John Gorrell Jr., a dental student and the son of a prominent Tulsa physican, ate Thanksgiving dinner with his family in 1934 and left to go on a date.
Later that night, Gorrell’s body was discovered in an automobile in an affluent neighborhood near Philbrook Museum. He had two bullet holes in his head. The bullets were fired from his gun, but this was no suicide.
Two days later, the person who pulled the trigger surrendered to authorities. That person was Phil Kennamer, the son of a federal judge.
The story dominated newspaper headlines and commanded nationwide attention.
And, eight decades later, it’s a book.
Broken Arrow resident Jason Lucky Morrow is the author of “Deadly Hero: The High Society Murder that Created Hysteria in the Heartland.”
Morrow has written three “true crime” books, and he’s the man behind historicalcrimedetective.com, an online site “where old crime does new time.”
After learning of the Gorrell murder case — it’s far more layered than a killer confessing to a shooting — Morrow was hungry to dig into research.
What Morrow found was not a “whodunit?” Rather, it’s “will he get away with it?”
Kennamer, in interviews with investigators and the media, painted himself as a hero rather than a murderer. He claimed Gorrell was a gang leader who wanted to enlist his help in kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy Tulsa oil man or extorting money from her family.
But Kennamer professed to love the intended victim, Virginia Wilcox, and he claimed he killed Gorrell to preserve her safety.
Kennamer told others he intended to kill Gorrell, which smacks of premeditated murder, but he alleged the shooting was self-defense, occurring after Gorrell pulled a gun while he was a passenger in Gorrell’s car.
Meanwhile, newspaper reporters dug into Kennamer’s background. The book suggests Kennamer enjoyed the spotlight, unless stories were unflattering, and of course some of them were. He was the well-to-do and often arrogant kid who seemed to be very intelligent but had little interest in school work or keeping a job. He marched to the beat of a different drum. His defense team aimed for an insanity plea, which aggravated him.
Cold-blooded killer? Misunderstood hero? Who’s the bad guy here? And how did two kids from the “right” side of the tracks get caught up in something so tragic?
“Tulsa’s high society murder scandalized the Oil Capital of the World when the investigation churned up unsubstantiated reports of rich kids wildly out of control,” said an excerpt from the book’s back cover.
“Looking out over their Christian, conservative city, adults imagined sex-mad teens driving dangerously over their streets to get to hole-in-the-wall gambling joints and breast-bouncing dance parties where they would plan big crimes — all while high on marijuana and 3.2 beer. A tornado of rumors and gossip tore through town, stirring up mass hysteria and igniting a moral crusade to save the souls of Tulsa’s youth. When a key witness was found dead in his car under similar circumstances, it only confirmed their worst fears.”
The book begins with Gorrell’s body being discovered, continues through a wild trial in Pawnee (a change of venue was granted) and ends with a chapter on Kennamer’s death. Something to chew on before you read the book: Kennamer did not die in jail.
Morrow provided responses to Tulsa World questions about the book.
What about this story appealed to you so much that, more than 80 years later, you felt it needed to be a book?
Every major city in America has a true crime story that supersedes all others, and this is the most sensational true crime story in Tulsa history. If you set aside the Tulsa Race Riot, there is no other crime in the city’s history that had such a profound effect on the local population as this high society murder from 1934. When I discovered it for myself a few years ago, I wanted to learn everything I could about it. I used to be a newspaper reporter, and like all reporters, when we find a good story that is scattered in a thousand pieces, we have an irresistible drive to gather up all those pieces and put them back together so we can present an entertaining and informative story to others.
From your research, can you approximate just how big and scandalous this story was in the 1930s?
It made national and international headlines that lasted until the end of the trial. All the wire services and major newspapers from New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City sent their best crime reporters to Tulsa. This story might be in the history books today, but it was overshadowed at the time by Bruno Hauptmann’s “Trial of the Century” for the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr.
In regard to a murder case commanding the public’s attention, wasn’t it almost the perfect storm?
There’s no question Tulsa got hit by a tornado. In January of 1951, the Tulsa World asked readers to write the paper and list the most important stories of the first half of the twentieth century. The Phil Kennamer case was No. 1.
We like to think that, eventually, the truth wins out. Do we know the entire truth about this, or are there aspects that are still shrouded in mystery?
That is one of the biggest problems this story had at the time. People wanted to believe there was more to the case that wasn’t being told. They could not accept that this was a simple story of a handsome, charming psychopath who murdered an innocent boy so he could portray himself as the hero and win the heart of a beautiful young woman who had long rejected him, and gain acceptance into her wealthy family.
That is what the story boils down to, but the sensationalism created by the case became a drug so thrilling it stirred up mass mania to the point that local rumor mongers, including some in law enforcement, actively tried to heighten the level of public excitement with lurid elements that were false.
This is your third true crime book, and you blog about forgotten crimes and forgotten criminals on your blog. Why do you think you gravitated to that genre?
I love history so much — I am a full-grown man who daydreams about having a time machine. I have also long been fascinated with crime, criminals and the dark side of the human mind. I decided to combine the two passions, but to focus only on important criminal cases that have been lost or ignored for decades. I want to rescue these obscure stories and discover what they have to tell us. A historical true crime book like “Deadly Hero” could be considered “pop history,” but it is also social history. Instead of using a time machine, I can conduct careful research into what happened and then relate what life was like for ordinary people during a high-profile murder case.