Originally Titled: “Thanksgiving Massacre,” by John L. Bowen, Front Page Detective, March, 1944.
Nov. 25, 1943
Washington Court House, Ohio
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DEWEY CLAYTOR’S whistling of Pistol Packin’ Mama came to an abrupt end. The milk pails dropped from his nerveless fingers and clattered on the frozen barnyard.
“Miss Mildred! Miss Mildred!”
Claytor choked out the words while lumbering toward the figure of a young woman in the farmhouse driveway. He knelt beside the body of the attractive auburn-haired girl in the camel’s hair coat. She lay on her right side, her head partially concealed under the running board of the expensive maroon coupe.
Her eyes were glassy, her arms and legs rigid. A single bullet had pierced her head from the rear. Mildred McCoy was dead.
Claytor saw at once that she must have lain in her awkward position throughout the chill night that preceded the bleak dawn of Thanksgiving Day, 1943.
The car, with the hood half raised, stood in the crushed stone driveway that separated the white frame McCoy home from the barn nearly 200 feet to the south.
Claytor arose with sick fear in his heart. His gaze slowly swept the buildings that formed the nucleus of peaceful Oak View farm, whose 160 acres was a showplace of the Ohio countryside five miles north of Washington Court House.
Where was Elmer McCoy, Oak View’s wealthy owner and father of the dead girl? Where was Mrs. McCoy? Claytor ran for the house, yelling, “Mr. McCoy! Oh, Mr. McCoy!”
Rounding the screened-in side porch on his way to the kitchen door, he stopped short, faced with a new horror.
Stretched on the porch in a pool of dried and blackened blood was Mrs. Elmer McCoy. One of her hands clutched a dishcloth and the other gripped a pair of spectacles. Near her head were the shattered fragments of a green bowl; obviously she had been drying her dishes when shot down.
Claytor turned on his heels and raced to his own tenant cabin 500 yards west of the McCoy showplace. There he communicated the awful news to his wife. The two of them leaped into the family car and drove to the home of Charles Griffeth. Mrs. Griffeth telephoned Sheriff W. H. Icenhower at the county jail in Washington Court House.
When Icenhower reached Oak View a few minutes after 9 o’clock, he was surprised, to find the barnyard swarming with neighbors and relatives of the McCoy family. Among the latter was Dr. J. A. McCoy, well-to-do veterinarian of Washington Court House and a brother to Mrs. McCoy.
Already a third chapter in the bloody carnage had been unfolded. After Icenhower had made a peremptory examination of the women’s bodies, Dr. McCoy directed him to the barn. Just inside the door, wedged face downward between a feed grinder and the wall, was the corpse of Elmer McCoy.
The 54-year-old farmer wore ordinary overalls and a canvas jacket. Between his teeth was the stub of a cigar. His fingers grasped a steel tape measure. A single bullet had penetrated his head from the rear and emerged through the right nostril.
A Tragic Reunion
“Shot without warning,” the sheriff reflected. “Looks like a .38-caliber slug did the job. McCoy must’ve been measuring the grinder pulley for a new belt. The killer probably was standing directly behind him. Judging by the powder burns, I’d say the gun was right next to Elmer’s head. What does that indicate to you, doc?”
The slender veterinarian studied a moment. “It looks like the killer was someone Elmer knew,” he said. “Someone he trusted enough to allow in the barn with him. But even if somebody had a grudge against Elmer, I don’t know why they killed the two women. Mildred was as nice, quiet and harmless a girl as ever lived.”
“You’re right, doc,” the officer said meditatively, recalling the years during which he had watched Mildred McCoy grow from a gangling farm girl in pigtails to a softly beautiful young woman of education and refinement.
It was an occasion of family celebration in January, 1943, when Mildred was graduated from Ohio State University in Columbus. She joined the faculty of the Pitsburg High School (Ohio) as a home economics teacher and, in the parlance of the countryside, as “doing right well.” Presumably she had come home for the holiday weekend.
Icenhower and Dr. McCoy stepped out of the barn just as Fayette County Prosecuting Attorney John B. Hill and Acting Coroner Dr. E. H. McDonald drove up in the former’s car. The sheriff had called Hill before leaving for Oak View, and the prosecutor had picked up the coroner on the way.
The prosecutor, disconcerted by the large crowd, nonetheless waved a pleasant greeting to Dr. McCoy. Indicating the group of McCoy relatives gathered near the side porch—which now included Mrs. Sylvia Atkinson, a sister of Mrs. McCoy; Mr. and Mrs. Delbert Hayes, cousins of McCoy, and Mr. and Mrs. James Collett, the last a sister of Elmer McCoy—Hill said, “Looks like a family reunion, doc.”
“It really was to have been a reunion, John,” the veterinarian said. “Elmer invited all of us down for Thanksgiving turkey today. Everybody was supposed to be here at 9 o’clock, and it looks like they’re all on schedule.”
Hill and Icenhower followed McDonald as the physician made his examination of the bodies, revealing for the first time that while Elmer and Mildred McCoy had been slain by a single .38 bullet, Mrs. McCoy had been shot six or eight times with a smaller gun, probably a .32.
“Maybe there were two killers,” the prosecutor mused. “Let’s take a look inside.”
The officers and Dr. McCoy entered the living room of the farmhouse, expecting to find the place in a shambles. They were dumbfounded by the neatness and orderliness of the entire downstairs.
On a table in the center of the living room lay Mildred McCoy’s hat, purse, gloves and car keys, arranged in such a manner as to indicate that she had been perfectly at ease when placing them there. In a nearby corner stood a small writing table with many pigeonholes containing canceled checks, bills of sale, checkbooks and other papers.
A set of ledgers on top of the table was undisturbed. Glancing idly through the contents of the desk’s center drawer, the sheriff found a billfold containing $140.
“This knocks out my first theory,” he said to Hill. “I had an idea robbery was behind the killings. But nothing’s been touched in here—not a thing.”
“Except the phone,” Dr. McCoy cut in. He picked up the instrument from the table near the desk and showed two loose ends of the cord dangling to the floor. They had been sheared clean about 30 inches from the wall. A pair of scissors lying on the desk obviously had been used to snip the wires.
The prosecutor was puzzled. “I wonder why the killer went to that trouble after bumping off everybody around the place. Certainly he wasn’t afraid of Elmer, his wife or Mildred calling for help.”
Trouble With Tenants
“It might have been his method of delaying the discovery of the crime,” Icenhower observed. “He cut the wires so no one could call in. If one of the family had phoned and got no answer, he might have become suspicious and driven out to the farm before the killer could make his getaway.”
“That’s an idea,” Hill agreed. “And it’s all the more reason why I think this job was done by someone familiar with the McCoys. The killer shot each of his victims from close range. Each of them was caught unawares when he or she was shot down. By the way, doc, who lives on the place beside Dewey Claytor?”
“No one that I know of,” the veterinarian replied.
“Elmer usually had two or three tenants, didn’t he?”
“Oh, yes, there have been a dozen or two here in the past two years, but” McCoy cleared his throat.
“What doc means,” Icenhower put in, “is that Elmer has had trouble with most of his renters. He was what you’d call extra particular, hard to satisfy. It’s been said he could get along with few of his tenants. It was just last July that I came out here with a couple of deputies and evicted a fellow he was having trouble with. Elmer said he was just a trifflin’ hill-billy from Kentucky. The man wouldn’t leave when Elmer told him to, and we had to throw him off the place. I’m darned if I can remember his name.”
“It certainly will pay to find out quick,” Hill said. “It’s just such a thing that might break this case. These are vengeance murders, out and out.”
Icenhower stepped into the yard and signaled to Claytor who was talking to Asa Potts, one of the McCoys’ neighbors.
“By the way, Dewey,” the sheriff asked, “do you recall the name of that renter we evicted in July—the one Elmer had so much trouble with?”
“No, I don’t, sheriff,” the tenant replied, “excepting that it seems his first name was Vern. I’d only been here a short time then, and I didn’t know the man hardly at all. You’ll probably find his name in Mr. McCoy’s books. He kept good accounts.”
Icenhower started toward the house but stopped. He turned back to Clayton, “Dewey, you must have heard those shots last night. There were at least ten fired.”
“I did hear them,” Claytor said evenly, to the sheriff’s surprise. “First there was one report of a gun, then a lot of shots in a row. That was before Miss Mildred drove up the lane. I’m sure there was one more shot fired after she got to the house. I didn’t pay any attention because I thought Mr. McCoy was shooting at rats or something. He usually carried a .32 in the glove compartment of his truck, along with a flashlight and a handful of cigars.”
The sheriff swung around and headed for McCoy’s small garden truck, parked near the end of the barn where his body had been found.
Icenhower opened the truck door and stared at the glove compartment, from which the panel apparently had been torn some time previously. The sheriff rammed his hand into the compartment and withdrew a handful of dry cornhusks. Mingled with the shucks was the broken end from a cigar of the type McCoy had been smoking when shot to death.
Icenhower dropped the cigar tip into his pocket and probed the compartment a second time. There was no gun, no flashlight nor any whole cigars.
He rejoined Claytor and Potts. “Are you positive McCoy kept a .32 in his truck?” he asked the tenant farmer.
“I’m sure it was there the first day of the hunting season, about a week back,” Claytor said. “I saw it when Mr. McCoy and Mr. Collett went hunting.”
“Dewey’s right,” Potts interposed. “Elmer had several altercations with his tenants, you know. He once told me he kept the gun handy just in case any of them got too far out of hand.”
“Awhile ago,” the sheriff reminded Claytor, “you mentioned Mildred driving up the lane. How did you know who it was?”
“Oh,” Claytor explained, “she always honked twice when she passed my house on the weekends she came home. Mr. and Mrs. McCoy had told me they were expecting her home yesterday. About 9 o’clock a car passed and honked twice. I recognized it as her horn. She was going so fast I was afraid she might swing into the auto that had pulled into the barnlot ahead of her.”
“You mean,” Icenhower snapped, “that a machine drove into the McCoy lace ahead of Mildred?”
“Well, not right ahead of her,” the ant explained. “There was a car that went up the lane and turned into the place a half-hour or so before 9 clock.”
It was logical to assume, the sheriff theorized, that the slayer had arrived at Oak View in the auto ahead of Mildred’s. If he was a family acquaintance, as the officers presumed the killer must have been, he would have had ample opportunity to shoot the unsuspecting hog breeder and his wife in the half-hour before the daughter got home. Possibly he had been trapped by the girl’s arrival and had slain her to silence a witness to his double crime.
That theory coincided with the ‘single shot, followed by the series of shots and then by a final shot heard by Claytor.
To Icenhower’s disappointment, the tenant farmer was unable to describe the first auto, other than that to say it looked “big and black.”
The sheriff returned to the living room to confer with Hill, who already had thumbed the pages of McCoy’s ledgers and made a list of the tenants who had come and gone from Oak View during the past year. Besides dating their arrivals and departures, McCoy had characterized each of his tenants. Behind one man’s name was the word “thieving”, behind another “shiftless”, and behind others such uncomplimentary terms as “a stinking drunk” and “a miserable polecat.”
The prosecutor pointed to a line containing the name of Vern Shaw, against which McCoy had written “triflin’ hillbilly. Evicted by sheriff.”
“He’s evidently the fellow you were thinking of,” he said to Icenhower.
“He is,” the sheriff agreed. “And what’s more, there’s a warrant on my desk right now for his arrest. His wife’s charging him with nonsupport. If I’m not wrong, he’s living somewhere around Dayton. I’ll check on him the first thing.”
Icenhower told the prosecutor about his futile search for McCoy’s gun in the glove compartment, and his conversation with Clayton regarding the machine that drove into the farmyard before Mildred arrived.
Hill groaned. “With a half a dozen cars pulling into the lot today, we’ve got a fine chance of spotting the killer’s tire tracks. And how could we pick his footprints from the hundreds that have been made this morning?”
As soon as the bodies had been removed to a Washington Court House undertaking establishment and the crowd had been largely cleared out, the two officers went over the premises inch by inch. Dr. McCoy and James Collett, the McCoy brother-in-law, assisted them.
The thawing earth, now a quagmire, yielded nothing in the way of helpful evidence. From the planks of the porch, however, Icenhower dug out five slightly flattened .32 slugs.
“They went right through Mrs. McCoy’s body,” he commented. “I can’t understand why the killer shot so many times at her, and fired only one bullet each at Elmer and Mildred. It looks as though he might have hated her even more than the others.”
Offers To Hire Sleuth
“I was thinking the same thing,” Collett interposed. “You probably don’t know it, but Mildred and her mother had been having some trouble lately. Slight trouble, I’d say, yet trouble nonetheless.”
Dr. McCoy looked astonished. Hill and Icenhower gazed inquiringly at Collett, waiting for him to explain.
“I understand,” the brother-in-law continued after a pause, “that Mildred had recently become engaged to a young fellow who didn’t meet with the approval of Forrest—that’s Mrs. McCoy —and Mildred broke off the engagement to keep peace with her mother.”
“So?” Icenhower said. “Maybe the young man came out here last night to square accounts. What do you think, John?”
“It was undoubtedly a revenge killing,” Hill agreed. “A disfavored suitor surely would be a likely suspect.”
Back in his office, Icenhower looked up the nonsupport warrant for the former McCoy tenant and learned that Shaw resided on a small farm outside Dayton.
Reporting within the next half hour, the constable stated that all he could learn was that Mildred had left the high school at 3:30 the preceding afternoon. She told acquaintances she expected to pick up a friend she was driving to Xenia. The identity of the friend was not established, and while Mildred was known to date several young men about Pitsburg, she reportedly was concerned seriously with only one of them. He was the son of a prosperous farmer south of Pitsburg with whom Mildred reportedly had quarreled recently and broken an engagement.
Hill considered it essential that the identity of this youth be learned at once. “The fury of a woman scorned is one thing,” he told the sheriff. “The fury of a man scorned is another. It frequently leads to murder.”
After telephoning the sheriff at Dayton and requesting a check on Vern Shaw, Icenhower sat down with the prosecutor, and the two submitted the known facts in the McCoy massacre to a microscopic examination. The result was far from satisfactory. There were no clues linking the crime directly to any one person.
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“We’ll never get anywhere until we find the motive,” Hill said at last. “And the motive must lie somewhere in the McCoys’ lives. The relatives may be able to help us.”
Throughout Friday morning and afternoon, while the sheriff was absent on a search for Vern Shaw in the vicinity of Dayton, the prosecutor interviewed more than half a dozen of the slaying victims’ relatives who resided in or near Washington Court Home. They included Dr. McCoy, Mrs. Atkinson, the Hayes family and Jim Collett.
The last-named, a slender, gray-haired man of 60 who wore a steel and leather brace on his neck as the result of a fall from a hay wagon several years earlier, insisted emphatically that each and every one of McCoy’s former tenants be checked upon in the probe.
Recalling one of them by name, a Lloyd Nicholas who he said now lived near Louisa, KY, Collett declared, “Elmer told me time and again about the trouble he had with that fellow. Elmer threw Nicholas out and the man threatened to come back and get even. Check him close, John. The fiend who did this must pay,” Collett said. “I had already bought Christmas presents for all three of these poor folks,” he finished brokenly.
The man extracted a cigar from the cluster in his lapel pocket, lit it with a trembling hand and then said to Hill, “If you need outside help, all of us relatives will chip in to hire a detective from Columbus, Toledo or anywhere you want to get one. I’ll contribute $100 myself right now.”
Hill smiled. “I wouldn’t want to confess yet, Jim, that the case is too big for us, but it’s nice to know that you’ll give us help if it’s needed.”
After interviewing the relatives, the prosecutor waited patiently for Icenhower to return, but it was long after 6 o’clock when the sheriff telephoned Hill at his home. Shaw, Icenhower said, had been gone from the farm outside Dayton for about ten days. No one knew his whereabouts.
“I’ve got a line on some of his kinfolk in the hills along the Ohio River,” the sheriff said, “and I’m going down there in the morning.”
Hill told his colleague about Collett’s account of the man Nicholas, who had threatened McCoy.
Attends Triple Funeral
“I’ll kill two birds with one stone tomorrow,” the sheriff promised. “If I can’t locate Shaw, I’ll drop on down to Louisa. Someone there may have a line on Nicholas.”
On Saturday morning Hill drove to Pitsburg, where he made a searching investigation of Mildred McCoy’s romantic, teaching and social life. This quickly led into a dead end. Locating the youth with whom Mildred had broken her engagement, Hill learned that he had spent the whole of Wednesday evening with friends in New Lebanon. He couldn’t possibly have had any connection with the crime at Oak View.
The prosecutor learned additionally that Mildred’s appointment Wednesday afternoon had been with a girl friend, Miss Kay Wade of Xenia. According to Miss Wade, the two drove directly to Xenia, Mildred had dinner with the Wades and left for Oak View shortly after 8:15 o’clock. Under ordinary circumstances she would have arrived at Oak View right around 9 o’clock.
Hill returned to Washington Court House certain that he had been on a wild goose chase.
He found the town full of visitors from outlying points in the county, most of whom were acquaintances in town, to attend the triple McCoy funeral, scheduled at 2 p.m. in the Grace Methodist Church.
Icenhower had delayed his trip into the hills to attend the services.
He and Hill occupied a special pew in the church that was jammed to capacity and spilling over with a crowd of 1,800, which broke all records for church services in the small Ohio town.
Collett and his wife led the procession of mourners into the church, and throughout the services they occupied a front pew near the three silver caskets. Studying the throng as the Rev. J. H. Baughn described the crime as committed “in foul, fiendish, diabolical, satanic fury,” the sheriff saw Collett grit his teeth and clench his fist.
“He must have thought pretty much of Elmer and his family,” he whispered to Hill. “Jim’s taking this awfully hard.”
“I think,” the prosecutor replied softly, “that he was extremely fond of Mildred. He even offered to hire an outside investigator to help us clear up the killings.”
Icenhower’s eyes widened at this intelligence.
Outside the church after the services, Collett approached the sheriff and Hill. “Any clues to the killings?” he asked, adding before either man could reply, “You fellows don’t seem to know much more about the case than you did Thursday morning, do you?”
“Sounds almost as if he’s daring us to solve the case,” the sheriff remarked as Collett walked away to join his wife in their car at the curb.
Hill smiled. “After all, we’re on the spot. It’s our case. It’s up to us to break it, and in my opinion it’s going to take plenty of work.”
Rarely have small town or metropolitan authorities worked harder to crack a murder mystery than Icenhower and the prosecutor labored throughout the next two days.
Hill checked over every detail in the business life of the wealthy hog breeder, seeking hidden facts that might point to a solution. Icenhower, assisted by his son Maynard, scoured the hills of southern Ohio for McCoy’s former tenants. They turned up one after the other, including Lloyd Nicholas, the Kentuckian who had moved to Louisa, but every man had an ironclad alibi.
Vern Shaw voluntarily appeared at the sheriff’s office and explained his whereabouts on the night of the killings. His story was satisfactory; it was proved in every detail.
On Monday afternoon Probate Judge Otis Core settled an imposing legal problem created by the annihilation of the McCoy family by naming Mrs. Collett, Elmer McCoy’s only sister, and Dr. J. W. McCoy, brother of Mrs. McCoy, as co-administrators of the estate valued at approximately $100,000 in lands and livestock.
Collett, driving his wife to Washington Court House Tuesday morning from their home near Kingman, stopped in to see Icenhower. Hill was in the sheriff’s office.
“I judge,” Collett said reprovingly, “that the mystery is still unsolved. You fellows probably need some outside help.”
Icenhower took the rebuke good naturedly. “We’ll keep on trying,” he said. “We’re not ready to yell ‘uncle’ yet.”
Collett reached with his gloved fingers for a cigar in his lapel pocket. In fumbling for one, he pulled out three, two of which fell to the floor. Collett proceeded to light the cigar in his hand and then casually picked up the others and replaced them in his pocket.
When he had departed, the sheriff leaned forward in his chair and fixed his eyes on Hill’s face, which had slightly flushed. “John,” he said, “did it ever occur to you that someone in the McCoy family might be to blame for those killings?”
Hill sat bolt upright. “Meaning who?” he demanded.
Recalls Cigar Stub
Without moving from his chair, Icenhower bent and picked a sliver of a dried cornhusk off the floor at the spot where Jim Collett had been standing.
Holding it up, he went on. “When Jim Collett dropped those cigars, this husk fell with them. What’s more, one of the cigars that fell to the floor was broken off at least three-quarters of an inch from the end.” He paused, reached in his pocket and pulled out the broken end of a cigar. Hill looked at it wordlessly.
“I found this in the glove compartment of Elmer McCoy’s truck,” Icenhower said. “I was told that Elmer kept his .32 automatic, his flashlight and his cigars in there. On Thursday morning the gun, flashlight and the cigars were gone. This stub was among the cornhusks in the glove box, and unless I’m wrong it fits the end of the cigar that fell out of Collet’s pocket.”
“If that’s true,” Hill exclaimed, “Collett is the killer!”
“Of course,” the sheriff said. “That’s what I’m driving at. Collett went to Oak View Wednesday night with his own gun, a .38, to kill Elmer McCoy, Mrs. McCoy and Mildred. The girl hadn’t arrived by the time he got there, but he knew she was due to spend the holiday at home. He deliberately planned to wipe out the whole family. More than likely McCoy asked him to go to the barn, where he intended to measure the feed grinder pulley. Probably Elmer sent Collett to the truck to get the flashlight.”
Icenhower was silent for a moment. He sat watching his colleague.
“Are you keeping up with me, John?” he prodded. “Well, Collett, who had seen McCoy’s gun in the glove compartment when the two were hunting on November 20, stuck the .32 in his .pocket. He also took all of Elmer’s cigars. Then he went to the barn, held the flashlight for Elmer and while McCoy was busy with the tape measure, he shot him through the head with his .38. Mrs. McCoy heard the noise and left the kitchen. Collett walked to the porch and banged away at her with the .32, using all the bullets in the chamber. That’s the way I dope it out.”
Hill leaped to his feet. “W. H., you’ve hit it on the head! Mildred drove in a few minutes later. Without realizing anything was wrong, she put her hat and coat and keys in the living room and went out looking for her mother and father. She met Collett in the barnyard. While they were talking, Collett plugged her in the back of the head with his .38.”
“And then tried to throw suspicion from himself by insisting that we bring in an outside investigator,” Icenhower said crustily.
The prosecutor banged his fist on the sheriff’s desk. “It’s a perfect theory, W. H.,” he said, “but we’ve got to prove it. And we’ve got to supply a motive.”
Icenhower shrugged. “In some form or another we’re going to find that the motive is plain, downright love of money. Collett stood to gain plenty by what his wife will inherit.”
“I’m not sure of that,” Hill countered. “I believe that in a case of this sort the order of death determines the descent of the estate. For example, if it could be proved that Mrs. McCoy was the last to die, her blood relatives would inherit the bulk of the estate—Doc McCoy and Mrs. Atkinson. Only a minor share would go to Mrs. Collett.”
Icenhower got up and put on his hat. “I’ll leave the legal stuff to you, John. Right now I’m going out to check on Jim Collett’s whereabouts Wednesday night.”
Five hours later, he reported back to the prosecutor with the results of an investigation in which he had received the unwitting aid of a number of Jim Collett’s neighbors in the community of Kingman, where the suspect had been known for 33 years.
Takes Lie Detector Test
Collett, the sheriff discovered, had left home around 7:45 o’clock Wednesday evening, telling his family he intended to go to a regular meeting of the Grange in Harveysburg. He did appear at a feed store around 8 o’clock, but a check with the Grange master showed that he hadn’t attended the session.
Nothing could be learned of Collett’s whereabouts after he left the feed store driving north in his heavy black sedan toward Washington Court House. He reappeared at home around 10 o’clock, called a veterinarian in a neighboring town and asked him to come look at a sick horse. The veterinarian replied that it was too late and that he would be over in the morning. Collett told him to let it go.
“In other words,” Icenhower said, “unless Jim Collett can account for his whereabouts between 8 o’clock and 10, I’m going to charge him with murder.”
Hill shook the sheriff’s hand. “Nice work,” he complimented. “I’m sticking with your theory. While you were gone, I looked up the Ohio code relative to the descent of property. A new provision of the code reads as follows: ‘When there is no evidence of the order of death in which the death of two or more persons occurred, no one of such persons shall be presumed to have died first and the estate of each shall pass and descend as though he had survived the other.’ ”
The prosecutor sighed. “In layman’s language,” he said, “that means the major portion of the McCoy estate will go to Jim Collett’s wife, Elmer’s sister and only blood relative. I’ve got an idea Collett was well acquainted with the law on descent when he made up his mind to wipe out the McCoys and present his wife with an estate which he expected to enjoy himself. I feel sorry for her, poor thing. She’ll be as shocked as anyone else when she learns what Jim has done.”
James Collett, right, is questioned by Prosecutor John Hill, left.
On Tuesday evening, Sheriff Icenhower took Jim Collett into custody.
Bluff and blustery, the gray-haired farmer denied for hours that he had had any connection with the killings, but his spirits sagged rapidly once he became fully enmeshed in his own web of contradictions over his whereabouts at the time the murders were committed.
Still playing the game of innocence, he consented to take a lie detector test at Toledo police headquarters.
He was rushed by auto to Toledo early Wednesday morning and after a breakfast of coffee, cinnamon rolls and rolled oats, he entered the laboratory for the test.
Collett went to pieces under interrogation with the lie detector’s straps bound around his arms. Soon he confessed to the murder of Elmer McCoy, and signed such a confession, according to Prosecutor Hill.
However, he professed not to remember what had happened when asked about the slayings of Mrs. McCoy and Mildred. “Oh, those poor women, those poor women!” he moaned when questioned about their deaths.
The killer said he went to the McCoy home from his own 80-acre farm about 40 miles from the murder scene on Thanksgiving Eve. He quarreled with the wealthy hog breeder, Collett said, over $15,000 he claimed McCoy owed Mrs. Collett in rent over a period of 20 years.
“Elmer became angry and picked up a club or pitchfork handle,” he said. “He swung at me but missed, and then reached for his gun. I grabbed another gun from a nail tie and shot him in the back. He fell between the feed grinder and the waterboard inside the barn. The next thing I knew, I was on my way home.”
James Collett was returned to Fayette County and lodged in the jail. On December 18 the grand jury returned an indictment containing three counts, each dealing with one of the murders. He was arraigned on the indictment on December 23, and pleaded not guilty. Trial was set for early spring.
Then a jury of his peers from among the solid, hard-working farmers and industrious small city folk in southwestern Ohio will decide whether Collett exterminated the McCoys because of greed, or whether he is innocent.
The murder weapons were not found. A story gained some popular credence that Collett, while pretending to mourn at the biers of his victims, slipped them’ into one of the caskets. Prosecutor Hill stamped that report as “hardly possible.” However, he indicated that he might exhume the body of Mrs. McCoy in order to obtain other of the bullets which killed her.
Editor’s Note: James Collett was found guilty on March 10, 1944 and was sentenced to die in the electric chair. He was executed on April 20, 1945. As to the inheritance of the Elmer McCoy estate, relatives of both Elmer and his wife inherited equal portions.
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