PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY RICHARD FRIEND
The Hargis Murders
Unimaginable tragedy shatters a quiet Laurel community
Laurel Noir is a series focused on historic crimes and the darker underside of our hometown.
By Richard Friend | June 23, 2018
In the early morning hours of Monday, October 18, 1965, Maryland State Trooper Robert Long was one of two officers at the Waterloo Barracks dispatched to a call in Laurel. Undoubtedly, he was unnerved to receive this particular call. As it turned out, the address, (14015 Bramble Lane, Apt. #T2) was that of his next door neighbors—the Hargis family.
The call was concerning the family’s four children.
The quiet, Fox Rest Woods apartment complex, built just the previous year, certainly hadn’t experienced anything like what happened that Sunday night. Nor has it ever since, thankfully.
The ground floor terrace apartment had been home to Denver and Charlene Hargis and their four children. The family had only lived there for four months, having relocated from the Belair community in Bowie.
Denver David Hargis wasn’t your average Laurel citizen. Born in Key West, Florida in 1921, he grew up in Coffeyville, Kansas, where he spent two years in the Navy before going into law school. He took an interest in politics, and eventually became a three-term mayor of his hometown. He was eventually elected as a U.S. Representative from Kansas, and served one term in Congress from 1959 to 1961. He was defeated in his re-election bid, and spent the next six years as a consultant with both the Department of Defense and the Department of Commerce.
Charlene Hargis was born Charlene June Greer in 1928 and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. She married Denver in 1951, and enjoyed working for her husband as a secretary during his term in Congress.
Mr. Hargis, however, didn’t plan on staying in Laurel for long. He and Charlene—45 and 37 years old, respectively—separated only a month after moving into the Fox Rest Woods apartment. That July, Mr. Hargis moved in with another woman in Vienna, Virginia—a 24-year-old divorcee named Betty Crotts, and her two sons.
Charlene and the kids—Sandra Lee, 12; Michael David, 8; Debra Sue, 5; and Brenda June, 2—were left behind in Laurel.
There’s nothing on the record about what officially caused the couple’s breakup. What is clear, however, is that it ultimately led to Mrs. Hargis’ breakdown.
Shortly before midnight, she picked up the telephone in her Laurel apartment, and called her estranged husband. When Betty Crotts answered, Charlene spoke:
“Tell Denver I killed the children.”
After a brief pause, she added, “No… I’ll tell him myself.”
Charlene had actually just called Denver a few minutes earlier, and had even seen him in person that evening. With all four kids in tow, she showed up at Betty’s doorstep with an ultimatum. According to Crotts, “She asked him, did he want to stay with me or go back with her and the kids. If he wouldn’t come back, she said she was just going to leave and hurt the kids.”
It was a few hours later, as Denver and Betty watched television, that the first phone call came. After a dismissive conversation, Denver explained that he would not be coming home to Laurel. The second phone call came “about two minutes later” according to Crotts.
Two minutes that were spent doing the unthinkable.
Mr. Hargis had never taken his wife’s threats seriously. He’d later claim that she had threatened to harm herself and the children several times in the past, but never believed she would actually follow through. But there was something about the way she spoke on this particular evening, however, that changed his mind. Maybe it was the way she simply hung up after relaying the chilling message.
“Call the police,” he instructed Betty. As she later testified, “He was going to go there himself, but he was afraid he couldn’t make it in time. He said she might be serious this time.”
Sadly, Charlene Hargis had been deadly serious.
When Troopers Robert Long and Thomas Ingram arrived at the apartment on Bramble Lane, there was no answer at the door. Peering through a bedroom window of the ground floor unit, they could see the bodies of two children in their beds. Long quickly retrieved a crowbar from his police cruiser and forced the patio door open.
Each of the children had been shot once in the back of the head, while sleeping. 5-year-old Debra Sue was the only one clinging to life—but she, too, died within minutes, en route to the hospital. Joann Robison, wife of future Laurel mayor Joe Robison, was in the ambulance that terrible morning, on duty with the Laurel Rescue Squad. It was likely the worst scene experienced by the local first responders in their then thirteen-year history.
Trooper Long later described the scene as “an awful mess.” Reflecting on what he’d seen throughout his career, he said, “With adults, it doesn’t bother you near(ly) so much, but these were just innocent kids.” Surely, the tragedy affected him on a personal level, having lived next door to the Hargis family. The Hargis children, intrigued by their neighbor’s police uniform, had always cheerfully spoken to Long when they saw him on his way to and from work.
In the kitchen of the apartment, police found a .25 caliber Beretta handgun. Four shots had been fired from it, and a live cartridge was found on the floor. Denver Hargis recognized and identified the murder weapon. It belonged to him—he had reported it stolen that Friday. Charlene would later admit taking it from the Vienna apartment her husband shared with Betty Crotts.
Mrs. Hargis wasn’t home when the police arrived, and they quickly put out an alert to locate her car. She was soon picked up by Trooper Robert Foxwell, only a mile or so away in downtown Laurel. She told him that she’d planned to drive the car into the Patuxent River and drown herself. “I tried to find the stinking river and couldn’t even do that.”
Questioned by Det. Sgt. Charles Greffen at the Waterloo Barracks, Charlene wasted no time admitting her guilt. He said, “I introduced myself, and before I could say anything, she told me she killed them.”
It was here that Charlene first shed some light on how this unthinkable tragedy was set into motion. According to Greffen, Charlene told him she originally intended to kill herself and leave the children for her husband, but he told her he didn’t want them. “He just laughed,” she said.
She admitted that she’d driven to Vienna the night of the murders to plead with her husband to either return, or to give the family money to move to another city—but he refused to do either. “He said he had another family now—he didn’t want us anymore,” she explained.
Charlene remembered driving back home to Laurel, putting the kids to bed, cleaning the apartment, and putting laundry in the washing machine. The only thing she recalled after that, she said, was when “I called my husband and told him what I’d done. I told him I’d killed the children.”
Charlene was held in the Prince George’s County Jail and arraigned the next day in Upper Marlboro on charges of first degree murder—four counts. Dressed in black slacks, a yellow blouse, and a charcoal gray cardigan sweater, the thin and frail Mrs. Hargis was asked if she understood the charges against her. “Yes, sir,” she replied, almost inaudibly.
She exhibited more volume when she caught sight of Mr. Hargis and his mistress together. That’s when she became hysterical.
At points during the arraignment, the visibly upset defendant repeatedly cried out, “I’m guilty!”
Circuit Court Judge Ernest A. Loveless, Jr. appointed attorney Edward J. Bagley to represent Mrs. Hargis; and at Mr. Bagley’s request, appointed Howard L. Stern as co-counsel. They filed pleas of not guilty by reason of insanity on all four counts of murder, and the judge ordered Charlene to Spring Grove State Hospital in Catonsville for examination.
She tried to slash her wrists while undergoing that examination. Despite the suicide attempt, psychiatrists ultimately declared her sane and able to stand trial.
Her trial began on May 5, 1966 before a jury of three women and nine men. Shortly after the start of the second day, it was interrupted by an outburst. Charlene Hargis began to scream: “Stop it! I told you I was guilty, didn’t I?!” State’s Attorney Arthur A. Marshall, Jr., who’d been standing directly in front of Mrs. Hargis, literally jumped in shock when the screaming began. He jumped so sharply, he actually pulled a muscle in his side. Asked about the incident later that day, he said, “I felt like somebody stuck a knife in me.”
A recess was called, and Charlene, “trembling and weeping,” was led out of the crowded courtroom by an officer. Seated outside in a nearby corridor were Denver Hargis and Betty Crotts. Mrs. Crotts had been called as a key witness for the prosecution, while Mr. Hargis elected not to testify against his estranged wife.
Betty Crotts testified that she and Denver (by now living together in Arlington, Virginia) had arrived home at her previous apartment in Vienna on the evening of October 17th and found Charlene Hargis and her four children waiting for them outside. She described the confrontation and Charlene’s later phone calls, “threatening to hurt the kids.”
Maryland State Trooper Robert Long was also called to testify, and he relayed the horror he’d discovered that morning in his next door neighbors’ apartment.
And Charlene herself quietly testified. She reiterated the same story to the jurors that she’d told police—never offering excuses or seeking mercy; often looking directly into the jurors’ eyes and adding that she wished she were dead, herself.
On May 10th, after deliberating for six hours, the jury convicted Charlene on four counts of manslaughter. Reporters noted that several jurors were in tears at various times throughout the closing arguments, and that most in the courtroom sympathized with the defendant in spite of her horrific crime.
In fact, even the prosecutor himself directed more scorn at Denver Hargis and Betty Crotts than he did at Mrs. Hargis. In a remarkable statement to the jury, Marshall said, “She (Charlene Hargis) is a pathetic sight. She stands here before you by herself when there should be two other people with her. Two other people who squeezed the trigger as surely as she did.” He added, “Here we have the story of the eternal triangle—and of an unfaithful husband, who came here and refused to testify, for his own benefit.”
The defense attorney, predictably, was even more blunt. Edward Bagley said, “If she shot her husband that night, I would come in and gladly try this case for her. And I think she would have an excellent chance of being turned loose by a jury.”
On May 24th, two weeks after the trial, Charlene returned to the Upper Marlboro courthouse for sentencing. She received 10 years in prison for each death, but with the terms running concurrently.
Circuit Judge William B. Bowie stated that the sentence was “as lenient as possible under the circumstances,” and allowed that Mrs. Hargis would be eligible for parole after 28 months.
Charlene was taken to the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup to begin serving her time. By all accounts, she was the proverbial model prisoner—but as the one-year anniversary of the murders approached in September of 1966, so too did her demons. She attempted to overdose with prescription antidepressant and tranquilizer pills she’d been hoarding.
Prison superintendent Alice Blum said that Charlene had confided to fellow inmates several times that “she didn’t know how she could stand it when October came around.”
She fully recovered, but less than a year later, overdosed on pills again. The June 1967 suicide attempt was her third in less than two years, counting the wrist-slashing during her initial psychological evaluation.
The third suicide attempt not only resulted in Charlene being transferred to Spring Grove State Hospital, it prompted prison officials to change the method of administering pills to inmates. Warden James Jordan, believing that Mrs. Hargis had received the pills from other inmates who’d also been hoarding them, ordered that all future pills given to inmates “be crushed to make sure they are swallowed.”
After serving a total of 31 months in prison and the psychiatric hospital, Charlene Hargis was granted parole by the Maryland Parole and Probation Board. She was released to the custody of her parents, where she was ordered to reside with them at their home in Missouri under close supervision of Missouri parole officials. Her parole also stipulated regular psychiatric care at a nearby mental hospital.
Somewhat ironically, it was a deal that Charlene’s court-appointed defense attorney had requested at her sentencing, only to be denied.
Somehow, life went on for both Denver and Charlene, apparently. After he filed for divorce in January 1969, she reverted to using her maiden name. The divorce report—an inherently cold document to begin with—contains a particularly chilling entry. Line #23 asks for the number of children under 18 affected by the decree. The clerk typed, “NONE.”
On March 28, 1969, Denver Hargis and Betty Crotts were married.
Denver and Betty moved to Florida, where he managed a number of title insurance companies before retiring in 1985. He died just four years later, at the age of 67, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His grave is not far from those of his four children—who’d tragically been there for nearly 24 years by the time he joined them in 1989.
Nothing seems to have been written about Charlene in the years following her parole. If there were anymore suicide attempts, marriages, or anything else of note, it didn’t make the news, evidently.
In fact, I found only one brief thing—a terse obituary in the March 5, 2015 edition of the Kansas City Star:
“Charlene J. Greer, 86, Lee’s Summit, Missouri. Died March 3, 2015.
No service. Cremation. Langsford Funeral Home.“
The tortured woman who couldn’t bear the anniversary of her children’s deaths ended up having to endure nearly 50 more of them.
Sadly, like so many other tragic tales, there isn’t any moral to this story; or any elements of redemption. It was a horrific act that likely could have been prevented, had circumstances been different. We’ll never know what Denver and Charlene Hargis felt, or what series of events prompted them to make the choices they did.
In today’s news cycles, very few things surprise us anymore. But in 1965, in our small hometown of Laurel, Maryland, this must have been truly shocking on every level.
Walking through the expansive Fox Rest Woods neighborhood today, which still looks very much as it always has, it’s easy to imagine the Hargis children there that fateful summer… and to wish they’d had the opportunity to really experience growing up in Laurel. Or anywhere else.
©ASSOCIATED PRESS. COLLECTION OF RICHARD FRIEND
The Hargis’ apartment on the morning of the murders, October 18, 1965.
©ASSOCIATED PRESS. COLLECTION OF RICHARD FRIEND
Denver and Charlene Hargis during his time as a Congressman.
©ASSOCIATED PRESS. COLLECTION OF RICHARD FRIEND
Laurel News Leader, October 21, 1965.
©ASSOCIATED PRESS. COLLECTION OF RICHARD FRIEND
The Washington Post, September 22, 1966.
The divorce report of Denver and Charlene Hargis.
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
The onetime apartment of the Hargis family (bottom right) as it appears today. PHOTO: RICHARD FRIEND