The Christmas Murder of John Payne

On December 26, 1923, John Payne eagerly awaited the return of his foster daughter, Bertha, who had spent Christmas at her grandfather’s with her father, Willard Pettit, and Uncle Wilbur.  John was a tenant on the Huron Valley farm 6 miles north of Shelby, OH, which was owned by A. C. Morse, head of the Shelby Seamless Tube Company.  As John walked from the barn to the tenant house, where he and some friends, Lester VanOsdol, John Field and Ollie Cline who were assisting with butchering, a car pulled up the drive.  Willard and Wilbur Pettit got out of the car and confronted John Payne.  Moments later Payne lay on the ground dead and the Petit twins where racing toward Plymouth with VanOsdol following.  Wilbur fired a shot at the pursuing Vanosdol and struck him in the left ankle.  When the brothers arrived in Plymouth, Wilbur left the car and Willard continued to the Pettit farm where he was arrested a short time later by Sherriff Fred D. Sells.  The search for Wilbur began immediately.


The Daughter

Bertha was born December 28, 1913 to Willard, one of the twins, and Oma (Akers) Pettit.  Shortly after her birth, her mother died and she became a ward of the state.  She spent a short time with family in Akron and later came to live with John and Amy (Pettit) Payne.  Amy was the sister of Willard and Wilbur.  Amy testified that on November 7, 1921, Willard had come to the Payne home and wanted to see Bertha.  They said she was in school and both Willard and the Paynes went after her.  According to Amy Payne, the next day they were awarded custody by the courts.  Willard felt that John Payne and stolen his daughter’s affection and made negative comments about him in her presence.  Amy confirmed this to some degree in her testimony.  This enraged Willard and many other testified of how he often said he would like to or would one day kill John Payne.


The Murder

On the day after Christmas the Pettit twins first stopped at the home of Clarence Ehret.  Wilbur was the husband of his daughter, but the couple was separated.  According to Wilbur’s wife, he insisted on seeing their daughter, but the baby was asleep.  Mrs. Pettit believed that had she been alone that day, Wilbur would have killed her.

After they left the Ehret farm, the brothers went to see John Payne.  According to Bertha, the brothers talked about killing Payne on the way to the farm.  When they arrived, Willard began an argument with Payne.  He enraged Payne to the point where he struck Willard.  Wilbur pulled a revolver form his coat and Bertha ran up to her uncle and pleaded with him not to do it.  Wilbur pushed Bertha to the ground and fired shot at John Payne causing him to fall to the ground.  According to testimony, Willard held Payne to the ground and told his brother to “give him another one.”  Wilbur fired another shot into the temple of Payne.  In all, three shots entered Payne, one in the left temple, one in the throat, which embedded in the spinal cord, and one through the left ear.  The brothers then jumped in the car and made their escape.

The trial for Willard Pettit began on Monday, March 10, 1924, while the search for his brother continued.  The defense for Willard consisted of the proving that there was no premeditation for the murder of John Payne and therefor, Wilbur was the sole murderer, coming to the defense of his brother who had been attacked by Payne.  The prosecutor attempted to show otherwise.  Witnesses, including Bertha, took the stand and claimed Willard had, multiple times, talked about getting his revenge on Payne.  According to the prosecutor, if the jury was to return a verdict of not guilty it would mean they would have to believe everyone, except Willard, was lying.  It took the jury 3 hours and 25 minutes to come back with a guilty verdict.  Willard would spend a minimum of 19 years with a maximum of 20 years in prison.  The days of December 24, 25 and 26 of those years were to be spent in solitary confinement


The search for Wilbur

The search continued to bring Wilbur to justice.  Many tips came in from people trying to collect the $1,000 reward.  In late January, it was believed he was in a hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.  This turned out to be false.  Many in Plymouth felt that Wilbur had committed suicide by jumping into an old stone quarry a mile southeast of Plymouth.  They believed that once spring came the body of Wilbur Pettit would be found.  On March 29, a body was found in Toledo and believed to be that of Wilbur and, a day or two later, a man arrested in Elyria was thought to be the wanted man.  Not much was heard of Wilbur until March 6, 1925 when a man fitting his description was spotting in Kansas City.  Glenn Greenwood, who at one time lived in Sharon Township and was employed at the Winbigler Farm north of Mansfield, recognized Pettit while both were employed at a meat packing plant in Kansas City.  A short time later, he was arrested in Wichita, Kansas.  At first he denied being Wilbur and gave the name of Sam Beads, but later admitted his identity and returned to Mansfield.

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Pettit plead not guilty and his trial was set for April 20, 1925.  It was becoming difficult to secure a jury for the case and, on April 20, only one juror had been secured, a Mrs. Olive Walker.  The following day, Wilbur Pettit changed his plea to guilty to second degree murder and was given a life sentence in the Ohio State Penitentiary and, like his brother, was required to spend December 24, 25 and 26 in solitary confinement.

14 years later the brothers were up for parole.  They had been model prisoners and parole was granted.   Willard was released on July 1, 1939 and his brother, Wilbur, was set free September 1, 1939.  In the 1951 city directory, both men were listed as living in Mansfield and working at Westinghouse.  Wilbur Pettit died June 30, 1981 and Willard died on December 16, 1985.  Both are buried in Greenlawn Cemetery in Plymouth.   Bertha died in 2012 at the age of 98 in Shelby.

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