Tucson’s strangest kidnapping case involved a little girl, a subterranean cage and shadowy perpetrators who have remained unidentified for over seventy years.
In 1934, Tucson was a small, semi-rural community of ranchers and farmers where the rules of the Wild West still played out on a daily basis. The city had obtained some notoriety in January of that year when infamous outlaw John Dillinger had been captured by the Tucson Police outside a downtown hotel. It was probably the first time that many Americans had even heard of Tucson, which Dillinger himself had referred to as a “hick town.” But the kidnapping case of six-year old June Robles was about to change that forever.
Robles was abducted on April 25th outside the Roskruge Elementary School, an imposing building that still stands across the street from the sprawling Tucson High School campus and about half of mile from the University of Arizona. June was the daughter of local business owner Fernando Robles and the granddaughter of Bernabe Robles, one of Tucson’s wealthiest residents. Fernando owned a local electric power company. Bernabe, who had immigrated from Mexico as a child, had amassed a small fortune from ranching and real estate. It is unknown what father and son's combined wealth was worth, but their fortune was the obvious motivation for the abduction of the child.
There was only one eyewitness to June’s kidnapping. The mother of a classmate had seen June arguing with a dirty man wearing sunglasses who was seated inside a small car outside the school. Assuming that this was a simple family squabble, the mother did nothing to intervene and simply drove away. By 5:00 p.m., Fernando had received a note delivered by a young boy to the Robles Electric Company. The child who delivered the note claimed that he had been paid a quarter by a man standing in the parking lot across the road. Printed in neat, block-like lettering, the note claimed that June was alive and well and would be returned upon receipt of $15,000 in cash. As was to be expected, the kidnappers warned against any police involvement. The note was signed simply "Z."
Although it seemed that Fernando was willing to bypass the police and deliver the money as instructed, somehow the local authorities found out about the plot and had detectives involved by that evening. News of the crime spread very quickly through the dusty desert town. The media frenzy that followed was comparable to other contemporary kidnappings, such as the abduction-murder cases of the Lindbergh baby two years earlier and that of young Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb the previous decade. Only a year after June’s disappearance, national attention would focus on another abducted child from a rich family – George Weyerhaeuser. Like June, six-year old Weyerhaeuser was also snatched up after leaving school. In all these cases, the media stories were often more sensationalistic than accurate and often did more harm than good.
As a result of the media attention, by April 26th the Pima County Sheriff's Department had assembled over four-hundred men for house to house searches. Unfortunately, the untrained and over-zealous volunteers were prone to extreme behaviors, including kicking in doors and ransacking homes with little or no cause. Amidst all this chaos, a second ransom note appeared, this time delivered to the home of June’s grandfather. It read:
“Mr. Robles. Child safe. We are willing to reduce the ransom to $10,000 if you act quickly. Child will be returned safely as per your instructions. Obey instructions. Signed Z.”
The law enforcement investigation was further hampered by rumors and outright hoaxes that often led officers off on strange tangents. Searches were made of abandoned mine shafts and even Colossal Cave, a tourist attraction to the east of Tucson that had been a suspected hideout for outlaws during the previous century. Somewhere along the line, speculation even began that the kidnapping had been orchestrated by John Dillinger as revenge upon the Tucson Police Department. (Dillinger had escaped police custody shortly after his Tucson capture in January and was at large during June’s abduction.)
Despite it all, Fernando Robles made numerous unsuccessful attempts to contact and bargain with the kidnappers. At one point, he drove up and down a secluded road in the middle of the night looking for a white string that was supposed to indicate the ransom drop area. But no string was ever found and it was assumed that the hysteria surrounding the case may have made the kidnappers reluctant to follow through on their own plan. This may have also have accounted for the sudden and dramatic reduction in the ransom demand. Were the kidnappers afraid of the mob mentality that was sudden permeating every level of the community?
As the days drew on, the Robles family became more desperate to recover the girl. In early May, Bernabe made a secret trip across the border into Mexico to consult with a well-known psychic. Bernade met in private for two hours with Manuel Gamboa, better known as “the seer of Pitiquito.” But whatever information the medium gave Bernade, it did not seem to help with the recovery of his young granddaughter.
On May 7th, a third ransom note was delivered, this time audaciously stuffed under the door of the Pima County Attorney's office. The note seemed to betray the frayed nerves of the kidnappers.
“Now if you play dirty, we will play dirty,” it read. “Your child is OK... Keep spies away. Why don’t you do as told?... If you had listened to us, your child would be with you.”
Another week passed with no further contact from the kidnappers and no usable leads as to June's location. It had been almost three weeks since the abduction in front of Roskruge Elementary. Everyone, including the family members, began to assume the worse. June's mother was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and the authorities were so desperate for clues that they even extended the manhunt across the border into Mexico and employed aircraft to patrol the huge spans of open desert.
Then, on May 14, a postcard with a Chicago postmark was delivered to the office of Arizona governor B.B. Moeur. The postcard described a desert area outside of Tucson where June was located. The governor immediately dispatched Highway Patrol officers to meet with Tucson Police and family members at the intersection of Broadway Boulevard and Wilmot Road. Today, this area is highly developed, covered with residential neighborhoods, shops, restaurants, car dealerships and one of city's busiest shopping malls. In 1934, however, Broadway at Wilmot was on the outskirts of town in primarily open desert. The only nearby structure was an orphanage run by Catholic nuns over a mile from the site. The search party scoured the area for two hours until they finally discovered a strange earthen mound covered with cactus arranged in the shape of a cross. Everyone must have assumed that this was June’s grave.
Instead, it turned out to be her prison. The girl was confined to a subterranean iron box with air holes punched in its lid and disguised with native vegetation. She had been chained to the box’s interior by the ankle and provided with tin cans for water and a makeshift toilet. Although filthy and covered in parasites, June was in remarkably good health for being so confined for nineteen days. She told her rescuers that the kidnappers had only visited her four times since snatching her.
Although the child was successfully recovered, the case was far from over. Greater attention was now given to identifying the mysterious "Z" and any co-conspirators. And what was the Chicago connection? Had the kidnappers fled to Illinois and then, in a dubious act of mercy, sent the postcard about June's location to Governor Moeur?
Several arrests were made in connection with the case, although none of them resulted in a prosecution. On May 23, the following Utah newspaper article entitled OFFICERS HOLD FORMER INMATE IN KIDNAP CASE appeared. It read in part:
"Under surveillance for several days before his arrest through information furnished by June Robles, a former convict with a long prison record was questioned by authorities here today concerning the kidnapping of the six-year-old girl.
"The man, Joe Newton, had made no statement regarding the kidnapping or concerning the robbery of a Medford, Okla., bank, a charge on which he was arrested here last night at the request of Oklahoma authorities..."
The arrest of a Tucson local occurred around the same time. Oscar “Buster” Robson, a local dance hall operators, was locked up after federal authorities determined that his handwriting matched the distinctive block lettering on the ransom notes. The case fell apart, however, and Robson was eventually released.
By 1935, a Grand Jury had been convened to review the case. By now, speculation on how such a young child could have survived in an underground box for almost three weeks appeared to color the Grand Jury's conclusions. Its final report called the case an "alleged kidnapping," indicating that the jury members may have believed the June's disappearance was a hoax, possibly perpetrated by her own family. No motive for why the Robles family would do such a thing was ever publicly postulated. After all, they were already very wealthy and influential; and the emotional toll taken on them by the abduction was well-documented. As of today, who actually masterminded the kidnapping of June Robles remains a mystery. If June is still alive, she'd be in her mid-70s. She apparently has lived her entire life in the city without ever commenting publicly on the case; and for the most part, the events of 1934 are largely forgotten by the people of Tucson.
As some final weird twists to this story, June was offered several contracts to appear in vaudeville shows and movies where her nineteen-day ordeal in the desert would be recreated for the curious American public. It's unclear if any of these forays into show business ever panned out, but there is a modern play called JUNE IN A BOX about the case which has performed around the country during the past few years.