OPINION: Strawberry patch leads to murder

The ownership of property and the things that could be grown on that patch of ground were very important to folks living in and around the small southwest Missouri town of Noel. In the late summer of 1940, the importance of a small parcel of ground where strawberries were grown ultimately came to light in the form of murder.

John Branson lived alone on a parcel of land just south of Noel. Some folks might ask why a man might choose to live in such a remote area, but the solitary-minded man called the place home. The land, well, it wasn't anything special, but he acted as a caretaker for the owner, a fellow who lived in Kansas. Branson made a commitment to take care of the place and, in that part of the country, folks took commitments seriously.

It wasn't as if there were no neighbors at all. Branson's property was adjacent to some land owned by a man by the name of Charley Markle. Markle was up in years, 64 to be exact, and he lived with his 35-year-old son, Troy. The two seemed content enough, but over the years, there had been one thing that seemed to torment the two. That one thing was John Branson.

There had been disputes over property boundary lines, and those disagreements grew into other arguments. Recently, the father and son felt that the stale relationship with their neighbor came to a point where drastic measures were called for. The argument involved a dispute relating to the ownership of a small piece of land, a strawberry patch.

The Markles talked and even argued about a possible solution to the problem, and, at least at first, they disagreed about the solution. The two did, however, agree on one thing. The solution had to be permanent, and ultimately the two agreed that there was one and only one thing to do -- kill their neighbor.

But as is the case in any murder plot, there are two very important components. The method causing the death of the victim had to be foolproof, and one had to get away with the crime. That's where Branson's former housekeeper, Irene Ball, came in.

Markle met Ball on a Main Street sidewalk, and after a brief moment of cordial conversation, he held out his hand. Pinched between two of his fingers was a small piece of paper that he apparently wanted Ball to accept. As she unfolded the morsel of paper, he told her that the existence of the note should be kept secret and the contents were not to be discussed with anyone. Ball nodded her head as she silently read the words on the note.

The words were crudely written on the note, but the meaning found favor with Ball. The note asked if she would come to Markle's house. There was something the Markles wanted done and if she would assist them, Ball would most likely receive some yet unspecified amount of money. Irene looked at Troy and nodded her head in agreement. "Okay, I'll see you there."

That evening Ball traveled to the Markle home. Ball couldn't be sure of the details, but she was certain of one thing. The meeting was to be about John Branson. Branson's former housekeeper knocked on the front door, and almost before her last closed-hand strike to the wooden door could be delivered, it opened.

"Hi, Irene. Thanks for coming."

The person opening the door wasn't the one who had passed the note to her; it was Troy's father, Charley.

"Come on in."

Irene looked around the room, searching for a glimpse of the younger Markle, but he was not there. Charley must have sensed her search for his son and, without a word spoken from Ball, he said, "Troy's not here. It will be just you and me if that's alright."

"I guess so."

Ball seemed uneasy, but Markle tried to put her at ease and said the three had something in common -- a dislike of John Branson.

Ball listened to Markle as he talked. Something was said about arsenic and the manner of trickery that might be used to entice Branson to consume the deadly toxic substance. Ball listened for a moment or two, then rather casually responded to Markle's concern.

"I know his routine and the layout of the house. I can put the arsenic in his pancake batter mix. I was told there might be some money in it for me. Is that right?"

Markle had just the smallest of smiles as he said, "yeah, that's right, maybe so. If you're in, I'll give you $5 to buy the poison."

"Well then, give me the five bucks," Ball replied.

The plan wasn't overly sophisticated, but then neither were the three planners. However, they knew what they wanted. They wanted John Branson dead and buried. With those thoughts in mind, on Friday, July 5th, Charley Markle and Ball managed to get into Branson's house and mix the arsenic into the pancake mixture. There was nothing left to do but wait.

Three days passed, and the curiosity that nagged the three was too much to endure, so Ball and Troy Markle went to Branson's home. There they found Branson lying on the floor. He was obviously in a great deal of pain and asked the pair of murderers for water and help, but neither was given. Three hours passed before Branson succumbed to the poisonous mixture and died.

Branson's body was eventually discovered by neighbor O.A. Kirk, and following a brief investigation, the authorities narrowed the list of suspects to three. Charley and Troy Markle, and Irene Ball were arrested. All three were charged with the murder of John Branson, and all three subsequently confessed.

Did any of the three conspirators show any remorse, you might ask? When questioned by Deputy Floyd Fine, only Troy Markle expressed any semblance of regret. Troy told Fine that when he found Branson and after he had ingested the deadly concoction, Branson was not yet dead.

Troy Markle described Branson as lying on the floor of his house, writhing in pain. Markle said that he couldn't imagine how terrible that pain must have been, and he recalled thinking that he wished Branson would just go ahead and die. Fine was not moved by the halfhearted admission.

Not even the thoughts of a life behind bars that filled her mind could assuage the terrible guilt that lived within Ball's heart. She confessed to the murder of her one-time employer, John Branson.

Deputy Sheriff Fine sat with Troy Markle as he described the gruesome plan the three hatched, but there came a moment when the deputy had heard enough.

"I say by God, you and your dastardly partners killed a fella for nothing. Y'all didn't get away with it." There was a second or two of silence as if Fine was carefully choosing his next few words. "Nor did you get that danged ole strawberry patch."

Charley Markle, Troy Markle, and Irene Ball were all convicted of Branson's killing. Charley and Irene were sentenced to 25 years in prison, while Troy was given a 3-year sentence.

-- 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.