On the morning of May 5, 1939, rancher Melvin Oxford had driven out to a desert wash near Guadalupe, Az., to dispose of a dead hog. Locals used this isolated spot as a dump for all kinds of rubbish.
Oxford was on his way out when he spotted something alarming: Two human corpses, the remains of Phoenix car salesmen E. Jack Peterson, 35, a former state highway patrolman, and Ellis M. Koury, 24.
On Saturday, April 29, around twilight, the two men were last seen taking a prospective buyer on a demo ride in a new Ford. They failed to show up for their jobs on Monday, sparking a massive search.
An abandoned, beat-up 1929 Ford offered the first clue in the mystery. The man who purchased the old car fit the description of the auto shopper who had gone off with Koury and Peterson days earlier.
The description—young, tall, dark, and handsome—fit another missing person, a student who had vanished from his dorm at the Arizona State Teachers College at Tempe. His name was Robert M. Burgunder, Jr., 22. Coworkers of the murdered men identified Burgunder from photos as the man interested in buying the Ford.
On April 28, Burgunder told friends he had received a telegram informing him that his father, a lawyer in Seattle, was dying and he had to go home.
Contacted by police in Seattle, the senior Burgunder assured investigators he was fine and had sent no such telegram to his son. He also revealed that the boy was a troublemaker and ex-convict who had tried to rob a drug store about three and a half years earlier.
In 1936, a motorcycle officer spotted the 6-foot 2-inch youth wearing a Boy Scout uniform and carrying a pistol in one hand and a cash box under his arm. He got into a car and fled.
During the following high-speed chase, Burgunder sent six bullets flying toward the cop. None hit their target. The chase ended when Burgunder turned onto a dead-end street.
A student at the University of Washington and Boy Scout leader, the young felon said he turned to crime to pay off debts from his lifelong addiction to gambling.
Sentenced to five to 15 years, he was out on parole in 22 months. He moved to Tempe, Arizona, to attend college.
After a week-long, nationwide manhunt, police tracked their fugitive down in Johnson City, Tenn., 2,000 miles from Tempe. Burgunder had landed there five days earlier.
Introducing himself as “Bob Lesser,” the name he used when he purchased the 1929 Ford, Burgunder immediately visited East Tennessee State Teachers College and said he was interested in enrolling.
With remarkable ease, the charming newcomer befriended two students—Charles and William Dubbs, sons of a prominent local family. The Dubbs invited him to stay at their home, and the mysterious visitor effortlessly blended into their daily life.
On Sunday morning, May 7, the boys’ father picked up a newspaper and learned about the Arizona murders. He realized their house guest, who had been enjoying the family’s hospitality for four days, was a dangerous fugitive.
The sheriff and his deputies slapped handcuffs on Burgunder as he and the Dubbs brothers left church around noon.
Burgunder had parked the 1939 Ford, bearing the license plates of the older car, in Dubbs’ garage. Inside, police found a .25 caliber pistol, the same caliber as the bullets that killed Peterson and Kuory, and a sales slip for the 1929 vehicle.
The Arizona Republic covered his trip back to Phoenix, including the memorable after-dinner chat at a hotel in Globe, Az. Burgunder finished a dish of ice cream, stared into the eyes of Maricopa County Sheriff Lon Jordan, and started talking.
“I killed them alone,” he said. “Neither man jumped me. … I shot Koury first, shot him twice. Then I shot Peterson three times.”
Burgunder admitted that he forced Koury at gunpoint to bind Peterson’s hands and feet. Then he made Koury tie up his own ankles and shot both men.
“It was the most cowardly, the dirtiest killing I’ve ever known,” the murderer observed.
He blamed it all on his addiction to games of chance. “I never had enough guts to stop gambling, to stop playing those damned slot machines, marble boards, and poker game machines,” he said. “They kept me broke.”
Tired of asking his mother for money, he devised a plan to steal a car. For this, he purchased a gun and the 1929 Ford. The original idea was to jump on the running board of a passing auto, force the driver out, and make off with it. The plates from the old Ford would be used to disguise the stolen vehicle.
Instead, he decided to take two car salesmen on a test drive that ended in death.
The sheriff asked if he felt any revulsion after the shooting.
“Not particularly,” Burgunder said.
At his trial in July, prosecution expert witnesses painted a picture of a man with a “psychopathic personality,” marked by excessive ego, pathological lying, exhibitionism, and criminal tendencies. But he still had the ability to distinguish right from wrong.
Defense attorneys countered that the youth’s gambling addiction and experiences in the reformatory had driven him out of his mind.
Even the defendant rejected that. “There’ll be no plea of insanity,” Burgunder told a reporter. “You see, I don’t think I’m insane.”
From the witness stand, he asked the jury to give him the death penalty. The jury complied, finding him guilty of first-degree murder and sending him to the gas chamber.
To the end, he rebuffed any appeals or attempts to save his life. As the lethal gas filled the chamber, he murmured, “I confess the killings. I never tried to defend myself.”
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