What happened to Bobby Dunbar?
South Louisiana was thrown into turmoil during the week before Thanksgiving 1914, when the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that the judge had made a mistake and the kidnapper of Bobby Dunbar would have to go to trial a second time.
The incident and trial had become a topic of national notoriety after itinerant piano tuner William C. Walters had been arrested for the kidnapping of the child from a campground near Swayze Lake in northwest St. Landry Parish in August 1912.
The child was missing for eight months until, on April 19, 1913, a doctor in Columbia, Miss., sent the child’s father, Percy Dunbar, a picture of a young boy who looked like Bobby. The doctor said the boy was traveling in rural Mississippi with Walters.
St. Landry Sheriff Marion Swords telegraphed the sheriff in Columbia, asking him to pick up the child and to arrest Walters. And then things became very complicated. When the boy’s parents went to Mississippi to pick him up, he appeared at first not to recognize his mother. Walters, said from the very beginning that the boy was his nephew and that his name was Bruce Anderson
Long after the arrest and trial of Walters, there would be controversy over whether the child was Bobby Dunbar or whether he was Bruce Anderson. Some people claimed that the Dunbars wanted their child back so much that they were willing to believe that this boy was their son, even after a woman from North Carolina came forward and said the boy was her son, not Bobby.
But despite those troubling questions about the boy’s identification, the townspeople of Opelousas were convinced that Bobby had been found and Walters had taken him. Practically every business in town was closed when the reunited family reached Opelousas. Church bells pealed. A brass band turned out at the railroad station.
It took a year of legal wrangling to extradite Walters and to convict him in one of the most sensational trials ever held in Opelousas.
District Attorney R. Lee Garland handled a meticulous prosecution. E.B. Dubuisson was Walters’ court‑appointed attorney. Garland wanted the death penalty for Walters. Dubuisson was able to convince the jury that Walters did not deserve death. But the man was found guilty—a verdict that Dubuisson appealed to the state’s high court on the grounds that the act under which Walters was convicted was unconstitutional.
He argued that Act 271 of 1910, the law under which Walters was tried, had been pushed too quickly through the legislature in the wake of another sensational kidnapping. That act was supposed to have made kidnapping a crime punishable by death. Dubuisson argued that the legislature had in fact amended the wrong law and that Walters had never been legally indicted, let alone legally tried.
The court agreed, threw out Walters’ conviction, and said a new trial had to be held. That presented a big problem because the parish had nearly gone broke under the expense of the first trial.
The St. Landry Clarion reported the details on Nov. 21, 1914: “The trying of Walters for a second time means that the parish will have to undergo the expense of several thousand dollars in order to give the prisoner, as well as the state, all the chances possible. . . . As the parish treasury is practically depleted it will go hard with St. Landry to hold a special term of criminal court.
“It is not known when the prisoner will be given another chance at proving his innocence. However, it is thought that it … will not be before the beginning of the new year.”
As Tai McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright point out in their recent book, “A Case for Solomon,” St. Landry was “not only lacking money for a retrial but also the appetite.” Custody of the child had been awarded to the Dunbars, and for all practical purposes, justice had been done.
Given the circumstances, the DA chose not to hold a second trial. Walters was freed on the morning of Feb. 27, 1915, and, as it turned out, justice had been done.
The boy grew to manhood believing himself to be Bobby Dunbar, or at least professing that belief. But long after that trial and after decades of debate, DNA tests were made on Bobby Dunbar Jr. and another son of the man who lived and died as the kidnap victim. They did not match. They showed that the child that for so long was known as Bobby Dunbar was actually Bruce Anderson, just as Walters had claimed at the time of his arrest, throughout his trial, and to his death.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589..