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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Did Vian couple get away with murder after 1919 shooting of wealthy Sequoyah County rancher?




One of the basic tenets of journalism, and one of the first things you learn when taking a class on news reporting, is that you're always looking for the fundamentals.


It's long been established that 'who', 'what', 'when', 'where', and, 'why' are the basic questions that any news story should answer.


When it comes to a 1919 murder case in Leflore Sequoyah County that took nearly half a decade to adjudicate, we know 'who', 'what', 'when', and, 'what' and 'where'.


The only thing this in question is why? And that may be the reason the resulting trials in the murder all three ended in hung juries.


On September 18, 1919 some sort of a disagreement took place between a wealthy Vian landowner and rancher and tenant farm couple living on his property that led to the shotgun death of John Horn.


That paragraph alone covers of the five important 'W's in the case. But the why is still an over one-hundred-year-old question.


Obviously, the shooting occurred during a period in which eastern Oklahoma was certainly poverty stricken.  The two decades leading up to the Great Depression coming on the heels of 1907 statehood for what had been Indian Territory certainly didn't lay the foundation for a booming economic period for the region.


This much is known. Horn, 40 years of age, was a prominent cattleman and a member of the Sequoyah County board of commissioners. Bess and Jim Conley lived on land just outside of Vian owned by Horn and on the late afternoon of September 18, a dispute arose over some cattle.


One thing led to another. During the ensuing fracas Horn met with an unfortunate death when he took an entire round of shotgun discharge to the head killing him instantly.


Two of the four children of the Conley's were sent to the Horn home right after the murder to inform family members of the rancher's family of the situation.


Bess Conley took the blame for the murder from the outset, claiming a verbal argument about the livestock had escalated into a physical confrontation and Horn was assaulting the couple in front of their children. When things got out of hand, Bess Conley said she shot the wealthy landowner in self-defense.


Initially, both of the Conley's were charged with the crime. Jim Conley denied having anything to do with the killing and his assertions was backed up by his wife who took full responsibility for pulling the trigger on the shotgun that killed Horn.


Contemporary news accounts at the time said "the state is inclined to doubt this confession".

Prosecutors seemed certain, and appeared bound and determined, that Jim Conley was the actual killer. Initially, Bess was arrested for murder and her husband was charged as an accessory in the crime.


The Conleys filed a petition November 17, 1919 after bond had been initially denied in the case. They had remained held during the interim and claimed they were "illegally restrained of their liberty by imprisonment" by sheriff Ben Faulkner.


Finally released on $15,000 bond, the couple were initially bound over for trial 14 months later. In the early 1900's, it was rare that a murder trial would be delayed by that length of time, but the trial itself caused quite a sensation and jury selection was a long and tedious progress. 

Also, the original judge in the case C.B. Arnold married a niece of Horn and had to recuse himself leading to the appointment of Judge Mat Johnson from Shawnee to take over the proceedings.


Although there were no eyewitnesses to the crime, over 150 people were called to testify during the week-long trial. In addition, hundreds of people were said to have traveled to Sallisaw and packed the courtroom because of the sensational nature of the case and the prominent position Horn held in the community.


The first trial ended in a hung jury. A second trial a year later, adjudicated on basically the same evidence with the same witness testimony, also ended after a week in a 7-5 vote by the jury for conviction.


The bench had no choice but to declare a hung jury and the cost of the trial was starting to take a toll on the finances of the county.


At the end of the second trial, it was claimed the litigation had been the most expensive ever in the history of Leflore County and one of the most expensive trials in the history of the short Oklahoma statehood.


But prosecutors would not be deterred. While the Conleys remained free on bond the County District attorney felt compelled to take the case to jury one more time.


With a newly appointed judge, and a little over six years between the commission of the crime and the third and final trial, prosecutors came up short once again. The third proceeding went through a series of jury votes with the panel deadlocked at 6-6. After almost three days of deliberations, the vote had turned to 7-5 in favor of conviction and on November 13, 1925 the case was finally dropped.


Horn's widow, Sydney Lail Horn, seemingly never remarried and died at the age of 86 on March 5, 1973. The couple had four children including three brothers. Three sons, Jack, Clyde, and Guy as well as one daughter Fannie Alma Horn Helms have all followed their parents in death.


Guy Horn is the only member of the family not buried at the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Vian having been cremated after his death in 2013.


No records of the Conley's or the Conley family bears out their fate after the final trial.  It has been suggested that some of the family members may have taken the Grapes of Wrath tour in the early stages of the Great Depression and migrated towards the west.







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