Along the old River Road, nearly 70 years ago, three people were shot and killed on February 24, 1949, at the Winstead Ranch, 12 miles north of Needles, California, in the Mojave Desert.
Ernest Winstead, 23, born in Arkansas, was living in Needles for a few years, working various trades before meeting and marrying his bride, Frances Mendez. Mrs. Frances Winstead, who was born, lived and attended Needles schools all of her life, had just turned 25, the day before she died. Ernest and Frances were married for 4 years and it had only been six months since they signed the deed to the small, red and white farm house, secluded by salt cedar trees, creosote bushes and fertile desert. Still newlyweds, they enjoyed the privacy and peacefulness of their new home, which made Ernest begin making plans to renovate and farm part of the property, plus he worked full time for the City of Needles. They were both so young, too busy building their future, too busy being in love, neither of them had time to die.
William Pugh, 70, was born in Columbus Grove, Ohio and lived in Needles for 49 years, where, ‘everybody knew and loved Pugh.’ He had 4 children living in Ohio from a previous marriage and a daughter who lived in Needles. Frances Winstead considered Pugh as family, since he was once married to her sister, Mary. He was employed as a boiler maker for the Santa Fe, later, he took up ranching, raised cattle, trapped the river, became a member of the local Elk’s Lodge, purchased the property adjacent to the Winstead’s and before he was murdered, he had just become a bee keeper.
Les Hoverton and Dora Farro, were friends as well as neighbors, of the Winstead’s and Mr. Pugh’s, who lived further up the road. Les felt compelled to ask Dora if she thought it odd Ernest’s car was parked in front of his house at 10 o’clock on a Thursday morning, instead of at his job at the Street Maintenance Department for the City of Needles, as they drove slowly by. Dora agreed with Les, something just didn’t ‘feel right’, as he parked and they both stepped out of the pick up truck. ‘Oh my god! Look Dora! ‘ Les shouted, as he walked closer to the house. In the front yard, he found William Pugh, lying on his back, shot dead, on the ground, his face unrecognizable, blood sprayed everywhere, a little further was Frances Winstead’s lifeless body, lying crumpled on her side, bathed in her own blood, 150 feet away on the east side of the house, Ernest Winstead’s body was sprawled out, his clothes, shoes, face, hair, saturated in his blood. The front door was left open and nothing looked out of place inside the house, except a torn lampshade in the livingroom. They went to the bedrooms and brought out 3 blankets to cover the bodies of the victims. Next they went to look inside Pugh’s house, nothing out of the ordinary stood out, only breakfast dishes that had been left on the table and unmade beds. Dora remained in the house while Les drove to Needles to notify the authorities.
As the news of the murders spread through Needles and the surrounding areas, calls/reports started coming in at the Needles police station. Mr. Hoverton shared with the police and a ‘Desert Star’ reporter, Billy Ray Gilbert had appeared at Pugh’s ranch about three weeks prior and spent some time with the rancher, who lived alone. Gilbert told Pugh he had been working at Davis Dam and was laid off, a new disclosure divulged, Gilbert had been held on a grand theft charge in Kingman jail and escaped on January 26th, while Mr. Pugh let Gilbert stay at his house for a few days, fed the man and tried to find him employment.
About a week before the murders, Gilbert left the ranch and told Mr. Pugh he planned to visit friends and relatives on the coast. When Gilbert returned a few days later, he was driving a 1947 Ford Coupe accompanied by George Schmid, who had just been released from Arizona State Penitentiary, and a woman named Florence Chisholm, whom he introduced as his wife.
Chief Bland said he had investigated a call, claiming trouble was brewing at Ruby’s Tavern. Mr. Pugh, Mrs. Winstead and the three visitors had been at Ruby’s Tavern Wednesday afternoon around 4 p.m. while Mr. Hoverton added, they stopped by his house later and seemed to be in good spirits. Chief Bland said there were only a few people at Ruby’s Tavern when he arrived and he hadn’t seen any trouble. A big tulle fire was in progress, so he left. It was also reported from the Needles Trading Post, men answering the description of the suspects had purchased ammunition for a 380 and 44 the day before. The woman, Florence Chisholm, also visited the Sprouse-Reitz store and bought toothpaste and lipstick. It was also discovered, Florence had been forced to accompany Gilbert and Schmid in her car from the Phoenix Riding Stable where Gilbert had formerly been employed and knew her well.
Late Thursday night, a report came in, the trio had just robbed a gas station in downtown Phoenix and escaped. Miss Chisholm called the police from a Scottsdale Drug store where she had been sent by Gilbert to call a deputy sheriff whom he wished to ‘bump off.’ Gilbert ran when police cars drove up, but Chisholm turned herself in and asked she be given protection. She claimed Gilbert had intentions of killing more officers and the warden at the Arizona State Penitentiary in Florence, Arizona. Schmid had left them and was hiding in the area. She also revealed Mrs. Winstead had been killed first on Thursday morning when she stepped in between Gilbert and her husband as he threatened Ernest, then Ernest was shot and Pugh was in the car and ordered out and told by Gilbert to, “Look me in the eye and die like a man’ then shot Pugh in the face.
Two of the suspects were now in custody. George Schmid was captured Saturday afternoon as he was walking along an irrigation ditch, he didn’t resist arrest and complained he hadn’t slept or eaten in days. Gilbert died in a barrage of officers’ fire when he was cornered at a tourist cabin outside of Phoenix.
The Desert Star’s (single copies, 10 cents) headlines’ caption on Thursday, July 7, 1949 read in black, bold font:
‘SCHMID GETS 15 YEARS’
‘George Adolph Schmid was found guilty of 3 counts of second degree murder of William Pugh, 70, Ernest Winstead, 23 and Frances Winstead, 25, by a jury of four men and eight women and has been sentenced to serve three consecutive terms of five years to life in San Quentin Prison. The prosecution asked that Schmid be found guilty of first degree murder which would have carried the death penalty. The jury deliberated for 5 hours. Under the sentence Schmid must serve at least fifteen years in prison. For good behavior he might be able to reduce the time by three years. Schmid had only been released a few months before his arrest in connection with the local triple slaying. The woman, Florence Chisholm, pleaded she had been kidnapped by Gilbert and was held prisoner by him during the crimes. Schmid verified her statements. She wasn’t held, except as a state witness. She testified that Gilbert was the killer and that Schmid only fired one shot which missed the mark. Schmid’s plea to the jury was that he too, was under the spell of fear of Gilbert and that he was merely obeying commands in the killing.’
“It was really something. So very sad. It made national news. I was small, only 10 years old when it happened, but I remember. Frances Winstead’s maiden name was Mendez. She was my Dad’s (Filo Mendez) sister, my Aunt. There were alot of people with cameras, all over town, the FBI followed all of my Dad’s family watching our every move for several weeks after it happened. Everybody talked about it and there were many rumors, which we’ll never know the answers to.” -Mrs. Tillie Puentes, a lifelong resident of Needles, Calif., shared on her back porch, by the Colorado River.
“In the 60’s-70’s”, another lifelong resident, Stella Bernal, remembers it was everyone’s hang out, although the house no longer existed, only a slab of concrete and part of the walls remained, the trees were still there, which provided the privacy underage kids or anyone needing a off- the-beaten-path place to throw keg parties, smoke pot, make out and tell ghost stories. It’s what bored river rats did for fun. One time in high school, my boyfriend asked me if I wanted to take a drive out to ‘House of 3 Murders’, then he felt embarrassed when he realized my family was related to Frances Winstead. She was my grandmother’s sister, which made her my Mom’s aunt and my Great Aunt, and Ernest, my Great Uncle ‘Pugh’ which everyone called him, was my Great Uncle, too. He was married to my Grandmother’s twin sister, Mary. It was just something that happened, a terrible, terrible, family tragedy. There was an article written about it in ‘Inside Detective’ Magazine, which my Mother bought a copy right away and a laminate cover, to preserve it. She thought it was important to save the past, to always remember, no matter how tragic it was.”
Special thanks to The Needles Regional Museum & The Needles Desert Star, Ms. Stella Bernal and Mrs. Tillie Puentes for your contributions. Without you, this story couldn’t been written.🌹