The Third Degree: Chapter 23: The Nelan murder case finally goes to trial

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.


By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Chapter Twenty-three

The Nelan murder case finally goes to trial

In the autumn of 1933, more than a year after the gruesome death of Lewis P. Nelan of East Peoria, Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff took action to bring Nelan’s killers to trial.

Nelan had gotten into a drunken brawl with East Peoria speakeasy operator John Petje, who struck Nelan on the head with a metal pipe and knocked him unconscious. Believing that Nelan was dead, Petje and his accomplices Frank Keayes Jr. and Edward Hufeld tried to cover up what had happened by carrying Nelan to the nearby railroad tracks so he would be run over.

Nelan’s death on Aug. 28, 1932, had been overshadowed by the far more scandalous and sensational death of Nelan’s acquaintance Martin Virant, who had been brought in for questioning as a potential witness to Nelan’s death and then savagely beaten while in custody at the Tazewell County Jail.

The furor over Virant’s death and the attempt to prosecute three of the deputies believed responsible was the focus of attention throughout the fall of 1932 and the winter and spring of 1932-33. After the deputies were acquitted on March 5, 1932, groups of Tazewell County citizens made attempts to oust Sheriff James J. Crosby and his deputies, but by September it was evident that the only recourse for outraged citizens was to wait until the end of Crosby’s term in office in 1934.

With the Virant controversy subsiding, Nelan’s murder returned to center stage – and also returned to the pages of the Pekin Daily Times. On Oct. 10, 1933, the Daily Times published a summary of upcoming cases on the jury calendar, noting that, “The most important case on the calendar is that of Petji (sic), Keayes and Hufeldt (sic), charged with the murder of Lewis Nelan of East Peoria. State’s Attorney Elliff says he will make an effort to have this case come to trial, but it may go over to a later term.”

The trial once more was delayed, this time until the December jury calendar. On Dec. 2, the Daily Times reported that the Nelan case was the first on the calendar, and on Monday, Dec. 4, the newspaper ran a front page story headlined, “Trial of Lewis Nelan Murder Case Starts Tuesday Morning.”

That story reported on a very important development in the case: Elliff had decided to drop all charges against Keayes and Hufeld.

The Times reported, “When the case of John Petje, Frank Keayes and Edward Hufelt (sic) . . . was called in the circuit court this morning, P. A. D’Arcy, counsel for Keayes and Hufelt, withdrew from the case. He had been appointed by the court to defend Keayes and Hufelt. Following the withdrawal of Attorney D’Arcy, Attorney J. P. St. Cerny, counsel for Petje, moved the court to grant a continuance.”

Rather than accept yet another continuance in this case that had already been delayed a year and three months, Elliff moved to have the case against Keayes and Hufeld dismissed. Judge Joseph E. Daily granted the motion and then set the trial for the following day.

Though he had avoided further delay in the case, Elliff’s decision was likely to make the task of prosecuting Petje much more difficult. As the Times explained, the state was “in possession of alleged confessions by Keayes and Hufelt (sic), but these cannot be introduced as evidence against Petje, it is claimed, because he was not present when they were made.”

Jury selection got under way at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 5, but the process was unusually slow-going. Only four jurors were approved that day: Harold Ruth, Tremont, laborer; P. A. Barnes, Hopedale, garage proprietor; Carl Ary, Green Valley, truck driver; Irvan Kunkel, Pekin, mechanic.

The next day seven jurors were accepted: H.R. Clayton, Cincinnati Township, laborer; R. D. VanNattan, Pekin, laborer; Clark Braden, Morton, machinist; Orin Aupperle, Morton, farmer; Albert Herman, Tremont, merchant; and David Hasty, Mackinaw, painter.

The 12th and final juror was finally approved around 10 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 7 – Edward Erxleben, Pekin, unemployed. Elliff and St. Cerny then made their opening statements, and the state began to call its witnesses at 11:30 a.m.

The first witness was Hubert G. Brown, special agent for the C. & I. M. railroad, who had assisted with the investigation of Nelan’s deaths. It was Brown who had found Nelan’s hat near a rear door of Petje’s speakeasy very soon after Nelan’s body was run over on the P. & P. U. railroad tracks in East Peoria.

However, Brown’s memory was much the worse after the 15-month delay since Nelan’s death, and when Petje’s attorney, James P. St. Cerny, showed him the hat, Brown said he couldn’t be sure it was the one he’d found. Similarly, Mary Peckenpaugh, who had identified the hat as Nelan’s during the initial investigation, told the court she wasn’t positive the hat shown in court was Nelan’s.

Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen, shown in this 1928 photograph, was a key figure in the investigations and criminal prosecutions pertaining to the 1932 deaths of Lewis P. Nelan and Martin Virant. Photo by Konisek, Feb. 26, 1928, Peoria

Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen, shown in this 1928 photograph, was a key figure in the investigations and criminal prosecutions pertaining to the 1932 deaths of Lewis P. Nelan and Martin Virant. Photo by Konisek, Feb. 26, 1928, Peoria

The state next called Dr. L. F. Teter, who had conducted the autopsy on Nelan’s body, and former Tazewell County Coroner Dr. A. E. Allen, who had headed the death investigation. Teter and Allen testified that the injuries to Nelan’s head were not caused by the train that ran over him, but had been caused by a blunt instrument. The blow to his head was not enough to cause death, they also testified.

Several other witnesses were called to the stand that day, including Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputy Charles O. Skinner, one of the deputies who had been acquitted of manslaughter charges in connection with the “third degree” torture death of Martin Virant. Skinner told the jurors of his part in the investigation of Nelan’s death that had led to the arrests and indictment of Petje, Keayes and Hufeld.

Court was dismissed at 4:15 p.m., and the trial recessed until Friday morning.

Next week: A sudden ending to Petje’s trial.

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