Editor’s note: This story is the first installment in a series detailing the death of Vinton County Sheriff Harold Steele, the search for his killer and the trial that followed.
Nearly 50 years ago, Vinton County suffered the loss of its sheriff, who was shot and killed on the job. The tragedy itself and the murder trial that followed received statewide attention as a community grieved the loss of a leader.
Sheriff Harold Steele, 61 at the time, was serving his third term as sheriff when a bench warrant was issued by Vinton County Judge Wade Lohr on a complaint from the Columbus and Southern Ohio Electric Company of a local man threatening electric company employees.
On Aug. 31, 1970, Sheriff Steele arrived at the three-room farmhouse of James Oliver Mills. Steele was accompanied by Deputy David Wilbur.
Mills was described by the Democrat-Enquirer as having a height of 5 feet and 4 inches. He only lived in Vinton County for a short, undefined time before this September day, but was thought “to know wooded areas thoroughly.” He had a history of taking out classified ads in the Democrat-Enquirer, which the newspaper included in its initial coverage of Steele’s slaying. One ad read the following: “$50 reward for the name and address of the ring-leader who is sending me menacing letters.”
Mills allegedly was threatening power company employees who were stepping on his property after Mills reportedly agreed to an easement with the company for power lines across from his property. As a condition of the easement, an electric line would be dropped to Mills’ house. The dispute reportedly began after Mills received a $15 bill for the power lines, but the company contacted him and stated the bill was sent in error.
The McArthur Democrat-Enquirer reported that Mills’ wife, Marcella, was in the farmhouse at the time the police cruiser pulled up, busying herself with washing dishes. Steele and Wilbur entered the home, and began talking to her husband, who began arguing with the officers. Marcella left the house and retreated to a wooded ravine outside, where she waited for the discussion to be less heated. When she stopped hearing loud voices, she came back to the house to let her pet cats outside, the Democrat-Enquirer reported.
When she entered the home, she witnessed her husband pointing his rifle at the deputy and the county’s sheriff. He reportedly looked at Marcella and yelled, “Get the hell out!” Marcella then ran to the neighboring farmhouse, owned by Clarence Waldron, to hide. She stayed in the Waldron residence until law enforcement arrived later that day to pick her up for questioning, and she reportedly did not hear any gunshots.
The events that followed are somewhat unclear, the Democrat-Enquirer stated, as no outside witness saw Mills fire his rifle (a point that would come up in court hearings to follow). Shots were fired, however, and Deputy Wilbur was injured as a result. The young deputy dragged himself to the police cruiser to contact the police station for back-up.
The only person at the police station at the time was Cora Steele, Harold’s wife and jail matron. She answered Wilbur’s call and immediately called Athens County, Jackson County and the State Highway Patrol for assistance, but was then alerted of her husband’s death.
Wrightsel Funeral Home ambulance driver David Harkins was called to the scene, and when he arrived at around 3 p.m. at the Mills residence, he found the deputy wounded and crawling along Township Road 11, about 200 yards south of the Mills house. Harkins transported Wilbur to a hospital in Logan, then traveled back to the Mills residence to carry the body of the fallen sheriff away from the scene.
Upon his second arrival, Harkins found blood splattered on the police cruiser, the body of the sheriff and a double-barrelled shotgun leaning against a tree in the yard, about 40 yards from the sheriff’s body, the Democrat-Enquirer reported. Mills was nowhere in sight.
Other area newspapers provided details about other events of that day. The Logan Daily News reported in its Sept. 1 edition that many law enforcement agencies arrived at the tiny farmhouse in Creola to investigate the killing.
“Visibly shaken law enforcement officers who knew Steele knelt near his sheet-draped body and clustered around a blood-splattered cruiser while attempting to piece together the details of his death,” the newspaper reported. A manhunt for the sheriff’s killer was organized immediately, and reportedly consisted of more than 200 law enforcement officers and volunteers within the first 24 hours.
Sheriff Steele was the father of two children, a husband and a grandfather. He was the second sheriff in Vinton County to die on the job, the first being Fletcher Collins. Like famed Maude Collins, Cora became acting sheriff upon her husband’s murder.
The Sept. 2 edition of the Democrat-Enquirer included a column from Gerry Frye. Here is the column in its entirety:
“Our hearts are heavy as I write ‘thirty’ after Sheriff Steele’s name — We find it so hard to believe — Harold was an easy going man who always looked for and expected the best out of everyone — ‘he never threw his weight around — just his smile’ — how many times we have heard people tell Harold he was just too easy on violators of the law — the sheriff would just grin and say ‘Oh, he’s not such a bad fellow — really didn’t mean to do anything wrong’ — consequently he has so many close calls — he walked up to a man who was pointing a gun directly at him and asked for it — so his bravery was known far and wide — Monday he met up with an angry, unreasonable man and lost his life. We have indeed lost a good friend who has helped in so many ways and leaves a void that will be hard to fill — THIRTY —”
The Vinton-Jackson Courier will feature more stories about the Steele case in future editions.