1936: LACK OF CLUES IN BIZARRE MURDER OF CALHOUN MAN

(10/09/2017)

By James A. Hill 1952

(Staff Writer for The Charleston Gazette)

ORMA 1936 - On the shaded front porch of the old Starcher home near Orma, Calhoun County, sat three women, bent to their task of stringing beans.

They were the aging Mrs. Hattie Starcher; her step-daughter, Gracie; and Mrs. Dora Butler, an old friend from the adjoining farm.

The time was early in the afternoon of Aug. 12, 1936, one of the hottest days of a fading Summer.

Perhaps the heat made this scene seem less strange, but the women described it this way:

There was a shot, and then Dee Laughlin, bent almost double, came running over the brow of the hill before them. After running about 25 yards around the hill, the man sat down, resting his chest on his knees and bracing his body with his arms.

The thought ran through their minds - "He probably shot a rabbit and was trying to catch it in the low weeds;--but when Laughlin failed to stand up they became alarmed.

Gracie Starcher put aside her pan of green beans and hurried off to Howard Greathouse's nearby home to tell what they had seen. Laughlin continue[d] to sit on the hillside, unmoving.

He was dead, shot in the back.

POLICE RUSH TO SCENE

It was not until 6:30 p.m. that the news of the shooting reached Grantsville, the county seat.

Sheriff P. H. Gunn got a telephone call saying Laughlin was dead. Immediately he notified State Police Cpl. D. G. Wilfong, and an intent group started to the rugged Rush Run area where the man lived.

Gunn and Wilfong, Trooper O. C. Bowles, Prosecuting Attorney Bee Hopkins, Dr. James A. Morford and Don Altizer, justice of the peace at Arnoldsburg, arrived together to find the victim still in his seated position.

The bullet that killed him had entered his back under the right shoulder blade and emerged under his right arm pit. And strangely, Laughlin had on only one shoe, and it was unlaced.

When Altizer impounded a jury, this formal conclusion was reached: "Dee Laughlin came to his death by means of a bullet wound in his body inflicted by some one not known by the jury."

This statement was never supplemented with a solution to the murder, but a hundred details were studied in connection with it. They are still being gone over.

Charley Norman of Orma, who discovered that Laughlin was dead, was questioned. So was Mrs. Butler, the one who was stringing beans, a sister of the victim.

So was Howard Greathouse, his nephew.

Laughlin lived at the Greathouse home, and when found he was only about 250 yards from it. In fact, he had eaten dinner there the noon before he died, according to Greathouse, and had left after the meal without telling his destination.

Greathouse added that he did not hear the shot that killed "Uncle Dee," and had no idea that Laughlin was dead until after Gracie Starcher came to the house and told his wife of the queer actions that had been seen on the hillside.

After receiving this information Greathouse told the officers that he and his wife walked around the hill and approached within 25 yards of the seated body. He called to his uncle, he said, but when he was not answered he told his wife the man was dead.

'HIS NECK WAS PALE'

He did not go up to Laughlin, he said, but could tell he was lifeless because his neck was so pale. After noting this, he added, he walked home and went to bed.

Mrs. Greathouse corroborated her husband's statement, adding that Laughlin, after eating the noon meal, had walked around the hill bareheaded and wearing only one shoe.

She had been rocking a baby on her front porch around the time the crime was committed and her husband was resting on a cot nearby, she said.

Charley Norman could only add a brief bit of information for the officers. He had been at home when Dora Butler came by, calling to him that her brother had been shot.

Going immediately to the scene, he viewed the body and then went to Orma and called Sheriff Gunn.

On the same evening, however, the officers called on Floyd Sampson to ask him what he knew of the affair.

Sampson lived about 400 yards from the scene, and the officers understood there had been bad blood between the "clans" of the Greathouses and the Sampsons.

This bad feeling apparently had come out a year earlier when Sampson and Laughlin had fought. This affair had ended with Floyd being shot through the arm.

Floyd was cryptic when questioned.

He had heard the shot, he said, and guessed the Greathouse boys had probably killed Dee.

The policemen had heard that Sampson kept a high-powered rifle hidden under his dining room table, so they searched the house.

No rifle turned up, but a revolver was found hanging at the head of Floyd's bed.

By the morning of Aug. 13 the authorities were able to check leads.

The "Greathouse boys" Sampson referred to - Dwight, Harley and Bob - were found to have been away from home when the crime occurred and nowhere near the scene.

Additional questioning of Harley Greathouse brough up a new angle and another pistol, however.

Howard admitted he owned a .25 automatic, and led the officers to the garden beside the house and dug it from under a pile of leaves by the fence.

GUNS ARE PLENTIFUL

Why did he bury it there? The gun had been pawned to him, he said, and he did not want the officers to take it. He had hidden it that morning, the 13th, he added.

However, a check revealed that Howard had purchased the weapon from Elmer Sampson of Orma.

There was another lead to follow concerning a .32 revolver owned by the victim, too.

Dee Laughlin was known usually to carry it -but the gun turned up in the possession of Carl Sampson of Nicut.

Carl Sampson said Laughlin had pawned it to him on July 19 for $2, and he had had it ever since.

Where would Cpl. Wilfong and the others on the case look next?

They didn't know, for they were faced with questions that brought no answers.

The bullet that killed Laughlin had passed through his body and was missing. Maybe it dug into the ground a few feet away; maybe it was a quarter of a mile from the scene, lodged in a tree.

And there was no way of knowing if it had come from a pistol or a rifle. The slug was never found.

From this point the investigation could only consist of detailed questionings, cross-checks and searches. There were quite a few people who could be questioned, too.

Take 13-year old Arnold Norman, for example.

Arnold told the investigators that he was carrying water for his father from Howard Greathouse's home. As he walked up the hollow to the house to fill his pail he heard a shot up the hill to his left.

He looked and saw nothing, he said.

Then he heard running, but did not see anyone. When he reached the Greathouse home he found Howard on the cot on the front porch and his wife sitting in a chair.

Others had heard Laughlin and Floyd Sampson threaten each other. These included Gordie Parsons and Dosha Hall of Orma and Homer Norman of Beech.

More detailed information came from Georgia Bell Sampson of Stumptown, who was visiting at the home of Floyd Sampson, her grandfather on Aug. 12.

REVOLVER MISSING

The 16-year old girl said she had noted that her grandfather's revolver which always hung at the foot of the bed, was missing when she made the bed.

Later, she went on, she heard a shot fired and mentioned the fact to her grandmother, who said she heard it too.

About 10 minutes after the sound the grandfather returned to the house-he had left before noon, she said.

After the killing was known, Georgia said the officers called at her grandfather's house and questioned the family. Her grandfather told the officers that Georgia and her grandmother had seen Harley and Wyatt Greathouse standing at the mouth of a hollow nearby during the afternoon, Georgie said, but the girl pointed out that this was wrong.

She had not seen the men in question nor anyone else, she maintained. And just before leaving the house to walk to the store at Orma about 2:30 p.m. on the 12th, Georgia explained, she saw her grandfather's revolver hanging again at its place on the bed.

Georgia's statements were the last of importance that were garnered on the killing.

But 12 years after Laughlin was buried a bizarre and considerably garbled--tale was told by a former resident of Frozen, Calhoun County, who was being held on a felony charge in Massillon, Ohio.

This person was Creed Conley, and his story had it that he and two friends, Elmer Sampson and Jessie McComer (could be mispelling), had gone to Dee Laughlin to buy some liquor.

While at Laughlin's home, he said, Elmer Sampson got a rifle and shot Laughlin with it. The victim fell in the garden, Conley went on, and that afternoon Elmer Sampson, McComer and he got $750 from the house and left.

Conley's story was not hard to break down, however. He was unable to draw a map showing Laughlin's home or other residences near it, and could not detail the facts of the case.

HOPED TO DODGE CHARGE

Finally Conley admitted he had only been told about the killing by Elmer Sampson and McComer.

He said he had hoped that he would be brought back to West Virginia as a material witness in the Laughlin murder and thereby escape a charge pending against him in Ohio.

This "lead" proved, then to be only another blank wall to investigators.

No developments of importance have come up since then to give hope of final solution to state police and county officers who have the story on file.

What happened to Dee Laughlin's other shoe?

Did he lose it in a frantic flight to escape a gunman, or did something lead him to go from his home with one shoe on and the other off?

And what happened to the bullet that passed through his body?

The solution to the crime probably lies hidden with it today.


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