Cab in the Snow-Filled Ditch: Murder of Leon Groves 1951

Murder Victim

Leon E. Groves
40-year-old Optometrist
Part-time Taxi Driver
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

SE 18th & Scott
Des Moines, Iowa
Polk County
December 22, 1951


By Nancy Bowers
Written January 2012

location of Des Moines, Iowa

location of Des Moines, Iowa

At 1:45 a.m. on Saturday, December 22, 1951 — three days before Christmas — a Ruan cab was discovered in a snow-filled ditch at S. 18th Street and Scott in southeast Des Moines.

Slumped over the seat inside was the body of the driver, 40-year-old Leon E. Groves. He was shot three times and his wallet, containing a weekly $60 paycheck and fares for the night, was stolen.

Groves was a fulltime optician at Hawkeye Optical and drove a cab part-time for extra income.

Clues were slim for Des Moines Police, despite interviews with numerous witnesses and potential suspects by Detective Inspector Jack Brophy and others working the case.

☛ True Confession? ☚

On January 3, 1952, Des Moines Police questioned 27-year-old Lewis Arthur Burkett.

Leon Groves drove a Packard Ruan Cab.

Detective Brophy said Burkett appeared to be “telling the truth” when he confessed to shooting Leon Groves with a foreign-made pearl-handled automatic pistol which he then gave to his mother.

Burkett showed investigators the exact spot where Groves’ cab was found in the snow bank and knew details that only someone present at the shooting would know or that were heard from someone present.

Detective Brophy said Burkett showed investigators how the gun was held and said “that seemed to check with the manner in which Groves was shot.”

☛ Conflicting Accounts ☚

from the Mt. Pleasant News

However, Burkett seemed confused at times; he first said robbery was the motive and then declared the shooting an accident.

Also, Burkett’s mother denied he gave her a gun and a search of her residence did not produce it.

Then Burkett changed his story again, denying he killed Groves and accusing 26-year-old William Tafero Jones of being the trigger man.

Detective Jack Brophy (photo Des Moines Police)

After hearing from friends that Des Moines Police were looking for him, Jones surrendered voluntarily. He said repeatedly that although he was with Burkett shortly before the time of the shooting, he was not present when Groves was killed nor anywhere near the crime scene.

On January 4, 1952, Detective Jack Brophy told the media Burkett could not read or write and was a former patient at the Woodward State Hospital.

Brophy said Burkett’s conflicting stories indicated he was not telling the truth and was not involved.

Burkett and Jones were not charged and Brophy told the press he was “no closer to a solution” of the murder than he had been earlier.

☛ Case Goes Cold ☚

Groves’ employer, Hawkeye Optical, put up a $500 reward that would go to any “secret witness” who came forward with information about the homicide. The reward fund, with input from other sources, eventually reached $2,000.

That money was never collected because no one was ever charged with the homicide and it remains unsolved.

☛ The Life of Leon Groves ☚

Leon E. Groves was born in Ralston, Iowa, in 1911 to Rose and William Groves. He had one sibling, Irvin D. Groves. Before moving to Des Moines in 1937, Groves lived for six years in Fort Dodge. He was a professional optician at Hawkeye Optical in Des Moines and a part-time Ruan cab driver.

His funeral services were held the day after Christmas. Leon Groves was survived by his widow, a son, and a daughter.

Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.



  • ☛ $2,000 in Rewards for Information On Slayer of Leon Groves,” Carroll Daily Times Herald, January 5, 1952.
  • ☛ Des Moines Police Department.
  • ☛ “Police Hold 2 Men in Slaying,” Carroll Daily Times Herald, January 3, 1952.
  • ☛“ Rites Held Today For Leon Groves,” Carroll Daily Times Herald, December 26, 1951.
  • ☛ “Robber Murders Taxi Cab Driver in Des Moines,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, December 22, 1951.
  • ☛ “Services Held for Slain Taxi Drive,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, December 26, 1951.
  • ☛ “Six Unsolved Murders Here,” Des Moines Register, July 11, 1967.
  • ☛ “Taxi Driver Gun Victim,” Mt. Pleasant News, December 22, 1951.
  • ☛ “Two Questioned About Slaying of Taxicab Driver,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, January 4, 1952.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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