The Third Degree: Chapter 25: Aftermath and Epilogue

With this post to our Local History Room weblog, we conclude 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
Library assistant

Chapter Twenty-five

Aftermath and Epilogue

Voters finally achieve deputies’ ouster

The failure to convict Deputies Ernest L. Fleming and Charles O. Skinner of Martin Virant’s death provoked abortive attempts during the spring and fall of 1933 to oust Tazewell County Sheriff James J. Crosby and remove his entire force of deputies.

It was no surprise, then, that Crosby decided not to run for re-election in 1934. Crosby had two very good reasons not to run again: in addition to the simmering discontent over the Virant affair, Crosby’s health remained fragile following the nearly fatal heart attack he had suffered in November of 1932. To replace of Crosby, the Tazewell County Democrats put up Lawrence Lancaster, while the Republicans opted for Pekin Chief of Police Ralph C. Goar.

In 1934, voter antipathy toward the Republican Party over the Great Depression was still very strong, and the midterm elections that year would again prove to be a near total rout nationally as well as at the state and local levels. In light of those facts, it is a testament to the intensity of popular dissatisfaction with the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department that Goar’s photograph would end up on the front page of the Nov. 7, 1934 Pekin Daily Times under the headline, “ONLY G.O.P WINNER.”

The election of Goar ensured that the county would get a sheriff who would “clean house” and replace the deputies who were seen by many as Crosby’s cronies. Evidently voters did not trust that would happen if they replaced the Democrat Crosby with another Democrat. Goar also had an added advantage with the voters: He was the law enforcement officer who had personally arrested Deputy Skinner and had provided the grand jury with important testimony against him.

Sheriff Goar did not waste any time in getting around to the housecleaning at the Sheriff’s Department – on Dec. 1, 1934, his first day in office, it was out with the old and in with the new.

“Deputy Sheriff Fleming, who is retiring,” reported that day’s Pekin Daily Times, “will move to his residence property at 614 S. Eleventh street and Sheriff-Elect Ralph Goar will move into the jail residence . . . . Goar will assume the duties of sheriff. Elmer Eiler will be the office deputy under Sheriff Goar and Earl H. Whitmore of Pekin and Arthur Puterbaugh of Mackinaw are to be the outside deputies, Mr. Whitmore being the chief deputy. Sheriff Crosby, Deputies Fleming and Skinner will remain in Pekin, but have made no announcement of their future plans . . . .”

Elliff departs, but no comeback for Dunkelberg

The failed prosecutions of Fleming and Skinner, and the unraveling of the case against Petje, also did little to endear voters to Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff, who perhaps wisely did not seek a second term in 1936. Instead, it was a race between Democratic candidate R. L. Russell, a former mayor of Pekin, and former State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg, who had been defeated by Elliff in 1932.

However, Dunkelberg again was defeated at the polls. He would not seek his old office again, but would remain in Pekin, where he was a part of the law firm of Dunkelberg and Rust, located on the second floor of the old Pekin Times building. Dunkelberg died on March 27, 1976, at age 79. He is buried in Lakeside Cemetery in Pekin.

As for Elliff, he also never again sought his former job of state’s attorney. In 1940, he joined the U.S. Department of Justice, returning to his law practice in Pekin in 1947 and becoming an active community leader. He died on Dec. 3, 1993, at age 88, and also is buried in Lakeside Cemetery.

Tazewell County State's Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg lost his bid to regain his office in the 1936 elections. Photo by Konisek, Feb. 26, 1928, Peoria

Tazewell County State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg lost his bid to regain his office in the 1936 elections. Photo by Konisek, Feb. 26, 1928, Peoria

Poor health, heart troubles claim Black, Reardon, Allen, and Crosby

Most of the other main players in this drama died much earlier than Dunkelberg and Elliff. After successfully defending Deputies Fleming and Skinner in the Virant manslaughter trial, Jesse Black Jr.’s health failed. Following several months of illness, Black died on Oct. 11, 1935, at age 64. His fellow attorney in the Virant case, William J. Reardon, died of heart trouble on June 27, 1941, the day before his 63rd birthday. Black and Reardon are both buried in Lakeside Cemetery.

After losing his re-election bid in 1932, Tazewell County Coroner Dr. Arthur E. Allen, who investigated the Lewis Nelan and Martin Virant deaths, continued his medical practice in the Green Valley until 1946, when he moved to California. He served as house physician for the Santa Fe Railroad at Los Angeles until suffering a heart attack in March 1961 from which he never fully recovered. He died at age 82 on May 30, 1963, in West Los Angeles, and is buried in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

Not quite five years after the end of his single term as Tazewell County Sheriff, James J. Crosby at age 72 succumbed on May 23, 1939, to the heart problems that had plagued him for several years. The Pekin Daily Times published a front page obituary and tribute to Crosby, recalling his many years as a local teacher and school administrator, and respectfully passing over the controversies of his time as sheriff. He is buried in Lakeside Cemetery.

Fleming, Skinner, and Garber summoned to Highest Court

The Daily Times showed similar respect for Fleming, who died at age 81 on March 22, 1955. His obituary notes only that he was “a former Tazewell county sheriff for several terms and a baker here for many years.” He was entombed in Lakeside Mausoleum.

After Sheriff Goar dismissed him from the Sheriff’s Department, Skinner later moved back to East Peoria, where he died at age 54 on June 7, 1938. He is buried in Springdale Cemetery in Peoria. Deputy J. Hardy Garber also left the area after Goar dismissed him. He served in both the Army and Navy during World War II, settling in Des Moines, Iowa, after the war. He died on March 26, 1968, at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Iowa City, and was buried in Glendale Veterans Cemetery in Des Moines.

What of the Nelan defendants?

Of the three defendants in the Nelan case, Edward Hufeld later served in the Army during World War II, returning to East Peoria after the war. He never married, and he died at age 62 at Proctor Hospital in Peoria on March 20, 1965, being buried in Fondulac Cemetery, East Peoria. Frank Keayes Jr. moved to Pekin, dying at age 82, also at Proctor Hospital, on Dec. 26, 1982, also being buried in Fondulac Cemetery.

As for John Petje, following his acquittal on charges of murder, he remained in East Peoria and lived until age 62. On March 26, 1943, the Pekin Daily Times reported on page 2 that “Mr. Tetje (sic) was found yesterday afternoon at 2:30 o’clock hanged by a light cord fastened to a door sill in his house on S. Main Street.” The following day, the Daily Times reported that a coroner’s inquest jury ruled Petje’s death a suicide “while despondent over ill health.”

The reports of Petje’s death do not mention the Nelan case, saying only that Petje was “a prominent East Peoria citizen” without explaining what had made him “prominent.” He is buried in Parkview Cemetery in Peoria, the same cemetery where the family of Martin Virant laid him rest.

APPENDIX AND AUTHOR’S AFTERWORD

The decision to re-tell the scandalous history of the Lew Nelan and Martin Virant killings came about in the late summer or early autumn of 2012, when David Perkins of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society shared with the Pekin Public Library copies of some old Pekin and Peoria newspaper articles and funeral home records pertaining to the Nelan and Virant cases. At first it appeared that the stories could be succinctly reviewed in two or three weekly “From the Local History Room” columns in the Saturday Pekin Daily Times. As I researched these stories, however, it became clear that they needed a much fuller treatment which would call for an extended re-telling in a weekly serial format in the newspaper.

Prior to the publication of the “Third Degree” serial in the Pekin Daily Times in 2012-2013, the deaths of Nelan and Virant had been all but forgotten in Pekin. The late Robert Dubois, during his tenure as Tazewell County Coroner, once told me of the Nelan and Virant cases in a conversation with me around 2003. Dubois, who had read the inquest file on Virant’s death, explained at some length how the evidence and observations at the death scene made obvious that Virant was already dead before he was hanged. Though I found the facts Dubois recounted to be remarkable, I did not commit these details to memory (not even the victims’ names) and soon forgot our conversation, and only remembered that he had talked about it while I was in the process of researching their deaths for the Pekin Public Library’s weekly “From the Local History Room” column.

I doubt very many others in our day besides men such as Coroner Dubois or those with an interest in local history knew of Nelan and Virant and the controversies surrounding their deaths, which were probably all but forgotten in Pekin and Tazewell County prior to 2012. Although the saga frequently was front-page news in 1932-1933, the long and sorrowful story was reduced to a single paragraph on page 69 of the 1949 Pekin Centenary, which included a historical narrative that was mainly researched and written by retired Peoria Journal Star editor Charles Dancey:

“The discovery of the body of Martin Virant, a material witness, in the Tazewell county jail caused a storm which lasted for months. After the inquest there was a near lynching of accused deputies, who were later tried on manslaughter charges that Virant died under the ‘third degree’. Even after their acquittal, there was an effort to impeach the entire sheriff’s office on the part of the Tazewell county board of supervisors.”

That somewhat inaccurate paragraph would later appear in almost identical form in the historical narrative of the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial volume, on page 173:

“After a material witness named Martin Virant was found dead in his cell at the Tazewell County Jail, there was a storm of public outrage which nearly resulted in the lynching of some accused deputy sheriffs. (They were subsequently tried for manslaughter on charges that Virant died under the ‘third degree.’) There was an effort to impeach the entire Sheriff’s office by the County Board.”

As we have seen, the few lines in the Centenary and Sesquicentennial volumes omit several important details and really only begin to hint at that “storm which lasted for months.”

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The Third Degree: Chapter 24: A sudden ending to John Petje’s murder 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.

THE THIRD DEGREE

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Chapter Twenty-four

A sudden ending to John Petje’s murder trial

After months of delays followed by an unusually slow jury selection process, the murder trial of East Peoria speakeasy operator John Petje finally got under way on Thursday, Dec. 7, 1933.

On Friday morning, Dec. 8, it all came screeching to a very sudden halt.

Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff called two witnesses to the stand that morning: William Peters, brakeman for the C. and I. M. railroad, and Engineer W. S. Kirkwood. Peters and Kirkwood operated the train that ran over Lew Nelan in the early morning hours of Sunday, Aug. 28, 1932.

Nelan, along with two of Petje’s acquaintances, Frank Keayes Jr. and Edward Hufeld, had been drinking at Petje’s speakeasy on Saturday night. At the coroner’s inquest into Nelan’s death, Keayes and Hufeld testified that Petje and Nelan had fought, and that Petje struck Nelan on the head with an iron bar. According to their inquest testimony, thinking Nelan was dead, the three men took Nelan’s body to the railroad tracks nearby so he would be run over.

The testimony of Keayes and Hufeld would be crucial in establishing that Petje was guilty of Nelan’s murder. However, according to the Pekin Daily Times, after Petje’s attorney, James P. St. Cerny, had concluded his cross-examination of Engineer Kirkwood around 10 a.m., “Attorneys St. Cerney (sic) and P. A. D’Arcy and State’s Attorney Elliff gathered in front of the judge and they had written into the court’s records certain facts as to why the state did not call in Frank Keayes Jr. and Edward Hufelt (sic) as witnesses.”

Judge Joseph E. Daily then questioned Keayes as to where he was on the evening of Aug. 27, 1932.

Keayes replied, “I refuse to testify.”

Judge Daily asked him why he refused, and Keayes replied, “I might incriminate myself,” availing himself of his constitutional right against self-incrimination guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment.

Next, the judge called Hufeld and asked him the same two questions, and Hufeld responded in the same words that Keayes had used.

Judge Daily dismissed Hufeld, and then, turning to the jury, instructed the jurors to return a directed verdict of “not guilty.”

With Keayes and Hufeld “taking the Fifth,” the state could not tie Petje to Nelan’s death. “Trial of the case developed that the state had little direct testimony and the court instructions to find the defendant not guilty came as little surprise to those who had been following the trial,” the Pekin Daily Times explained.

Elliff’s attempted prosecution of Petje had followed a similar course as, and had collapsed in much the same way that, his prosecution of Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner had.

In the case of Martin Virant’s death, Elliff dropped the charges against Deputy Frank Lee and then went on to lose the case when he and his fellow prosecutors were unable to tie Fleming and Skinner to Virant’s beating and hanging.

In the case of Nelan’s death, Elliff dropped the charges against Keayes and Hufeld and then lost the case when he had no way to link Petje to Nelan’s beating and the dumping of his body on the track.

Tazewell County’s residents had now seen the unraveling of the prosecutions in the cases of two related, very sensational homicides, along with fruitless attempts to oust the county sheriff and his deputies.

These events helped to create a general sense of great dissatisfaction with the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department and the State’s Attorney’s Office, and a debilitating loss of confidence in both elected offices.

This inevitably would have notable political repercussions.

Next week: Aftermath and epilogue.

After months of delays followed by an unusually slow jury selection process, the murder trial of East Peoria speakeasy operator John Petje finally got under way on Thursday, Dec. 7, 1933. On Friday morning, Dec. 8, however, as reported on the front page of that day's Pekin Daily Times, it all came screeching to a very sudden halt.

After months of delays followed by an unusually slow jury selection process, the murder trial of East Peoria speakeasy operator John Petje finally got under way on Thursday, Dec. 7, 1933. On Friday morning, Dec. 8, however, as reported on the front page of that day’s Pekin Daily Times, it all came screeching to a very sudden halt.

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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.

THE THIRD DEGREE

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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The Third Degree: Chapter 22: County board to Sheriff Crosby: ‘Clean house’

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
Library assistant

Chapter Twenty-two

County board to Sheriff Crosby: ‘Clean house’

Terribly disappointed by the acquittal of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner, a large group of citizens presented a heavy stack of signatures to the Tazewell County Board on Monday, March 20, 1933, calling for the impeachment of Sheriff James J. Crosby and the removal of his entire force.

The Pekin Daily Times reported that about 2,310 people had signed the petition, and reported the following approximate breakdown of signatures by township:

Mackinaw, 160
South Pekin, 200
Washington, 175
Fondulac, 300
Deer Creek, 20
Tremont, 40
Delavan, 100
Groveland, 80
Morton, 25
Green Valley, 70
Hittle, 140
Dillon, 250
Little Mackinaw, 80
Hopedale, 60
Spring Lake, 170
Pekin, 190
Miscellaneous, 110.

The county board referred the matter to Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff for his legal opinion. Elliff quickly prepared a report which he presented to the board that very afternoon.

“It is my opinion that there is no power of impeachment in the board of supervisors. It is my further opinion that the board of supervisors has no power to remove from office members of the sheriff’s force. The only action which the board can take upon the petition is, in my opinion, to make such recommendations as the members may deem fit and proper under the circumstances.”

Elliff also offered to contact the Illinois Attorney General for his opinion. The county board requested that he do so, and the Attorney General confirmed his opinion.

Having considered Elliff’s advice and the opinion of the Attorney General, the board reconvened in special session the following day and issued a unanimous and urgent statement.

“Whereas,” the county board declared, “it is the opinion of the said board of supervisors that the said Ernest L. Fleming, C. O. Skinner and Frank Lee are, because of the public opinion existing in said Tazewell county, not qualified to continue in their capacities as deputy sheriffs of said Tazewell county, inasmuch as they lack the confidence and support of the people in general in said county.

“Therefore, we the members of the Board of Supervisors of Tazewell County, Illinois, do hereby recommend to the honorable James J. Crosby, sheriff of Tazewell County, Illinois, that the said deputy sheriffs . . . be dismissed from their offices as deputy sheriffs of said Tazewell County.”

This 1928 photograph shows Tazewell County Sheriff Ernest L. Fleming, who later served as chief deputy for Sheriff James J. Crosby. Fleming was one of the deputies implicated in the “third degree” death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant in 1932, but was acquitted in 1933. Photo by Konisek, Feb. 26, 1928, Peoria Journal-Transcript

Sheriff Crosby did not immediately respond to the county board’s public recommendation, but rumors began to fly that some or all of the deputies implicated in Virant’s death had tendered their resignations.

However, on Thursday, March 23, the Pekin Daily Times published a short front page notice with the headline, “No Statement to Make at This Time, Says Sheriff.”

“Sheriff Crosby said this morning that he had no statement to make at this time, relative to the recommendation of the board of supervisors that he dismiss Deputies Fleming, Skinner and Lee, and would probably have none until he had conferred with his attorney, Jesse Black. There has been no change in his office force and no resignations as had erroneously been rumored.”

In fact, Sheriff Crosby would have nothing further to say publicly about the county board’s recommendation. He decided simply to ignore the board’s statement, choosing to weather the storm of controversy until it had blown over. He could not be impeached and was not subject to voter recall, and he was endowed by law with wide discretion in the use of his deputizing power, so the petition drive to remove him and his deputies was to no avail.

And there the matter would rest for the remainder of the spring and the whole of the summer of 1933. For a while it appeared that the storm had blown over.

In September, however, the controversy made its way back onto the pages of the Pekin Daily Times (although not the front page this time). At that time, a small group of citizens filed a complaint of criminal malfeasance against the sheriff.

In the edition of Sept. 13, 1933, the Daily Times announced, “Sheriff Case Is Revived; To Refer It to Grand Jury,” saying, “Among the several matters which will be presented or referred to the grand jury is a complaint against Sheriff James J. Crosby, charging that official with omission of duty and malfeasance of office. The complaint, signed by four persons, was filed by Neal D. Reardon in the office of the circuit clerk and by that official turned over to State’s Attorney Elliff.”

The Daily Times noted that there was doubt whether the complaint had been filed under the proper section of the law. That morning, Elliff affirmed that the case would be “referred” to the grand jury for their consideration, but it might not be “presented” to the grand jury, meaning there wouldn’t necessarily be a presentation of evidence and summoning of witnesses.

Just like the petition drive, however, this attempt to remove the sheriff also failed. On Sept. 20, the Daily Times reported that the grand jury had decided not to take up the criminal complaint against Crosby.

So ended the attempts to oust the sheriff and remove his tarnished deputies. Thwarted in the courts and at the level of county government, the outraged citizens’ only remaining recourse was to wait until Election Day in 1934.

But in the mean time, the case of the murder of Lew Nelan was still pending in Tazewell County criminal court.

Completely overshadowed and shoved off the stage during the attempts to prosecute the deputies and remove the sheriff, in the autumn of 1933 the case that had initially sparked these fires of public uproar finally returned to the public’s view.

Next week: The Nelan case goes to trial.

#charles-skinner, #ernest-fleming, #frank-lee, #jesse-black, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #neal-d-reardon, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #the-third-degree

The Third Degree: Chapter 20: ‘We, the jury, find the defendants . . .’

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
Library assistant

Chapter Twenty

‘We, the jury, find the defendants . . .’

On Thursday, March 2, 1932, the defense rested its case in the manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Charles Skinner and Ernest Fleming, who were accused of the death of jail inmate Martin Virant.

As the defense lawyers concluded the efforts to exonerate Fleming and Skinner, they delivered a compelling attack on the credibility of the state’s star witness Elizabeth Spearman, whose testimony implicated Skinner and Fleming in the severe injuries Virant had suffered.

In the end, the defense attorneys moved to have the whole of Spearman’s testimony quashed and stricken from the record.

Though Spearman, as an accused criminal and jail inmate, probably had just as great a problem with her credibility and accuracy as most of the defense’s jail inmate witnesses, nevertheless, Menard County Judge Guy Williams granted the defense’s motion.

In closing arguments lasting the entire morning of March 3 – arguments the Pekin Daily Times described as a “powerful oration” – defense attorney Jesse Black, reveling once more in the courtroom drama at which he excelled, denounced and ridiculed the state’s case.

“At times the attorney could be heard a block away as he shouted his denunciation of an attempt to deprive men of their liberty and ‘put them behind grey walls’ without any proof whatsoever,” the Daily Times reported.

In contrast, Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff delivered his closing arguments in a calm and quiet demeanor. “As to doubts about this case, I have just two doubts in my mind. One of these is whether this is a murder or a manslaughter. The other doubt in my mind is whether or not we’ve got all the defendants that are guilty,” Elliff said.

After closing arguments, Judge Williams gave instructions to the jury, reminding them to disregard Spearman’s testimony. The case went to the jury at 3:30 p.m. on March 3.

The jurors came back with a verdict at 2:20 p.m. Saturday, March 4, 1933.

JAIL DEATH JURY SAYS ‘NOT GUILTY,’” ran the Pekin Daily Times headline that day.

Both deputies were found not guilty of all charges. It was a stunning victory for Black and his fellow attorney William J. Reardon (though Reardon was called away from the trial at the very end due to the death of his brother in St. Louis on the night of March 2). Their decades of courtroom experience obviously had served them well.

And it was an embarrassing defeat for Elliff, whose youth and inexperience were frequently evident during the course of the trial.

“In Attorneys Reardon and Black, the defense has a pair of crafty barristers of long experience in court cunning. They know when to object and when to be silent,” wrote Pekin Daily Times reporter Mildred Beardsley in the Monday, Feb. 27, 1933 edition of the newspaper.

“They know when to shout in feigned anger and when to ‘Pooh! Pooh!’ in apparent disdain,” Beardsley continued. “These things, I suppose, are learned thru years of experience. More than once Judge Williams has told the youthful prosecutors that he would have sustained them if they had objected.”

In the final analysis, however, perhaps neither the inexperience of the prosecutors, nor the talent of the defense attorneys, nor the valiant attempts of the defense to explain away the convincing forensic evidence that Virant had been beaten and had not died of hanging, were that important in the exoneration of Fleming and Skinner.

The greatest challenge the prosecutors faced wasn’t proving that Virant had been beaten while in custody at the jail, nor that he had already died prior to being hanged – it was proving that Fleming and Skinner were connected to the crime.

Without Virant’s own testimony at the inquest of Lew Nelan, and without Spearman’s testimony, the jury had no evidence that Fleming and Skinner, or any other deputy, had done violence to Virant or faked his suicide. Proving that Virant was the victim of a crime was one thing. Proving that the crime had been committed by Fleming and Skinner was something else altogether.

And so the trial was over. Fleming and Skinner were free men.

Nevertheless, the tragedy of Virant’s death was nowhere near its final act.

Next week: Petitions for impeachment.

The front page of the March 4, 1933 Pekin Daily Times carried the banner headline, "JAIL DEATH JURY SAYS ‘NOT GUILTY'." Thus concluded the trial of the county deputies accused of the "third degree" torture death of Martin Virant. But the tragedy of Virant’s death was nowhere near its final act.

The front page of the March 4, 1933 Pekin Daily Times carried the banner headline, “JAIL DEATH JURY SAYS ‘NOT GUILTY’.” Thus concluded the trial of the county deputies accused of the “third degree” torture death of Martin Virant. But the tragedy of Virant’s death was nowhere near its final act.

#charles-skinner, #elizabeth-spearman, #ernest-fleming, #jesse-black, #judge-guy-williams, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #mildred-beardsley, #nathan-t-elliff, #the-third-degree, #william-reardon

The Third Degree: Chapter 18: The defense pleads its case

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
Library assistant

Chapter Eighteen

The defense pleads its case

At the end of a long succession of witnesses and physical evidence, the prosecution rested its case on Feb. 26, 1933, in the trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner, who were accused of causing the death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant by severely beating him during a so-called “third degree” interrogation.

The following day, the defense attorneys Jesse Black Jr. and William J. Reardon began to call their own lengthy list of witnesses and experts, who would help the defense build its case that the deputies never did any violence to Virant, nor did they hang his dead body – rather, the defense contended, Virant had committed suicide. Heading the witness list was J. Hardy Garber, a deputy who helped Skinner bring Virant to and from the Lew Nelan murder inquest.

Garber and the three other deputies involved in this case – Fleming and Skinner, who both took the stand in their own defense, and Frank Lee, originally indicted by the Tazewell County grand jury but whose charges were dropped just before the trial began in Menard County – offered very important testimony.

Presenting a united front, they resolutely denied that anyone had done more than raise his voice at Virant while he was in the custody of the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department. The four deputies agreed that there had been absolutely no beating or kicking or any kind of rough handling.

The four deputies did state, however, that they noticed Virant had some cuts and bruises about his head and neck when he was first brought to the jail. They denied knowing how Virant had gotten those injuries.

The deputies also agreed that Virant became very frightened and upset, and refused to let them take his fingerprints, after Lee brought in a package containing two metal pipes and unrolled it in Virant’s presence.

Skinner and Fleming also supplied a very important element of the defense’s alternate scenario of Virant’s injuries and death. Flatly contradicting former Coroner A. E. Allen’s testimony that he had eased Virant’s body to the cell floor when he cut his body down, Skinner and Fleming claimed Allen had irresponsibly and unprofessionally let Virant’s body crash to the floor. Virant’s body had even slammed against the toilet as it fell, the accused deputies insisted.

Relying on their medical experts, the defense argued that most of Virant’s bruises and injuries, including his broken rib, were caused when Allen cut his body down and let it crash to the floor. Also backing up this claim were three jail inmates, Charles Cameron, 62, formerly of Delavan, Joe Hensley, and Thomas Davis.

Cameron, a jail trustee, told the jurors, “I saw Allen cut the strap and saw Virant fall on the toilet bowl. He came down awful hard . . . He was dropped. Mr. Allen didn’t touch him. . . . It jarred the whole floor of the cell.” Cameron even claimed that Allen jumped out of the way so Virant’s body would hit the toilet as it fell.

Hensley, another jail trustee, corroborated some of Cameron’s testimony, claiming, “I heard the sound when he was cut down. It came down hard. . . . I heard a loud thump on the iron floor – loud enough to be heard outside of the jail.”

In cross-examination, however, Elliff showed that Cameron’s testimony differed significantly from what he had previously told the Tazewell County grand jury and disagreed with a statement he had made to former Tazewell County State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg on Sept. 9, 1932.

Cameron responded to Elliff’s questions by disavowing most of his prior statement, and in particular he denied speaking to fellow inmate Elizabeth Spearman. Cameron’s original statements had corroborated key elements of Spearman’s testimony, which supported the state’s case that Fleming and Skinner had beaten Virant.

Some of Hensley’s testimony was especially helpful to the defense’s contention that Virant had committed suicide. Hensley claimed that during Virant’s first night in the jail, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 1932, “I heard the bunk chains rattling and then like someone came off the bunk onto the floor. That was after 2 o’clock. Then I heard moaning and groaning. . . . I heard him saying, ‘Poor John, he did I did too.’”

The words Hensley claimed to have heard Virant say, according to the defense, amounted to a confession that he had helped John Petje murder Lew Nelan. A sense of guilt over his role in Nelan’s death was the reason he committed suicide, the defense attorneys claimed.

Davis also testified that he heard noises from Virant’s cell three times that night as of someone jumping off the bunk, including at 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. In addition, Davis claimed to have heard the same kind of noise sometime after 1 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1, and to have heard Virant making a noise.

The defense argued that the noises Hensley and Davis said they heard Tuesday night were not the groans of a man who had been severely beaten, but were the sounds of Virant attempting to hang himself using some strings and threads that investigators found in his cell after his death.

The defense attorneys suggested that some of Virant’s injuries may have been caused during this purported first suicide attempt, but they did not try to explain why Virant would have opted first for strings that were unlikely to support his own weight and only two days later decide to use his own belt.

The defense also claimed that Davis had heard the sounds of Virant killing himself on Thursday, Sept. 1.

Or were they the sounds of deputies faking Virant’s suicide?

Next week: The defense rests.

In the sensational case of the &quotthird degree" death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant, prosecutors contended that Virant succumbed to severe injuries he'd suffered at the hands of Sheriff's deputies, who then staged a hanging even though he obviously had died before his body was hanged. But defense attorneys, relying on testimony such as that found in this detail from a March 1, 1933 Pekin Daily Times report, countered by insinuating that Virant helped John Petje murder Lew Nelan and then, wracked by guilt, hanged himself in his jail cell. The defense argued that Virant's severe injuries were inflicted by Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen, whom the defense claimed was incompetent and careless.

In the sensational case of the “third degree” death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant, prosecutors contended that Virant succumbed to severe injuries he’d suffered at the hands of Sheriff’s deputies, who then staged a hanging even though he obviously had died before his body was hanged. But defense attorneys, relying on testimony such as that found in this detail from a March 1, 1933 Pekin Daily Times report, countered by insinuating that Virant helped John Petje murder Lew Nelan and then, wracked by guilt, hanged himself in his jail cell. The defense argued that Virant’s severe injuries were inflicted by Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen, whom the defense claimed was incompetent and careless.

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#charles-cameron, #charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #elizabeth-spearman, #ernest-fleming, #frank-lee, #hardy-garber, #jesse-black, #joe-hensley, #lew-nelan, #louis-dunkelberg, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #the-third-degree, #thomas-davis, #william-reardon

The Third Degree: Chapter 14: The state presents its case

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
Library assistant

Chapter Fourteen

The state presents its case

With a jury of 12 men selected and sworn in, the manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest L. Fleming and Charles O. Skinner immediately got under way on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 1933, at the Menard County Courthouse in Petersburg, Ill.

The two deputies were accused of causing the death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant of East Peoria by beating him severely while administering what was in those days euphemistically known as “the third degree” (i.e., the police beating and torture of suspects and witness in order to extract confessions or useful or incriminating information).

Before the actual trial began, however, the prosecution was dealt a setback when Judge Guy Williams ruled that Virant’s testimony at the inquest into the murder of Lewis Nelan, when Virant publicly accused Skinner and other deputies of beating him, was inadmissible hearsay.

Long-established procedural rules dictated that hearsay, and testimony from dead persons, are usually inadmissible as evidence at trial. Virant’s inquest testimony was explosive, and particularly damning for Skinner, so understandably the state argued that the circumstances and substance of Virant’s inquest testimony constituted an exception to the usual rules and therefore should be admitted.

Judge Williams was unconvinced by their arguments, however. His ruling made the task of tying Skinner and Fleming to Virant’s death more difficult, but the state had known that the quashing of Virant’s accusation was a real possibility. Menard County State’s Attorney John M. Smoot and Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff would have to try to link Skinner and Fleming to the crime through the testimony of Tazewell County Jail inmates.

One of those inmates was Elizabeth Spearman of Peoria, who gave testimony on Wednesday, Feb. 22, that was potentially at least as damning as the Virant inquest testimony that had been disallowed.

One of the prosecution's most important witnesses in the trial of the deputies accused of beating Martin Virant to death was a jail inmate named Elizabeth Spearman, of Peoria, who offered testimony that strongly indicated that the deputies were involved in Virant's severe "third degree" beating. This detail of the Feb. 22, 1933 Pekin Daily Times front page shows a portion of that day's report on Spearman's testimony.

One of the prosecution’s most important witnesses in the trial of the deputies accused of beating Martin Virant to death was a jail inmate named Elizabeth Spearman, of Peoria, who offered testimony that strongly indicated that the deputies were involved in Virant’s severe “third degree” beating. This detail of the Feb. 22, 1933 Pekin Daily Times front page shows a portion of that day’s report on Spearman’s testimony.

Spearman testified that around 2:45 p.m. on Aug. 30, 1932, she saw Skinner and Fleming take Virant out of the jail. They brought him back about three hours later, just before the 6 p.m. supper. She then overheard Virant tell the deputies, “My side – him hurt.”

Spearman said Fleming responded, “Your side will hurt a lot worse if you don’t tell us something.”
Virant then said, “How I tell you anything if I know nothing. You take my fingerprints and make me murder man.” Skinner replied, “We’ll take your fingerprints or else.”

Then, according to Spearman, about 7 p.m. Fleming and Skinner again took Virant out of his cell. Spearman said she saw them take Virant around the corner of the jail and not to the courthouse (this was actually on Aug. 31, when Virant was taken to the Lew Nelan inquest, but it was Skinner and Hardy Garber who took Virant to the inquest, not Skinner and Fleming). The deputies brought him back to his cell around 9 p.m., after the courthouse lights had gone out.

At that time, Spearman heard Virant imploring the deputies, “Please get me a doctor and my sister in Peoria.”

Spearman testified, “He said that they had beaten him and he was going to die. Fleming said, ‘You are a long way from being dead – we’ll get you a doctor in the morning.’”

She also said that at one point Virant was “close enough to touch with my crutch,” and it was obvious that Virant was severely injured.

“He could hardly walk – had blood on his suit. The right side of his face and ear were bloody,” she said.

According to the Feb. 22, 1933 Pekin Daily Times, “Mrs. Spearman then related how she heard Virant moaning and groaning during the night. The next afternoon about 12 o’clock she said Deputy Fleming came upstairs. He went and looked out the window toward Hackler’s drug store; then went in where Virant was. After about five minutes he came out and went downstairs. She heard nothing, but saw him leave.

“About an hour later she saw Skinner about the cell. Still later she said she saw Skinner come out of the courthouse followed by two or three men and women. Skinner came across and reached the porch; then Fleming came hurrying after him and the two deputies started into the jail together. Skinner went on up to the cell, and Fleming hollered to him, ‘Bring that boy down here.’

“Skinner called back down, ‘He’s hung himself.’

“‘Hung himself!’ echoed Fleming.

“‘Yes.’”

Fleming then hastened upstairs, coming back down very soon after. Coroner A. E. Allen arrived on the scene shortly after that, Spearman said.

Next week: The prosecution painstakingly lays out the case.

#charles-skinner, #elizabeth-spearman, #ernest-fleming, #hardy-garber, #j-w-smoot, #judge-guy-williams, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #the-third-degree