THE GHOST OF
Peace Church Cemetery is an old, ramshackle and mostly abandoned burial ground near Joplin, Missouri. Over the years, reports have circulated about strange sounds, voices and eerie lights that have been heard and seen in the cemetery. There are also reports of a ghostly figure who has been seen lurking in the trees, peering out at passersby and then vanishing when approached. It would be safe to assume that one of the restless souls buried here does not rest in peace. And when those from the area learn just who is buried in this cemetery, in a forsaken, unmarked grave -- a likely culprit for this restless spirit emerges.
Few mass murderers have ever gone on a worse killing spree than the one 21-year-old Billy Cook started on December 30, 1950. On that day, Cook, posing as a hitchhiker, forced a motorist at gunpoint to get into the trunk of his own car and then drove away. Over the next two weeks, Cook went on a senseless rampage. He kidnapped nearly a dozen people, including a deputy sheriff, and murdered six of them in cold blood, including three children. He also attempted other killings and terrorized the southwestern border states.
Cook was born in 1929 and grew up near Joplin. His early life was hard and had to make do with what he could between seven brothers and sisters. His father was an uneducated mine worker and after the death of Cook's mother, he raised the children in an abandoned mine shaft. One night, after drinking in a local tavern, he hopped a fright train and left the children to survive alone. Authorities found them huddled in the old mine, living like animals. Welfare workers were able to find foster homes for all of the children, except for Billy. His attitude caused people to stay away from him and he had a sinister-looking affliction of the right eye that would not allow the lid to close all of the way. He was finally taken in by a woman who did it purely for the money paid to her by the government and she and the boy never got along.
As he got older, Billy stayed out at night, getting in trouble and he ended up spending most of his formative years in reform school. He told a judge that he would prefer it to foster care and he got his wish. He was simply born bad, most believed, and when he was young, he had the words “Hard Luck” tattooed across the knuckles of both of his hands. After being released, Cook immediately robbed a cab driver of $11 and stole a car. He was soon caught and sent back to reform school for five years. He became one of the most dangerous inmates in the institution and was sent tot he Missouri Penitentiary to finish his sentence. While there, he beat another inmate so badly with a baseball bat that the man almost died. He had made the mistake of laughing at Cook's drooping eyelid.
In 1950, Cook was released and returned to Joplin, Missouri to look for his father. The reunion was short-lived and Billy left town and started hitching rides through the southwest, ending up in Blythe, California. The only job that he ever held was here, washing dishes in a diner, and he soon grew bored and began to roam again, this time heading for Texas. Somewhere along the way, he picked up a snub-nosed .32 caliber pistol and he kept it tucked away in his pocket. Cook had little use for anyone and frankly, hated people -- all people -- and he decided to put those feelings into action when he kidnapped his first victim, a motorist, near Lubbock, Texas. Luckily for the driver, he used a jack handle to open the trunk from the inside. He held it down until Cook turned off the highway and onto a secondary road. Sure that the young man planned to kill him, he jumped out when the car slowed down and escaped by running across the flatland.
Cook drove the lonely stretch of highway between Claremore and Tulsa, Oklahoma before the stolen car ran out of gas. He left the vehicle on the side of the road and walked on. A few minutes later, he saw a 1949 Chevrolet coming toward him. Cook waved frantically, as if he had encountered car problems, in an effort to get the car to slow down.
The driver, Carl Mosser, came to a stop. Mosser, his wife Thelma, and their three small children were on vacation from Decatur, Illinois and on their way to New Mexico when they picked up Cook alongside the road. Many would wonder today why they would have picked up a hitchhiker with small children in the car but those were different times then and Americans had not yet been bombarded with the gruesome images of death and murder that were to come in the media and in entertainment. They had nothing to fear, they believed, and simply wanted to help out a man who was down on his luck. Cook repaid the family’s kindness by pulling a gun and forcing Mosser to drive into Oklahoma and then to Texas. Carl frantically worried for his family and hoped that his twin brother, Chris, who lived in Albuquerque and was expecting the family for a visit, would start to worry and alert the authorities.
Cook had forced him to drive to Wichita Falls, Texas and Mosser kept thinking of ways to try and get ride of the maniac. He thought he saw a chance in Wichita Falls when the car started to run low on gas. He urged Cook into a filling station for some fuel and food. Mosser pulled into the station and told the elderly attendant to fill the tank. When he asked, at Cook's orders, that some lunch meat be brought to the car, the attendant told him that he would have to get that himself. Mosser went inside, followed by Cook, and it was then that Mosser grabbed a hold of Cook and tried to pin him from behind. Frightened, the old attendant pulled an old .44 caliber revolver and waved it nervously at the two struggling men. He ordered Mosser to let loose of Cook and Carl tried to explain what was happening. Too scared to help, the old man ordered them out of the station. The two men continued to fight and then Cook broke away and pushed Mosser through a plate glass window.
The old man, now terrified, locked himself inside as Cook ordered Mosser back to the car. As the automobile drove off, the old man now jumped into his truck and gave chase. Cook saw him coming and fired several shots at him. With that, the attendant's bravery vanished and he stopped the truck.
Cook was now seething with anger and he forced Mosser to drive to Carlsbad, New Mexico and then on to El Paso, Texas, to Houston and then on to Winthrop, Arkansas. He then had Mosser turn the car toward his old stomping grounds in Joplin. Finally, after more than 72 hours of this, Thelma Mosser became hysterical and started to cry. The children also began to wail and Cook gagged all of them except for Carl. Soon, after a police officer seemed to be paying too much attention to the Mosser car, Cook grew tired of his game and turned his pistol on the family. He shot and killed all of them and for good measure, shot the family dog too. He dumped their bodies in a place he knew well, an abandoned mine shaft near Joplin.
Eventually, the Mosser’s car was found abandoned near Tulsa, Okalahoma. It was like a slaughter pen, with the upholstery ripped by bullets and blood splashed everywhere. Their bodies were soon discovered but Cook left something behind in the car -- the receipt for the handgun that he had bought. His identity was soon learned and a massive manhunt was launched.
Cook headed for California and there, he kidnapped a deputy sheriff who had almost captured him. He forced the deputy to drive him around while he bragged about executing the Mosser family. After more than 40 miles, Cook ordered the lawman to stop and forced him to lie down in a ditch with his hands tied behind his back. He told the man that he was going to put a bullet in his head and then, for some reason, climbed into the car and drove away. The officer waited for the bullet but it never came. The officer would never know why he was spared. A short time later, Cook flagged down another motorist, Robert Dewey, and wounded him. The two men struggled and the car left the road and careened out into the desert. Cook ended the fight with a bullet to Dewey's head and he threw the body into a ditch.
By this time, an alarm had been raised all over the southwest and so Cook decided to head into Mexico. He kidnapped two men and brought them along to Santa Rosalia, a number of miles across the border. Amazingly though, Cook was recognized by the local police chief, Francisco Morales. He simply walked up to Cook, snatched the gun from the man’s belt and placed him under arrest. Cook was then rushed to the border and turned over to FBI agents.
Despite the slaying of the Mosser family, the Justice Department turned Cook over to the California courts and he was tried for the murder of Robert Dewey. Cook displayed as regret about this murder as he had the others -- in other words, none -- and he was sentenced to death. On December 12, 1952, he died in the gas chamber at San Quentin.
Billy Cook’s body was later returned to Joplin but no one would have anything to do with him. Eventually, he was buried in Peace Church Cemetery in an unmarked grave, but only on the condition that he was buried outside the boundaries of the graveyard. As many believe though, he does not rest here in peace and mysterious sightings of a shadowy figure have been spotted here for quite some time.
- Personal Interviews & Correspondence (thanks to Tammy Leach)
- Nash, Jay Robert - Bloodletters and Badmen (1995)
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© Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.