Mad Dog Killers
Scott Fields, the author of The Mansfield Killings, visited the Seneca County Museum Thursday to discuss his book and to see a new exhibit at the museum that includes his book. The book, which is being adapted as a film, is available on Amazon.
The exhibit, which should be available through November, chronicles the Mad Dog Killers. Murl Robert Daniels, 24, from Columbus and John Coulter West, 22, from Parkersburg, W. Va. The two were in prison together at the Mansfield Reformatory during the 1940s.
In July 1948, the two stole a vehicle, robbed a gas station and started one of the more horrendous crime sprees in the state’s history. The spree resulted in the death of six innocent people.
Family members of Rita Smith, whose husband, Jim Smith, was murdered by the Mad Dog Killers on SR 53 north of Tiffin, contributed several items related to that event to the museum. Part of the display includes Rita’s blood-stained dress she wore when she narrowly escaped the killers. Some of Smith’s family members met with Fields and museum personnel Thursday afternoon.
The museum’s display is tagged with the line “Ohio’s biggest manhunt since Dillinger in 1934.”
Fields is expected to return to the museum for a book signing. In the meantime, here is the full Mad Dog Killers story, as told my Mark Steinmetz.
NOTE: These posts are taken from the Seneca County Museum Facebook page. For photos and other information, view the original posts!
Ohio’s Mad Dog Killers
Every day we’re faced with seeing tragic crimes on the nightly news and we sympathize with those innocents who are caught up during someone’s crazy insanity. Many of us remember growing up in Tiffin and Seneca County without feeling the need to lock our doors, and we could let our kids run free in the neighborhood knowing they’d be safely home in time for supper. However, it was 70 years ago that our area was turned upside down by 2 killers who went on one of the more horrendous crime sprees in Ohio history. This week, over a series of several posts, we will be telling the story of the terror that Daniels and West brought to our area, along with one of the largest manhunts in Ohio history.
Murl Robert Daniels, 24, from Columbus, was classified by prison officials as a “psychopathic personality” but with average intelligence. He was sent to the Mansfield Reformatory for an unarmed robbery and was paroled on Sept 25, 1947, after serving 4 years of his sentence. John Coulter West, 22, from Parkersburg, W.Va., was classified as a “moron” with an IQ of 60, and the newspapers called him “gun crazy.” West was sent to the reformatory for grand larceny and was paroled on March 12, 1948, after serving just one year. Surprisingly, both men were paroled for “good behavior”. The night that West was paroled, he called Daniels on his way back to W. Virginia, then later wrote to Daniels inviting him for a visit. “Keep away from that boy, Murl”, Daniels’ father warned. Murl made a fist and hit his head. “Pop, he’s the smartest man I ever saw”, Murl said. Daniels joins up with West on June 20th, 1948 and Daniels’ mother begged him not to go, standing on their steps crying as he left their residence. Within a few days, these two men would begin a crime spree that would earn them the name “Mad Dog Killers” by the newspapers.
One night in early July of 1948, they stole a two-tone Pontiac from a parking lot, got a gun and started drinking. From there they robbed a gas station, beating the attendant in the head just to prove they were tough and had the guts. No one was hurt during their next robbery as they got away with money and spared hurting the station attendant. Daniels and West decided they’d better leave Columbus and were surprisingly waved-on through a State Highway Patrol roadblock without being detected. They traveled to Indianapolis, St. Louis and Nashville before returning to Columbus after things cooled down. As midnight approached on the evening of July 9th, 1948, West & Daniels walked into Joe’s Grill on West Broad Street and when customers saw their guns, several escaped through the back door. West fired his .45 without hitting anyone, then they cleaned out the safe and cash register making a quick get-a-way. From there, they stopped at Earl Ambrose’ tavern on Fifth Avenue and entered the back door announcing that it was a robbery. Ambrose attempted to flee the pair and was shot in the back 3 times, killing him instantly. A female patron was also shot in the abdomen but survived. West and Daniels got away with $8,000, but fortunately, a bystander got a look at their license plate number (L4190) and wrote it down for the police. The two hoods avoided the law for over a week, plotting their next vicious crime – one that would shock the state and a nation. Today’s photos are that of Murl Robert Daniels (on the left) and John Coulter West (on the right). Tomorrow, the story continues.
Part 2 – After their murderous robberies in Columbus, Daniels and West were able to disappear from the clutches of the Ohio law enforcement agencies and they traveled through St. Louis, Nashville, Kentucky and Michigan. Much of their time was spent picking up girls, drinking and doing some small robberies to support their crime spree. But it was while they were in Michigan, that they decided to follow through with their plans that they had conceived during their prison days. Daniels and West had long planned to return to Mansfield and to kill several former guards whom they felt had treated them badly during their time at the Mansfield Reformatory. They especially wanted to kill guard Willis Harris, but when they arrived in Mansfield, they realized that they didn’t know where he lived. They then decided to get Harris’s address from the guard’s boss, John Niebel, who was the supervisor of the Mansfield Reformatory.
It was almost midnight on the evening of July 20th, 1948, that they arrived at Niebel’s home. Daniels knocked on the door and when John Niebel answered, Daniels told him that his car broke down and asked to use his phone. Once inside, Daniels pulled his gun, while West charged in behind him. They ransacked the house and rousted Niebel’s wife Nolanda, and their 21-year-old daughter Phyllis from their bedrooms. Their original plan was to get the guard’s address from Niebel and then kill the guard, but they needed several hours to do this before Niebel could inform the police. They decided to take the Niebel and his family across town to a cornfield, tie them up and gag them, giving the killers plenty of time. Before leaving the house, Daniels raped their daughter and then forced them by gunpoint into their car. As Daniels and West traveled through Mansfield, they had the Niebel family strip off their clothes and throw them out of the windows, onto the street. Once they arrived at the cornfield, Daniels realized that they didn’t have any rope to tie them up, so instead they marched them deep into the secluded cornfield and shot them.
When Superintendent Niebel didn’t arrive for work that morning, prison officials went to his home and it was obvious that the whole family had been kidnapped. Later that day, their bodies were found together in the cornfield. John Niebel was shot twice in the head, his wife Nolanda was shot first in the stomach and then the head, and their daughter Phyllis, her red hair still up in big curlers, was also shot in the head. It was later learned that the family was all executed around 1:30 am. Readers of Tiffin’s Advertiser-Tribune newspaper dated July 21st, 1948, would see a small article on the front page with the headline: “FEAR FAMILY HELD HOSTAGE BY THUGS”. The following day, July 22nd, a much larger A-T front page headline stated: “MANSFIELD KILLERS OF 3 HUNTED” and the article included all of the tragic details of the killings. Mansfield Police had received a tip that a two-tone car was seen in front of Niebel’s home and it matched the description of the car used in the Columbus robberies, so they knew it was Daniels and West.
The killing of the Ohio prison superintendent and his family was a huge news story and it made front-page headlines nationwide, including as far away as California. Police in the 5 states surrounding Ohio was alerted to look for the cold-blooded killers in the “biggest manhunt since Dillinger and his gang rampaged through the area in 1934, local officials said”. News of these murders was still breaking and communication between agencies wasn’t like it is today with the internet and cable television. Ohioans were especially nervous as local police and sheriff departments, were on high alert…. but little did anyone know… that by July 23rd, Daniels and West had just arrived in Tiffin looking for a place to rest and another car to steal. Today’s photos show the murdered Niebel family (top) and (below) the Mansfield investigators at the cornfield where the Niebel bodies were found. Tomorrow, the story continues.
Part 3 – It was after 1:30 in the morning of July 21st, 1948, when Daniels and West walked out of a cornfield near Mansfield, leaving behind them the bodies of John Niebel, superintendent of the Mansfield Reformatory, his wife Nolanda and daughter Phyllis. They knew that they had only a limited amount of time to put some distance between them and the murder scene, so they headed to Cleveland and rested there. The next day they drove to Akron and bought a .30 caliber rifle, then headed to Tiffin on their way to Indiana. It was around 1 in the afternoon of Thursday, July 22nd, when Daniels and West rolled into Tiffin, looking for a “tourist home” (which today would be similar to a Bed & Breakfast). They stopped at Clarence Patterson’s home at 217 W. Market Street, but the Patterson’s didn’t have any spare rooms. Mrs. Patterson called Mrs. Clyde Mitten’s tourist home at 81 W. Market Street and they had some vacancies, so she sent Daniels and West there. They rented 2 rooms (using only one), they slept until 5 that afternoon and then walked towards town stopping at a restaurant to eat. After supper, they drove out to Hedges-Boyer Park and attended a play called “A Gay Nineties Revue” that was held at the Hedges-Boyer Park Barn Theater starring the “Tiffin Summer Players”. The newspaper reported that over 100 people attended that play, which easily filled the limited seating area in the barn.
After the show, Daniels and West continued their search to find another car, a Buick in fact, and they drove through town, stopping at Stewart’s Root Beer Stand just north of Tiffin on SR 53. There, they spotted one, but just as they were going to make their move, a carhop girl got in their way. However, sitting across the way was another Buick where Jim & Rita Smith, married for just 2 years, were enjoying a root beer. They had stopped there after playing cards that evening with Rita’s parents on W. Perry Street, ironically not far from Mitten’s tourist home. After finishing their root beers, the Smith’s headed home north on SR 53, followed close behind by Daniels and West. After traveling only a few miles, they forced Smith’s Buick off the side of the road by pulling in front of them. West quickly ran to the driver’s side of the car, while Daniels went to the passenger side where Rita was sitting. West asked for Jim Smith’s billfold and when he gave it to him, West shot Jim, killing him instantly. Rita screamed, and Daniels forced her into the back seat and jumped in behind her. The Smith’s Buick had a history of problems where the back door on the driver’s side wouldn’t always open and Rita thought she might be trapped. But she grabbed the door handle, it opened, and she went running across SR 53 towards the W. W. Martin house. For some reason, after killing Jim Smith, West drove away leaving Daniels behind, but he soon returned just in time to pick up Daniels, right after Rita had disappeared from his sight.
The killers still needed to change vehicles and this time they went looking for something that no one would suspect them to be driving. They continued north on SR 53, passing through Old Fort and crossing the bridge over the Sandusky River. By now it was around 11 pm, and not far from the bridge was a rest stop called the “Ironside Inn”. It was a long parking area where travelers could pull over and rest, get water and use the pit toilets (today this is where the Grange building is located). There in the darkness, Daniels and West spotted a car hauler carrying 5 new Studebakers. The driver, 24-year old Orville Taylor, married and a father of 4 small children from Niles, Ohio, was sleeping in the cab of his truck. Daniels woke him up, pulled him from the truck and started to transfer items from their car into the truck. West said he’d take care of the truck driver. West walked him back towards the tall weeds at the rear of the lot and shot him twice, once in the head, killing the innocent truck driver. West then jumped in the truck cab, while Daniels climbed into one of the Studebakers on top of the trailer. They then drove south, back down SR 53 to Tiffin, and then headed west on SR 224. Incredibly, after just killing two people less than 2 hours earlier, they stopped at a place just 4 miles west of Tiffin called “The Ranch”, where they each had a hamburger and some beer. After their late supper, the two continued to travel west on SR 224 to a truck stop/filling station called the “Half-Way Inn” at the intersection of SR 23, where they pulled over to sleep for the rest of the night. They would need their sleep if they wanted any chance to navigate past all of the anticipated police roadblocks the next day.
As word spread through Tiffin and Seneca County that the Mad Dog Killers had murdered two of our own… plus they had actually spent time among us, people began to realize just many of them may have unknowingly came face-to-face with the two cold-hearted murderers. For example, Harold Klein, operator of The Ranch, wasn’t aware that the killings had happened the night that he had served the killers their meal. The next day he was asked about what he’d do if they came into his business, and he said he had a gun under the counter and “he’d plug them” if they came in. Then, after he was shown their photos and realized they had been there, his complexion turned an ashen color and he looked totally shocked. All of the encounters at the tourist homes, at the restaurants, at the play in Hedges-Boyer Park, at the root beer stand! At any of those places, a small change of fate might have brought disaster into any number of lives. Yet sadly, the pure evil of Daniels and West changed the lives of several innocent families here in Seneca County, whose only crime was going about their daily lives, and being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Today’s photo is a view of Jim and Rita Smith on the left and the Martin house where Rita ran to after Jim was shot and killed. On the right is Orville Taylor, the truck driver who was shot and killed near Old Fort, and a view of the area where it happened. Tomorrow, the story continues.
Part 4 – George Steinmetz was the Seneca County Sheriff and he and his deputies were the first to arrive on the scene of Jim Smith’s murder on SR 53. Thinking that the killers were on the run and heading north, deputies quickly headed that way too searching for them. When they arrived at the rest stop east of Old Fort, they found the Mad Dog Killers car, but it was empty. They decided that the killers must’ve found another vehicle to use at the rest stop, but what kind of vehicle was it? Sheriff Steinmetz noticed that there were deep tire tracks next to the killer’s car, so it must’ve been something very heavy. The deputies did a quick check with the neighbors and learned that they had heard 2 gunshots about an hour earlier. The neighbors also confirmed that they heard a large truck start up in a hurry at the rest stop, and then heard it travel west towards Old Fort. After hearing the news about the gunshots, the Sheriff was sure there was a body to be found, so they quickly searched the area and found a man’s body lying 50 feet away from the car in some high bushes. There wasn’t any identification found on the body, but the man resembled Daniels so much, that they thought it was him. A fingerprint expert from the State Bureau of Investigation, working on the Mansfield killings, was rushed to Tiffin and he quickly verified that this body wasn’t that of the Mad Dog Killer; Robert Daniels. So, in the early morning hours of Friday, July 23rd, 1948, local authorities had an unknown body and a theory that the killers might’ve headed back towards Tiffin, driving a large vehicle. It wasn’t until later that afternoon, that the body found in Old Fort was identified as Orville Taylor – the murdered truck driver.
The word spread like wildfire throughout the Ohio law enforcement community that the Mad Dog Killers had struck again, this time in Seneca County. Sheriff Steinmetz suddenly had plenty of help as he was joined with police officers from Tiffin, Fremont and other neighboring cities, plus the Ohio Highway Patrol, members of the Columbus and Mansfield police departments and members of the National Guard of Co. G (who brought their machine guns along). On top of that, Tiffin was suddenly “ground zero” for the Mad Dog Killers story for many areas and national news agencies. Reporters from: Chicago, Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo, Mansfield, Findlay and other cities converged on this city. Plus, all of the news services sent reporters here including the United Press, the Associated Press, the International News Service and Acme News Pictures.
Without any real idea of what kind of vehicle that Daniels and West were now driving, the plan was to set up roadblocks anywhere and everywhere. An employee of the Advertiser-Tribune reported that he was stopped by 5 roadblocks during his trip from Michigan to Tiffin. The roadblock plan was in effect east of Van Wert, Ohio on SR 224, when a car hauler approached the roadblock manned by Sheriff Roy Shaffer of Van Wert county along with members of the Van Wert Police Department. Sheriff Shaffer thought there was something suspicious about this car hauler, and he would be right. The Studebaker plant was in Indiana and it was common for car haulers to be taking them through Van Wert heading east for deliveries. But this one was heading back to Indiana and going the wrong way. The Studebakers were covered in large canvas sheets and Daniels was hiding in the Studebaker on the very top of the trailer. John West was driving the car hauler as it slowed to a stop at the roadblock. He had already been waved through 3 other roadblocks on his way there, so he didn’t feel this would be any different. The Sheriff asked West where he was from and he replied; “Tiffin”. He then asked if he was alone and West said he was, but he looked jittery and nervous. Sheriff Roy Shaffer told Sergeant Leonard Conn to cover him with his machine gun as he climbed to the top of the truck and walked the catwalk searching each car. The Studebaker, sitting on the top of the hauler, had a slit cut in the covering canvas and Shaffer could see a man inside sitting with several guns. He yelled down to the police officers saying; “Here’s one” and Daniels cried out: “You have me! Don’t kill me! I’ll do anything you want!”. But suddenly from the ground level, the Sheriff heard the sound of gunfire. West had jumped from his seat and ducked behind his truck door shooting with his handgun at Sergeant Conn and the other men manning the roadblock. A bullet struck Conn on a glancing blow in the chest, but as Conn went down, he sprayed the cab of the truck with his machine gun, hitting West in the forehead. West was taken to the hospital where he died around 11 am and Daniels was taken to the Van Wert County jail.
When Van Wert citizens learned that their police officer was critically injured during the shootout with West, they demanded to see Daniels, whom they had in custody. There were also many members of the press that wanted to interview Daniels, so the Sheriff’s department escorted him out to the steps overlooking the crowd. Daniels seemed to enjoy all of the attention and he shocked crowd by describing how he brutally murdered the 3 members of the Niebel family in Mansfield, and he gave reasons why he hated the superintendent so much. He occasionally smiled and didn’t spare any details, describing exactly how they were lined up and shot in the head. He also described the events of the murders in Tiffin and Old Fort. By then, the crowd was incensed and yelling to “kill the rat right now”. The sheriff’s department, sensing things were getting out of control, brought Daniels back inside. They later shipped him to the Mercer County jail that was stronger, for fear that there might be a chance for a lynching. Today’s photos show the car hauler with the canvas-covered Studebaker that Daniels was hiding in. There’s also a photo of an Ohio Historical Marker located at the intersection of SR 224 east of Van Wert, where the Mad Dog Killers were finally stopped. And on the bottom is a photo of the Daniels interview on the steps at the Van Wert jail. The white arrow points to Daniels, and the yellow arrow points to Seneca County Sheriff George Steinmetz, who traveled to Van Wert in an attempt to bring Daniels back here for trial, for the murder of Jim Smith and Orville Taylor. Tomorrow, the story continues.
Part 5 – With Robert Daniels now in custody, there were 3 Ohio counties wanting to bring him to trial for his crimes there, and that including Seneca County. But it was decided that Richland County would have the best, the fastest and easiest chance to convict Daniels and sent him to the electric chair. After all, there were several accounts where Daniels was heard bragging that he killed all three members of the Niebel family, and there’s even a video interview where he was asked how many he killed, and he smiled and said that: “he got his share”.
The trial started in mid-September and Daniels waved a jury trial, so the Ohio Supreme Court appointed 2 more judges to assist the current judge assigned to this case. From the very beginning, this trial drew an incredible amount of attention as people lined up for hours ahead of time, trying to get a seat. It was somewhat odd that the majority of those attending were young women. On one day, one newspaper counted 87 women sitting in the 100 available seats in the courtroom. The newspapers called these young ladies “Bobby Soxers”, as they listened intently, hanging on every word of the dapper-looking Daniels. Then again, Daniels would egg them on by smiling and winking at them throughout the trial. But Daniels eventually realized that his life hung in the balance and depended on a good verdict from the 3 judges. During the trial, he changed his tune from bragging about the killings to saying that John West killed all of them. Then later, he couldn’t conclusively say that he remembered pulling the trigger and killing any of the Niebel family members. The trial last 5 days and the defense offered a plea of insanity. His parents testified that Daniels had been hit twice by a truck in early childhood, once at age 6 and again at age 12, and that he would sometimes just stare in space for hours. His father felt that gangster John Dillinger also had an effect on his son because Dillinger was idolized in the news. But none of this made a difference as the judges decided that Daniels was found to be sane… and guilty.
Not long after Daniels was captured, he mentioned that “he’d fry for his crimes” and he was right. On September 18th, Daniels was transferred from Mansfield Reformatory to death row at the Ohio Penitentiary and was assigned inmate Number 13 at Death Row. He was driven there, securely handcuffed to a leather belt at his waist, and was seated in the center of the back seat of the Richland County Sheriff’s car. Seneca County Sheriff George Steinmetz sat on one side of him and the Richland County Deputy Sheriff sat on the other during the trip. He was sentenced to die in the electric chair on January 3rd, 1949. There was an appeal hearing 5 days before Christmas, but it was determined that the sentence would stand. Daniels last meal consisted of grape juice, orange juice, coffee, fried chicken, fried oysters, chili, potatoes, limburger cheese, bread & butter and vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup. He ate his meal with another prisoner that he met at the prison. Witnesses gathered at 7:30 pm on January 3rd, 1949 and he was fully prepared to be executed by 8:01 pm. Daniels had converted to the Catholic faith during his time on death row, and he had a priest with him, praying up to the very end. The order was given for the electricity to be turned on, and after what seemed to be hours, Daniels was declared dead only 8 minutes later, at 8:09 pm. By the request of his parents, Daniel’s body was secretly escorted out of a back door of the prison to be buried in an undeclared location to prevent any vandalism or desecration.
In the history books, this would be considered the end of the murderous rampage of “Ohio’s Mad Dog Killers”. But we all know that those families affected by the 6 people who were senselessly murdered, certainly had to suffer terrible memories for the rest of their lives. But like so often, humanity is sometimes at its best during the worst of times, and Rita Smith was one of those examples. The Mansfield Newspaper had offered a $250 reward for information leading to finding the killers, and this reward was awarded to Rita. In a period of just a few minutes, her life went from returning home from Stewart’s root beer stand to seeing her husband shot in front of her eyes. Then, she had to bravely escape those same killers, running across State Route 53 in the dark, and down a long lane to a farmhouse. Once the authorities arrived, Rita was able to calmly provide the critical information about West and Daniels, that helped law officials expedite their capture. Rita truly deserved the reward, but she decided to give this money to the family of Orville Taylor, the truck driver murdered at Old Fort. He left behind a wife and four young children and Rita felt they’d need the reward money much more than she would. Once the word of this gesture was reported around the state, Rita received letters from people she didn’t know, praising her for her kindness and generosity.
It’s been 70 years this week since the Mad Dog Killers reign of terror passed through Seneca County and met its end near Van Wert. Today, as we drive by the places and locations that were involved in this dramatic slice of our local history, we can only imagine what it must’ve been like for all those involved. And we can only pray that it never happens again. Today’s photos are from the newspapers of the day and show: the women in the courtroom during the trial, Daniels being questioned at the trial, and on the right is Daniels, not long before he was executed in Ohio’s electric chair.
Part 6 – Over this past week, we’ve concentrated on telling the story of Ohio’s Mad Dog Killers, an incredibly tragic event where 6 innocent people were murdered, and the subsequent manhunt for these killers had all Ohioans on edge. The Mad Dog Killers story was something that we had planned to tell this year anyhow, but then late last year, the Seneca County Museum received a phone call. It was from family members of Rita Smith, whose husband, Jim Smith was murdered by the Mad Dog Killers on SR 53 north of Tiffin. They asked if the museum would be interested in receiving a collection of items relating to this event, and we eagerly accepted. This incredible collection will be on display starting on Tuesday, July 31st at the Seneca County Museum, and if you’d like to learn more about the Mad Dog Killers and their time in Seneca County, you won’t want to miss this! All four display cases in the Fort Ball Room are filled with newspapers, crime photos, magazines, correspondence and many other things having to do with the Mad Dog Killers. We even have the blood-stained dress that Rita was wearing that night and Jim’s blood-stained wallet that John West tried to take from Jim Smith, right before he shot him. Major crime-related items like these are very rare and not often seen in public. This display will be available until late October, so make plans to see it soon. Viewing these items has a way of connecting you to that day, 70 years ago, and can give you a greater understanding of the pain and sadness that Rita suffered during that event, and for many years beyond that time.