Red McCullough disappeared without a trace from the Sand Hollow area on October 28, 1945. McCullough was a tried and true cowboy, known for calf roping and cow cutting in the local rodeo scene. Nobody seemed to notice McCullough’s disappearance until his cattle partner and cabin-mate, Lee Hart, also vanished less than a month later. Once word spread about the two missing cowboys, the Washington County Sheriff opened an investigation into the matter.
The Sheriff recruited a posse of 20 men to search the surrounding area. They learned from a neighboring rancher that Hart was seen riding McCullough’s palomino stallion on November 18. The horse later returned to the neighbor’s ranch without a saddle or bridle. Two days later, on November 20, Hart briefly stopped at a friend’s house to eat a quick meal. There, Hart uttered three words that changed the Sheriff’s investigation from missing persons to homicide:
“Red is dead.”
A $200 reward was offered for information related to the whereabouts of McCullough, or Hart, and the Sheriff’s search intensified. Before long, the Sheriff theorized that the two men were both dead. He began probing reservoirs for signs of their bodies. On December 13, Hart was spotted nearly 160 miles south of his last known location in the Owyhee badlands. Five ranchers from that vicinity accurately described his appearance. By the next day, Hart was in law enforcement custody. He was found wandering in the desert between Murphy and Marsing.
Hart survived a total of 24 days on foot, without food or notable shelter. His only real protections against the elements were his trusty Levi overalls and a button up shirt. For sustenance, Hart ate rangeland grass by the handful. He once killed a porcupine with a club and cooked it on a small daytime fire, though he felt reluctant to ever light a fire at night. The Sheriff estimated that Hart walked a total of 500 winding miles. By the time he was found, Hart’s boots had given out, and his feet were badly frostbitten.
After eating his first real meal in over three weeks, Hart led the Sheriff and a small group of men to McCullough’s initial grave. It was less than a mile from the two cowboy’s shared cabin. He displayed disbelief that the body was missing. The coroner took a sample of dirt. When heated, it produced an odor which established that a body had been there for an unknown period of time. The next day Hart took the party to another shallow rock grave, located about five miles from the cabin. There, they found his body. It was evident that McCullough had died from a gunshot to the throat. Hart confessed that he was the person who fired the gun that killed his former partner, so he was formally arrested and charged with murder.
The question remained, why?
Hart claimed the killing was done in self defense. His attorney, future U.S. Senator Herman Welker of Payette, argued during the preliminary hearing that the charges should be dropped from murder to manslaughter. The Judge refused this request, and Hart’s jury trial was set for February. Hart was held without bail in the Washington County Jail for more than two months.
When February finally arrived, Hart pleaded his innocence. He entered the court wearing a brand new suit. True to his cowboy nature, Hart was quoted as saying, “I would feel a lot more comfortable if I was dressed in overalls, and had on my boots instead of these shoes.”
The prosecution sought a second degree murder charge, which carried a maximum penalty of life in prison. Their star witnesses were two high school students who were with McCullough earlier on the night of his death. The boys claimed McCullough became belligerently drunk at a local dance hall, so they escorted him back to his cabin. McCullough resisted, but Hart and the two boys convinced McCullough to stay. By the time the boys left, they claimed, Hart and McCullough had not started fighting.
Hart testified that McCullough wanted to sell his half of their cattle and leave their joint ranching operation. Hart suggested that McCullough sleep off his intoxication, and they could discuss the idea further the next day. This angered McCullough, Hart claimed, and McCullough “grabbed a rifle, and I grabbed a revolver and we started shooting. Red fell forward at my feet. I looked at him, saw he was dead, took a big drink of whisky and went to bed. The next morning I went out and fed the horses, and when I came back into the cabin and saw Red’s body lying there, I went loco crazy. I loaded his body on a horse, took it about a quarter of a mile away and buried it. Then I drank all the whisky I could pack.”
At that point, Hart said, he started hearing the voices of two imaginary men. These hallucinations convinced Hart to move McCullough’s body and eventually go on the run. Hart stated this was the first, and last, major disagreement he had ever had with McCullough. He finished his testimony by stating he “shot Red because he had a rifle and would have shot me.”
Hart’s defense revolved around this plea of insanity. Three doctors concurred that Hart was insane, either during or directly after the shooting. Two doctors disagreed, claiming Hart was fully “responsible except for the alcohol that was in him.” A total of seven other cowboys from Washington and Payette counties vouched that Hart was a peaceful and law abiding citizen, with generally good character and reputation.
At the conclusion of the trail, the Judge ordered the jury to return with one of four verdicts: guilty of murder in the second degree, guilty of voluntary manslaughter, guilty of involuntary manslaughter, or not guilty. The jury only deliberated for an hour before they returned with a “not guilty” acquittal verdict, and Hart and his new imaginary friends cheered.