On July 7, 1931, a beautiful prostitute was found strangled in one of Jerome’s classier bordellos. Police speculated that the murder of Juanita Marie “Sammie” Dean, whose clients included the mayor and his son, was a crime of passion.
The list of suspects was four names long: Tom Miller, the mayor; his son, Jack; Bert Owens, the sheriff’s son; and Leo Portillo, Dean’s best friend and a waiter at the New York Cafe. Police investigated, but never solved the case.
Was it a crime of passion, or did Dean have something on one of Jerome’s favorite sons?
“Nobody was ever convicted, which is why I’m quite sure it was political intrigue,” says Ronne Roope, archivist with the Jerome Historical Society.
Seventy-five years later, visitors to Jerome’s Ghost Walk on Saturday night will have a chance to do what the police couldn’t — solve the case.
Actors will re-create the last days of Dean’s life in three separate scenes around town. The scenes are based on the coroner’s inquest. Visitors will vote at the end of the show, and the results will be published in the next issue of the Jerome Historical Society’s Chronicle.
Dean, a divorcee who was 30 at the time of her death, epitomized Jerome in the 1930s — a bustling mining town dubbed “The Wickedest Town in America” by the New York Sun. Her clients were a who’s who of Jerome’s elite.
“People pretty much feel it was a crime of passion,” says Roope. “In the play we created, it showed her jilting all three of them. Leo didn’t really seem to be a client per se. The other three did and were purportedly in love with her. The mayor couldn’t do anything about it, and that leaves the two sons.”
Owens, the sheriff’s son, left town immediately after the slaying, so most people in Jerome decided he was the likely culprit, says Roope.
Because of the adult subject matter, the Jerome Historical Society asks that parents use discretion if their children are 16 or younger.
If you go
What: Jerome’s Ghost Walk, a recreation of one of Jerome’s most scandalous murders When: 6 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday Where: Downtown Jerome Cost: $12 adults, $5 children 6-12 Information: (928) 634-1066 or www.jeromehistoricalsociety.org
Take Interstate 17 north to state Highway 260. Jerome is approximately 130 miles north of the East Valley.