I had to be very careful when I researched this case for a few reasons. I think we all know that we cannot believe every story or article read even in today's media completely and that facts are sometimes exaggerated or embellished. Well, in the 1950's when the crimes of Leslie Irvin occurred it was even more true. It was not quite as bad as in the height of early "yellow journalism" but it was not much better. While the times of real yellow journalism could be compared to a daily dose of the old National Enquirer (even they have been forced to get better) by the 1950's articles for newspapers were still written not just for sensationalism but for emotion in the wording. When you read articles from that time sometimes it was just the words that were used to bring more emotion to the reader instead of just simply stating the facts as they were. For example, let us say that someone was beaten by another person and it was being described by a reporter for the newspaper. Instead of saying something like "While Mr. Smith lie in the street, Mr. Jones continued to beat him," journalists of this era would say something more like, "As poor, helpless Mr. Smith lie in the street, Mr. Jones repeatedly and viciously continued to attack him." The latter garners sympathy for Mr. Smith while raising the level of anger towards Mr. Jones. This did not come from opinion pieces or editorial letters published in the newspapers, these came from normal newspaper articles or comments made in the news by reporters. So when the crimes of Leslie Irvin came to light in 1955 these was the kind of journalism available to the readers.
This is another crime, actually crime spree, that occurred within the area in which I now live in Indiana along the Ohio River. The crime in which Leslie Irvin was eventually tried for occurred in Evansville, Indiana in Vanderburgh County. To the north lays Gibson County, to the west is Posey County, to the east it is Warrick County and just south of Vanderburgh County, across the Ohio River lays Henderson County Kentucky. Now in 1955 travel through those counties is not what it is now but they are very close together and even in 1955 the news of each county, especially news of this magnitude had no county boundaries. Throughout the end of 1954 and into the spring of 1955 this entire region was on edge. On December 2, 1954 Mary Holland, a pregnant wife, who owned a liquor store with her husband in Evansville was found inside the store's restroom. Her hands were tied behind her back and she had been shot in the head. She did not survive. Then on December 23, 1954 in a gas station along Highway 41 in Evansville the body of Wesley Kerr was found. He was known to work at the station early mornings alone. He too was found in the bathroom of the business with his hands tied behind his back and a gunshot wound to the head. The register was open and empty. Police quickly determine that these two murders had to have been committed by the same person. Not only were they left in similar places, with their hands tied behind their backs and a single gunshot wound to their heads, they were also shot with what was believed a .38 caliber pistol. The manhunt was on. Rewards were offered but leads ran dry and after a few months it was believed that the perpetrator likely left the area.
Then on March 21, 1955 a seven year old boy who lived with his family on a farm in nearby Mount Vernon, in Posey County, got off his school bus and when he got home he found his mother, 47 year old Wilhelmina Sailer dead in the home. Like the two victims in Evansville she too had her hands tied behind her back and had a single gunshot wound to her head. Authorities believed their killer was back but still there were no leads. It appears no one had seen anything.
Then on March 28th a teenager came across the bodies of Goebel Duncan and his adult son Raymond laying face down in a swampy area in Henderson Kentucky. The authorities were called and after examining the victims they first headed to Raymond Duncan's house up the road. No one was there so they went to Goebel Duncan's home less than a mile away. Inside the car was a police officer and a reporter. It was not uncommon in those days for reporters to be present and be involved investigations. When they got to Goebel Duncan's home once again no one came to the door but this time the officer and reporter decided to go inside and look around. Inside in adjoining rooms they found Goebel's wife, Mamie and his daughter in law, Elizabeth, the wife of his son Dorris. Elizabeth's two year old daughter, Shirley Faye was on the bed with her mother, unharmed. The same could not be said for Mamie and Elizabeth. Both of the women had their hands tied behind their back and gunshot wounds to their heads. Amazingly however, Mamie was not dead. She would be transported to a local hospital but she when she awoke two days later she was blind and had no memory of what had happened.
Luckily since Mamie could be of no help in the investigation the authorities had other leads. A man had reported that around 10 am on the morning of the murders he had seen Goebel and Raymond outside Raymond Duncan's home talking to a man (said there may have even been two men) that he did not know. Nearby was a dark car with Indiana license plates and it was "battered on the left side." With that information a Mrs. Dan Griffen came forward. She had been headed to Evansville with her grandson and sister on the morning of the murders and had had an accident of some sort with a dark car. Apparently it had been damaged on the left side. Instead of waiting to make a report since she was in a hurry she gave the man $5 (remember this was 1955) for repairs and went on her way. She said the man followed her about another mile and a half up the road and had turned in the Duncan drive and she continued forward.
So all the newspapers in the area were reporting the new leads and looking for this mysterious dark car with damage on the left side. On March 30th a group of young boys were going to watch the drilling of an oil well. They noticed on the side of the road, near the woods was a car similar to that described in the papers. While one of the boys wrote down the license number they pulled up next to the driver and jokingly stated they were investigators. The man in the car seemed alarmed and drove off. The next day one of the parents of the boys called the police with the license plate number the boys had obtained. It was determined that the plates belonged to a man named Leslie Irvin. Irvin worked in nearby Warrick County. Again keeping in mind this was 1955 and long before the computer era it took authorities a week to pull everything together. By the time they got all of their information and headed to Warrick County they knew that Irvin was around 30 years old and that he had served time in the state prison in Michigan City Indiana. He had been sentence to 10-20 years in 1945 for a burglary in Indianapolis. Ultimately he had served 9 years of that sentence and in May of 1954 had moved to the Evansville area.
I know I keep mentioning the time period here but it is very important. Laws were not what they are now and police officers had a lot more lead way than they do now. While some would argue all of the police brutality issues we see in the news today and issues involving "crooked cops," this is nothing compared to those days. First off, very little was needed to warrant the arrest of someone. If this situation was going on today, aside from the issues of forensics that are available today, things would have gone much quicker in identifying the owner of the car the boys saw but when the police went to his work it is likely at most they would have asked him to go to the police station for questioning. That did not likely happen here. In fact, several people had already been arrested for the Evansville murders only to be cleared afterwards and released. In all likelihood the officers went to Irvin's work on the premises of arresting him. The officers also did not have rules for interrogations like we do now either. They basically did whatever they had to in order to get a confession of someone they were convinced was guilty for whatever crime they were investigating. Many were not beyond lying to the media or some would say planting evidence. Much of this had to do with the reputation departments wanted to show. At this point there had been 6 murders (and they probably feared Mamie Duncan could still die) that authorities in the area were convinced were tied to the same person. The communities lived in fear and it was their job to find this person. They were going to do whatever it took to make the people believe they not only did their job, but did it well and the best way to express that was through the media.
Just after his arrest on April 8th authorities announced that while he had not confessed to any of the murders, he had confessed to over 28 robberies in the area. A few days later on the 13th they held a press conference and announced that Irvin had confessed to all six murders in the three counties. Kentucky was already clamoring to get him extricated to their state. In fact, on May 1st a grand jury had indicted him on three counts of murder for the Duncans but officials in Evansville blocked that. It was decided that he would be tried for the murder was Wesley Kerr. Apparently aside from the supposed confession (something Irvin would continue to later say he never gave) that had been copied and released to the media, authorities claimed they found Wesley Kerr's wallet on him when he was arrested.
The defense, a public defender, made his first move in asking that there be a change of venue due to all of the publicity of the case. The judge granted that decision. However, the judge decided that the trial would take place in Gibson County, the county just to the north of Evansville, and a county in which most of the residents received their news from Evansville itself. The defense continued to argue this even through jury selection to prevent the trial from being held in Gibson County. When the judge refused to grant that, saying the defense was only entitled to one change of venue, the defense repeatedly asked for a continuance on the basis that the longer they waited the less people would be reminded of the information they had heard. Again, the judge denied all of these requests. Finally, after three weeks of attempting to sit a jury a twelve man jury was compiled on December 7, 1955. On December 20th, after deliberating for about 90 minutes the jury returned with a verdict of guilty and ultimately sentenced Irvin to death.
After his conviction Irvin was held in the Princeton town jail in Gibson County waiting transfer to the state prison in Michigan City. While there Irvin escaped on January 21, 1956. He later claimed to have made keys for his escape from novel covers, tin foil and glue. It was later discovered that he hitchhiked first to Las Vegas an eventually landed in San Francisco California. Along the way he apparently committed some robberies and it is said that when he was picked up in a San Francisco pawnshop he was there to get rid of some jewelry he had stolen. He was supposedly quoted as tell the 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." Authorities in Indiana were notified and while it took a bit to get him back, when he returned he was taken straight to Michigan City.
In the meantime the day following his escape his attorneys had filed an appeal to attempt to get him a new trial. As strangely as this may sound it seems that before that filing could be heard, the courts had to decide if he even had the right to an appeal due to his escape. There were justices who believed the escape had wiped away all rights to an appeal. Throughout all this time a new death date would be made only to be delayed. On July 9, 1957 an appeals court granted an indefinite stay of execution a mere five hours before he was scheduled to be executed. Apparently, and rightfully so, they felt he was entitled to a stay until which time his appeals had been properly heard. They worked their way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court was asked to consider whether the jury's guilty verdict was influence by what the defense called a forced confession and police abuse. They were also asked to consider if the jury had been unduly influenced by the media coverage in the area.
On June 6, 1961 the Supreme Court ruled on Irvin's appeal and in the process made a landmark decision. It was the first time ever that they had reversed a lower courts decision based on the issue of pre-trial publicity. They ordered that Irvin was not only entitled to a new trial but he was entitled to have that trial in an area that away from the huge media coverage that his crimes had received. This decision by the courts not only changed how authorities released information to the media but how the media then transmitted it to the public.
Irvin's second trial took place in Sullivan County, at least two counties north of Gibson County where is first trial took place. On June 13, 1962 a jury of seven men and five women once again found Irvin guilty of the first degree murder of Wesley Kerr. This time instead of the death penalty Irvin was sentenced to life in prison. He would in deed serve the remainder of his live in Michigan City where he died on November 9, 1983 after being what most called a model citizen since his incarceration.
He was never tried for the other five murders that police say he confessed to. And, although he claimed to never have made the confession, the details of at least the Duncan murders have been recorded supposedly from that confession. According to the media release of the confession Irvin had stated that he had broken into Raymond Duncan's house after having the accident with Mrs. Dan Griffin. No one was there because Raymond's wife had just given birth to their son the evening before. The family was planning to go visit her that day. At any rate, as the story goes supposedly Raymond and his father Goebel drove up while Irvin was in the house. When they entered they were met by Irvin. Raymond had written down the license plate number of the car Irvin was driving. Irvin claimed to have forced the two men into the back of Raymond's car and he drove to the swamp area in which they were found about four miles away. He supposedly claimed that he did not intend to kill the men initially but changed his mind on the way. After murdering them he returned to Raymond Duncan's house apparently to not only retrieve his own car but to get the paper that Raymond had written his license number on. He claimed that while there Mamie, Elizabeth and Shirley Faye Duncan drove into the drive. He forced himself into the back seat of their car and at gun point directed them to drive to the other Duncan home. Once there he tied up the woman and shot them both. It was said that he was asked why he left Shirley Faye unharmed and he claimed it was because he liked children.
The story told makes sense. However, again, Irvin, claims he never made that confession. One thing I think seems odd about the situation is that in all the research I found nothing ever said anything about the other victims, Mary Holland, Wilhelmina Sailer, or even Wesley Kerr who he was put on trial for murdering. The only "confession" published was this one about the Duncans or at least that is the only portion that seems to have lasted through time. There again as I said prior I had to be very careful in the research of this case due to the type of journalism of the time so it may be that the descriptions he supposedly gave on those murders were and are available considering the authorities claim he confessed to all six murders.
While I was researching this case I often thought of Charles Manson. Of course the crimes are in no way the same or comparable but I am unsure that Manson and Irvin were not alike. We already know that before he was thirty Irvin had served nine years in prison. I cannot confirm but it would not surprise me to know this nine year stint was not his first. He had already spent more of his adult life in prison than in out. Then aside from his escape after his first conviction it appears and was said he was a "model prisoner." When he was sent to Michigan City it may have felt like home considering this is where he spent his other prison time. There are just some people (and Manson is one of them) who just feel safer and more at home in prison. I call it being "Shawshank'd" after the movie Shawshank Redemption where a person spends so much of their life in prison they do not know how to function on the outside and would rather stay or go back.
While I cannot say for certain that I believe Irvin gave a confession to the police, or that if he did he did it without enduring some police brutality since that was the way of the time, my gut says that he was responsible for the crimes. Then again, I, and history could have gotten it wrong. While it does appear that the murder were committed by the same perpetrator due to the caliber of gun used and the issue with the fact that all the victims were shot in the head with their hands tied behind their back it is completely possible it was someone other than Leslie Irvin who was responsible. As I stated before, traveling back and forth through these counties was not what it is today, especially considering that he worked in Warrick County. I was born in Vanderburgh County but was raised in Indianapolis and spent a lot of my adult life even further north in Indiana than Indianapolis. However, I still had family in the Evansville area, as well as family in Perry County Indiana. To get from Evansville to Perry County you had to go through Warrick County and it was not until the late 1980's that the travel to Warrick County was made easier. I moved back to the area in 2014 with my husband who did not know the area. I spent a lot of time explaining to him why he would hear people say they were "going to Evansville." For us now it is simply a few miles down the road and we can easily jump on the highway and get to Henderson Kentucky in a short 20-30 minute drive. This was not the way it was in 1955 when these crimes were being committed. In fact, the murders, especially that of Wilhelmina Sailer were quite a distance west and south, at least from where Irvin worked, although I cannot say where he lived for sure. As I was just pondering this situation here I decided to do a check on the dates of the murders. It seems that both Mary Holland and Wesley Kerr were murdered on a Thursday while Wilhelmina Sailer and the Duncan's were murdered on Monday's. I cannot give a time for the Holland murder but it was implied that the Kerr murder occurred very early in the morning while the Duncan's and Mrs. Sailer were murdered sometime before noon it seems. Maybe there is a pattern there, although to be honest I am not sure authorities would have looked that far into things. I am just thankful that whether they had the right man or not, our U.S. Supreme Court looked at this case and reminded our lower courts that despite what they think they know every defendant, guilty or innocent (although presumed innocent), deserves a fair and impartial trial.