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Leon Groves, a full-time Des Moines optician who worked part-time as a taxicab driver, was shot to death in his cab three days before Christmas in 1951.
Groves, who’d been robbed and shot three times, was found slumped in his taxi around 1:45 a.m. Saturday, December 22, 1951, in a snow-filled ditch at S.E. Eighteenth Street and Scott Avenue. The taxi company, Ruan Cab, said Groves had last made contact two hours earlier, stating he was going to pick up a fare in downtown Des Moines.
The married father of two worked as a full-time optician at Hawkeye Optical and worked the part-time cab job to earn extra income.
In Groves’ pockets, detectives found a lighter, a pocketbook, four 25-cent taxi tickets for Ruan Cab, and $6.91. Groves’ billfold was missing.
Des Moines police Detective Inspector Jack Brophy worked the case and interviewed dozens of witnesses, but the leads went nowhere until early January, when a man who identified himself as Lewis Arthur Burkett, 27, confessed to shooting Groves.
“We’re not wholly satisfied that Burkett did it,” Brophy said in a Daily Iowan article published Thursday, January 3, 1952. “Some things about his story ring true but other parts of it don’t wholly check with the facts as we know them.”
Brophy told the press Burkett voluntarily made the admission.
According to Brophy, Burkett first said his companion, William Tafero Jones, 24, shot and robbed Groves. Later in the questioning, however, Burkett changed his story and said he was the one who shot Groves with a foreign-made pearl-handled automatic pistol.
“He demonstrated how he held the gun and that seemed to check with the manner in which Groves was shot,” Brophy said. “However, he claimed he gave the gun to his mother and we have failed to find the gun.”
When police questioned Burkett’s mother and searched her residence, Mrs. Burkett denied her son had ever given her a gun and detectives were unable to locate the murder weapon in her home.
Burkett also told investigators he’d only meant to rob Groves, and then later stated the shooting had been accidental.
By late Wednesday, January 2, Brophy said Burkett continued to insist his companion robbed Groves. Brophy also told the media Burkett had once been a patient at the Woodward State Hospital. Additionally, Burkett could neither read nor write.
Brophy said Jones voluntarily surrendered after learning police wanted to question him, but by Thursday night detectives were still trying to “ferret out” something tangible from the stories told by the two men. The only definitive thing police had established was that Burkett and Jones were drinking beer together the night of Groves’ murder.
Though Jones admitted to being with Burkett earlier that evening, he insisted he had no knowledge of the slaying.
“Burkett told us he gave the gun to his mother but she says he didn’t and, I’m inclined to agree with her,” Brophy is quoted as saying in articles published Friday, Jan. 4 in the Daily Iowan and Cedar Rapids Gazette. “If the gun was buried in the deep snow at the scene of the crime it could be spring before we found it,” he said.
Brophy, the Daily Iowan reported, said another cab driver identified Burkett and Jones as the two men he picked up in an East Des Moines tavern at 10:40 p.m. Dec. 22 and then driven them to a Center St. address.
Both men did admit to riding in a cab that night, and both said they’d been drinking beer together at the Center St. address. Details got murky after the two left Center Street.
According to Jones, the two parted company after leaving the Center St. business. Burkett told Brophy it wasn’t true; after leaving Center St., Burkett said he and Jones had got into a second cab, the Daily Iowan reported Jan. 4.
Groves was slain sometime after 11:06 p.m. when he’d reported by radio that he’d picked up a passenger and was headed for the same vicinity where officials would later found his cab and bullet-ridden body.
With conflicting reports insufficient evidence, police weren’t able to arrest or charge Jones or Burkett with the optician’s homicide.
Hawkeye Optical announced January 4 they were offering a $500 reward to anyone who came forward — even anonymously — with information about Groves’ murder. More contributions flowed in, and on January 5 the Times Herald reported the reward fund had grown to $2,000.
The reward went unclaimed, and a Des Moines Register article published May 13, 2013, cited Groves’ murder as Des Moines’ oldest cold case in the city’s 91 unsolved homicides.
Leon Groves was born in 1910 in Ralston, Iowa, to William R. and Rose (Stevens) Groves.
He married Frances Bryant on November 3, 1931, in Eagle Grove, Iowa, and the couple had a son, Richard, and daughter, Joan.
Groves and his family lived in Fort Dodge for six years before moving in 1937 to Des Moines, where Groves worked as an optician up until the time of his death.
Memorial services were held December 26, 1951, with interment in Pinehill Cemetery in Des Moines.
Leon’s wife Frances died in 1991.
Anyone with information about Leon Groves’ unsolved murder is asked to contact the Des Moines Police Department Investigative Services Bureau at (515) 283-4864.