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
Six indictments in September 1932
On Friday night, Sept. 16, 1932, the Tazewell County grand jury completed its inquiry into the shocking murder of Martin Virant at the Tazewell County Jail and the cover-up of his death, which deputies had tried to make look like a suicide.
The next day, newspaper front pages throughout central Illinois announced the grand jury’s decision.
“3 PEKIN DEPUTIES INDICTED,” declared the Peoria Journal, with the subheadline, “Fleming, Lee and Skinner held for manslaughter in jail death of Virant who had been beaten.” (The Sept. 17 Peoria Journal devoted more than half of its front page to the story of the indictments.)
“HOLD 3 FOR DEATH OF MARTIN VIRANT,” announced the Pekin Daily Times, with the subheadline, “Manslaughter indictments against Skinner, Lee and Fleming; all furnish bonds.”
The Daily Times reported, “The Tazewell county September grand jury, in a partial report to Judge John M. Niehaus in the circuit court this morning shortly after 11 o’clock, returned indictments against Deputy Sheriffs C. O. Skinner, E. L. Fleming, and Frank Lee, special agent of the Chicago & Northwestern railway, who also holds a deputy sheriff’s commission, charging them with manslaughter in connection with the death of Martin Virant, East Peoria miner who was found hanging in his cell in the Tazewell county jail on the afternoon of September 1. The report to the court was made by D. M. Shivlar (sic), of Delavan, foreman of the grand jury.”
Soon after the indictments were handed down, the three accused deputies appeared in court with their attorneys, and each posted $10,000 bond and were released. Tazewell County Sheriff James J. Crosby immediately returned them to active duty. “Sheriff Crosby says that he sees no reason why the deputies under indictment should be dispensed with and they are still on duty at the sheriff’s office,” the Sept. 19 Pekin Daily Times reported.
The sensational nature of these events was increased even further by the fact that one of the deputies was a former sheriff of Tazewell County. According to the Journal, “Ernest L. Fleming was a former resident of Delavan. He was elected sheriff of Tazewell county about six years ago. Two years ago, when J. J. Crosby, present sheriff, was elected to that office, Fleming was made first deputy under Sheriff Crosby.”
As for Skinner, he was a former East Peoria police officer and was appointed deputy by Crosby in 1930. Lee, however, had only been a deputy for about a year or so. “More than a week ago he left his activities in the vicinity of Pekin, and it is said that he has been stationed in the vicinity of Benld, Ill., the southern terminus of the Chicago & Northwestern railway.”
All three deputies pleaded not guilty when they appeared before Judge Niehaus on Monday, Sept. 26. Given the unusual publicity surrounding the discovery and investigation of Martin Virant’s death, “Counsel for the defendants, Jesse Black and W. J. Reardon are expected to ask for a change of venue when the case comes to trial, to some other county,” the Sept. 23, 1932 Pekin Daily Times reported.
Meanwhile, the grand jury reconvened on Monday, Sept. 19, and took up the related case of the murder of Lewis P. Nelan, who was beaten and then left on railroad tracks in East Peoria to be run over. Virant had been brought in for questioning as a possible witness to Nelan’s death.
As in the Virant case, the grand jury spent a few days on Nelan’s murder. On Saturday, Sept. 24, the September Tazewell County grand jury completed its work. That afternoon, the Pekin Daily Times announced: “Indict Three For Lew Nelan Murder . . .”
The Daily Times went on to say, “A previous partial report had been made to the court and in the final report this afternoon the following indictments were returned:
“John Petji (sic), Edward Hufeld and Frank Keayes Jr., charged with the death of Lewis Nelan, indicted on charges of murder.” Petje posted 10 percent of a $15,000 bond on Monday, Sept. 26, and was released pending trial. Hufeld’s bond was set at the same amount, and he posted bail on Saturday, Oct. 8.
Following the initial avalanche of front page stories and banner headlines during most of the month of September, reports on the Nelan and Virant murders became infrequent as the cases proceeded steadily through the courts. The next noteworthy development came on Oct. 19, 1932, when attorneys for the three indicted deputies gave notice of their intention to move for a change of venue.
The attorneys filed their motion for a change of venue on Oct. 24, and the Pekin Daily Times reported on the change of venue hearing on the front page of the Oct. 31 edition, with a story headlined, “Too Many Read Times, Argues Lawyer, For Deputies to Get Fair Trial In Tazewell Co.”
Next week: The deputies prepare their defense.