Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series on historic local crimes.

As a child, Diane Morton of White Rock feared the man jailed for killing her grandfather would return to kill her and her family.

“I was scared to death as a kid he would get out and come after us,” she said.

Her grandfather, E. Dean Pray, owner of a North Windham garage, was gunned down on Aug. 20, 1940, by Arthur F. Cox of Philadelphia, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious order. Convicted of murder, Cox was committed to Thomaston State Prison on Jan. 13, 1942, to serve a life sentence.

The murder

E. Dean Pray had been working in his garage about 2 p.m. on a Tuesday when three members of the religious order went to his garage. Kenneth Carr, 23, of Cape Elizabeth, and Verle Adams Garfein, 18, of Portland, accompanied Cox to Pray’s garage apparently to play recordings on a phonograph.

Pray and Carr argued and, according to old newspaper accounts, Cox fired four shots from a .22 caliber six-shooter when Pray was driving them out of his garage. A witness said Pray, a deputy sheriff, staggered 100 feet in an attempt to get his gun from his car. He bled to death on the way to the hospital.

Pray’s 13-year old son, Dean Pray, was working in the garage that day as was mechanic Clyde Elder, who drove Pray to the hospital. The younger Pray, Elder, Cox and Carr are dead.

The victim, a veteran of World War I, was widely known in Windham. Dean Pray of Naples said his grandfather started the North Windham fire station and a plaque there bears his name. A funeral with an honor guard at the North Windham Union Church drew 1,000 mourners.

The murder fueled attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses. After the murder, a Kingdom Hall in Portland was raided by authorities, and there were citizen demonstrations.

Brad Poland of Gorham, a church leader known as an “elder,” said Jehovah’s Witnesses are politically neutral and neutrality had fueled resentment nationwide at that time. He said that in 1940 the U.S. Supreme Court made it mandatory for Jehovah’s Witnesses to salute the flag, but the justices later reversed the decision.

“That was the tinderbox that lit this up,” Poland said.

Murder’s effect on family

Except for the Pray family, the murder has been largely forgotten. Pray’s grandson said that everyone in Windham once knew the name and the murder story until about 10 years ago.

The murder was rarely mentioned over the years in the Pray family, but it affected three generations. “My father ran to get (his wife),” said Morton, referring to his mother. “He saw the shooting.”

Morton’s brother, Dean Pray, also said his dad never talked about it. “He was hurt so much he didn’t tell us about it,” he said.

Pray’s widow, Gertrude, never mentioned it, either. “I never remember hearing her talk about it,” Morton said of her grandmother.

David Bushley of Windham, whose wife, Sandy, is a granddaughter of the victim, said the family testified against Cox every time he came up for parole. “To walk in like that and do it to a sheriff,” Bushley said of the murderer.

Bushley said his father-in-law ran the garage as a kid after the murder. “He took over pumping gas, working for his mother,” Bushley said.

“I think it affected him more than people realized,” Bushley said of his father-in-law. “It’s pretty horrendous.”

Morton said the murder caused problems for her dad late in his life, but she declined to say more. She said in those days there wasn’t counseling available. “Everything was just kept in,” Morton said.

She remembered reading the clippings of the murder. Her fears ended when Cox committed suicide in prison, but she thinks there are still traces of fear among the older generation. “I don’t fear them. They still come back,” she said of Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on her door in Gorham.

Pray said the murder robbed him of a grandfather. “It was so brutal.”

Poland said he understood the grief the murder caused the Pray family, but said Jehovah’s Witnesses bring a message of peace to the community.

“We bring a message of good news. You can’t judge an organization by the actions of one man,” he said.

Murder’s effect on Jehovah’s Witnesses

Poland said they go door-to-door in Windham seven days a week and that response is positive. “People appreciate the good news and the Bible has good news,” he said.

He said he goes out personally two or three days a week in Windham. “It never comes up anymore,” he said of the murder.

Carr, who only was held as a material witness following the murder as was Garfein, didn’t go to prison with Cox. Poland said Carr was a lifelong Jehovah’s Witness and worked in the ministry until he died. Poland had many conversations with Carr, and the man only briefly mentioned the shooting incident. “All parties have died,” Poland said.

And Betty Barto of Windham said Jehovah’s Witnesses had smashed the fruit stand of Marie Stevens in North Windham just before Pray was killed. She said Jehovah’s Witnesses were forbidden from coming to Windham after the shooting. But Barto said she didn’t know of any fear of Jehovah’s Witnesses today in Windham.

In 1984, there was a citizen’s request to the Town Council in Windham to hold up construction on a Kingdom Hall in town. At the time, the victim’s son, Dean Pray, said he and Betty Barto were doing everything they could to stop the hall from being built in Windham, according to a July 3, 1984, article in the American Journal.

But Poland said the hall was built in two days in 1985. “It was like an Amish barn raising,” he said.

The family is still uneasy about Jehovah’s Witnesses. Morton, who lived for a while as a child near her grandfather’s Texaco gas station, doesn’t want members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to go to her door, but they did this summer.

Some of those Jehovah’s Witnesses, whom she has talked with in the past, were familiar with the murder story. “Can you please not come back,” she asks them.

The grandson, Dean Pray, said Jehovah’s Witnesses last knocked on his door two years ago. When he told them his name, they recognized it.

“You guys shot my grandfather in 1940,” he told them. “Get out. I’ve got nothing to do with you,” he ordered them.

“I’ll continue to do that the rest of my life,” Pray said.


Facebook comments

filed under: