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HOMELAND SLAYING OF WARDEN WHITE IN 1933

By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian

 

He sat at the wooden table at the front of the courtroom with his defense lawyers, his coal-black eyes dancing from side to side as he followed every movement of those in front of him. Royal Johns was being tried for the shotgun slaying of Charlton prison warden, W.C. White. It was April 20, 1933. Standing before the jurors, the state’s prosecutor, Allen Spence, began to paint a verbal picture of the tragic events of the five weeks earlier, March 14, 1933 in a two-story frame home in the Homeland city limits.

White had been in charge of the Charlton County prisoners for less than three years. He had come here from a similar job in neighboring Nassau County, Fla. and already he had earned a reputation for keeping the county’s roads in good shape with the prisoners of the county prison camp.

The Charlton prison warden owned a team of trained bloodhounds which he used for tracking fugitives. White and Charlton Sheriff Jim Sikes had returned home from Pierce and Coffee County only an hour earlier after using the dogs to hunt down a fugitive near Blackshear when the tragic events began to unfold in Homeland.

The weekly newspaper editor, Tom Wrench, in The Charlton County Herald, describing the trial, said White sat down on a sofa in his living room to take off his heavy boots. Mrs. White, who was tending to a sick child, had gone into another room.

It was nine o’clock when the warden leaned over to unlace his boots, a blast from a shotgun tore through the glass pane of the front door and into the unsuspecting White’s head and shoulders. He fell back onto the sofa and died instantly, Wrench wrote.

Two boarders shared the large home with the Whites; Roscoe Wainwright and Abe Lloyd. Wainwright worked with White. He heard the gunshot blast and looked out his front window just in time to see a man running away from the home carrying a shotgun.

Mrs. White became hysterical when she returned to the living room and saw her husband’s body on the sofa. Wainwright bolted out the home’s back door and over to the small grocery store of Arthur Roberts at Homeland to telephone for Dr. Fleming and Sheriff Sikes.

Royal Johns, who lived nearby in Homeland, was an immediate suspect. Officers were aware that he had threatened White recently.

White and Johns had been close friends. Officers suspected that as a result of the relationship, Johns had revealed to White his involvement in a series of burglaries and robberies. They figured Johns thought White had violated his confidence and told officers of the incidents. Johns was under indictment on several charges at the time of the White slaying. Following White’s murder Johns eluded officers for nearly a week.

Mrs. White and Roscoe Wainwright would testify at the trial that they recognized the man running from the house in the darkness that night as Royal Johns.

Royal Johns resembled Jesse James as he sat alert at the defendant’s table in the courtroom. His neatly trimmed black beard matched his deep-set penetrating black eyes. Three years earlier, Royal killed his own father, O.K. Johns, a former Waycross police officer, with a blast from a shotgun.

O.K. Johns, the father, according to Wrench, had a reputation of his own. His pistol handles bore eleven notches for the eleven men he claimed to have killed. Royal Johns was charged with his father’s slaying but entered a plea of self-defense. A jury acquitted him.

Royal Johns and his two brothers, Oscar and Gordon, three years before the White slaying, were tried in Charlton County Justice Court for slashing the throat of Morris Smith. They appealed the conviction and were free on a $1,300 bond at the time of the Warden White’s slaying.

Sheriff Jim Sikes, Folkston policeman John H. Barnes and Jacksonville detective George Stokes captured the elusive Johns on Thursday morning, March 23, nine days after the slaying. The night of the murder, White’s bloodhounds were so tired from the Pierce County hunt, they couldn’t track White’s killer. They followed the trail only up to a Homeland railroad crossing and there gave up the hunt.

When Johns was captured nine days later he was hiding in some deep foliage near his home in Homeland and Sikes spotted him.

Stokes’ detective work matched up Johns’ footprints with casts made from footprints in the front yard of Warden White’s home and in a vacant house directly across the street from White’s home. The officers charged John’s wife, his brother, Oscar, and D.G. Parrish as accessories to the murder.

The state presented evidence at the trial that the shotgun which killed White was owned by Parrish and that Johns had taken it from the John Warren home where Parrish had left it.

Merchandise found in the Johns’ home after his arrest was identified by officers as having been taken from the Wasdin store in Winokur in a burglary. Also in the home were homemade jail keys which would unlock the jails in Brantley and Ware County.

The Johns home in Homeland burned to the ground ten days after the Clint White murder. Traces of gasoline confirmed that it had purposely been set afire. No one was ever charged with the burning.

Royal Johns sat through the trial at the table, wedged between his court-appointed lawyers, Harry and Herbert Wilson of Waycross and Wilbur (Will) Sweat. A Folkston attorney, J.D. Braswell, had been appointed, but moved from the area before the trial.

Wilbur Sweat was appointed to replace Braswell. Ironically, Sweat was a cripple as a result of being shot by Royal John’s father, O.K. Johns.

Spence had the help of Colonel Alex McQueen and John Gibson as he prosecuted the case. In the courtroom for the trial were John’s wife and his month-old son who was born after White’s murder and before the trial began.

While the trial was going on, the courtroom was packed with women and children, a rare occurrence in 1933. Testimony developed that Johns had attempted to “buy” an alibi for $50.00 from a gasoline filling station operator for the night of the slaying. This evidence weighed heavily against Johns.

John’s lawyers sought a change of venue. It was denied by Dickerson. That ruling was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court decision and denied the change of venue before the trial began on April 20, 1933.

The jury found Johns guilty of the murder of Warden White, without recommendation for mercy. Judge Dickerson sentenced him to die in the state’s electric chair on July 21, 1933.

John’s only remark when asked by Judge Dickerson for comment was “Thank you, Judge.” His defense attorneys filed for a new trial claiming an improper charge to the jury by Judge Dickerson.

The Georgia Supreme Court threw out the results of the first trial and ordered another trial as a result of what they termed an “error” in Dickerson’s charge to the first trial jury.

Again defense lawyers sought a change of venue for the second trial, and again it was denied. The second trial began in April 1934. Workmen were then pouring a new concrete sidewalk in the front of the courthouse at the time.

The 1934 jury also found Royal Johns guilty of the murder of Warden White, but recommended mercy and a life in prison, instead of death in the electric chair. Judge Dickerson pronounced the life sentence.

Subsequent appeals to the state Supreme Court failed and Royal Johns began serving his life sentence for the 1933 slaying of W.C. White, the 34-year-old warden of the Charlton Prison Camp.

Johns was released from prison after serving over twenty years. While serving his time he escaped confinement several times.

The first escape occurred on April 23, 1937 when he ran from a Jenkins County work detail. He was recaptured near Waycross after three weeks of freedom, on May 7, 1937. He told arresting officers he just needed a rest and wanted to visit his family. He put up no attempt to avoid capture.

While he was free, several people in Folkston breathed heavily because of threats made by Johns when he was first arrested for White’s killing. He had accused deputies of roughing him up and cursing him. Royal Johns died several years ago in Ware County.

Johns had a reputation as a dangerous man and a dangerous prisoner. But with all of his background of violence, he was deceptively mild mannered and polite.

When he was taken in handcuffs to view the body of his victim, Warden White, in the presence of many other men, only Royal Johns removed his hat as he viewed the body.

White, whose parents lived in Clarksville, Ga., left a widow, four children and four step-children. His funeral was held in the Folkston Baptist Church with burial in the Folkston cemetery.

The home in Homeland is gone, as is the house across the street, where Johns is said to have waited until White returned home that fateful evening, March 14, 1933. It was several years later before the town of Homeland and Charlton County returned to normal.

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