Elderly woman’s brutal murder stuns tight-knit Texas City neighborhood

Gus Luther Hammond Jr. (right) and his attorney, Andrew Z. Baker, as the verdict is read in the Galveston County Courthouse. (Photo by Vaden Smith/The Galveston Daily News)

Gus Luther Hammond Jr. (right) and his attorney, Andrew Z. Baker, as the verdict is read in the Galveston County Courthouse. (Photo by Vaden Smith/The Galveston Daily News)

Delia Smith wasn’t the type of woman who hid in her house and avoided her neighbors. So when they went a whole day without seeing her, they began to worry.

Blanche Taylor stopped by to visit her 78-year-old friend in the early afternoon on March 28, 1966. Although Smith lived alone in her rented Texas City home, Taylor spotted a blue pickup truck in the driveway. Thinking Smith had company, Taylor walked to a neighbor’s house and paid them a visit. As she left, she noticed Smith’s driveway was empty. She walked around the side of the house and knocked on the back door.

When Smith didn’t answer, Taylor called her friend’s landlady. Nelda Simmons promised to go check on her tenant but got distracted and forgot. Smith’s neighbors called again around 5 p.m. Beginning to share their alarm, Simmons took her neighbor, an off-duty Texas City patrolman, to check on the old woman. The house at 701 7th Ave. was locked, the blinds drawn. But they could hear the television playing inside. Simmons finally found a window leading to the back porch that had been left open. She crawled through into the back bedroom and crept down the hall to the kitchen.

Smith lay motionless on the floor, her clothes in disarray and a bloody dish rag hanging from her mouth. A 55-inch-long Venetian blind cord circled her neck three times, tied in a knot so tight it broke the skin. The tassel still dangled from the end. The right side of her face appeared bruised, as if someone had struck her with a fist. Her false teeth lay on the floor nearby. Texas City police found her purse on the bed in the front room, its contents dumped out on the bedspread.

Detectives spent about six weeks investigating the crime before finally arresting a 28-year-old construction worker and tugboat hand from Galveston. Police took Gus Luther Hammond into custody May 5. The next day, Hammond agreed to give hair samples and go to Texas Rangers headquarters in Houston to take a lie detector test. Less than 24 hours later, he’d signed two confessions.

Despite what seemed like a slam-dunk case, police and prosecutors released few details before the trial began Oct. 31. Stories in The Galveston Daily News held no hint of a motive and no details from the confessions. Attorneys went through 310 potential jurors before finally seating 11 men and one woman. They listened to four witnesses before the judge ordered them out of the courtroom to allow prosecutors and defense attorneys to argue about the admissibility of the statements Hammond gave investigators, confessions he said Texas Rangers beat ouf of him.

“I signed that statement because I didn’t want to be beat up any more,” he testified.

Hammond voluntarily went to the Texas City police station the day of his arrest after his sister, Edna Garess, turned away two officers who came looking for him. Hammond was staying with Garess at the time of the murder because he was separated from his wife, whose grandparents lived next door to the victim. Garess testified she thought the officers, who weren’t in uniform, represented a finance company. When she realized they were with the police department, she woke Hammond at once.

Police said Hammond initially agreed to take a polygraph but when confronted with the machine said, “It’s no use taking that test. I killed the old lady.” On the stand, Hammond vehemently denied saying any such thing. He insisted he told officers he didn’t know who killed Smith, a position he maintained until two Texas Rangers began hitting him in the stomach. After that, he said he agreed to sign anything.

Judge L.D. Godard eventually dismissed Hammond’s claim and allowed the trial to continue, with the confessions intact.

Mrs. Ollie Hammond, the defendant's mother, Lana "Jo" Hammond, his wife, and Edna and Dan Garess, his sister and brother-in-law. (Photo by Vaden Smith/The Galveston Daily News)

Mrs. Ollie Hammond, the defendant’s mother, Lana “Jo” Hammond, his wife, and Edna and Dan Garess, his sister and brother-in-law. (Photo by Vaden Smith/The Galveston Daily News)

Hammond’s attorneys called a long list of witnesses to prove Hammond could not have committed the murder. The coroner put Smith’s time of death between 12:15 p.m. and 2:30  p.m. Hammond began the day by picking up his wife and stepson and driving them to Galveston to visit her parents. They arrived at about 9 a.m. and he left about 30 minutes later, returning at about 1:30 p.m.

A friend of Hammond’s testified he came to the Surfside motel at about 10 a.m., looking for her husband. He stayed long enough to have a beer and left about thirty minutes later. Another woman testified Hammond came looking for her husband at about 11 a.m. but left after just a few minutes. One of Hammond’s former employers testified he saw the family on their way back to Texas City, pulled over on Hwy. 146 between 1:30 p.m and 2 p.m. At first he thought their car had broken down, but Hammond said he just couldn’t see in the rain. When he got back to his sister’s house, Hammond had some dinner and went to bed. Garess testified she didn’t notice anything different about him.

Defense attorneys tried to bolster Hammond’s claims of innocence by noting detectives initially expected the suspect to be left-handed, based on the bruising on Smith’s face. Hammond was right-handed. They also made much of the blue truck in Smith’s driveway the day of the murder. Hammond didn’t own a truck. The most interesting testimony came from Dee Jumper, a former neighbor of Smith’s. Jumper claimed she found Smith badly beaten during the “winter holidays” of 1964. She said Smith told her on another occasion, “they’ve had me locked up for five days with nothing to eat,” suggesting Smith had family members who might have harmed her. But defense attorneys didn’t work beyond that to cast suspicion on anyone else.

Besides Hammond’s confessions, police had evidence that placed him in Smith’s house, even though he claimed he’d never been there. They found his fingerprints on her stove, and a forensic expert from the Houston Police Department’s crime lab said hairs found on Smith’s dress and sweater were similar to Hammond’s. As for motive, police said he killed Smith out of anger over an alleged “insult” to his wife. Daily News reports didn’t specify the nature of the insult. In his confession, Hammond said he tried to make the murder look like a rape and robbery to cover his tracks.

District Attorney Jules Damiani asked jurors to assess the death penalty. The jury began deliberating on Nov. 16, 1966, hashing it out for 4.5 hours before being sequestered for the night. They deliberated for another 5 hours and 20 minutes the next day before returning their verdict: Guilty. They fixed his sentence at life in prison.

When the foreman read the verdict, Hammond bowed his head and tears ran down his cheeks. His family sat in stunned silence before bursting into tears themselves. During the trial’s testimony, Hammond’s wife, Jo, wasn’t allowed in the courtroom because she was a witness. But every day she brought a clean shirt to her husband in the Galveston County Jail. After the courtroom emptied that final day, Jo sat outside the courthouse, watching pigeons play in the fountain.

Hammond initially planned to appeal but dropped the attempt in February 1967, saying he had no money to pay another attorney.

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