With this post to our Local History Room weblog, we continue our series on a pair of sensational deaths that occurred in Pekin, Illinois, during the Prohibition Era. The Local History Room columns in this series, entitled “The Third Degree,” originally ran in the Saturday Pekin Daily Times from Sept. 15, 2012, to March 2, 2013.
THE THIRD DEGREE
By Jared Olar
Skinner sees the judge
Formerly an East Peoria police officer, in 1930 Charles O. Skinner was appointed a deputy sheriff by Tazewell County Sheriff James J. Crosby. During his time in law enforcement, Skinner had put his share of criminals behind bars.
In a dramatic reversal of roles, on the night of Sept. 6, 1932, Skinner found himself behind bars – under arrest and awaiting arraignment for the murder of East Peoria miner Martin Virant, who had been found dead and hanging in his cell at the Tazewell County Jail on Sept . 1.
Autopsies and a Chicago criminologist determined that Virant was already dead when he was hanged, and Skinner was accused of beating Virant to death while he was in custody as a potential witness to the murder of Lew Nelan. Upon his arrest, Skinner was taken to the Peoria County Jail as a precaution, due to the strong feelings that had been aroused in Pekin and East Peoria at the news of Virant’s murder.
At 11:20 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 8, Skinner was arraigned in the court of Judge W. H. Williams. Not many noticed when Pekin Police Chief Ralph Goar brought Skinner to the courthouse, but the Pekin Daily Times learned of his arrival almost immediately because Goar stopped his car in front of the Times offices.
The Daily Times that day reported, “There were but few persons around the stairway entrance leading to Justice Williams’ court this morning when Chief of Police Ralph Goar, Officer Harry Donahue, Attorney W. J. Reardon, counsel for the defendant, and Skinner arrived here this morning from Peoria, about 11:1 o’clock.
“A short time prior to the beginning of court proceedings, while those in the justice office were exchanging remarks, Deputy Skinner said, ‘This is the first time for me. I have never before been arrested in all my life.’
“’Well, I am sorry,’ said Justice Williams, ‘that I had to be responsible for it, in a way, but it was my duty to issue the warrant.’
“’I don’t blame you one particle,’ said Skinner. ‘That was your duty and you could not do anything else. I sure have no ill feeling toward you.’”
Reardon then asked that Skinner’s bail be set at $5,000, saying that Skinner was not a flight risk. State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg responded that the question of an appropriate bail bond should await the findings of the coroner’s inquest into Virant’s death, which Dunkelberg expected to take place the following day (as it happened, the inquest would be delayed until the following week).
Dunkelberg added, however, “that if the court felt it a duty to release the defendant on bond, he would not offer further objection. He did, however, think the bond should be placed at $30,000, and a $5,000 bond was grossly inadequate,” the Daily Times reported.
Judge Williams decided to fix Skinner’s bond at $20,000, and Skinner posted bond shortly after and returned to active duty as a Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputy. “For the present Skinner will remain as a deputy, Sheriff Crosby said this afternoon,” the Daily Times reported.
Also appearing in Tazewell County felony court that day was East Peoria speakeasy operator John Petje, who along with Frank Keayes Jr. and Edward Hufeld had been arrested for the murder of Lew Nelan.
Petje “appeared in the court of Justice W. H. Williams this morning,” reported the Sept. 8, 1932 Pekin Daily Times, “and his preliminary hearing was continued to September 15 on account of the absence of important witnesses. He was represented by Attorney J. P. St. Cerny. Petje, Frank Keayes Jr., and Edward Hufeld are out on bonds of $15,000 each in connection with the Nelan murder.”
Later the same day, Martin Virant’s family at last was able to bury the body of their loved one, at 2 p.m. in Parkview Cemetery in Peoria. Virant’s funeral and graveside services had taken place on Sunday, but Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen had delayed burial so a more thorough investigation of Virant’s death could be completed.
Virant’s family indicated that they intended to file a wrongful death civil suit against Sheriff J. J. Crosby and his deputies after Virant’s inquest.
Next week: A tale of two juries.