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67 years later, eyewitness to fatal motorcycle accident comes forward

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, June 16, 2013, at 8:01 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, June 17, 2013, at 4:44 p.m.

John Martens sat, propped in the doorway of a cabin skirting south Wichita’s city limits, watching traffic speed by.

Five others in the harvest crew took an interest in napping. Some penned notes.

So none but Martens – a Canadian truck driver far from home in 1946 – saw the young motorcyclist die.

Because of his bosses, he never had the chance to tell police what he saw.

For years, Martens pondered whether his eyewitness account would have altered the investigation or led to the arrest of the man he thinks is responsible for the fatal crash.

Now, nearly seven decades later, he is contacting local authorities, compelled to share what he saw.

“While I’m still around, I thought I should bring it forward,” said Martens, now age 88 and living in Sanford, Manitoba, a few miles southwest of Winnipeg.

In a letter received by The Eagle earlier this year, Martens wrote:

The motorcycle rider left behind a wife and a small child. They and/or some of his buddies and relatives may still be living. This evidence might bring better understanding of what happened.

I thought I should bring this forward.

“Better late than never.”

“That was really the first fatal accident I witnessed in my life,” he said by phone. “The first. And the last.”

‘I saw it happening slowly’

According to newspaper accounts of the accident, Dale Reece – a 23-year-old painter, husband and father – headed south on Broadway on his motorcycle on June 8, 1946. He was part of a group of about 25 riders traveling to Oklahoma City. The sun was shining that afternoon; Reece had just left work.

Somewhere in the 3000 block, near present-day 31st Street South, Reece stopped along the two-lane highway to chat with a fellow cyclist.

As he resumed his path, accelerating southbound, a Lincoln pulled into his path, according to an account published in the next day’s Wichita Eagle. The driver “believed all of the motorcycles had passed,” the Eagle article said, “and thought the way was clear to make the turn.”

But Reece slammed into the side of the car.

He swung his bike sideways to the left in a flash, skidding at a low angle, in complete control . But he had too much momentum, Martens wrote in his letter to The Eagle .

When his wheels hit the Lincoln, his bike and his body whiplashed forward. His neck broke when his head whiplashed into the open window on the driver’s side of the Lincoln.

As he was lying on the highway, we saw his body dying.

“I saw it happening slowly,” Martens said by phone, recalling the scene.

“I let my dream of owning a motorbike die that day.” He was 22 at the time.

Reece died en route to St. Francis hospital, according to The Eagle’s article in 1946.

Even a helmet would not have saved him.

Fearing a legal tie-up that might delay harvest, Marten said his bosses shushed him and hurried him away.

“They didn’t threaten me, but how could I go against the bosses?”

Martens paused, his voice trailing off.

He sighed.

“I guess I should’ve.”

That day in 1946, the Canadian harvest crew loaded up the combines and headed back north. Kansas wheat was ripe. One Wichita farmer harvested 5 bushels an acre that summer, Martens remembered; another in Goodland yielded 55.

He helped with Kansas harvest only that one year.

Missing details

Basing his view on a few newspaper reports sent to him by the Wichita Public Library, Martens was convinced details were left out of the investigation.

The make and model of the car. Its length. And the multiple starts and stops Martens said its driver made when making the U-turn on South Broadway that day.

Not knowing that the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office handled the case, Martens contacted the Wichita Police Department and spoke with someone on the accident follow-up team earlier this year.

The request was unusual enough, Lt. Joe Schroeder said, that he remembers hearing of Martens’ calls.

But the accident itself isn’t extraordinary, he said.

“What he’s describing – there’s nothing unusual about it. A car made a U-turn and hit a motorcycle,” Schroeder said.

But that doesn’t mean authorities won’t tackle Martens’ request. It’s just a matter of when.

“The backlog is astronomical,” Schroeder said. “You’d think it would be easy to go in and plug in ‘1946,’ but we don’t have those (files on hand). They are stored in archives” in Hutchinson’s salt mines (used by multiple agencies and governments to preserve documents and artifacts).

So are records from the sheriff’s office.

“We probably couldn’t even work it as a cold case,” Lt. David Mattingly, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said after hearing details of the accident.

He said he’s never dealt with a case so old.

“I asked people around here, and they said they didn’t know what they do” with the information, Mattingly said.

“It would be a new one on us. We’d just have to work through it.”

Martens has yet to call.

‘Better late than never’

Despite multiple requests for information from local authorities and the Wichita Public Library, Martens said he never learned the driver’s fate.

Newspaper reports and court records show authorities arrested the driver of the Lincoln – 42-year-old P.M. Corridon, an out-of-state salesman – on suspicion of negligent homicide two days after the crash. He was accused of not signaling properly before he pulled across the highway and was convicted on July 3 in Wichita municipal court.

A judge ordered Corridon to pay court costs, plus a $100 fine – equal to around $1,200 in today’s dollars, factoring for inflation.

Four months later, a Sedgwick County District Court jury found Corridon not guilty on appeal, according to court documents.

Reece, a Goodland native who lived in Wichita, left behind a young wife, Erma Grace (VanBuren) Reece, and a 4-year-old son, Larry Eugene, newspaper reports show. His parents, Kenneth and Flossie Reece, as well as two brothers and two sisters, also survived him.

He was buried in Wichita Park Cemetery, near 21st and Hillside. A simple granite marker is on his grave. Reece smiles from a weathered black-and-white photograph sealed in its center. He is perched on a motorbike.

Martens recognizes his account likely won’t change the outcome of the investigation. The driver is long dead. The families have moved on.

But Reece’s death never faded for the man from Manitoba.

“Water under the bridge,” Martens said.

Better late than never.

“I think even the information is useful to the police department.”

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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