AVLA, Okla. (AP) — A Woods County Sheriff’s deputy pulls out a brown folder about 6 inches wide, the sides held together with packing tape. Written in bold, black Sharpie across the front is a name and below it, “homicide.”
Filled with hand-written notes, carbon-copy statements from persons of interest, crime-scene photos and official reports, the file folder details the death of Mildred Ann Newlin Reynolds.
The Enid News & Eagle (http://bit.ly/1TQs7iM ) reports that on March 13, 1956, Reynolds was traveling from Alva back home to Avard, but she never made it.
Her vehicle was found on fire, her body burned beyond recognition, and several of her belongings were scattered in the area, including shoes.
Sixty years later, a distant relative re-opened the case to find more information regarding Reynolds’ mysterious death and to protect her legacy and reputation within the community.
Mildred Ann Newlin Reynolds, commonly referred to as Ann by friends and Annie by family, was born Dec. 25, 1933. She died March 13, 1956, at the age of 22.
At the time of her death, she was a chemistry student at Northwestern State College in Alva.
She married R.D. “Dee” Reynolds in May 1955. It was his second marriage, but her first. He had served in the Chemical Corps in the Army and was a teacher and basketball coach at Avard High School.
Jerry Huckabee, Reynolds’ nephew who was only a few years younger than her, would ride to school with her except on Tuesday afternoons, when he caught a ride home after his class in the afternoon.
March 13, 1956, was a Tuesday afternoon.
On March 13, Reynolds ran a few errands after her morning class before driving home. She was driving a light gray 1949 Chevy sedan home, according to the police report.
The burning vehicle was found at about 1:45 p.m. a mile south and about 2.5 miles west of Hopeton, down a country red-dirt road.
According to a report on July 20, 1956, by State Crime Bureau investigator Ivan Gates, on March 13 Reynolds’ vehicle transmission was in first — low gear — and the body identified inside the vehicle was Ann Reynolds.
According to drawings from the report, Reynolds was driving west when her car pulled to the left. Her car had made impressions in the sand about 2 inches from the road, according to the report. The car’s brakes were applied slightly and the vehicle began to roll backwards, zig-zagging, staying near and in the bar ditch. The report said the driver caused the rear wheels to spin, placing it in drive and hitting a tree. The car backed up again and then hit a small fence and the bumper guard was pulled from the vehicle. The car was pulled forward and once again backed before the vehicle stopped near the middle of the road. Reynolds’ body was found lying in the front seat, her head in the passenger side and her feet by the steering wheel, charred.
The report states that all car tracks were made by the same vehicle and no footprints were found leading to the fields or side of the road. Officers took photos and the body was taken to Oklahoma City for an autopsy, according to the report.
According to the case file, the car’s tires and solenoid starter switch melted, causing the vehicle to be pulled, while body lead used to join the fender dripped on the left side. The drain plug in the gas tank was melted out. Only two rivets instead of four were on the drain plug, which the report noted was “rare.”
The wrecker that retrieved the vehicle found the plug 16 feet from where the vehicle fire first began. The muffler had a large hole in the front and small holes on top. The exhaust pipe was bent, allowing 30 to 40 percent of the exhaust out.
The autopsy in the case file was completed March 30, 1956, and lists the fire as the cause of death. The autopsy, signed by assistant professor of pathology Alfred M. Shideler, noted there was a fracture of the skull that could not be determined if it happened before or after her death. Other skull fractures, he noted, happened during the fire. Reynolds’ death certificate states Reynolds burned to death in an auto fire, for which the cause was unknown.
News of Reynolds’ death made the front page of local newspapers, including the Woods County Enterprise and Waynoka News. A clipping from the newspaper’s March 22 publication noted that a coroner’s jury report deemed Reynolds death was from a fire, but that it was not an accident.
Reynolds’ death certificate has two causes of death marked, homicide and accident, with handwriting underneath stating both as “possible.”
The Woods County Sheriff’s office never closed the investigation, marking it a cold case.
Lacey Newlin has read the report hundreds of times, talked to countless community members and spent endless hours researching Ann Reynolds and the mysterious circumstances behind her death.
On a windy day in March, almost 60 years later, Newlin leaned down to place white flowers at Reynolds’ graveside. The gravestone rests between her parents, Ernest and Marie Newlin, and her brother, Eddie Newlin, and his wife, at the Cherokee Municipal Cemetery in Cherokee.
Newlin, 25, grew up in Burlington. Reynolds was her grandfather’s cousin.
Reynolds’ mysterious death was simply a story told by family members that Newlin had heard as a child.
“My dad had always told me about it or told it to me in passing, but I didn’t really know the details of the case,” Newlin said. “I found out no one really knew and everyone had a different idea of what had happened.”
Now a page designer and staff writer for the High Plains Journal in Dodge City, Kan., Newlin came across Reynolds’ name while researching a story about ghosts in October.
Reynolds’ ghost is said to haunt the former Avard Public School gym where her husband taught.
After Avard schools closed, the space was turned into Vina Rae’s restaurant and was owned by Nan Wheatley.
“When I looked into it further, I realized the stuff didn’t really go with our publication so I kind of scrapped it as an idea for that story and then I kind of started thinking about it in a different way,” Newlin said. “I called a few relatives and asked about it. I found out that their rendition of the story had greatly differed from what I had been told. It was surprising how the family would have different versions of it, and no one was really on the same page with it.”
Newlin talked to a mentor about the situation. He was interested and suggested Newlin call the Woods County Sheriff’s Office.
She called the office and visited to make copies of Reynolds’ case file.
Digging deeper, Newlin learned the family was never told the details surrounding Reynolds’ death.
“The family knew just as much as the public did,” she said. “They just didn’t want to tell them. I don’t know if that was for. ” Newlin said, staring at her lap.
“Maybe they just didn’t want to tell them the details because they were so gruesome — I don’t know. The police just kind of kept them out of it, and the case went nowhere and they never knew,” she added.
Newlin then called Reynolds’ only living sibling, Barbara.
Newlin was afraid of offending Barbara with questions of her sister’s 60-year-old cold case. Newlin had never met Barbara.
Barbara wasn’t offended, Newlin said. She wanted the younger relative to take her research further by talking to old acquaintances in an attempt to find out what actually happened that day in 1956.
“So, that was kind of what compelled me to dig and dig and dig, and that’s what I kept doing,” she said, noting she travelled to Reynolds’ former high school location in Lambert. “I kept finding someone who might know about it (the incident) or had known Ann, something that related them to the case. I would call them and explain what I was doing, which is really hard to do in one sentence, but it did help me a lot that I was from around here — I had a connection to most of them and how I was related to her. But every time I would call someone, they would give me another name and it kind of dominoed.”
Spending hundreds of hours of phone calls, drives to Cherokee and after several meetings with former classmates or relatives, Newlin continued with her research.
There was a point when Newlin wanted to give up. Overworked, discouraged and hitting one too many roadblocks, she took a month break.
An area police officer approached Newlin about reviewing the case. She agreed, wanting to get his perspective.
“He basically told me that he thought it could’ve been an accident from what the traffic report said,” she said. “For some reason, not that I wanted to prove him wrong, but if this was foul play, I didn’t want them to get off easy or for it to go down as an accident when it could’ve been a murder.”
Most folks Newlin has spoken with believe the incident was murder and they call it as such. Newlin said she has an idea behind the cause, or people, in Reynolds’ death, but she didn’t provide any names or solutions.
Newlin picked her notes back up and trudged forward in her search.
Newlin became connected with Reynolds.
“I guess I just became more fond of her during the process, and no one ever said anything unkind about her, but if someone would have said something, I would have felt the need to defend her,” she said. “It was strange to me that I had developed an attachment to her, but I think part of that, I mean, I think she’s lonely.”
She said it is not because people didn’t like Reynolds — many loved her — but because she does not have anyone to visit her grave. Reynolds never had the opportunity to have children, to grow old with someone or grow wise with age.
“That’s hard for me to swallow,” Newlin said. “I guess I wanted her to not be just lost to history and become this sort of sideshow legend, which is what she was becoming in a way because of the ghost stories, just it being passed down as a legend. One of the only murders in the Woods County area, especially at that time, if you want to call it a murder.”
Newlin said the purpose of researching Reynolds and the mystery behind her death was not to figure out who did what, or to solve the cold case but preservation of stories and beliefs.
“I didn’t want her to be made into something she wasn’t,” Newlin said, looking at a yearbook that contained Reynolds’ school picture. “I didn’t want it to be made into something it shouldn’t be — that’s why I went back to it.”
Newlin said she felt the need to protect some things in Reynolds’ autopsy, which is graphic, out of a sense of invasion of privacy.
“I guess I feel protective of her, and I don’t really know why,” she said. “You develop a relationship with your work sometimes, and it makes you do strange things, think strange things.”