This is Part II of a 3-part series that began on July 9. Part III will be published on July 23.
NELLIE — The Mohawk Dam was a major public works project when it was built in Coshocton County during the 1930s. A dry dam designed to hold back waters during times of flood, it was a very modern intrusion into a rural area that still looked much like it had in the 19th century.
Even today, many of New Castle township’s secondary roads are surfaced with gravel, and the peaceful area feels like it could slip back in time if you squint your eyes.
By the 1950s the dam would have been a familiar part of the landscape to locals, including Cletus Reese, who lived on a ridge at the head of Possum Hollow between New Castle and Nellie, just west-southwest of the dam.
As detailed in last week’s column, concerns began to rise when salesman Clyde Patton disappeared after bringing a car to Reese’s farm for a test drive.
The burly 36-year-old farmer had long been regarded as an eccentric, and it was widely known that he had spent some time in the Cambridge State Hospital due to his mental problems. But his issues were about to be realized as far worse than anyone suspected.
After receiving calls from Clyde Patton’s worried wife, Coshocton County Sheriff Gilbert Kempf gave the rest of the day Thursday, June 3, 1954, to wait and see if the 28-year-old teacher and part-time car salesman would turn up. After all, it was hardly unheard of for a stressed-out husband to run off for a night of drinking or some such.
But as the day wore on, and Patton did not show up anywhere, Sheriff Kempf began to fear the worst.
On Friday, June 4, the sheriff and numerous deputies arrived at the Reese farm early. They asked for permission to search the farmhouse while Sheriff Kempf questioned Cletus. Reese gave them permission to search, but gave evasive and inconsistent answers, growing more and more nervous.
The law officers brought Clyde Patton’s wife with them, and she identified several items found in Reese’s bedroom as her husband’s personal property, including a pocket secretary, a wristwatch, a pen and pencil set, and a pocket knife. Cletus had left the wristwatch sitting on his Bible.
More than 100 people searched the house and barns, as curiosity seekers and journalists joined the actual investigators.
A discovery was made on the second day of the search. A bloody trail led from a field several hundred yards behind the farmhouse to a plowed furrow 100 feet away, just behind the barn. The trail looked as if something heavy had been dragged along it.
In the furrow, not even completely covered, searchers found the battered body of Clyde Patton, face down, as it had been dragged.
Coroner J. C. Briner later commented to the press that Patton’s head had been “crushed to a pulp.” An oak club smeared with blood and hair lay near the body.
When taken out to the field and confronted with the evidence of his guilt, Reese didn’t show much emotion. He just began mumbling incoherently. The clearest thing he said to the sheriff was, “This has been going on a long time.”
He refused to offer any information past that, hanging his head and refusing to make eye contact. Cletus Reese was placed under arrest for murder.
Knox County Sheriff Paul Cochran got involved after he heard about Reese’s arrest. He asked if he could join in the interrogation, for he suspected Reese of killing 58-year-old Danville resident Lester Melick as well.
Sheriff Kempf welcomed his fellow lawman, and when Cochran sat down with Cletus, he questioned him aggressively. At one point, Reese suddenly blurted out that he shot Melick in the head while they were in a car. He then broke down into a blubbering, crying mess.
The next day, he denied the story completely.
One curious person who showed up at the Reese farm that week was Lester Melick’s son, Harry.
He knew that his father had known Reese, and he agreed with Sheriff Cochran that Cletus probably had something to do with Lester’s disappearance. He joined in vigorously with the searches on Thursday. When Harry identified an area further up on the ridge where the grass looked slightly discolored from the surrounding grass, the deputies dug and found a body.
But to everyone’s shock, it wasn’t Lester Melick, who was an average-sized man of 58. This was the body of a younger, smaller man wearing a badly deteriorated leather jacket and two pairs of pants.
The authorities had no idea, initially, who the body could be, but pathologists determined that this victim had been buried for at least a year, predating Melick’s disappearance by months.
The following day, with 600 volunteer searchers combing the farm, Lester Melick’s body was discovered across the road from the house. There was no evidence of a gunshot wound. Rather, he had been beaten in the head, just like the other two victims. Sheriff Kempf asked Reese directly how many more bodies would they find if they kept looking?
“You won’t find any more,” Cletus said. “Three is all.”
Further searches were called off.
“It’s over as far as I’m concerned,” Sheriff Kempf said.
To the best of my knowledge, further formal searches of the grounds of Reese’s farm, which had rapidly become known as “Murder Ridge,” have never been carried out, though the sheriff at one point said that “over 1,000” curiosity seekers roamed across the property on the Sunday after Cletus was charged.
None of those gawkers reported finding anything.
Thus, Reese’s official count of victims remains at three. Was there any truth to Cletus’ claim that these events had been “going on for a long time,” or was he simply delusional?
The officials decided to concentrate on the provable crimes they had and to focus their efforts on getting Reese off the streets.
But they still needed to identify the mystery body.
The sheriff gave reporters access to Reese in the Coshocton County Jail in hopes they’d be able to shake further information out of him. Instead, he nervously paced, biting on his lower lip and chain smoking.
“Clete, these here fellows want to get this thing in the paper,” Sheriff Kempf said. “Maybe this fellow we found yesterday has a family. They must be worried about him, and things couldn’t be much worse.
“Why don’t you just tell us what you know about it?”
Reese stared at the floor, shaking his head side to side.
Kempf asked the prisoner if he would tell the whole story to his sister Ethel.
“I’d really like to talk to her,” he said, smiling.
A reporter asked Cletus if he wouldn’t rather just tell what he knew about the other body to get it off his conscience? Cletus said nothing. The reporter followed up, asking Cletus if he had any religious ties.
“I don’t have no religion,” he said.
Deputy Bill Hoop informed reporters that Cletus had said to him that he wished “this thing would get over with so I can get back to my farm.”
Like many serial killers before and since, Reese had a startling ability to compartmentalize his murders as just one small piece of his life.
Like any human being, every serial killer is different, but there are many of them who compartmentalize to such a degree that they seem confused that everyone else takes their murders to be such a big deal. To them it may be just one small part of their lives.
At this point in the investigation, Reese was not offering much of a glimpse into his thoughts at all. When the prisoner was formally charged on Saturday, June 12, at the Coshocton County Courthouse with the murder of Clyde Patton, he refused to enter any plea at all, remaining silent for the proceeding.
The court deferred entering a plea until later.
The following Monday morning, Sheriff Kempf resumed questioning Reese in his cell, alternating with other investigators to keep a non-stop barrage of questions coming at the prisoner. The 250-pound Reese paced back and forth, cursing at times, sobbing at other times, until he finally broke down and gave a full confession.
He said that the previously unidentified body was his old Cambridge State Hospital friend, Paul Tish, who had showed up at the farm 16 days after walking away from the asylum. Reese said that he killed him on Christmas Eve, 1952, and buried his body soon afterward in a shallow grave.
But as the sheriff probed for details, Reese began to give fictional information.
“No, I didn’t know him,” Cletus said. “He was a soldier and he came to my house. We had a difference over theology. I shot him with a .22 caliber Smith & Wesson pistol I had bought at Roscoe.”
He claimed to have shot Tish in the living room of the house, buried him, then put the gun away in a kitchen drawer. Searches uncovered no such weapon, no signs of gunshots in the house, nor any sign of a bullet wound on Tish’s body.
At another point, Reese changed his story to claim that he had shot all three men, and that he had never beaten their heads. This almost desperate avoidance of admitting physical contact may be a very strong clue about something that went wrong inside Cletus Reese’s mind.
It was a mind that had already been identified by mental health professionals as having serious issues.