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.

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