PORTAGE PATHWAYS: 1938 murder sent trio to prison for life

By Roger J. Di Paolo | Record-Courier Editor Published:

Fred Loftin was only 21 years old when he was murdered in September 1938.

He lost his life, prosecutors said, because one of the men convicted of killing him wanted his job.

Another, they said, wanted to marry his widowed mother.

And the price on his head apparently turned out to be $9.

Three Ravenna Township men were sentenced to life in prison for Loftin's murder following a trial that made headlines in Portage County in early 1939.

The Loftin case included a high-powered prosecution team, a defense team that included two future judges and the first African-American lawyer to appear in a Portage County courtroom, and testimony that drew a capacity crowd who heard the tale of a deadly plot that included a spurned suitor and bigamy.

Fred Loftin, who had made a name for himself as a pitcher for the Kent All-Stars baseball team, disappeared from his home in the Skeels allotment in Ravenna Township on Sunday, Sept. 25, 1938. He last was seen at the bus station in downtown Ravenna, and it was thought that he might have gone to Portsmouth in southern Ohio, where his fiancee lived.

When he failed to report for work at the Ravenna Furnace Foundry, his mother reported him missing.

"The case is a complete mystery," Sheriff Robert Fitzgerald said days later. "We have been unable to find the slightest reason for the disappeance."

Loftin "had no known enemies," the Evening Record reported. He neither drank nor gambled, had not collected his paycheck from the foundry, and his bank account was untouched.

The "mystery" -- at least part of it -- was solved three weeks after his disappearance when a duck hunter noticed a strange odor in a field on a farm on Meloy Road in Brimfield, about a mile south of Kent.

The hunter found the decomposed body of Fred Loftin, his head crushed and his face battered beyond recognition, lying on his back with his fists clenched on his chest. He had a cheap watch and four cents in his pocket.

Three months would pass before three Proctor Allotment men were charged with the crime in late January 1939.

Leroy Giles, Aaron Dunson and Edgar Walker were indicted for first-degree murder after Dunson confessed to being involved in the crime, which he said the other two committed. An axe found embedded in grass and weeds near Loftin's body belonged to Dunson, but he denied using it to kill the young man.

Giles, 20, went to trial on Feb. 27, 1939. Defending him was John Shackelford, an African-American attorney and former Negro League baseball player from Cleveland, who also defended Walker. Representing the state were Prosecuting Attorney Theodore Tilden and his specially appointed assistant, Albert Caris, who later would serve as common pleas judge.

Dunson was represented by two future judges, Edwin Jones and Sam Summers. His confession and subsequent testimony proved to be key.

"As a witness, Dunson was a crowd-pleaser," the Evening Record reported, even after the prosecution revealed him to be a bigamist.

Dunson and Giles worked with Loftin at the foundry. He said he saw Loftin in Edward Walker's car, along with Giles on the night of Sept. 25, and joined them in the car.

After passing through Kent and entering Brimfield, Giles struck Loftin with the axe. The trio took him to the spot where his body later would be found; Giles struck him twice more on the head and they left the body there, he said.

The motive for the crime? According to the prosecution, Dunson was fearful for his job at the foundry and sought to eliminate Loftin. In return for killing him, Giles would get Loftin's job -- along with $9 (about $150 today.)

There was another motive, too. Walker, who was in his 60s, reportedly wanted to marry Loftin's widowed mother, Bertha, who was cool to his attentions. Walker denied that.

Shackleford's defense made an impression on the courtroom audience "who in a large part were curious to see how a Negro attorney would do," the Record reported.

"So well and confidently did he conduct himself that the spectators lost consciousness that he was a Negro, and to everybody in the courtroom he was just a lawyer doing a swell job ... (His) final argument to the jury was a masterpiece. He didn't miss a trick, and he ended with a burst of emotion that moved everybody."

It took two hours to render Giles guilty of first-degree murder, with a mandatory sentence of life in the Ohio Penitentiary without parole. He wept as the verdict was read.

His co-defendants never went to trial.

Edgar Walker pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, protesting his innocence even as he was sentenced to life in prison. "I ain't guilty, but I don't want to go to the electric chair," he told Judge Carl Curtiss.

Aaron Dunson entered the same plea and received the same sentence, even as he, too, maintained his own innocence.

"If Fred Loftin could come back this morning, he would tell you I am telling the whole truth," he said.

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