1965: The Hargis Murders

By Richard Friend

In the early morning hours of Monday, October 18, 1965, Maryland State Trooper Robert Long was one of two officers at the Waterloo Barracks dispatched to a call in Laurel. Undoubtedly, he was unnerved to receive this particular call. As it turned out, the address, (14015 Bramble Lane, Apt. #T2) was that of his next door neighbors—the Hargis family.

The call was concerning the family’s four children.

(Photo: ©Associated Press. Collection of Richard Friend)

The quiet, Fox Rest Woods apartment complex, built just the previous year, certainly hadn’t experienced anything like what happened that Sunday night. Nor has it ever since, thankfully.

14015 Bramble Lane Today. (Photo: Richard Friend)
The Hargis Family apartment (lower right) as it appears today. (Photo: Richard Friend)
The Hargis’ apartment on the morning of October 18, 1965. (Photo: ©Associated Press. Collection of Richard Friend)

The ground floor terrace apartment had been home to Denver and Charlene Hargis and their four children. The family had only lived there for four months, having relocated from the Belair community in Bowie.

(Photo: ©Associated Press. Collection of Richard Friend)

Denver David Hargis wasn’t your average Laurel citizen. Born in Key West, Florida in 1921, he grew up in Coffeyville, Kansas, where he spent two years in the Navy before going into law school. He took an interest in politics, and eventually became a three-term mayor of his hometown. He was eventually elected as a U.S. Representative from Kansas, and served one term in Congress from 1959 to 1961. He was defeated in his re-election bid, and spent the next six years as a consultant with both the Department of Defense and the Department of Commerce.

Washburn University yearbook, 1948.

Charlene Hargis was born Charlene June Greer in 1928 and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. She married Denver in 1951, and enjoyed working for her husband as a secretary during his term in Congress.

Northeast High School yearbook, Kansas City, 1944.
Denver and Charlene Hargis’ marriage license, August 18, 1951. (Source: Ancestry.com)

Mr. Hargis, however, didn’t plan on staying in Laurel for long. He and Charlene—45 and 37 years old, respectively—separated only a month after moving into the Fox Rest Woods apartment. That July, Mr. Hargis moved in with another woman in Vienna, Virginia—a 24-year-old divorcee named Betty Crotts, and her two sons.

Charlene and the kids—Sandra Lee, 12; Michael David, 8; Debra Sue, 5; and Brenda June, 2—were left behind in Laurel.

There’s nothing on the record about what officially caused the couple’s breakup. What is clear, however, is that it ultimately led to Mrs. Hargis’ breakdown.

Shortly before midnight, she picked up the telephone in her Laurel apartment, and called her estranged husband. When Betty Crotts answered, Charlene spoke:

“Tell Denver I killed the children.”
After a brief pause, she added, “No… I’ll tell him myself.”

Charlene had actually just called Denver a few minutes earlier, and had even seen him in person that evening. With all four kids in tow, she showed up at Betty’s doorstep with an ultimatum. According to Crotts, “She asked him, did he want to stay with me or go back with her and the kids. If he wouldn’t come back, she said she was just going to leave and hurt the kids.”

It was a few hours later, as Denver and Betty watched television, that the first phone call came. After a dismissive conversation, Denver explained that he would not be coming home to Laurel. The second phone call came “about two minutes later” according to Crotts.

Two minutes that were spent doing the unthinkable.

Mr. Hargis had never taken his wife’s threats seriously. He’d later claim that she had threatened to harm herself and the children several times in the past, but never believed she would actually follow through. But there was something about the way she spoke on this particular evening, however, that changed his mind. Maybe it was the way she simply hung up after relaying the chilling message.

“Call the police,” he instructed Betty. As she later testified, “He was going to go there himself, but he was afraid he couldn’t make it in time. He said she might be serious this time.”

Sadly, Charlene Hargis had been deadly serious.

Laurel News Leader, October 21, 1965

When Troopers Robert Long and Thomas Ingram arrived at the apartment on Bramble Lane, there was no answer at the door. Peering through a bedroom window of the ground floor unit, they could see the bodies of two children in their beds. Long quickly retrieved a crowbar from his police cruiser and forced the patio door open.

Each of the children had been shot once in the back of the head, while sleeping. 5-year-old Debra Sue was the only one clinging to life—but she, too, died within minutes, en route to the hospital. Joann Robison, wife of future Laurel mayor Joe Robison, was in the ambulance that terrible morning, on duty with the Laurel Rescue Squad. It was likely the worst scene experienced by the local first responders in their then thirteen-year history.

Trooper Long later described the scene as “an awful mess.” Reflecting on what he’d seen throughout his career, he said, “With adults, it doesn’t bother you near(ly) so much, but these were just innocent kids.” Surely, the tragedy affected him on a personal level, having lived next door to the Hargis family. The Hargis children, intrigued by their neighbor’s police uniform, had always cheerfully spoken to Long when they saw him on his way to and from work.

In the kitchen of the apartment, police found a .25 caliber Beretta handgun. Four shots had been fired from it, and a live cartridge was found on the floor. Denver Hargis recognized and identified the murder weapon. It belonged to him—he had reported it stolen that Friday. Charlene would later admit taking it from the Vienna apartment her husband shared with Betty Crotts.

Mrs. Hargis wasn’t home when the police arrived, and they quickly put out an alert to locate her car. She was soon picked up by Trooper Robert Foxwell, only a mile or so away in downtown Laurel. She told him that she’d planned to drive the car into the Patuxent River and drown herself. “I tried to find the stinking river and couldn’t even do that.”

Questioned by Det. Sgt. Charles Greffen at the Waterloo Barracks, Charlene wasted no time admitting her guilt. He said, “I introduced myself, and before I could say anything, she told me she killed them.”

It was here that Charlene first shed some light on how this unthinkable tragedy was set into motion. According to Greffen, Charlene told him she originally intended to kill herself and leave the children for her husband, but he told her he didn’t want them. “He just laughed,” she said.

She admitted that she’d driven to Vienna the night of the murders to plead with her husband to either return, or to give the family money to move to another city—but he refused to do either. “He said he had another family now—he didn’t want us anymore,” she explained.

Charlene remembered driving back home to Laurel, putting the kids to bed, cleaning the apartment, and putting laundry in the washing machine. The only thing she recalled after that, she said, was when “I called my husband and told him what I’d done. I told him I’d killed the children.”

Laurel News Leader headline, October 28, 1965

Charlene was held in the Prince George’s County Jail and arraigned the next day in Upper Marlboro on charges of first degree murder—four counts. Dressed in black slacks, a yellow blouse, and a charcoal gray cardigan sweater, the thin and frail Mrs. Hargis was asked if she understood the charges against her. “Yes, sir,” she replied, almost inaudibly.

She exhibited more volume when she caught sight of Mr. Hargis and his mistress together. That’s when she became hysterical.

At points during the arraignment, the visibly upset defendant repeatedly cried out, “I’m guilty!”

(Photo ©Associated Press. Collection of Richard Friend)

Circuit Court Judge Ernest A. Loveless, Jr. appointed attorney Edward J. Bagley to represent Mrs. Hargis; and at Mr. Bagley’s request, appointed Howard L. Stern as co-counsel. They filed pleas of not guilty by reason of insanity on all four counts of murder, and the judge ordered Charlene to Spring Grove State Hospital in Catonsville for examination.

She tried to slash her wrists while undergoing that examination. Despite the suicide attempt, psychiatrists ultimately declared her sane and able to stand trial.

Headline from The Salina Journal (Salina, Kansas) Friday, May 6, 1966

Her trial began on May 5, 1966 before a jury of three women and nine men. Shortly after the start of the second day, it was interrupted by an outburst. Charlene Hargis began to scream: “Stop it! I told you I was guilty, didn’t I?!” State’s Attorney Arthur A. Marshall, Jr., who’d been standing directly in front of Mrs. Hargis, literally jumped in shock when the screaming began. He jumped so sharply, he actually pulled a muscle in his side. Asked about the incident later that day, he said, “I felt like somebody stuck a knife in me.”

A recess was called, and Charlene, “trembling and weeping,” was led out of the crowded courtroom by an officer. Seated outside in a nearby corridor were Denver Hargis and Betty Crotts. Mrs. Crotts had been called as a key witness for the prosecution, while Mr. Hargis elected not to testify against his estranged wife.

Betty Crotts testified that she and Denver (by now living together in Arlington, Virginia) had arrived home at her previous apartment in Vienna on the evening of October 17th and found Charlene Hargis and her four children waiting for them outside. She described the confrontation and Charlene’s later phone calls, “threatening to hurt the kids.”

Maryland State Trooper Robert Long was also called to testify, and he relayed the horror he’d discovered that morning in his next door neighbors’ apartment.

And Charlene herself quietly testified. She reiterated the same story to the jurors that she’d told police—never offering excuses or seeking mercy; often looking directly into the jurors’ eyes and adding that she wished she were dead, herself.  

On May 10th, after deliberating for six hours, the jury convicted Charlene on four counts of manslaughter. Reporters noted that several jurors were in tears at various times throughout the closing arguments, and that most in the courtroom sympathized with the defendant in spite of her horrific crime.

In fact, even the prosecutor himself directed more scorn at Denver Hargis and Betty Crotts than he did at Mrs. Hargis. In a remarkable statement to the jury, Marshall said, “She (Charlene Hargis) is a pathetic sight. She stands here before you by herself when there should be two other people with her. Two other people who squeezed the trigger as surely as she did.” He added, “Here we have the story of the eternal triangle—and of an unfaithful husband, who came here and refused to testify, for his own benefit.”

The defense attorney, predictably, was even more blunt. Edward Bagley said, “If she shot her husband that night, I would come in and gladly try this case for her. And I think she would have an excellent chance of being turned loose by a jury.”

The Morning Herald (Hagerstown, MD), May 25, 1966

On May 24th, two weeks after the trial, Charlene returned to the Upper Marlboro courthouse for sentencing. She received 10 years in prison for each death, but with the terms running concurrently.

Circuit Judge William B. Bowie stated that the sentence was “as lenient as possible under the circumstances,” and allowed that Mrs. Hargis would be eligible for parole after 28 months.

Charlene was taken to the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup to begin serving her time. By all accounts, she was the proverbial model prisoner—but as the one-year anniversary of the murders approached in September of 1966, so too did her demons. She attempted to overdose with prescription antidepressant and tranquilizer pills she’d been hoarding.

The Washington Post, September 22, 1966

Prison superintendent Alice Blum said that Charlene had confided to fellow inmates several times that “she didn’t know how she could stand it when October came around.”

She fully recovered, but less than a year later, overdosed on pills again. The June 1967 suicide attempt was her third in less than two years, counting the wrist-slashing during her initial psychological evaluation.

Laurel News Leader, June 29, 1967

The third suicide attempt not only resulted in Charlene being transferred to Spring Grove State Hospital, it prompted prison officials to change the method of administering pills to inmates. Warden James Jordan, believing that Mrs. Hargis had received the pills from other inmates who’d also been hoarding them, ordered that all future pills given to inmates “be crushed to make sure they are swallowed.”

Laurel News Leader, May 16, 1968

After serving a total of 31 months in prison and the psychiatric hospital, Charlene Hargis was granted parole by the Maryland Parole and Probation Board. She was released to the custody of her parents, where she was ordered to reside with them at their home in Missouri under close supervision of Missouri parole officials. Her parole also stipulated regular psychiatric care at a nearby mental hospital.

Somewhat ironically, it was a deal that Charlene’s court-appointed defense attorney had requested at her sentencing, only to be denied.

Somehow, life went on for both Denver and Charlene, apparently. After he filed for divorce in January 1969, she reverted to using her maiden name. The divorce report—an inherently cold document to begin with—contains a particularly chilling entry. Line #23 asks for the number of children under 18 affected by the decree. The clerk typed, “NONE.”

(Source: Ancestry.com)

On March 28, 1969, Denver Hargis and Betty Crotts were married.

(Source: Ancestry.com)

Denver and Betty moved to Florida, where he managed a number of title insurance companies before retiring in 1985. He died just four years later, at the age of 67, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

His grave is not far from those of his four children—who’d tragically been there for nearly 24 years by the time he joined them in 1989.

(Source: Arlington National Cemetery)

Nothing seems to have been written about Charlene in the years following her parole. If there were anymore suicide attempts, marriages, or anything else of note, it didn’t make the news, evidently.

In fact, I found only one brief thing—a terse obituary in the March 5, 2015 edition of the Kansas City Star:

Charlene J. Greer, 86, Lee’s Summit, Missouri. Died March 3, 2015.
No service. Cremation.
Langsford Funeral Home.

The tortured woman who couldn’t bear the anniversary of her children’s deaths ended up having to endure nearly 50 more of them.

Sadly, like so many other tragic tales, there isn’t any moral to this story; or any elements of redemption. It was a horrific act that likely could have been prevented, had circumstances been different. We’ll never know what Denver and Charlene Hargis felt, or what series of events prompted them to make the choices they did.

In today’s news cycles, very few things surprise us anymore. But in 1965, in our small hometown of Laurel, Maryland, this must have been truly shocking on every level.

Walking through the expansive Fox Rest Woods neighborhood today, which still looks very much as it always has, it’s easy to imagine the Hargis children there that fateful summer… and to wish they’d had the opportunity to really experience growing up in Laurel. Or anywhere else.

Windy

jan-11-2014-photo-jdfloyd-2
A typical Saturday scene: Kevin, Windy, Pete, and Rich at Laurel’s Tastee Diner. (Photos: John Floyd II)

There are a number of good people both working at and frequenting the Tastee Diner who make it the special place that it is. But for us, the first was a waitress named Windy Floyd.

Over the past 3 years or so, Kevin, Pete, and I have had the pleasure of becoming “regulars” at Laurel’s legendary Tastee Diner. To say that there’s no other place quite like the Diner would be a tremendous understatement; its historic ambiance alone just genuinely inspires us as we compare notes and go about uncovering new stories from Laurel’s past. I could sit for hours at Starbucks and not come up with a single idea; but give me ten minutes with a cup of coffee at the Diner and the wheels already start to turn. And it all began by sitting at a table in Windy’s section.

This being its 40th anniversary under the Tastee Diner banner, we’re in the process of putting together a very interesting history of the three diner cars that have occupied the site at 118 Washington Boulevard since the early 1930s, originally started by Walter Susini.

But sometimes real life has a way of interfering with things. This past Saturday—at the Diner, of course—reminded us of that.

Windy didn’t seem to be working her regular shift. Another long-time waitress, Melissa, came over to help us instead. But rather than take our order, Melissa began with an unusual question:

“Have you all heard from Windy?”

She went on to reveal that the Diner hadn’t heard from her since Tuesday—that she’d missed her Friday shift without calling in, and was scheduled to work that day (Saturday) as well… but still hadn’t called in.

Calls to Windy’s cellphone went straight to voicemail, she said. Even more worrisome, a visit to her house in Jessup yielded no response, although “all the cars are there,” according to Melissa. “The dog isn’t even barking.” that didn’t sound good at all. We lost our appetites.

We left the Diner that afternoon while Anne Arundel County Police were doing a welfare check at Windy’s house, prompted by a call from Diner staff. There was a brief bit of hope that she may have traveled to visit her family in Tennessee—that, perhaps, something had happened that caused her to leave unexpectedly. But even still, by all accounts, Windy would’ve made time to call the Diner to let them know.

A few hours later, we learned the devastating news. Windy was dead. She’d been shot—apparently while she slept—by the man with whom she lived. He’d then turned the gun on himself, taking his own life.

Apparently, there was a history of domestic strife that wasn’t reported to police—problems that had increased in severity in recent weeks, according to investigators. Windy, unfortunately, never let on that anything was wrong. She was only 49 years old.

* * *

The Diner was literally a brighter place with Windy working there. Her smile and laughter were immediately welcoming, whether you were a regular or not. Getting to know her over these past few years has been a pleasure—sitting in Windy’s section was truly part of our routine. We looked forward to seeing her. She’d actually save “our table” if she knew we were coming in when there was a crowd. And she genuinely took an interest in the research we do, often stopping to sit with us for a few moments to get a look at some vintage photos Pete had found, or at Kevin’s most recent Laurel Leader article.

IMG_6439

She was one of the first people to receive a Lost Laurel book from me, and could always count on Pete to bring her back a t-shirt from a concert at Atlantic City. She was proud of her Laurel History Boys swag, too: t-shirts and stickers courtesy of Kevin—who enjoyed asking her for a menu every single week, despite ordering the same thing time and again. “I already know what you’re gonna get, so don’t even ask for that menu,” she’d playfully chide.

Kevin, Pete, and I always took turns paying the tab, and even though we’d often forget who got the last one, Windy never did. If I reached for the check, she’d put it in front of Pete instead. “No, Rich, you got it last time. Let him pay!”

IMG_6441

This has been a sad, surreal week. And it will undoubtedly be sad and surreal at the Diner for quite some time. But Windy wouldn’t want that, I’m sure. She was excited about the prospect of this 40th Anniversary of the Tastee Diner that we were just discussing last weekend, and would’ve loved to see how it shapes up. Whether you’re a Diner regular, or even if you haven’t been in years, stop by one day soon and let the staff know that you’re thinking of them. If it feels like we’ve lost a family member, we can only imagine how tough this must be for Windy’s co-workers. Jeff, Joy, Melissa, Patty, Emily, Kevin, Gene, and everyone in the Tastee Diner family—you’re in our thoughts and have our sincerest condolences.

UPDATE:
We’ve established a GoFundMe page to benefit Windy’s children and grandchildren. All proceeds raised will go directly to her oldest daughter, Lacey. Please visit https://www.gofundme.com/windyfloydmemorial and contribute what you can—no amount is too small, and you can donate anonymously. Also, kindly share this link to spread the word.

Rich: The Tragic History of Sixth and Main

(Laurel Historical Society collection)
(Laurel Historical Society collection)

Rich has posted a story about what might be the unluckiest street corner in Laurel—the bizarre and tragic history of Sixth & Main Streets.

In the span of less than 15 years, it saw two fatal trolley accidents, the suicide of a well-known jockey, and had a connection to a horrific triple-murder. All this, and even stranger coincidences…

You can read all about it on Rich’s page.