The year 1965 was less than a week old when tragedy struck Payson: four youths were killed in Payson’s jail. Even 45 years later, it’s an incident that still ranks amongst one of the most tragic in Rim Country.
Sheriff’s deputies were investigating the theft of four cases of beer from the Strawberry Lodge on Jan. 4, 1965 when they questioned four local youths. Blaine Schroeder, 16; Clifford Greenland, 18; Kenny Haught, 15; and John Watkins, 16; were jailed that night with the knowledge and consent of their parents. It didn’t seem like too bad a situation. Payson had a jail that was less than a year old — a jail that still exists today. But a faulty heating system proved poisonous and the boys were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning overnight.
According to Gila County pathologist Alfred D. Musgrove, the deaths were caused by a faulty gas heating system, and occurred around 6 a.m., Tuesday, Jan. 5.
The jail was immediately shut down after the deaths. However, during the course of the investigation, two people were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes while surveying the situation. They were Lyman Peace, a deputy at Globe, and Tom Drake, director of the rescue and first aid association in Globe.
This was front page all over of the state. The Yuma Daily Sun led with “4 Payson Youths Die in Jail” at the top of the page in their Jan. 6 edition, and many other papers had significant coverage.
Unfortunately for Rim Country, this wasn’t the first tragic deaths of youths during the latter part of 1964 and early part of 1965. According to newspaper reports at the time, the community was still reeling from the accidental death by shooting of a Pine youth in late 1964.
Throughout the month of January, the jail deaths were investigated. A six-person coroner’s jury issued an open verdict on Jan. 28, with a verdict of “death by asphyxia by carbon monoxide emitted into the cell area by the heating unit.” Eventually, lawsuits were filed by the families of the four victims. The suits were settled in Feb. 1967, with some newspaper reports at the time indicating that the total settlement amount was $100,000.
Here’s some information about the four victims, as provided in the Jan. 8, 1965 Payson Roundup:
“Blaine Schroeder, 16, son of Mr. and Mrs. Dave Schroeder and a junior in Payson High School. His parents are employed at the Payson Country Club as greenskeeper and cook.
“Clifford Greenland, 18, a senior in Payson High School who lived with his widowed mother at Pine. Mrs. Greenland was treated for shock at the Payson Clinic Hospital Tuesday afternoon.
“Kenny Haught, 15, a sophomore. His parents are Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Haught of the Payson Cable TV Shop.
“John Watkins, 16, sophomore, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Watkins. He was a newcomer this fall from California.”
The deaths are a reminder that tragedy can happen even in scenic places such as Payson. For the families and schoolmates of these young men, this was a tragedy that has surely stuck with them through the years.