By Tara Spencer
Every community has its own tales of spiritual happenings, hauntings, and horror. In my hometown, there was an abandoned house known simply as Unity where people claimed to have seen buckets of blood in the barn and experienced forces pushing them and slamming doors in the house.
Here in Omaha, I’ve heard stories about Mystery Manor, The Hatchet House, and of course, The Black Angel, which my own mother told stories of. Then there’s the infamous Hummel Park, which is purportedly haunted, though it doesn’t need the added drama if one looks at the already tragic stories of provable horrors that happened there.
As an avid watcher of Criminal Minds and early reader of books about serial killers, it’s often the real-life tragedies that haunt me the most. I’ve never understood wanting to be scared by horror movies when there’s already enough awfulness in the world.
My partner, who grew up in Bellevue, remembers stories about John Joubert’s time of terror during 1983, when parents were scared to let their children, especially their young boys, out of the house. Recently, I learned of another murderer who terrorized our community, and many others across the country, from the late 1920s until his capture in 1947.
Jake Bird was born somewhere in Louisiana, a place he left around the age of 19. He worked off and on for the railroad as a laborer. This allowed him to live a rather transient existence, which no doubt helped him evade police while pursuing his other interests—robbery, stalking, and murder.
In some ways, Bird fit the stereotype of a serial killer. U.S.-born, transient, male, clever, and often with an element of sado-sexual overtones to his crimes, Bird was said to stalk his victims, usually women, and rob them in their homes.
Bird’s full history is unknown. He first showed up on Omaha’s radar in the summer of 1928 when he served as witness in a trial to determine if one of his traveling companions at the time—a young man from Cleveland, Ohio, who had been killed by a railroad employee—had in fact been murdered. The case never made it to trial, but Bird decided to stick around afterward. This would prove an unfortunate decision for the community, specifically for Joseph W. Blackman and Gertrude Resso, her sister Creda Brown, and their friends and families.
Blackman, 76, was Bird’s first victim, beaten to death with a sharp instrument in his home in North Omaha on the morning of November 18, 1928. The house had been ransacked and a small fire set in an attempt to burn evidence. His son, Cecil, found his body and was considered a suspect for a time. Then the bodies of Resso, 21 and Brown, 18 were found by Resso’s husband Waldo the following day and authorities realized there was a serial killer in their midst. This time, Bird left a witness—the Ressos’ 3-year-old son, Bobby. Sadly, the poor boy’s statement was of little help.
Earlier that year, another tragedy struck the town when Harvey Boyd, 8, went missing in Carter Lake, Iowa. His body was discovered in a patch of sunflowers just north of Avenue H, nearly five weeks after his disappearance. Clarence Lukehart, who had pled guilty to and been convicted of assaulting an 8-year-old girl two days after Boyd’s disappearance, was immediately a suspect. He was serving time at Anamosa State Penitentiary in northeast Iowa when he was questioned in Boyd’s murder. After hours of interrogation, Lukehart confessed.
He said he struck the boy in the head with a hammer to stop his crying after sexually assaulting him in the Lukehart basement, hitting him until the crying stopped. The Omaha World-Herald later printed part of his handwritten confession on the front page. Lukehart crossed paths with Bird after being transferred to Iowa’s Fort Madison State Penitentiary, where Bird had been sent for a crime he’d committed in Carter Lake.
Omaha authorities could not prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the ax murders that took place there were the work of Bird. However, he left a more credible witness during his next Carter Lake attack.
Originally, Carter Lake was a recreational and resort community with swimming holes, social clubs, and an amusement park. For a time, it also had a reputation as a bit of a legal no-man’s-land between Iowa and Nebraska. At the time of the attacks, the community was just coming into its own as an incorporated city. (The lake was renamed Carter Lake in 1908.) Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.
“Axman Remains At Large” was the headline on November 21, when yet another account of an ax attack was reported in the Carter Lake Club area. Husband and wife Harold and Mary Stribling, both 25, were the next victims. In the early morning hours of November 20, Harold was attacked and severely injured with an ax while he was in bed. When the intruder turned on Mary, she blunted the blow by turning away just as it was delivered. She then pleaded with her assailant to spare further attack on her husband and their baby, Mollie. She agreed to go with him peacefully if he would leave her family alone.
Two hours later, she was found by police officers, wandering near 5th and Locust streets in a daze. The authorities took her home where Harold was found in grave condition. He was transported to Lord Lister Hospital in Omaha, where he lingered near death for several days before he began to recover.
Mary described the man who attacked her family to the police. Acting on a tip, the police department of Omaha detained a man and arranged for Mary to see him face to face in her hospital room, also at Lord Lister. It was Jake Bird.
Reportedly, Mary said, “As sure as there is a God in Heaven, you are the man, Jake,” and Bird’s response to her accusation was simply “I don’t know what you are talking about, lady.” However, this statement is unlikely. In one World-Herald story, it was reported that she simply said, “That’s the man. Take him away,” before becoming “hysterical.”
Regardless, with Mary as a witness able to identify Bird, he was turned over to Iowa to be prosecuted for the attack, where he was given a 30-year sentence at Fort Madison. In 1941, only twelve years later, Bird was granted parole.
Clarence Lukehart remained in jail, serving out his life sentence. Bird did try to get it reduced for him by confessing to Boyd’s murder when he was later arrested in Tacoma, Washington. Once again, he had killed two women with an ax— Bertha Kludt, 52, and her daughter Beverly June, 17, This time he was caught by police when neighbors heard their screams. While in custody, he claimed to have murdered a total of 44 people.
On July 15, 1949, at 12:20 a.m., Bird was hanged at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for the murders of the Kludt women. The “Tacoma Ax-Killer,” as he was dubbed by papers, was likely one of the most prolific serial killers to have existed. Yet his name is relatively unknown to most, despite his having confessed to murdering more than some of the most notorious, Netflix-famous slayers of the past century.
 “Lured to Weeds, Hit With Stone To Stop Crying.” Omaha World-Herald. 3 August 1928, p. 1.
 Newton, M. “Hunting Humans: An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers.” 1990. Accessed: https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/hunting-humans-encyclopedia-modern-serial-killers.
 Reports Conflict on Identification by Mrs. Stribling. Omaha World-Herald. 23 November 1928, p. 1.
 “‘Chopper’ Slays Omaha Sisters; Strikes as Both Sleep.” Omaha World-Herald. 19 November 1928, p. 8.
 “Suspect Denies Any Knowledge of Ax Attacks.” Omaha World-Herald. 28 November 1928, p. 1.
 “Bloody Ax Found Concealed Is New Blackman Clue.” Omaha World-Herald. 19 November 1928, p. 1.
 “Probe Ordered of Bird’s Story.” Omaha World-Herald. 1 January 1948, p. 8.
 McClary, Daryl. “Jake Bird, convicted of murdering two Tacoma women, is hanged on July 15, 1949.” HistoryLink. 31 October 2009. Accessed: https://www.historylink.org/File/7973.