Murders in Seneca County

New museum exhibit recalls 1948 slayings

PHOTOS BY MARYANN KROMER Rita Smith was wearing the dress seen at left the night her husband, Jim, was fatally shot.

On a warm July night in 1948, James and Rita Smith had spent the evening playing cards at her parents’ home in Tiffin. Before heading home in their Buick, they stopped for refreshments at Stewart’s Root Beer Stand on North SR 53.

Married two years, the couple could not foresee the tragedy awaiting them a few miles down the road. In an instant, Jim would be murdered and Rita’s life would change forever. They were victims of Robert Daniels, age 24, and John Coulter West, 22.

When Rita died in 2004, her family found a box of artifacts from that fateful summer night. Stunned, they wondered why she had kept them and what should be done with them. Last fall, the Seneca County Museum was asked to accept Rita’s items, which can be seen in the “Mad Dog Killers” exhibit through November.

Museum Director Tonia Hoffert said work on the exhibit had begun before the donation, and she worried there wasn’t enough to fill the display case. She, Mark Steinmetz, Brian Courtney and a few other volunteers gathered more material to fill out the exhibit.

After the phone call, the museum ended up with more than their display could hold. Publications all over the country ran stories about the crime spree of Daniels and West. Also, they acquired a copy of a video recorded during one of many interviews with Daniels.

Steinmetz used their findings to type a six-page summary of the chain of events that transpired in 1948. He already knew about the tragedy because his grandfather, George Steinmetz, was the Seneca County sheriff at the time. Sheriff Steinmetz responded to the accident scene where Rita, who managed to escape alive, provided important details to law enforcement officers.

Much of this article was drawn from Mark Steinmetz’s narrative, which includes Rita’s account about being followed and forced off the road near the drive-in by a two-toned Buick with two men inside.

Posing as police officers, Daniels brandished a gun and demanded to see Jim’s driver’s license. When Jim went for his wallet, he was shot in the face and died instantly before Rita’s eyes. The two men then pulled her from the front seat and shoved her into the back seat.

“The family told us that particular new Buick had problems with the door handle in the back seat, behind the driver’s seat,” Steinmetz said.

Nevertheless, the door opened and Rita ran screaming across SR 53 to the Martin home. Members of the Martin family had heard the gunshots and quickly took her inside. The murderers then fled north, in their own car, leaving the Smiths’ car behind. First responders faced a gruesome sight.

“Jim was a pretty big guy. They couldn’t get him out of the car. It was full of blood,” Steinmetz said.

With Rita’s description of the car, the officers located it at a rest stop outside of Old Fort. But the occupants were gone. Deep ruts in the parking area indicated a large, heavy vehicle had parked there. Neighbors in the area told the sheriff they had heard gunshots, which took the officers back to the shooters’ car.

In a patch of tall weeds at the edge of the lot, the searchers found the body of Orville Taylor, age 24. He had been driving an auto hauler and had stopped for a rest. The criminals had stolen the truck, loaded with five new Studebakers, driving it back through Tiffin and heading west on US 224.

“My dad (Richard Steinmetz) — he was 18 at the time, living with my grandparents … at the (former) jail. He had come back from a movie at The Ritz around 11 p.m.,” Steinmetz said.

Mrs. Steinmetz told her son his dad had responded to the Smith murder to gather evidence and take photographs. The Advertiser-Tribune used one of them to accompany the story they published. Other newspapers and reporters also requested copies of Steinmetz’s photos.

Local officials soon learned about three people found dead in Mansfield two days earlier. The suspects had fled the area, but Mansfield police had a license plate number and description of the car. Witnesses had spotted the car and the two men during robberies at two Columbus businesses. They had killed a bar owner, as well.

Newspapers all over the country carried stories about the manhunt to find the perpetrators and apprehend them. After the two murders in Seneca County that appeared to be the work of Daniels and West, searchers refocused their efforts and alerted the surrounding counties the pair were at large.

“Roadblocks went up all over the place,” Steinmetz said.

West was driving the auto hauler with Daniels hiding in one of the cars when officers stopped the vehicle on a rural road east of Van Wert. The sheriff of Van Wert County questioned West and searched the truck. When he discovered Daniels hiding, West grabbed a handgun and fired multiple times, severely injuring one officer.

As he fell, the wounded man fired back, hitting West in the forehead. He died in Van Wert Hospital a short time later. Daniels surrendered and was taken into custody.

“There’s a historical marker where this all happened,” Steinmetz said, pointing out a picture on display.

West was wanted for crimes in three Ohio counties, but officials decided the trial should be in Mansfield. Daniels gave interviews before the trial, winking at women in the audience and bragging about everything he had done, while claiming West had done most of the killing.

Daniels said he had befriended West while both were incarcerated for robbery at Mansfield Reformatory. After their release, they got back together with plans to get revenge on a prison guard who supposedly mistreated them. They stole a car in Ohio and drove through four states while plotting their crime.

Returning to Mansfield, the convicts failed to locate the guard, so they drove to the home of John Niebel, superintendent of the prison, to obtain the guard’s address. Daniels said he had car trouble and asked to use the phone. Once inside, they drew guns and ransacked the house.

Apparently, West and Daniels realized they would need time to find the guard and worried Niebel would call the authorities before they could commit the crime. They forced Niebel, his wife and 21-year-old daughter into their car and carried them off to a cornfield.

The initial plan was to bind the Niebels and leave them there in the darkness until the pair had completed their vengeful deed. With no rope to tie their hostages, West and Daniels decided to march them deep into the cornfield and shoot all three. By the time the bodies were discovered the next day, the killers were gone.

The murderers never did locate the guard they were seeking, so they headed for Cleveland, then to Akron, where they bought a rifle. The new plan was to flee to Indiana on US 224, which ran through Tiffin.

“Of course, there was no 224 bypass at that time, so they came up Melmore Street and into town to Market Street,” Steinmetz said.

They rented a “sleeping room” in Tiffin, had dinner downtown and drove to the new Hedges-Boyer Park to see a stage production at the barn. After the show, they wanted to steal a different car and make an escape. That’s when they spotted the Smiths.

Seneca County residents were shocked to learn murderers had mingled among them that day and had taken two more lives. People all over the state were relieved when Daniels and West were stopped, thanks to clues from the investigation of the Smith murder.

The box from Rita Smith Keller contained the blood-spattered dress she was wearing when Jim was shot, her husband’s shoes and socks, his wallet, cuff links and other personal effects, letters from the state of Ohio, photos and news clippings.

Also, The Mansfield News Journal presented Rita with a reward for identifying the two convicts. Steinmetz said the letters indicate Rita sent the money to the wife and four children of Orville Taylor. Steinmetz said he worked with Rita for years at American Standard and knew her to be a person of integrity

“She never wanted to talk about it,” he said. “When we got word these things would be available … I couldn’t get the word ‘yes’ out of my mouth fast enough.”

Reports said the trial lasted about a week and ended in a guilty verdict. Daniels was executed Jan. 3, 1949.

Hoffert said her brother had worked as a deputy warden for a number of years in Mansfield, but he claimed ignorance about the Mansfield murders. Hoffert told him about the exhibit in Tiffin and gave him a copy of “The Mansfield Killings” by Scott Fields.

“He read it in two days,” Hoffert said. “I said, it’s all over here. You just gotta come over and look at this display.”