The Amarillo Murder Scandal: A Look Back at the Sensational Trial of Tex Thornton’s Killer
In 1949, the city of Amarillo was gripped by a crime that would become the talk of the nation and it all began on June 23 when W. A. "Tex" Thornton, a legendary oil-field firefighter and entrepreneur, was brutally murdered. The subsequent investigation and trial turned into a media frenzy, capturing the attention of people across the country.
In the 1920s, Amarillo native Tex Thornton had become well-known in the community after developing not only technologies that revolutionized the oil industry in the Panhandle, but also greatly benefited the Panhandle's agricultural industry during the dust bowl of the 1920s.
In June 1949, during a brief stop in New Mexico, Thornton encountered Evald O. Johnson, 32, and his 18-year-old wife, Diana Heaney Johnson, who were hitchhiking. Being on his way back to Amarillo, Thornton kindly offered them a ride. The three of them proceeded to Amarillo and took a moment to relax at a local bar before heading to their accommodations at the Plaza Park Motel in Amarillo, where they spent the night.
The next morning, a maid entered the trio's room and discovered the lifeless body of Tex Thornton, naked, bound with a tight shirt around his neck, and his head crushed in. The scene was marked by blood-soaked sheets, scattered clothing including bloody trousers with empty pockets, and signs of cleanup in the bathroom sink.
The subsequent investigation posed significant challenges for authorities, as the crime scene was marred by widespread fingerprint and blood contamination. Compounded by scattered eyewitness accounts along Route 66, the absence of Amarillo's Police Chief added to the problems, leaving the newly elected sheriff to grapple with his inaugural murder case.
On February 7, 1950, Diana Johnson turned herself authorities in Washington D.C. confessing her and Evald's involvement in the crime. Her husband, Evald O. Johnson, was subsequently found and arrested in Michigan.
Diana's case was dismissed due to lack of evidence, but Evald was charged with murder and was put on trial.
The trial, which commenced on May 7, 1950, quickly became quite the spectacle.
When questioning Diana and Evalds's family regarding the incident, investigators were given two different stories. Evald's family claimed he was a good boy prior to his involvement with Diana, while Diana's family claimed that Evald pushed her into prostitution to support him.
Evald had confessed to killing Thornton and defended his actions expressing that he had found Thornton and Diana naked, in bed together which sparked the killing. At the time this was a legitimate defense due to a law named Article 1220, which legally justified the killing of his wife's lover.
The jury delivered a surprising verdict of not guilty in the murder of Tex Thornton on May 16. However, Evald was sentenced to four years in federal prison for stealing the automobile and transporting it across state lines, while Diana received four years' probation. In the end, Evald received a 4-year sentence for stealing the car, while Diana received probation.
The story caught national attention and inspired the 1961 novel "Twilight of Honor" which recollected the events. A movie was later made that was based on "Twilight of Honor" which won multiple academy awards in 1963.
The trial's shocking verdict and the subsequent national attention have etched an unforgettable memory in the collective history of Amarillo. And no matter how many years have passed, the question still stands as to how and why Evald Johnson got off so easy from the murder of Tex"Thornton.
LOOK: 12 Unsolved Homicides by the Texas Rangers
Unsolved Murders of Amarillo, Texas
Executed Death Row Inmates from the Texas Panhandle
The 17 East Texans Who are Currently Sitting on Death Row