A park ranger in Hot Springs National Park stumbles upon an illegal alcohol operation and pays the ultimate price. His murderers are still unaccounted for, leaving everyone in Arkansas mystified for nearly 100 years. Who really killed National Park Ranger James Cary and is the answer somewhere bubbling just beneath the surface?
- “Park Ranger James Alexander Cary” by Officer Down Memorial Page
- “Hot Springs Honors Slain Park Ranger” by Kenneth Heard for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette
- “Hot Springs National Park to Unveil Memorial to Ranger James A. Cary” by Josie Fernandez for The National Park Service
- “James Alexander Cary (1895 – 1927)” by Christopher Thrasher for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas
- “Park Ranger Killed In Line of Duty Honored in Hot Springs” by The Associated Press
- “National Park Service Ranger Discusses Historical Shooting” by Max Bryan for The Sentinel Record
- “James Alexander Cary” Find A Grave
- The Arkansas Gazette Newspaper 1927 clipping scans
- “Slain Ranger To Receive Memorial At Hot Springs National Park” by NPT Staff for National Parks Traveler
- James Alexander Cary: Park Policeman National Park Service Memorial Page
- James A Cary
- Hot Springs National Park: Where History and Nature Meet
- Prohibition behind Spa City park ranger’s murder by Jack Schnedler, Arkansas Democrat Gazette
- The Protection Ranger v1n6, December 1990/January 1991, archived by Npshistory.com
- The Protection Ranger v2n1, February/ March 1991, archived by Npshistory.com
- The Site of Infamy – A Haven in the Gangster Era, Hot Springs Website
Hi park enthusiasts…
I’m your host Delia D’Ambra.
And the story I’m going to tell you about today is the first of its kind in American National Park history.
The brutal murder of a park ranger in the line of duty.
It’s also the oldest case I’ve ever covered on this show.
It’s the story of James Alexander Cary, from 1927, and it’s one of the most baffling murder investigations in a parkland that I’ve ever read about.
It takes place in Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas at the height of the prohibition era.
Throughout the decades, the park itself has lured visitors with stories that the waters from the natural thermal springs have healing powers and the jury is still out on that one.
But back in 1927, the park also attracted the attention of unsavory characters operating the illegal liquor trade, aka bootleggers and gangsters.
And caught right in the middle was Park Ranger James Cary who went out on a routine patrol, never to be seen alive again.
This is Park Predators….
*Wind and crunching ice*
December 7th, 1926, was a cold day as 31-year-old park policeman James Cary trudged his way through the forested terrain and icy creeks of Hot Springs National Park.
He was patrolling like every other day. Making sure the trails in the park were clear of debris and no one was around committing crimes.
The conditions in winter were harsh but lately weren’t as hard to bear. It was much worse back when James first took this job almost 4 years ago. Before that, he fought in World War II for the United States Navy.
So, his long patrols through the park’s woods and thermal springs were definitely a welcomed change of scenery compared to those long stints stationed aboard the U.S.S. Orient, cramped up with hundreds of other sailors.
Wartime overseas was long over but James was fighting a new kind of enemy. One operating inside of the national park he was charged with protecting.
While hiking his route near a ridge in the park known as West Mountain, James stopped and noticed something odd in the distance. He saw three men hauling containers that looked like they’re full of some type of dark liquid.
Immediately James realized what he’s looking at. Bootleggers.
Criminals illegally hauling gallons of liquor to or from hiding spots in the mountains. This had been an ongoing problem in Hots Springs National Park and James had personally made it his mission to see to it that these smugglers were arrested and prosecuted.
Two of the guys James saw seemed to be the ones possessing the contraband, while the third guy just gestured suggesting an exchange of some sort.
James continued to watch the men barter and when it appeared they’d finished their deal, he moved in.
While he attempted to arrest the trio for violating liquor laws and doing so on federal land, one of them named Raymond Hunt escaped.
A few hours later Raymond showed up at Hot Springs police headquarters and turned himself in. He made a point to tell police that he would face the penalty for his crimes but he wanted to make it clear that he would NOT let park policeman James Cary be the person to put him in cuffs.
Raymond Hunt, Walter Weldon, and Ed Halsey were all subsequently charged with violating liquor laws.
A few days later at their first court hearing, Raymond and Walter were federally indicted but the case against Ed was dismissed. His lawyer was somehow able to show that Ed was not connected with the transaction.
Prosecutors taking the remaining defendants to a grand jury planned to rely solely on James Cary’s testimony when the case was scheduled to go to trial in April 1927 at the federal courthouse in Little Rock, Arkansas.
According to the Arkansas Gazette, James told colleagues with the park service that he wouldn’t be surprised if he ran into trouble with the defendants or their associates prior to testifying. He knew making the arrest was going to ruffle feathers in the illegal liquor trade gangs but he didn’t care all that much. He felt what he’d done was just and necessary to prove to criminals that they could not hide contraband in the national park.
James’ arrest of Raymond, Walter, and Ed was no surprise. It was known in Hot Springs that liquor was being stowed away and hidden in secluded spots all over the mountains.
Bootleggers would often distill liquor in the woods of Garland County then transport it into the city at night via roads that were almost never patrolled. According to an article on the city of Hot Springs website, the park was infamous in the late 1800s and early 1900s for being a haven for criminals, gangsters, and people running illegal gambling and liquor rings.
There were even accusations that these criminal enterprises had gotten so powerful that they had police officers and judges in their pockets who would turn blind eyes to the illegal industry.
In early January 1927, while the three defendants James had arrested awaited their trial they were released on bail.
*Boots walking & crunching down a path*
On March 12th, 1927 around 8 pm, Hot Springs National Park superintendent Joseph Bolton was walking to his office at the park’s headquarter when he noticed something odd. The flag flying on a pole above the building was still up.
*Flag unfurling in the wind*
That was unusual because typically at the end of the day the park ranger on-duty would lower it.
Joseph thought this was strange, especially because he knew that James Cary was the ranger on shift that night and James never neglected his duties before leaving for the day.
James had an impeccable record as a park policeman ever since he joined the service four years ago. He worked 56 hours a week, 8 hours a day and never had a single blemish on his service record.
Joseph couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right, so he checked with witnesses who stated the last they’d seen of James was around 4:15 pm.
At that time, they’d seen James leave the park headquarters in his patrol car.
Joseph’s concern for James grew worse when he walked further down the road from his office and noticed something else odd outside of the spring’s bathhouses. The entire road that ran alongside the row of buildings was dark. No one had turned the lights on.
This was a clear red flag to Joseph that James had never even been over to this area or completed his duties for the day. Joseph was worried because he knew that bootleggers and people involved in illegal activities had a history of roaming the park and nearby roads at night.
Pretty soon an all-out search began to try and find James. The superintendent sounded a general alarm and sent out squads of men with the park service to look for the missing officer.
Their starting point was an area of the park called West Mountain and it literally is a mountain. Joseph knew that a big section of James’ routine patrol route was West Mountain and the roads surrounding it.
Within a few hours, searchers found James’ patrol car. An old-timey looking Ford Touring which if you Google pictures of this car you’ll see what I mean. It sort of looks like a classic Model T. It was parked near the summit of West Mountain with the driver’s door swung wide open.
Reports are a bit slim on the details. Some publications from 1927 say the car was located sometime between eight o’clock and ten o’clock at night on Saturday, March 12th, but other reports say it was found at dawn the morning of Sunday, March 13th.
I don’t know exactly which one is right but it’s safe to say that by daybreak on Sunday, they knew the last place James had been and that was on West Mountain.
* Birds chirping*
According to the Arkansas Gazette, shortly after 6 am James’s brother, brother-in-law, and father-in-law who were walking along Gem Street came upon James’s bloody body lying in a ravine at the base of the mountain. The spot was only about a quarter-mile downhill from where searchers found his abandoned patrol car.
Gem Street was the road that led to West Mountain and the same one James’ patrol car had been parked on. It was also a common route bootleggers would take to smuggle liquors to hiding spots inside the park.
The answer to the question of how James had gotten down to where he was found seemed obvious. He’d confronted someone there and they’d shot him. The real question was, did James see something suspicious and go to his killers or had the shooter been lying in wait and ambushed him?
Officers didn’t find James’ service weapon on his body. According to reports, it was normal practice back then for park police officers to pay for their own uniforms and weapons. James did own a revolver he carried with him while on duty, but it wasn’t on him that day.
When police spoke with James’ father, he told police that he was in possession of James’ revolver and had been all weekend. The gun had originally been his service weapon years ago and James often borrowed it while on duty.
So, it was clear that whoever shot James didn’t use his revolver to kill him.
The killer had brought their own.
Almost as soon as James Cary’s body was found, police told reporters that they expected the investigation was going to wrap up quickly and the people responsible would be apprehended.
The park’s superintendent, Joseph Bolton, notified the park’s director that James was dead and that the investigation suggested he’d been ambushed. He told the director law enforcement personnel from all over Garland County, the city of Hot Springs and park service employees were working to find the shooter or shooters. He asked the director to approve a request to send in federal agents from the U.S. Bureau of Investigations. That request wasn’t immediately approved.
A day after the murder, officers combing the mountainside found James’ watch. It was located a good ways away from where his body had been discovered. Police believed that meant whoever had killed him stripped it from his corpse then for some reason ditched it in the park.
The watch itself was an interesting clue because it had stopped ticking at 5 pm. This told investigators that more than likely that was around the precise time James had been killed. Either the mechanisms in the watch stopped when James fell to the ground or they’d been damaged when the watch was tossed down the road from his body.
A woman who had been just outside the park on Saturday afternoon told police that she’d heard a gunshot between 4 pm and 5 pm. So that definitely lines up with the watch telling the time of death theory.
When investigators took a close look at James’ clothing they found bloody fingerprints on the lining of one of his pant pockets. They compared James’ fingerprints to those bloody ones and they were not a match. So, this led authorities to believe that whoever left those bloodstains inside James’s pocket was likely the killer and they’d rummaged through his trousers after shooting him. Nothing of any value was missing though. Just a few scraps of paper were strewn around his body.
Initially, some people thought just by looking at the crime scene that the bloody fingerprints could have been a sign that James himself had reached into his pocket to grab a handkerchief to plug up his wound and stop the bleeding but once police confirmed the bloody prints did not belong to James, that theory fell apart.
When a local coroner did an autopsy on James’s body he found he’d died from a .45 caliber gunshot fired at close range. The doctor knew whoever fired at James had to have been really close to him when they killed him because of evidence found on his clothing and skin.
The autopsy report stated that based on where holes were on James’s shirt and where they weren’t on his coat it was likely that when he was shot he was in a physical fight with someone. It appeared that he was wrestling for something or being overtaken.
The report stated that a bullet definitely pierced his right shoulder just a few inches below his neck. The shot never passed through his coat, only his shirt. It entered sort of sideways and traveled through James’ right shoulder blade then passed through his body in a direct line, eventually lodging near his left shoulder.
There are a few reports I found though that indicate some officials initially believed James may have been shot twice.
These officials suggested the autopsy showed a second small bullet near James’ left shoulder that wasn’t consistent with an exit wound. They believed this mystery hole indicated James could have been shot from a distance perhaps with a small-caliber rifle, first. Then his attacker ran up on him and fired the .45.
A rifle wound from afar would likely not have killed James, so his attackers would have had to walk close to him and fire a second, fatal shot. Investigators speculated that as the shooter approached James is when a scuffle of some sort happened.
The final ruling from the coroner states that the only sure bullet hole was the one in James’ neck.
The angle of that shot indicated that James’s right arm was likely raised with the front of his coat thrown open or somewhat hanging off him when the shot was fired. There was no bullet hole found in the coat, but there was one in his shirt.
The area around the hole in the shirt and on his skin where the bullet entered was severely burned meaning that the muzzle flash likely had direct contact with his shirt and body.
The prevailing theory that drove police’s investigation was that James had come across someone in the park associated with bootlegging.
Officers reviewing James’ previous record of busting up such crimes noticed that where his body was found was only 50 feet away from where he’d arrested three men a few months earlier on West Mountain. That incident was when he’d caught Raymond Hunt, Ed Halsey, and Walter Weldon smuggling and exchanging five gallons of distilled liquor back on December 7th.
Officers found it suspicious that James, who was set to be the sole witness against those men, was now dead in the same spot where their arrests happened.
Authorities believed one of two things had occurred. James likely stumbled upon the same kind of smugglers using West Mountain’s seclusion to transport liquor or perhaps he was lured to the spot and murdered.
The biggest clue supporting that second theory was information police gathered that indicated prior to his death James had received an anonymous tip that bootleggers were going to be moving a big stash on West Mountain the evening of Saturday, March 12th.
Police uncovered that earlier in the afternoon on Saturday, a man had been walking on Gem Street near West Mountain’s ridge asking about James and when and where he usually patrolled.
Officers suspected that James had been set up and when he drove his patrol car up to West Mountain Saturday night he had no idea what he was walking into.
Police began rounding up anyone and everyone who had been arrested or suspected of liquor violations in Garland County and the city of Hot Springs. This included all of the men James had previously arrested in December 1926. The guys that had all conveniently been out on bail awaiting trial.
And when they found them, the entire trajectory of the case changed.
Local and state law enforcement officers investigating James Cary’s murder split up into groups and started running down men James had previously arrested for bootlegging.
The first to be apprehended were Raymond Hunt and Walter Weldon. The others were David Camp, an associate of Ed Halsey, a former arrestee of James’, and a man named Chester Henderson.
Police found Walter sleeping inside the house of the female witness who’d come forward and told police she’d heard a gunshot on Saturday afternoon. Raymond was located at his home. When police searched the inside they found a bloody shirt and pair of pants in his closet. The other men were detained because of their known associations with Raymond and Walter and previous violations of liquor laws.
According to The Arkansas Gazette, on March 13th a police constable in Hot Spring named John Young and a Garland County deputy began searching for two other men they suspected were involved in the killing.
Police had intel that two guys, Lawrence Wilson and Garland “Doc” Weldon, had been inside the national park the day James was murdered. They were also known associates of Raymond Hunt.
On March 14th, police constable John Young located Lawrence and Doc 15 miles north of the national park at a farm owned by Lawrence’s father. At the farm, police seized a Winchester rifle they believed could have been used in the killing.
Lawrence’s father told police that he’d found it beside one of his barns Sunday morning. One of Lawrence’s brothers, Roy Wilson, told police that he and his father had shot the rifle in the woods the day prior but when investigators asked his dad about that detail, his father said Roy had lied.
So officers detained Roy along with Lawrence and Doc.
When the men got to the city jail, officers questioned them about the crime but they all refused to talk.
The Gazette reported that at that time police told reporters they had evidence that strongly pointed to Roy, Lawrence, and Doc being involved but they didn’t explain what that evidence was.
All police would tell the press was that Lawrence and Doc were known to be inside the park with two girls the Saturday evening James was murdered.
The women the men had been with had come forward to police and spilled the beans. They told officers that while they were with Lawrence and Doc Saturday afternoon the two men had been drinking a lot and the entire time the group was together they’d both been behaving nervously.
Police took these women’s stories into consideration but their stories alone weren’t what convinced detectives that Lawrence and Doc were somehow involved. It was actually something much more obvious.
You see, Doc Weldon was actually the brother of Walter Weldon, the same Walter Weldon that James Cary had arrested three months earlier for bootlegging inside Hot Springs National Park.
Police believed that Doc may have been seeking revenge against James Cary for having arrested his brother the year before.
Investigators believed Roy, Lawrence, and Doc, along with Raymond, David, Walter, and Chester had all conspired to kill James. Their motive? The trial against Raymond and Walter in which James was going to be the star witness was scheduled for April 1927…one month after the murder. They simply had to get rid of James Cary.
On March 23rd, Hot Springs National Park superintendent Joseph Bolton’s request for federal assistance in the case was officially denied.
The U.S. Attorney General at the time determined that the federal government and agents with the U.S. Bureau of Investigations technically did not have jurisdiction in Hot Springs National Park.
And this was true. According to a report from the National Park Rangers Lodge, in 1927 it wasn’t yet a federal crime to kill a park ranger. On top of that, back then the US government didn’t actually have exclusive jurisdiction of West Mountain. According to historic records, the state of Arkansas didn’t formally surrender jurisdiction of the land to the federal government until 1933.
On March 15, 1927, James Cary’s family held his funeral and he was buried 14 miles outside the boundary of the park. James left behind his wife Thelma and their five-year-old son James Orvis and 8-month-old daughter Leora. To help cope with the loss of her husband, Thelma actually had James’s sister move in, which wasn’t really that big of a move because his sister’s house actually joined Thelma and James’s.
The shock of the killing rippled through Garland County. Authorities who were furious that people involved in liquor sales were likely behind the killing began cracking down hard on alcohol operations.
On March 14th, The Arkansas Gazette reported that three days after the murder, Garland County’s prosecuting attorney filed formal complaints against five establishments in the city that were suspected of bootlegging headquarters. The DA’s move was successful. He was able to get a judge to sign off on temporary padlock orders that closed down several places.
A lot of the people named as the operators of these booze barns were husbands and wives or members of the same family. According to the Arkansas Gazette, every single person, with the exception of a woman, had previously been arrested for bootlegging or had been on the county’s court docket in some form or fashion. The news report also stated that each location had previously been raided and the owners were cited on suspicion of either making alcohol or harboring it.
One of the homes that was shut down was a backdoor speakeasy that several soldiers in the US Army and Navy told authorities they’d bought whiskey and other liquor from over the years.
So, the people behind these alcohol fronts definitely had a history of being on police’s radar but for some reason, it seemed like time and time again they just kept popping back up after a few weeks of going underground.
The county’s head attorney wanted to finally put a stop to that. So, he petitioned another judge to make the padlock orders permanent. He told the Arkansas Gazette that the whiskey business was quote — “a threat against the lives of all officers and we intend to accept the challenge.”–end quote.
While he waited to see if the padlock orders would stick for good, several months passed with nothing materializing in the case.
Police officials who’d detained the five men suspected of the crime never got a confession from any of them and investigators were never able to link any evidence directly to them.
Because of that, police had to release the men.
News reports are vague but the next update in the case didn’t come until January 1928, nearly a year after James was killed.
His widow, Thelma wrote a letter to two U.S. senators in Arkansas pleading with them to help investigate her husband’s murder. She wrote that she felt the local investigation into the case was not materializing any real results and she was upset that no one had been formally charged.
Within just days of receiving her letter, the two senators launched a formal inquiry into the case. After a few weeks of investigating, staff in charge of the probe uncovered that there were serious problems in how the murder investigation was handled by Garland County Sheriff‘s office and the Hot Springs City Police Chief.
The most damning accusation came from Hot Springs national park superintendent Joseph Bolton who wrote in a letter that local police did not perform harsh enough interrogations with the known suspects.
While Thelma waited for information on what’s going to be done in the case she decided to offer up a $500 reward for her husband’s killer. The people living in Hot Springs matched her funds with another $500, bringing the total to $1000. Which back in those days was a lot of money. According to Saving.org, that’s worth about $15,000 in today’s currency.
Even with so much money up for grabs, 1928 dragged on with still no movement in the case Thelma continued to press officials on the state and federal level though. She wrote another letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior asking him to get involved because she was worried that authorities might be part of a bigger cover-up.
She accused park superintendent Joseph Bolton of conspiring with the suspects in the case to have James killed. Thelma wrote in her letter that James kept a notebook of observances he made around the park and information he was investigating in the months leading up to his murder. A lot of that info pertained to James uncovering misdeeds by the Department of Interior’s officials.
One entry Thelma found read that James suspected a man with the initials J-S-B, aka Joseph S. Bolton, was in the habit of tipping off bootleggers and gangs if prohibition officers or park rangers were on to them. It also indicated that Hot Springs Chief of Police William Brandeburg was also involved.
She suggested that the reason her husband’s pockets had been rifled through after he was shot was because the killer had been looking for his notebook.
The Department of Interior took James’ notebook from Thelma, and according to reports it was never seen again.
In September 1929 J. Edgar Hoover, director of the U.S Investigation Bureau, assigned a special agent to conduct an undercover investigation into these allegations of conspiracy and local officials wanting James dead.
The probe, which was named “The Wren Report” after the agent who conducted it, wrapped up in December 1928. It contained transcripts of witness interviews from people closely associated with the prime suspects in the case. Those interviews revealed that on the day James was shot, Lawrence and Roy Wilson had stolen 20 gallons of whiskey and hidden it on West Mountain around 4 pm.
One witness, the woman who’d initially reported hearing a shot ring out between 4 and 5 o’clock told investigators that she saw the suspects come down the mountain around 6:30 pm. Raymond Hunt had a Winchester rifle in his hands and she heard him tell Doc Weldon that he’d nearly missed James the first time, then Doc replied it didn’t matter because they got him good the second time.
This woman witnessed the men hide the rifle under the Weldons’ barn. She also said that they threatened her life if she told anyone what she’d seen or heard.
After the Wren report wrapped up, the U.S. Attorney general filed a criminal complaint against all five suspects for conspiring to murder a government witness in the process of performing his duties. Arrest warrants were issued for all of the men but by that time most of them had split town.
Authorities tracked all of them down though and by January 1929 the men were arraigned in court
According to Max Bryan’s reporting, on February 1st, 1929, Raymond Hunt, David Camp, Walter Weldon, Ray Wilson, and Lawrence Wilson were indicted for first-degree murder in Garland County.
Raymond’s trial was scheduled to start on February 25th, 1929, nearly two years after the murder.
Political jockeying between the state of Arkansas courts and the federal government is what delayed the trials for so long.
The feds had clearly stated back in 1927 that West Mountain was not federal jurisdiction. They’d denied the park superintendent’s request for resources. However, by the time the trial came around and federal prosecutors saw a potential high-profile murder conviction could be theirs, they began squabbling with the attorney general of Arkansas to have Raymond tried in federal court.
Ultimately, the two sides came to an agreement to first prosecute Raymond and the other defendants for murder locally in Garland County then they would go to trial on conspiracy charges in federal court.
Raymond’s defense at his murder trial was that he was working for a family member’s business at the time of the murder and these relatives could account for him. Raymond even testified that there was no bad blood between him and ranger James Cary. He stated to jurors that it was quite the opposite. James Cary and he were the best of friends. One of Raymond’s uncles took the witness stand and testified that at one point in time he’d even heard Raymond and James laughing together outside of his shop.
This testimony was a slap in the face to James’ widow Thelma and the entire Cary family. Many people in the courtroom were appalled to hear Raymond’s testimony.
A severe blow to the prosecution at trial was the fact that most of their witnesses were criminals too. Gamblers or sex workers who had decided to testify against Raymond. The defense destroyed the people’s testimony and successfully showed the jurors that they were not credible.
After roughly four hours of deliberation, the jury returned and acquitted Raymond.
Prosecutors, fearing the other four defendants’ trials would go the same way, decided to drop all of the charges.
News reports are a little murky, but sometime between February and April 1929 Raymond was moved out of state custody and faced federal charges for conspiracy. He was convicted after taking a no-contest plea. He was sentenced to one year in a federal penitentiary then released.
The government dismissed all charges against the other defendants due to people coming forward and providing them alibis and the fact that the state courts had dismissed murder charges earlier that year.
No criminal charges or indictments were ever brought against the Hot Springs Police Chief or national park superintendent Joseph Bolton.
In May 2016 the National Park Service erected a memorial inside Hot Spring National Park to honor James Cary.
The bronze plaque monument is fixed to a boulder facing toward West Mountain. It features the iconic park ranger campaign hat.
James Cary’s son, who in 2016 was 94 years old, told reporters that after his father’s death the family faced very hard times financially and emotionally. The national park service superintendent delayed paperwork that required the government to pay in full for his father’s funeral.
James Orvis supported the notion that a larger government conspiracy was to blame for his father’s murder.
He and his family found their peace about the tragedy over the years and will forever be proud of James Cary’s sacrifice.
As for the identity of the true triggerman behind whatever gun killed the ranger…no one to this day truly knows.
It’s a secret forever kept by Hot Springs National Park.
Park Predators is an audiochuck Original Podcast.
Research and writing by Delia D’Ambra with writing assistance from executive producer Ashley Flowers.
Sound design by David Flowers with production assistance from Alyssa Gosztola.
You can find all of the source material for this episode on our website, Parkpredators.com.
So what do you think, Chuck? Do you approve? *howl*