Murder at the Butler Pitch and Putt

12:00 a.m. Sunday, June 11, 2017 Lifestyle
The clubhouse at Butler Pitch and Putt has changed very little since the murder there in 1951. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

About 3 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 22, 1951, John Douglas “Doug” Kinser was working in his clubhouse at the Butler Pitch and Putt just east of South Lamar Boulevard when he was confronted with the nose of a gun.

“Five bullets from a small caliber gun pierced his body,” reported the Austin Statesman the next day. “Police said three bullets recovered were .25 caliber.”

A handsome World War II veteran, Kinser, 33, was a popular golfer who also acted at the Austin Civic Theatre, which later evolved into Zach Theatre.

The murderer, Malcolm “Mac” Wallace, 30, a former University of Texas student body president, worked for the government and had ties to a powerful Central Texas political family.

Reconstruction of the crime indicated that the killer had chased the victim around the clubhouse. According to bystanders, Wallace walked away unhurriedly after the shooting.

“Wallace escaped in his station wagon,” writes Ron Humphrey in a short online biography of Kinser. “A customer at the golf course had heard the shooting and managed to make a note of Wallace’s license plate.”

The police apprehended Wallace less than two hours later. A bloodstained shirt and handkerchief were found in his car, according to the Statesman story.

“We don’t have any idea why this thing happened,” the victim’s mother told a reporter. “It always happens to somebody else — not to your family. I can’t realize yet it has actually happened to us.”

Possible reasons for the brazen murder — some of them salacious — eventually surfaced.

Most of the dots have now been connected by Austin history advocate Lori Duran, who is something of a Nancy Drew-type sleuth. Duran was drawn to the story by a series of mysteries and also her affection for local golfing history. She’s also vetted some of the more sensational claims made by writers looking for even darker conspiracies.

It should be made clear right away, however, that witnesses close to the principal characters, Kinser and Wallace, told different versions of the same events and sometimes retracted them.

According to some sources, Kinser and Wallace were both linked romantically with Josefa Johnson, sister of future president and then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Some later versions say that Wallace served as LBJ’s press secretary, but that is contradicted by newspaper articles from the time, which stated he worked as an economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Doug also had an affair with Mac’s estranged wife, Andre,” Duran adds at the clubhouse. “You can still see the trash can that a bullet ricocheted off and a blood-splattered closet door. Doug had tried to get away by going into his back closet, and in doing so, some blood was splattered on this door.”

Built by brothers Doug and Winston Kinser over an abandoned clay quarry that had belonged to the Butler Brick company, the Pitch and Putt has not changed much since it opened Jan. 1, 1950.

Although the trees provide more shade these days, and nearby buildings, including Zach’s Topfer Theatre, are crowding in, the clubhouse, with its painted cinder blocks, concrete floors and steel-frame windows, is a blast from a less complicated past.

But not less complicated in every way. According to Duran, the reputed romantic triangle — or was it a rectangle? — was part of a fast crowd not always visible to workaday Austin in the 1940s and ’50s.

Duran plumbed these social depths in her usual way by digging through the Austin History Center records as well as online newspaper archives, but also by tromping around the murder site and asking questions of Lee Kinser, who represents the multigenerational golfing family that still manages the course on city parkland.

Duran is not, however, the only one who has followed this story.

For instance, respected author Joan Mellen, in her recent book, “Faustian Bargains: Lyndon Johnson and Mac Wallace in the Robber Baron Culture of Texas,” focuses on the murderer’s relationship with LBJ and his myriad secrets, kept over multiple decades. Even more conspiratorial is Barr McClellan’s less respectable “Blood, Money & Power: How LBJ Killed JFK,” which proposes that there might have been some sort of blackmail and cover-up involved in the murder, not romantic rivalry.

What we can readily confirm is that two Johnson attorneys, Edward Clark and John Cofer, acted on Wallace’s behalf after the arrest. After 10 days of testimony in 1952, he was found guilty of murder with malice. Eleven jurors voted for the death penalty, and one argued for life in prison. Judge Charles O. Betts overruled the jury and sentenced Wallace to five years, then suspended the sentence. Wallace went free and later was given a security clearance to work for a defense contractor in Washington, D.C.

Tongues wagged. And they have not stopped wagging.

Josefa Johnson died in 1961. While she rarely comes up in local lore about the Johnson family, and barely rates a mention in some LBJ biographies, she appears to have lived an ambiguous social life, in stark contrast to those of LBJ’s surviving descendants.

Few of the conclusions about romantic or sexual entanglements have anything to do, however, with either the beloved Butler Pitch and Putt or the fact that a murder took place there. The family has not speculated why.

“Even now I’m not able to say for sure what happened,” the victim’s brother Winston told reporter Dianne King Akers in 2000, the year he died. “I have some ideas, but I never have told anybody about them and don’t plan to. What my brother did was strictly his business.”

In addition to the Kinser murder, Duran has done compelling research on the former Austin Country Club on East Riverside Drive, and also on Travis Heights East, the hilly, isolated neighborhood that might have served as a residential zone for that golf course.

She makes one last observation as she points to a name on the clubhouse wall.

“Doug Kinser is up there on the Hole in One Wall,” Duran says. “But he is listed only once, since he didn’t live long enough to have more listings, like some of the others.”

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