CORPSE IN THE CEDAR CHEST
by Sam Gordon
Finally the power shovel brought up a large box and in it was
found the body of Virginia Cantrell with bullet holes in the chest and head.
Nobody had ever said that State "Trooper Jack Music ever had a easy job. His
tour of duties includes a section of Eastern Kentucky where gritty
mountaineers live in a provincial world all their own . Natives are
tight- lipped and rumors are rare in Johnson County. That's why persistent
talk about one woman's strange disappearance aroused the curiosity of Music.
He called the County Attorney D.C. VanHoose about it while the latter was in
Paintsville in connection with the January 1959 term of Johnson County Circuit
Courts. The woman's name is Mrs. Virginia Cantrell", Music explained. "She
hasn't been seen since last October. Her husband says she ran out on him: The
County Attorney had heard the same rumors.
Some of the hill people were saying "Virgie"
Cantrell had been murdered. When did this talk start? "VanHoose asked. Jack
Music told him that was difficult to say " I first heard the rumors back in
December, and people must have been talking a long time before I got wind of
it. They don't tell their troubles to outsiders very readily. The trooper told
VanHoose as much as he knew about Virgie Cantrell. "She is 44 years old," he
said. "Dark haired, about 5 feet 2 inches tall and of slight attractive build.
She is from a large, long established Johnson County family and was one of the
prettiest and most popular girls in Paintsville before she married Henry
Cantrell. They live on a farm in Fuget. That's 13 miles northwest of
Paintsville in the Red Bush section.
Jack Music went on to say the Cantrell' s had one daughter, Loretta. "I've
talked to several people about the Cantrell's. Nobody has ever heard of
marital trouble there. People say that whatever Henry did was all right with
Virgie, that she never believed any wrong on him.
The County Attorney was puzzled. He knew that loyalty was one of the stronger
characteristics of these mountain people. "If Virgie Cantrell loved her
husband so much," he asked, " why would she run out on him.?'
Trooper Music and everybody else in Johnson
County had been wondering the same thing. "That's why people are talking." he
told VanHoose. " The thing doesn't add up".
Both the County Attorney and Jack Music knew quite a bit about Henry Cantrell.
He is 51 years old, a rugged backwoodsman typical of the section in which he
lived. Like his wife, Henry is from an old Johnson County family. The hills
and hollows of Eastern Kentucky are full of Cantrell's.
Henry had been a constable a while back. He had also worked on county roads as
a bulldozer operator for several years , but he was not employed in that
capacity at the time VanHoose and Music were talking about his wife's strange
"He used to run the Knotty Pine Inn at Paintsville with his daughter, Loretta
the Trooper reminded VanHoose "There was trouble about the sale of whiskey and
the place was closed." Johnson County is in local option territory.
VanHoose remembered the Knotty Pine Inn and much more. Rumor had it that Henry
Cantrell obtained whiskey in Mount Sterling, KY. and brought it back in his
1957 black Mercury via a little traveled road that passed the home of Mrs.
Evalena Stamper about a mile from the Cantrell place Mrs. Stamper was
bludgeoned and strangled to death on Thursday morning, November 20, 1958.
Sheriff James Phipps believed the motive for the crime was robbery. The only
clue to the unsolved case was that a black late model car had been seen parked
in front of Mrs. Stamper's house with the motor running for some time the
morning of the murder.
There also came to VanHoose's mind the robbery of the Big Sandy Hardware
Company in Paintsville the first week in August , 1958. Part of the loot, 15
shotguns, four rifles, 12 electric razors, pocket knives and rifle and shotgun
shells, was recovered among tall weeds in a deserted hollow in Mud Lick Creek.
But most of the stolen property was never found. Some of Henry Cantrell 's
relatives and friends had been convicted of that crime.
County Attorney VanHoose and Jack Music went over all this data and
speculation. Certainly Henry Cantrell had not even been arrested in connection
with either the murder of Mrs. Stamper or the Hardware robbery . Still the
strange disappearance of his wife and the talk about her murder was worth
VanHoose said, "I"ll pass what little information we have concerning Virgie
Cantrell along to Common- wealth Attorney W. H. Hazelrigg. He can study the
facts and make the next move."
Hazelrigg listened to what VanHoose had to say and concluded that where there
was so much smoke there could be fire. He requested Detective Chester D.
Potter, with headquarters in Pikeville, to make a complete investigation.
CORPSE IN THE CEDAR CHEST
Jack Music continued working on the case at the same time. He talked with one
local citizen who had proved information on previous investigations. "Henry
Cantrell is seeing a lot of a woman over in Kermit, W.Va." this man told the
"Music went to that town just over the Kentucky border. The woman confirmed
knowing Henry Cantrell but she provided little information. "He seems to have
more money than usual,:" she said. "He's been drinking a lot. Whenever
Virgie's name is mentioned Henry says she went to Ohio and took some of his
money with her."
Detective Potter and Trooper Music went over the sparse leads they uncovered.
Both had come up with the same rumors. The mountain people believed Virgie
Cantrell had been shot to death. Some said her body had been dumped into a
well on Henrys farm that had since been sealed with cement.
Rumors concerning a missing cedar chest persisted. Henry Cantrell had sold
some of his furniture to a second hand dealer in Paintsville. Detective Potter
talked with the buyer. No cedar chest had been involved in the sale although
it was known Cantrell had owned one.
Detective Potter also found an Ohio woman who had visited the Cantrell's in
September, the month before Virgie disappeared.
"Virgie wanted to keep in touch with me" this woman told the investigator.
"When she started to write down my address Henry took the piece of paper away
from her, saying , "You won't be needing that."
Detective Eddie Cornett and Lt. Billy Lykins of the State Police joined forces
with Potter and Music but weeks passed with little progress being made in the
mysterious disappearance case.
Then last February, a trailer in which Henry and Virgie Cantrell had been
living when the wife dropped out of sight was destroyed by a nighttime fire.
The daughter Loretta, had been visiting her grandfather, Mace Cantrell, whose
place adjoined his son's when the fire occurred. Henry Cantrell was in Kermit,
W.Va., at the time. Loretta contacted Clyde Edward Cantrell, a 16 year old
friend of her fathers who drove her to Kermit. Henry showed little concern
about the destruction of the trailer. It's insured," he said and didn't return
to his farm until the following day.
The insurance company gave Henry a check for $500 to cover the loss of the
trailer in what was the third fire claim paid on the Cantrell's place. More
rumors spread after that incident. A Johnson County Deputy Sheriff said he had
been inside the Cantrell trailer a week or so before it burned.
"I saw three bullet holes in the door facing"
that officer told Trooper Music. This gave rise to speculation that possible
the trailer fire served other purposes than might appear on the surface.
Although it was impossible to tail Henry Cantrell around the clock in the
mountainous area the investigators did learn that in March he refinanced his
black 1957 Mercury with he Commercial Credit Corp. in Huntington, W.Va. A
woman accompanied him at that time and co-signed a chattel mortgage,
representing herself as Virginia Cantrell. This was some four months after
Virgie Cantrell disappeared and puzzled the investigators more than a little.
Then in mid-May, Henry dropped out of sight and on the 21st. of the same month
his black 1957 Mercury was fished out of the Ohio River near Russell, KY by a
crew of gravel boat workers. The doors were closed, windows up, ignition off
and the car was in neutral gear. No missing car report had been made.
Detective Potter and Trooper Music wondered why the car had been disposed of.
It had been completely submerged until the gravel boat workers found it. The
detective did not believe the Mercury had any connection with the
disappearance of Virgie Cantrell. They could think only one other possibility
the murder of Mrs. Evalena Stamper in November, 1958.
Loretta Cantrell said the car was registered in her name. Asked about her
father, the girl said she didn't know where he was.
The last time I saw him was Thursday, May 14, she told Lieutenant Lykins. He
let me out of the car at the C & O depot near our home. He had been drinking
more than usual.
Loretta Cantrell insisted she hadn't seen or heard from her father since.
Commonwealth Attorney Hazelrigg had been correlating the data as the
investigators turned it in. One of the most puzzling aspects of the strange
case was the appearance of a woman who had claimed to be Virgie Cantrell at
the Credit Company in Huntington, W.Va. when the wife hadn't been seen
anywhere else since October.
A talk with the manager, who described the woman who co-signed the chattel
mortgage note, led the detectives to believe she could have been Henry
Cantrell's daughter, Loretta.
The description fits, Detective Cornette said. and it's the only logical
answer since Virgie Cantrell certainly didn't show up just that once to sign a
Persistent rumors, the burned trailer, the submerged car and missing Henry
Cantrell all added impetus to the investigation. Detectives questioned more
than 200 people in the Paintsville area. Whereas these mountain folks were
reluctant to talk on most occasions, the Virgie Cantrell case had aroused
One man stated that Henry had told him Virgie left him and took $2,700 of his
money. Another told detectives Cantrell had laughed about having to cook his
own meals since his "old lady" ran out on him. A grocery man who had always
made deliveries to elderly Mace Cantrell's place said Henry told him Virgie
had broken a lot of glass on the road and he would puncture a tire if he tried
to drive over it.
"He also told me he'd rather I didn't trespass on his property to deliver
groceries to his father's farm," the grocer said.
Like the rumors that had first come to Trooper Music's attention back in
December, 1958, such evidence as there was pointed to Virgie's burial on the
Cantrell farm, if indeed a crime had actually been committed
Corpse In The Cedar Chest
The Commonwealth Attorney mentioned other rumors he had heard, but the missing
man's brother just shrugged them off as idle gossip. Hazelrigg saw he wasn't
getting anywhere and finally called a halt to the questioning.
Meanwhile the dead woman's mother Mrs. Dixie Salyer and the daughter Loretta,
had gone to the funeral home to identify the body, Loretta refused to look at
the decomposed corpse, but Mrs. Salyer made a positive identification.
In his autopsy report to Hazelrigg, Dr. Thorsness said: "There was
considerable amount of post modem change. The viscera and brain were
unsatisfactory for study. There was a bullet wound of entrance in the left
lower chest which left a few powder marks which apparently produced hemorrhage
in the right pleural space and penetrated the upper surface of the liver with
exit in the right lower lateral chest margin. The bullet were found in the
"There was a bullet wound of entrance in the right lower occipital and small
rim of lead was found inside. This bullet traveled forward through the base of
the skill with exit through the lower left jaw and lacerated the lip. That
bullet was not found.. The cause of death was bullet wounds in the head and
chest. The murder victim was fully dressed. She had been dead approximately
Shortly after the autopsy report was made Deputy Horn called Commonwealth
Attorney Hazelrigg from Inez. "Did you get anything out of Ira Cantrell? he
asked." Hazelrigg said the brother insisted he knew nothing about Virgie's
death or where Henry might be. Maybe I can help, Horn told the Commonwealth
Just before Ira was taken away from here he
handed me a slip of paper and asked me to keep it for him until he got back.
The name of a hotel in Miami, Florida is written on the paper. Hazelrigg
thanked Horn. "It's a long shot, he said "but I'm going to contact authorities
in Miami right away. I'll give them a full description of Henry Cantrell. They
can go to the Hotel and check. If he's there they will take him into custody"
the Commonwealth Attorney called police in Florida City and briefed them on
the case. We'll check right away. Lt. James Reese told Hazelrigg. "You'll hear
from us as soon as possible."
The detectives went to the Hotel and questioned
the manager. Nobody was registered there by the name of Henry Cantrell but
when Lt Reese described the man he was looking for the manager smiled. We've
got no Henry Cantrell here he said but a man we know as Henry Pendleton
answers that description. The Hotel man checked the register, Henry Pendleton
had signed the book on May 18. He was working in a Miami restaurant as a
Reese took down the address of the restaurant, thanked the hotel man and went
back to headquarters. A quick check with Hazelrigg in KY told the detective
that was Cantrell's mother's maiden name.
The Miami detective went to the restaurant and talked with Henry Pendleton.
There was no doubt about it the dishwasher answered the description Henry
Cantrell perfectly. Moreover, the man admitted his true identify. I got tired
of using the name Cantrell, he told Reese. I never did like it.
Taken to police headquarters and told that he
was charged with the murder of his wife, in Fuget, KY, the 51 year old man
didn't blink an eye. I don't know anything about that, he said. She up and
left me last Oct. I didn't report her missing because there 's no use
reporting a wife running off in that neighborhood. Lt. Reese put Henry
Cantrell under lock and key and then called Commonwealth Attorney Hazelrigg.
"We've got your man Cantrell, " the officer said. "He denies everything, send
somebody for him."
Trooper Music and Detective Cornett left for Miami. They brought Henry
Cantrell back to Paintsville Sunday morning, July 12. Somebody tried to snap
the prisoner's picture as the officers took him from the car to the
courthouse. Cantrell didn't like that. "I've been framed," he said. "There
will be no more pictures and no more conversation until I retain a attorney."
Trooper Music and Detective Cornett said Cantrell had refused to discuss the
case on the return trip north. "He claims to be innocent." Trooper Music told
Commonwealth Attorney Hazelrigg, " but he was preparing to go to Cuba when
Miami police picked him up."
As this account of the investigation is prepared for publication, Henry
Cantrell remains in Johnson County jail charged with murder. but there's are
still many unanswered questions which perhaps the trial will clear up.. The
murder weapon had not been found. Is it in the well that was cemented over?
And is anything else there? Who was the woman who appeared in Hungtingon,
W.VA. with Henry in March and posed as Virgie when the two signed a chattel
mortagage on the black Mercury car? Why was that car pushed into the Ohio
river and never reported missing?
Were there really three bullet holes in the door facing inside Henry
Cantrell's trailer? If so, were they linked to the destruction of the trailer
by fire? Whose black car was seen outside Mrs. Evalena Stamper's house that
November morning she was murdered? Above all: Why was she shot to death and
her body buried in the Cedar chest?
The mountain people want to know the answers to those questions. Perhaps Henry
Cantrell's trial will answer most of them. Certainly, it will determine
whether he is innocent or the degree of his guilt. Until that time Henry
Cantrell, like all persons under the American Code of Justice, is presumed to
A CEDAR CHEST IS NOT FOR
A woman has the right to a hope chest, a place for her most cherished
possessions. But hope runs out when the only thing in the chest is human flesh
Paintsville, Ky, July 12, 1959
*State Trooper Jack Music paused in front of
the furniture store, then went in. He was greeted by the furniture dealer.
"I understand you recently bought a load of second hand furniture from Henry
Cantrell," Music said.
"That's right," the dealer said. "A pile of
stuff--chairs, bed, sofa, tables and various odds and ends."
"How about a cedar chest?" Music asked. "Was
that included in the sale?"
The dealer shook his head. "Nope, no cedar
chest. That wasn't in the lot."
Music walked across the town square in
Paintsville, a town of some 5000 in eastern KY, entered the courthouse and
went into the office of D.C. VanHoose, Johnson County attorney.
I'm trying a lead on the Virgie Cantrell case,
he told VanHoose "But I've gotten nothing yet. "What's this one?" The attorney
asked. "The cedar chest---Cantrell owned one." "A cedar chest? the county
attorney said. "Yes, Henry might have had some use for one of those. A big one
could be turned into a coffin. And I understand the one he owned was pretty
The Cantrell case had kept the Paintsville
police busy ever since the summer of 1958. Henry Cantrell had been a trouble
maker for much longer than that. He had a reputation as a cattle rustle and a
bootlegger throughout the eastern section of KY. But in the summer of 58 his
name was mentioned frequently in reference to criminal involvements.
Early one summer morning more than a year ago,
Officers Ova Johnson, Worth Blevins and Crate Spears were coming along Main
street when they spotted a nervous youth on a street corner. Although they had
done nothing to rouse his fear, he started to run the moment he saw them. The
officers took out after him and caught him.
At approximately the same time, Police Chief
Bill Witten saw a car speeding along one of the streets without lights. He
gave chase but lost it. Then he returned to the center of town, he learned a
local hardware company had been broken into and several guns, appliances and
other articles taken.
It soon developed that the youth arrested
earlier by the three officers was tied in with three others in the hardware
holdup. All four were finally rounded up and the loot was recovered from tall
weeds in a deserted hollow in Mud Lick Creek. The speeding car was described
as a late model black Mercury. Henry Cantrell owned such a car and all four of
the implicated youth were reported to be friends of Cantrell. But Cantrell
himself was not arrested.
The arrested four were placed under bond to
await grand jury action.
Later in the month, Paintsville police received
a call about midnight from a woman who sounded very excited. She reported
hearing shots at a lumberyard at the far end of town.
The call sent night-duty officers hurrying across town to the lumberyard. They
found the lumberyard quiet and a check of the neighborhood revealed no one who
had heard any shooting and no one who had called the police.
When the officers returned to the center of
Paintsville, they discovered that the hardware company store on Main street
had again been broken into. The stolen loot this time included $400 worth of
shotguns. A window had been broken to gain admittance, and blood on the window
indicated one of the burglars cut his hand, But no witness and no clues were
found and no arrests were made and no loot was recovered. The burglaries
stirred the area but it was just a ripple compared to the tidal wave that
broke on November 30.
At 8:30 that morning Joe Gibson arrived at the
general store in Grassy Creek, 30 miles west of Paintsville. Gibson was one of
Evalena Stamper's tenants and she owned the store. Gibson wanted to ask her
about testing some of her cattle for crucellosis.
The store was open but the 63 year old woman
was not there. He called out thinking she was in her living quarters in the
rear. There was no response.
Then he saw that the side door to the stock
room was open. He went in and called again, still no response. Then he saw
blood on the floor.
Gibson ran out to a nearby store and returned
with several people. They found Mrs. Stamper lying bound and gagged at the
back of the store room. Her head was bloody.
Sheriff James Phipps of Morgan County and
several deputies arrived at the general store. "She's dead," the sheriff said.
"She's been beaten and strangled.
The community was shocked. The store had been
founded in 1898 by the victim's father, and served as a center for the cross
roads community of Grassy Creek, sometimes known as the Chape. The community
was settled in the early 1800's by stable, peace loving, church-going farm
Mrs. Stamper who took over the store when her
father died, was considered a well-to-do- woman.
Investigators disclosed that the victims purse
had been cleaned of money, and that a glass in the back door had been broken.
There was a safe in the back room, but it had not been opened
Coroner L. H. Owens said death was caused by skull fractures and
strangulation. In addition to binding her hands and feet with bailing wire,
the robbers had gagged the woman with a handkerchief and put tape around her
face to hold the gag.
"Looks as if they tried to force her to open the safe or tell them the
combination," the sheriff theorized.
Officers checked the neighborhood. One man
reported seeing Mr. Stamper pumping gas into a pick-up truck at 6:45 that
morning. No one had seen her alive after that.
A farmer reported passing the general store on
his tractor about 7:45 a.m. and seeing a car parked in front. He described it
as a black Oldsmobile. He said he got a good look at the car while backing up
twice in order to get around it. It had Magoffin County License, and was empty
when he saw it.
Others in Grassy Creek had seen this same car
and also a maroon colored car which did not belong to anyone in the
Authorities in Magoffin County, which adjoins
Morgan County to the south, started a search for the back late model car,
believed to be an Oldsmobile. It was not much to go on but it was all police
had except for rumors.
One of these rumors concerned Henry Cantrell.
There was talk that Henry had driven to Mount Sterling took him through Grassy
Creek. It was also pointed out that Henry Cantrell's farm was not far from
Grassy Creek. There were other rumors, but you can't built a case on rumors.
It was about this time that news of Mrs.
Virginia Cantrell's disappearance cropped up. Virgie as she was called hadn't
been seen around., she was a pretty woman, dark and petite. Throughout the
years she was believed to have been a loyal wife to Henry.
The wind picks up the rumors in those hills,
and blows it around the valleys and hollows. But trying to get definite
information from people is something else again.
State Trooper Music was more than just passably
interested in the rumors however. He had been interested in Cantrell's
activities ever since the hardware store robberies.
I got a tip that Henry's been seeing a woman in
Kermit, W.Va. Music told the county attorney. "She had admitted seeing Henry
recently, and says he's drinking a lot and seems to have a large quality of
money. When you ask Henry about his wife he apparently claims she left him and
went to Ohio with his money.
"That could be" VanHoose commented. "Could be" Music agreed. "But it doesn't
sound like Virgie Cantrell and it doesn't sound like Henry either, I'm going
to talk to more people.
Trooper Music asked questions around town, then
went down to the hollow, some 14 miles from Paintsville, where Henry
Cantrell's farm was located. there was a trailer house on the farm but nobody
was at home.
Some people in the hollow told Music that they
heard several shots fired one night, and that they hadn't seen Virgie Cantrell
Music went to the house of Cantrell's father
whose farm was a short distance up the hollow. The elder Cantrell admitted
hearing the rumors about Virgie. "Someone is going to live hard for those
rumors. he said.
Music told him neighbors reported hearing shots
"I' ve heard shooting at night, too" the man said. "But there's a lot of
shooting around here, so what?
Music talked to almost everybody who lived in
or had business in the hollow. One man who delivered groceries up that way and
usually went through Henry's property to save time reported that Henry had
stopped him once from going through with a deliver and explained that Virgie
had broken a lot of glass on the road and he might get a flat tire. The
deliveryman took a roundabout way skirting Henry Cantrell's property.
Sounds as if there was something on the place
Henry didn't want you to see. Music commented.
Rumors and suspicions were high in the valley,
but nobody made any missing person report, and there was no actual evidence
that foul play had been committed.
There was one report that interested Music concerning a 16 year old youth,
close friend of Cantrell's who never held a good job, came from a poor family
had bought a maroon colored car for $550. One of the cars reported seen at
Grassy Creek around the time of Mrs. Evalena Stamper's murder was maroon.
But there was no strong suspicion leveled at the boy nor at Cantrell and Music
went on digging, interviewing and waiting for more solid information
He thought he had it early in 1959 when he
received a report that someone had seen several bullet holes inside the
trailer house on the Henry Cantrell farm. But before trooper Music could
investigate the trailer mysteriously burned to the ground. If there had been
any bullet holes in the trailer there was no chance of them being used as
An insurance adjuster from Ashland said Cantrll
was paid $500 for the burned trailer but not until after much investigation
because there had been two other fire loses on the Henry Cantrell farm on
which insurance claim had been paid. There once was some suspicion that the
trailer had been deliberately set afire but no evidence or witness.
There was some talk that Virgie Cantrell might
have been burned up in the trailer. But a through search of the debris failed
to reveal any sign of human bones or traces to substantiate such a theory.
It was May 21 when the first definite evidence
of foul play was uncovered. The gravel boat crew working in the Ohio River two
miles west to Russell, and some miles northeast of Paintsville was disrupted
from it's work by discovery of a submerged automobile.
The police were called, and the car was pulled
out. It was a black 1957 model Mercury. The doors were closed, the windows
were up, the car's gear shift was in neutral.
The car was registered to Henry Cantrell. It's
been in the water for at least several days, one officer said. "There's been
no missing report or accident report about this car. It looks phony.
I can't figure it any other way another officer said. "Doors and windows
closed... gear shift in neutral and ignition off...it couldn't have been
driven into the river like this. And if by some freak it was, then if anybody
was in it they surely couldn't haven gotten out with the windows and doors
closed. This car was pushed into the river deliberately. If Henry Cantrell
wants us to think he met with an accident, he's done a bad job of it.
When examination of the car produced no clues,
the officers asking questions in the Paintsville area were told that Henry
Cantrell and his daughter had been seen around town the previous day. Another
probing led police to a loan company in Huntington, W.Va. where they were told
the car was refinanced just two months ago when Henry Cantrell and a woman
co-signed for the car loan.
He said the woman was his wife and she
co-signed with him. a loan company officer said. "She signed Virginia
Virginia Cantrell .... in here last March ... the officer exclaimed. "She'
been missing for months. What did this woman look like? The man gave a
description, but it was far from one that would fit Virginia Cantrell. Now the
investigation was stepped up. An officer interviewed Cantrell's daughter, in
Ashland, KY, but she denied knowing where Henry Cantrell was, although it was
reported that she thought her mother was dead. So far she as knew, Henry was
She said the last she saw Henry was May 14,
when he came to get the car. trooper Music assessed all of these reports and
came up with his theory, based on the reports rumors, the substantiated
reports and the missing cedar chest.
I think Virginia Cantrell is dead and I think her body is buried somewhere on
that farm. I've talked to about 200 people on this and I'm convinced of it.
That's a fir sized farm one officer pointed out. "We couldn't dig it all up.
You got any idea where to start?"
Music nodded. "I've been all over that place.
Virginia had a garden...right over there where the trailer burned. Now, in the
middle of this garden, Henry had his potato hole....but from the size of that
hole, if three's nothing but potatoes in it, he has enough potatoes there to
feed the county."
The next day, officers called at the home of
Henry Cantrell's father. We're still looking for Virgie, he said. The man said
had no idea where she was or where Henry was either. "We want to search
Henry's place,'" Music said.
The man gave permission for the state to dig
anywhere and arrangements were made for digging equipment from the state
On Wednesday, July 1, 1959, the equipment and a
host of officers moved down Moon road, like a advancing army.
A crowd gathered and followed in the army's wake, down into the hollow and to
the farm of Henry Cantrell. The remains of the burned trailer were evident and
the garden of Virgie Cantrell with the out sized potato hole, was not far from
it. "We'll start here" the bulldozer operator was told.
The bulldozer went to work on the potato hole.
There was the sound of grinding and digging, as the big blade plowed deep into
"Don't look like there's anything here but p
potatoes, one observer remarked. "They're more than six feet deep now.
The bulldozer backed up then went forward again, digging deeper. There was the
rasp of the blade on something hard, and anxiety heightened. More earth was
cleared away and one of the officers shouted: "There it is. The cedar chest.
It had been buried seven feet deep.
The crowd pressed forward and officers put up
ropes to hold them back. The dirt was pushed aside exposing a 45-inch chest.
Opened it revealed a pile of clothing. Officers started to pull the clothing
out, until one officer called a half. "We'd better have the coroner here now>"
A restless feeling gripped the crowd as they
waited the arrival of Coroner Jim Trimble. When he came, the rest of the
clothing were taken out, and there was a spontaneous gasp. The body of a woman
was on the bottom of the cedar chest, face down , with legs doubled up across
While some of the officers were busy removing
the body, others hurried off to Inez, KY 17 miles east of Paintsville, to
check out a new lead concerning a relative of Henry Cantrell's.
The report was that Henry and his relatives had
been seen in the hollow one night last October, driving their cars in a
caravan and stopping a number of times en route to converse with each other.
Virginia Cantrell was never reportedly seen
alive in the hollow after that night. This relative was reported to have
remarked when asked about Virginia Cantrell's disappearance, "He should have
h=killer her soon." Officers picked up the relative early that afternoon and
told him they were going to take him to Paintsville for questioning. While
they were still in the sheriff's office in Inez, before starting the ride to
Paintsville, the relative turned to Deputy sheriff Garman Horn, handed him
some papers, and asked him to keep them for him until he returned.
At Paintsville, state police questioned the
relative. He denied knowing anything about the body in the cedar chest, or the
whereabouts of Henry Cantrell. He also denied being at Henry's home the night
in October when the strange procession of cars was reportedly observed and he
said he never had any such experience.
But even as he was denying knowledge of Henry's
whereabouts, Deputy Horn was checking into the slip of paper the man had left
with him. It carried the address of a Miami, Fla. Hotel.
State Police Lieutenant Billy Lykins made a
long distance call to Miami police. He gave an officer the address, a
description, and a rundown on the case, "We 've got a murder warrant out for
Cantrell now, and I'll send you a telegram requesting he be held on the
Miami police went to the hotel checked the
guest list and found no Henry Cantrell but a man listed as Henry Pendleton
fitted the description of the 51-year old Kentucky man. Police learned he
worked as a dishwasher in a Miami restaurant. He was picked up and
acknowledged he was Henry Cantrell.
He was taken to the office of Detective
Lieutenant James Reese who showed him the telegram from Kentucky.
"I don't know anything abut it," Canter said,
without asking who he was Cantrell with murdering. Reese asked him about his
wife, and Cantrell said "She up and left me last October."
"Did you report her missing?" he was asked
"It's no use reporting a wife running off in that neighborhood," Cantrell
replied; Asked why he was going under a different name. Cantrell said, "I got
tired of using the name Cantrell, I never did like it.
In Paintsville the next morning, a Pikeville
pathologist had a report for Coroner Trimble. The woman in the cedar chest had
been shot twice, once in the head and once in the back. The body was
identified as that of Mrs. Virginia Cantrell, by a daughter, and the
identification was substantiated by Paintsville dentist who identified a
partial plate found in the victim's mouth as one he had made for the 41 year
old Virginia Cantrell.
Henry Cantrell was returned to Paintsville on
July 17, charged with murder, he maintains he was framed.
On July 15, a preliminary hearing was held and
Henry Cantrell was ordered held in jail without bond on the charge. At this
writing he is in jail awaiting action on the murder charges.
Police however are not through with their
investigation. Officers intended to drain and clean out a well on Henry's
farm. some expect the well to contain the rest of Mrs. Cantrell's wardrobe and
possible some of the loot from the hardware store robberies
Back to Murder and