Where Willows Weep: The Murder of Esther Lee Lewis and Her Afterlife

Mar 19, 2022 | 2022 Articles, Community, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sarah Peterson-Camacho

by Sarah A. Peterson-Camacho

“The night is still, / And the frost it bites my face; / I wear my silence like a mask, / And murmur like a ghost… / A sweet reminder / In the ice-blue nursery / Of a childish murder…” —Siouxsie Sioux & the Banshees, Halloween

And there she was.

Almost exactly twenty-four hours after nine-year-old Esther Lee Lewis went missing on her walk to the school bus the morning of Tuesday, March 11, 1947, there she was. They found her beneath a weeping willow in a dry creek bed near the Kings River, blanketed in blackberry vines—dress torn, skull crushed.

During a California winter haunted by the Black Dahlia and Red Lipstick murders in Los Angeles, the rural outskirts of the small Central Valley farming community of Sanger (pop. 4,000) was the last place anyone would expect a horrifically brutal crime to occur. But occur it had. The little girl had been assaulted, strangled, and beaten, her head smashed in with a rock—then tossed aside like a worn-out shoe.

Esther

Bessie Lewis had taught her daughter never to talk to—or accept rides from—strangers. So as she waved goodbye to Esther that fateful Tuesday morning, she had no doubt of the child’s street smarts.

The Frankwood school bus stop was about a mile away from the Lewis home, northeast of Sanger, and Mrs. Lewis watched her only child walk most of the way down Trimmer Springs Road, before losing sight of her in the roadside brush.

At nine years old, Esther Lee Lewis was small for her age, but friendly and vivacious—a model fourth grade student at the rural Frankwood school. She was her parents’ only offspring; though married since 1924, the Lewises had welcomed their daughter into the world a full thirteen years later, on December 10, 1937.

Mrs. Lewis went about her daily routine, recalling with fondness how, the night before, Esther had read four Bible stories aloud to her and Esther’s father William, just before bedtime. Her husband had gone to work in Sanger earlier that morning (conflicting reports listed his occupation alternately as a mechanic, a welder, and a rancher), before Esther left for the bus around 7:50 a.m. But as the day gradually darkened into dusk, and Mr. Lewis returned home from work, Esther failed to appear. And after being notified that their daughter had never made it to school that day, her worried parents called the police.

A search party was promptly organized by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office that evening, swelling from about fifty people to three hundred strong as the hours ticked by. The searchers fanned out from the Lewis residence, toward the vicinity of the bus stop on Trimmer Springs Road. And after combing the area through the night with the search party, Piedra service station operator Floyd H. Cornelius discovered the “horribly mutilated” body of the little girl at 8:30 a.m. the next morning, Wednesday, March 12—obscured by blackberry brambles along the sandy riverbank, under the weeping willow, about halfway between the Lewis home and the bus stop (“Sex Fiend Kidnaps Girl”, 1947).

After performing an autopsy, Deputy Coroner L.R. Webb said he believed a rock had been used to crush her skull, and that marks on her throat indicated that she had been strangled as well. Scratches and bruises covered her legs, and “bruises on the knuckles of the right hand indicated she tried furiously to fight off her assailant” (“Sex Fiend Kidnaps Girl”, 1947).

Chief criminal investigator Harold Emmick had found the scattered pages of a pin-up magazine near the body, and said the heartless slaying was undoubtedly the work of a true “sexual degenerate” (“California Girl,” 1947).

Allusions to the Black Dahlia murder in Los Angeles were immediate, as reporters established a connection between the pair of heinous crimes the very day Lewis’ body was discovered. “The killing was somewhat in the pattern of the slaying of four women in Los Angeles in the past two months,” proclaimed the San Pedro News Pilot that Wednesday, March 12, 1947 (“California Girl,” 1947).

“Sanger Ranch Family’s Daughter Latest Victim in Wave of Sadistic Slayings,” ran the headlines in the San Bernardino Daily Sun. “A 9-year-old girl was found dead today, another victim of fiendish violence fired by lust” (“Sex Fiend Kidnaps Girl,” 1947).

Southern California newspapers had snatched up the chilling narrative as one of their own, the Daily Sun going so far as to pair a grainy photo of Esther with a wholly unrelated piece about the four recent Los Angeles killings.

Clues were scarce in the immediate wake of the body’s discovery, but Undersheriff John Ford narrowed down the search for evidence to three specific objects: “her underclothing, her lunch, and the murder weapon, believed to be a rock” (“Clues to Murder of Girl,” 1947).

The field of suspects was wide open at this point; the building of the Friant-Kern Canal had attracted scores of migratory workers, who had set up camp in the area. They would all be questioned, as well as an unnamed seventeen-year-old boy, who claimed he’d been asleep in the Tivey Valley home of his sister, at the time of the slaying.

But by Thursday, March 13, a tentative break in the case was made. Fresno County District Attorney James M. Thuesen revealed that a crucial piece of evidence had been found on the body of Lewis, but he refused to disclose the nature of the clue. Justice appeared closer at hand when a potential suspect was identified as San Quentin parole violator Nathan “Red” Owen, who had been released to the Sanger parole district the previous year.

Once questioned for the 1943 rape and murder of a child in Yuba City, Owen was reportedly seen in the area four days prior to the murder. Mrs. Clyde Powell, of Sanger, told authorities the parolee had appeared at her door the morning of Friday, March 7, inquiring about the location of the Friant-Kern Canal worksite. Police, however, were quick to point out that neither Mrs. Powell, nor any of the other witnesses, actually knew Owen personally, and that identification of the suspect had been made from a photograph.

But Owen could not be linked to that key piece of undisclosed evidence, nor could it be tied to tractor driver Lawrence Leydig, who was released from custody after a week of “extensive questioning”—and after passing a veritable barrage of lie detector tests (“Suspect Released,” 1947).

While still keeping much of the investigation under wraps, D.A. Thuesen did divulge to the papers that blood samples and a footprint cast—as well as other physical evidence taken from the crime scene—had been sent to the State Bureau of Criminal Identification in Sacramento for testing.

Contributions toward a financial reward for the capture of the little girl’s killer now stood at $1,100 and counting.

A sunny California spring soon gave way to another scorcher of a Central Valley summer, and authorities finally hit pay-dirt in late June. Picked up on a vagrancy charge in Fairfield around the first day of summer, seventeen-year-old William Lacefield dropped a bombshell on Solano County Deputy Sheriff Jule O. Pritchard as the youth was brought in to the Fairfield jail. Professing himself to be a follower of the “unseen torch,” Lacefield confessed to the rape and murder of nine-year-old Esther Lee Lewis, proudly boasting of the heinous deed; he recalled meeting her on his way to the Friant-Kern Canal construction site.

“‘I called to her, and she came over…’ “ he revealed with relish; “ ‘I grabbed her and tried to rape her, and then strangled her. I drug her body over by a small creek by the road, hit her over the head with a rock, and threw her in the bushes,’” Lacefield would finish with a flourish, all before making his way over to the canal construction site to apply for a job (“Boasts Killing,” 1947).

Calling himself “Torpedo Bill,” the unruffled youth bragged of committing other “unsolved” killings, including the strangling of a Los Angeles taxi driver for $10, several years prior—and even the murder and dismemberment of the Black Dahlia herself, Elizabeth Short (“Boasts Killing,” 1947).

While these other admissions were riddled with inconsistencies, the details Lacefield gave of the Lewis slaying were beyond credible. So much so, that authorities returned with him to the murder scene off Trimmer Springs Road—and then to Crockett, near Martinez, where the teenager led two officials to a shack where he had stashed the shirt he’d been wearing at the time of the killing.

The final piece to the puzzle of Esther Lee Lewis’ murder fell into place when that previously undisclosed bit of evidence was at last revealed: a single button that Esther had ripped from Lacefield’s shirt before her death, which was an exact match to the buttons on the shirt Lacefield had retrieved from the shack in Crockett.

The shirt was missing a single button.

So who was William Lacefield?

Not much is known. The seventeen-year-old boy had been on his own for much of his childhood in Los Angeles, drifting in and out of mental institutions throughout his teens. A former patient at both Whittier State School and Camarillo State Hospital, he had been paroled from the latter less than two weeks before the killing of Lewis.

Lacefield was charged for the rape and murder of Esther Lee Lewis on Thursday, June 26, 1947, but in August, Fresno County Superior Judge Arthur C. Shepard suspended the proceedings until a sanity hearing could take place, as requested by D.A. Thuesen and defense attorney John A. Willey.

A court-appointed trio of alienists determined the teen to be sane on Thursday, August 28, and fit to stand trial, despite his prior confinement at two mental institutions—and despite his insistence that “‘murder is my destiny, and death is my game’” (“Boasts Killing,” 1947).

Finally commencing on Monday, September 22, the murder trial of William Lacefield proceeded swiftly; the self-professed “destiny-slayer” told a Fresno jury of his attempt at committing “the perfect crime” when he killed the nine-year-old Lewis (“L.A. Youth,” 1947).

“…and in stories full of inconsistencies,” the youth once again “confessed to the infamous Los Angeles ‘Black Dahlia’ murder, and the slaying of a Fresno woman” (‘L.A. Youth,” 1947).

And just one week later, on Monday, Sept. 29, 1947, the former mental patient was found guilty of murder in the first degree, and subsequently sentenced to life in prison. He had only escaped the death penalty due to the fact that he was not yet eighteen.

By November, Solano County Deputy Sheriff Pritchard had been awarded $2,300 for William Lacefield’s capture, and Mr. and Mrs. William and Bessie Lewis could exhale at last, secure in the knowledge that their daughter’s killer would spend the rest of his life behind bars. But they would grieve the loss of their only child for the rest of their own.

As decades go by, ghost stories spring from the fallen seeds of murders past, and with each retelling, details are added, facts forgotten. The truth proves malleable, and thus a ghost story grows into an urban legend—taking root in the shivers it invokes.

Haunted Oak

This piece began its life as a ghost story—a tragic tale tied to one tree in particular. The colossal, rambling oak at the corner of Newmark and Central Avenues, outside Sanger, has a striking, almost otherworldly presence. Backlit by a bright California sun, its silhouette reaches toward the sky like a gnarled old hand. It’s the kind of tree that was born to be haunted, linked to at least one death by a beautifully carved wooden cross nailed to its knotted trunk, bearing the name “Armando, 11-2-1957—12-22-2020.” And in the dappled shade of its twisted umbrella, urban legends lurk.

Making the rounds on local paranormal sites like Michael Price’s Weird Fresno and Detective Mocha’s YouTube channel, the story goes that a little girl was raped and murdered beneath this oak—and that her spirit haunts that very spot, appearing to late-night drivers as a little girl dressed in white, with blackened eyes and the most hideous of cries—sometimes a laugh, sometimes a scream.

In an October 30, 2014 blog post titled “Does the ghost of a murdered girl haunt an oak tree near Sanger?,” Michael Price of Weird Fresno writes of a story sent to him by one of his readers: one cold winter night in the early 1990s, the reader’s cousin ended his graveyard shift at a 24-hour gas station in Sanger; while driving home down Newmark around 1 a.m., he saw a young girl walking alone in the fog. Slowing down beside her, he asked if she was okay, if she needed a ride. When she failed to respond, he repeated his question—at which point, the girl whipped her head around, repeated his question back at him, and began to screech with laughter. Her eyes were black and gaping.

And in a comment dated February 28, 2017, a reader named Julian told an almost identical narrative, passed down from his grandfather—who, while driving home from a boxing match late one night, had encountered a girl in white standing beside that very same tree.

The young spirit has been known to wander, with multiple sightings by workers at haunted attraction Hobbs Grove over the years (a mile-and-a-half to the southeast), and is often confused with the La Llorona legend of nearby Channel “Snake” Road.

But perhaps her eeriest incarnation can be found in a July 2019 post by Michael Thao on Detective Mocha’s Facebook page: “You have to be alone for this; my older brother came off his graveyard shift around 2-3 a.m. (he takes that road cause it’s faster), from Reedley to Sanger. He came across a white single fog in the middle of the street, next to the big tree. If you pass the tree and look in your rearview mirror, she’ll be sitting by the tree.”

It was actually beneath a weeping willow off Trimmer Springs Road—in a dry creek bed off the Kings River, blanketed in blackberry vines—where a little girl lost her life seventy-five years ago. Her name was Esther Lee Lewis, and wherever her soul may choose to roam, that willow will always be weeping.

Bibliography

“California Girl, 9, Killed and Mutilated.” The San Pedro News Pilot, Vol. 19, No. 323: Wednesday, March 12, 1947.
“Mutilated Body of Missing Fresno School Girl, 9, Found.” The Los Angeles Evening Citizen-News, Vol. 42, No. 297, p. 3: Wednesday, March 12, 1947.
“Sanger Child Fiend Victim.” The Madera Tribune, Vol. LV, No. 10: Wednesday, March 12, 1947.
“Sex Fiend Kidnaps Girl, 9, Mutilates and Murders Her.” The San Bernardino Daily Sun, Vol. 53, p.2: Thursday, March 13, 1947.
“Clues to Murder of Girl, 9, Sought in Blackberry Patch.” The Los Angeles Evening Citizen-News, Vol. 42, No. 298, p. 2: Thursday, March 13, 1947.
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“L.A. Youth to Face Murder Charge.” The Los Angeles Evening Citizen-News, Vol. 43, No. 129, Ed. 02, p. 5: Thursday, Aug. 28, 1947.
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https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/36956213/esther-lee-lewis.
https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/37150867/bessie-pearl-lewis.
https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/37150941/william-lewis.
Price Michael. “Does the ghost of a murdered girl haunt an oak tree near Sanger?” Weird Fresno, Oct. 30, 2014. https://www.weirdfresno.com/2014/10/does-ghost-of-murdered-girl-haunt-oak.html. Accessed Jan. 13, 2022.
Detective Mocha. “Haunted Big Oak Tree—Sanger, CA.” Facebook, Jan. 11, 2022. https://www.facebook.com/detectivemocha2019/posts/haunted-big-oak-tree-sanger-calocated-about-2miles-from-hobbs-grove-and-snake-r/98154946231541/. Accessed March 9, 2022.
Detective Mocha. “On our next investigation, we are heading to Channel Road, nicknamed Snake Road.” Facebook, July 16, 2019. https://m.facebook.com/detectivemocha2019/photos/a.415282582391568/423034361616390/?type=3&_rdr. Accessed Feb. 8, 2022.
Detective Mocha. “Return to Snake Road—Sanger, CA.” Facebook, Feb. 8, 2021. https://www.facebook.com/detectivemocha2019/posts/return-to-snake-road-sangerca-located-eastern-of-fresno-county-in-a-small-town-c/789788238274332. Accessed March 9, 2022.

Sarah A. Peterson-Camachois a library assistant with Fresno County Library, with a Bachelor’s in English and a Bachelor’s in Journalism from California State University, Fresno. In her free time, she makes soap and jewelry that she sells at Fresno-area craft fairs. She has written for The Clovis Roundup and the Central California Paranormal Investigators (CCPI) Newsletter.

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