A bloody triple murder in the big thicket

Ten years into a 99-year prison sentence for murder, a trusty told the guards he was going fishing on Apr. 11, 1930 and vanished into thin air.

In February 1915, a farmer and his son hunting in the Big Thicket, the impenetrable natural wonder that once covered portions of 11 southeast Texas counties, came upon a partially decomposed corpse in a shallow grave. 

The coroner’s educated guess was that the man had been dead two weeks, but the bullet holes in the victim’s chest left no doubt as to the cause of death.  The deceased was identified from his clothes and dental work as an oilfield worker named Richard Watts.

Emory Eran Sapp and his half-brother Louis Sapp immediately came under suspicion.  They were taken to Kountze for questioning and held in the Hardin County jail.

When Frank Havard, a friend of Watts, was a no-show at the Sapps’ preliminary hearing, a county prosecutor had a hunch where the missing witness might be.  Returning to the Big Thicket with a group of volunteers, he found a second grave 70 feet from the first.  And, sure enough, the occupant was Havard, dead from a gunshot wound to the head.

The discovery of the second body led to the swift indictment of the Sapp brothers on two counts of murder.  Their bond hearing in late April tripled the size of Kountze, as the curious descended on the sleepy county seat to see the suspects in the flesh.

Em and Lou Sapp did not look like distant relatives much less siblings.  Em was a slender six-footer in his mid-thirties with piercing eyes and a pleasant personality.  Though barely out of his teens, Lou looked like Paul Bunyan on steroids, a giant of a man who was as strong as an ox but not nearly as smart.

The spectators that packed the courtroom for the bond hearing got their money’s worth.  To support their argument for keeping the Sapps under lock and key, the prosecution claimed Watts and Havard had been killed to cover up a third slaying.

It all began in a Beaumont jewelry store in 1912.  The proprietor told Em Sapp that a rich old widow was ripe for the picking.  Em divorced his wife later that year and in July 1914 married elderly Ellen Partain in the jeweler’s home.

Six days after the wedding, the bride deposited $19,500 in the groom’s bank account.  As soon as Ellen signed a new will leaving him all her worldly possessions, Em started shopping for a triggerman.  Frank Havard turned him down but not Richard Watts.

In the fall of 1914, Em persuaded Ellen to come along on a weekend hunting trip. Camped for the night near the Trinity River in northern Liberty County, Watts “accidentally” shot Ellen Partain Sapp to death while cleaning his gun.

According to prosecutors, Em and brother Lou later did away with Watts and Havard because they could not keep their mouths shut.  After a few drinks, the two would tell anybody who would listen how Em’s May-December marriage really ended. 

The judge denied bail and sent the Sapps back to jail until their day in court.

One year and two changes of venue later, Em and Lou Sapp went on trial at Lufkin for the murder of Richard Watts.  Witnesses testified that Lou and an inebriated Richard Watts boarded a train at Beaumont on the morning of Jan. 7, 1915.  Em met them at the station in Lumberton, and the trio was last seen driving in the direction of the Big Thicket.

The bloodthirsty brothers followed the same script a short time later, and Frank Havard joined Richard Watts in “The Sapp Graveyard.”

The Lufkin dozen deliberated 82 hours before finally finding the Sapp boys guilty as charged.  Jurors gave Em 40 years and Lou 20 years, but it was all for naught as the convictions were reversed on appeal.

Meanwhile, Em was tried at Bryan for the murder of his missus.  The verdict was guilty and the sentence was 99 years.

Lou got out on bail in the summer of 1919 and dropped out of sight.  Sixteen years later in Louisiana, he was arrested for another murder and presumably punished.

Em entered the Texas Department of Corrections in July 1920.  He behaved himself, made trusty and was eventually transferred to a minimum security farm.  In April 1930, he went fishing all by his lonesome and never came back.

The fugitive settled in Tennessee, where he assumed the identity of a dead brother and became a policeman.  Em might never have been caught had he not tried to collect his brother’s Spanish-American War pension. 

Sentenced to 10 years federal time, Em was returned to Texas in 1941 to finish his 99-year stretch.  But a tearful telling of his tale of woe on national radio resulted in a letter-writing campaign that convinced Gov. Coke Stevenson to pardon him in December 1943.

Texas handed Em back to the feds in the belief he would spend the better part of the next decade in stripes.  But 14 months later he was a free man. 

Em Sapp suddenly showed up in Kountze in 1955 and took up residence in nearby Silsbee.  Arrested for the illegal purchase and possession of a firearm, he was sent back to prison in June 1962.  The triple murderer died behind bars nine months later at age 85.

Bartee welcomes your comments and questions at barteehaile@gmail.com or P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 and invites you to visit his web site at barteehaile.com.

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