By David Stevens
Last week’s passing of eastern New Mexico historian Lynn Moncus brings to mind one of our region’s more notorious homicide investigations.
The “matchbook murder” case began in the fall of 1951, when authorities claimed an Army deserter from Brooklyn, New York, killed an Ohio steel worker, shooting him five times in the head.
The law officer who solved the slaying was Moncus’ father, longtime Quay County Sheriff Claude C. Moncus.
The bullet-riddled body of John Gunnish, 39, was found about 200 yards off of an empty stretch of U.S. Highway 66 near Tucumcari the morning of Oct. 12, 1951. Gunnish’s car was located a few days later in Amarillo.
When Sheriff Moncus searched the dead man’s vehicle, he found a “gangster” comic book, The Associated Press reported. As he leafed through the comic book, he found a matchbook from The Hitching Post, a cafe in Whitefish Bay, Wis.
Employees at the cafe placed Gunnish with Frederick Heisler, who had recently quit his job at the cafe. They said Gunnish and Heisler were last seen together on their way to California.
Three weeks later, Heisler was in custody in Alturas, Calif., where he had been posing as Gunnish, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.
Heisler admitted he killed Gunnish, but claimed repeatedly for the next three years that the shooting was in self-defense. Authorities contended the evidence proved Gunnish was lying down, possibly asleep in the back seat of his car.
On Oct. 29, 1954, Heisler, then 33, was strapped into New Mexico’s electric chair and asked if he had any final words. “It’s not murder,” he told prison Warden Morris Abram. “God have mercy on your soul.”
Moments later, Abram replied, “Goodbye Frederick,” and electricity passed through Heisler’s body. When the first jolt failed to kill him, a second was initiated and he was dead three minutes later.
The AP characterized the investigation leading to Heisler’s arrest as “storybook sleuthing.”
Lynn Moncus could have filled a storybook about her father’s law-enforcement career.
She told “American Profile” magazine in 2004 that she remembered many winter nights when her father would bring home stranded families so they wouldn’t freeze. “He’d let these Route 66 travelers from the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ era spend the night in the city jail before they continued west,” she said.
Other stories were passed along in the weekly newspaper column she wrote for 50 years and three regional history books she wrote and/or edited.
Lynn Moncus was 79 when she died on Monday. Her dad died in 1982.
Their stories live on.
David Stevens is the editor for Clovis Media Inc. Contact him at: email@example.com