Editor’s note: This story is the third installment in a series detailing the death of Vinton County Sheriff Harold Steele, the search for his killer and the trial that followed. The third part of this series details initial court hearings of James Oliver Mills.
The hunt for fallen Vinton County Sheriff Steele’s alleged killer began and finished in a matter of days, but the court proceedings that followed spanned months.
The 61-year-old sheriff was fatally shot while attempting to execute a search warrant at the residence of Mills near Creola on the final day in August in 1970. Agencies from Athens County, Jackson County and Hocking County were called to the three-room farmhouse to assist Vinton County law enforcement in investigating the area and locating Mills, and the search grew into a collaboration of agencies from every county in the state. The search for Mills was deemed one of the largest of its kind at the time.
As reported in the second installment of this series, when Mills was located on days after the sheriff’s death, he was transported to the command post of the State Highway Patrol in McArthur, but he was later taken to the maximum security wing at the Pickaway County Jail. He appeared in court the following Tuesday in the chambers of Judge John L. Beckley. Deputy Wilbur, who had been recovering steadily after being wounded days prior, charged Mills with taking the life of a police officer, an offense punishable by death or life imprisonment.
A preliminary hearing was slated for the next week. When he appeared in court that Tuesday, he requested more time in order to find a lawyer to represent him.
In the edition of the McArthur Democrat-Enquirer that published the update about Mills delaying his plea, the newspaper also featured columns for community members in memory of Steele. One, a poem entitled “He Stood Tall” that was written by Blanche McWilliams Greene, stated the following:
“In uniform — or in street clothes — he was recognized by all. Loved by all who knew him. Always smiling, he stood tall. I am sure that he was smiling, as he walked upon that land. He held no fear, no malice, nor weapon in his hand. All in the line of duty. This, one such a minor task — but for it he paid the supreme sacrifice. And with shock and amazement, we ask what kind of man could cut down another just as scythe might cut down the weed… Our Sheriff was felled on a small plot of land in the hills where he fought for justice for all — He climbed his hill and waits with a smile. A man who is standing tall.”
Ultimately, Mills later found legal representation in Columbus attorneys Don Cramer and David Kessler. Mills entered a plea of “not guilty” on Sept. 23, 1970.
Four witnesses were reportedly called to the stand by then Vinton County Prosecutor Arlo Chatfield during this hearing: Marcella Mills, the wife of the alleged killer; Shirley Wilbur, the wife of the deputy that reportedly accompanied Steele to serve the warrant; David Harkins, Wrightsel Funeral Home ambulance driver; and Boyd Williams, Athens County Deputy Sheriff.
Marcella Mills testified that 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: a fact she also told law enforcement while being questioned following the death of Steele.
Harkins testified 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.
Attorney Kessler moved for charges against Mills to be dismissed on the grounds that there was “nothing shown to connect Mills with the killing,” The Democrat-Enquirer reported. Judge John Beckley ruled that there was sufficient reason to bind the case to the grand jury.
Mills was later denied a bond at his third court hearing. During this hearing, David Wilbur, the wounded deputy, was put on the stand for the first time and questioned by Prosecutor Chatfield. Wilbur told a packed courtroom that he and the slain sheriff knocked on both doors of the Mills residence before entering the home, where they were later met with a raised rifle.
“Sheriff Steele read the warrant to Mills, and asked him to accompany them,” the Democrat-Enquirer 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 the 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.
Chief Firearms Examiner for the State Monar, who was referred to by last name only in the Democrat-Enquirer, reportedly examined guns and ammunition taken from the scene, and he had the double-barrel gun for exhibit that day. Pictures were taken of Steele, showing wounds.
“The pellets were double 00 buck loaded only in 12-gauge shells,” the Democrat-Enquirer reported. “The Sheriff is believed to have been shot from 10 to 12 feet away. Nine pellets struck him, going by the entrance pattern of the shirt he wore.”
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.
An agent of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation also testified during this hearing, stating he found a shot gun pellet in the trunk of the tree standing between the house and the Sheriff’s cruiser.
Mills remained in jail until the grand jury convened months later. Perry County Judge Robert Tague was on the bench for these proceedings, starting Jan. 11, 1971.
The Vinton-Jackson Courier will feature more stories about the Steele case in future editions.