On November 17, 1947, at 3:30 PM, 5-year-old Myretta Jones left her grandmother’s house with 20 cents and an important job to do.
Myretta was asked to walk the few blocks to the Wayside Grocery and buy a can of tomato juice.
The Jones family never again saw Myretta alive.
(Just a quick note – news reports vary as to who sent Myretta on this errand. Was it her mother or her grandmother? I’m choosing to believe the November 19, 1947 edition of the San Fransisco Examiner which quoted Myretta’s mother, Lorene Jones, who said it was grandmother Clara Sprouse.)
It wasn’t until 4 PM, when her own mother, Clara Sprouse, called that Lorene Jones even knew her youngest daughter was missing.
Lorene had no reason to worry up till then. She’d last seen Myretta at 11:30 that morning when Myretta skipped and sang on her way to the bus stop. Lorene also knew it was normal for Myretta to stop off at Grandma’s before coming home. At 4PM, everything changed and all she could do was worry.
When family and the neighbors failed to find the girl on their own, the police were brought in but they were just as unsuccessful in their efforts until they asked another youngster where a child might be hiding. Jerry Nichols, a 14-year-old assisting in the search, suggested to police that they look in the “pirate’s cave.”
This “pirate’s cave” had been dug out by local kids in the side of an embankment near a vacant lot.
The San Francisco Examiner described it as – “a low tunnel slanting down from one side into a chamber about six feet high. Another tunnel runs into the chamber entrance from the surface of the ground.”
Court documents from 1948 described the cave as consisting of “an open pit from which a short tunnel had been dug, connecting it with another pit which had been covered with lumber and dirt.”
At 8:45 PM, Deputy Sheriff Otto M. Oloffson went to the cave and was the first to see the nude, dead body of Myretta Jones in the tunnel entering from the pit.
|The Republic (Columbus, Indiana) photo –
December 3, 1947
Myretta’s head was battered and crushed; a bloody rock and shovel were nearby. Both of these weapons had wisps of hair which appeared to match the victim’s hair. Myretta’s clothing, free of blood spatter, was found nearby in a pile as was the can of tomato juice.
|The Bakersfield Californian image – November 19, 1947|
When Jerry Nichols returned home that evening he told his parents that he’d seen them find the body.
A quick examination of the child’s body showed signs that she had been interfered with. Police set up a road block and brought all known sexual perverts in for questioning.
Interrogations of the known sex offenders failed to turn up any viable suspects but door-to-door interviews with neighbors would give police the much-needed break in the case.
One neighborhood mother told police that a photo salesman had made lewd advances towards her 9-year-old daughter when he called at their home on Monday, the same day Myretta went missing.
This man was described as 19 or 20 years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighing about 125 pounds. He was last seen wearing gabardine slacks and a beige shirt.
Several other neighbors told police they’d seen Myretta that afternoon – not in the company of a man though but a teenaged girl.
An Emerson Junior High School student identified that girl as schoolmate Joyce Nichols. She had not only seen the two together that afternoon but had seen them walking in the direction of the cave.
One woman, said she’d seen Joyce washing her hands in the canal.
Police needed to talk to Joyce Nichols.
On Wednesday, November 20, 1947, while Joyce was in school, police interviewed her father Calvin and her step-mother Edith Nichols.
Cal’s first wife Ollie had filed for divorce in August 1943 and played no part in this drama. In fact, Cal told authorities that he did not know her whereabouts.
Cal and Edith revealed very little while being questioned so police went to Emerson Junior High School and pulled 13-year-old Joyce out of class.
Two of the clerks from Wayside Grocery, J. N. Nobles and H. W. Brockman, picked Joyce out of a line-up of Emerson students.
|Bakersfield Californian image – Nov 21, 1947|
Once in custody at the sheriff’s office, Joyce admitted she’d run into Myretta outside of the grocery store while on her way home from school and invited the 5-year-old back to her house. Joyce peeled some potatoes, swept the kitchen floor then suggested the two of them go play in the pirate’s cave.
Once there, Joyce said, she asked Myretta to take her clothes off but the youngster refused. Joyce told police she’d “slapped her around” and pulled the girl’s hair until Myretta agreed to disrobe. She could give no good reason for killing the girl. Joyce stated simply “I had a big desire to hit her.”
Police refused to accept this. Knowing Myretta had been violated, they continued to ask Joyce if she “had played” with Myretta. Joyce replied “No, I don’t do things like that.”
On day two, during their third interview with Joyce, officers confronted her with the knowledge that the doctors who had examined her after she was in custody could tell that she’d “played with herself” so it makes sense that she’d do the same to Myretta. Joyce changed her story and admitted this was true. She had, in fact, taken Myretta to the cave with the intention of engaging in (what reports call) sex play.
After Myretta was naked, Joyce put her finger inside the girl’s private parts. Myretta then began bawling and said she was going to tell her Grandmother. Joyce said she started “slapping her around” but Myretta “still said she was going to tell.”
Joyce left Myretta momentarily while she found a rock big enough to quiet the crying girl.
Joyce hit her six times, the last two in the face. Myretta had finally stopped crying and stopped moving.
Joyce dragged the little girl’s body deeper into the tunnel, washed her hands in an irrigation canal, went home, changed her clothes and had as normal an evening as she could considering what she’d done.
When told of Joyce’s detailed confession, Cal and Edith broke down then confessed what they knew and what they had done.
Cal and Edith confirmed that their daughter ate a normal meal on Monday night (November 17th) but chose to go to bed early rather than listen to the radio, as was her normal habit.
Later that evening, while discussing the disappearance and death of Myretta Jones, Jerry told them Myretta was the same little girl he had seen Joyce with earlier in the day….in their home, at 920 Lawson Road.
Cal and Edith woke Joyce and asked her about it. She readily confessed to hitting the girl with a rock but couldn’t explain why. Joyce certainly didn’t mention the sex play.
|Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1947|
Cal said that his daughter had, in the past told him some “unusual things that turned out to be lies” so he wasn’t sure whether or not to believe her.
Cal told Edith, “this was my burden, my worry and (he) had to decide” if they should go to the police.
They woke Jerry, explained the situation and told him not to say anything.
The following morning, Joyce went to school as normal and Edith carefully washed Joyce’s bloody clothes.
Then, before Cal had a chance to decide on what to do, the police came to them.
Cal would later tell reporters, “If parents would put themselves in our shoes, they would see and perhaps understand what we were against. We discussed it several times. We didn’t know what to do. After all, she is our daughter.”
On November 20, 1947, Myretta’s father filed a murder complaint against 13-year-old Joyce Nichols.
|Bakersfield Californian image – Nov 21, 1947
(from L to R – Jolene Nichols, DA Investigator
William Dolan & L. Earl Jones)
This was not Joyce’s first crime either. Three years prior she had broken into a neighbor’s home but hadn’t stolen anything.
Cal Nichols stated, “I knew Joyce was psychopathic, but of course I had no idea she might employ violence.”
At the coroner’s inquest on November 21st, Dr. Jack D. Kirschbaum, the pathologist who had performed the autopsy, testified that death was caused by “injuries to the scalp exposing brain tissue.”
In early January 1948, Joyce was sent to Camarillo Mental Hospital for 90 days of evaluation.
Cal told reporters, “I know she needs a psychiatrist. I took her to doctors before because of the way she acted and they always said she’d grow out of it.”
Joyce didn’t help herself by expressing, one week prior, that she hoped she was “making headlines.”
|International News Soundphoto
Lorene Jones with her daughters
Priscilla and Myretta
L. Earl and Lorene Jones, Myretta’s parents, felt Joyce should be in custody for the rest of her life. “I have another little girl,” Lorene said, “I don’t want to think there can be anyone like that going about in the world.”
The Caramillo psychiatrists determined that Joyce had “an educational age” about two years under her actual age and that very early brain damage was indicated; that she had a sadistic tendency with animals.
They felt that the incident with Myretta “may have been in part provoked by increased sex tension preceding her first menstrual period, which occurred within a week after the crime was committed.”
They further determined that Joyce “is borderline mentally defective and has emotional and personality deviations of such a serious nature as to jeopardize successful social relationships at the present time.” Joyce was deemed “too dull mentally to benefit from individual psychotherapy.” (Ouch.)
She was, more importantly, declared sane.
At a preliminary hearing on April 23, 1948, Joyce was declared an “unfit subject” for Juvenile Court. As a result, she would be tried as an adult and her case would be heard in the Superior Court.
At this same hearing, Joyce admitted her guilt but her attorney, Phillip N. Wagy, objected because it was not the correct time for her to make her plea.
Multiple newspapers report Joyce as seeming to be “unconcerned” throughout the proceedings.
|Joyce, in the halls of justice –
Bakersfield California image
On May 18, 1948, Joyce Nichols again pleaded guilty to murder and the court accepted her plea. In three days time, Superior Judge Norman F. Main would determine what degree of murder she was guilty of. He could choose between first or second degree murder or manslaughter.
The Deputy District Attorney, C. J. McGovern, pushed for first degree murder while Joyce’s attorney asked for manslaughter. Mr. Wagy described Joyce as being “panic-stricken” when she beat Myretta to death.
The penalty for first degree murder would ordinarily include the death penalty but Joyce would be spared this because she was under the age of 15-years-old. The harshest penalty she could receive would be life in prison and that’s what she got.
On May 28, 1948, at 14-years-old, Joyce Nichols became the youngest person in that court’s district to be sentenced to life in prison for first degree murder.
Joyce was sent to the Ventura State School for Girls. She would be transferred to the Women’s Prison at Tehachapi when she became of age.
Plans were made to file an appeal.
On October 26, 1948, a Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled in Joyce’s favor. They could find no evidence of premeditation for the murder. Her conviction was reduced to second degree murder. The new penalty could be as little as five years or as severe as life imprisonment.
While I can’t find a record of how long Joyce actually stayed in prison, I do know that on December 12, 1953, a Fresno, California newspaper was announcing her wedding to Monroe Alexander Curtis.
|Fresno Bee The Republican –
December 12, 1953
The marriage didn’t last however and I have no idea of when her divorce from Monroe happened.
On April 24, 1959, Joyce married Oliver James Bier.
Joyce passed away on May 15, 2000, in Fresno, California at the age of 66. She’s buried in the Fresno Memorial Gardens.
|Findagrave photo uploaded by Edward DeVara|
Myretta Jones is buried in the Greenlawn Cemetery in Bakersfield, CA.
|Findagrave.com image uploaded by Stan Morgan|
Note – Not that it matters, because it doesn’t change the facts of the crime, but I’ve spent considerable time trying to determine exactly where Myretta was killed.
It’s difficult to look at current aerial views of Kern County, Bakersfield, CA and pinpoint exactly where the “pirate’s cave” was located, especially as I can’t imagine it still exists plus it’s been 72 years since the crime was committed.
However, from newspaper descriptions (“about a half mile from the parents’ home,” “south of Belle Terrace in a large vacant area west of Union Avenue” and “in the 80 acre Kern County fairground site”), I believe Myretta’s body was recovered somewhere in this location:
The Kern County fairground site was still under construction in November of 1947. Albert S. Goode, of the 15th District Agricultural Association, had this to say, on February 6, 1946, regarding the proposed new location:
“The fair board of directors has found a new site located south of Bakersfield just west of the property which is usually known as the Union Avenue Plunge. This property if located on a high knoll, has good drainage with a sandy type soil and is at present open territory.”
The Union Avenue Plunge was a popular public pool.
While there is also a vacant lot at the top right of this map section, it’s further away than 1/2 mile from the family’s home. Early reports said Myretta’s body had been found “six blocks from her home.”
The Nichols, Jones families and Myretta’s grandparents all lived on Vine Drive, south of the future fairgrounds. The Wayside Grocery is also south of the fairgrounds.
Visible too on this map is how close the Nichols house would be to the Canal where Joyce washed her hands.