Little is known about Bethea's life before he arrived in Owensboro in 1933. Born around 1909 in Roanoke, Virginia, Bethea was an African-American man orphaned after the death of his mother in 1919 and his father in 1926. He worked for the Rutherford family and lived in their basement for about a year, and then he moved to a cabin behind the house of a man named Emmett Wells. He worked as a laborer and later rented a room from a woman, Mrs. Charles Brown.
During the early morning of June 7, 1936, Bethea entered the home of Lischia Edwards on East Fifth Street by climbing onto the roof of an outbuilding next door. From there, he jumped onto the roof of the servant's quarters of Emmett Wells' house, and then walked down a wooden walkway. He climbed over the kitchen roof to Edwards' bedroom window.
After removing a screen from her window, he entered the room, waking her. Bethea then choked Edwards and violently raped her. After she was unconscious, he searched for valuables and stole several of her rings. In the process, he removed his own black celluloid prison ring, and failed to later retrieve it. He left the bedroom and hid the stolen jewels in a barn not far from the house.