Hot Springs author to release book about 1966 murder

Hot Springs author Bitty Martin’s book, “Snake Eyes: Murder in a Southern Town,” will be released on May 16 by Prometheus Books.

The true story takes place in Hot Springs and recounts the suspicious death of 13-year-old Cathie Ward at Blacksnake Ranch in 1966, which triggered the owner of the ranch to commit a murder, a news release from the Garland County Historical Society said.

Martin attended Central Junior High School with Ward and the two were close friends.

The GCHS presented a program with Martin at the Garland County Library on Tuesday. The author gave an encore presentation following the Hot Springs Book Festival.

Martin is a graduate of Hot Springs High School, earned a marketing degree from Henderson State University, and was employed in research at Arkansas State Parks and Tourism. She then served as the executive director for Hot Springs YWCA, the release said.

She later earned a nursing degree from the University of Arkansas in Little Rock and became a travel nurse.

The Hot Springs native decided to start writing “Snake Eyes: Murder in a Southern Town” after her childhood friend Leslie Tracy Swinford revealed a secret to Martin in 2014 and she began researching Ward’s death.

“We didn’t know what really happened to her and we still didn’t in 2014 when I called my childhood friend Leslie and told her I was coming home from New York for two weeks, and I wanted to go do some research at the library on Cathie Ward,” she said.

“Leslie said she wanted to come with me and she told me a secret she kept since Cathie died,” Martin said.

The author said she didn’t know the date Ward died until she visited the historical society, where some old funeral records were kept. She found out Ward died on June 24, 1966, and that she was buried in Murfreesboro.

“Two days later, I connected Leslie’s secret to a mysterious event that happened on the 48th anniversary of Cathie’s death,” Martin said. “And I took that as my cue to start digging up this story.”

Martin said she did a lot of research and interviewed over 60 people for the book.

She found out Ward had moved to Hot Springs with her mother in the early 1960s without her father.

“I’m sure it was hard for Cathie to fit in with us kids who lived in Hot Springs all our lives and had fathers at the supper table every night,” Martin said. “We did n’t know her her secret struggles nor that she would become the little girl who died at Blacksnake Ranch.”

Martin said Ward enjoyed skateboarding, and had left her skateboard at Swinford’s house days before her death. Swinford kept the skateboard for years, but eventually, it was lost. Martin’s new book contains the story behind how the skateboard eventually found its way back to Swinford on the 48th anniversary of Ward’s death.

“That was my proof she wanted this story told,” she said.

One wish Ward had been to go horseback riding at Blacksnake Ranch, Martin said. While Martin and Swinford were returning from church camp, Ward’s wish for her was supposedly granted on June 24, 1966, but she did n’t come back from the ranch alive.

“As we were coming down the hill, I saw Cathie walking down the sidewalk, so I hollered and waved at her,” Martin said. “Well, Leslie saw her too and she hollered at her. Cathie never looked our way. She had her head down and she looked very determined to get home that afternoon. Leslie and I have never forgotten that memory, but how did we see her?” if she was out at Blacksnake Ranch?”

The story of Ward’s death was on the front page of the newspaper the next day, Martin said. The article stated Ward was killed in an accident at Blacksnake Ranch, apparently dragged by a horse.

The owner of the ranch, Frank Davis, claimed he was chasing after the runaway horse, but couldn’t catch it. However, Davis was a skilled horseman according to some of Martin’s sources.

“I thought this book would be about Cathie, but her main story ends by page 35 and Frank Davis takes over the book,” Martin said.

“He always had to have his way and when he couldn’t get it, he relied on his mother to make things happen,” she said. “But this time she couldn’t. And it all came to a head one winter evening at the Redbird Laundromat when Frank committed a murder in cold blood. But this time there were witnesses.”

Martin will host a book signing on May 22 at 2:30 pm at the Historic Central Theater, where she said, “there will be some surprises and it could be emotional.”

“I have to say that I couldn’t have written this book without the help of all the people, organizations that are listed in the back of the book under acknowledgments,” she said. “This story has been waiting a lifetime to be told.”

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