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Fugitive couple arrested in New York after murder and robbery in fifteen states

On the afternoon of May 13, 1937, New York State Trooper Joseph Hunt spotted a speeding Chevrolet with only one license plate in Dover Plains, NY. The motorcycle officer gave chase.

Hunt pulled them over and asked the freckle-faced driver for his driver’s license. As the boy messed around, Hunt peered into the car. A young woman sat in the passenger seat.

That’s when Hunt saw a loaded revolver and dark spots on the upholstery.

“That’s blood,” he said. “Whose is it?”

“I killed a man near Little Rock. We messed up a ride with him and shot him,” the driver said. “I put his body in the backseat and threw it on the side of the road.”

State Trooper A. Johnson points to bloodstains in the car driven by Lester Brockelhurst.  Trooper Joseph Hunt noticed spots when he stopped the car for a traffic violation.  He arrested Brockelhurst and his lover, Bernice Felton, 18.
State Trooper A. Johnson points to bloodstains in a car driven by Lester Brockelhurst. New York State Trooper Joseph Hunt noticed bloodstains when he stopped the car for a traffic violation. He arrested Brockelhurst and Bernice Felton, 18.

While making what he thought was a routine traffic stop, Hunt had captured two dangerous fugitives – Lester Brockelhurst, 23, and Bernice Felton, 18 – wanted for a six-week robbery and murder spree that affected fifteen states.

Brockelhurst quickly offered police a 2,000-word confession, saying he had shot three men and committed about 20 robberies. Newspapers called him the ‘crime tourist’.

And he said he did it all out of love.

The son of a respectable businessman from Galesburg, Illinois, Lester was active in the Mormon Church and was a Sunday school teacher.

In 1934, he attended an event that changed his life: a church competition in Tri-Cities, Illinois. Lester recited the Beatitudes during a public speaking competition.

There he first saw Bernice, a Rockford High School honor student. She and her family lived about 150 miles from Galesburg, but that didn’t stop him from visiting as often as he could.

Lester, who was working for his father at the time, asked for a raise to see Bernice more often. That led to an argument and his father kicked him out of the house.

Without a car or money, Lester hitchhiked to Chicago and ended up running a candy store. The police quickly arrested him and he was taken to a reformatory.

“Bernice wrote to me regularly every week, and her letters were the only thing that made life bearable,” he said in a news interview shortly after his arrest. “I was just as in love with her then as I am now.”

The Felton family took him in after his parole, and he tried to raise money so he and Bernice could get married. But he had trouble holding down jobs, so he decided to make a fresh start in Salt Lake City.

“I wanted Bernice to come with me,” he said. “She told me she loved me and that she was going.”

Lester Brockelhurst (2nd from right) was shot along with Bernice Felton by State Trooper Joseph Hunt, who was holding the seized gun.
Lester Brockelhurst (2nd from right) was shot along with Bernice Felton by State Trooper Joseph Hunt, who was holding the seized gun.

First, they needed a car. So on March 31, 1937, Lester bought a gun, walked to the shoulder of a road on the outskirts of Rockford and stuck out his thumb.

J. Albin Theander, a local tailor, stopped to offer the healthy-looking stranger a ride, the last mistake he would ever make. After a few miles, Lester pulled out his gun and shot him.

“I felt sorry for the man, but what should I do?” he later said in an interview. “I wanted his car, and I got it.”

He threw the body on the side of the road and sped back to Rockford, where Bernice was waiting. With $40 from Theander’s wallet and $42 from Bernice’s savings, they left for Salt Lake City. When they ran out of money, Lester went on small raids.

On April 28, in Fort Worth, he shot and killed cafe owner Jack Griffith, a passerby who had tried to help a woman Lester was robbing.

“He looked awfully funny lying there in the road, crumpled up like a balloon that had run out of gas,” Lester later mused.

Griffith died in hospital on May 5.

During that bloody excursion, he crashed Theander’s car into a pole and then ran from the police. From then on, he and his girlfriend were on foot.

Bernice Felton and her lover Lester Brockelhurst are shown at their arraignment.
Bernice Felton and her lover Lester Brockelhurst are shown at their arraignment.

On May 6, Victor A. Gates, a wealthy Arkansas landowner, picked up a pair of young hitchhikers near Little Rock.

Bernice sat at the front. Lester, in the backseat, wasted no time. He held the gun to the driver’s neck and ordered him to stop. Gates fought and ended up getting shot in the head. Lester got behind the wheel and drove with the body in the backseat. He then threw the body into a ditch.

After wandering around Little Rock and Nashville, they headed north, bound for Canada. Lester threw away the Arkansas license plates in Philadelphia and retrieved a Pennsylvania license plate from a parked car.

As they drove through Dover Plains, NY, Hunt stopped them for a traffic violation: a missing license plate.

Both lovebirds were tried in Arkansas for the murder of Victor Gates.

After a one-day trial, it took 22 minutes for the jury to decide Lester was guilty, which meant death in the electric chair.

Lester Brockelhurst is pictured in prison after admitting to three murders.
Lester Brockelhurst is pictured in prison after admitting to three murders.

“KILLER WILL SWING IF JURY DAMN HIM FROM PRESIDING,” screamed the Daily News headline on June 25, 1937. “Today the crime tourist’s girlfriend goes on trial.”

During her trial, Lester insisted on taking the stand and explaining how she participated in the crimes. The jury acquitted her in less than an hour and a half, despite “the attempt of Lester Brockelhurst, who killed three men for love of her, to drag her to the electric chair with him,” according to The News.

The Crime Tourist’s last words lasted twelve minutes during his execution on March 18, 1938. It was clear that his passion for his one-time flame had cooled.

“I am guilty and I am paying for my crime,” he said. ‘But Bernice is as guilty as I am. The only thing that brought me down was a mild love affair with a girl.