Who Shot the Sheriff? The South Plains Trial of the Century

The following article was first published in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal’s “Caprock Chronicles” column. It is also included in Chuck Lanehart’s upcoming book, “Marvels of the Texas Plains: Historic Chronicles from the Courthouse to the Caprock,” published by The History Press.

In the winter of 1935, two trials dominated South Plains newspaper headlines. The celebrated New Jersey trial of Richard Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindberg baby became known as “The Trial of the Century.” But on the South Plains, Hauptmann news coverage was overshadowed by the Lubbock trial of Virgil Stalcup, accused of murdering the Dickens County Sheriff.

Stalcup was born in New Mexico in 1907. He was small—five-feet-six and 140 pounds—with fair complexion, green eyes and balding light brown hair. Described as “pug-nosed,” he sported a gold-capped front tooth and smoked constantly. He was married at age 20, and the couple had a daughter. Stalcup found work as an auto mechanic but soon embarked on a more lucrative, brief, and intense life of crime.

His specialty was armed robbery, stealing from victims throughout the Southwest. At age 23, Stalcup landed in the Texas penitentiary, serving 125 years for robberies out of Wilbarger, Potter and Wichita Counties.

On April 13, 1934, Stalcup escaped from prison and made his way to the home of his father—O.B. Stalcup—near Lawton, Oklahoma. There, he hooked up with 38-year-old Clarence Brown of Snyder, Texas. They pulled off a string of robberies in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

When authorities closed in on O.B.’s home on June 17, there was a shootout. Stalcup was shot in the shoulder and his 54-year-old father was killed. Two police officers were wounded by gunfire. Stalcup and Brown surrendered.

After their arrest, Stalcup and Brown confessed to a number of crimes. Both were transferred to Dickens County to face trial for the robbery of a bottling company truck driver. Stalcup was transferred to Lamb County for a plea of guilty to a Littlefield robbery. After the judge sentenced him to a ten-year prison term, Stalcup told the judge he “had no intentions of serving the sentence.” He was returned to Dickens County.

The Dickens County Sheriff was 43-year-old Bill Arthur. Born in New Mexico in 1886, Arthur moved to Dickens County as a young man. He married Nannie Stegall in 1908 and the couple had six children. In 1931, he was elected sheriff and the family moved into the first-floor living quarters of the 1909 Dickens County Jail. Prisoners were housed on the second floor of the quaint stone structure.

In mid-July of 1934, Sheriff Arthur confronted W.J. “Jenks” Yarborough in McAdoo. Yarbrough, a 40-year-old farmer, was suspected of illegally carrying a handgun. Yarbrough pulled his .25 caliber pistol and shot Sheriff Arthur five times. The Sheriff did not fall. He pulled his pistol and fired but missed as the shooter fled. The Sheriff walked to a nearby icehouse and told the proprietor, “Let’s go to the hospital.”

He was treated at a Lubbock sanitarium. Doctors were unable to remove four bullets lodged in the Sheriff’s thigh, buttocks and chest. Nevertheless, the Sheriff was soon well enough to resume his duties.

His wife Nannie told Sheriff Arthur he should find another line of work. “I had rather he pick cotton – anything,” she said. But her sound advice was ignored.

Yarbrough was soon arrested and taken to the Dickens County Jail and housed in a cell adjacent to Stalcup and Brown.

On August 18, Stalcup and Brown—brandishing a knife—escaped from the jail. Within days, Brown was re-captured at his home in Snyder and returned to the Dickens County Jail. His attractive 27-year-old wife, Thelma, often traveled to see her husband in the hoosegow. On one such visit, she charmed jailers in order to smuggle a pistol into the jail. The pistol would later factor into the killing of the Dickens County Sheriff.

Stalcup remained free for a couple of months. In the badlands near Clarendon, the outlaw was spotted by a large posse of well-armed lawmen. During a wild ten-mile car-and-foot chase, deputies fired at him with machine guns. He was captured unharmed on October 23 and was returned to Dickens County. During his two months on the lam, Stalcup had committed robberies in at least three Texas counties. A reporter wrote he faced 254 years in prison.

Just four days later, the commode on the second floor of the jail overflowed. The layout of the tiny, five-cell jail required Sherriff Arthur to enter the cellblock in order to examine the problem with the toilet.

Stalcup and Brown played cards in the southeast cage as Yarbrough read in the northeast cage closest to the commode. Apparently, none of the cell doors were locked.

The Sheriff knelt over the commode to repair the plumbing. Suddenly, a shot rang out! Sheriff Arthur stumbled into Yarbrough’s cell and fell to his knees by the cot, mortally wounded from a bullet to his neck.

Stalcup and Brown were gone, along with the Sheriff’s weapons and car. Investigators suspected Sheriff Arthur had carelessly entered the cellblock armed and was killed with his own pistol.

A nationwide manhunt for Sheriff Arthur’s alleged murderers—Stalcup and Brown—paused on October 30 for the Sheriff’s funeral. More than 5,000 mourners, including dozens of law enforcement personnel from several states, attended.

Four days later, both desperados were arrested near Houston without incident. “I guess this is the last break I’ll ever make,” Stalcup said.

Talk of vigilante justice in Dickens meant the duo would be housed in the more secure Lubbock County Jail. Stalcup and Brown were indicted for capital murder. Stalcup’s case would be tried first, on a change of venue to Lubbock County.

Trial began Monday, February 5, 1935, in Lubbock’s stately 1916 courthouse. Described as “calm, cocky and pudgy-faced,” Stalcup smoked constantly during the proceedings. With his blonde wife holding his hand, Stalcup’s five-year-old daughter clambered over his lap, kissing him repeatedly—as two dozen officers stood nearby for security.

Stalcup’s young court-appointed lawyers were from Lubbock: Hugh Anderson, Dub Benson and Robert Allen. The prosecution was led by special prosecutor George Dupree, a legendary Lubbock trial lawyer. Dickens County DA Alton Chapman and Lubbock County DA Dan Blair augmented the State’s team. They subpoenaed 60 witnesses.

Jury selection was completed on Tuesday, and when testimony began Wednesday morning, the courtroom was packed with observers. Another 200 were turned away.

The State’s first three witnesses were prisoners present in the jail when Sheriff Arthur was murdered though none saw the attack. Jenks Yarbrough, serving a 15-year prison sentence for a previous shooting of the Sheriff, testified he looked up when he heard the shot and saw Stalcup “holding a big gun.”

Inmates Curtis Squyres and Luther Hall both saw Stalcup with a “drawn pistol” after the shot rang out. Squyres hollered for help as Stalcup ran down the stairs. Stalcup yelled, “Shut your (expletive) mouth.” Hall saw Stalcup open the cell block door with keys in his left hand and saw Brown follow Stalcup down the stairs.

The Sheriff’s 12-year-old daughter Creola was home in her family’s first-floor jail apartment when she heard the shot. Tearfully, Creola told the jury she saw the jail door open and Stalcup with a gun. As Stalcup drove away in the Sheriff’s car, Creola chased on foot, returning to see her daddy’s lifeless body being carried down the stairs.

Stalcup never testified but granted interviews to a reporter during the trial. “I didn’t kill the man,” he said, refusing to name the shooter. He praised Sheriff Arthur. “I admired him myself. I respected him. He was always kind to me.”

A firearms expert testified the gun used to kill the Sheriff could not have been either of the two weapons known to belong to the Sheriff, a .38 and a .45. An older model revolver was presented as evidence. It had been left at Brown’s brother-in-law’s home by Stalcup and Brown after their jail break. However, no evidence was offered to show Brown’s wife smuggled the revolver into the jail, and no evidence connected the revolver to the Sheriff’s murder.

The State rested. The defense called a dozen quick but ineffective witnesses, most of whom had already testified for the State. Impassioned final argument lasted six hours on Monday, February 11, 1935, and jury deliberations began. The unanimous guilty verdict came at 9:13 Tuesday morning, and the jury recommended the death penalty. It was the first death sentence ever imposed by a Lubbock County jury.

Upon hearing his fate, Stalcup’s lips began to twitch. It was the only emotion he displayed during the entire trial, but it did not last long. Two minutes after the verdict, the condemned man was smiling as he shook hands with his lawyer.

***

In April of 1935, a slender and bespectacled Clarence Brown pled guilty to the Sheriff’s murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died in the Texas penitentiary in 1959. His wife Thelma was sentenced to two years in prison for smuggling the pistol into the jail. She served 13 months in the pen and seemed to disappear.

A year later, Stalcup’s appeals failed over the next year. He was returned from death row to Lubbock to receive his execution date. He spoke to reporters, who wrote he had, “lost his bravado and embraced the Catholic faith.” Again, he denied killing the Sheriff and complained of “perjured testimony” during his trial. “There’s a higher power that will even up all these things some time. They’ll have to pay for it someday.”

His execution date was scheduled for May 4, 1936. Stalcup left the courtroom arm-in-arm with his mother, but his wife and daughter were not present. During a search, authorities found he was in possession of Sheriff Arthur’s handcuff key, though it did not fit the shackles he was wearing.

The evening before he was to be electrocuted, Stalcup was offered a special last meal. He refused. At 12:03 am, he walked firmly to “Old Sparky” and died calmly without making a statement.

Stalcup was the 129th man to be executed by electrocution in Texas. The state’s electrocution method of execution, which began in 1924, took the lives of 361 men, no women. Since the first lethal injection took place in 1982, Texas has executed 573, including six women (through February of 2022).

TCDLA
TCDLA
Chuck Lanehart
Chuck Lanehart
Chuck Lanehart is a shareholder in the Lubbock firm of Chappell, Lanehart & Stangl, P.C., where he has practiced law since 1977, and is a 1977 graduate of Texas Tech University School of Law. He is board certified in the field of Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is statewide co-coordinator of the annual TCDLA Declaration readings and serves on TCDLA’s ethics committee. He previously served as director of the State Bar of Texas and of TCDLA. In 2018, the Lubbock Area Bar Association presented Chuck the James G. Denton Distinguished Lawyer Award, the Bar’s highest honor. In 2008, Chuck was named among the “200 Most Influential People in the History of Lubbock” by the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. He can be reached at or 806-765-7370.

Chuck Lanehart is a shareholder in the Lubbock firm of Chappell, Lanehart & Stangl, P.C., where he has practiced law since 1977, and is a 1977 graduate of Texas Tech University School of Law. He is board certified in the field of Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is statewide co-coordinator of the annual TCDLA Declaration readings and serves on TCDLA’s ethics committee. He previously served as director of the State Bar of Texas and of TCDLA. In 2018, the Lubbock Area Bar Association presented Chuck the James G. Denton Distinguished Lawyer Award, the Bar’s highest honor. In 2008, Chuck was named among the “200 Most Influential People in the History of Lubbock” by the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. He can be reached at or 806-765-7370.

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