Lurid triangle led to killing left unsolved
By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff
I'll tell you the bottom line right up front: The community thought the black widow did it. Martine Wilkerson was never brought to trial, but it seems pretty obvious the jury thought she had murdered Evansville businessman Oliver C. Bullock in mid-1954.
There weren't a whole lot of choices. It was either Martine or her other boyfriend, Noble E. Stovall, 46, who had been dating her even before she became a widow. Stovall's trial occurred 50 years ago this week, and Martine was the prosecution's star witness against him.
So much for love.
When Stovall was acquitted by the all-male jury on Jan. 19, 1955, the audience, which was largely female, burst into applause. "The women of the community kind of got down on Martine, showing up at the court," said Bill Sullivan, who was Stovall's defense attorney. A special judge, Alex Humphrey of Louisville, presided over the case, he noted recently.
"When Humphrey pronounced 'not guilty' the overflow crowd broke out in a three-minute ovation, which finally had to be silenced by the judge," according to The Gleaner's story by Cecil Williams, who called the "wild courtroom demonstration unmatched in the memory of veteran observers."
Martine, however, "displayed the same emotionless expression she had maintained throughout the trial.
"Commonwealth Attorney (and later circuit judge) Faust Simpson, asked whether the state would re-open the investigation of the slaying, said 'as far as I'm concerned the case is closed.' County Attorney L. Allen Rhoads concurred."
The murder took place July 30, 1954, at Jim's Restaurant at 437 N. Green St., which was founded by Martine's husband, James G. Wilkerson. He had died Dec. 7, 1951, in a head-on car crash in Union County. Stovall, who had been divorced by his Hancock County wife after he moved to Henderson to be near Martine, testified that before he died her husband had been aware he and Martine were dating.
If that's not lurid enough, you might note that Bullock, 38, maintained a wife and kids in Evansville while pursuing the 32-year-old brunette.
According to trial testimony, both Stovall and Bullock had been regulars at the restaurant, and helped with chores and repairs. But Stovall said there was no enmity or friction between them. "We drifted into the habit of ignoring each other," he said. "Mrs. Wilkerson assured me that Bullock was nothing more than a customer."
But he wasn't. Bullock had been putting money into the restaurant operation, and also helped Martine buy a riverfront trailer. Bullock must have had it pretty bad for Martine.
Stovall did, too. Although he quickly surrendered to police, he "played possum" and tried to protect her by claiming he had blacked out and couldn't remember anything about the shooting. "I realized my story might cause her trouble, and I couldn't believe she had done anything," he said at his trial.
Only the three involved in the love triangle were in the restaurant when the shooting took place. One of them was dead, and the other two disagreed on what had happened.
Martine testified Stovall confronted Bullock with her dead husband's pistol: "You've been asking for it and now you're going to get it," she related.
"Mrs. Wilkerson testified that Stovall opened fire, then she tried to grab the gun, that after Bullock fell she attempted to call the police despite Stovall's efforts to take the phone from her."
Stovall's testimony was quite different. He said he had gone out in the yard to pace off the length of a garden hose he needed to buy when he heard three shots. He came back in to see Bullock on the floor and Martine "standing there with her hands to her head and screaming." He said he tried to phone the police but she prevented him.
When did he decide Martine had killed Bullock? "I never did," he replied. "I don't know who killed him. All I know is what I saw."
Martine sold the restaurant and moved to Owensboro shortly after the shooting. Stovall died in Allen County in 1967. Bullock's murder was never resolved.
140 years ago
Two Confederate brothers were shot and killed by Union troops on patrol, the Reporter noted on this date in 1865.
John and Thomas Piper refused to surrender when ordered. John was shot near Gabe Sugg's place, while Thomas was shot on Henry Posey's property.
120 years ago
Western Union telegraph rates dropped sharply after the Baltimore & Ohio Telegraph Co. opened an office here, the Reporter noted in 1885. The cost of a telegraph in some instances dropped from 50 cents to 15 cents.
75 years ago
An attempt to start a gasoline motor in the Carl Melton coal mine in northern Webster County ignited a fire that trapped two miners, The Gleaner reported in 1930.
After 10 hours they were presumed dead and the mine sealed to smother the fire. The bodies of William Aaron Bridwell, 33, and William Dorris Woods, 38, were recovered a few days later. The mine was closed as a result of the tragedy.
25 years ago
The Henderson County Riverport, plagued by years of bureaucratic hassles and construction delays, opened for business, The Gleaner reported in 1980.
The port had been a decade in the planning. It wasn't until about 1997, however, that the riverport was able to rise above the sea of red ink that had flooded its beginnings.
Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS