The start of the much-anticipated trial in the Bentonville, Ark., courtroom was nearly at hand. Prosecuting Attorney J.S. Combs felt as though the case against Doctor Andrew Bass was strong but he didn't want to leave any stone unturned or any fact unproven. As the day before the trial's start passed, Combs poured over documents that he believed would, beyond a shadow of a doubt, prove that the good doctor was a cold-blooded murderer.
Prosecuting Attorney Combs knew his opening remarks had to be strong. He needed to not only describe the irrefutable facts of the case that would later be proven but he must make implications as to the futility of Doctor Bass' reversal of statements made relating to his involvement in the murder of William Robert Pearman.
Combs was confident that the volume of incriminating evidence would lead to a conviction but, over the years, he had learned that overconfidence can be a dangerous thing. It was those cases that couldn't be lost that, if lost, brought the greatest amount of disappointment and pain. In his mind, the prosecutor thought about the details, the facts and the evidence of the case. He began to go over the events that resulted in the death of William Pearman.
Doctor Bass, a Columbia, Mo., dentist and Pearman had known one another for some time. It was believed that Pearman sometimes used the last name of Folta. The two men had occasionally partnered in land purchasing and sales deals prior to the most recent venture. In the latter part of 1929, Pearman agreed to purchase some land from the good doctor.
Mr. Pearman thought there was oil on the land and he badly wanted that piece of property, but he didn't have the capital to complete the deal. Pearman and Bass talked about the deal and one of the two, Combs would argue that it was Bass, decided that a life insurance policy might satisfy both parties -- a life insurance policy for $200,000 on the life of Pearman. The beneficiary's name, well that would be Doctor Andrew Bass.
It was on the night of March 26 that the doctor and Pearman made a trip to Kansas City. Returning from Kansas City, and as the two men drove to Columbia, Bass pulled the car to the side of the road. It was then that his well-thought-out plan came to fruition and Bass raised his pistol and fired a bullet into the head of Pearman.
However, the murderer's evil plan was far from complete. He decided that he needed some help in disposing of the lifeless body, so after relocating the corpse into the vehicle's trunk he drove to Freeburg, Mo., where he awakened part-time laborer and acquaintance of the doctor, Casper Tillman.
Tillman would later testify that Bass once tried to get him to murder a cousin of the doctor's wife, a man by the last name of Dorsey. Bass told Tillman that Dorsey had taken out a $100,000 insurance policy which named Bass as the beneficiary. Tillman would testify that he refused the offer.
Combs' opening statements would describe the doctor as a ruthless cold-hearted man who, at gunpoint and under threats of death, forced Tillman to fire two shots into the head of the already deceased Pearman. Tillman would testify that Bass told him those shots fired from a pistol would ensure his silence and assistance. That assistance would involve the disposal of Pearman's body.
The body needed to be easily found so the insurance claim could be dealt with expeditiously and Bass had already given that portion of the plan some thought. With Pearman's corpse in the trunk, Bass and Tillman drove the car to a place alongside a road between Sulphur Springs and Gravette, Ark. The two removed the body and left it there to be later found.
As Combs gathered his thoughts about the trial and what he considered to be a mountain of evidence against Bass, he continued to scribe his thoughts on pieces of paper. Those words would be used the following day as he spoke. However, there were so many twists and turns with the case that he could only hope that his remarks given at the trials' inception would make sense.
Returning to his thoughts about the evidence against the doctor, Combs continued to transfer those thoughts to paper. After Bass was arrested, a search of his vehicle revealed the presence of blood stains on the car's front seat and in the trunk. Those bloody stains added credibility to Tillman's account of the murder. Tillman said the doctor gave him $70 as he dropped him off at his home and told him to keep his mouth shut.
Although not considered evidence of the crime, Combs wanted to make mention of an incident that occurred after Bass' arrest. Sheriff Fields was notified that Bass may have attempted suicide while in his cell. Fields and a deputy called Doctor Atkinson and, as the three entered the cell, Bass kicked the sheriff and attempted to escape. His efforts proved to be futile, but his actions further described the type of man Bass was.
Combs paused his writing as he considered all the twists and turns of the investigation. Bass had confessed to the murder but rarely acknowledged the extent of his guilt. He blamed St. Louis mob figures, stating that he was forced to kill Pearman because he owed some ruthless men money.
A Poplar Bluff, Mo., newspaper reporter told the police that Bass told him that St. Louis gangsters wanted money and it was that pressure that led to Bass coming up with the idea to kill Pearman. Newspaper reporter Herbert Rice told police that he was unsure of Bass' association with gangsters, so he fled to a remote cabin in the woods and remained there until Bass was in custody.
The prosecutor laid his pen aside. He wondered, "Would his words be enough to paint a picture of the crime, Doctor Bass' guilt and the kind of person the defendant was?"
Combs wanted the people in the Bentonville courtroom to know that the doctor was someone consumed by greed and, at the root of his actions, was the desire for money. That desire for money could only be fulfilled by the murder of someone he knew. That someone was W.R. Pearman.
The path to justice was more quickly traveled in 1930 and the murder trial began on May 26th. Circuit Judge Earl Blansett asked Combs if he had any opening remarks. Combs gathered his papers and began to speak. It seemed to Combs that he should say more but, after a few minutes, he found that he had come to the end of his writing.
Judge Blansett asked defense attorney John R. Duty of Rogers, Ark., if he wished to make any opening remarks. Duty asked for a minute to consult with his client and defense attorney Boyle Clark of Columbia, Mo. After no more than a moment or two, the defense attorney stated that his client wished to change his plea of innocence to one of guilty.
Judge Blansett sentenced Doctor Bass to life in prison. While in prison, Bass soon found a position that he believed suited his tastes. He became the caretaker of a garden located at the Tucker Prison farm. He remained confined until 1953 when then-Governor Sid McMath reduced his sentence, after which the doctor was paroled. He was 76 years of age.
Doctor Bass made one more journey to Bentonville. Although the motivation for his journey was known only to him, while there he made one last remark about his crime. He said he felt Arkansas lawmen were too stupid to figure out what he had done. I guess he was wrong.
Stan Fine is a retired police officer and Verizon Security Department investigator who, after retiring in 2006, moved from Tampa, Fla., to Noel. Stan's connection to Noel can be traced back to his grandparents who lived most of their lives there. Stan began writing after the passing of his wife Robin in 2013. The opinions expressed are those of the author.