Editor’s note: This story is the sixth installment in a series detailing the death of Vinton County Sheriff Harold Steele, the search for his killer and the trial that followed. The sixth part of this series details the second trial of James Oliver Mills, who was previously found guilty of manslaughter.
Vinton County deputy Dave Wilbur was a crucial witness in the trial of James Oliver Mills, the killer of Vinton County Sheriff Harold Steele. Mills later faced charges, as he had allegedly shot the young deputy after the sheriff was killed.
Mills returned to Vinton County on Sept. 3, 1972 in preparation for his second trial, where he faced two felony charges of shooting with intent to kill and shooting with intent to wound. Mills had previously been found guilty of first-degree manslaughter after the shooting death of Vinton County Sheriff Harold Steele and was sentenced to one to 20 years in prison, a decision then Athens County Prosecutor Arlo Chatfield called “a complete miscarriage of justice.”
Mills had been confined in the Ohio State Penitentiary since then, but he was transported to McArthur by then Vinton County Sheriff Dale Zinn, who defeated Steele’s widow and acting sheriff, Cora, in the 1971 general election.
Mills was arraigned in the Vinton County courthouse on Oct. 12, 1972. An out-of-county judge, Judge Harley Meyer of Hocking County, presided over the hearings. Columbus attorney David Kessler reportedly filed a motion to dismiss the charges, arguing that Mills’ right to a speedy trial would be violated. Judge Meyer concluded Mills would have to stand trial, and the trial would not violate his rights under Ohio law.
Mills was indicted in November of 1972.
Wilbur, one of the only witnesses called to the stand during Mills’ second trial, recalled the events of the day of Sheriff Harold Steele’s slaying in great detail. The memories, although likely painful, were ones the father and husband was asked to recount multiple times throughout the trials of Mills.
Although details from the fateful day were not included in area news coverage during the second round of Mills’ trials, they were recorded heavily in news stories about the Steele murder trial. Testimonies were heard on March 6, 1972 in the Vinton County Courthouse.
The deputy was injured while attempting to serve the warrant with Sheriff Steele. Wilbur stated that he offered to serve the warrant himself, but Sheriff Steele insisted that they serve the warrant together. Wilbur had the warrant in his hip pocket as the two lawmen stepped onto Mills’ porch. Both men knocked on the front doors and back doors of the residence several times, Wilbur stated.
“Sheriff Steele read the warrant to Mills, and asked him to accompany them,” the Democrat-Enquirer previously reported. “Mills refused and backed from the room through the middle room toward the kitchen. Steele followed, trying to talk Mills into coming peacefully.”
Wilbur recalled that Mills put down his rifle and then picked up a shotgun and cocked one barrel. Steele reportedly warned Mills that if Mills didn’t put down his weapon, he would have additional charges filed against him.
Mills reportedly accused Wilbur of coming prepared with two guns, and Wilbur stated he had only his service revolver on his person. Mills then reportedly asked Sheriff Steele if he wanted Mills to shoot Wilbur, to which Steele replied “hell no.” Steele then told Wilbur to run out to their squad car to radio in for assistance.
Mills reportedly shouted that Wilbur should feel free to call in for as much help as he wanted, and while he was at it, “to get that long-legged son of a b*tch from the electric company” (as readers may recall, Mills allegedly threatened electric company employees in connection to an easement, and this dispute was the root of the warrant Wilbur and Steele were attempting to serve).
Mills then reportedly ordered Steele and Wilbur to leave his property.
“I’ve been serving warrants for 20 years and I’ve never walked out on one yet and I’ll not walk out on this one,” Steele reportedly said, according to Wilbur’s testimony.
Wilbur was attempting to call in for help, but having difficulty. As he was trying to connect with his station, he heard a single shot. He quickly completed his call and returned to the house, where he claims to have seen a shotgun barrel sticking through the screen of the front door. Wilbur said the gun disappeared, then reappeared at the corner of the house, and Wilbur fired in that direction. The gun reappeared, and they exchanged another set of shots.
Wilbur then tried to locate Mills, but was shot in the neck, shoulder and right arm. The wounded deputy fired shots into high grass, but had to drag himself to a ditch, later crawling to the road when he heard the siren of an ambulance.
Wrightsel Funeral Home ambulance driver David Harkins also testified during Mills’ second trial. Harkins noted that he 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.
The second trial ultimately resulted in a hung jury, the Athens Messenger reported in its March 7 paper. The jury deliberated for “half a day,” the newspaper reported, but later told the judge it could not return a verdict.
Another case tied to Mills coincided with his second trial: his wife, Marcella, filed a $1 million dollar federal lawsuit against a few law enforcement leaders, alleging her constitutional rights were violated during the search for Mills following the shooting of Sheriff Steele.
The lawsuit named Charles Cochran, then the Athens City Chief of Police, and Jackson County Sheriff Hile Fyffe. It also reportedly listed two unnamed Jackson County Sheriff’s Office deputies, referred to simply as John Doe. In it, Marcella alleged that she was confined illegally while area law enforcement agencies searched for her husband, who took to the northern Vinton County wilderness after the shooting death of Steele.
Federal District Court Judge Carl Rubin presided over the case. Marcella specifically claimed that she was held in the Vinton County jail throughout a majority of her husband’s temporary disappearance, confined without an arrest warrant and without charges filed against her. In addition, she claimed she was not informed by law enforcement of her constitutional rights, and she alleged deputies threatened her as she was being interrogated.
The story about the lawsuit’s filing was covered locally, but also was picked up by the Associated Press.
Cochran was later dropped from the hefty lawsuit, but Sheriff Fyffe testified on Dec. 14, 1972. During questioning, Sheriff Fyffe noted that he was aware of Marcella’s detainment during the manhunt for her husband. He was not aware, he claimed, of deputies transporting her to Vinton County. Marcella claimed to have been visiting a niece in Nelsonville during the search for her husband, but she was later picked up by deputies and brought to the Vinton County jail in McArthur for questioning.
Sheriff Fyffe noted during the trial that many events during the span of nearly a week were blurry, as nearly 300 law enforcement agents were involved in the search and not a single person was designated as “leader” in the investigation.
The jury was unable to reach a verdict following an 11-1 vote for the acquittal of Sheriff Fyffe.
In February of 1973, the lawsuit was dismissed in federal court.
The Vinton-Jackson Courier will feature another story about the Steele case in a future edition… but our series is drawing to a close soon!