William Macumber

John Faherty, in yesterday’s Arizona Republic, did a phenomenal job retelling the tale of one of Arizona’s most notorious murders. It was riveting, exhaustive and incisive. Not only that, it was timely, as we learned at the end of the article—for another step in the case is still being played out decades after the crime.

The murder was actually plural—there were two. Joyce Sterrenberg and Tim McKillop were both 20 years old and dating that May night in 1962 when they decided to pull off the main road and park Joyce’s Chevy Impala on a dirt stretch, close by the intersection of Scottsdale and Bell roads. That turned out to be a tragic decision; they were found near the car the next day, shot dead.

It took police until 1975 to arrest someone for the apparently motiveless crimes, and that man was William Macumber.

Faherty weaves all of that, plus far more, into a coherent and gripping narrative. Along the way, he tells about a young lawyer—later Judge—who represented another man whom the attorney believed committed the crimes that led to a life sentence for Macumber.

That is what takes us to modern-day Arizona. Thomas O’Toole the lawyer had represented a man he believed to be guilty for those crimes. But his client had been convicted for another rape and murder, and attorney–client privilege prevented O’Toole from doing anything with the extra information anyway.

But in 1974, when O’Toole read that Macumber had been arrested for the 1962 murders, the then-Judge was stunned. He contacted lawyer Larry Hammond, who had just established the Arizona Justice Project, “which would work to free the wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced.” The Judge said that if Hammond was looking for something to work on, he should examine the Macumber conviction.

Read the entire story here. It’s broken into three parts—kudos to the Republic for hanging tough with this long but important story.

As I read Faherty’s great tale, though, I was struck by a few things.

One is our fascination with murder stories. And it seems that every one ultimately continues to hold mysteries that resist unraveling.

In Arizona Attorney Magazine, we have published our share of bloody Arizona stories.

In 2008, Gary Stuart excerpted a chapter of his book on the 1991 Buddhist Temple Murders.

And also in 2008, Judge Bill Schafer wrote “Murder in the Desert” for us, detailing the 1966 trial of Charles Schmid, who killed a girl “to see if he could get away with it.”

Murder stories may be instructive, but they are also lurid, and they can raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

But I thought last night about another aspect of stories like this. And it made me wonder about Faherty’s story.

How many unsolved murders are there? Quite a few, I’d bet. And how many get coverage reaching back decades? Again, not many. But what would the chances have been if the intersection had not been Scottsdale and Bell roads? How slim would those chances be if the intersection had been much farther south, maybe below Van Buren? Or what if the crime had occurred on the reservation? Experience and a wealth of news stories demonstrate that it is quite likely that crime would never have been solved—or even investigated well. And a dearth of news stories tells us that the crime would probably not have been covered in any major newspaper—in 1962 or today.