February 10, 2019

1919: Murder Plot at the Pioneers' Home

For attorney AG Baker, it was a routine chore. He left his office with a will in hand to be signed by a paralytic Pioneers’ Home resident, William Debus. Debus asked Baker to come down to the car for the formal signature that would leave nurse Clarance Dyer Debus’ worldly possessions upon his death.

“Two copies of the will were made for him. The name William E Debus was written in the proper space and with his left-hand, (the man) executed a cross. The document was witnessed by Baker and…the legal work (was paid for) with two $5 bills.” 

It was at that moment that undersheriff Ed Bowers suddenly appeared and leveled a large six-shooter directly at the aged man’s chest.

“Throw up your hands!” He shouted…

Clarence Dyer was a new employee at the Pioneers’ Home. He had been a stateside army nurse; drafted into the service. However, the lethal Spanish influenza pandemic (and resulting pneumonia)  rained heavily on healthcare workers and many were lost. As a result, the army released a number of its nurses and orderlies to fulfill their service by working in various state facilities that were suffering from manpower shortages. Dyer was a part of this program.

Arizona's death-toll from Spanish Flu from Oct - Dec, 1918 alone!

Dyer enjoyed his new job and the unique facility that employed him. He did his work well and got along with both the residents and his coworkers. One of those coworkers was Carrier Thompson. 

Thompson approached Dyer with a scheme to steal some army-issued blankets. Thompson wanted to store them in Dyer's quarters and the profit split. The thought was that since Dyer had just come from the army, he could provide a plausible explanation if they were found.

However, this plot was quickly revealed to the Home’s Superintendent Shea, who was dismayed. He needed the staff and both men had done an outstanding job. Particularly Thompson, whom Shea described as “an extremely efficient nurse and, in fact, knew nearly as well as a doctor would, how to take care of people.” Considering the circumstances, Shea decided not to act immediately, but would keep a keen eye open.

The next plot the two conspired was the emptying of a recently-deceased resident’s bank account by forging a check. However, Superintendent Shea made sure this check was held-up.

The true story of William F "Buffalo Bill" Cody's visit to Prescott, AZ late in 1911. Includes his visit to the Arizona Pioneers' Home and his investment in area mining.

The pair’s final criminal caper was so appalling that the matter had to be taken to the county attorney. Thompson told Dyer of a possible big score. Thompson knew that one of the residents, William Debus, had $4000-$5000 in the bank, (around $75,000 today.) Thompson’s plan was to forge a will, giving the estate to Dyer and then Thompson would poison Debus. 

Once informed of the murderous plot, County Atty. Neil Clark set a trap to halt it. First he made a thorough three-hour search of the suspect's quarters which revealed several stolen items, but no poison. To be safe, “Clark also made preparations through local officials to keep track of any poison that might be sold during the week in the Prescott drugstores.”

Debus himself was kept in the dark about the matter “for the reason that it was thought a shock of this sort might be fatal to the bed-ridden patient.” Yet, Debus had already become “suspicious of Thompson lately and that he had worried considerably and was on the point of asking for protection, when the trap was sprung.” 

It was Dyer who accompanied the man pretending to be Debus to Baker’s office for the signing of the will. So when Undersheriff Bowers told the paralytic to throw up his hands, he knew the man could do so despite his claim. Bowers knew he was pointing his gun at Carrier Thompson.

A subsequent search of Thompson's quarters revealed a “60cc bottle three-quarters full of Chlorodyne pills.” This was the poison Thompson intended to use.

Upon being informed of Thompson’s arrest, Debus was “relieved and very cheerful. ‘I feel better than I have for weeks and I intend to live a long time,’ said Debus.”

The history, rise and fall of the Prescott & Mount Union Railway Company--Prescott Arizona's short-lived trolley system.

To his credit, Thompson always stuck with the story he told police immediately after he was arrested; although it proved to be utterly implausible. He blamed Dyer, stating that Dyer had gotten a woman pregnant and in order to marry her, he had to prove to her family that he had some means to support her. Thompson stated that Dyer approached him with the idea of forging the will, showing it to the girl’s family, and then burning it. This was the story Thompson recited at trial. It was corroborated by no one.

Dyer’s account, however, was corroborated by Superintendent Shea, law enforcement, and the county attorney’s office itself! For the cohort Thompson trusted was, in fact, informing authorities from the start! It was Dyer who informed Shea about the blankets, the check, and the murder plot.

It did not take the jury long to find Thompson guilty. Although he won a chance at a retrial, the stories and the outcome remained the same. 

“Realizing his ambition to work in state institutions,” the newspaper quipped, “Carrier Thompson (was) left in charge of Sheriff Warren Dais for Florence, where he will serve a term...of 10-14 years."

Thompson would never be heard of again in Prescott, while Dyer remained to become a well-respected and highly-trusted caregiver.

The view of Prescott from
the "Old Sentinel's" front porch.
The Pioneers' Home Today: 
Living at the Pioneers' Home is affordable for everybody. A resident pays a percentage of his monthly income. Disabled miners (or those in poverty) stay free. To be eligible for residency one must be at least 70 years-old and a resident of Arizona for at least 50 years. There are other requirements that can be found by clicking here.

At its height, the Home had 200 residents. According to Superintendent Dale Sams, there is no long wait time for those who qualify since many on the waiting list are simply waiting for the right time for themselves to enter. Staff is also available to give presentations. A slide-show tour of the facility is available here.

If you would like to be a part of history and civic pride, the Pioneers' Home is always looking for volunteers. No less than 45 different opportunities are available, most of which surround social activities. You're sure to find one that interests you!

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