The Hardison killing and manhunt dominated the front pages of the Miami Herald and the Miami Daily News for several days. The story of the killing and the capture of the killer was the subject of articles in three national detective magazines. One magazine described the search for the killer as "one of the greatest manhunts the South has known in years."
On Feb. 2, 1951, Harris Mullis, 22, who had spent most of his life since the age of 10 in reform school and prison, walked into a police station in Los Angeles and told police that he was wanted in Coral Gables, FL, for burglary and auto theft. He added, "I think there is something wrong with me and I want to get it straightened out."
Mullis waived extradition and Los Angeles police notified authorities in Coral Gables. Luther Hardison, the elected constable of the third district, decided to make the trip to Los Angeles himself, as it would allow him to visit with his 20 year old son, Luther Hardison, Jr., who was in military service in Texas.
Hardison left Coral Gables on Feb. 7 in his new light gray 1951 Mercury, two-door sedan (Club Coupe) and arrived in Los Angeles on Feb. 9. He registered for five days at a hotel. When he picked up Mullis he decided not to handcuff him as he told (according to news accounts) the LA police and friends, Phil and Betty Pappas, cafe operators, that he saw no need to handcuff the prisoner. The Los Angeles police and the Pappas couple warned the constable against making the long drive to Florida alone with an uncuffed prisoner but Hardison replied, "I never have trouble with prisoners." Hardison also told the Pappas family: "I doubt if the kid could drive very well with handcuffs on, Phil...Ever hear of Father Flanagan?" he asked gently. "He often said there is no such thing as a bad boy, and I agree."
"Take this kid, for example. He slipped once down in Coral Gables, but his conscience got to working overtime and he gave himself up. That's in his favor. With luck and fair treatment, he'll make amends and go straight the rest of his life. The worst thing I could possibly do is drag him back in chains"....."I have four children of my own and I'm wise to all tricks. We'll be okay." (Crime Detective, June, 1951)
Hardison "carried his faith in the goodness of youth even further....as he let Mullis 'spell' him at the wheel" on the trip from LA to Miami (i.e., one would nap while the other drove). The Miami Herald reported that the constable "died because he believed in giving young folks a break" and that Mullis shot the constable "who treated him like a son instead of a criminal." An article in Underworld Detective said that Hardison "had let his faith as a father overrule his judgment as a law officer."
It should be noted that the Hardison family believes the media portrayal of Luther Hardison as naive and lax in security precautions was invalid and based on the untruthful statements of Hardison's killer. The family points out that Mullis did not have a valid driver's license and that Hardison would never have let Mullis drive his new car without a license.
Also, when Hardison visited his son in TX at the halfway point of the trip, he implied that he alone had driven the car from Los Angeles to San Antonio. The family also believes that the "Father Flanigan" quotes (i.e., "there is no such thing as a bad boy," etc.) attributed to Hardison are inaccurate as they had never heard such comments from their father and believed that he was unlikely to have expressed a philosophy to strangers that he had never expressed to his own family.
Hardison had no reason to believe that Mullis was dangerous as he had surrendered himself in LA, had waived extradition, and the complainant (at the Miami stable) had not indicated that he was dangerous. The constable likely did not know of Mullis' reform school and prison record.
The constable and his prisoner left Los Angeles around 1:00PM on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 1951, and stopped overnight in Tucson, Arizona, where Hardison stayed in a hotel, and Mullis was placed in the county jail. By 4:00PM the next day (Wednesday), the pair were in San Antonio where the constable stopped to visit his son, Luther T. Hardison, Jr., who was stationed at Randolph Air Base. The constable telephoned his wife in Coral Gables and both father and son were able to talk with Mrs. Hardison about their visit together and about the constable's anticipated arrival back in Florida.
Father and son and prisoner had dinner together in San Antonio, and then around 7:00PM the constable placed Mullis in a jail in Seguin, Texas, for the night. Father and son spent the night in a hotel in San Antonio with the father arising at 4:00AM on that Thursday morning to pick up his prisoner in Seguin to continue the trip to Miami.
Just after midnight on Friday, Feb. 16, the constable and his prisoner were on Highway 90 between Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama. As Mullis neared Florida (according to a later confession), he "had a change of heart" and "regretted the impulse which had caused him to give himself up." He decided he didn't want to return to Florida. He recalled his years of mistreatment in reform school and prison (to be discussed later) and the mutual hatred he believed existed between himself and the police in Miami.
Mullis decided to escape from constable Hardison. At some point during the trip Mullis became aware that Hardison kept a gun under the front seat (or "between the cushions" of the front seat) and decided to seize the gun and shoot Hardison. Mullis later told police that he had "nothing against Hardison personally...he treated me fine" but just decided that he didn't want to return to Florida and realized that he would have to kill the constable to effect his escape.
Mullis was a rather small man, 5'7" and 132 lbs. (one detective magazine labeled him the "peewee killer"), while Hardison was 6' and 210 lbs. Thus Mullis may have decided that he could not physically overpower the constable and would have to seize his gun. In retrospect one wonders why Mullis didn't just hit the constable on the head while he slept in the passenger seat. Perhaps Mullis believed that an injured Hardison would report his escape.
Mullis, who (claimed he) was driving, feigned weariness and indicated to Hardison that they should switch drivers. When Hardison got out of the car on the passenger side and walked around to the driver's side, Mullis grabbed the gun from under the seat and slid over to the passenger's side. As Hardison opened the driver's door and began to seat himself Mullis opened fire.
Mullis further claimed in his confession that the two shots didn't seem to stop the constable who pulled out his blackjack and hit Mullis on the head. The killer (according to his confession) pointed to the left side of his head and said, "you can still feel the lump here". Mullis then fired two more shots and said that when the constable "stopped fighting," he knew he was dead as he "had fallen over on the seat."
The autopsy indicated that the constable had been killed around 1:00AM on Saturday and that he had been shot once in the head and four times in the right side by his own .38 caliber revolver. The first shot through the right side "grazed his heart and would have been fatal." The shot to the head was apparently the last shot and occurred "when he was in a prone position." These facts led police to characterize the killing as "gruesome," "cold-blooded," and "brutal."
Mullis then got out of the car, wrapped Hardison's body in a blanket and placed it in the passenger seat. He drove for a few more miles to a point about 9 miles west of Mobile where he turned off on a side road and dumped the body in a ditch at the side of the road (about 12 mile down the side road from Highway 90). Mullis said that he "unrolled" the blanket like a rug and watched the body slide into the ditch. The killer then fled in the constable's 1951 Mercury with the constable's wallet, suitcase, gun, and $200 in cash.
Mullis first drove to New Orleans where he abandoned the car thinking it "was too hot to keep" and then traveled (over a period of five days) by bus to Ft. Worth, by train to Chicago, and finally by train to New York City. In six days he covered 5,000 miles and fourteen states.
The morning after the murder, a dairyman driving on Highway 90 saw what he thought might have been a body at 2:00AM (Saturday, Feb. 17) but did not stop to check it out thinking that it might be a robbery trap. Shortly before dawn a couple who ran a "tourist court" found the "bullet-riddled" body "sprawled in a weed-grown ditch beside the road" just off Highway 90 and notified the police. Some evidence pointed to robbery as the slain man's wallet was missing and his pockets were turned inside out. However, the victim was still wearing an expensive watch and a pen and pencil set.
Police in Mobile were able to identify the body within a day as they found a motel receipt from Los Angeles bearing the name Luther Hardison in the discarded items by the side of the road. Police learned from Los Angeles that Hardison was a constable from Coral Gables.
Another Miami constable, W.M. "Newt" Hudson, tentatively identified the body by telephone as Hardison had distinctive tattoos on his arms and was missing a joint on the middle finger of the right hand, the result of an old accident. Hudson and Peace Justice Edwin L. Mason traveled by air to Mobile to make a positive identification, to help in the investigation, and to return the 1951 Mercury (abandoned in New Orleans) to Miami. Hardison's body was transported to Miami by train, arriving on Feb. 20.
A massive manhunt for Harris Mullis was launched and conducted for seven days throughout the Southern states and in California. "Every state trooper and police officer throughout the country had been alerted for a light gray, '51 Mercury sedan bearing Florida license 1-35756."
The FBI joined the search after Mobile FBI agent John K. Mumford filed a federal complaint charging unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for murder with U.S. Commissioner Alex T. Howard of Mobile. FBI wanted posters (with Mullis' picture, description, criminal record and a description of the 1951 Mercury) were circulated throughout the South and the nation. The bulletin noted that Mullis was believed to be armed and dangerous and that "extreme caution should be used in questioning him or effecting his apprehension."
The constable's abandoned car was found on Feb. 18 in New Orleans parked in front of a tavern. Inside the car police found a pair of handcuffs, a blackjack, a constable's sign hanging on the sun visor, and a receipt from a motel in Los Angeles indicating Hardison had stayed there Feb. 9 to 13. They also found dangling from the windshield "two little hula dancing dolls which the constable was bringing home to his small son and to a grandchild." Hardison's .38 caliber pistol was missing. The car also had bloodstains on the upholstery and floor. The police staked out the car for 9 hours but the driver never returned.
A "weird turn of events which deepened the mystery" then occurred and sidetracked the investigation. Police thought they had a break in the case when a young hitchhiker, carrying keys to Hardison's 1951 Mercury and the stolen handcuffs, was arrested in Baton Rouge, LA, on Monday, Feb. 19. The keys were on a chain with a miniature license plate sold by the VFW with FL tag number 1-35756.
At first the police believed that the suspect, who claimed to be Watson H. Harris, Jr., 24, of Tampa, was actually Harris Mullis since he fit the general description of the fugitive and had Hardison's car keys. Also the police believed that the "interchange of the first and last names....was a favorite dodge of unimaginative criminals."
However, the photograph of Watson Harris which was wired to Miami and shown to those who knew Harris Mullis proved the two men were different persons. Also the fingerprints of the two men did not match. After the police decided that Watson Harris was indeed not Harris Mullis, they theorized that Watson Harris may have somehow been involved in the murder and even began a search for a second body across Alabama and Mississippi on the theory that Harris may have killed both Hardison and Mullis. The large headline of the Miami Daily News on Feb. 20 said, "Second Body is Hunted in Killing of Constable."
The police belief that Watson Harris was involved in the murder was strengthened when Harris, under intense pressure from the police, confessed that he formerly had lived in Coral Gables and that he had known both Mullis and the Constable (he had even voted for him). Harris changed his story several times and eventually claimed that he only "knew of" Hardison while he was in Coral Gables. Police theorized that, at the very least, Harris had run into Mullis in New Orleans and that Mullis had given the keys to Harris.
Watson Harris at one point claimed that he had met Mullis (for the first time) in New Orleans and that Harris promised Mullis he could find women for the two of them. The two had a falling out and Harris said that he stole Mullis' car keys. The police did find Harris' fingerprints in the Mercury (as well as the fingerprints of Mullis and Hardison).
However, Watson Harris' alibi (that he spent the night in a Baptist mission in New Orleans on the night of the murder) was corroborated by the police, and he was released. He had claimed that he had found the car keys in a doorway in New Orleans. He had been arrested while he was "fallen-down drunk" in Baton Rouge and claimed to remember little of his stay in New Orleans.
The search for Mullis focused at one point on California as the sheriff's office in Los Angeles issued an "all-points bulletin" in the belief that the fugitive had returned to California. The sheriff's office reported that a man who identified himself as Mullis telephoned from a LA pay phone and warned, "Call off the manhunt or you'll be sorry. I don't want to kill anyone else...I've got two guns and if you don't tell the cops to lay off me, somebody else is going to get hurt." The sheriff later concluded that the call came from a crank.
The manhunt for Harris Mullis ended around noon on Saturday, Feb. 24, as the large headline of the evening edition of the Miami Daily News of the same day announced, "Slayer of Gables Constable Seized in New York Pawnshop." Mullis arrived in New York City by hitchhiking and by train on Wednesday, Feb. 21. He apparently arrived almost broke (with only $1.25), as he sold blood to a NYC blood bank for $5 to get money for food and lodging. He "had hoped to get aboard a ship in New York harbor and escape to some distant place."
However, he was arrested around 10:00AM on Saturday as he attempted to pawn the "death gun" (Hardison's weapon) for $15 at a pawnshop on Eighth Ave. near 48th St., two blocks from Madison Square. He walked into the pawnshop and told Harry Weisenberger, the owner: "How much do I get for this? Do you want a gun? It is a hot one."
Mullis' luck had literally run out. He had walked into the pawnshop of a man, Weisenberger, who had a "reputation as an amateur trapper of criminals." Over a period of 30 years the pawnshop owner had helped the police capture nearly 1,500 "lawbreakers" and had helped recover over a million dollars in property. Weisenberger immediately recognized Mullis' gun as the type usually carried by sheriffs and was suspicious.
The pawnshop owner then signaled to another clerk to lock the door while a third clerk called the police precinct nearby and asked for assistance. Weisenberger then pulled his own gun and held Mullis at gunpoint for the minute or so it took the police to arrive. For his part in apprehending Mullis the "plucky pawnshop broker was sworn in as an honorary lieutenant in the police department of New York." He also went to Mobile to testify at Mullis' trial. Within seconds, three NYC policeman entered the pawnshop. Mullis attempted to flee and got into a brief struggle with the officers. He attempted to draw a "fountain-pen type tear gas gun" (that he had taken from the glove compartment of Hardison's car) before he was subdued. The killer was taken to the police station where he gave a "lengthy and sometimes incoherent confession." Mullis was reportedly in a "near hysterical state" and "sobbed" intermittently throughout the confession. He "fainted" after the confession. After reviving he stated, "I feel better now. I couldn't sleep and I was scared to death to be taken back."
Mullis indicated that he would not fight extradition to Mobile to face the murder charge but said that he would fight extradition to Florida on the burglary charge. He said that he feared mistreatment by the authorities in Florida.
Mullis was held without bail in NYC and was arraigned (on Sunday, Feb. 25) in felony court on charges of illegal possession of a weapon. The charge was a formality to keep him in custody until Alabama officers arrived to return him to Mobile for trial for first degree murder. Magistrate Bushel advised Mullis "not to talk until you have proper counsel." Mullis appeared calm as opposed to his "near-hysterical state" of the day before when he had been arrested and had confessed.
Justice of the Peace Mason placed a hold order on Mullis (for the burglary and auto theft) with Mobile authorities "on the chance that he might not be convicted of the murder charge through some technicality" or on an insanity plea.
During the manhunt for Hardison's killer Miami Constable George F. Rogers invented a "gadget" he thought would solve the problem (transporting prisoners over long distances by auto) that cost the life of Hardison. The invention involved a pair of handcuffs connected by a "strong, lightweight chain to a horizontal bar on the rear floor of the car...the chain is long enough so the prisoner can smoke and eat comfortably, but not long enough so he can reach the driver." The device also had a spring-powered lever in the front seat which the officer could use to free the prisoner. A picture of the new gadget appeared in the Miami Herald.