On the Run – The Story of Billy Blake Johnson

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Harold Davis joined the Oceanside Police Department in 1930. His law enforcement career spanned over two decades. Davis was acting Police Chief six times before retiring in 1955 as Captain. 

Officer Harold Davis in 1937.

Davis was a collector of all types of memorabilia. Some of his most important and valuable items were three scrapbooks that he compiled of photos and articles of incidents, accidents and arrests during his time with the Oceanside Police Department. He chronicled his career, as well as those of his fellow officers. The newspaper articles he clipped and pasted in his books ranged from petty theft to murder. The numerous photos Davis saved were mostly traffic accidents, but also included graphic crime scenes.

In one of the scrapbooks, Davis cut and pasted a mugshot of Billy Blake Johnson along with a newspaper article and a typewritten index card with some details about Johnson’s criminal exploits. Just who was Billy Blake Johnson and why did Captain Davis include him in his collection? I wanted to find out…

Mugshot of Billy Blake Johnson, 1952

Billy Blake Johnson was born December 3, 1933 in Ladonia, Texas. He was the son of Emmett and Edna Jewel Johnson. Emmett and Edna divorced when Billy was a young boy. By 1940 his father remarried and the family moved to Kern County, California where Emmett worked as a truck driver.

Nothing further is known about Billy’s growing up years, but in 1951 he joined the Marine Corps and was stationed at Camp Pendleton. His military career would be short-lived. In January of 1952, PFC Billy Blake Johnson was being held in the Camp Pendleton Brig for robbery.

On January 18, 1952 Johnson was able to open his cell door with the aid of a screwdriver he had somehow acquired. He then overtook a guard along with his firearm. Now armed with a weapon Johnson commandeered a car belonging to Captain George Atkin and made his way off the military base, headed to Los Angeles.

An “All Points Bulletin” was released and eventually two LAPD officers, L. K. Waggoner and G. L. Ward spotted the stolen vehicle occupied by Johnson. The Los Angeles Mirror reported that when ordered out of the car Johnson came out shooting, and shouted “This is it!” Officers returned fire but Johnson was able to escape injury and he jumped several fences before he was eventually taken into custody.

After his capture in Los Angeles, Johnson was returned to the brig at Camp Pendleton. He was sentenced to five years for burglary and theft, among other charges. He sat in his cell for several months likely contemplating his next move, when on a Saturday in late June of 1952 he escaped once again.

This time he had an accomplice, Bobby G. Davis, who had enlisted in the Marine Corps a year prior. The two made their getaway at 3:30 am in a green 1952 Chevrolet convertible with Texas plates. It was reported that the two were “armed and known to be dangerous.” No details were given as to how they had managed to escape the military brig, but they were apprehended a week later in Ehrenberg, Arizona.

After yet a third escape, and subsequent capture, Billy Blake Johnson eventually served his time and was paroled. But his years in lock up did nothing to rehabilitate him.

In January 1962 Johnson went to a service station in Haltom City, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth. He bought $3.43 worth of gas and then pulled a gun on the attendant and said, “Act right or I’ll kill you.” Johnson then took $100 from the cash register and forced Hilleary Beck into the car with him. Beck tried to fight off Johnson in the vehicle but was further threatened with the firearm.

After driving about a mile, Johnson ordered Beck out of the car and into a ditch and told him to lie down. Johnson drove away while Beck went to call authorities.

Law enforcement spotted Johnson and pursued him, with both parties firing wildly. Police set up a barricade on Highway 377 and while Johnson approached Denton, Texas Patrolman A. C. Ballard “leveled down on it with a sawed-off shotgun and blew off one of its tires.”

The car went out of control, rolled over and landed upright in a ditch. Johnson somehow managed to escape serious injury and the scene, which resulted in a large manhunt. He was eventually captured on a ranch in Denton County, Texas. While in custody Billy told the arresting officers that he had “escaped three times from military prisons and had served time in four civilian prisons.”

He was treated at a hospital for minor injuries and taken to jail in Tarrant County. Johnson went to trial for his criminal escapades but was found to be insane by a jury. (There was no explanation provided as to their conclusion.)

Billy’s criminal career did not end there. In 1964 Johnson went to the Bonham, Texas jail for the sole purpose of breaking out inmate Walter Ray Crews. The federal parolee was armed with a gun and overtook a guard. He forced the jailer Ed Fulcher to release Crews and the two men fled.

The pair made their way some 35 miles southeast to Commerce, Texas where they stole a car. They then drove over 300 miles to Fort Polk, Louisiana. While stopped on the side of the road, a state trooper pulled over to check on the two. Johnson robbed the trooper, Jerry E. Raines, at gunpoint and handcuffed him to a tree with his own handcuffs. Crews and Johnson returned to their stolen car and sped off headed north. The trooper was able to free himself with a spare key and alerted authorities. The duo was caught by an armed roadblock near Leesville, Louisiana.

Johnson was sentenced fifteen years and sent to the notorious Angola Prison in Louisiana, sometimes referred to as the “Alcatraz of the South”. The prison is bordered on three sides by swamp land and the Mississippi River. Conditions were so harsh and inmates so violent that that it had the reputation as “the bloodiest prison in the South”.

However, even a formidable institution such as Angola could not contain Billy Blake Johnson.  

On February 22, 1969, Johnson and two other inmates armed with knives and a pistol, overpowered guards in two separate dormitories. The guards were locked in a closet while the escapees cut the power of the main prison.

Kester Lee Hall, serving 189 years for murder, was captured just outside the prison. But Johnson, along with Philip Hudgins, had managed to avoid capture … but they did not make it far. Authorities closed in on the two fugitives who were found in the swamp that surrounded the prison.

Swamp around Angola Prison. Photo by Giles Clarke

Billy Blake Johnson, however, had made his last escape. Overtaken by the waters of the “backed up” Mississippi, Johnson could not battle his way through the swamp. Hudgins tried to assist him and even carried Johnson for several hundred yards until he realized Billy was no longer breathing. He propped up the body of his fellow inmate against a fence and waited while guards closed in. Exhausted, Hudgins surrendered to law enforcement. (Hudgins would be released from prison in 1981. In 1983 he took a butcher knife and slashed the throat of his wife and stabbed two others.)

Billy Blake Johnson was buried in the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Ladonia, Texas. Although a cold, calculating and elusive criminal, his mother still loved him. His headstone was engraved with the simple epitaph “Son.”

Headstone of Billy Blake Johnson. Photo by John Armstrong

The Murder of Ray Davis

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Shades of the Zodiac?

One quiet night in Oceanside, California a senseless murder was committed with no apparent motive or suspects. Days after the murder, someone claiming to be the killer called local police with an ominous threat that resulted in armed gunmen protecting city busses for several nights in anticipation of another death. But as shocking as it was, the incident slowly faded into obscurity and the murder went unsolved. The case was in fact forgotten about altogether until in 2017 I stumbled upon a newspaper article while doing research on an unrelated subject. As I continued research on the murder I collected dozens of newspaper articles and discovered that the case had never been solved. I then contacted the Oceanside Police Department who directed me to their Cold Case Detective.

The Murder of Ray Davis

On the evening of April 9, 1962, the Oceanside Police Department received an anonymous telephone call. The unidentified caller stated cryptically: “I am going to pull something here in Oceanside and you will never be able to figure it out.” The call was likely dismissed…until two nights later on April 11th, when a body was discovered and the caller contacted the police again.

Patrolman Terry Stephens discovered the lifeless body of Ray Davis in an alley in the upscale beachside neighborhood of St. Malo at 1:45 am.  The night of the murder, Stephens had not yet turned 28 years old, but was already a seasoned police officer. Born in 1934 in Escondido Stephens was raised in Oceanside where he lived nearly all of his life. At the age of 21 he joined the Oceanside Police Department and served on the force for 31 years before he retired.

The victim, Ray Davis was just 29 years old, a native of Michigan. Ray was estranged from his wife Marion, whom he had married in 1953 in Owosso, Michigan.  At the time of Ray’s murder she was living in Pomona with two children from a previous marriage.

Ray and his brother Jack had moved to Oceanside in January of 1962. Oceanside had a population of less than 25,000. Jack got a job working at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Ray as a cabdriver for the Checker Cab Company. The brothers were renting a house at 525 South Tremont Street.

Ray Davis was working an evening shift, his cab parked on Mission Avenue in downtown. At 11:10 pm he reported to his dispatcher Lowell Sikes that he was driving a fare to South Oceanside. He never returned or responded to subsequent radio calls.

Ray’s body had been dumped in the alley behind 1926 South Pacific Street, the home of Oceanside’s former Mayor Joe MacDonald. Across the street was the home of Oceanside’s current Mayor Erwin Sklar. This was not a neighborhood familiar with violent crime, let alone murder. (Note: Few people realize that St. Malo does not begin behind its iconic gated archway, but also includes the 1900 block of South Pacific Street.)

Davis had been shot once in the back, through the driver’s seat, and once in the back of the head. His assailant unceremoniously pulled him out of the cab and drove away. Robbery did not appear to be a motive as Davis had a modest amount of cash in both his wallet and shirt pocket.

The bloodied cab was discovered at 6:30 am, left in the alley of the 400 block of South Pacific Street with its meter showing a $2.20 fare. On scene Detective Don Brown found a third shot had been fired through the windshield of the taxi.

On the front seat of the abandoned cab was a paperback novel, “Dance With the Dead.” Written in 1960 by Richard S. Prather, it featured a private detective who solved crimes, all the while encountering scantily clad women…very campy stuff.

Davis was taken to the Seaside Mortuary at 802 South Pacific Street where an autopsy was performed by L. H. Fairchild of the San Diego County Coroner’s Office. Two .22 caliber bullets were removed and given to Oceanside Police Detective Floyd R. Flowers.

The following day, April 12th, both the Oceanside Blade Tribune and San Diego Union Tribune newspapers reported the murder along with the fact that police had no motive or suspect. The story of Ray’s murder was also published in several Southern California newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. In Ray’s home state of Michigan, at least three newspapers reported the murder of Ray Davis. No mention was made of the mysterious phone call of April 9 as the Oceanside Police Department had not released that information.

Funeral services for Ray Davis were held at the Oceanside Church of God on April 13th. He was buried in a plot located in the “Sunset Slope” at Eternal Hills Memorial Park. Virginia Davis, his bereaved mother, flew from Michigan to Oceanside for the services.

On April 16th the Oceanside Police Department disclosed to the public that an unknown person had called them on April 9th with a veiled threat that they now linked to the murder of Ray Davis. The second phone call came with a frightening warning.

Police Chief William H. Wingard described the caller as a possible “deranged killer” and released the contents of the call:  “Do you remember me calling you last week and telling you that I was going to pull a real baffling crime? I killed the cab driver and I am going to get me a bus driver next.”

Who, but the original caller, would have known about the initial message? Who would taunt the police in such a way?

This threat was not taken lightly, considering the unknown caller seemed to have made good on his last one. Chief Wingard stated: “We have no reason to disbelieve the calls.”

In response to the threat, the Oceanside Police Department took measures to protect all city busses and armed military police were put on each bus going aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. The newspaper reported that Frank Lilly, Oceanside’s City Manager gave Oscar Hatle, Bus Superintendent “blanket authority to take whatever steps necessary.” The unusual aspects of the murder and the unprecedented response of armed guards were big news. The story was widely distributed by the Associated Press and United Press International.

Three days passed without incident. Guards were removed from the busses, but on so-called “lonely routes” the bus company assigned two drivers. Oscar Hatle commented: “The situation still exists. We are taking no unnecessary chances.”

The police had no motive and scant evidence. They were desperate to solve the murder. Several people were questioned and released. One reported suspect was a fellow cabdriver, Charles Schofield, but the accusation had no foundation.

On May of 1962 an arrest was made of four Marines for armed robbery, but neither their prints nor ballistics matched.  Another armed robbery suspect was arrested in November but again, the fingerprints were not a match.

The murder was all but forgotten about except for the Davis family. Years passed, then decades. Ray’s brother Jack died in 1990. Ray’s mother died in 1995 and was buried at Eternal Hills Memorial Park. Ray had no biological children. After the death of his brother and mother there was no one left to remember.

It may be pure conjecture, but it is still worth noting that seven years after Ray Davis’s murder, a killer known as the Zodiac would mimic the same deadly scenario. In 1969 he shot and killed a taxi driver in San Francisco, contacted police taking credit for it and then threatened to target a bus, in this instance one full of children.

The Zodiac killed his victims in a variety of ways and weapons, including a .22 caliber gun (as in the murder of Ray Davis). It is believed that the Zodiac may have been in the military. It is now surmised that one of his first victims may have been Cheri Jo Bates, who was murdered in Riverside, California in 1966. While there are several theories surrounding Zodiac, is it too far-fetched to believe that perhaps he started his killing spree in Oceanside?

Many serial killers are known to taunt or toy with police and certainly this was the case with Ray’s murderer. Serial killers taunt because they crave the attention, they want the notoriety and many times they are convinced of their own superiority over law enforcement.

Theories and conjecture aside, to this day the murder of Ray Davis remains unsolved. It is likely the killer is dead … even if he was just 25 years of age in 1962, he would be 83 years old in 2020.  Many of the police officers and detectives who worked so diligently to try to solve the case and protect the residents of Oceanside have passed. However, Roy K. Smith, a retired police captain, remembers the case as he was working the morning watch the night of the murder.

Sylvia Guzman O’Brien, Cold Case Detective with the Oceanside Police Department has dug up and read over the case file. In December of 2019 she sent the latent fingerprint cards collected at the scene for entry into the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). O’Brien stated that, “The crime lab will determine if the prints are of sufficient quality for entry in the database.”  In addition, the casings that were located in the cab driven by Ray Davis will be sent to the crime lab for entry in the Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS). As Detective O’Brien stated, “Now it is just a waiting game.”

There is no DNA evidence. Neither AFIS or IBIS were available to law enforcement in 1962 and even when these systems were put in place years ago, this case had long been forgotten. If there’s a possibility to match the prints to a person or link the ballistics to another crime, the results of these searches may be the very last chance to solve the murder of Ray Davis.

View local news reports on the links below:

https://www.10news.com/news/local-news/did-the-zodiac-kill-in-oceanside-police-re-test-evidence-in-cold-case

https://www.cbs8.com/article/news/crime/police-looking-into-claims-by-historian-that-zodiac-killer-may-be-responsible-for-1962-oceanside-murder/509-06453d97-3244-478f-9160-3cd499ce2ec0

Kristi S. Hawthorne, historiesandmysteries.blog “The Murder of Ray Davis”, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent and written permission from the author and owner is strictly prohibited. Links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author Kristi S. Hawthorne and historiesandmysteries.blog “The Murder of Ray Davis”, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.