Stolen saddles and a death

Pat Haley Contributing columnist

Pat Haley Contributing columnist

Linda Watson, a longtime friend, was chopping wood on a Martinsville farm when she came upon an eerie discovery — something she said she would never forget.

Linda and Jamie Watson, along with John Vanscoy, were deep in the woods situated back a long lane on the Lowell Cowman farm on SR 134 South, near Rapid Ford Road, which was seldom used and seldom visited.

It was wintertime, four days before Christmas, and the weather was cold, but not dreadful for an Ohio winter.

Linda said they first noticed a pair of red pants, joking that someone must have been seriously partying, but either got in a hurry or spooked, leaving their clothes behind. To the right of the pants they found a pair of shoes.

John kicked one of the shoes and a bone fragment flew into the air, erasing the smiles from their faces, as a cold sweat set in.

“Ladies, I just found a human skull!” John proclaimed. Linda and Jamie peered at the ghostly skeletal remains, positioned face-up on the soil, still fully clothed in unusual black shoes with white tops, a gray pair of coveralls and a shirt from Central Implement with the name “John” printed on it.

Linda ran screaming to Mr. Cowman’s house and called the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office at about 11:11 a.m. on Dec. 21, 1982.

I was sheriff at the time, and quickly joined then-Major Ralph Fizer Sr. Deputy Tom Faris, the late Colonel Larry Newland and others at the scene. It was a long walk back the isolated lane leading to the wooded area.

We began combing the thickets for evidence, gathering various pieces of clothing, and removed the body to the Hamilton County Morgue where an autopsy was conducted. DNA testing wasn’t available in those days, and the prospect of solving the case was grim, almost grave. The investigation was genuinely like looking for a needle in a haystack.

We returned to the sheriff’s office and Major Fizer was assigned to the investigation.

Within a couple days we identified the body, through clothing and dental records, as being that of Eldon Johnson, age 53, of SR 8, Martinsville. It appeared Mr. Johnson had been dead since the previous spring. His death was declared a homicide.

According to his brother, Denver Johnson, Eldon was a loner who hadn’t been seen the previous 13 months, was mildly mentally challenged, and had spent time in Lima State Hospital before returning to Wilmington to work in various jobs around town.

Major Fizer made the Johnson investigation a priority while also following up on a case involving the theft of saddles from the property of late Wilmington businessman Ed Loving.

The saddle investigation took the major to the old Wagon Wheel Bar, located on Sugartree Street at the time. He’d heard that a man and his three sons from Hillsboro might know something about the stolen saddles, and they were in the bar taking a break that afternoon.

“When I walked through the front door of the bar, the faces of the men grow pale, like chalk on a blackboard,” Major Fizer told me. “I thought they were overreacting a bit, but they were cordial, and I had the opportunity to bring up the subject of the saddles.”

The men asked the major what they could do to get themselves out of this dilemma.

“Give me something more,” Fizer told the men. It was a common tactic used, successfully, to gather additional information of additional crimes within the county.

One of the men began to talk. He told Major Fizer several months ago, he and some friends picked up a man about 50 years old who needed a ride to the Lynchburg area.

According to the driver, the hitchhiker had been drinking, and started a fight in the car. The fight accelerated and the driver pulled the car onto Rapid Ford Road and stopped.

The hitchhiker became even more aggressive, and the driver finally ended the altercation with a blow to Johnson’s head with a rock, knocking him unconscious.

Unfortunately, the blow proved fatal. Terror filled the men.

The driver then drove into Cowman’s lane, they carried the body to a clearing, and quickly buried it in a shallow grave. “We didn’t know what else to do. We panicked,” the man told Major Fizer. The dead man was Eldon Johnson.

Major Fizer arrested one of the men and a polygraph examination was administered at the Ohio Highway Patrol Headquarters in Columbus. He passed the test.

The case was presented to a Clinton County grand jury in January, 1983. The grand jury decided it was a case of self-defense and declined to indict the man even for abuse of a corpse.

The odds of solving this crime was astronomical, but thanks to Ralph Fizer Sr., it was.

I visited the permanent gravesite of Mr. Johnson this week at Sugar Grove Cemetery.

He was lost and now he is found.

Pat Haley is former Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.

Pat Haley Contributing columnist Haley Contributing columnist