St. Johns has a secret

Rex Lee Sr.’s violent death split a tiny Arizona town in two. Eighty-eight years later, the town is still healing

“The versions of what happened on that ill-fated hunting trip were as numerous as those who chose to talk about it.” — A History of the St. Johns Arizona Stake 

Rex Lee Jr. — the acclaimed U.S. solicitor general and founding dean of Brigham Young University’s law school — had a personal interest in a certain unsolved mystery. It involved his father’s death, and even near the end of his life, he wanted that history told.

“There’s a real story there,” Lee Jr. told his biographer on one occasion. “You ought to write a book on it someday.”

The year was 1934, and Rex Lee Sr. went hunting. The trip to northern Arizona’s Kaibab Mountains was something of an annual ritual for the Whitings, the family into which Lee married two years prior in October 1932.

It was Armistice Day, just 16 years after German forces laid down their guns to end World War I. But on this holiday, the Whiting men took up arms of their own and traveled 300 miles north from St. Johns, Arizona, the town where they lived, to hunt deer.  

Lee brought along a friend, John Chiono. Both men had moved to St. Johns after marrying into two of the town’s most prominent families: the Whitings and the Pattersons. 

On Sunday morning, when it came time for the party to divide into pairs, the Whitings split up among themselves, and Lee and Chiono left together. Some recalled them arguing the night before at camp, but Chiono later denied it. Others said there was tension between the two stemming back from before the trip. But it was Lee who invited Chiono, and it was Lee who ventured off with him into Arizona’s ponderosa pines.

By Chiono’s account, the two walked up a little ridge and over a bluff, where the trail forked. Chiono went to the right and Lee to the left. What happened next remains a mystery. 

But Rex Lee Sr. — whose descendants are some of Utah’s leading political figures — never lived to tell his side of the story. Lee went missing, and a search party eventually found his body lying on a sheet of limestone, a bullet through his head. 

In St. Johns, this story has been told and retold so many times that it’s hard to know what’s embellishment and what’s fact. Rumors of marital infidelity and business feuds animate the conflicting accounts. I traveled to St. Johns to hear from the townsfolk firsthand, and I consulted history books, old newspaper clippings and court documents to try and uncover the real story — the story Rex Lee Jr. wanted told.

On one side of the feud, I found, Chiono is viewed as a saint; on the other, a murderer. And in the 88 years since Lee died, what remains is a town that’s never fully healed, but hasn’t given up trying.

St. Johns Cemetery in Arizona.
The entrance to the St. Johns Cemetery in St. Johns, Ariz., on March 20, 2022. | Samuel Benson, Deseret News

St. Johns, population 3,500, is located along a barren stretch between Phoenix and Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s the biggest small town in America, one resident told me —because of its outsized political influence.

The town’s cemetery is situated atop a plateau with a near-unobstructed panorama view of the area: To the south are houses and shops; to the north is an endless desert. The cemetery is small — no bigger than two football fields — but my local guide finds plenty to talk about.

St. Johns’ most notable names are buried here, he says. Morris Udall, the 1976 presidential candidate and longtime member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was laid to rest on the cemetery’s west end. At his side lies his brother, Stewart, a fellow congressman and interior secretary. Their father, Levi S. Udall, the chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, rests close by. Levi’s brother-in-law, Rex E. Lee Sr., is interred here, too, ever since that fateful hunting trip in 1934.

But his only child, Rex E. Lee Jr. — born three months after his father’s death, and arguably St. Johns’ most famous son — is absent. After an illustrious career as U.S. solicitor general and president of BYU, Rex Jr. was buried in Provo, Utah. Two of Rex Jr.’s sons — Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Utah Supreme Court Justice Thomas Rex Lee — now carry on the family name some 500 miles north of where their grandfather rests.

Cristian Patterson — a resident of St. Johns who offered to show me around — takes a deep breath. “I just don’t understand why anyone would say it was anything other than an accident,” he laments. We turn a corner and the words on a charcoal-colored headstone come into view: CHIONO, a bouquet of fresh flowers resting nearby.

John Chiono grave
The graves of John A. Chiono and Fay P. Chiono in the St. Johns Cemetery in St. Johns, Ariz., on March 20, 2022. | Samuel Benson, Deseret News

Through marriage, Patterson is the nephew of the man who killed Rex Lee Sr. His mother is the last living relative who knew him personally, and she — like many of Chiono’s relatives — believes he’s innocent. But plenty of people disagree, including some of the Lees.

“Our family has never believed it was a hunting accident,” Sen. Mike Lee said in an interview earlier this year with the Deseret News. 

In St. Johns, the story stays in the past — half-confronted and largely unhealed. Yet there are whispers, like there are in so many small towns. To some it was a tragic accident, but to others, a cold-blooded murder.

The story is complicated enough — and emotional enough — that the two sides may never form a consensus. But a common narrative may not be what’s most important for the healing process to take place, says Justin Collings, a law professor at BYU who has studied conflict and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa and post-Holocaust Germany. 

“Finding a common narrative is really challenging,” Collings told me. “The best you can hope for is people feeling that they have been heard.”

Saint Johns High School in Arizona
The old St. Johns High School building, which was used until 1981, is seen on March 19, 2022, in St. Johns, Ariz. | Samuel Benson, Deseret News

It took two days for Chiono to confess to killing Lee.

After a bullet struck Lee’s head, Chiono made his way back to camp and told no one about what happened. When people asked for Lee’s whereabouts, Chiono said they split up. The next morning, a group of hunters went out to search for Lee, and Chiono joined them.

Word spread and the search party’s numbers ballooned in size, until nearly 100 hunters and residents from across the area joined. On the second day of searching, when they neared the place of Lee’s corpse, Chiono was the one to spot him. “My God, I’ve found Rex,” Chiono yelled, dropping to the ground. “He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead.”

A handful of the men examined the body. Lee lay on his back, a pool of dried blood near his head. His rifle — fully loaded — lay at his side. The bullet struck the front of Lee’s hat, just above the forehead, and passed through his brain. Eight men signed an informal inquest, declaring the death as “instantaneous” and “accidental by an unknown party.”

Chiono, looking on, kept quiet.

Lee’s body was hefted onto a makeshift stretcher, carried off the mountain and transported back to St. Johns. That night, back in town, Chiono confessed to Lee’s brother-in-law, Lynn Whiting.

“I can’t go on,” Whiting recalled Chiono saying. “You know I killed him.”

“Our family has never believed it was a hunting accident.” — Sen. Mike Lee

Chiono claimed he saw a deer, shot his rifle, and ran in the general direction of his bullet. When he discovered Lee’s lifeless body, Chiono said he went into a fit. “I guess I went crazy,” Chiono later told a journalist. “I wandered around not knowing what to do.” 

By Chiono’s account, the shock and horror prevented him from telling anyone. In court, he said he wanted to confess that first night but couldn’t bring himself to do it. This was only his third time hunting, he would later claim.

But Lynn Whiting recalled another detail that complicated Chiono’s testimony. Shortly after Lee died and Chiono was returning to camp, he first ran into Whiting. The two had an impromptu target practice, shooting at the knots on a tree.

“There was a dead limb sticking out of the tree,” Whiting testified, “and John said, ‘Watch me cut that limb off.’”

Then Chiono, the self-described inexperienced hunter, lifted his rifle and blasted the limb to smithereens. 

A flag flies at half-staff outside of the American Legion Post 31 in St. Johns, Ariz., on March 19, 2022. | Samuel Benson, Deseret News

In the days and weeks following Lee’s funeral, Chiono affirmed — then denied — he was the killer. The day after the funeral, Chiono went back to the site of Lee’s death. In tow were Joy Patterson (Chiono’s father-in-law) and one of Lee’s brothers, among others. There, Chiono confessed to accidentally shooting Lee. 

But Lee’s family sat Chiono down on three other occasions to hear his story. The first two times Chiono walked back his previous statements, saying he wasn’t sure it was his bullet that struck Lee. The third time, he confessed, though he maintained it was an accident.

Seven months passed before Chiono was arrested and charged with murder. The complaint was sworn by Lee’s brother, David. The Lees had been investigating on their own, aided by some experienced lawyers who married into the family — a superior court judge and two county attorneys.

The case against Chiono was three-pronged: Chiono took several days to admit he was the killer; Chiono flip-flopped between denial and confession; and Chiono was closer to Lee than Chiono originally claimed when he shot him.

If news of Lee’s death fractured the town, Chiono’s trial snapped it in two.

Newspapers from across the state covered the trial closely, which was held during the first weeks of October 1935 in Flagstaff, Coconino County, where the death occurred. A local paper called it “one of the most sensational murder cases” in many years. Another underscored the “‘feud’ between two family factions.” Speculation about a possible motive drew attention to the town rivalry between the Pattersons and the Whitings.

Angered by the optics of a trial nearly a year after Chiono confessed, the Pattersons claimed it was all an effort to take down their business. It was early in the Great Depression, but Patterson Motor Co. was prospering, thanks in part to Chiono, who was the company’s general manager. “Our business picked up as soon as he came in with me,” Chiono’s father-in-law (and boss) testified in court. But the main competitor — right across the street — was the Whiting Ford dealership, headed by Lee’s in-laws. Lee, an attorney, worked out of an office in the Whiting’s building.

Joy Patterson, Chiono’s father-in-law, testified in court that E.I. Whiting, Lee’s father-in-law, was a “cold” man who “would turn anything to his advantage.” In court, Patterson turned the accusations around on his rival: “He is responsible for this whole affair, at the bottom of this mess.”

If news of Lee’s death fractured the town, Chiono’s trial snapped it in two.

Chiono’s lawyer, too, chided the Whitings for pursuing a “banquet of blood.” The prosecuting attorney snapped back: “Why would E.I. Whiting, Levi Udall and Dave Lee come in here and perjure their souls to put a noose around a man’s neck?”

“The courtroom was packed throughout the day,” one local newspaper reported.

The defense attorney sought to convince the jury of Chiono’s uprightness, and he brought in a who’s who of witnesses from Chiono’s life to do the persuading, including Chiono’s former university president and football coach. Chiono was a two-sport star at Flagstaff State College, now Northern Arizona University.

The strategy worked. When the prosecution brought additional evidence or presented some damning testimony, the defense shot it down with testimony of Chiono’s reputation, claiming there was no apparent reason for Chiono to intentionally commit such a heinous act.

Nearing the end of the trial, Lee’s attorney made an impassioned plea “that the son of Lee ... might grow up to have respect for the law,” a newspaper account said. But above all else he wanted the boy to know “that John Chiono was punished for what he had done.”

The defense attorney rebutted: “In order to offer up (Chiono), the state must prove two things. First, that Chiono’s bullet killed Rex Lee, and second, a motive.”

The prosecution failed to present a convincing case for either. Four hours after being released to deliberate, the jury returned with its verdict: involuntary manslaughter, effectively acquitting Chiono of intentional wrongdoing. According to newspaper reports, when the judge read the verdict, Chiono’s brother, who was present in the courtroom, collapsed to the floor. John Chiono rushed to his aid, then he, too, fainted.

A physician carried them both out of the courtroom.

Saint Johns city hall
St. Johns City Hall in St. Johns, Ariz., on March 20, 2022. | Samuel Benson, Deseret News

When I first called Mayor Spence Udall of St. Johns, I asked him what he knew about Rex Lee Sr. “We don’t talk about Uncle Rex,” he told me. When I asked what that meant, the mayor paused. “I’ll tell you,” he said, but then asked me not to write about it. 

A month later, the mayor warmed to the idea of me writing about Uncle Rex, and the two of us walked through St. Johns City Hall together. It was in this very building, the mayor said, where he first heard about the incident. Back then, the building was the old Patterson Motors Co., where Chiono was once manager. 

Chiono’s brother-in-law, Charlie, also worked there; he was a gentle and patient man, Udall said. But once — and only once — Udall saw Charlie snap. It was while Udall hung out with one of Charlie’s sons, both elementary school-age. Udall saw a black-and-white portrait framed on the wall inside the Patterson Motor Co., and he asked his friend who it was.

Charlie, in the adjacent room, heard the boys talking, and walked out, fuming. “That’s John Chiono, and it was a damn accident,” Charlie said, then turned and left. Udall was dumbstruck. He had no idea what Charlie was referring to. But the boys had enough sense not to ask anything else.

As Udall grew, he heard whisperings about a hunting trip and a family rivalry and “a murder.” It became clear two of the town’s most prominent families were somehow involved. Udall started investigating on his own — making trips out to the town cemetery, even trekking up to Flagstaff to dig up the old records from Chiono’s court case.

But so much remains unknown, he concluded.

Eventually, as we talked, he invited his sister to come to City Hall. Cameron Udall lives right up the road, and she’s a walking encyclopedia of St. Johns history, having written a book on the subject. Sitting upright in a chair, she responded to my questions with rapid-fire responses. But when I asked how long it took the town to heal after Lee’s death and the subsequent trial, she glanced at her brother, then leaned back.

“I don’t know it really has,” she said.

Despite occurring nearly 90 years ago, Rex Lee Sr.’s death seems more present. The little towns that dot rural Arizona are still populated with many of the families that first settled them. St. Johns is no different: the Udalls, the Whitings, the Lees and the Pattersons. That makes history feel less distant, Betsy Gaines Quammen, a historian of the western United States, told me.

“St. Johns is not the end of the world, but you can sure as hell see it from there.” — Mo Udall

“Its like these little communities live with ghosts,” Quammen said. “And if a little community has a tragedy like this, they still remember it. These are the stories that make up their town.”

Such stories can be paralyzing, but they can also catapult reconciliation — what social psychologists call “community resilience.” According to Jack Saul’s book, “Collective Trauma, Collective Healing,” community resilience is a joint endeavor, relying on a group’s communal ability to heal.

And St. Johns has its own history of resilience to draw from. When Latter-day Saint pioneers first arrived in the 1870s, they were sold land for which other settlers, many of them Mexican Catholics, thought they already had “squatters’ rights.”

“The Mexicans resented us and we did not blame them very much,” wrote David King Udall, the area’s first bishop. “Their ‘squatters’ rights’ had not been properly respected by those who sold the land to our people.”

Despite the Saints’ efforts to quell the locals’ uneasiness, the contempt turned from bad to worse. Locals soon started a newspaper, The Apache Chief, with the apparent intent of stirring up animosity. On May 30, 1884, The Chief published a particularly biting editorial.

“How did Missouri and Illinois get rid of the Mormons? By the use of the shotgun and rope,” it read. “Desperate diseases need desperate remedies. The Mormon disease is a desperate one and the rope and the shotgun are the only cure.”

But the story didn’t end with violence. Conflicts continued, but over time a relationship of cooperation grew. The sectarian animosity dissipated.

The Udall family poses for a portrait in Greer, Ariz., in 1926. Included are two brothers-in-law of Rex Lee Sr.: Jesse, back row, second from right, and Levi, front row, third from left. | “Arizona Pioneer Mormon: David King Udall, His Story and His Family”

The years after Chiono’s trial were disastrous for St. Johns. The Depression hit the town hard, and old photos show townsfolk lining up to receive surplus commodities as part of the New Deal program in 1940. In 1942, the Whiting family — just years removed from the tragic loss of their son-in-law — was dealt another blow. A butane tank in their garage erupted, causing an explosion so forceful it shattered windows five blocks away. The blast killed two people and leveled the Whitings’ car dealership, gas station and grocery store.

A year after the trial, Chiono was pardoned by the governor. But unanswered questions from the trial lingered in the town. Lee’s corpse was found with a broken shoulder. How did the injury happen?

Other salacious rumors spread. Some said Lee stumbled upon Chiono having an affair, but I found no evidence to corroborate these claims. An Arizona historian, Janne Eppinga, came to St. Johns in the ’90s to write about the hunting trip, the townsfolk say, and some tell me she was the one to uncover those affair rumors about Chiono.

Eppinga, however, died in 2019. And, despite many attempts, I was unable to contact relatives or even locate anything she wrote about the Lee-Chiono incident. 

The Pattersons with whom I spoke claim Chiono was an honorable man. He managed the Patterson family business to financial prosperity and was a caring uncle (and something of a surrogate father) to his wife’s 10 younger siblings. The youngest of those Patterson children, Rob Roy, died in 2005; his wife, Diane, is likely the last living relative who knew Chiono. Chiono’s only child, Sandra, died in 2004.

Diane still lives in St. Johns, and when I visited with her, she spoke about Chiono with reverence. “He was so nice,” she said. When Diane first came to town while she was dating Rob Roy, it was Chiono who made her feel at home. And when Roy and Diane — two poor college kids in Tucson — decided they were to be married, it was Chiono who drove down and helped pay for the engagement ring.  

“You know we can’t change our past in this little town.” — Mayor Spence Udall

Other stories about Chiono still circulate through Patterson family lore. Once, during the peak of the Depression, he went door to door around town, convincing folks to give up their spare gas rations to help the high school basketball team drive to road games. 

But as his daughter, Sandra, neared her 18th birthday, Chiono began to act peculiar, Diane recalled. Perhaps his health turned south or an augmented sense of guilt ate away at his psyche. He became more irritable and more insular; when his wife, Fay, would cook his favorite Italian dishes, he wouldn’t eat. He lost weight and his physical appearance began to change.

Sometime near Sandra’s high school graduation, John went missing. A search party looked through the night, to no avail. The next morning, a group went out to the Patterson family farm. Chiono’s body was found in the barn, lifeless, on a bale of hay. A rifle was on the ground. The death certificate, dated May 3, 1952, listed the cause of death as “gun shot wound, self inflicted.” He left no note.

Diane, like others in the Patterson family, presume Chiono suffered some illness — “a brain tumor,” they say — that caused him to die by suicide. 

But there is another side to the story, two members of the Lee family separately told the Deseret News. When Rex Jr. was 17, Chiono saw him in town and asked about his future plans. “I’m going to go to law school,” Rex Jr. said.

Chiono, who’d been pardoned of manslaughter after killing Lee’s father, tensed. “Your father would be proud,” he said. That night, Chiono went to the barn and took his life.

Rex E. Lee Sr. grave
Rex E. Lee Sr.’s grave at the St. Johns Cemetery in St. Johns, Ariz., on March 20, 2022. | Samuel Benson, Deseret News

Rex Lee Jr. never knew his father. He was born 312 months after his dad was killed. When his mother, Mabel, remarried, she took on the surname “Shumway,” though her son always bore her first husband’s name.

In the Shuwmay home, there were few conversations about Rex Lee Sr., and even fewer about what caused his death. The murder trial, long after splitting the town in two, was eventually buried in the past. Mabel chose only to speak of her first husband’s death as a hunting accident, and leave it at that. “My dad was raised entirely without knowledge of what had happened to his biological father,” Sen. Mike Lee said. 

But after Chiono’s own death the town began to whisper again. Was it an admission of guilt? Even some Pattersons said as much. One day, Rex Jr. overheard his parents talking. “I knew that guy couldn’t live with himself,” they said of Chiono. “I knew this would come out eventually.” And that’s when Rex Jr.’s mother told him all she knew about the circumstances of his father’s death.

But the lingering question for those who believed Lee was murdered was Chiono’s motive. Do the rumors — that he had an affair, and Lee knew about it — have any substance? Could it really be an outgrowth of a business dispute? Were there hard feelings between the two? Was it just a tragic accident?

Dozens of newspaper stories documenting the trial provide few concrete answers. Neither do the memories of the townspeople. Even the court documents — stashed in the archives in the Coconino County Courthouse in Flagstaff — are now largely blotted or blurred, hardly legible. But as the prospect of any definite answer fades with the passing years, the possibility of reconciliation lies with the town and among the families.

Churches in Saint Johns, Arizona
At left, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints meetinghouse; right, the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, both in St. Johns, Ariz., on March 20, 2022. | Samuel Benson, Deseret News

On Sundays, St. Johns goes to church. Nearly a century-and-a-half has passed since Latter-day Saints were threatened with rifle and rope. Tensions have long since cooled. And today, visitors to St. Johns are greeted by a large Latter-day Saint chapel on the west end of Cleveland Street, the town’s main thoroughfare; on the east end stands a Catholic parish founded in 1880 and named for St. John the Baptist.

In town, there is no longer a stake academy and a separate public school; all children, regardless of religion, learn together. Latter-day Saints and Catholics sit on the City Council and community events. And aside from the occasional small-town squabble, there’s peace and normalcy. They can talk about the town’s origins without rancor.

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On a recent Sunday, the theme in both churches happened to be forgiveness. Father Joe read from John 4, admonishing his parishioners to forgive others as Christ forgave the woman at the well. At the stake center, a local patriarch read from Matthew 6, quoting Christ’s injunction to forgive men their trespasses.

Shotguns and ropes were nowhere to be found.

A few days later, Mayor Spence Udall sent me a text message. He attached a few photos from Rex Lee Jr.’s high school yearbook. “You know we can’t change our past in this little town,” he wrote. “All we got is what’s ahead of us.”

Matthew Brown contributed reporting.

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