Henderson history: Mystery surrounded 1974 drownings of local couple

Authorities in Illinois, Evansville and Henderson were scratching their heads 50 years ago trying to figure out the death of a local woman found floating in the Wabash River.

Legal papers spelled her name Dorothea Gregory Utley, but most press coverage of the incident – which continued 40 days and 40 nights – spelled her first name Dorthea, which may have been how it was pronounced.

The Gleaner’s first mention of her drowning was in the edition of June 16, 1974, but the Evansville Press had already published two stories by that time. She was a former editorial employee of the Press but since 1972 had worked at the Anaconda aluminum smelter.

She lived at 645 Seventh St., a house she had bought with her first husband, Dr. Elton R. House. She had married him Dec. 20, 1960, in Washington, D.C., which apparently took place about the time he was attending medical school at Howard University. He began working at Methodist Hospital in 1963.

He left her in November 1968, according to their divorce papers. It was final Jan. 7, 1970; she got the house. Dr. House drowned Aug. 26, 1973, while swimming near a boat dock on Lake Barkley near Bumpus Mills, Tennessee.In late 1973 or early 1974 Dorothea married the Rev. Bransford Utley, 48, pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church in Evansville. They lived in the Seventh Street house while the church parsonage was being renovated.

The Evansville Press of June 14, 1974, reported her body had been found the day before floating near Maunie, Illinois, by two fishermen. She was wearing a dress, shoes, a silver watch, and her wedding and engagement bands. White County, Illinois, Coroner William Hall said she had been dead less than a day and there were no indications of foul play.

But her husband was missing. “Where is Rev. Bransford Utley?” is how the Press began its June 15 story. “The question has perplexed police from Carmi, Ill., to Evansville and Henderson since Thursday when the body of Utley’s wife, Dorthea, 36, was found floating in the Wabash River.”

The coroner ruled drowning as the cause of death but, “There are so many things we don’t know. That’s why we want to talk to her husband.”

The Wabash River
The Wabash River

The Gleaner’s initial story of June 16 noted her mother and co-workers from Anaconda went to Carmi, Illinois, to identify the body. Again, the coroner ruled out foul play; an autopsy discovered some bruises, but Hall said they were not indicative of any type of violence.

The pastor’s body was found six days after his wife’s about a quarter-mile upstream. He also drowned.

The Gleaner of July 3 reported a six-man coroner’s jury on June 29 had ruled the two deaths were homicides, citing “many unanswered questions.” The primary question was, “Where is the automobile, a gray 1968 Cadillac with black vinyl top?”

Efforts to find the car by dragging the river had been curtailed because of rising water. Conservation officers had been trying to find the car when they came across the minister’s body.

Other questions included, why weren’t they dressed for a river outing and what had they been doing in that area to begin with?

On July 11 both The Gleaner and the Evansville Courier ran stories about the discovery of the Cadillac. One fender was about two inches beneath the surface of the river at a boat-launching facility near the New Harmony toll bridge.

The car was full of mud and silt and the ignition switch and headlights were still in the “on” position.

“The water is several feet lower than it was June 12 when the Utleys disappeared,” said The Gleaner’s Associated Press story.

“I think it’s probably still a homicide,” said Posey County Sheriff William M. Cox. “That car had to be deliberately driven into the water.”

“The water was pretty high” when the Utleys disappeared, he said, according to the Courier’s story, and the car’s two front windows were down. “The water was shallow before going over the bank and I don’t believe (the car) would have been submerged if he didn’t floorboard it.”

The Evansville Police Department’s Investigative Section planned to go over the car once it dried out, according to Capt. Richard W. Morris. Indiana State Police troopers and technicians also responded to the car’s discovery, along with a White County, Illinois, sheriff's deputy and the Posey County sheriff.

“Morris said Utley’s 1968 gray Cadillac with a black vinyl top apparently is the only evidence left which could tell authorities anything about the drownings.”

The Gleaner of July 24 reported the coroner’s jury had reconvened in light of the car’s discovery. Sheriff Cox and ISP Trooper Larry McCart testified Utley had sufficient time to stop the car before it entered the water, even though it probably was going about 65 mph.

“Further testimony that bruises on Mrs. Utley’s arms were an indication she had been restrained from leaving the auto was also entered as evidence.”

An Associated Press story about the coroner’s jury said, “The minister’s shoe was found wedged in the car on the driver’s side. ... The jury reconsidered the case Friday and concluded that the minister drove the car into the water and then held his wife below the surface until she drowned.

“Investigators said they learned the Utleys had been having marital difficulties.”

The homicide verdict was voided, and the new verdict was murder-suicide.

Dorothea was buried in the Flat Creek Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery at Williamsboro, North Carolina, near where she had been born. Her husband was buried in Evansville at Oak Hill Cemetery.

People continued to pray for them two years later. The Indianapolis Recorder of June 19, 1976, had this to say about an Evansville event the previous Sunday:

“Altar flowers for Nazarene Baptist Church were given by the congregation of the church in memory of Rev. Bransford Utley and wife, Dorthea, who departed this life June 12, 1974.”

100 YEARS AGO

The Gleaner of June 22, 1924, announced that the board of directors of the Community Hotel Co., which had been formed by the Chamber of Commerce, had voted to add a sixth story to what is now called the Soaper Building.

“This will add 23 more rooms and will make 104 rooms in all.” It would also require $20,000 more to be raised by selling stock. Richard Henderson Soaper immediately volunteered to put up $5,000 of that amount.

A follow-up story on June 28 had this to say:

“The addition of the sixth story is the subject of frequent street comment, with the oft-heard expression that Henderson will have a real hotel, for with its more than 100 rooms, its appointments of elegance and its superb location in the center of the business district, the Richard Henderson Soaper hotel will be a hostelry of which the citizens of the city will be proud.

“That the old brick building across the alley from the hotel site has been condemned by the state fire marshal and will be razed, there will be removed one menace to the new hotel and a space left that may be filled with another modern structure.”

An opening banquet for about 500 stockholders was held the evening of Dec. 8 although 20 rooms remained unfinished.

75 YEARS AGO

Director of Safety L.D. Edwards, the city of Henderson’s de facto police chief, warned dog owners that a city ordinance required them to keep their pets confined or face losing them permanently, according to The Gleaner of June 19, 1949.

“He said that police officers have been forced to shoot several dogs within the past few days.

“The director stated that many of these dogs were not ‘mad dogs,’ that is, not diseased, but that they were simply running loose.

“However, he said, when a complaint is received on a stray dog, it is the duty of the police department to dispose of the dog.”

25 YEARS AGO

The Gleaner of June 18, 1999, carried three items of noteworthy interest.

One story reported that three trucks and a crew of 18 had rolled into town to tape the W.C. Handy Blues Festival for the Kentucky Educational Television network.

The resulting program was to be featured on KET’s popular “Jubilee: A Celebration of Music in Kentucky.”

“I’ve been wanting to do a blues festival for the past five seasons,” said Emmy award-winning producer/director H. Russell Farmer.

Another story said U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Jared Schwartz of Henderson had been found guilty of disobeying a lawful order when he refused to take the government-mandated anthrax vaccination.

The ruling in Twentynine Palms, California, meant up to 45 days in the brig, although under a pre-trial agreement he would have to serve only 30 days in jail and good behavior could reduce that to 25.

That edition of The Gleaner also carried an advertisement for Henderson Online, the web portal offered by The Gleaner.

It offered, “E-mail, World Wide Web, easy to use software included, no start-up fee and much more!”

Readers of The Gleaner can reach Frank Boyett at YesNews42@yahoo.com.

This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Henderson history: Mystery surrounded 1974 drownings of local couple

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