(daily column in Warsaw Times Union)
A Classic Crime
The January issue of Master Detective magazine tells again the story of Our County's famed Decker murder case--a story that is becoming a classic in the annals of American crime. The tale has appeared at some time or other in almost every detective magazine being published. The latest version appears under the title, "Torture cottage," and is written by John Darnell. This cottage, by the way, still stands along the Tippecanoe river, and is now owned by Joe Rovenstine, of Atwood, a former deputy sheriff of Our County.
Death In the Night
On the night of March 12, 1921 --almost 30 years ago--the engineer of a fast Pennsylvania freight train stiffened as he approached Robinson's crossing, a short distance west of Atwood. The glare of his headlight revealed a buggy, with no horse harnessed to it, standing directly in the path of the locomotive. He applied his brakes, but it was too late to avoid striking the buggy, which was reduced to kindling wood. The crew jumped from the train, and soon found the body of a youth lying between the two tracks. He was alive, but unconscious. The injured young man was placed aboard a westbound passenger train and taken to Bourbon. There he died a few hours later without having spoken a word.
Several factors in the case immediately pointed to murder. First, examination of the body revealed that the youth had been tortured. His lower jaw was broken. Marks on his throat showed that an attempt had been made to strangle him. Escelsior had been stuffed into his mouth, apparently to stifle his outcries. The clothing was wet--and, oddly enough covered with sand. A letter in the coach pocket identified the victim as Virgil Decker, who lived on a farm with his brother, Fred, near Atwood. Meanwhile, Sheriff Charles Moon, of Warsaw, had been called to the accident scene, and he at once launched a careful investigation.
The Vanishing Horse
Sheriff Moon first questioned the train crew. The engineer was certain that no horse was attached to the buggy before his locomotive struck the vehicle. The problem was complicated when an abandoned Ford touring car was found not far away. However, the sheriff returned to the crossing and noticed a horse's peculiarly shaped shoeprints, almost round, leading away from the crossing to the south where the road winds down toward the old Decker farm and the Tippecanoe river. Following the prints, he found that they led to the Decker farm. In a barn on the farm was the horse, standing in a stall with his harness on and unhurt. Moreover, examination of the ends of the harness indicated that they had been cut with a knife.
A Question of Identity
On the following morning the two brothers of Virgil Decker, Fred and Cal, and the mother, Mrs. Lydia Decker, identified the victim as their brother and son. But on the following day a new and startling element entered into the case when two grief-stricken parents arrived in Bourbon from Elkhart. They were the father and mother of 19-year old Leroy Lovett, a friend of Virgil Decker; and, strangely enough, Leroy had closely resembled Virgil. Mr. and Mrs. Lovett were taken to view the body and immediately identified it as their son. The parents told officers that Leroy had left his home in Elkhart with Virgil Decker two nights previous in a car. Leroy had said that Virgil was going to drive him to Albion to visit Leroy's sister. However, Leroy had never reached his sister's home. Up to the hour of the inquest, both families continued to claim the body.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Moon was searching for either another dead body or the living Leroy, or the living Virgil. His search took him to the Tippecanoe river, about a mile south of the crossing, where a summer cottage stood unoccupied since the previous fall, and almost surrounded by overflow water. This was the murder scene. Sheriff Moon found windows broken, cupboards smashed, tables and chairs overturned. Blood was spattered all over the interior--on floors, walls, windows and furniture. Bloody handprints were found upon the door, both inside and out. It was obvious that the struggle had shifted from the large room to the two adjourning bedrooms, for the walls and floors of all three rooms bore bloodstains, as well as the windows and doors. Sheriff Moon found marks which indicated that the victim had crawled on his hands and knees from the door down to the river bank and back to the cottage.
The Victim Identified
At Bourbon on the following day, the body was positively identified as Leroy Lovett, and the Decker family withdrew their claim. The Deckers said they had no knowledge of where 18-year-old Virgil had gone. Immediately after the coroner's inquest at Bourbon, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Virgil Decker, charging him with the murder of his friend to whom he bore such a striking resemblance. On the following day word came that Virgil had been arrested and was being held in jail at Marion, Indiana. Sheriff Moon brought Virgil to Warsaw on March 16--four days after the accident--and he was lodged in the county jail. When questioned, Virgil stoutly maintained his innocence, insisted that he had spent the day of March 12 at his brother Fred's farm doing the chores while Fred and his wife were visiting relatives in Larwill and that he had left for Marion to see his uncle in the evening.
The authorities continued their inquiries. They found that Virgil, who earned $40 a month and his board on his brother's farm had taken out, within three months preceding the crime, three insurance policies totaling $24,000 two of which paid double indemnity in case of accidental death. The three policies required the payment of $500 a year in premiums. The brother, Fred, was named as beneficiary in each policy. Fred's statement that he had been in Larwill and had not returned to Atwood until 10 o'clock on the fatal night was found to be true. The Ford touring car found abandoned near the crossing was claimed by Russel Gill, a garage owner at Elkhart, who testified later that Virgil had rented it from him on the night preceding the crossing incident under an assumed name. Meanwhile, Virgil began making a series of alleged confessions. In the first two accounts he claimed a third youth from Elkhart, identified only as Guy, was the slayer. He admitted renting the car, and said that Leroy had given up his plan to go to Albion when it was suggested that they go to the Tippecanoe cottage and cook some chickens.
Howard, Virgil's third confession named himself as the murderer. But he refused to connect the slaying with the insurance. He gave no motive for his alleged crime other than: "The Devil made me do it." Several days later a fourth confession was made in which Virgil named a friend of the Decker family as the killer. This man was proved innocent. Each confession conflicted with the others, and the truth of all of them was seriously questioned by investigators. Meanwhile, the grand jury was called into session and the case considered for five days. Indictments for first degree murder were returned against Virgil Decker, his brothers, Fred and Cal, and their mother, Mrs. Lydia Decker, of Elkhart. At this time eight prisoners were being held in jail in Warsaw on first degree murder charges. Besides the Deckers, there was a quartet of Chicago bandits, held for the murder of a Culver merchant during a bank robbery. These men were later defended in Warsaw by the famed criminal attorney, the late Clarence Darrow. Floodlights were installed around the jail, and armed guards patrolled the place night and day.
The Trial Begins
The four Deckers were arraigned in the Kosciusko circuit court with Judge L. W. Royse on the bench. All pleaded not guilty. Virgil requested a separate trial which was granted by the court. The trial began on June 1, 1921, with Prosecutor H. W. Graham, assisted by L. R. Stookey, representing the state. Newspaper men were present from Chicago, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. In the courtroom were the exhibits: blood-soaked pillows, excelsior, a straw tick, an auto robe and a couch with a blood spot a foot square. There was the alleged death weapon --an iron bar two and a half foot in length. A large pine door stood near the witness stand bearing the bloody fingerprints of the victim. All bore mute testimony to the desperate death struggle that occurred that March night 30 years ago in the lonely cottage on the river. Prosecuting attorney Graham opened for the state and demanded the death penalty. The state charged that the motive for the crime had been the insurance, and that the only true confession that Virgil had made was the one in which he said that he alone had killed Leroy Lovett.
A Brilliant Defense
The defense attorneys presented a strong case. They contended that there was no conspiracy to defraud the insurance companies. Fred Decker's father-in-law, a man of wealth, testified that he had assisted Fred in meeting payments on his farm, and that Fred had no desperate need for money. It was claimed that Virgil, in taking out the insurance, had the idea that he could make himself rich in 20 years for less than $500 a year. The defense proved that all the insurance agents had first solicited Virgil --that he did not first seek them. It was pointed out that if Virgil had wanted to disappear, he would not have gone to Marion where he was well known. Virgil's reputation in the community had been good. His confession that Guy had been the slayer was accepted by the defense. Two witnesses testified to having seen a stranger near the cottage and the farm home on the night of the crime. Virgil was in Atwood several times during the day, and it was claimed that he would not have left Leroy in the cottage alone --to wander out, be seen, and spread an alarm.
A Verdict of Guilty
After deliberating three hours on June 10, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder, in the first degree, but imposing a sentence of life imprisonment. The brilliant defense, raising questions still unanswered, had saved Virgil from the electric chair.
He was sent to the state prison at Michigan City to serve his sentence. Four days later, Fred and Cal were released on bonds signed by their friends and neighbors. During the time Fred Decker was in jail, his neighbors did his farm work for him and offered him financial assistance. Mrs. Decker was held not responsible, and released. Fred later received a change of venue to Columbia City, was tried and found not guilty. Cal Decker never was brought to trial. So ends this classic case that seemed destined to go down in the history of American crime, endlessly retold. And it happened right here in our county.
Warsaw Times Union February 24th & 25th, 1951