Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Sad Death of Opal Sturgell

The “Trysting Oak” Murder
by Robert A. Waters

August, 1937
Berea, Kentucky

“This small college town flamed with excitement today as one of Berea’s pretty co-eds lay dead, victim last night of a mysterious ambush slaying. The murdered girl is Miss Opal Sturgell, 18-year-old sophomore of Berea college, who was shot and fatally wounded while she strolled along a campus walk with William Anderson, a friend.” (From International News Service.)

Anderson informed police that he and Sturgell were walking near what students called the “trysting oak” in a secluded area when George E. Wells, 20, stepped out from behind a clump of bushes and fired three shots from a revolver. Opal fell to the ground, mortally wounded. The teen died at the hospital an hour later. Anderson stated that Wells pointed the gun at him, then stuck it against his own temple. Seconds later, the gunman turned and fled.

Berea police investigators soon learned that Wells had been stalking Sturgell. Just before gunning down the popular co-ed, he had confronted her and Anderson as they walked along. Wells demanded that Opal talk with him privately, but she refused. As Wells moved away, he turned and said, “If that’s the way you feel about it, okay—you may be sorry.”

Opal Sturgell, from Houckville, Kentucky, was described as a “country girl,” possibly because her father was a farmer. In 1936, she graduated from Blaine High School. That September, she enrolled at Berea College. A beautiful girl who made good grades, Opal was a member of the Alpha Phi Sorority and Harmonia, a vocal group.

K. Olivia Meszaros, in her online article, “Murders on Campus,” wrote: “Opal Sturgell had known George E. Wells since they had gone to high school together. He had reportedly asked her to marry him then, but she had refused. When they came to Berea, he continued to pursue her. Wells had come to Berea College as a freshman in 1934, and was a junior when Opal arrived in 1936. According to various interviews, including an account from Opal’s sister who was a teacher in Lawrence County, Wells had been told multiple times to stay away from her, by her and others, including the dean of the school at the time. Although Wells was a good student and active in several campus groups, during the spring term of 1937, his grades began to slip.”

Wells, who wrote for the college newspaper, fancied himself a poet. In fact, when police searched his rented apartment after the shooting, they found a mushy piece of doggerel on his bed. It ended with the following lines:

“Thou are a flower blooming in the spring
Whose loveliness is glorious divine.
Thy radiant glow and cheerful smiles may bring
To someone happiness and joy sublime
And courage great to help him to be true
Along the path made beautiful by you.”

At first, investigators thought Wells would be easy to find. As far as they knew, he left with only the clothes he wore and a few dollars in his pocket. It was likely that he had no escape plan once he murdered Opal. But despite a massive early search by police, he slipped from sight like a vague shadow and was never found.

Within days, the Berea police chief announced that he believed Wells had killed himself.  From then on, except for investigating sporadic and erroneous sightings, police suspended the search.

So did George E. Wells commit suicide? It’s certainly possible, but without proof, other alternatives should have been explored more thoroughly.

One theory holds that Wells hitchhiked out of the area before a full-scale search began. He may have fled to a faraway city and begun a new life. Just four years later, World War II broke out, and Wells might have enlisted under a different name. With an honorable discharge and a new legal identity, after the war he could have continued his deception until he died.

Or he may have been killed during the conflict.

Whatever the case, George E. Wells cheated justice.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Victoria Edwards Missing for 20 Days

Victoria Faith Edwards, 14, has been missing from my hometown of Ocala, Florida for 20 days.

She is 5 feet, 1 inch tall and weighs 119 pounds.  She has dirty blonde hair with brown roots.  She goes by the name of Faith and loves animals.  Faith was last seen in the South Gate area of Ocala. The missing person flyer states that she was last seen in the company of some Hispanic men.

If you have any knowledge about this missing child, contact the Marion County Sheriff's Office at 352-732-9111.  

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Winning the Death Row Lottery

Murder Victim Julia Ashe
Connecticut Supreme Court outlaws executions
by Robert A. Waters

Sedrick “Ricky” Cobb’s murder of Julia Ashe never made national headlines.  Even when a Connecticut jury convicted Cobb and a three-judge panel sentenced him to death, the case flew under the radar.

On December 16, 1989, Ashe walked out of Bradlees department store in Waterbury where the temperature had plummeted to 18 degrees.  Toting bags filled with Christmas gifts, she discovered that her car had a flat tire.  Cobb, a well-dressed stranger, stepped up and offered to change it.

Little did Ashe know that he was awaiting trial for raping a woman in Naugatuck, and that police suspected him in several other sexual assaults.  She also didn’t know that he’d been stalking women in the Bradlees parking lot.  When Ashe had gone into the store, Cobb used a valve stem remover to deflate her tire.  Then he waited for her.

After changing the tire, Cobb requested that Ashe drive him to his own vehicle.  It was parked about a mile away, he said.  The na├»ve young college student agreed, thereby sealing her fate.

She drove him to a secluded area near City Mills Pond where he informed her they would find his car.  There Cobb attacked his victim, raping her.  After robbing Ashe of $300, he used fiberglass reinforced tape to bind her mouth, hands, and feet.  Then he dragged her to a nearby dam and threw her over the wall.

Ashe fell 23 feet into the icy water.  Although she was severely injured and suffering from hypothermia, the plucky student fought for her life.

Thrashing about, she found a jagged metal wire sticking out of the concrete wall.  Ashe used the wire to cut the tape from her wrists and feet—while attempting unsuccessfully to cut the heavy-duty tape from her mouth, she lacerated her face.  Near death from the vicious assault and the elements, and bleeding heavily from gashes to her body and face, Ashe staggered to shore.

Cobb, however, was waiting for her.  Determined to leave no witnesses, he forced her face beneath the surface of the water until she drowned.

Cobb then stole the Christmas gifts Ashe had bought, and walked back to Bradlees where his car was parked.

On Christmas day, teenagers discovered the ice-crusted body of Julia Ashe floating in the pond.

Police tracked down Cobb and arrested him.  In his car, investigators discovered the gifts, as well as the valve stem remover and other evidence.  Cobb, trapped by his own incompetence, confessed to the co-ed’s murder.

The brutality of the crime, as well as the premeditated nature of it, convinced three normally reluctant New England judges to sentence Cobb to death.

But now the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that no more executions will be carried out in the state.  Cobb, a winner of the death row lottery, will supposedly spend the rest of his life in prison.

Unless he escapes.

Or unless the courts decide that life in prison, like the death penalty, is also cruel and unusual punishment.

Meanwhile, except for family and friends who still mourn her loss, Julia Ashe’s brutal death is now just a footnote in Connecticut criminal history.   

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review of Desolation Sound

Desolation Sound
By Fraser C. Heston and Heather J. McAdams
Agamemnon Films, 2015

Review by Robert A. Waters

Severed feet in running shoes keep washing up on Canadian shores, arousing the media and bringing online detectives out of the woodwork.  Public opinion around Vancouver is that a serial killer is loose.  Top brass from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, however, just want the problem to go away.  They hold numerous press briefings, assuring everyone that the feet are natural occurrences, likely victims of accidents or maybe suicides.

Thus begins Desolation Sound, a new novel by Fraser C. Heston and Heather J. McAdams.  From there the screws start turning.  Each page ratchets up the suspense as three RCMP detectives and a disgraced former American cop attempt to determine the reason more than a dozen feet have swept up on lonely beaches in the area.

As the shoes and severed feet keep popping up, women keep disappearing.  Twenty-two in all.  Blond, beautiful joggers.  Are they connected?

Little do the investigators know that the cold, fog-bound islands around Vancouver harbor dark secrets.  While clues are difficult to come by, the gut instinct of the cops tells them a predator is on the loose.  And DNA finally confirms it.  But while searching for a random killer who leaves little evidence, the cops also have to fight their own worst fears.  Could someone be stalking them?

The setting, dialog, and characterization are all just right.  And the ending will satisfy even the most jaded reader of detective fiction.

This page-turner will grip you in its clutches and never let you go.  Snatched from the pages of real-life drama, Desolation Sound is guaranteed to keep you awake at night.

Buy it, read it, and enjoy it. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

New England’s Greatest “Kidnap Hunt”

The bizarre disappearance of six-month-old Ronald Carlan
by Robert A. Waters

In the last two months of 1945, several Nazi war criminals were hanged.  General George Patton, lying in an Army hospital, was slowly dying.  Closer to home, the “lost squadron” of five World War II Avenger torpedo bombers disappeared off Florida’s coast in the Bermuda Triangle.  Those planes, on a training mission, have never been found, and the case remains one of America’s great unexplained mysteries.

At the same time those momentous deeds were taking place, another mystery seemed destined to go unsolved.

On November 28, 1945, the Associated Press reported that “a six months old baby was snatched from his carriage early tonight a short time after his mother placed him within 50 yards of her home.  The baby is the son of Mrs. Rose Carlan, 23, and MM 1-C James J. Carlan, serving with the Navy in Oakland, Calif.

“Police said the entire night force and all available inspectors, in addition to hundreds of neighbors, were rallied in the hunt for the missing child.  [The] only clue to the child’s disappearance was furnished by [a] seven-year-old…neighbor, who told police she saw an elderly woman, dressed in a black coat and hat, stoop over the carriage and dash off with the baby, Ronald Carlan.  The mother told police she discovered the child missing shortly after she placed him in the carriage.”

James, a U. S. Navy machinist’s mate, had been scheduled to ship out to Japan but quickly returned home to help hunt for the son he’d never seen.

By the end of the day, the Chelsea Police Department had checked every vacant house in the city, as well as nearby homes, cellars, and alleyways.  Next day, schools released students to help with the search, which soon branched out to include not only Chelsea, but surrounding towns and villages.

Rose, described by newspapers as “distraught,” pleaded with the kidnapper to “keep on giving [Ronald] cough medicine because he has a bad cold and I think it may turn to whooping cough.”  Interviewed by several local radio stations, she pleaded for her son’s return.

Soon Rose began receiving calls for ransom.  Before the search reached its macabre end, Ronald’s mother would claim to have taken a dozen calls demanding anywhere from $1,000 to $30,000.  Police spent hundreds of hours chasing down these leads, eventually arresting two hoaxers.

James, back home in Chelsea, was placed under a doctor’s care, suffering from shock.  At times, he seemed disoriented, as if he could not believe what was happening.

For sixteen long days, the search continued.  Its net widened to Boston, with cops raiding several “underworld” haunts.  Newspaper headlines across the country trumpeted the widening mystery.

Then, on December 2, a detective who had long been suspicious of Rose Carlan’s story made a shocking discovery.  Special Officer Matthew J. Flaherty found the body of Ronald stuffed in the bottom of a built-in China cabinet in the Carlan’s bedroom.  The United Press described this scene:  “The baby, wrapped in his bright blue bunting, was crammed under the bottom drawer of the closet, less than arm’s reach from the bed where for 14 nights James Carlan comforted his ‘distraught’ wife, his vows of love assuring her the child would be found alive.

“Flaherty, a father himself, had become suspicious of the story told by Mrs. Carlan—the high ransom and varying tales about the baby’s milk bottles.  He began a search of the home, smiling, and attempting to put the Carlans at ease with his good humor.  Flaherty strode into the bedroom of the four-room flat.  A smile that had flickered across Mrs. Carlan’s face froze as he walked to the closet against which a bureau had been moved.  He pushed the bureau aside.  Flaherty yanked out one drawer.  Then another.  Mrs. Carlan gasped as he pulled the bottom drawer free.  It stuck for an instant, then slid out, revealing the edge of the blue bunting in which the baby had been wrapped. Flaherty pushed aside a shawl and some household tools.

“Carlan and his wife screamed simultaneously when the baby’s body was uncovered.  ‘I did not murder my baby,’ sobbed Mrs. Carlan, and fainted.

“‘My God,’ Carlan said, ‘There’s the baby.’

“He turned and started toward his wife. ‘I’ll kill you,’ he shouted.

“Two policemen grabbed the stunned sailor, and led him from the room.”

The child’s body was in good condition considering that he’d been dead for more than two weeks.

Police arrested Rose and charged her with murder.  A judge ordered that she be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for an evaluation.  James, after first threatening to kill his wife, now promised to stand by her.

The Associated Press reported that Rose “had admitted she invented the kidnap story because she did not want anyone to think she had neglected the baby who Medical Examiner William J. Brickley reported died of asphyxiation following a fourth attack of pneumonia.  She said she found the baby dead when she came downstairs to her flat from a party in her mother-in-law’s apartment.”  Instead of calling for help, she went back to the party and acted as if nothing happened.  Two days later, she placed his carriage outside her home and concocted the kidnap story.

The case was referred to a grand jury.  On February 19, 1946, newspapers reported that jurors refused to indict Rose when it was determined that Ronald had died of pneumonia.

James and Rose exited the courthouse, strolling through a gauntlet of reporters.  In a bizarre twist, the two held hands and beamed with delight.

After the hearing, Rose and James Carlan disappeared from the news, their fate swallowed up by history.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Tragic Life and Death of Sweet Little Sixteen

On the edge of death
by Robert A. Waters

A teenaged girl stood on the bridge looking down into one hundred and twenty feet of darkness.  A few cars may have whizzed by, slapping their brakes at the sight of the pretty teen standing on the edge of death.  Three days before, she’d fled her foster home in Gainesville, Florida.  Where she spent those 72 hours, nobody knows—or more likely, nobody’s talking.  But in the early morning hours of May 15, she plummeted off that bridge into the unrelenting night.

The Bert Dosh Memorial Bridge on State Road 40 east of Silver Springs is an expensive artifact from a failed scheme.  Beginning in the late 1880s and up through the 1970s, many businessmen in the state envisioned a watery passageway that would cross Florida and connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.  They planned to accomplish their dream by building a series of canals to link the state’s many lakes and rivers.  It was to be called the Cross Florida Barge Canal.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, local, state, and Federal governments spent about a million dollars to build the oversized bridge across the miniscule Ocklawaha River.  Approximately 74 million dollars was spent on the entire canal project, but the bridge was to be the last dying gasp of the Cross Florida Barge Canal when growing environmental concerns spelled the end of the plan.

Spanning over 2,700 feet in length and about 120 feet high, the structure looks much older than its actual age.  Faded concrete railings, about waist-high, leave little room for walkers or bicyclists.

The girl lay sprawled on the ground beneath the bridge when a visitor to the nearby Ray Wayside Park discovered her.  Wearing a black top, multicolored skirt, and black shoes, the only jewelry she wore was a necklace with a heart-shaped charm.  Her hair had been dyed red, but investigators determined that its original color was brown.  The dead girl carried no identification.

So who was this lost child?

Investigators eventually identified her as sixteen-year-old Ann Ella Sagul.  Yet little real information surfaced.  Acquaintances recounted the story of a girl who became a ward of the state when she was an infant.  She allegedly spent the rest of her life in foster homes, moving from one to another.  Little is known about her, but a Facebook page she may have created implies that she was unhappy about moving so much.

Her real story continues to elude us.

Did Ann Ella Sagul jump from that bridge, hoping to escape an unhappy life?  Or did she accidently fall over the edge.  (If an automobile veered too close, she could have panicked and, while attempting to climb onto the railing, plunged into eternity.)

Or was she murdered?

Like the murky, ink-black Ocklawaha River that flows beneath that monstrous bridge, will Ann Ella Sagul’s life and death remain a mystery?

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Flags of Five Nations

 
Should Marion County, Florida remove all its flags?
by Robert A. Waters

“If the Devil owned both Hell and Florida, he would rent out Florida and live in Hell!” A United States soldier during the Second Seminole War.

In front of the county administrative complex in my hometown of Ocala, Florida, five flags have flown peacefully for years.  These flags represent countries that once ruled Florida: Spain, France, Great Britain, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America.

But a few weeks ago, in the wake of a white gunman shooting dead nine black members of a South Carolina church, the county administrator pulled the Confederate flag from the display.  A day later, the county commission voted unanimously to replace the missing flag.  As it was being reinstated to its rightful place in the display, the county administrator abruptly resigned.

A horde of media folks suddenly descended on our usually quiet little community.  Most of these out-of-towners seemed confused and dismayed that ignorant rednecks would proudly display such a supposedly racist symbol as the Confederate flag.

What is the history of the other four flags that have flown above Marion County?  Are Spain, France, England, and the United States any less culpable than the Confederate States of America?

On Spain’s first foray into the state, Pedro de Salazar enslaved hundreds of Native Americans.  Then, according to Florida: Then and Now, Hernando de Soto, who arrived a few years later, in 1569, “enslaved, mutilated, and executed the natives, often without provocation.”  This reign of terror continued during two centuries of Spanish rule.

In 1562, Jean Ribault and a group of French Huguenots decided to escape religious persecution in their own country and settle in the new world.  They established a fort near what is now Jacksonville, where the Spaniards quickly attacked them.  In an orgy of blood-letting, Spanish soldiers lined the captured French soldiers up on the beach and beheaded several hundred souls.  (The area is now known as Matansas, meaning “massacre.”)  This ended the short-lived French attempt to colonize Florida, but they did fly the French flag for about three years.

In 1763, Spain traded the colony of Florida to Great Britain for Havana, Cuba, which the English had previously captured.

So far, we have Spain, France, and England that have flown flags over the state.  France’s sojourn in the state was brief, with few atrocities.  England’s ruthless power-grabbing ways are well-documented.  Without firearms, a dedicated group of patriots, and a bit of luck, Americans might be British subjects today.

In 1822, Florida became a territory of the United States.  In 1835, American troops arrived to forcibly evict the Creek and Seminole Indians from their homeland.  Thus began the Second Seminole War.  Broken treaties, imprisonment without legal representation, forced relocation, torture, and death followed as United States troops relentlessly sought to move the Indians or wipe them out.  At war’s end, only a few Seminoles remained in Florida, most seeking shelter in the nearly inaccessible Everglades.

In 1845, Florida became the 27th state to be admitted to the Union.

Florida seceded in 1861, becoming a part of the Confederate States of America.  It was readmitted to the United States in 1868.

In Marion County, the five flags fly precariously, subject to the whims of political pressure.  If, however, one flag is plucked from the display, maybe all the others should be taken down as well.

Except for that lone inoffensive French flag.