Thursday, April 30, 2015
MURDER IN A DOWNTOWN BANK
NORMAN V. KELLY
On a cold and peaceful Sunday Morning, December 23, 1917 folks in downtown Peoria, Illinois were in a joyful spirit as they left the churches and window shopped as they strolled by the decorated stores. There was talk of a white Christmas and although most of the stores were closed, the restaurants and hotels were quite busy. Over at the Jefferson Hotel, Edward Strause stood with two other men talking before he turned and walked out of the hotel. He was headed for the State Trust and Savings Bank on Jefferson Street next to the hotel. He seemed to be in a happy mood as he spoke to folks on his way to the bank. Just slightly ahead of Mr. Strause was Berne Mead who said goodbye to his friends over at the Creve Coeur Club, heading for the bank just minutes ahead of Ed Strause. No one saw them enter the bank but what went on in that bank between those two prominent business men brought them to the attention of the entire population of Peoria, Illinois which was about 71,000 in 1917. In fact they would be the center of attention for the next three years and beyond, drawing folks from all over the area to Peoria, Illinois and the Peoria County Courthouse and the one in Bloomington as well. Two friends stood in front of the bank there at Jeffersonand Liberty Streets talking, later they would remember it was just going on noon when they heard a shot coming from within the bank. Alarmed they hurried over to the glass door of the bank and peered in; it was at that time that they distinctly heard the moan of man obviously in pain. Both of the men banged on the door but heard nothing further. Other people stopped to see what was going which attracted other passersby. Over at City Hall where the police were headquartered a lady driving an electric car pulled up in front of the police station and told an officer she thought the bank was being robbed. Moments later Detective Couch pulled up in front of the bank got out and with gun in hand demanded the crowd move out of his way. Detective Couch banged on the door and peered inside the bank. At the moment two shots rang out and immediately the folks around the door moved back to the curb, some of the ladies screaming as they took cover. Couch used the butt of his revolver to knock on the door, preparing to break the window with his gun to enter the bank. He saw a man walking toward him inside the bank as the crowd began to gather again behind the brave detective. The door opened!
Detective Couch moved quickly forward blocking the open door and slipped inside closing the door behind him. Couch looked at the man, “What’s the trouble here?” The man, whom Couch recognized as the president of the bank, was Edgar A. Strause! “I had trouble with one of my men, He shot at me first.” Together the two men walked to the interior of the bank. As they got near one of the teller’s cage the officer saw the body of a man lying in a pool of blood, his head resting up against the cage. “What’s this?” Couch said, pointing his gun at the body. “Oh, I had trouble with one of my men. He shot at me first.” It was then that the officer realized that the man was in some kind of nervous shock and would later describe in detail how Strause looked and what he said. Those words spoken to the first officer on the scene would be the last words that Strause was ever quoted as saying, and the ordeal ahead for him was just beginning. Within three days President Edward A. Strause would be forced to resign his lofty position and find himself in a situation that no person that had ever known him could possibly have imagined.
Outside a huge crowd had gathered and as more police arrived, an officer was placed to guard the door, allowing only physicians and officials to enter the bank. The word had spread like wild fire and once the local newspaper photographers and reporters arrived the place was up for grabs. More police were called when some of the folks in the crowd began to fear that somehow the bank was in financial trouble and they wanted their money now. All hell was breaking loose, and more officers and firemen were called to handle what looked like to police was about to become a riot. A special edition from The Evening Star hit the streets later and it was sold by screaming men and boys yelling ‘EXTRA! EXTRA! The headline: “PEORIA ASTOUNDED AT TRAGEDY WHICH COST THE LIFE OF BERNE M. MEAD.
The folks in Peoria, Illinois were still buzzing about the murder of the bank cashier, Berne Mead, by the bank’s President Edgar Strause of the State Bank and Savings. Now, on December 26, 1917 it appeared that most of the townsfolk were either in the courthouse or milling around outside. All of them hoped to get into the coroner’s inquest but space was very limited. Even some of the reporters and photographers were waiting out on the courthouse steps. Inside, there were at least twenty-four witnesses that the coroner wanted to talk to, and the excitement was still running high over this shocking murder. Edgar Strause was sitting in the chief’s office over at the city hall, while the victim Berne M. Mead’s body was being held in a vault out at Springdale Cemetery. He would be buried the next day in Chillicothe, Illinois.
Coroner Elliott stood behind his desk watching the crowd: with a wave of his hand, the bailiff closed the door and the coroner banged his gavel. Coroner Elliott called his first witness and for three days they came and went one after the other. The question in everyone’s mind that heard about this killing was simply ‘Why?’ Murders in Peoria were typically domestic or in connection with a robbery certainly not between to prominent businessmen. Theories were rampant, but the newspapers were always ready and willing to tell the reader far more than what they actually knew. Mr. Strause was the president and Mead was the cashier. Meade held more of the stock shares than anyone and he felt he should be the president…not Strause. On that Sunday morning the two met and Strause asked for Mead’s resignation. Mead went a bit berserk and the two men fought, Meade fired the first shot at Strause and the president fired his own weapon striking Mr. Mead in the mouth and through the eye, killing him. Clearly a case of self defense. It was that simple…or so the newspaper editors said.
Strause hired two local lawyers and they tried to intervene in the hearing whenever they could, but the coroner kept a strong grip on them. As the witnesses told their stories the real story of what went on inside that bank was never clearly presented. After all, there was only one person who knew what really happened and he was not at the inquest. After three days the coroner’s jury handed its verdict to Coroner Elliot. The reporters almost knocked down the folks standing out side the coroner’s room when the verdict was read. They had a story to write and the whole town wanted to read it.
December 28, 1917 Peoria Evening Star
Young men in a dozen areas of the city were racing around selling the newspapers the moment they had a bundle of them in their arms. Most folks would get the paper at their homes, but they bought a copy anyway. EDGAR A. STRAUSE HELD WITHOUT BAIL FOR MURDER OF CASHIER BERNE M. MEAD!
Murder? Most Peorians had followed every word of the coroner’s Inquest daily for three days. To them and most folks at the courthouse the evidence sounded like self defense to them, so the word ‘murder’ pretty much surprised them all. Less than a half-hour after the verdict Strause was in hand cuffs and on his way to the Peoria County Jail. He went through the booking procedures, was required to take a shower and outfitted with the clothes of a county jail prisoner. Another shocker was that the jury recommended that he be held without bail until his trial. That gave the folks in Peoria something to talk about and as it turned out the Mead and Strause shocking story would be in their minds for over two years.
On a beautiful day in May in 1918 Edgar Strause sat in the Peoria Courthouse with his two attorneys waiting for the trial of the decade to began. The place was packed and hundreds stood outside, unable to get inside. It had been a terrific struggle to pick the jury and everyone was anxious to get things started. When the trial ended the defendant was found guilty of murder and sentenced to twenty-five years in the State Prison. The Supreme Court over turned that verdict and remanded it to Peoria for another trial. The second trial was held in Bloomington, Illinois and the jury was dead locked. A third trial was held there and again the jury was deadlocked.
So, three trials, at the cost of $40,000, and countless hours of wasted time and what was the result? Zero! I hope before this summer is over that I can put on my blog the entire story, since we are limited here by space restraints. Mr. Strause stayed here in Peoria and remained the owner of five cigar stores. He died here on November 2, 1935 and was never tried again for the murder of Berne Mead. I know you, dear reader, have a hundred questions which I could answer, but it will have to be another time and in another place. Editor’s Note: Norm is a Peoria Historian, author and monthly contributor to NEWS and VIEWS. email@example.com
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
A GRUSEOME DISCOVERY
The first call went to the East Peoria police from Eugene Norman and Robert Rohmann who told the police that they had seen a body lying along side Upper Spring Bay Road. The two men then led police officers to the scene. The police looked down at the body of a young teenager, who was wearing cowboy boots, and a ripped T-shirt. There were multiple wounds about the body and head. Right next to the body was a broken fencepost that had obviously been used in the attack and murder of the young man. The evidence clearly showed that the body had been dragged and rolled to its final resting place. A determination was made leading to a call to Sheriff Durst. The game was afoot. Dozens upon dozens of photographs were made as the sheriff and his deputies combed the murder scene. While at the site a call came in indicating that the 1953 Chevrolet had been found. Deputies discovered two license plates inside the car. That led them to Maxine Crews and a V. Frost. Officers gathered everything they could find within the car along with a traffic ticket made out to David Gibbs, and a license applied for receipt. It was clear to the sheriff that this was the car David Gibbs had in his possession just before he was murdered.
WHO KILLED DAVID GIBBS?
The young killers, meantime, were hoofing it away from the murder scene, ending up at a gas station. The attendant questioned one of the boys about blood on his hands, but did not call police. The foursome managed to get a ride and by the time the 1953 Chevrolet was towed away, they were all at home. Did they know if David Gibbs was dead…did they care?
Multiple calls came into the police departments and the sheriff’s office sending police cars racing around talking to several witnesses. The two men that police were interested were the men that had given the boys a ride home from the gas station. They talked to a witness that had seen the car being pushed and within a short time Sheriff Durst was knocking on the door of a lady that he knew personally. He stunned the woman when he said, “I have a warrant for the arrest of your son, Carl.” Mrs. Welchman woke her son up with the shocking news, and watched as Sheriff Durst and his deputies took him into custody. One down…how many more to go?
Sheriff Durst had spent the night talking to police in East Peoria, Peoria, and the Peoria County Sheriff’s office as well. Over in Peoria, officers were rounding up two young men, namely Waters and Peddicord. Across the river in Creve Coeur, Illinois, officers took the final young man into custody. The final count before the night was over were Welchman, Waters, Peddicord and Taylor, all now resting in the Woodford County Jail.
I think most folks would agree that that was a pretty good night’s work. It was a testament to what police departments can do when they work together. Maxine Crews, David’s mother worked as a telephone operator and had arranged for David to pick up his sister Mary Jo, but he never showed up. She worried about that because David was reliable and prompt when it came to doing things for his mother. When she got the horrible news, she asked her daughter to identify David’s body. Her brother’s body was taken to a funeral home in Metamora where pathologist, Dr. Silverstein did an autopsy.
THE CORONER’S INQUEST Coroner’s inquests are not trials, or civil actions, they are held to determine how the deceased died…murder, suicide or by natural causes. The inquest was held in front of six jurors in Eureka, Illinois. Dr. Silverstein told the jury that the body of David Gibbs looked to be about sixteen years old. The doctor indicated that David had met his death by multiple abrasions, bruises, and blunt force trauma to the head. To the horrified jury and audience he described the blackened eyes, bloody face and deep lacerations he found on the young man’s body. He continued to discuss the terrible leg injuries and that some of the injuries came after David Gibbs was dead. It was a shocking, horrific testimony that some people told reporters they would never forget. The jury was handed fourteen gruesome photos that stunned some of them, leaving them visibly upset. Once all of the police evidence was submitted, the coroner charged the jury to reach a verdict. Their verdict was death by homicide and recommended that the process of the law continue. Sheriff Durst was right on top of that and in less than seventeen hours he had the culprits in his cells. It would be up to the state’s attorney from now on. Coroner LeLand Morgan thanked the citizens for their service and adjourned the hearing. THE GRAND JURY Over in Eureka in their old, elegant courthouse, the secret grand jury met, but in a small town, secrets don’t last long. The state’s attorney presents the evidence to the grand jury and they decide if an indictment is in order. Sheriff Durst and his people were called upon to tell the jury just exactly what his office had to warrant a true bill to indict. This is no trial, the defense has no place in the process, and the jury is spoon-fed the information by the state’s attorney. Durst had taken court reporter statements from the four young men, and of course, the state’s attorney hoped to use these statements against the defendants during the upcoming trial. I think I will give you a few lines of all four of those statements to give you an idea what the grand jurors heard. They are basically excerpts, but they give you a good idea of what went on out there on that cold, December night in 1964. GARY PEDDICORD: My name is Gary Peddicord, 721 Madison, Peoria, Illinois. I am nineteen and finished the ninth grade. Gary then went on to describe how he met David Gibbs and how he happened to be in the car. He then explained how all five of the young men were in the car and how they ended up over in Spring Bay. GARY PEDDICORD: David was pulled into the back seat where the guys continued beating him. I pulled over and got out of the car as they beat him. Waters told us we would all have to hit him if we were all in on it. I hit him once. Bob Taylor got a branch and started hitting him with it. They made me do it too. Bob Taylor and Welchman drug him off to the side of the road. They then threw him in the gully. DAVID WATERS: My name is David Waters, and I live on 802 S. Western in Peoria, Illinois. I was down at the Cove and me and Carl was drinking. David Gibbs was driving and we went with him. All of us headed out to Spring Bay. We were all a little drunk except the guy driving. We were talking about raping girls and he ( the driver) smarted off and we got into an argument and started fighting with him. He fought back and when he stopped the car and when he got out of the car we jumped on him and started fighting with him. I got that post and started hitting someone with it. ROBERT DUANE TAYLOR: My name is Robert Taylor, I am sixteen and live at 136 Gerber Court in Creve Coeur. Dave Gibbs picked us up at the Cove. He was going to give us the car, then walk home, and report the car stolen. When we were out on a country road to drop him off, Carl started hitting him. Dave Walters hit him too then they took him out of the car and started beating him. After that we took him and put him in a ditch. CARL WELCHMAN: My name is Carl Welchman, age seventeen and live at RR One, Spring Bay. We were in the car and Peddicord hit David with his fists and took his glasses off. After we stopped the car they pulled him out of the car and started hitting him with their fists. The four of us kicked him and tore his shirt off. We played with him for awhile, just beating him around. We got a stick and started beating him with it; we really were not planning on killing him. When Peddicord got a stick he just went out of his mind. We talked about running over his head with the car. We ran over his legs. I think you have read enough, believe me; the actual quoted details are even worse. At any rate the grand jury spent little time deliberating before they indicted these vicious thugs. Just think of what you just read. This was a senseless murder of a young man and for what? The pain it caused the families of all of these boys is impossible to measure and will never end. THE LEGAL PROCESS By December 16, 1964 the four young men had been properly charged with the murder of David Gibbs and paraded before cameras and newspaper reporters. Their combined arraignment at the Woodford County Courthouse brought throngs of spectators, leaving many standing outside in the cold. The defendants were handcuffed to each other, and strung out like fish on a line. One cameraman got too close and a scuffle ensued, causing even more chaos. Judge Dan Dailey appointed Sam Harrod to the defendants that could not afford a lawyer, while Peorian Harry Sonnemaker was the other defense attorney. The first bit of business was to try and quash the signed confessions. A battle royal ensued and after several very heated hearings the judge made a final ruling to allow the confessions to stand. If you were in Eureka at the time perhaps you heard a huge, collective sigh at that ruling. Folks in Peoria, Pekin, Creve Coeur and the counties were looking forward to a major trial right there in that old venerable courthouse in Eureka, Illinois. Perhaps a question popped into your head? What about a change of venue since the local newspapers had a field day, wouldn’t that tarnish a jury? Well, the judge agreed and set the trial for Christian County, a hundred miles away in a town called Taylorville, Illinois. So, 1964 gave way to 1965 as the defendants languished in their cells in Woodford County. They were allowed visitors; they wrote letters, made a few phone calls and of course ate three good meals a day. As for poor David Gibbs, he was still dead and buried in Lewistown, Illinois. I have written at least 300 stories about murder and I can tell you this one thing for sure. Except for the victim’s loved ones, the murder victim is soon forgotten, as the media lights shine on the killer or killers. That is a fact that is so very sad, but so very true. THE TRIAL The trial was to proceed on March 21, 1965, and as the date neared excitement was rekindled not only here in our area, but in Taylorville as well. A large juror pool was notified and the courthouse came alive. This was a major murder case, and that meant a lot of preparations were underway. Many visitors were expected, and the folks in Taylorville meant to make the most of it. Prior to the trial date, defense lawyers were busy filing motions, subpoenaing witnesses and making plans. The defense had a total of four lawyers by now and the State of Illinois would be represented by Special Assistant Ackerman. He battled each and every motion and throughout it all, the judge refused to relent, confirming that the confessions would be heard by the jury. That was devastating news for the defense, and they seemed to be backing down in their bluffing and pre-trial rhetoric.
Excitement built as the folks crowded into the Christian County Courthouse, excited and eager to be part of a murder trial with four young defendants. The jury commission room was over crowded with potential jurors, the defendants and their lawyers were all present, and the judge was ready to proceed. Then something very unexpected happened that brought disappointment for all the folks eagerly awaiting the trial. First it started as a rumor then the official word came rather quickly. There would be no trial! Shortly before the trial was to begin, all four of the defendants, through their respective lawyers had decided to change their pleas from not guilty to GUILTY! It was indeed stunning news. Potential spectators and jurors alike walked about talking among themselves. “You mean it’s over?’ was pretty much the theme of their conversations. Slowly, one by one, and in groups the massive crowd drifted away. The prisoners were taken back to Woodford County and their respective cells. The big show was over. Now what? The reporters rushed off to file their ‘Non-story,’ and the camera crews turned off their bright lights and went back to their TV stations. Taylorville’s fifteen minutes of fame was over. THE SENTENCING On a promising spring day, March 26, 1965, the defendants would be sentenced by the judge in Woodford County. He had schedule a full-blown hearing allowing anyone who wanted to speak to be heard. The defense would plead for leniency and the state’s attorney would ask that the maximum sentence be given to those four young killers. Again the place was packed with citizens, friends, relatives and victims alike. The atmosphere was full of tension, and officials were very alert for potential problems. Judge Daniel Daley listened as a member of the defense team made his plea: “Your honor, please leave something for their future. They are not wild animals. They are four boys in a gang that committed a crime.” The People: “I think the facts will justify the extreme penalty if the court desires. These defendants acted like wild animals and society has no alternative than to treat them like wild animals. I recommend a sentence of sixty-years.” SAM HARROD: This is a classical study in juvenile crime. They consumed a fifth of whiskey. Not one of them alone would have committed this crime. The court is aware of the impact of a gang. They are not wild animals they are four boys that drank in a gang and committed a heinous crime. With boys of this age the court cannot deny all hope to return to society.” Judge Daily then commented on the lawyer’s comments before he announced his decision. He told them that he would not impose the death penalty and that he would give them a chance for possible rehabilitation so that they might one day return to be members of the community. Judge Daily sentenced the three oldest defendants to thirty to sixty years in the state penitentiary at Menard, Illinois. Taylor was then turned over to the Illinois Youth Commission. The judge looked over at Taylor, “The court has a right to bring you back when you are seventeen and again when you are twenty-one for further action.” THE FOLLOWING YEARS Sadly, we all know where David Gibbs is, that will never change. We hear of closure in cases like this…but I know from research that that never really comes for the victims. As for the defendants they served a lot less than you may think. That information is available on your computer…I have no interest in it. I will tell you a little bit more about David Waters.
|Jimmie Devine - #A92218 - Recent IDOC Photo|
Monday, February 16, 2015
TERROR IN STARK COUNTY By
Norman V. Kelly
He worked as a mechanic at the Sauder Implement Company located in the business district of Wyoming, Illinois. A small, perhaps sleepy town located in Stark County. Nothing much happened in this town of 1,500 souls, and most folks liked it that way. A farm community, no doubt, but close enough to Peoria, Illinois to enjoy the excitement of a big town but still live in the peace and quite of a small town.
It was the second week of September 1958 when the young man with the ruddy complexion, dark hair and glasses walked in to Dick Howeler’s store to look at some boots. Mr. Howeler and Merlin talked briefly about a size 8 logging boot that Merlin was interested in. “I don’t have that size now, Merlin, but I got a shipment coming in a few days, I’m sure I’ll have it then.” Merlin left the store and walked back to the implement company just down the street where he worked as a mechanic. For the next week or so, Merlin checked in with Dick to see if the shipment had arrived. Finally, disappointed, he decided that he would look for the boots across the street.
Just across the street from Howeler’s place was a jewelry and clothing store owned by Howard ‘Pete’ Fletcher a well-know businessman located in Wyoming, Illinois. Merlin decided that he would try to obtain the boots from him. When he walked in a very pretty lady, dark hair, with glasses smiled at him, but Pete waited on him. He liked the pair he was shown and told Pete, “Save these for me until pay day will ya’?” Pete agreed and Merlin walked back to work. Most of that day and certainly many times after the visit, Merlin thought about the pretty lady that worked in the store. He not only thought about her but fantasized about her as well. Maybe he would get lucky and see her again. Maybe.
SEPTEMBER 29, 1958 WYOMING, ILLINOIS
It was noon when Merlin stepped down from the engine of the John Deere corn picker he’d been working on all morning. He washed his hands, cleaned his glasses and turned to leave the building. “Going to lunch,” he called out to no one in particular. It was a beautiful fall day that fateful day in September. He waved at a few folks that spoke to him. He was a familiar figure in town even though he was somewhat shy and introverted the folks were friendly enough. Oh, he’d heard the jokes about him, the painful remarks, but over all he was content enough. His father, Howard, was a well-respected auctioneer and real estate developer and he felt secure in that knowledge.
He arrived at Dorothy Faufel’s popular café just down the street and sat at the counter. Never a talkative man he spoke when someone spoke to him. After lunch he walked back toward the implement store. On the way he thought again about the pretty lady in the clothing store. Hoping that she would wait on him instead of Pete he entered. “Hello, Merlin,” the pretty lady said, “can I help you?” Merlin basked in her smile as he told her he would like to try on a pair of logging boots. He watched after her as she fetched the size eight boots. “Try these,” she said as she bent over to put them on the floor in front of the bench where Merlin was sitting. Suddenly he reached out and grabbed her arm as he stood up. “I’ve always wanted to hug and kiss you,” he said, pulling her to him with his powerful arms. With both hands she pushed the man away surprised and angered at his sudden attack. He held onto her arm and once again pulled her in close to his body. She struck out at him as she screamed. Quickly his hand went to her mouth. “Don’t scream…don’t scream.”
She continued her struggle and even though her voice was muffled by his rough hand her screaming continued. Now both hands were on her throat squeezing the scream and the life out of the terrified woman. He continued the pressure on her throat until all threat of a scream was gone and she fell limp against him. He let her slip to the floor. Furtively he glanced out the front window. His heart was pounding, he was panicking as he pondered his next move. Quickly he bent over and took both ankles in his hands dragging the woman to a cluttered back room. He stood now looking down at her as she suddenly began to move again. As she struggled her hand grabbed the leg of the ladder attached to a railing on the wall. Quickly Merlin pulled his victim away from the wall causing the ladder to clatter to the floor.
Merlin then reached into his pocket extracting a switchblade that he always carried with him. In one vicious swipe he cut the woman’s throat from ear to ear. In frozen fear and horror he stood for a moment watching the blood flow from the ghastly wound. Jarring himself back to reality he walked over to a small basin where he washed his hands and the knife before pocketing the weapon. Trotting out to the front entrance he bent to look out the window as a group of happy schoolgirls skipped by the front door. Merlin moved over to the door and glanced once again out the window before he slipped out of the door and walked back to work. It was close to one in the afternoon when he climbed up the corn picker to work on the engine. Once up there he saw Howard Fletcher heading for his store. “Afternoon, Merlin,” he said. Merlin waved, “Hi Pete.”
A MATTER FOR THE POLICE
Respectfully the local folks stayed back with very little prompting from the sheriff’s deputy. Chief of Police Ted Knowles was on the scene as Sheriff Burt Eltzroth walked up. The two old friends had a whispered conversation before they both walked inside the store. They stood over the body talking to Dr. Carey. “That looks like a cut maybe eight inches long. As you can see it was ear to ear, and almost severed the head.” The sheriff nodded, “we’ll wait for the coroner to get here, meantime, we need some help from the state lab guys.” The officers checked the rear door, satisfied that it had been bolted and the entry of the killer was from the front door. It was obvious to the investigators that the victim would more than likely have known her killer. “We need to find out who was in the store this morning, all the way up until about one,” the sheriff said. For over an hour the authorities talked to Pete Fletcher. Distraught, Pete managed to make sense out of what he was saying. “When I walked in I saw those boots, I called out to Donna but she didn’t answer. That’s when I walked back and found her”
Pete went through the hand-written receipts that were on a spindle next to the cash register. He soon discovered that the last receipt was for a pair of white work gloves. He showed it to the sheriff. “Have any idea who bought them, Pete?” “No, I didn’t wait on the customer. A lot of times if Donna knew the customer she didn’t bother writing the name on the top.” The men also talked about the boots and during that conversation Pete remembered something that would eventually lead to the killer of Donna Fritch, but that was somewhere down the pike. Deputy Coroner Robert Dunlap arrived on the scene to officially take charge of the body and do his preliminary investigation. As they viewed the scene accidental death and suicide were discussed and dismissed. It was clearly a case of murder plain and simple. It was a heinous murder that occurred somewhere between 12:15 PM and 1:00 PM, Tuesday, September 29, 1958. Pete told the authorities that he had checked the watch-cleaning machine and that Donna had probably turned the machine off a little after noon, as he had directed. So, the authorities surmised the killer was probably known by Donna and that he…or she…had entered the story somewhere between 12:15 and a few minutes before one. As the sheriff looked out at the crowd gathered outside surely he was thinking that the killer could be watching him at that very moment. He also had already formed some ideas of his own which he would keep to himself until the time was right to reveal them. That evening in his office he gathered up a piece of paper and wrote the name of the killer on the paper. He then sealed it in an envelope and put it in his safe. He told his deputies that if anything happened to him they were to open the safe and read the note.
Early the next day the Sheriff and the chief of police were busy with the visiting newspapers reporters and trying to keep some order. The sheriff made calls to the State of Illinois asking for help from their lab. The state then assigned state investigators Tom Howard and Tom Coleman, experts in forensics, to the case. The men from the Illinois Criminal Bureau took over the scene of the crime to work their magic. Trooper Rollin Pugh was also assigned to the case for the duration. So the troops were accounted for, including deputy Jack Lane. The plan was to talk to every living soul who worked in the business district during the day of the murder and branch out from there.
Robbery had been ruled out after Pete took a careful inventory. There was no evidence of any sexual crime, which often helped police narrow down the suspects. The first bit of evidence came in from troopers who reported that a hiker had found a knife along side the highway, which caused quite a furor. However, the knife turned out to be a dead end. The sheriff’s main goal was to find the person that had purchased the white gloves. The word went out with all the folks and the media, but no one admitted the purchase.
Mike Fester, a local mechanic came to the sheriff to tell him what time he had been in the store and was quickly dismissed as a suspect. He had gone in to have his watch repaired. When he found no one in the store he left a note and the watch. Another young girl who thought she had heard a scream as she walked by volunteered the information as well. She told police that she thought about going inside to check but she walked on instead.
Morrow Cox of a local funeral home came to the scene to clean up the blood and transport the body of the victim to his local funeral home. The newspaper reporters were getting their stories and printing quotes from people that knew the victim. The sheriff told the reporters, “I suspect that the towns people will help.” The lead reporter from the Peoria Journal was W.J. O’Connel, a veteran journalist with a reputation for getting his facts straight. Meanwhile the fear spread across the tiny town of Wyoming and seeped out into Stark County. A brutal, dangerous killer was loose in their community and doors were being double locked for the first time in some people’s memories. Families were watching out very closely for their children, and suspicion was rampant. Once the word got out that the killer was probably from right there in Wyoming, the fear deepened.
WHO WAS THE VICTIM?
Once authorities notified the dead woman’s husband, the name of the victim was common knowledge. Her name was Donna Dillon Fritch, the daughter of Mr. And Mrs. Don Dillon. Her husband was George Fritch, who farmed on land between Toulon and Wyoming, Illinois. Mrs. Fritch had two children, Mike, age 5 and Monta Sue age 2. Besides her parents, Donna had a sister, Darlene Robinson, a brother Donald of Wyoming and Dwain of Davenport, Iowa. She was a brilliant student in high school who gave up a scholarship to college to marry young George Fritch.
“I often told Donna that I wished she would give up her job in town. I have no idea who would want to kill her. Everyone in town has been nice to us and Donna never implied that she was afraid of anyone.”
Donna was a popular girl at Wyoming Community High School, graduating in 1951. She was a member of the Eastern Star and an active member of the youth club within the Methodist Church. Both George and Donna were members in the group and according to folks that knew them a “perfect couple.” Actually, Donna had spent three years in Bradford High School before she enrolled at Wyoming her senior year. Folks from both communities mourned the death of this young lady.
Visitation at the Methodist Church was a sad affair that filled the place to overflowing crowds. The basement had to be utilized, and Reverend E.W. Reynolds used a public address system to reach the mourners. The Eastern Star formed an honor guard as the casket was carried to the hearse. Burial took place Thursday at the Wyoming Cemetery where the victim was buried on a shady knoll. Donna Dillon Fritch, beloved wife and devoted mother was all of twenty-four years old when she was murdered. Her death shocked and saddened the entire community. Life may never be the same, folks said, and they were right.
A SEARCH FOR SUSPECTS The Illinois Criminal Bureau had all the evidence they were going to get as they left the scene of the murder. The sheriff knew that it would really be up to the local investigators to run down the suspects and that is what they were busy doing. “I am no further along on a solution than I was Monday,” he told the press. Pete had handed him a receipt for the gloves and that was the main focus. The receipt was for thirty-five cents and one penny for tax. Who had purchased these gloves and why didn’t they come forward? Could this be the person that killed Donna? That was the question that was being bantered about not only by the police but the local folks as well. The sheriff had talked to so many people and had narrowed the murder down as to time. “We have about twenty minutes missing,” he told reporters, “just twenty minutes.” Who was it that had entered the store between twelve twenty and about fifteen minutes or so before one? All they had to do was find that person and they had their killer.
As the days slipped by with no further clues being uncovered the fear in the area of the murder seemed to grow. It was rare to see a woman alone out after dark, and parents kept a tighter grip on their children. Over here in Peoria there was news of Russia testing the Atomic Bomb. The next page contained this headline: GLOVE BUYER FOUND. For the Peoria folks that were following the Wyoming murder this was good news. An old farmer had finally found out that the sheriff was interested in him so he drove into Wyoming to talk to Sheriff Eltzroth. After a long discussion with the elderly man he was told to go on home. The sheriff decided that he would not even reveal the man’s name, but was truly relieved over the fact that he had finally found the buyer of the gloves.
Another headline hit the news and each and every time the local folks hoped that this was the clue the sheriff was looking for to solve the murder. The news was that a Toulon youth had been picked up by police for speeding and ‘hot rodding’ in Fairview, Illinois. The officers found three very sharp knives in the car and of course were immediately suspicious. They took in Ralph Smith and his companions. Sheriff Virgil Ball, who was famous because of the case of the missing Fay Rawley and the buried Cadillac in the strip mines, called Sheriff Eltzroth. Could these knives be connected with the Stark County murder? Turns out they were not, and all suspicion that Smith was involved was quickly dropped. He had his problems about the charge of the concealed weapons but he was innocent of any other problems in Stark County. Another dead-end.
Several investigators had attended the visitation and the funeral of Donna Fritch. They walked among the visitors just to see what they could hear or see. The officers did not advance their investigation, but it was something they felt they had to do. The coroner’s inquest was coming up and it was hoped that something might come of that. It was Thursday and the sheriff still had hope that they could solve this murder within the next few days. Of course he told the press that he had no idea as to the identity of the killer. However, like all wise investigators, he never revealed everything he knew, and he felt that he knew plenty.
The sheriff and the chief met with the entire family of Donna Fritch to discuss what they might know about any of Donna’s acquaintances. They talked about people she knew in high school looking for any person that might have some reason to dislike Donna. They found none. They spoke at length with Mr. Fletcher trying to find any information about a customer that might have something against her as well. All of this talk netted the investigators nothing. Everyone seemed to like Donna Fritch so they moved on. Of course they were looking for a motive for murder and so far they had none whatsoever.
The mood in the area was somber and even at the football game between Toulon and Wyoming something was missing. The folks were trying to get back to their normal lives but it was not easy to do. The next step was to see if some of the men in town and the surrounding area would be willing to take lie detector tests. Even if they were not admissible, the tests are viable investigating tools. The sheriff began setting those up, using the experts in the polygraph from the State of Illinois.
An all male jury of six elderly were sworn in by Deputy Coroner Dunlap at 7:30 that Monday evening in Toulon, Illinois. Reporters from a half dozen newspapers were there along with a room full of spectators. Seven witnesses were subpoenaed, six men and one woman. Most of the men investigating the case were there, along with some family members of the deceased. Three doctors testified, one of them read the report from the pathologist, Doctor Lowell Martin. The doctor stated in his report that the death of Donna Fritch was due to bleeding from a massive gash across the neck that extended virtually from ear to ear.
Other witnesses included Morrow Cox of the local funeral home and of course, Harold Fletcher. Pete told the jury about Donna, and the fact that she had worked for him for almost seven months. It was very obvious that Pete felt the loss of this fine young lady. Doctor Joe Unhold indicated to the jury that there was no possibility of an accident or suicide. The Jury was sworn by the coroner and handed the case for deliberation. After their coffee they came back with an open verdict. “We the jury find that Donna Fritch died from extensive bleeding from a neck wound caused by a person or person unknown with an unknown weapon. We recommend that the authorities continue the investigation into her death.”
THE INVESTIGATION CONTINUES
Every day the local folks expected to hear some good news that would ease the fear they were feeling, but the sheriff had nothing to report. After three lie detector tests, the sheriff said, “I can’t say that we are getting any closer.”
On October 9, 1958 the World learned that Pope Pius XII had died. In small towns like Wyoming and Toulon Catholics mourned and flocked to their churches to pray. That day the investigators were very busy and unknown to the local folks they would soon have some very exciting news to hear… exciting indeed.
OCTOBER 10, 1958 TOULON, ILLINOIS
KNIFE SLAYING IS CONFESSED screamed the headline in the Journal Star here in Peoria, Illinois. All the small town newspapers around the Wyoming area had a similar headline. Folks in all the surrounding counties breathed a sigh of relief as the details of the killer’s confession were made public. As they read the news a giant weight of fear seemed to lift from their hearts.
Pictures of Sheriff Burt Eltzroth with the man that confessed to the murder of Donna Fritch were prominent in most of the local papers. Here in Peoria a young man with dark hair and glasses looked out at us during breakfast. Under the photograph the text stated that the man who confessed to killing Donna Fritch was a local man from Wyoming named Martin Leadley. Truth is the captioned was wrong. The name of the killer of Donna Fritch was Merlin W. Leadley, a twenty-seven year-old man that worked at the Sauder Implement Company just down the block from the scene of the murder. In rushing to print the first name must have gotten muddled.
It was during a routine polygraph test of Merlin Leadley held in the office of the sheriff that the subject broke down and confessed to the brutal murder. It was around five o’clock the evening of October 10, 1958 that the break- through came and the news spread like water bursting through a dam. Shortly after the confession was signed the state’s attorney took the admitted killer before Justice Of The Peace Lambert for a preliminary hearing. The prisoner was bound over to the grand jury and incarcerated in the Stark County Jail without bond. I think that if America had been listening we could have heard the sigh of relief coming from Stark County.
State’s Attorney Eugene Rennick suggested that the killer be held without bond for formal charging by the grand jury. The court agreed and the town now had to await that outcome. It seemed pretty evident to observers that this man was eligible for the death penalty and all legal avenues had to be properly traveled. Bits and pieces of the ongoing investigation were told to reporters and the community as well. Merlin had been picked up at his place of employment and taken over for his lie detector tests. All of his rights were told to him, and the slow process of the polygraph was instigated by William Abernathy, the highly respected polygraph operator for the State of Illinois. After the preliminary statements the actual interrogation began in earnest. The operator then told the investigators where the inconsistencies were in the first round of questioning. The operator then re-questioned the suspect and finally in the late afternoon, Merlin Ward Leadley confessed to the murder. Reporters, including Bernadine Martin from the Journal Star talked to a lot of the folks around town. Many told her that they had “slight suspicions” about Merlin but never thought he was capable of murder. According to Bernadine most of the people were surprised that he was able to spend those ten days after the murder walking among them, going to work, eating at the local café, and showing no signs of guilt. Even his best friend Arlo Bernard said, “He sure fooled me. Merlin was with us when we would talk about the murder, but he rarely put his two-cents in the conversation. Once when we were walking along I mentioned that they should execute the killer of Donna in the electric chair. Merlin said, ‘That’s exactly what he should get.’”
His fellow workers chimed in that he never acted any different after the murder. “I saw no noticeable reaction,” the worker said. Up at the café where Merlin ate every day after the murder the opinion was the same. Dorothy Faufel, the owner said, “ He ate here all the time. He was never a talkative guy, but I certainly saw no change in him and nobody else did either.”
The folks were very talkative to Bernadine, and each and every one of them expressed their great relief that they had caught the killer. “I thought he might be a guy that just stopped by and was long gone,” one of the men said. “A murder like this just does not happen in a little town like ours and we were scared to death, I can tell you that.” Arlo knew Merlin for a long time. He and a lot of folks were aware that Merlin was ‘different’ maybe even retarded, but a killer…no way.
MORE INFORMATION SURFACES.
Sheriff Burt Eltzroth finally revealed the note he had written and put in his safe. Here is what the sheriff said: “I believe the murder of Donna Fritch to be Merlin Leadley of Wyoming.” The sheriff was certainly aware that back in 1947 Merlin was suspected of molesting a young woman. There was also a lot of talk about the suspicious death of Merlin’s sister, but gossip in a small town is just that…gossip.
It turns out that the key to the mystery rested with Harold ‘Pete’ Fletcher. It was he that noticed the boots on the bench and immediately recalled that Merlin Leadly wanted a pair of those boots. “He told me to save him a pair until payday.” It took some time for Pete to reason it all through, but when it came to him, he talked it over with the investigators. Shortly after that Merlin was asked to take the lie detector, which he agreed to do. Information from the confession began to filter around the community. It seems Merlin was certainly no ladies man, and that he told the investigators that all he wanted to do “Was hug and kiss her.” When she resisted he panicked, choked her to stop her from screaming, and then slashed her throat to silence her forever. He also told the sheriff, “I never tried to hug her before.” So that surely indicates that Merlin was well aware of the pretty clerk in the jewelry and clothing store. Later it would come out that Merlin was pretty much obsessed with his thoughts about Donna Fritch…and it cost her her very life.
And so the shock and fear slowly subsided. A poll was taken by the Peoria reporter and not one person came forth to demand that Merlin be executed. Here is what State’s Attorney Eugene of Stark County said. “I don’t believe there is a person in StarkCounty who wants that boy sent to the chair.”
Is that surprising to you? This man that they call a boy, who is after all twenty-seven years old killed a beloved wife and mother of two small children. Over here in Peoria folks are more used to murder and the consensus here was that this was a capital crime and that he should be executed for murder. Ten men from Peoria who were all convicted of murder were executed here in Peoria, Illinois. Eight of those men met their fates at the end of a rope and two of them were executed in the electric chair. Of course nobody in Peoria knew Merlin Leadley like the folks up in Stark County. One housewife in Wyoming may have summarized local opinion when she said, “He belongs in an institution for the criminally insane.”
THE LEGAL PROCESS
The State can’t just whisk a confessed killer off to jail without ‘Due Process Of The Law.” After the hoopla over the confession the arraignment was held on October 25, 1958. Over here in Peoria, Illinois the headlines screamed that at least 85 miners were known dead in a Centralia, Illinois coal mine. The grand jury had voted a five-count murder indictment and now Merlin Ward Leadley came before Henry Ingram, the Peoria County Circuit Judge. The courtroom was crowded over there in Stark County when the prisoner was led in by the sheriff. He had no shackles or handcuffs. which surprised the two Peoria reporters.
The confessed killer wore a brown shirt, red jacket, gray trousers and was wearing loafers. He stood alone in front of the judge, his head down, not looking about.
“Do you have an attorney?” In a low voice the young man answered the judge, “No.” The judge glanced out at the crowd then said, “Do you have means to employ one?” “No.”
The hearing was delayed as the judge left the bench. When he came back the prisoner stood before him once again. " I have appointed Floyd A. Demanes to defend you. He is currently the Peoria County Public Defender, and has been since 1956.” A moment later the judge said, “There will be no further action on this case until you have had time to confer with your attorney.”
The state’s attorney then asked the defendant to sign for a copy of his confession and the indictments.
On the way out a reporter asked Merlin what he should get in the way of punishment. “Anything I get I will probably deserve.” The quote made all of the newspapers.
A QUIET TIME
After the hearing the prisoner went back to his cell where he would remain until called before the court for sentencing. There was talk of having a state psychiatrist meet with him, and of course there would be visits from his court appointed attorney. Merlin was a model prisoner and spent his time basically doing nothing as his fate was being decided. About the only discussion going on concerning Leadley was whether or not he should be imprisoned for life or executed. The folks that actually knew him felt that he was simply not a candidate for the chair because of his lack of mental stability. The public defender clearly let it be known that he agreed with the guilty plea and told the reporters something that he would repeat later on the record. “Merlin Leadley is a loved-starved youth who was the butt of small town jokesters for most of his twenty- seven years.”
THE SENTENCING HEARING
NOVEMBER 18, 1958 TOULON, ILLINOIS
Wearing the same outfit that he wore during his arraignment, Merlin Ward Leadley was guided into the courtroom of Henry J. Ingram in Stark County. The courtroom was packed with reporters and the citizens that could cram themselves inside to witness the drama. There were no wild demonstrations, no threat of mob violence in the civilized towns of Wyoming and Toulon. The people were satisfied that the judge would handle the situation and in the end justice would be served.
The court addressed the defendant who stood now with his public defender. “Do you understand that you are not compelled to enter a guilty plea and that you understand your rights?” “Yes.” “I have three choices in sentencing you. I can sentence you to not less that fourteen years or give you a life sentence. You can also be sentenced to be executed for the crime of first degree murder.”
Leadley then admitted that he had not been beaten or coerced into pleading guilty and confessing to the murder of Donna Fitch. Also that he voluntarily had waived his rights to a trial and that the state had made no promises in exchange for the guilty plea. “I will now hear evidence concerning mitigated or aggravated circumstances in this case.”
THE STATE State’s Attorney Eugene Rennick put on four witnesses. The first was Ernest Robson the official crime photographer for the State of Illinois. William Abernathy the polygraph expert explained the procedure he undertook and the dramatic confession of the confessed killer. Thomas Howerton, the chief investigator for the department of criminal investigation took the stand. He outlined the investigation and the steps that were taken to track down the killer of Donna Fritch. The hero of the hour, Sheriff Burt Eltzroth was the last witness. He summarized the case and brought it up to date for the court.
THE DEFENSE Frankly there was no attempt at any defense since the defendant had confessed the murder and had instructed his court appointed attorney that he wanted to plead guilty. Attorney Floyd A. Demanes of Peoria stood before the judge. He waited a moment for the crowd to quiet down.
“Your honor, in my many years I have never encountered such a case as this one.” He had the rapt attention of everyone in the courtroom as he looked over at his client, Merlin Ward Leadley. “Mr. Leadley wishes that his plea of guilty be entered into the record. He feels the deepest regret for his actions in the death of Donna Fritch. The death of Donna Fritch was tragic. There is nothing that we can do to undo that act. What we now have at stake is the life of Merlin Leadley. The defendant is a shy, repressive and a normally uncommunicative and mentally retarded young man. Since childhood he has never afforded association with boys and girls his age.” The attorney walked over just behind Merlin and pointed, “He has never had a date with a girl in his twenty-seven years of life.”
The lawyer let that sink in as he walked over toward the spectators before he turned to look at his client. The defense attorney gestured with both hands as he walked back to the lectern. “He was withdrawn from school in the seventh grade and I ask you what was his motive?” Looking over at the jury he answered his own question. “It was a want of love and affection.”
After a hesitation, the public defender went on to explain, “When Donna Fritch repulsed him he panicked and he killed her. I ask that this boy be confined to the Illinois State Penitentiary as I am positive that he will not be able to adjust to a normal life.” The crowd was silent as they looked from the lawyer to the defendant taking in everything he said. “He was the butt of small town jokesters for many years and was driven to a world within himself.” The defense then recommended that his client be sentenced to ninety-nine years in the Illinois State Penitentiary.
Once the defense attorney finished the judge ordered the defendant to rise. “Do you have anything to say?” “No.” The judge then sentenced the killer of Donna Fritch to ninety-nine years. “You will become eligible for parole in thirty-three years,” the judge said before he banged his gavel. The case against Merlin Ward Leadley was over.
TRUTH IN SENTENCING
The years have slipped away and perhaps the people in Stark County have long forgotten about Donna Fritch and the man/boy that murdered her. Certainly her loved ones haven’t but surely most of the other folks have. I hope that if this story is every printed in Stark County that the people take a moment to remember Donna Fritch. A young mother, a loving wife taken from her husband and two small children at the very moment when they needed her the most. She was a lovely young woman that wanted only two things, to live her life with her husband and be the best mother possible for her two kids. That dream ended with the slash of a switchblade yielded by a man that the defense attorney said only wanted “love and affection.” I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Merlin Ward Leadley was sent to the state penitentiary on November 18, 1958. He would be eligible for parole, according to the judge in thirty-three years, or when the killer was sixty-years old.
Here are the facts: Merlin Ward Leadley, Inmate #C 10202 entered the prison on 11-18-1958. He was sentenced on a five-count indictment for murder to 99 years. He was discharged on a 3A discharge, which included parole on April 4, 1983. You can do the math, which shows that he spent a total of Twenty-five years for the murder of Donna Fritch. He got out when he was fifty-two, not sixty.
I decided not to try to locate him, which I could do rather easily and have no idea if he is dead or alive. I can only personally hope that he served some “hell on earth time,” for his heinous crime. I have no way of knowing personally but I certainly feel that the people who loved Donna agonized over her death and miss her to this very day. This story is dedicated to her memory, may she never be forgotten.
NORMAN V. KELLY firstname.lastname@example.org P.O. Box 1282 Peoria, Il. 61651-1282