Episode 80 Explosive Mistake – The Murder of Helen Weaver

In December 1955, Central Texans were captivated and shocked as they watched the first televised murder trial in American history. Did Harry Washburn plant the car bomb that killed his ex mother in law, Helen Weaver?

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Harry Weaver had a habit of starting and warming up the car for his wife Helen when it was chilly out. On January 19, 1955, Harry walked out of their San Angelo, Texas home to grab some files from one of their four cars and transfer them to the car he planned to drive for the day. He walked to their green 1954 Chevrolet and inserted the key in the ignition but just as he was about to start the car, he had to run back inside the house to, as he put it, “answer the call of nature”. 

Helen Weaver Photo: Public Domain

Helen Weaver planned to visit her mother in the hospital that morning and walked out the house around 8:30. She walked out the door, and the car she chose that morning was a simple matter of fate. The car she normally drove was blocked in by the 1954 Chevy so she went to that car and when she saw the key was in the ignition she assumed this was the car Harry had planned to warm up for her.  

When she turned the key and started the car…there was an explosion so powerful that engine parts were propelled a block away. 

Harry Washburn ran from the house and as he got closer to the car he heard his wife screaming his name over and over again. As Helen cried out for help, neighbor called for an ambulance and Harry held his injured wife and kept telling her she was going tobe ok. Help was coming.    

Front of Weaver’s 1954 Chevy. The bomb was planted under the car hood.

By the time an ambulance arrived, 51 year old Helen Weaver was unconscious. Five minutes after her arrival at Shannon Hospital, Helen Weaver died.  

Harry Weaver had to be treated for shock.

Hours later, a man named Andrew Nelson and the Weaver’s ex son in law, Harry Washburn were in a car together, allegedly hundreds of miles from San Angelo, when they heard a radio announcement that socialite Helen Weaver had been killed in a car bombing.

Nelson later told police that Washburn went pale and screamed, “My God, that’s the wrong one!”

Scene of crime (Photo: Kansas City Star, January 1955)

Harry and Helen Weaver were very well off. Both had been married and divorced before they met and fell in love. Helen inherited a ranch when her father passed and Harry had made a name for himself as an architect and civilian adviser to the Navy. The couple’s marriage in 1939 made them a powerful force in the world of business and farming in Central Texas.

The Weavers had children from their previous marriages. Harry’s daughter had married Harry Washburn and as the couple tried to build a life together in Houston, Washburn struggled to find his footing in the business world. He attempted to launch several businesses that did not succeed and his run for Houston city council failed.

Eventually the stress took a toll on the marriage which ended in divorce. Washburn felt he got a raw deal in the divorce settlement and when more of his business dealings went south, he went after his wealthy ex in laws. Due to the tension between Washburn and his wife, the Weavers grandchildren had guardianship and the children stayed with them. Washburn used this as an angle to try to extort money from the Weavers several times. When Weaver pushed back, Washburn allegedly threatened to make him pay.

Harry and Helen Weaver pictured on Carribean cruise,fall 1954 (Photo: Kansas City Star, January 1955)

Harry Washburn tolerated Helen Weaver but the tension between Harry Weaver and Washburn continued to escalate. On January 19th, 1955, when Weaver’s wife was pronounced dead 26 minutes after a bomb exploded under the hood of her car, he immediately told police Harry Washburn had done it.

Harry Weaver was shocked when the local District Attorney Aubrey Stokes shared with the media that he believed Harry Weaver was the killer. Three days after Helen’s murder, her will was filed for probate and detectives noted that most of her estate was left to her daughters but the family ranch and home were left to Harry Weaver. Stokes considered this to be proof that Weaver had motive to kill his wife. But Weaver was himself a wealthy man and the motive was shaky at best.

Investigators brought in Bomb experts who weren’t able to find enough of the bomb to be sure what kind of explosive was used, but they did find fragments of wire from the bomb. A chemist, fingerprint expert and demolition expert were sent to Helen Weaver’s ranch, just outside of San Angelo, to check the home and buildings on the ranch for any wires that matched the bomb. The search came up empty.

Photo: Kansas City Star, January 1955

Once Aubrey Stokes heard that Harry washburn had a rock solid alibi, he felt he had to move in on Harry Weaver as his prime suspect. After all, witnesses placed Washburn near Houston the night before and morning after Helen died. And his friend Andrew Nelson said he was in a car with Washburn, hundreds of miles from San Angelo, when news broke that Helen died.

As authorities worked to determine if Harry Weaver was behind the bombing, Weaver didn’t help himself by remaining silent when he was accused of her murder.

Jack Donahue, a crime reporter for the Houston Press, would convince Weaver to go public with his story. Donahue was a respected reporter who had spoken with police and sources familiar with the Weaver bombing case. To him, it seemed clear that the case against Harry Weaver was a flimsy one. There was no motive and no witnesses or evidence that pointed to Harry Weaver’s involvement in the crime.

Donahue’s investigation convinced him Harry Washburn had the motive to kill Harry Weaver and had possibly made a mistake and killed Helen. Donahue uncovered documented incidents between the Weavers and Washburn that were cause for concern. In 1951 Harry Washburn had been charged with threatening Helen and Harry Weaver when he tried to extort $20,000 from them.

The violent attempt involved Washburn breaking into the Weaver home in the middle of the night and holding them at gunpoint as he demanded Helen write out a check to him or die. Harry Weaver reasoned with Washburn to save Helen that night, saying if he killed them there was no way he could cash a check and get the money he wanted. Harry Weaver offered up a $5,000 payment as a compromise to get Washburn out of his house but the Washburns did report the incident to police. In the end, they decided not to press charges to keep their family drama out of news.

A determined Jack Donahue drove from Houston to San Angelo, Texas, and spent four hours with Weaver’s lawyers begging them to get their client to talk. They agreed and days after the murder, Harry Weaver’s statement of innocence was front page news.

El Paso Herald-Post, January 1955

Donahue also broke the news that Helen Weaver’s family was offering a $10,000 reward for any information that led to the arrest and conviction of her killer.

Days later, investigators had signed affidavits from two men, John McKinnis and Ray Fife, claiming Harry Washburn paid them $750 to shoot Harry Weaver in March 1954. The men claimed Washburn met with them and gave them a 12-gauge shotgun, some cash as down payment for murder and a car to use the night they were to kill Harry Weaver.

The men said they never intended to go along with the plan, they just used Washburn to get some cash and told him they wouldn’t be killing Harry Weaver. Fife and McKinnis said Washburn became angry and told them he would have to kill Harry Weaver himself.

The violent break in from 1951, combined with the tip from McKinnis and Fife led police to follow the theory that Harry Washburn attempted to kill Harry Weaver again but had ended up murdering Helen.

38 year old Harry Washburn was arrested and charged with the first degree murder of Helen Weaver about a week after the bombing.

Harry Washburn maintained his innocence and his alibi, telling reporters the DA may indict him but he was never going to get a conviction.

DA Aubrey Stokes, Harry Washburn, and Texas Ranger Ralph Rohatsch. (pictured left to right). Photo: Waco Tribune Herald

Harry Washburn’s friend Andrew Nelson was his ultimate alibi. He held Washburn’s fate in his hands. This friend had been with him in that car hundreds of miles from San Angelo on the day they heard Helen Weaver had been murdered.

Nelson was an ex-con who had been sentenced to life after he committed a series of robberies. His good behavior in prison for 10 years earned him parole that was conditional on that continued good behavior.

But Nelson screwed up. Got himself arrested for burglary days after Harry washburn was arrested for murder. Nelson knew he was about to go back to prison. He also knew he had valuable information that could get him a deal and keep him from going back to prison for life.

Andrew Nelson, pictured in Fort Worth Star Telegram, December 1955

Andrew Nelson told police he had witnessed Washburn purchase 50 pounds of dynamite at a store in Houston. Nelson told investigators he took Harry Washburn to a remote location in the woods where Washburn asked for help in setting off a practice charge. Nelson explained to that he guided Washburn through the process of attaching wires to the dynamite from the generator of a car.

Nelson gave police the exact location in the woods and when police arrived they found evidence of a blast and wired that matched wire found in Harry Washburn’s house and wire found at the scene of the car bombing.

Andrew Nelson’s wife Catherine also came clean to police, telling them she knew Washburn wasn’t in Houston the night before Helen Weaver died because she was keeping his kids. The Washburn children were staying with Harry for a few days and on the afternoon of January 18th, Harry asked Catherine to babysit his children overnight because he would be away until the next morning.

The Columbus Texas police chief saw a photo of Harry Washburn and immediately recognized him as the man he pulled over around 4am, the day Helen Weaver was murdered. The chief issued the citation to Washburn who was driving a red over black Ford and ran a red light as he was driving away from San Angelo, heading southeast towards Houston.

Citation issued to Harry Washburn in Columbus, Texas on January 19, 1955

With that evidence in hand and a positive ID of Washburn and Nelson from the clerk who had sold them dynamite, the DA moved forward with the case and a grand jury indicted Harry Washburn and Andrew Nelson for the murder of Helen Weaver.


There would be two legal battles before Washburn stood trial. First, was a change of venue request because of the news coverage around the case in San Angelo. Washburn’s defense claimed there was no way he could get a fair trial in Tom Green County. Judge Drummond Bartlett from the 54th District Court agreed and moved the trial from Tom Green to McLennan County Courthouse in Waco, Texas.

Second, was the debate over televising the trial. KWTX TV General Manager Buddy Bostick believed the public had the right to see the trial. He requested that cameras be allowed in the balcony of the courtroom.

Critics of cameras in courtrooms argued that it turned justice into cheap show business and could interfere with a defendant’s right to fair trial. But Harry Washburn’s defense agreed because Washburn said live TV coverage would give the public the chance to see he was innocent.

Judge Drummond Bartlett (Photo: KWTX-TV)

The judge allowed it and on December 6, 1955 the trial of Harry Washburn became the first to be broadcast live, gavel to gavel, in America.

Owners of stores in Waco, San Angelo and across Central Texas said if this was to happen again, they’d like a televised trial to take place before Christmas because it hurt their sales that Christmas. So many people were consumed with watching the trial, they weren’t shopping as much that week.

They were obsessed with the testimony from interesting characters like Adela Heninger, also known as Nature Girl. She was a professional wrestler who socialized with some shady characters. She was a star witness for the state’s case against Washburn.

“Nature Girl” testifying during Washburn trial (Photo KWTX-TV)

The other star witness for the state was Andrew Nelson, the man who had originally been Washburn’s alibi.

His time on the stand would end up causing all kinds of complications for the state AND for Harry Washburn.

Hear the rest of the story in the new episode

Washburn Trial in Waco, Texas, December 1955 (Photo-KWTX-TV)

Music

Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Panthernburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use

Additional Music

Magic Forest by Sir Cuthburt; Sugar Pines by Wes Hutchison; Drone in D, Almost in F Tranquility, Passing Time and Meditation Impromptu 1 by Kevin MacLeod Atmosphere and Darkness by Purple Planet Music https://www.purple-planet.com/ Licensed under Creative Commons.

Sources

“I Didn’t Murder My Wife–Weaver”. El Paso Herald Post. 26 January 1955.

In December 1955, local murder trial kept viewers glued to TVs. KWTX. 6 December 2019.

A Deadly Mistake. The Malefactors Register. 

The Press: Reporter on the Job. Time Magazine. 21 February 1955. 

Harry L. Washburn Trial. Waco History.

Harry L. Washburn vs. STATE (06/25/58)



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