The true-crime story involving a deformed man who had an illicit affair with his sister, murdered most of his relatives, and left San Bernardino shook
Around 8 PM on May 7, 1941, Lester Bellah and his wife drove to a Devore Heights party, rural San Bernardino County, California. Lester thought he heard a muffled voice yelling for help, but his wife didn’t hear a thing. Lester was rattled, but the couple continued to the party. They left the party at 10 PM for their nearby home. As Lester walked toward their porch steps, he heard the voice again, “Help! Help! Help…” He couldn’t tell if the voice was male or female, only that it was weaker than before. Lester decided to investigate with his friend, Lars Bjorkman.
The two men drove towards the end of the road, and the voice became louder.
“Who’s there?” Lester yelled in no particular direction.
“I’m here!” said a female. They walked into a wash towards the sound of her cries. On the rocky ground, they spotted a bleeding and distressed young woman.
“What happened to you?” Lester inquired.
The girl’s answer broke his heart. “I’ve been shot. Don’t bother with me; I’m done for. Go and find the baby. I tried to bring her, but I couldn’t get her to leave her mother.”
“What baby? Is it hurt?” Lester asked as he looked around.
“I don’t think she is. There’s a dead woman over there,” the young girl muttered and pointed down the wash, “She has a baby!” Lars went to look for the child, and Lester stayed with the girl.
“Who are you?” Lester asked, “Who did this to you?”
“I’m Rose Destree. Al Wells shot me. I don’t know why he shot me, but I know why he shot her!”
Unable to find the baby or the other woman, Lester rushed to the nearest telephone and called the sheriff. Deputy Sherrif MW Armstrong arrived on the scene and located the baby. She was alive and clinging tightly to her dead mother. The mother was Jean Wells; the baby was 13-months-old, Hester Wells.
The police were well acquainted with the name Al Wells and knew they had to move quickly to prevent two more shootings.
Alfred Horace Wells Jr was born in Pueblo, Colorado, on February 5, 1910. He was the first child of railroad worker Alfred Horace Wells Sr and Vivian Helen King. A year after his birth, Vivian delivered a little girl, Pauline, who lived for one day. Sadly, Vivian followed her daughter in death just two weeks later.
When Al was five, his father married Violet Payton. His work with the railroad called the Wells family to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where Violet gave birth to David “Raymond” in 1916, Norman in 1917, and Violet Helen in 1921.
In 1926, Alfred Sr’s job caused the family to relocate to San Bernardino, California. In 1930, the family moved a third time to Bakersfield, where he became sick and passed away.
The family scattered after the death of their patriarch. Mother Violet brought her daughter, Violet, to Vista, California. Raymond moved back to San Bernardino, where he worked with the Santa Fe Railroad like his late father and married Jean Rhodes. Al drifted between Los Angeles and Orange County and began his career as a criminal.
Al’s first prison stint came on April 3, 1935, when he was arrested during the commission of a gas station robbery in Fullerton, California. He was also convicted of three counts of Robbery in Los Angeles county. The judge ordered Al to serve five years to life, with all of his sentences running concurrently.
Al’s prison record notes he was nearly 4'11" tall and “hunchbacked” due to a back injury. If he had any limitations, he didn’t show it. Al worked as a prison laborer. During his incarceration, California stopped executing condemned prisoners by hanging in favor of the gas chamber. Al worked on the crew that installed the new death machine and relished any opportunity to explain its mechanisms to other prisoners. He’d end these stories by saying, “That’s the closest I ever want to come to the gas chamber!”
For whatever reason, the state saw fit to parole Al 22 months into his sentence. His freedom would leave three members of the Wells family dead and one orphaned.
After his parole, Al found employment as a pin-setter at a San Bernardino bowling alley. The job allowed him to rent a little apartment on Arrowhead Drive. At the end of 1940, the youngest Wells girl, 19-year-old Violet, joined the household as Al’s housekeeper. After just a few months, Al and Violet moved to a new address on 9th street. During their time at the new home, Ray and Jean came to stay with their new daughter.
Al’s relationship with Ray was tumultuous, to say the very least. Al’s father preferred his sons Raymond and Norman to Al, the decided runt of the family. Although Al was the eldest of the Wells boys, he was the smallest. Al recalled frequent beatings by his younger brothers. Worse, his father held him down to make these beatings possible.
It is no surprise that Al grew into a violent adult. Violet recalled a day when Jean didn’t fix lunch as Al expected. Hot-tempered Al yelled and cursed at his poor sister in law. When Raymond realized what was happening, he puffed up his chest and threatened Al. Al spun around, grabbed a kitchen knife, and raised it to his brother. Before Al could stab Ray, Violet threw herself between them. Al would need to go through Violet first. Unwilling to do so, Al backed off. Jean and Raymond decided the living arrangement couldn’t work and moved a few blocks away to an apartment at 5th street.
Al’s sister, Violet, had a soft spot for her oldest brother and treated him with kindness and genuine, sisterly love. Al’s feelings for Violet were anything but familial.
Violet didn’t object when Al offered her the only bed in the house. He, however, found himself increasingly frustrated with the sleeping arrangement. Somewhere along the line, Al developed abnormal impulses toward his half-sister. As Violet slept in his bed, Al paced the floor. Sometimes he’d take several walks a night. He wasn’t trying to control his impulses but suppress his anger at his inability to act upon them.
Initially, Violet was utterly ignorant of Al’s illicit feelings. She only knew that his constant pacing, stomping, and slamming of doors interrupted her sleep. Wanting a decent night’s sleep, she forced Al into the bed, saying, “There, damn you! Settle down!” Al didn’t hesitate.
During the night, Al began touching Violet inappropriately. Violet wasn’t receptive to her brother’s advances. Many nights, she asked him to leave her be, but Al was persistent. If she wouldn’t submit, he said he’d either kill himself, a family member, or her. Al once tried to make good on his threats by leaving the gas on in the house. Another time, he went for a butcher knife and threatened to use it. Eventually, Violet yielded to Al’s sexual advances. Al made sure she knew that if she left or told, he would kill her.
Afraid and ashamed, Violet kept her secret, and Al began to see her less as a sister and more as a wife. Like many abuse victims, Violet accepted the abuse as her lot in life. Al forbade her from leaving the house or speaking with anyone unless he was around. Keeping herself alive became more important to Violet than her consent or dignity.
Oddly enough, Al didn’t keep his secret. He shared the nature of his and Violet’s relationship with his friends and even his boss, R.P. Humes. Al disclosed to his employer that he was afraid Violet would tell someone in the family. If she did, they were sure to help her escape. Al promised his boss he’d acquire a gun and “get” anyone who’d take Violet away.
In the last week of April, Al and Violet moved yet again. This time, to 322 G Street. The move facilitated a private meeting between Violet and Jean. Violet disclosed the ordeal she’d been through as Al’s housekeeper. Jean was repulsed and immediately told her husband.
Ray allowed his anger to take a back seat to the need to make Violet safe. They’d deal with Al later. Jean and Ray arranged for Violet to go to Escondido and stay with Jean’s grandmother.
On April 26, 1941, Violet told Al she was going to the corner store to buy a pack of cigarettes. She whispered to a visiting friend, “Don’t let Al outside until I come back.”
Al was suspicious but allowed his sister to leave. Violet walked to the corner, where she found Ray and Jean waiting for her with their car. At last, Violet was free. Violet recorded the event in her diary:
“April 26. This evening, we kidnapped Vi and took her to…”
At first, Al grieved like anyone would for a lost love. Once again, Al confided in his boss, telling him he believed Violet was gone for good and he had an idea who took her — his brother Ray.
Al told Mr. Humes that he planned to get a gun and make good on his word. He’d kill anyone involved in her leaving. The boss suggested Al go to the police and file a missing person report. When Al arrived at the police station to report his “wife” missing, Ray had already been there to ask for Violet’s protection. While the police confirmed she was gone, they refused to say where she was or who brought her there, which only confirmed Al’s suspicions and solidified his desire for vengeance.
On the afternoon of May 7, 1941, Al bought a gun from his neighbor, William Stroud, for a couple of bucks and a carton of smokes. By 3:30 PM, Al was knocking on Ray’s door with a gun tucked into his pants.
Against her better judgment, Jean opened the door and let Al in. Al told Jean he had a job opportunity at a chicken ranch in Cajon Pass and needed to be there by 7 PM. Jean didn’t believe Al would hurt her and agreed to take him. Rose, a friend Jean brought from Escondido for a visit, came along for the ride and held Jean’s daughter, Hester, on her lap in the middle seat. From the passenger seat, Al rattled off driving directions.
Al instructed Jean to make a left here or a right there until the party reached a point two miles north-west of Devore Heights, just off route 66, where Al told her to stop. The road ahead was too rough, Al claimed, and this spot gave her a wide berth for an easy turnaround. Only Al had no job opportunity and no intention of letting Jean out off of the canyon road alive.
When Jean finally parked, Al pointed his gun at Jean and asked, “Where is Violet?” When Jean feigned ignorance, Al made sure she had a pen and paper to take a note for Ray:
“Honey, Al is holding Rosie and the baby and me. He wants Violet returned to him. I think it is better that you do what he says and go with him, and then you can come back to us.”
Jean added her own parting words.
“Don’t forget our slogan, Dear — I love you always.”
As Jean handed the note to Al, he asked a final time if she had anything to say. Jean begged him not to hurt little Hester. Al scooped the child up with his left arm, drew his revolver, and shot his sister in law twice in the chest. Jean died instantly.
Al next set his sites on 17-year-old Rose, who was completely innocent in the whole mess. He tried to tell her how he wouldn’t hurt her if she’d only follow his instructions. Al told Rose he didn’t care what she said to her parents once he was gone. Rose didn’t trust his words, so she ran for her life. As she did, Al shot her in the back twice.
Rose immediately fell to the ground wounded, but not dead. She peeped through half-closed eyes and watched Al place the baby on Hester’s chest. The teenaged girl listened to the sound of Al walking through the shrubbery to inspect both of the women. Rose was so quiet and still, Al thought she was dead. Finally, Rose heard the engine of Jean’s car. She remained there, playing dead until that sound disappeared.
When Lester and Lars found her, it was too late. Just as she thought, she was dying. An ambulance brought the mortally wounded girl to Saint Bernardine’s Hospital, where doctors and nurses did their best until the morning of May 9, when Rose took her last breath. In her dying hours, she was able to relay the full story to the police.
Police raced to Ray Well’s home and alerted officers in Escondido that Violet needed protection. Like Al, Ray was nowhere to be found. Violet, while safe, had no idea where either man was.
After Al shot Jean and Rose, he drove back to Ray’s house and waited. He didn’t want to alert the neighbors, so he parked Ray’s car at the end of Spruce Street, a block over. Ray hadn’t returned from work yet, so Al lit a joint and sat on the front porch singing songs.
A friend walked by and noticed Al sitting there sweating bullets, smoking, and singing. Al asked the man to swing by his house and grab a coat, remarking that he “wrapped his around the baby.” When the man came back, Al thanked him for hurrying because he wanted to “get” Ray before the cops got him. Still, the friend didn’t grasp the gravity of what Al was saying.
Shortly after 10 PM, Ray walked home and noticed Al on the porch. Same as with Jean, Al asked his brother if he knew where Violet was. Ray denied knowing anything about Violet’s disappearance. When Al outright accused him of taking her away, Ray reminded him that Violet was his sister, and he had every right to protect her if he needed to. Al replied that she was as much his sister as Ray’s, and by that logic, he had a right to know where she was.
The conversation carried into the house, and Ray realized that his wife, houseguest, and baby were gone. Before he could ask where they were, Al handed Ray the note written by Jean. Al convinced Ray that Jean, Rose, and Hester were being held by assassins willing to kill them if he didn’t disclose Violet’s location.
Al drew his weapon, forced Ray to the car, and drove back to Cajon Pass. The whole way, he promised the women were still alive and that he’d soon see them. Even in the face of death, Ray kept Violet’s location secret and refused to give her up.
Al pulled over on a different road than the one he brought the others to. He lied and said that they were waiting with his goons a mile or so into the canyon. When Al caught his leg on a sticker bush and stalled, Ray marched forward alone. When Al caught up, he shot Ray in the back, killing him instantly. Al thought Ray might be wounded and not dead, so he sent another shot through the back of Ray’s head. Al then rolled his brother onto his back before leaving him to rot. Al fled the scene at 1 AM, unsure what his next move was.
Al drove through the night, stopping once to fill the gas tank. By sunrise, he found himself in Las Vegas, Nevada. The morning headlines of the girls’ violent murders and Hester’s abandonment in the desert made Al the most wanted man in America. At that time, Ray’s fate remained unknown.
Al never thought this far into his murderous plan. He knew he had to shake his brother’s car, so he drove it to a long-term parking garage. Al thought he’d appear less suspicious by engaging in some light banter with the garage attendant. However, when you’re a 4'11" man with a curved spine who limps when he walks, it isn’t easy to blend in. The attendee certainly remembered the little man when he read the newspaper description and told the police right away.
The search intensified on May 10, 1941, when volunteers finally located Ray’s body.
Al didn’t stay in Las Vegas. He traded clothes with a homeless man and hopped a train heading to Chicago. Al had past dealings in Chicago and thought better of that destination. So, he jumped another train to the Pacific North West.
Despite his unique appearance, Al was somehow able to evade police capture for a month. He hid in “hobo jungles” around Spokane, Washington. On June 7, 1941, police arrested Al, under the name Alfred Blake, for vagrancy. Officers found a .38 revolver in his waistband.
As a matter of procedure, the arresting officers took Al’s fingerprints when they booked him. When they ran the prints, they realized the hobo in their jail was the wanted murderer from California. They were also able to tie Al’s gun to the killings.
San Bernardino County Sherriff Emmet Shay, District Attorney Jerome Kavanaugh, and Deputy John Foster went to Spokane to question the prisoner. Al claimed amnesia. He swore he had no memory of killing anybody. Al admitted he was running to escape parole violation, but nothing more. Nevertheless, the officers extradited Al to California, where he would stand trial.
Judge Frank A Leonard set Al’s trial to begin on October 21, 1941. Al seemed determined to avoid that date any way he could. As far as behavior goes, Al was not the picture of a model prisoner. He carved a fake gun out of soap in an escape effort. He also attempted suicide twice.
On July 14, Al offered a full confession, but only if he could see Violet. Five days later, Kavanaugh escorted Violet into the county jail. The questioning officers attempted to get Al to say he offered his confession freely, without any incentives or promises. Al gave this statement:
“None of you are big enough or smart enough to make me talk. I want the gas chamber, and I want to get it over with…I only want the gas chamber.”
Kavanaugh let Al know he had enough to convict him, with or without his confession.
Al turned to Violet and said, “I killed Raymond, and I would do it again…I only wish I killed Norman, too.” He did express regret in killing the ladies. By Al’s standards, Killing Jean was an irrational act, and Rose was innocent but in the wrong place at the wrong time. Al justified Raymond’s death by saying, “Ray died for being a rat and double-crossing me, for running to the cops…”
When trial day inevitably arrived, Al’s attorney, Theodore Krumm, entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Violet testified first. Her appearance didn’t disappoint the jury or the press. Violet was a tall blonde with movie star good looks and a spit-fire attitude. She quickly became the star witness.
Violet bravely spoke of the sexual assault Al subjected her to and the fear he instilled in her. Al cursed at her statements and called her a liar. Violet’s testimony was so graphic, and his swearing was so vulgar that the judge excused everyone under age 21 from his courtroom.
Others who took the stand for the prosecution included Mr. Humes, Al’s boss, William Stroud, who incidentally, was arrested for selling a gun to a known convict, and Ray and Jean’s landlord, who saw Al before and after his first trip to Cajon Pass.
Al, in his own defense, said that he lied about not remembering. He confessed that he was setting the stage for an insanity plea. If Al hoped to escape execution, all hope was lost with that statement. The murders were premeditated and calculated. Al was not crazy. He was conniving and dangerous. His attorney exchanged Al’s insanity plea for a guilty one.
The trial wasn’t a long one, and the jury only convened for 15 minutes before they found Alfred Wells guilty of three counts of 1st-degree murder. On October 31, Judge Frank A Leonard sentenced Al to die at San Quentin. He attempted to appeal his sentence and claimed he couldn’t get a fair trial in San Bernardino, but his efforts were all in vain. When attorneys informed him that all chances for appeal were exhausted, Al shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s all right with me. I haven’t anything to live for.”
In this case, justice was swift. On December 4, 1942, Alfred Wells breathed his last in the gas chamber he helped build.
Violet went on to marry and have a family of her own. Baby Hester was adopted into a loving family and lived her life anonymously.
The Wells murders are largely forgotten today. There have been no novels or movies made to commemorate these senseless deaths. Al’s many rental homes have all been razed, and Ray and Jean’s house is now an apartment building. Al’s was buried at Cypress Memorial Park in Colma with no mourners or fanfare. Crimes such as these happen often. Luckily, we know a little more now about how to leave abusive relationships, and also that the time surrounding the victim’s departure is always the most dangerous.
If you are in crisis, make a safe exit plan, and seek help from trusted sources.