“In Cold Storage, Sex and Murder on the Plains” by James W. Hewitt

James W. Hewitt (Jim) is my very good friend. Indeed, he held my hand, and gave me solid advice when I went through the vetting process to become a federal district judge. Jim had served as a distinguished member of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary. In fact, he served in that capacity during the confirmation hearings of Judge Robert Bork. See Mary Thornton, The ABA’s Judgments on JudgesWashington Post (September 25, 1987). I only disclose this relationship so the reader understands that my review of Jim’s recent book, which I will get to in a minute, may not be entirely objective. In short, I have enormous respect and affection for Jim.

That Jim took pity upon and helped a terrified 45-year-old federal Magistrate Judge become a federal District Judge is not the only reason Jim garners my respect and the respect of many others. Jim is a tall and big-boned man consistent with his football playing days at Hastings College. He has a voice that trial lawyers (which Jim once was) would kill for. He graduated from the University of Nebraska College of Law around 1956 and promptly became a legal luminary in Nebraska.

Jim was recognized as the Nebraska State Bar Foundation’s Outstanding Legal Educator. The award is given in recognition of significant contributions to the field of legal education by a legal educator or lawyer who serves in continuing legal education capacities. Having retired from the active practice of law, Hewitt taught American History and Constitutional Law at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Hewitt earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in American Legal History after 35 plus years of a high pressure legal practice.

His Ph.D. dissertation, “Slipping Backward: The Nebraska Supreme Court 1938-1995,” was published as a book by the University of Nebraska Press, as a part of the Law in the American West Series. The book received rave reviews by historians and lawyers alike.* Did I mention that Jim was also President of the Nebraska Bar Association in his spare time? I must not forget to also add that Jim served as Chair of the American Bar Foundation’s fellows program.

I should note that Jim raises the most beautiful roses I have seen in many a year. In short, Jim is a man for all seasons. That is not an exaggeration.

All of this brings me to Jim’s fantastic new book, James W. Hewitt, In Cold Storage, Sex and Murder on the Plains, University of Nebraska Press (2015). I suppose I love this book, for among other reasons because I knew of this notorious case and, far more importantly, because I knew many of the participants. They ranged from the brilliant Lannie Roblee, a good old country boy of a Sheriff whose manner belied his intellect; the prosecutor, Fred Schroeder, a decent fellow committed to doing his best together with Paul Douglas, later Nebraska’s Attorney General. who, as the special prosecutor, was sent out from Lincoln to help Fred;** Dick Hove, the defense attorney (of sorts) from the big city of Kearney; and Judge Jack Hendrix, a careful and fair trial judge with whom I had the pleasure of practicing before. See here for an extreme example of a case I tried before Judge Hendrix–please concentrate on “Baby Jason.”

Not only did I know many of the participants, I have a keen sense of the place. I, too, have eaten in the basement of the church in Stockville, Nebraska (population about 25) where the ladies from Curtis, Nebraska come over on “court days” to serve meals to lawyers, witnesses, judges and juries in heaping family style lunches. Still further, I well remember the vastness and the isolation of the place, and particularly the remote lake where the bodies were dumped.

Spillway structure at Medicine Creek Dam, in Frontier County, Nebraska north of Cambridge, Nebraska. The dam was constructed in 1948-49. The reservoir behind it is Harry Strunk Lake. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Spillway structure at Medicine Creek Dam, in Frontier County, Nebraska north of Cambridge, Nebraska. The dam was constructed in 1948-49. The reservoir behind it is Harry Strunk Lake.

For you see, In Cold Storage tells of the murder and the grisly dismemberment of the parents of Kay Hein, a woman who had  participated in a ménage à trois (French for “household of three”) gone deadly wrong. Harold and Ena Nokes were the other participants in the threesome.

Body parts recovered from Strunk Lake photographed in Cambridge, Nebraska Mortuary. Courtesy of Lannie Roblee and reprinted in the book In Cold Storage by James W. Hewitt.

Body parts recovered from Strunk Lake photographed in the Cambridge, Nebraska Mortuary. Courtesy of Lannie Roblee and reprinted in the book In Cold Storage by James W. Hewitt.Ultimately, Harold Nokes was sentenced to life in prison after he confessed to killing his sexual partner’s parents, dismembering the bodies, freezing the parts and then throwing them in the lake.

Harold confessed–twice. Lonnie tricked him the first time. Harold was eligible for the death penalty, but he got life in prison. It is very likely that Judge Hendrix convinced the other judges on the three judge panel not to impose the death penalty.

For reasons that remain unclear, Ena Nokes was sentenced to only a few years in prison for unlawful disposal of the bodies. Out west, they tend to treat lightly those who dispose of litter in the wrong place.

It is not clear why the murders took place. Much of the violence that takes place out near where Central time almost becomes Mountain time has no rhyme nor reason. Apparently, the fact that Ms. Hein had called off her involvement in the trysts with the Nokeses led somehow to the death of her parents.

Over nearly a decade, Hewitt compiled every conceivable fact that could be unearthed. He is the only one ever to have interviewed Mr. Nokes in prison. He obtained confidential files from lawyers and law enforcement personnel. He had access to the tapes of the “bugs” in the home of the perpetrators. He talked to witnesses and those who were familiar with the place and the people. He did the hard work of an academically trained historian.

But what makes the book sing is the writing. The reader is patiently told of the facts with the skill of the best newspaper writer. We learn the texture and the feel of the place and the people. The official story is told, and then deconstructed with the scalpel of an experienced lawyer. Hewitt does not believe we will ever know what really happened. He is not happy with that uncertainty, but like historians and lawyers and newspaper types he tolerates uncertainty while remaining keenly skeptical of the official version. By the way, Hewitt has no doubt that the Nokeses were guilty. Hewitt believes, however, that there is far more to know.

For the details of the story, you will have to buy the book. It can be purchased online from the University of Nebraska Press or Amazon. If you are interested in a real life legal thriller, told in a highly accessible manner, you will happily pay the price for the book. Simply put, you don’t have to be a lawyer, a historian, a newspaperman or any other calling to be intrigued by Hewitt’s masterful prose and deep-dive research. I recommend the book without reservation.***

At 138 pages, the book is an easy one night read. Be aware, however, that as you close the book, turn off the lights, and speculate as Hewitt has speculated, you will no doubt be sure that the dead bolt is firmly in place.****

RGK

*For example, Peter Longo, former Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Nebraska at Kearney who is both a lawyer and PhD, tells us that “Slipping Backward provides an excellent addition to the scholarship of state supreme courts and is the first major work dedicated to a state supreme court of the Great Plains.” Peter J. Longo, Western Historical Quarterly (2008-09-01).

**Ironically, I later represented Fred’s sister, together with my partner Ed Cook and my dear, now tragically departed, friend Wes Mues, in a personal injury case involving her husband. We settled for the most money of any personal injury settlement in Nebraska’s history at the time. Even more ironically, I later tried on behalf of the State of Nebraska the impeachment of Mr. Douglas.

***Mark Scherer, Chairman of the history department of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a former practicing lawyer and a PhD in legal history, writes: “In the best tradition of Capote’s iconic In Cold Blood, James Hewitt presents a gruesome, bizarre, and tragic tale of sex, murder, and small town intrigue, told with the objective insight of an accomplished legal historian and the gripping narrative style of a novelist. . . . This is a book you should be prepared to complete in one setting. It is that gripping.” Mark Scherer, University Nebraska Press, Book Review of In Cold Storage.

**** Joan and I were privileged to review and comment upon an early draft of the manuscript. That Jim acknowledges our contribution in print together with a hand written note of thanks in our personal copy of the book is an example of a man who gives credit to others when in fact he deserves all of it himself.

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