(Image credit: Albuquerque Journal)
On October 12, 1959, the Associated Press column appeared in newspapers across the country with similar headlines to this one, “Admirer Kills Young Actress In Alamo Movie.” The article reported the death of LaJean Eldridge, an actress in the John Wayne film project being shot in Bracketville, Kinney County, Texas. Ms. Eldridge, about 26 years old, had died the day before, the victim of a stabbing that took place in a rented residence that she and five male actors shared in nearby Spofford, Texas. The group were members of a little theater troupe. Eldridge had been cast in the film as “Mrs. Guy” and the alleged killer, Chester Harvey Smith, about 32 years old, was her boyfriend who had been cast as an extra in the project.
According to newspaper accounts, Eldridge and Smith had gotten into an argument late on the evening of October 11, 1959 over Eldridge’s plan to move out of the residence. Ms. Eldridge had come to the residence with two men and a woman, planning on collecting her belongings and relocating them to Bracketville. The boyfriend Smith apparently became agitated, thinking he was going to lose Eldridge. The argument became more heated and about 2:00 a.m., Smith is thought to have attacked Eldridge with either a hunting knife or butcher knife having a five inch blade, fatally wounding her. When Kinney County Sheriff John Sheedy arrived, Smith’s initial comment to the sheriff was that he had no recollection of the slaying. Sheriff Sheedy arrested Smith and charged him with murder.
The residents were all members of a theater group called the Names-Townsend Group and had been performing a repertory theater production in Bandera, Texas. Most of the group had gone to bed after a night of casual drinking. The others were awakened by the argument between Smith and Eldridge, but did not get up out of bed until they heard Ms. Eldridge’s screams.
Ms. Eldridge had recently been cast in the Alamo film project as the wife of of a character named Guy whose character was serving under Gen. Sam Houston. John Wayne, the actor and director of the film, had liked her performance and recently given her an expanded role. Eldridge and the rest of the Names-Townsend group had all been represented by the same agency, both in the Bandera engagement and the film project with the entire troupe being engaged in the film.
In the days that followed, the alleged assailant Smith appeared before Justice of the Peace Albert Postell, who ordered the prisoner held without bond to await a grand jury hearing and ordered him to be detained at the county jail at Del Rio, Texas.
Ms. Eldridge’s body was taken to Uvalde, Texas and once her family was notified of the slaying, two of her sisters were to fly in from California for a funeral service. It is believed that Ms. Eldridge was buried in a non-cemetery grave at an undisclosed location, somewhere in Texas.
The grand jury indicted Smith for the crime and trial was set to take place on November 9, 1959. Newspaper accounts revealed that Smith had been previously involved in some incidents in California. In one of them, he received a 180 day suspended sentence and was placed on three years’ probation for attacking his former wife’s roommate, Gracie F. Walker, with a hatchet. He was also accused by his former wife of attempting to run her down with a vehicle. Finally, he had paid a $50 fine for assaulting a bus driver in Los Angeles.
Smith’s counsel had requested an accelerated schedule due to the fact that certain witnesses did not permanently reside in Texas and may have become unavailable to testify if the trial were to be delayed. On the day the trial was to begin, Smith’s attorneys Fred Semaan and Sam Darden announced that a plea arrangement had been reached where Smith would agree to plead guilty and serve a 30 year term for the slaying. Had the trial taken place, witnesses were to have included other members of the Names-Townsend Troupe: Jim Kinney, Norman Andrews, Ron Lee and founder Arthur Names. Another witness was to have been Elizabeth Gilliland, a friend of Ms. Eldridge. Actor John Wayne was subpoenaed to testify, but the district attorney had stated that he had no plans to call the actor. It is believed that due to the disposition of the case by the plea arrangement, Wayne was not required to appear in the proceedings.
The prisoner Smith was transported to Huntsville, Texas to begin serving his 30 year sentence. At this point, it is unknown how much time Smith actually served for the crime or when or if he was released.
Concerning Ms. Eldridge, “The Alamo” was to have been her first film engagement. Because of the fear of a negative public reaction, her scenes were edited out of the theatrical release, but are included in some DVD releases of the film.
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