A notorious killer kept Northeast Ohio residents on the edge of their seats 75 years ago following a daring escape from prison.
Hammer murderess Velma West, 33, who had killed her husband a decade earlier because he wouldn’t let her go to a card party, fled the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville with three other fugitives June 19, 1939, for “one more fling.”
A model prisoner who had access to keys in the front office, West apologized in a three-page note to Superintendent Marguerite Reilley, saying: “I wonder if you can ever forgive me for this.” West said she escaped “to have just one little adventure before I get too old.”
“Please don’t let them talk too awfully bad about me after this,” West wrote. “I’m not bad — just frightfully unlucky in life.”
A blue-eyed, vivacious blonde, West was 21 years old in 1927 when she killed her husband, Thomas Edward West, 26, in their bungalow at the family-run farm, T.B. West & Sons, a nationally known nursery near Painesville in Lake County.
The couple had eloped a year earlier after meeting at a picnic, but Velma West, a good-time flapper from East Cleveland, didn’t feel at home in rural Perry. She preferred to hang out with her girlfriends in the city, singing, dancing and playing the piano. Officials said Eddie West didn’t like his wife’s friends and balked when she told him that she planned to go to a bridge party in Cleveland.
In a heated quarrel, Eddie West refused to let his wife borrow the roadster. As Eddie read a newspaper in their bedroom, Velma went downstairs, got a hammer and bashed him repeatedly in the head. She cleaned herself up, took the car keys from her slain husband’s pocket and drove to the party, where she had a delightful time, according to those who were there.
The next morning, James West found his brother’s body and called the sheriff. After four hours of police questioning at the county jail, Velma West confessed: “All right. I’ll tell the whole truth.”
She avoided the electric chair by pleading guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. At Marysville, she took a correspondence course in stenography, earned excellent grades and earned the trust of reformatory officials.
“Certainly I hope to be free,” she told the Beacon Journal in 1930. “I do not want to stay here forever. I have hope. High hope.”
The warden allowed the soft-spoken West to be a trusty who performed office duties and carried keys for cells. After being denied parole in 1939, West became despondent until she caught wind that three inmates were planning to break out.
She offered to help.
About 12:30 a.m. on a rainy night in June, West fled with robber Mary Ellen Richards, 23, of Cincinnati; cat burglar Florence Sheline, 23, of Gallipolis; and incorrigible prisoner Virginia Brawdy, 19, of Akron. They slipped out of their cells, slinked through corridors, dodged guards and slipped out a chapel door.
The women ran through fields and were muddy and drenched when a truck driver picked them up on the Marion highway. They were in Indiana before prison officials knew they were missing.
A killer was loose!
The escape of the hammer slayer created a national sensation after photos of the slender, pretty inmate appeared in newspapers. Fugitive sightings were reported across the state, including Akron.
However, West and Richards had already hitchhiked to Texas and were living it up, dating young men, dancing all night and having a good old time. Using an assumed name, West found a job as a waitress at a Dallas honky-tonk. Over the next month, she welcomed at least six suitors, including two men who proposed marriage.
West gained nearly 10 pounds while feasting as a fugitive. She and Richards were headed to dinner in July 1939 when two officers recognized them from their mug shots at the Dallas police station.
“We were crossing the street and they stopped us and I thought, ‘Oh, God, it’s all over,’ ” West later recalled. “My heart started pounding and I wished I had left town an hour before as I’d planned instead of waiting to get dinner.”
The last fling was flung.
The Ohio fugitives were sent back to Marysville after 40 glorious days of freedom and placed in solitary confinement for a month.
“They won’t be glamour girls any more,” Superintendent Reilley told reporters. “They’ll be just like any other prisoner.”
West moaned: “I know that Mrs. Reilley will never trust me again.”
In her autobiography, Reilley later referred to West as her “famous failure.”
“I thought she was reformed,” she said.
Beacon Journal reporter Katherine Sullivan went to the reformatory in 1952 to visit West, who was suffering from heart troubles.
“When I saw Velma on a recent visit to Marysville, I was shocked at the change in her,” Sullivan wrote. “She is old at 45. The sight of her would move anyone — nearly anyone — to pity. The iron flapper is harmless now, contrite, wistfully wishing for freedom to spend the last days of her life with her mother, her only friend outside.”
West insisted that she had changed her ways.
“I know how bad I was,” she said.
After 25 years behind bars, she had taken to counseling young inmates and urging them that crime doesn’t pay.
“Go straight when you get out,” she told them. “There’s still a lot of good you can do in this world.”
The former good-time girl converted to the Roman Catholic faith and played sacred songs on the piano.
“Every time I say Communion, it is for my husband,” she told a reporter. “If his soul can’t be saved, I don’t want mine to be saved.”
When she was up for parole in 1959, she told the board that she preferred to stay behind bars because she had nowhere else to go.
Parole was denied.
She spent her final months bedridden in the reformatory hospital, withering to 86 pounds, before her heart gave out Oct. 24, 1959. She was 53.
Velma West was laid to rest at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Cemetery in Marysville. Finally free, she embarked on her next little adventure.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.