later determined that the serial number matched the receipt on Muncy's gun) there was nothing but relief.

"That gun meant a lot to me," Davis said. "Just to know where it was."

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Scott Reeves said Muncy's widow, Marge, finished her career as a first-grade teacher at L.L. Brown elementary school, and lived the remainder of her life in Portales, dying in 1987.

She and Muncy share a double headstone in a shady spot on the west side of the Portales cemetery; Muncy's mother's grave is a few feet to the north.

All the way back in 1798, the poet William Wordsworth wrote, "The best portion of a good man's life, his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love."

He may have been thinking of someone quite like Elbert Muncy.

Waide Davis thinks so.

"Muncy was loved by everybody," Davis said. "There's no telling how many thousand people I have talked to after the murder and in the years since, but not one person has ever said one bad word about Muncy. I don't think that is true of anyone else I know."

Betty Williamson will never forget the story of Elbert Muncy. Reach her at: [email protected]

 

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