Screenshot of Dennis Strawns picture in the Odessa American

In September of 1970 a trio of 7-11 robberies within 6 hours took lawmen by surprise.  The stores were all locations known to be open late and it would seem that the “bandits” as the Odessa American called them, appeared to be targeting stores with lone female clerks.  The 7-11 store at 1300 West County Road is hit in the evening and $45 is taken from the register.  Then around 11:30 p.m. the 7-11 store at 2601 North Grandview is hit and the bandits score a whole $70 bucks.  The third time was not the charm however, as the 7-11 at 1231 West University Blvd. is hit but the robbery was unsuccessful.

Around 11 p.m. Myrtle (love that name) Johnson was just closing up for the night.  She had already locked the door and was completing some of her other duties while inside.  A man came to the door just after she had closed and locked it motioning to the bread rack, as if he wanted in to buy some bread.  However when he was waved off and told that the store was already closed he pulled out a gun and said open the door or I’ll shoot.  Mrs. Johnson jumped behind an ice machine and the gunman ran off.  Around a half an hour later Sophie Giovanni, a relief clerk who was on duty at the North Grandview location, said that an African American man, about 5’ 8”, 150 lbs, came in demanding money and got away with a whole $70 bucks.  Around 5:05 a.m., so four and half hours later, a man walked into the store on West County Road while the clerk, Margie N. Bryant, was outside the building.  He yelled at her to get in the store and was able to take about $45.  At that time in 1970, there had already been 31 armed robberies in the area.

Less than a year later one of the clerks involved in that trio of robberies would be face yet another threat to her life.

 

Friday, July 2nd 1971, just before 5 a.m. a store clerk is found face down in a pool of blood in the storage room of an Odessa 7-11 at 1106 East 42nd.  She was stabbed 15 times in the back, chest and side.

Within hours of the discovery of the body of Sohpie Giovanni, the relief clerk who survived a desperate gunman almost a year ago, a phoned in tip led to the arrest of three young murder suspects.

Screenshot of Robert Bells picture in the Odessa American

Tawny the Rock Chick here, your resident true crime aficionado.  As interesting as I find true crime from all over to be, it’s the local stuff that I can really dig into.  You could say I’m a bit obsessed with researching stories of murder and missing persons from this area.  I’ve spent countless hours reading old newspapers articles, requesting files on cases and sifting through data cases online regarding homicide cases that you probably didn’t even know existed.  This area holds more sordid secrets than you may know and I’m going to tell you about all of them, one day at a time.  It’s 365 Days of Texas True Crime and todays story goes like this…..

In September of 1970 a trio of 7-11 robberies within 6 hours took lawmen by surprise.  The stores were all locations known to be open late and it would seem that the “bandits” as the Odessa American called them, appeared to be targeting stores with lone female clerks.  The 7-11 store at 1300 West County Road is hit in the evening and $45 is taken from the register.  Then around 11:30 p.m. the 7-11 store at 2601 North Grandview is hit and the bandits score a whole $70 bucks.  The third time was not the charm however, as the 7-11 at 1231 West University Blvd. is hit but the robbery was unsuccessful.

Around 11 p.m. Myrtle (love that name) Johnson was just closing up for the night.  She had already locked the door and was completing some of her other duties while inside.  A man came to the door just after she had closed and locked it motioning to the bread rack, as if he wanted in to buy some bread.  However when he was waved off and told that the store was already closed he pulled out a gun and said open the door or I’ll shoot.  Mrs. Johnson jumped behind an ice machine and the gunman ran off.  Around a half an hour later Sophie Giovanni, a relief clerk who was on duty at the North Grandview location, said that an African American man, about 5’ 8”, 150 lbs, came in demanding money and got away with a whole $70 bucks.  Around 5:05 a.m., so four and half hours later, a man walked into the store on West County Road while the clerk, Margie N. Bryant, was outside the building.  He yelled at her to get in the store and was able to take about $45.  At that time in 1970, there had already been 31 armed robberies in the area.

Less than a year later one of the clerks involved in that trio of robberies would be face yet another threat to her life.

Friday, July 2nd 1971, just before 5 a.m. a store clerk is found face down in a pool of blood in the storage room of an Odessa 7-11 at 1106 East 42nd.  She had been stabbed to death in what appeared to be a botched robbery.  An autopsy would later reveal the true brutality of the assault.  There were 17 deep stab wounds and slashes all over the upper part of her body, several of which penetrated both her lungs.  She was also stabbed several times in the back, chest and side and her throat was cut.

Within hours of the discovery of the body of Sophie Giovanni, the relief clerk who survived a desperate gunman almost a year ago, a phoned in tip led to the arrest of three young murder suspects.  Randall Jessie Chatham, 18, Dennis Jonathan Strawn, 17, and Robert Walseth Bell, 21, were charged with the murder of Sophie Giovanni.

 

Screenshot of article in the Odessa American

A tipster called and told police about a bloody shirt and a pair of pants that were found smoldering in a city trash container.  That is the tip that led the police to the residence at 800 North Tom Green where the three were arrested.  Wrapped in the clothing was Mrs. Giovanni’s billfold.  Police said that the tire tracks at the Tom Green address matched those found in the alley way at the scene of the crime.  During a search of the trailer house where the boys were located, grocery items that came from the 7-11 store were found and identified by a 7-11 superintendent.  Investigators believe that the murder was the result of a robbery that went bad.

Screenshot of Robert "Bobby" Bell with his lawyer and mother

While Randall Jessie Chatham was given a lie detector test and cleared based upon the results police waited to find out if they could try Dennis Strawn as an adult.  Apparently when Strawn was arrested he told police that he was 17, which under Texas law would make him an adult, but his parents later told police that his birthday was November 20, 1955, making him only 15.  If Strawn was 15 at the time of the crime he would have to be tried as a juvenile, at least that’s normally how it would go, but not in this case.  It was discovered that Dennis Strawn was a runaway from a state school in Rhode Island and based on that information the judge decided to certify him as an adult and have him tried for the murder along side his buddy Robert Bell, who police say was the one wielding the knife in the attack.

Screenshot of Robert Bells parents at his side during the trial

Robert Wilseth Bell plead guilty in court on March 6th, 1972, after the confession he gave police at the time was read to the court.  In the confession Bell tells investigators that she begged, “Please don’t hurt me.”  He went on to say “She had something in her hands and when she saw me she got scared…I put my hand over her mouth and began stabbing her.”  Bell says in the statement that he had planned on robbing “some place” for three days.  He said he considered robbing a gas station and a radio station….which makes no sense to me because even if you didn’t work in radio like I do, why would you think a radio station had money laying around?  The duo agreed during their discussions of robbery that “If anyone gets in the way, we’ll stop em.”  When they went to the all night drive in grocery (I guess that’s what 7-11 were considered back then) Bell says he had a knife and his companion had an ice pick.  They went in and pretended to shop.  “She went into the rear store-room several times while we were there,”  Bell said.  “The last time she went in there, I followed her.”

He continues the confession saying “I don’t know how many times I stabbed her, but she fell to the floor and I kept on stabbing her.  I got down on my knees and got blood all over me.”  He says that his conspirator, Dennis Strawn, never came into the store room, but went out and got into the car they were driving and drove around back to pick him up.  The boys then headed straight to their rented trailer, showered and threw their clothes, with Mrs. Giovanni’s wallet wrapped inside, in a trash can and lit it on fire.  They must have walked away too soon because the evidence they were trying to burn was just fine for use at the trial.  Traces of human blood were found on the clothing and towels.

Screenshot of the opposing council having heated words

During the trial a large burly, bearded man was called to the stand.  It was the husband of Sophie Giovanni.  Joseph Giovanni walked slowly past the pews full of onlookers in the courtroom, past the jury with is head down, never looking at the defendant as he did, and took the stand.  He testified that he had been married to Mrs. Giovanni for 14 years and that they had three children together.  The defense decided they had no questions for him.

Robert “Bobby” Bell has asked the court not to seek the death penalty, admitting that it was his addiction to drugs that drove him to do what he did.  He was found guilty of the murder of Sophie Giovanni, a mother of three, and wife of 14 years, a relief night clerk at a local grocery store that had already survived one armed robbery the year before.  During the punishment phase Bobby’s mother took the stand and pleaded in a scream to the jury “What he did was a terrible thing.  He should be punished. But, in the name of God, don’t kill my Bobby!”  She had told the jury that she, her husband, the family physician and her son had been trying to cope with his narcotic addiction since he was 14 years old.  At the time of murder Bell says that he was “freaked out” on  LSD that was on a hamburger he ate, about two grams of intravenous injections of “speed” (meth), four to eight marijuana cigarettes and more wine than he could remember.  He testified that he was in the store to steal a coke.  During his time on the stand he said that on that Friday, the day of the murder, he was “felt he was in the midst of a giant mental battle.  The whole world was against me and my friends.  When I took the speed it was like taking off in a rocket.  I had a whole body stone.” A “whole body stone” is said to be when one feel’s his entire physical being is engaged in the drug.  Somehow during this epic trip however, he was able to describe the events before and during the murder.  Bell tells the jury he didn’t come down from his trip until Sunday and that he was still well within the throws of hallucinations while gave his confession and was read his rights by an elderly justice of the peace wearing glasses.  He said “I was tripping on his glasses.  I saw beautiful colors of every shade exploding from his glasses.  I didn’t even know what I was saying.” For not even knowing what he was saying the information he gave sure did match perfectly with what happened.  Robert Bells father begged the jury not to kill his son, his mother had screeched and sobbed on the stand as she asked for mercy for her Bobby and his attorney made an emotional plea for the life of his client, filled with arguments about the drug problem in the area and quoting bible verses.  Robert “Bobby” Bell received the first death penalty ever handed down in Ector County. He was sentenced to die by the electric chair but later was given life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Courts reversal of the state’s electrocution law.

Screenshot of Robert Bell as he receives verdict

In June of 1972, during the pre-trial hearings for Dennis Strawn a judge grants a motion to have him undergo psychiatric examination to determine if he is mentally capable of standing trial.  He is found to be fit for trial and just as in the trial of Robert Bell, Dennis Strawn is found guilty and convicted of murder.  However, unlike his partner in crime, Strawn is only given a 30 year prison term.  Of course it had to be taken into consideration that he was only 15 years old at the time and even though the crime of robbery was planned in the days before, he may have had no way of knowing that his cohort would commit such a heinous crime.

 

I wonder why he changed his name. During the trial it came out that he had a less than desirable childhood and one of his attorneys was even appointed as his legal guardian (he was still only 17 when he was convicted).  I’ll spend some time on him this evening and let you know if I find anything interesting out.