Jerome, Arizona was a popular and bustling mining town in the 1920’s and 1930’s. It was nicknamed “The Wickedest Town in America”, because of its reputation for attracting prostitutes, alcoholics, and gamblers. And it was a reputation that was well-earned.

Because of the influx of miners, prostitution was a lucrative business. The town’s red-light district provided a way for single women or women from poor families to earn a living. The town had both upscale bordellos, where high-profile clients like the mayor would visit, and unofficial shacks in an area known as the Crib District. However, Jerome also had its fair share of violence, especially against sex workers. Drunk clients would often beat the women, sometimes even going so far as to cause serious injury or death. Most of the violence towards these women occurred in the Crib District, where there was less protection and fewer people to take notice.

One of the most notorious murders in Jerome, Arizona was that of Sammie Dean, whose original name was Juanita Marie Loveless. She was born in Texas in 1892. Although her mother, Virginia, always tried to make an honest living and provide for her children, she often struggled financially. The deaths of multiple husbands left her a single mother working to care for three children.

Sammie had reportedly fallen in love with a man, George Dean. Although it’s uncertain whether they were married or not, many people suspect they were because she adopted his last name. Years later, she divorced him and moved to Jerome, Arizona where she worked as a prostitute. It’s suspected that she had worked in bordellos in Colorado also, where she lived for some time with George.

Sammie Dean had many friends in Jerome’s red-light district, and many admirers as well. She was seen as a well-to-do woman and people were impressed with her independence. She owned her own car and fine, expensive jewelry. She was also known to keep large amounts of cash in the bordello where she worked—one of the more upscale places in Jerome.

On July 10th, 1931, a neighbor saw Sammie early in the morning, but when friends went to her house around noon there was no answer. Later that evening, Leo Portillo, Sammie’s best friend and a waiter at the New York Café, went to check on her. He saw that her front door was locked but the back door was left wide open. When he entered, he found Sammie brutally strangled to death.

Her purse and gun were missing, leading police to believe that it was a robbery. But when they found that her expensive jewelry hadn’t been stolen, they began to suspect that it was a crime of passion. Men who were known to have been clients and admirers of Sammie Dean became suspects in the case, primarily Tom Miller, the Mayor; Jacki Miller, the Mayor’s son; and Bert Owens, the Sheriff’s son. Although he wasn’t known to be anything more than a friend to Sammie, Leo Portillo also became a suspect in the investigation.

Sammie had reportedly written a letter to her family explaining that the Mayor’s son had asked for her hand in marriage, but she refused the offer. He then became angry and vowed revenge. In general, police seemed uninterested in investigating the crime, with some suspects barely even being questioned. In the end, the murder of Sammie Dean was never solved.

Today, Jerome’s population has declined from 15,000 to around 400—making it one of the many Arizona ghost towns, both literally and figuratively. The town is a State Historic Park. It features a museum and many of its original buildings are still intact. The ghost of Sammie, along with a number of other notorious spirits, are said to still haunt the area. Is Sammie Dean still searching for the man who killed her? Perhaps she’s searching for something that she’s still owed after her brutal murder—justice.

For Jerome ghost tours, please visit the Tours of Jerome website here.

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