A Madam, A Murder, A Mystery

Exhuming Arizona's most notorious prostitute

Many of the local gold miners gathered at Dollie's home every year for a Thanksgiving feast. They were the only family she had known since coming to America as a girl. But she was not one to carry sentiment too far. As the men left the house, she checked for bulges in their coat pockets and made an inventory of her silverware to make sure nobody had carried off anything valuable.

Dollie might have lived this way to the end, passing on quietly without notice or controversy. But it was not her way. Especially when she had the chance to stick herself in the middle of another killing.

On August 15, 1962, a 36-year-old service-station operator named Bill Gabbard shot and killed a man in the desert outside Salome. He and three others were hunting rabbits when their pickup bogged down in a mud hole. John Davis, the truck's owner, along with 17-year-old Marie Miller and her 32-year-old brother-in-law, Ralph Montgomery, went back to town for help. As they returned in a dune buggy, Davis heard Gabbard gunning the truck trying to free it and worried that he had damaged the engine. According to reports in the Yuma Daily Sun, the two argued bitterly.

Her face bruised from her pimp's final blows, Gabriell Dardley poses for a jailhouse photo in 1915.
courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Her face bruised from her pimp's final blows, Gabriell Dardley poses for a jailhouse photo in 1915.

"You sawed-off punk," said Davis, who weighed 225 pounds to Gabbard's 135. "I want to shoot it out with you, you and your little .22 pistol. I'm going to show you what a real gun is like."

As Davis headed for the pickup, Gabbard said, "John, don't do that. I'll have to burn you."

Davis retrieved his shotgun and threw down on Gabbard. The latter fired four shots from a .22 pistol, killing the 26-year-old with two rounds in the chest and two more in the shoulder.

The Gabbards rented a home Dollie owned, right next to her own. Bill Gabbard and his wife, Catherine, known as Birdie, and their kids, had grown close to their aged landlord, a relationship born of more than proximity. They came from Barstow, California, to Salome to manage a Richfield station on the highway, but the experience had been bitter. They were ostracized and harassed, they say, because their station was a success at a time when competition for the traveler's gas dollar was intense. Bill Gabbard put up signs along the highway, cleaned up his shop and opened a 24-hour garage, and pretty soon he had cars lined up for business. The people at the other filling stations hated him for it, and the Gabbard family was whispered about, called names and treated as outsiders.

Dollie saw that Bill and Catherine were facing exactly what she had faced in Salome and took them in. "They wanted rid of me bad down there in Salome," says Bill Gabbard, speaking by phone from his home in Tennessee. "But Dollie, she knew the kind of family we were, and she kind of fell for us. We weren't no low-class people like they were sayin'. We were decent."

Birdie says that Dollie, feeble and shaking from Parkinson's disease, showed up at the Gabbard home immediately after hearing of the shooting. Without a handrail on the steps, Dollie couldn't make it onto the porch. So she pounded on the wood with her walking stick until Birdie came out to help. Birdie describes herself as being in a state of near-shock. She was a young wife, in a strange and hostile town with no idea how to hire a lawyer.

"I remember that day. I sure do," Birdie says. "I told Dollie I didn't know nobody here, and they ain't nothin' but a bunch of pure devils anyway tryin' to run us out and that's what it's come to. Dollie looked at me and said, 'Nobody's runnin' you nowhere. Get in the car. We're goin' to Yuma to get you a lawyer.'"

Dollie took Birdie to the office of Ron McKelvey, a top defense lawyer in Yuma, and hired him on the spot. She also put up the money for Bill's bail and went with Birdie to the jail to get him out.

The trial opened in superior court in Yuma on December 12 and lasted four days. The jury believed Gabbard's claim of self-defense and delivered a verdict of not guilty.

Ironically, Gabbard's case looked much like Dollie's in 1915. Both involved a shooting, a claim of self-defense, the defendant receiving unexpected help and ultimate acquittal. Either way, it was the perfect coda to her crime-novel life.

Five days after the verdict, on December 21, Dollie fell at her home. She was admitted to the hospital in Wickenburg with a broken hip and pneumonia. Knowing the end had come, she telephoned Prescott and asked old friend Lester Ruffner, a funeral home operator, to contact the Episcopal minister and hurry to her bedside to administer last rites. The two men hopped in the car and rushed to Wickenburg, making it in time to square her with God.

Dollie was about 72 when she died on Christmas Day 1962. The body was cremated, and, at her request, the ashes were buried in Prescott beside E.L. Fretz, the husband who raved about his gold mine from his bed at the asylum.

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