Ruby Stapleton: Attractive Teacher Found Dead, Her Murder Unsolved

Last week we looked at the mysterious 1910 disappearance of Dorothy Arnold. No one ever saw Miss Arnold after December 12, 1910. This week’s case is another unsolved mystery. In 1963, a hunter found the body of popular college instructor Ruby Stapleton. Her killer was never found.

Ruby Stapleton

Ruby Stapleton née Lowrey was a native of Davenport, Nebraska. She graduated from Harding College (now Harding University) in Morrilton, Arkansas in 1926. After earning a master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma, she returned to Harding to teach. There she was popular with students and faculty. In fact, when the school moved from Morrilton to Searcy in 1934, the college put Ruby in charge of coordinating the move.

Ruby Lowrey's 1926 Harding College yearbook photo (aymag.com)
Ruby Lowrey’s 1926 Harding College yearbook photo (aymag.com)

Ruby’s husband, Emmett Raymond “Ray” Stapleton was also a member of the Harding faculty. By 1963, though, Ray had left Arkansas to accept a teaching position in Superior, Wisconsin. Although they remained married, Ruby stayed in Arkansas, living with her daughter, Mary Claire, and a niece, Clarita Bartley. Both the younger women were students at Harding College.

Ray and Ruby Stapleton appear side by side in the Harding College yearbook (aymag.com)
Ray and Ruby Stapleton appear side by side in the Harding College yearbook (aymag.com)

Ruby Stapleton Disappears

On October 8, 1963, a Tuesday, Ruby’s son, Glen, had a broken washing machine. That evening, Ruby picked up Glen’s dirty laundry and took it with hers to a laundromat in Searcy. When her daughter returned home around 10:00 p.m., Ruby was not there. Alarmed, Mary Claire called the police. Her laundry and her station wagon were still at the washateria, but there was no sign of Ruby. Ominously, someone had broken into two tire stores adjacent to the laundromat. Police wondered if the burglaries and Ruby’s abduction were related.

When Ray Stapleton learned of the disappearance, he flew to Searcy the next day. Naturally, police interviewed him, as the spouse is always suspect in a murder or disappearance. And there was another reason to be suspicious of Ray. He hadn’t left the Harding College faculty voluntarily. The college asked him to leave after he had sexual liaisons with other men. In 1963, being gay was taboo, especially in the South. Moreover, Harding had an affiliation with the Church of Christ. However, Ray’s alibi (he was in Wisconsin) checked out. Also, there was no evidence he’d conspired with or hired anybody to kill his wife.

Ruby Lowrey Stapeleton (aymag.com)
Ruby Lowrey Stapeleton (aymag.com)

Police did arrest two men in a Lubbock, Texas drugstore for phoning Ray and demanding money from him. But they were able to prove they were in Lubbock at the time of Ruby’s abduction and were only guilty of trying to extort money from her husband.

The Murder of Ruby Stapleton

Eleven days after she disappeared, 21-year-old Jerry Bass went squirrel hunting along Bull Creek. There he saw Ruby’s nude and badly decomposed body in a dry section of the creek bed just outside of Beebe, Arkansas. It appeared she’d been dead since her abduction. The fact that her killer had undressed her suggested a sexual motive. But decomposition was too far advanced to determine if she’d been sexually assaulted.

Investigators followed multiple leads, including the flimsiest of tips. They looked hard at Ray Stapleton but found no evidence connecting him to the crime. They also investigated Oren Ray Hays, a bootlegger. Hays may have been angry with Ruby for her efforts to keep alcohol out of the hands of Harding students. But in the end, police couldn’t connect him to the murder either.

A few days after Ruby’s funeral, police arrested five boys for burgling the tire stores adjacent to the laundromat. Polygraph examinations cleared to five of involvement in the Stapleton murder.

Later Investigations

There the case sat until 2013, when Heather Bates, Mary Claire’s daughter and Ruby’s granddaughter took up the case. She tried to get Ruby’s case featured on the television program Cold Justice. However, the producers would only accept cases referred by law enforcement, so Heather contacted the Arkansas State Police The ASP refused both to cooperate with Cold Justice and her request to view Ruby’s file.

Roger Burns confessed to a similar crime near Bellville, Illinois in 1965. Police could not connect him to the Arkansas murder (aymag.com)
Roger Burns confessed to a similar crime near Bellville, Illinois in 1965. Police could not connect him to the Arkansas murder (aymag.com)

Heather sued and was eventually able to see the file. It led to another possible suspect. In 1965, an army radar technician named Roger Burns confessed to abducting and killing Roseann Curran from an Illinois laundromat. The details of that crime were eerily similar to the circumstances of Ruby Stapleton’s abduction and murder. The ASP tried to determine if Burns had been stationed at a missile silo in White County, Arkansas in 1963. However, relevant records were either missing or destroyed.

Epilogue

In 2014, the ASP assigned the Ruby Stapleton case to their Special Investigations Unit, where it is today.

An undated photograph of Ruby Stapleton (nwaonline.com)
An undated photograph of Ruby Stapleton (nwaonline.com)

Today, few people outside her family and Arkansas law enforcement remember Ruby Stapleton’s murder. Unlike many other unsolved crimes, no books tell her story. You can read about it in the online About You magazine article, Most Likely to Be Murdered.

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