NELLIE — It was a warm summer evening on Sunday, July 6, 1924. The Reverend J. H. Proper stepped to the front of the little Mt. Nebo Church, west of the village of Nellie, at the head of Opossum Hollow, near the Knox/Coshocton County line.
Rev. Proper smiled and started the evening’s program, which began with the children’s choir singing. One by one, children stepped up and presented songs or poems.
Soon, a stout but cherubic 6-year-old stepped up to the front and recited a poem entitled “Flowers.” His name was Cletus Reese.
Cut to May 18, 1966, at the Darling Run Cemetery just east of Nellie. Few mourners attended the graveside service or placed flowers on the freshly dug grave in the cemetery. The obituary published in the Coshocton Tribune was brief:
Cletus P. Reese
Services for Cletus P. Reese, 48, formerly of Warsaw Route 3, who died following a heart attack at Lima State Hospital Monday, will be conducted at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Fischer Funeral Home by Rev. Herbert Burkhart. Burial will be in Darling Run Cemetery.
Born April 13, 1918 in Newcastle township, he was a son of Robert W and Mary McClain Reese. He had attended Mt. Nebo Methodist Church.
Surviving are three sisters, Miss Ethel Reese of Millersburg, Mrs. Marie Mencer of Warsaw and Mrs. Beulah Donaldson of Warsaw Route 2. One sister is deceased.
The piece of information left out of the obituary was that somewhere between that sweet church appearance in 1924 and Reese’s arrest in 1954, he had become the most notorious serial killer to ever walk the hills of Coshocton County.
What went wrong?
If that were easy to answer, perhaps we could prevent cases of lives that go monstrously off the rails. But a lot goes into the making of a serial killer. At least one element that researchers have pointed out, is a genetic one.
While mental anomalies can pop up in any family without precedent, it has been established that cases of people who could be diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder — what is popularly known as being a sociopath or psychopath — do have a tendency to come from families where other severe mental issues are present.
But that, in itself, is almost a pointless observation. If you cast your net wide, who wouldn’t find some people with issues in their family? And lacking detailed information about the deeper history of the Reese family, we find no answer there.
Also, often cited is the deadly cocktail of poverty and violence. Poverty alone can warp a person’s life, putting them on the periphery of society in a state of permanent stress, which certainly can activate one’s “fight or flight” adrenaline to the point where it is a constant, aggressive flow. And when that’s combined with violence in the family, at school, or in the community, it can become a caustic mix that boils the humanity right out of a person.
Growing up in rural eastern Ohio, Cletus Reese certainly wasn’t wealthy, yet there’s no indication the Reese family struggled more than other farming families.
His grandfather, Conrad Rees, arrived in America from Germany in the 1830’s, but had only passed away when Cletus was a child.
Cletus’ father, Robert, was already in his 50s when Cletus was born in 1918, married to a wife 15 years younger than him. Perhaps Robert thought that with a younger wife, she’d outlive him, as he had already lost one wife to death.
But Mary Jane (nee McClain) proved to suffer from precarious health. As she and Robert tried to have children, she suffered the loss of two stillborn infants.
But in 1918, she successfully birthed Cletus. Unfortunately, her health deteriorated after that, and she died of complications from diabetes when Cletus was 5. That at least suggests some early childhood trauma for the boy.
His half-sister Ethel, 16 when Cletus was born, became his de facto mother, doing her best over the years to take care of him.
There are many cases of other children who survive early trauma and don’t turn dangerously violent. In the end, we’re at a loss to explain exactly what went wrong with Cletus Paul Reese.
We know that he was tremendously strong and had a reputation in his young years for being a tireless physical laborer.
My friend Robin Mullett, who lives near Warsaw with her husband Dick, told me that when Dick was a child, his father regularly worked with Cletus on milk pickup rounds. Dick once saw Cletus empty a large, full metal milk can with one hand. A friend of his saw “Clete” pick up two full milk cans, one in each hand.
Others claimed that Cletus was so strong, he didn’t have to tie cattle down to poll their horns. He’d simply grab the huge animal around the neck and hold it still while he sawed.
Another source claimed that Cletus had been seen picking up a hog under each arm. On one occasion a man needed to change a tire on his car, but didn’t have a jack. Cletus simply picked up one corner of the car while the man slipped a concrete block beneath it.
That’s some strength.
Most people knew Cletus as a reasonably nice guy. Maybe a little odd, but nice enough. Shy, kept mostly to himself.
But his quirks started to become more pronounced as the years went by. He was witnessed having very animated conversations at times with invisible companions. His temper was known to flare when he drank, and he liked to drink.
Ethel later claimed that Cletus only became unstable a few years before the murders, yet when his draft number came up during World War II, he was rejected without further comment by the draft board despite his robust physical condition.
People who found themselves out on the roads in the middle of the night in New Castle Township were startled when they would suddenly encounter Cletus crossing the roads and ridges with his hunting dogs.
It would seem that the death of his father in 1942 was the trigger that began accelerating the mental decline of Cletus Reese.
Clete’s siblings pooled their inheritances after Robert died and put the modest 65-acre family farm on Township Road 41 in New Castle Township, just off U.S. 36 (then part of Ohio State Route 715), in Ethel Reese’s name. Cletus was given the task of running the farm, in hopes that it would stabilize him.
For a time, it did so.
As the years went by, though, he showed less commitment to it as he became more volatile, even after additional adjoining land was purchased, making it a 195-acre farm. Cletus simply wasn’t interested in working that much land.
In 1951, the family decided that it was no longer safe for Cletus to be left living alone on the farm, and he was sent to the Ohio State Hospital in Cambridge, where he was given a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
There, he stabilized to some degree, and even made friends with a fellow patient, a World War II veteran named Paul Tish. They were an amusing pair of contrasts, Tish small and scrawny, Reese, barrel-chested and strong. But for a patient known to be shy and antisocial, the friendship was an accomplishment.
Cletus’ half-sister, Ethel, was a schoolteacher in Millersburg. She wasn’t certain that Cletus was ready to return home on his own, but when the hospital doctors suggested a trial-release program with periodic supervision from Ethel, she agreed.
After less than a year in the state hospital, Cletus Reese was released, and he returned to the farm on the ridge overlooking Opossum Hollow. It is interesting to note that only a few months after Cletus returned, the original family farmhouse suddenly burned down. The rest of his life, Cletus was always able to recall the date that unexplained fire happened.
He lived in a smaller house on the same property.
Meanwhile, back at the Cambridge State Hospital, Paul Tish apparently grew lonely without his friend. He abruptly walked off the grounds of the hospital on Dec. 8, 1952, wearing his leather jacket and two pairs of pants. Authorities searched but were unable to locate him. His trail went cold.
On Nov. 28, 1953, Lester Melick, a farmhand who worked on the James Flack farm near Danville, was eating supper in a restaurant in the village. As he left, he mentioned that he had to get going to meet a friend. An hour or so later, he was seen having a beer in a Danville bar with Cletus Reese.
Melick was never seen again after that, and extensive searches and questioning by the Knox County Sheriff’s Department turned up no leads. Reese denied any knowledge about Melick’s disappearance.
On Wednesday, June 2, 1954, Cletus called the Hafner Truck & Equipment Company in Coshocton. He said that he wanted to take a new Hudson automobile for a test drive. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for a dealership to drive the vehicle to the customer.
Part-time car salesman Clyde Patton had already been to the farm previously demonstrating vehicles to Cletus, so Ethel — who happened to be at the farm that day — didn’t think anything of it when Patton showed up.
Perhaps she sympathized with Patton, whose day job was as a schoolteacher in the village of Fresno, but with a wife and four young children to support (and a fifth one on the way), he also did auto sales part-time to boost his income.
Ethel boosted her own teaching salary by working in the evenings as a waitress in Millersburg.
The potential sale of a Hudson was enticing to Patton, so he eagerly brought the Hudson to the Reese farm, located on what today is County Road 41, just off US 36, which was at that time part of State Route 715.
Ethel told Patton that Cletus was in no position to get a new car, when she hadn’t yet paid off his current vehicle, but she didn’t object to the test drive. She later said that she saw them return, and that the only thing out of the ordinary was that Cletus was “starry-eyed and tense.”
After she stepped back into the farmhouse, Cletus and Clyde pulled the car up toward the barn, to turn it around. A little while later, Cletus came into the house, and Ethel assumed that Patton had left.
She noted that her half-brother was “stiff and rigid” and stared off into space.
After staying overnight, Ethel prepared to go home to Millersburg. She noticed the Hudson was still in the front yard, and assumed that Patton had left it for Cletus to audition, and must have had someone pick him up. When she got home, Ethel called the dealership and told them to pick up the car.
Meanwhile, Clyde Patton’s wife Rosalie suspected that something was not right when her husband didn’t show up for supper Wednesday evening. She called Coshocton County Sheriff Gilbert Kempf that evening, but Kempf declined to do anything until 24 hours had passed.
She could do nothing but wait.
See Part II of this History Knox edition next week.