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The State of Arizona’s First Legal Execution

The nattily dressed man pictured here was known to Tucson law enforcement officials as Dr. William E. Estaver. A literate man, Estaver was well-spoken, friendly and persuasive, and claimed to be a dentist from Detroit. During his brief stay in Tucson, he would be remembered for telling fanciful tales, making a nuisance of himself, and ultimately, cold-blooded murder.
He breezed into town in mid-November 1921, and registered at the Willard Hotel. There he told a tale about an automobile broken down on the road to Sentinel and a frantic wife waiting for him there. He pestered tourists bound in that direction for a ride. Peter Johnson, an exceedingly large elderly man, and his portly wife Anna, were taken in by the dapper raconteur.
Early the next morning, the improbable trio loaded itself into the Johnsons’ Dodge touring car and set out across a vast stretch of desert notable for its emptiness and isolation. They followed a roadway that was, at best, primitive and, at worst, little more than a rutted dirt trail.
About 9:30 that night, some 60 miles west of Ajo, Estaver removed a .32-caliber handgun from his jacket pocket and fired two shots into Mr. Johnson’s neck. When Anna turned to see what was happening, she was met by a volley of bullets. Her dead body slumped onto her wounded husband’s lap.
Struggling in agony, Johnson reached around in an effort to grab hold of Estaver, but the assailant jumped from the automobile. Johnson put his foot to the throttle, but not quickly enough. As the massive vehicle pulled away, its driver was shot again, twice.
Remarkably, with four bullets in his body and losing copious amounts of blood, Johnson drove all night across the desert to the little town of Stoval. There, a Yuma-bound passenger train was flagged down and, as fate would have it, a Southern Pacific railroad detective was aboard. Arrangements were made to care for Johnson, and the train went on its way. After traveling two-and-a-half miles, the keen-eyed detective spotted Estaver walking along the tracks. Minutes later, the wanton killer was arrested and was on his way to jail at Yuma.
Incensed by the brutal murder of a hapless woman and the near-fatal shooting of her husband, talk of lynching began. What started as a muted whisper among citizens of Yuma soon exploded into a deafening cry. When a mob began to form around the jail, the sheriff knew he had to get the prisoner out of Yuma County — fast.
In the dead of night, Estaver was whisked by automobile to Dome where the heavily shackled prisoner was put aboard a midnight train to Tucson. There he was incarcerated in the county jail to await trail, the killing having occurred in Pima County.
In a courtroom packed with spectators, what would be the lengthiest trial — 12 days — in recent times, got underway. Estaver glibly told the court that Mexicans or Indians had attacked the Johnsons; he had nothing to do with the shootings. He was persuasive and the trial ended with a hung jury.
A second trial was scheduled, but not before headlines exploded in the Arizona Daily Star: “Estaver Rushed to Florence to Prevent Mob Violence.” “Killed Texas Sheriff” and “Escaped from Oklahoma Penitentiary.”
And, in fact, Estaver was not Estaver at all, and certainly was not a dentist. This prim little man was a hardened criminal from Beaumont, Texas, by the name of Paul V. Hadley. He had escaped from the penitentiary at McAlester, Oklahoma, where he was serving a life term for the cold-blooded murder of a Texas lawman.
On May 19, 1922, Hadley’s second trail commenced. This time he was not so lucky. Deliberating just 15 minutes, the jury returned a guilty verdict and recommended the death penalty. Five days later, the judge sentenced the convicted murderer to “hang by the neck until dead.”
On April 12, the night before his execution, Hadley borrowed a typewriter from a Star reporter and tapped out a statement of some 500 words proclaiming his innocence and, not surprisingly, lambasting capital punishment. “I believe in God,” he wrote, “and I will not go to His presence with a lie on my lips. I am not guilty.”
He was, however, as guilty as could be. On Friday the 13th, chronicled the Star, “Paul Hadley briskly, yet without show of over-confidence, walked directly to the death trap.” Moments later, Hadley’s body dangled at rope’s end.
It was Arizona’s first execution since statehood.
— W. Lane Rogers, photo courtesy of Arizona Department of Corrections.

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