D.A. Case No. 2: Adolph Kappel

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Just before Christmas 1947, my grandfather, J.V. Gallegos, assistant district attorney, went into Adolph Kappel’s jail cell. He asked him, “Are you ready to discuss the case?” Adolph turned and replied, “I hit her with the axe, busted her head and that’s all she wrote.”

Montana Standard, Butte, Montana, December 19, 1947 article states Adolph’s confession as reported by J.V. Gallegos, Assistant District Attorney. (Click to view larger image.)

Adolph Kappel killed his wife, Bertha Eugene Wagnon Kappel, with an axe on the morning of December 18,1947 in Tucumcari, N. M. (Image: Montana Standard, Dec. 19, 1947). At about 5:30 in the morning, Bertha started walking from where they were living, in her brother’s house located on the north side of town. She headed to The Home Cafe, located on the south side of town, where she had been working for about two months. Adolph was walking with her that morning, but was lagging behind. Little did she realize he had grabbed an axe on his way out the door.

New Mexico vs. Kappel, March 24, 1949, from the N.M. Supreme Court (Click to view complete document.)

Bertha’s body was found about three blocks away from the house. “There was a considerable amount of blood around the body and three extensive wounds on the head, inflicted by heavy blows from some blunt instrument”, according to the N. M. State Supreme Court case documentation, State vs. Kappel. (Image: New Mexico vs. Kappel,1949)

Bertha and Adolph had been arguing the night the before about some lumber that Bertha had bought to build a house. Adolph had sold the lumber to a neighbor and Bertha was not happy. The next morning, as she got ready for work. Bertha was upset with Adolph because he was slow in getting ready to walk with her. Just before walking out the door, Bertha had told Adolph, “You dirty son-of-a-bitch, if you are going with me, come on.” On cross-examination Adolph admitted he didn’t like to be called “a son-of-a-bitch” and it made him “mad” (Image: New Mexico vs. Kappel,1949).

State Prison Record for Adolph Kappel. Also shows the commuted sentence later given by Governor Mechem. (Click to view larger image.)

From what I have gathered from my grandfather’s notes, the state case documentation and numerous news articles, Adolph seems a little like a Forrest Gump type of ax murderer. Adolph had the mental development of a young boy, but the courts concluded that he did know right from wrong. He was actually convicted twice, once for first degree, and then, on appeal, for second degree murder and sentenced to 90-99 years in the New Mexico State Penitentiary. Later his sentence was commuted to 70 years (Image: State Prison Record).

Amazingly enough, Adolph’s story doesn’t end there.

The Great Mule Escape

The Santa Fe New Mexican, Nov. 3, 1950: Nearly the entire page two of the newspaper was about Adolph’s escape on a mule. The man hunt lasted 5 days. (Click to view larger image.)

In 1950 Adolph escapes from The Pen in Santa Fe in the snow riding a black mule. (Image: The Santa Fe New Mexican, Nov. 3, 1950, Ax Murderer Braves Snow, Starvation to Best Posse).

Medford Oregon Mail Tribune (Click to view larger image.)
The Detroit Free Press (click to view larger image.)

It took about 5 days before the posse caught up to him. In one of the articles he stated that he was on his way back to Tucumcari to see his daughter.

This bizarre escape made the news beyond New Mexico. I found several papers reporting his escape, such as one in Detroit (Image: Detroit Free Press), Brooklyn, (Image: Brooklyn Eagle News), and a couple cities in Oregon (Image: a Medford, Oregon) and (Image: Salem, Oregon).

Salem, Oregon, Capital Journal (Click to view larger image.)
The Brooklyn Eagle (Click to view larger image.)

—This is taken from my grandpa’s story about working on the Adolph Kappel case.—

Adolph Kappel lived on the north side of the railroad tracks. His wife worked in a restaurant on the south side of town. She rose early in the morning to go to work. She’d open up, heat up the stove and serve the customers that came into the restaurant.

She and her husband, Adolph had an argument one night over some lumber she had bought to build a home. He wanted to sell the lumber, she did not. Around 5:30 A.M. she left for work, she wrapped her head in a scarf to ward off the cold and started her walk into town.

He followed her, axe in hand. When he caught up with her, he struck her from behind with the sharp axe. After her body was discovered, the officers went to his house. They questioned him but he denied killing her. A search was made of the premises. The axe was found on top of a chicken house. Adolph Kappel was arrested and held in custody.

Adolph told the authorities he wanted to speak with me. I went to his jail cell to talk with him. I asked him, “Are you ready to discuss the case?”, He replied, “I hit her with the axe, busted her head and that’s all she wrote.”

According to the psychiatrists, he had the mental development of a young boy, but he knew right from wrong. The court appointed Robert Rowley to defend him and he was tried before a jury. The jury found him guilty of murder in the first degree without recommending clemency. This verdict carried the death penalty.

The court instructed the jury on first degree murder only. Murder in the second degree is the same as murder in the first degree except the element of deliberation is not present in second degree.
On appeal the Supreme Court reversed the decision because it held the crime was committed in the heat of passion, after the lumber argument, and because the judge had not given second degree instructions to the jury.

Adolph Kappel was returned to Tucumcari and pled guilty to second degree murder. He had in his favor, the fact that he was mentally deficient and taking this into consideration, the Court sentenced him to the penitentiary. A few years later, as I recall, he broke out of the pen with some other inmates. He was later found near Santa Fe riding a mule. He was sent back to The Pen to finish out his sentence.

We worked hard in our investigations, many times all night. If we had a lead we hit the iron while it was hot. Many times it was 3 a.m. before I got to bed. We also enjoyed ourselves over a hot cup of coffee rehashing old cases and laughing over some of the unusual or comical things that came up in our everyday lives and professional lives as well.


I did a little follow-up to try and find out what happened to Adolph. After his great escape, he was up for parole numerous times as noted in several news articles. From what I could find, he was denied on several occasions, up through at least 1966. From records I could find, he died on May 5, 1978 at age 63 in the Taos, NM area. So, at some point I assume he was let out of prison. He was a private in the Army in World War II and is buried in the Santa Fe National Cemetery.



4 Replies to “D.A. Case No. 2: Adolph Kappel”

    1. Yeah, a newspaper in Butte, go figure! It’s funny how newspapers back (and earlier) then posted things from all over the country. I think this story was soooooo odd that places from all over picked it up. I mean the New Mexico police were hunting a man who escaped prison in the cold snow on a mule for days…who couldn’t pass that story up? HA!

    1. Shannon….ooooooh that is very interesting! I love to find out other parts to the story! I didn’t see that from what I had found, but as I recall some of the newspapers had some varying accounts of the argument and what had happened the night before. My grandfather didn’t mention in his notes Adolph telling him though either other than the lumber story that had come out in court.

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