A decades-old murder case, kidnapping and grave disturbance remain legally unsolved, and with so many loose ends and key witnesses either dead or seeking to dissociate from it, the answers to what really happened that night seem increasingly unlikely to come.
In some ways, the events of Feb. 6, 1973, are a classic crime tale.
A St. Joseph man named Larry Root snapped after an alcohol or mental health induced episode. After killing a mother and her two daughters, Root kidnaped another man, held a family hostage and, after a bloody fight, allegedly killed himself.
Newspapers headlines at the time called the incident a “night of terror.”
The suicide hampered investigations after that night. Law enforcement didn’t tie up loose ends and left motivation for the crime and alternative theories lurking just under the surface.
For Carla Root, Larry Root’s daughter, her dad was a normal guy that struggled emotionally while having marriage problems. He was separated from this wife and, at the time, staying at the home of his friend, Duane Garlock.
“I remember him as, you know, a good dad for us kids ... my mom was afraid because Dad had made some threats, and she was always afraid he would catch us kids and grab us, because he told her he was going to come and get us,” Root said.
Gary Chilcote, a reporter for the St. Joseph Gazette at the time, said that the event astonished the community.
“Everybody in St. Joseph was shocked by the news of it. They didn’t know that a thing would happen here in St. Joe, and the reason behind it, we have never been quite sure because all of the witnesses are dead,” Chilcote said.
A whole family is annihilated, but one man is spared
There’s no reason Root should have left Duane Garlock alive. Garlock was expecting his wife, Patricia, to pick him up after his shift a local service station and take him home to his two stepdaughters.
Instead, Garlock entered his house, then at 2608 Walnut St., and found all three had been murdered.
But it was not his wife who showed up at the service station. Instead, Root, who was staying with the Garlocks and knew Duane Garlock’s routine, arrived to give him a ride home.
But instead of taking Garlock home, Root took him on a drive through rural Andrew County, ostensibly to look for Root’s brother.
It would’ve been an easy ambush for Root. He could have killed Garlock on their rural journey and buried the body. But car trouble may have saved Duane Garlock’s life.
Root’s car malfunctioned, and the pair were forced to stop at another service station just outside St. Joseph. There, Root and Duane Garlock recruited another man, Ronald Huff, to drive them back into the city.
Huff would later tell police that Root spared Garlock’s life solely because his car broke down.
Garlock’s stepdaughters and wife already were dead in his home. According to the official story, Root killed Pamela and Shelly Pittam, 12 and 13 respectively, before ambushing Patricia Garlock as she arrived home from work.
Police describe a horrific scene: two dead girls and a mother killed as she walked in her front door, still wearing the lab coat from the hospital where she worked.
But Root didn’t kill Garlock in rural Andrew County. Instead, he instructed Huff to let the man out of the car outside his home.
Garlock found his family lying dead in pools of blood inside the home. Media reports from 1973 never ascribe a motive to Root’s decision. By letting Garlock go, Root is alleged to have blown the whistle on his own murders.
Archie Auxier, a young patrol officer who was the first to arrive on the scene of the murders in 1973, described a massive police response in a recent interview.
“When the original detectives show up, they call in the chief detective,” Auxier said. “The chief of police shows up to that serious of a situation.”
Kidnapping ensues, but is someone really an accomplice?
Official reports indicate Root ordered Huff, the man who gave them a ride back to town, to speed off. Under that version of events, Root took over driving while holding Huff at gunpoint.
Root is alleged to have driven the pair to the home of Gary and Hope Beisinger in then-rural Buchanan County. Root knew the location because he had tried previously to purchase a firearm. Root drove past twice but apparently no one was home.
But on the third try, police say Root took the Beisingers hostage inside the house. According to police reports, Root turned on the television but left the sound off. The hostages watched as the first news reports of a triple-murder across town were reported, but the hostages didn’t know Root was the alleged killer.
At some point, one of the hostages, possibly Hope Beisinger, made a call to police from inside the home. As Buchanan County Sheriff’s deputies arrived, chaos ensued.
Media reports indicate Hope Beisinger escaped through the front door while law enforcement officers were surrounding the home. Inside, Root threatened to use a baby in the home also being held hostage, as a human shield.
Gary Beisinger, fearing the death of the infant, took action. In a violent struggle, Mr. Beisinger took a knife and slashed Root from back to front. But Root didn’t go down right away. He fired three bullets, one of which struck Mr. Beisinger in the shoulder.
It’s unclear what happened to the second shot, but police said the third was self-inflicted. After a night of terrorizing St. Joseph, Root killed himself. And that’s where this story should end.
But it doesn’t.
Carla Root, Larry Root’s daughter, told News-Press NOW she questions if Huff was actually a victim.
Carla Root says it was Huff who urged Larry Root to head to the Beisinger home. She describes Huff “drinking beers” with her father, although it’s not clear how she came to know this.
In news reports from the time, Huff receives a passing mention. He was searched as he left the Beisinger house, but nothing in those reports indicate how strongly Huff’s version of events was questioned.
News-Press NOW was unable to locate Huff, who would be at least 66 years old now. Hope Beisinger didn’t respond to a request for comment through social media.
The whereabouts of Duane Garlock and Gary Beisinger are unknown.
A grave robbery keeps the case open
Just one day after the Pittam children were buried, news reports from the time indicate a truck and two men are spotted near the girls’ gravesite in rural Andrew County.
According to police, one of the graves was dug up, but the vault was not opened. Law enforcement never made an arrest in the incident, and no suspects were ever named.
A call for forgiveness
In another puzzling event, Raymond Pittam, who was biological father of the murdered girls, urged forgiveness for Root, a surprise to some in the community given the killings.
“If Larry had been in his right mind, he never would have done it,” Pittam told a reporter with the News-Press at the time. “He was sick and he needed help.”
And, despite acknowledging that Root likely killed his daughters, Pittam extended his condolences to the Root family in a news story.
“My sympathy goes to the Roots, to the whole family,” Pittam said. “I’m speaking as the father of these two children.”
Pittam contends that he was questioned by police in the hours between the murders at the Garlock household and the hostage situation. Pittam may have been a suspect because he was divorced from Mrs. Garlock.
Further, Pittam and Root had a close relationship, at least at one time. Carla Root told News-Press NOW that Pittam was Root’s best man at his wedding, but that the relationship had soured.
“We were never to go anywhere by ourselves with (Raymond Pittam),” Carla Root said. “It was never told why.”
Raymond Pittam called the News-Press this September about the case, stating that he had details he wanted to share. But after initially agreeing to an interview with reporters, he stopped answering calls. Pittam also contacted the Root family multiple times, telling them he had information he would pass on to them but only face to face. That meeting hasn’t happened.
After the killings, Duane Garlock was admitted to a state mental hospital.
Police records indicate investigators interviewed neighbors and co-workers at Methodist Hospital, where Patricia Garlock worked.
Many do believe Larry Root did indeed kill Patricia Garlock and her daughters. But the case never went to trial due to Root’s assumed suicide that night.
But 50 years later, speculation remains on what actually happened that February night in 1973.
It’s been said that everyone thinks they have the best dog.
Law enforcement officers, however, might be able to make a stronger case because their dogs are not only companions but trusted members of the force that assist in various investigations.
Buchanan County Sheriff’s Office’s K-9 units have helped with a combined 50 calls for service in the past six months.
“It’s a tool,” Buchanan County Sheriff’s Deputy Vince Lippincott said. “We try to be available not only for our department but any law enforcement that needs us. We’re lucky enough to have two of these tools with our department, so we work different shifts and try to structure that availability out.”
Capt. Shawn Collie of the Buchanan County Drug Strike Force works with K-9 units almost every day, ranging from the Topeka Police Department to the Missouri State Highway Patrol and even federal investigative teams.
“We’ve had dogs come (from) as far away as St. Louis to help us,” he said. “It may depend on the availability of the dog. They could be gone for training, days off, anything else. So there’s days where if it’s something that’s kind of quick and just on a case-by-case basis we may be calling around.”
It’s typical for a handler to spend more time with their dog than their own family, Lippincott said. He spends almost every hour of the day with Shadow, a Dutch Shepard and his partner of 3½ years.
“They realize as soon as you’re getting ready for work,” he said. “They know you’re getting ready for work, and they start getting ready for work. So you learn (about) each other that way, by spending so much time together.”
Sgt. Ty Edwards of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office also works with a Dutch Shepard, which has been his partner for only a few months. Age and breed can have some effect, Edwards said.
“Age can be a factor, we try not to go too young,” he said. “My current dog, Kronos, is a year old and it shows sometimes — he’s a pup ... Breed-wise, there are several different breeds that work well for working dogs. It’s not really just a few breeds specifically, as long as they’re an intelligent, high-drive breed.”
Some dogs are better suited for drug searches, while others are used for patrols or even finding human remains. Those factors make it important to know why a dog will be needed and what options are available before making a request, Collie said.
Personality ultimately plays the biggest factor, and finding a dog with a “high drive” is the goal, Lippincott said.
“You’re wanting a dog that wants to not only play or work, depending on how you look at it but wants to make the handler happy and realize what the job is,” he said. “If they’re not focused, then you can’t communicate with the dog of what you want the dog to do, and so you lose that ... purpose sometimes.”
Clay County has deployed K-9 units 95 times since May, including 31 in September alone.
Both K-9 units for Buchanan County Sheriff’s Office and the three units with Clay County are trained to handle drug searches, suspect apprehension and officer protection.
The St. Joseph Police Department has one K-9 unit but is in the process of getting a second, police said. Its other dog, Max, was killed in the line of duty at the end of June.