Residents were buying handguns and doors were
locked in Vanderburgh, Posey and Gibson counties in Indiana and
across the Ohio River in Henderson County, Ky.
Before the rampage ran its course, Leslie Irvin shot
and killed six people and left an intended seventh victim blind and
crippled. He became the object of a nationwide manhunt after an escape
from jail and a flight to San Francisco. At large for 22 days, he
reportedly was seen everywhere in the country.
His trial was held in the Gibson County courthouse
ended in a conviction and a sentence to the electric chair. After years
of appeals, in 1961 the U.S. Supreme Court, would reverse his first
conviction and death sentence and wrote, in a landmark decision, new
rules guaranteeing a citizen's right to a trial free of "so huge a wave
of public passion" created by media coverage. It was a classic case
where a free press and a person's right to a fair trial can be in
Irvin had four dates with Indiana's electric chair
and dodged them all, spending the major part of his life in the Indiana
State Prison in Michigan City until his death on Nov. 9, 1983. Leslie
Irvin, a 30-year-old burglar-murderer branded a "mad dog killer" by
Gibson county prosecuting attorney Loren McGregor in his closing
His first victim was Mrs. Mary Holland, a 33-year-old
expectant mother. She and her husband, Charles "Doc" Holland, owned and
operated a liquor store on Bellemeade Avenue. Mrs. Holland was found
dead in the stores restroom the night of December 2, 1954, from a single
shot in the head. Her hands were tied behind her back.
On December 23, Wesley Kerr, 29, was found shot to
death in a U.S. 41 North gasoline station where he worked alone during
the early morning hours. His body was in the restroom, hands tied behind
his back, a single bullet wound in his head. Police found a spent slug,
believed to be from a .38-caliber revolver. The station's cash register
was open and empty, the night's receipts showing $68.11. Police
surmised the same gunman had killed Mrs. Holland.
Rewards for the capture of this criminal began
cropping up, with local newspapers offering $1,000. Almost three months
passed and the area was returning to normal when the killer surfaced on
March 21, 1955.
Wilhelmina Sailer, a 47-year-old housewife, was shot
to death in her Posey County farm home near Mount Vernon, Ind. Her 7-year-old
son, John Ray, discovered her when he returned by bus from school
shortly after noon. Her husband arrived a few minutes later. Mrs.
Sailer's hands were bound behind her with a single shot to the head.
A week later on March 28 a Henderson County, Ky.,
farmer Goebel Duncan and two other family members were killed, all by
single shots through their heads. His wife, Mamie, survived a similar
wound but was blinded and in critical condition. She awoke two days
later but the trauma had erased her memory of the tragic event. She
would later sit on the front row, everyday at the killer's trial in
The Duncan's 2-year-old granddaughter, Shirley Faye
was spared. "I like kids," the killer later told police. Duncan's son,
Raymond, was killed, as was a daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, married to
another son. The Duncan women were discovered by a family member in
adjoining rooms of the farmhouse; the bodies of the men were found in a
muddy swamp four miles away.
The multiple murders of the Goebel Duncan family in
Henderson County, Ky., provided police with their first solid clues in
their efforts to discover the identity of the execution style killer
terrorizing the Tri-State.
A neighbor of the Duncans, John Ralph Gaines told
detectives he noticed Raymond and Goebel Duncan standing in Raymond's
front yard talking with "one or two men" around 10 a.m. on March 28,
1955, the day of their deaths. He said he saw nothing suspicious and
drove on. He did notice a dark vehicle with a battered left side and an
Indiana license plate parked nearby. Three Sturgis, Ky., residents - Mrs.
Dan Griffin, her grandson, Thomas Griffin, and his sister, Mrs. Virginia
Watson, were on their way to Evansville when they were involved in a
minor accident around 9:40 a.m. on the day of the Duncan deaths. Since
they were in a hurry to get to Evansville, Mrs. Griffin said, they gave
the driver $5 for repairs and drove on. She said the man turned around
and followed them for about a mile and a half before turning off into
the Duncan driveway.
The following day, T. Walters of Corydon, Kentucky.,
told police officers he passed the Duncan men near the spot on the Trigg-Turner
Road where their bodies were found. This was around 10 a.m. Police now
had a general description of the suspected killer and his car.
It till took a stroke of luck from a group of
youngsters out on a lark to apprehend Leslie Irvin. Vanderburgh County
Sheriff Frank McDonald Sr., a future Evansville mayor, had formed a
Junior Sheriff Patrol, and sent word to them to report anything
suspicious in their neighborhoods. There had been a series of burglaries
in the St. Joseph area northwest of Evansville, but no arrests were
On March 30, two days after the Duncan murders, eight
youths in the Vienna Road area decided to go out and look over the
drilling of a new oil well. As they packed themselves into the car of
Bill Williams, 18, they noticed another car parked near some woods about
150 yards away. They joked about it "being the murderer," one said later.
They pulled near the car, now moving, and one of the youths leaned out a
window and shouted: "Hey, we're investigators." The black vehicle sped
away as one of the youths jotted down the license number, EL 351, of the
On April 1, 1955, two youngsters were reading a story
in an area paper that mentioned a vehicle similar to the one their group
had seen in northwestern Vanderburgh County. Allen Peerman brought the
clipping home and showed it to his mother. She promptly contacted the
sheriff's office. A check of the license plate number the youths had
recorded turned up under the name of Leslie Irvin, who was on parole
from the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City after serving nine years
for a burglary in Indianapolis.
Irvin was arrested on April 8 at the F.B. Culley
power plant near Yankeetown in Warrick County. He worked there as a
steam-pipe insulator, earning $1.90 per hour, a decent wage for that
decade. Irvin offered no resistance. After questioning Irvin, he didn't
reveal his identity until Monday, although the news media believed a
suspect had been apprehended.
On April 15, police said Irvin confessed to 24
burglaries in four Southern Indiana counties, stealing guns believed to
have been used in area killings. Irvin was charged with four murders and
police he admitted to two more. A wallet found on Irvin was believed to
be that of slaying victim Wesley Kerr. It contained $18.
Area policemen who had known Irvin since childhood
recalled him setting fire to Bosse High School several times at the age
15 just for the thrill of it.
A grand jury in Henderson, Kentucky, convened on May
1 and indicted Irvin the following day on three counts of murder for the
slayings of Goebel Duncan family. Kentucky sought his extradition but
Indiana officials blocked it. On May 10, Vanderburgh Circuit Judge Ollie
C. Reeves granted Irvin a change of venue to Gibson County, a move
sought by public defender Robert Hayes "on account of local prejudice."
Officials decided he would be tried first for Kerr's
slaying. After the trial, the electric chair was recommended for Irvin.
The Leslie Irvin murder case had barely reached the Gibson County
Courthouse in Princeton, Indiana, when defense attorneys asked that it
be moved back to Evansville. The defense thought the larger Vanderburgh
County population would more likely yield an impartial jury. On May 11,
1955, Gibson Circuit Judge A. Dale Eby overruled the motion.
The next day, Irvin made his first appearance in the
Gibson County court, handcuffed, with a long, leash-like chain linking
him to Gibson County Sheriff Earl Hollen, lending credence to his "Mad
Dog" image. On May 18, Eby appointed Evansville attorney Ted Lockyear
Jr. to defend Irvin. A day later, James D. Lopp Sr., also an Evansville
lawyer, was appointed to the defense team. Proceedings resumed on
November 15 with jury selection which proved to be a monumental and
tedious task. It required three weeks with more than 355 prospects being
Court reporter Lucille Ford estimated she filled 33
stenographic pads with 247,000 words in shorthand, including mumbles and
nods of heads.
On December 7, an all-male jury of 12 was selected.
Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Paul Wever, assisted by Howard Sandusky
and Gibson County Prosecutor Loren McGregor, handled the state's case
and opened the trial announcing they would seek the death penalty. After
more than five weeks, the trial drew to a close. On December 20, 1955,
the jury, after 90 minutes of deliberations, decided Irvin was guilty
and recommended that he be executed in the electric chair.
Irvin's date with death was scheduled for June
12. Leslie Irvin, the chief suspect in the slayings of six people, was
confined in what lawmen considered an escape-proof jail in Princeton,
Ind., 25 miles north of Evansville. He was awaiting a transfer to the
Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.
A few days away from making this trip, Irvin shocked
his captors and the public by making his way through three locked doors
and disappearing into a snowy night on January 21. His escape, like his
crimes, arrest and trial, dominated the newspaper front page for days.
Irvin later told Courier reporter Joe Aaron, who covered his crime spree
and trial, that he used a trial-and-error method of making 50 keys to
finally find two that would open his way to freedom. He said he made
them from paperback novel covers, tin foil and glue.
Police posted 24-hour guards around the homes of
Prosecutor Paul Wever, his assistant, Howard Sandusky, along with those
of Evansville Chief of Detectives Dan Hudson and Irvin's mother, Alice.
Irvin was making his way to Las Vegas, Los Angeles
and finally to San Francisco, when the chase ended on February 9.
Wearing a snappy sport shirt and new suit, condemned murderer Leslie
Irvin was arrested Feb. 9, 1956, in a downtown San Francisco pawnshop.
Two officers who made the arrest admitted they had no idea who he was.
Irvin had traveled more than 2,000 miles in 20 days, often one step
ahead of police.
When arrested, he told San Francisco police; "I'm
Leslie Irvin and I'm wanted in Indiana for six murders. I've been
convicted of one and I'm not guilty of any." On Friday night, February
11, Gibson County Sheriff Earl Hollen and Indiana State Police Lt.
Willard Walls and Detective Sgt. W.W. Cornett arrived in San Francisco
to return Irvin to Indiana, unaware Irvin planned to fight extradition.
Irvin was arraigned in San Francisco Municipal Court
on a fugitive charge and was awarded a continuance until the following
Tuesday, giving him time to talk to his attorneys, Ted Lockyear Jr. and
James Lopp Sr. He learned their motion for a new trial had been delayed.
Two attempts to fly Irvin to Indiana were aborted
when newsmen and women discovered their flight times and swarmed the San
Francisco airport to cover his departure. Plans for an air return were
canceled and Irvin was scheduled to leave by train to Chicago on Feb.
15. Aaron made the 2,000-mile ride home with Irvin, who received an ego
boost when learning newsmen had nicknamed the conveyance the "Mad Dog
Train." Irvin was handcuffed, with Hollen holding a chain leash attached
to the cuffs, even during meals.
After a three-hour layover in Ogden, Utah, the
entourage boarded the City of Los Angeles for their final leg to
Chicago. A three-car police convoy awaited Irvin there and quickly
whisked him away to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. Attorneys
Ted Lockyear Jr. and James Lopp Sr. took their case through a maze of
courts, and in mid-August 1956 the Indiana Supreme Court granted Leslie
Irvin a stay of execution until December 1, 1956.
Irvin's attorneys argued the trial was held in an
atmosphere of bias and prejudice against their client, and by June 1 had
filed a 5,000-page trial transcript with the state Supreme Court. The
high court eventually extended Irvin's execution to March 29, 1957, then
to July 9, 1957.
On July 9, 1957, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
granted Irvin an indefinite stay of execution, five hours before his
scheduled trip to the death chamber. His case wound its way through the
federal system, where courts were asked to consider whether the guilty
verdict was influenced by a forced confession, police abuse and a jury
prejudiced by inflammatory media coverage. The U.S. Supreme Court
finally accepted the case and heard oral arguments on November 9, 1960.
On June 5, 1961, the Supreme Court handed down the
historic decision and ordered a new trial. It marked the first time the
high court had overturned a conviction because of pretrial publicity.
The decision altered the way newspapers, radio and television covered
criminal cases, and the way authorities released information. The case
would be cited in journalism law classes all over the country.
Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark wrote in his opinion:
"With his life at stake, it is not requiring too much that petitioner
(Irvin) be tried in an atmosphere undisturbed by so huge a wave of
public passion and by a jury in which two-thirds of the members admit,
before hearing any testimony, to possessing a belief in his guilt."
A second trial was conducted in Sullivan, Indiana,
Lockyear and Lopp were excused from further duties and Evansville
attorney Marion Rice agreed to defend Irvin, assisted by his law partner,
Jack VanStone, and George Taylor of Sullivan. Vanderburgh County
Prosecutor O.H. Roberts Jr.; Deputy Attorney General Richard Givan, who
later would become chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court; and
Sullivan County Prosecutor Paul R. Whitlock handled the state's case.
Sullivan Circuit Judge Joe Lowdermilk presided. The trial was conducted
in a more subdued atmosphere.
On June 13, 1962, the seven-man, five-woman jury
convicted Irvin of first-degree murder in the slaying of Wesley Kerr
after deliberating for five hours and 15 minutes. Irvin received a life
sentence, which he served as a model prisoner in the Indiana State
Prison in Michigan City.
During his time in prison he became a talented
leather craftsman, fashioning billfolds, purses, belts and other items
that were sold in the prison store. He remained an avid sports fan until
his death at the age of 59 on November 9, 1983 from lung cancer.