Late one Sunday night, March 25, 1946 to be exact, a homesick young soldier, armed with an Army issue M1 rifle, slipped out of his barracks at Camp Blanding.
At trial, Pvt. John Upchurch would claim he was homesick and just wanted to steal a car and go home to New Jersey. What happened turned out to be very different.
Walking and hitchhiking, he ended up mostly sleeping in Orange Park and plotted to acquire a car at the popular lovers’ lane, a dirt road that meandered through the woods to the St. Johns River in the area of todays’ East Holly Point. Young locals, up to no good, joked about “going to watch the submarine races.”
Sure enough, he found Nathan Ledbetter and his lady friend Clara Jones, both from Jacksonville. Ledbetter was a popular former star dirt track race car driver turned successful business man and married to a lady not named Clara Jones.
Upchurch loomed up in the glare of the headlights and demanded their money and the car, Ledbetter pulled a pistol and the panicked soldier opened fire. He emptied the clip – eight rounds of 30-caliber bullets, as fast as he could pull the trigger. The M1 Garand was a killing machine at 500 yards and served the U.S. military in three wars. Upchurch was at most three yards from his victims.
Ears ringing and eyes barely focusing, Upchurch saw the carnage, lost his nerve and ran from the scene. He ended up in Jacksonville on Market Street at military police headquarters where he spun a tale of going AWOL and stumbling across the scene and the bodies.
Little did he know that the sleepy little town of Orange Park and most of Clay County were wide awake the moment after the sound of that gun fire was heard. With the car lights blazing in the woods, people found the bloody horror quickly, alerted Clay County and Jacksonville law. The MPs were a little surprised when he walked in the door though.
MPs drove him to Orange Park and when confronted with the gory mess now brightly lit with car lights, he cracked and confessed.
Upchurch remained in military custody until April 3 when he was indicted for first-degree murder by a Clay County Grand Jury and became a guest of Sheriff John Hall in Green Cove Springs. The trial for the murder of Nathan Ledbetter commenced April 23.
Two days later, the jury found him guilty and recommended mercy. Judge McNeil sentenced him to spend the rest of his natural life in jail, two days after that. On May 1, he was transferred to Florida State Prison at Raiford.
It was 37 days between the commission of the murder and the commencement of the sentence. Judging by supplemental minutes to Clay County Commission Meetings, it took far longer for the Army to retrieve their M1 Garand from Sheriff Hall’s evidence locker.