Sunday, January 4, 2015

"Who Killed Walter Neilson?" by Dean Franklin

Who Killed Walter Neilson?
Dean Franklin

It took a remarkable bit of detective work to discover who killed Walter Neilson. Actually, Fate betrayed Neilson's murderer as you will see by the facts in the case. Neilson was the kind of a man everyone likes. His death was a blow to the pleasant little community of Manhasset, New York.

But even the weather was unpleasant on the Saturday morning that Neilson was murdered. Big, wet snowflakes were falling as Neilson wriggled into his bulky overcoat and started to leave his gasoline station. He had one hundred dollars in his pocket, and was on his way to pay the rent for a destitute family that was facing eviction. Yes, Walter Neilson was a big-hearted guy.

A few minutes later when Tom Jenkins drew up in his gasoline truck to Neilson's filling station he sensed that something was wrong. He discovered that the door was locked and there was no attendant.

Tom Jenkins knew that Mrs. Marion Munion whose house was next door to Neilson's station often lent him a hand, so he rang her doorbell to ask if Neilson had left word about the amount of gasoline he needed.

Mrs. Munion answered the door and told Tom Jenkins that since it was after lunchtime, Neilson should be there. She knew her neighbor needed gasoline, so she offered to go over and open the station so the tanks could be filled.

Walter Neilson trusted Mrs. Munion, and had given her a key to the filling station. Tom Jenkins followed her to the back door near the grease pit, and waited while she opened it. Mrs. Munion pushed the door back and started to step inside. But suddenly a scream tore from her throat, and Tom Jenkins stepped in close to support her in case she fainted. Inside, Walter Neilson lay on his back. Without feeling his pulse, Mrs. Munion and Tom Jenkins knew that Neilson was dead.

The police were summoned immediately, but it wasn't until suppertime that the medical examiner issued a report on the autopsy declaring that Neilson had been murdered. His findings were that the filling station operator had been killed by a blow on the head, delivered from behind. The blow had caused a depressed skull fracture. Strangely enough, the wound had not bled.

The chief of police was faced with many more perplexing angles as the investigation got under way. In the first place it was definitely established that both the front and rear door of the filling station were locked at the time Mrs. Munion went over and discovered the body.

Secondly, the motive was a mystery. It wasn't robbery, for the police found over $160 in the cash drawer. Or was that the motive? The police learned from Mrs. Munion that Neilson had one hundred dollars in his pocket, and there was no trace of the money on the body.

But the police were not positive about the robbery motive, so they began an investigation around town and turned up a suspect who was reported to have threatened Neilson with bodily harm. He was a tavern keeper, husky and big-fisted, but he was cleverly evasive when the police began to question him.

Then the officers turned a ruse. "What do you mean by telling us you've heard of Neilson? Didn't you tell him that you'd beat him up if he tried to close down your tavern by making a complaint?"

Faced with the facts, the tavern keeper lost his nerve. "Yeah, but I didn't knock Neilson over the head," he pleaded.

"How did you know he was struck on the head?" one of the officers snapped back.

The tavern keeper realized that he had made a slip of the tongue, and couldn't take back what he had said. He tried to make the best of it. "But I didn't murder him — honest I didn't. When one of the boys told me that Neilson had been talkin' again about closin' me up, I went over to his gas station. The front door was closed but unlocked, so I walked in and snapped the catch on the lock because I didn't want anybody comin' in when I was talkin' with Neilson.

"But the moment after I stepped inside I saw Neilson, layin' there in the back room. An' I knew by the way he was stretched out on his back that he was dead. Naturally, I knew I was on a spot, so I turned on my heels and ran out, slamming the door behind me."

While the police were weighing the tavern keeper's alibi, the technical laboratory men were busy at the murder scene. Recalling that Neilson's fatal wound had not bled, they were interested to discover bloodstains in the washroom on a work bench and around the cash register.

The bloodstains were fresh, and there was a likely possibility that they had been left by the killer. But would the laboratory sleuths be able to detect the killer by the blood?

Tests were made to determine if the bloodstains were the same type blood of the victim. But almost as soon as the slides were put under the microscope it was discovered that the blood was infected with malaria microbes.

Neilson had never had malaria. A check with the board of health revealed that no one in or near Manhasset had been recently infected with the disease. Who, then, could have left the bloodstains at the murder scene?

It was logical to assume that the killer was a recently discharged soldier or sailor who had contracted the ailment in the South Pacific.

So the police immediately began going through the files of the local Selective Service Board to learn if any veteran in the locality had been discharged with a case of malaria. The patient examination of the draft board records required more than sixt days; when completed, the police found that their efforts had been in vain. None of the soldiers and sailors who had reported back to the local board upon discharge had been a victim of malaria.

But this set-back did not discourage the detectives. Who else might be infected with malaria, they asked themselves. They began a check on the file of 4-F's and hospitals and doctors in nearby towns. Still no lead turned up.

Then one of the detectives who had been calling frequently at the tavern operated by the first suspect, overheard someone mention that a fellow named John Ranford, a merchant seaman, had been to the South Pacific and returned to Manhasset with a case of malaria.

The person who dropped this vital piece of information was a teenage girl.

"You'd better tell me all you know about John Ranford," the detective said sternly.

The girl turned white and her hands were trembling as she spoke. "Well, I did see him loafing around Neilson's station on the day he was killed. I suspected John murdered him because I knew he had a grudge against him. But I was afraid to say anything about it because I knew if John heard that I'd been talking, he'd fix me somehow."

But the girl's remarks and the malaria-infected bloodstains were not enough evidence to book Ranford for murder. The police arrested him in his furnished room, and held him as a material witness.

The investigation was resolving at a whirlwind pace again. Detectives literally turned Ranford's room upside down in their search for evidence that would link him to the murder. Then one of the sleuths suddenly recalled that Neilson had been found wearing an overcoat but there was no hat belonging to him in the gas station. Attention was immediately focused on Ranford's closet.

Yes, they found a gray hat — and the initials on the sweatband were W. N. — which stood for Walter Neilson!

Faced with this evidence, Ranford admitted that he had slugged Neilson with a tire iron but had not meant to kill him. Realizing that the blow was fatal, he had become jittery and took only the money on Neilson's person. In his haste, he had scratched his hand, which accounted for the malaria-infected bloodstains.

When he was tried for first degree murder, Ranford denied his confession and pleaded not guilty. But the girl's testimony and the evidence of the bloodstains and the hat did not leave any doubt in the minds of the jury. Ranford was found guilty and was sentenced to die in the electric chair. On May 25, 1944, the sentence was fulfilled in the death house at Sing Sing Prison.

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