Sheriff Takes the Stand: ‘You think you’ve got problems’

Herman Pierce served as Ozark County Sheriff from 1965 to 1985.

Virgil Duren, 1964 Ozark County mug shot

When Herman went in as sheriff in 1965, Virgil Duren had been arrested and was in jail for the murders of Oscar and Ruby Kempe. The Kempes had moved from Chicago to Theodosia where they ran a small dairy with ten-twelve cows. In August of ’64, Oscar and Ruby were found early one morning by their milk pick-up man, Herschel Myers. Oscar had been stabbed in the chest and back twenty-three times with a knife. Ruby had been stabbed in the front and back nineteen times. 

Virgil Duren was considered extremely dangerous, “During the preliminary hearing,” Herman said, “we had extra guards at the courthouse. Before I’d go into his cell I’d say, ‘Go to the rear of the cell, face the wall with your head and hands against the wall, then step back.’ I’d set his food down then go back out the door.”

The prosecutor asked for the death penalty. The court screened more than two hundred people before choosing thirteen jurors who believed in the death penalty. Virgil had a court-appointed attorney, Bill Scott, from West Plains. Virgil was found guilty and given life in prison for the murder of Oscar Kempe. He pled guilty and was sentenced to a concurrent life sentence for the murder of Ruby Kempe. While he was in jail in Gainesville, his wife visited with him often; but the sheriff didn’t allow any conjugal privileges. 

Herman’s brother Averille and a friend, Averil Coy, transported Virgil to the state prison in Jefferson City. While there, he developed a heart problem, and they took him to the University of Missouri Hospital for treatment and medication. At that time the warden always notified Herman when Ozark County prisoners were taken out of prison for any reason. After thirteen years Virgil completed both of his life sentences by expiring. 


While the trial of Virgil Duren had been in progress, an old man by the name of Hiram Wells was charged with exhibiting a dangerous and deadly weapon in an angry and threatening manner while intoxicated. (He had a .22 rifle he was waving around and he was shouting). Hiram told Herman that a young prisoner by the name of Doug Johnson was teasing and humiliating Virgil Duren.

One night the sheriff heard Doug Johnson singing in a voice loud enough to be heard all the way out in the front office. He went back to the cell and found Doug sitting on the floor directly under Virgil, about six inches away from Virgil’s face, singing “Hang down your head Tom Dooley.”


Another time, after the jury was deliberating, there was a ruckus down at one of the local bars - the Cedar Tap. Herman went down and ended up bringing back a prisoner who was crying and complaining about how much trouble he was in for tearing up a door at the bar. When they reached the jail, Virgil was walking with his hands clinched behind him. When the guy complained about how much trouble he was in, Virgil said, “You think you’ve got problems. The jury is out there now deciding whether I’m going to get the death penalty or not.”


Editor’s note: This excerpt is from the book, “Sheriff Takes the Stand,” by former Ozark County Sheriff Herman Pierce and Thel Spencer, reprinted with permission from Spencer, the copyright owner. 

Ozark County Times

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