In Cold Storage

James W. Hewitt on McCook Nebraska’s tragic Nokes-Hoyt murder case.

In Cold Storage

In early October 1973, parts of dismembered bodies floated to the surface of Harry Strunk Lake near Cambridge, Nebraska, a shocking discovery that sent area residents into a tizzy. Considering the limitations of forensic science at the time, it might have been difficult for law enforcement to identify the bodies, except the killer made the mistake of leaving rings on the fingers of the (female) hands that were discovered. So after authorities positively identified the body parts of Wilma and Edwin Hoyt, law enforcement focused their attention on Harold and Ena Nokes, as Harold had been in conflict with Edwin and had also had an affair with the Hoyt’s daughter, Kay. Moreover, Harold had admitted the affair to his wife, which in turn led to the couple engaging in threesomes with Kay, a sexual relationship that continued until Kay broke things off.

Ultimately, Harold Nokes confessed and pleaded guilty to murdering Kay’s parents, and Ena went to prison as well, after pleading guilty to the charge of wrongful disposal of a dead body. But the gruesome, sordid affair has long defied explanation, which prompted James W. Hewitt, author of “Slipping Backward: A History of the Nebraska Supreme Court,” to attempt to unearth the truth about exactly what happened. Hewitt’s new book “In Cold Storage: Sex and Murder on the Plains” (University of Nebraska Press) sheds new light on this remarkable crime story—a story which might have come to an end sooner had Harold and Ena succeeded in committing suicide in their respective jail cells, as was their plan.

Failure recently touched base with Hewitt to gain further insight into the case, to learn how he was able to secure an interview with Harold Nokes, and to find out how Harold and Ena are faring these days, now that they are both in their mid-eighties.

What prompted you to revisit this notorious case?
I had been aware of the case in 1973, but only from what had appeared in the newspapers. In 2000 I was chair of the Nebraska State Bar Association Centennial Committee, and wanted to write about some of the famous cases that had occurred during the past hundred years. The Nokes case came to mind, and I thought it would be interesting to see if I could get the court file. Then I discovered it was sealed. So I started digging.

For those who are unfamiliar with the case, perhaps you can provide a brief overview of what happened that fateful night in September 1973, along with where the bodies were discovered?
Harold Nokes lured Edwin and Wilma Hoyt to the Nokes’ home in McCook, Nebraska, on the pretense that they were going to talk to the Hoyt’s daughter, Kay, and put to rest the bad feelings that the Hoyt’s had concerning how Harold had treated their daughter. Harold shot Edwin and Wilma with a .22-caliber Ruger pistol, dismembered their bodies, wrapped them in freezer paper, and once frozen, took them to Harry Strunk Lake, where he threw the body parts in the water. Some of the parts surfaced ten days later, and authorities were able to identify Wilma’s body because of the rings on her fingers.

What role do you think Kay played in her parents being murdered?
I think Kay played a major role, but I doubt she was present when the killings took place. I believe she knew that there was going to be an effort by the Nokeses to talk to her parents. That is why she engaged a babysitter but stayed at home [that night] waiting for a phone call that never came. But perhaps the Hoyt’s were lured to McCook by a call from Kay, saying they wanted to have a meeting. Why would the Hoyt’s agree to ride to McCook with the Nokeses, ostensibly to talk to Kay, without first calling Kay to see if she was home and willing to meet?

Why do you believe Harold’s confession wasn’t the truth?
I think that much of the confession was true, but it was never explained why he took a gun to visit the Hoyt’s, if in fact he did, and the whole story about the visit to the Hoyt home, getting them to come to McCook, and then the shooting, does not ring true. Harold was no mental giant, and he left many holes that needed explaining if he had not pleaded guilty.

If the Nokeses hadn’t been overheard making a comment about Wilma’s rings during the period when their home was bugged, would murder charges have been filed? Without that indicator, it seems as if Harold and Ena might have gotten away with the crime.
I do not think the comment about removing the rings was crucial to the murder charges. Harold had already admitted that he and Ena and Kay had been involved in a sexual ménage, and he admitted in his confession that he had been in an argument with Edwin.

Harold and Ena both had large quantities of codeine-laced pills on them when they were arrested, which seems incriminating. What role did their suicide plan play in how events unfolded?
The fact that the Nokeses were overheard talking about suicide was crucial to the confession, as Lannie Roblee, the Frontier County sheriff, knew that they had contemplated suicide, and knew that Harold did not know Ena’s pills had been confiscated [when she arrived at the jail in North Platte, a different facility from the one where her husband was held]. Roblee was able to stimulate Harold’s confession by telling him that [the couple’s attorney] had forgotten to tell Harold that Ena’s back hurt, which was the signal to commit suicide.

But why Harold felt a confession was necessary is troubling. If he believed Ena was dead and could not incriminate him, why not pin the murders on her? And why, after he confessed orally, he refused to give a written confession until after he had negotiated a light charge for her, is also troubling. Did he think she might tell the real story to authorities? He had already confessed, so there would be no problem of a wife testifying against her husband. And why did the prosecutors think it was necessary to be gracious to Ena, since Harold had already put his neck in a noose [so to speak]?

Why do you think Harold agreed to do an interview with you? What did you learn?
I had written Harold several times asking for an interview, and he never replied.  But when I interviewed Jim Kelley, who represented Harold in his appeal, Jim told me that the Nokeses daughter, Sharon, was very upset [with his previous lawyer’s bill].

After hearing what Kelley said, I wrote Harold again, saying that I was a past president of the state bar association, and that I understood he had a question about [Dick Hove’s] bill, and I would be glad to talk to him about it. Then I got a handwritten note from Harold agreeing to meet and talk. During our two-hour interview he completely changed his story from the written confession he gave in January 1974, as he denied the ménage and changed his story in many material respects, all of which I set out in the book. I am not sure if either story is truthful, but I am confident that he was not telling the truth when he told me that the ménage never existed.

Where does this case rank in terms of notoriety as compared to other Nebraska murder cases?
The case is still very well known in McCook, and in southwest Nebraska. Harold was not tried and he did not get the death penalty, so the case does not get as much notice in the press as some other cases where the murderers were convicted after a trial and are on death row. But the case is well remembered because of the dismemberment of the bodies, and the surfacing of the body parts.

Where are Harold and Ena today? And how are they faring more than forty years later?
Harold is in the state penitentiary, and his photo can be accessed on the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services Web site. He works with computers, and previously worked in the prison dental lab. His prison records are not discoverable, by statute, so I have no idea if he has been a model prisoner.

Ena lives in Lincoln, and according to Harold, visits him twice a week. She lives in federally subsidized housing just north of the University of Nebraska’s East Campus. I have been told that she often visits her son, Allen, who farms near Minden, Nebraska, and she has been seen accompanying him to church.