By Norman V. Kelly
It was Thursday morning October 29, 1936 down on the first floor of The Peoria City Hall when the drama that would shake up the folks in Peoria, Illinois really began. At lest that is what the readers of the Evening Star thought when they picked up the evening paper from their front door stoop. Truth is it began three years earlier with divorce proceedings over at the courthouse. Like all marriages there are ups and downs but lately it seemed the marriage of David and Wilma Roe had a lot more downs than it did ups. They began their marriage living over at 511 Millman just two blocks from where my grandmother’s house stood and still stands today. The neighbors certainly were aware of the squabbles going on but so far no police had been called. The divorce got as far as a first meeting with a judge but the decree was never signed and life went on. It culminated in the office of the chief of police on October 29, 1936 and would end that same afternoon on the third floor of the city hall. It was the talk of the town and the headlines screamed out as the downtown paperboys sold their EXTRAS all over town.
It seems that Wilma Roe had written a letter to Chief Fred Nussbaum and he had arranged a meeting with the couple in his office before they went to their scheduled meeting with Mrs. Smith of the Family Welfare Association up on the third floor. The truth is that office had already taken two of the children to a home within its organization for safe keeping. The oldest daughter, Donna had accompanied her parents on the fateful day of October 29, and she was one very upset young girl of six years old. Her two sisters, Shelia, age 5 and Janet age 2 would probably soon be joined by Donna the way things were going so far. Chief Nussbaum read the letter from Mrs. Roe out loud so her husband could understand that Wilma not only wanted a divorce, she also told the chief that she was afraid of her husband and that he had threatened to kill her. It was a tense scene inside the chief’s office and terrified little Donna could hear the loud voices out in the waiting room where she sat, wide eyed and scared out of her wits. Finally, the meeting ended and a truce seemed to have been worked out. Wilma left the office with her daughter to head to the Welfare Office and David told his wife that he would see her in Mrs. Smith’s office.
Winifred Smith, an accomplished and experienced social worker sat at her desk listening to the couple, first one then the other. The battle raged back and forth and after an hour or so, she had made some progress. She also separated David and Wilma then brought them back together. She made a telephone call to Elizabeth Geisel the executive secretary and as she waited Dave sat in the council chambers alone. After talking to Mrs. Geisel a lunch break was decided upon and around one in the afternoon they met once again.
Mrs. Smith would later relate to the local newspaper reporters that Mrs. Roe was ‘Mortally afraid of her husband.’ David had made it clear how he felt about the matter when Mrs. Smith had written down his quote which she shared with the newspaper reporters. “My wife ran off with my very own brother. I don’t care about that she can have him. All I want is my oldest daughter.”
Mrs. Smith separated the couple again and waited for Mrs. Geisel to come back. Mrs. Smith went to fetch David but saw him coming back on his own. Mrs. Roe screamed and started to run. As she passed David he reached out to stop her and as he did so he pulled a .32 revolver from inside his jacket and fired point blank into the side of his wife’s head. She fell instantly to the floor fatally wounded. By then Mrs. Geisel walked up to David Roe and as he looked up at her David fired his weapon at Mrs. Smith. In all Mr. Roe had fired four shots, but Mrs. Smith had not been hit. In a quick move David Roe pointed the gun at his temple and fired. He fell dead upon the floor next to his wife. By then Donna stood among the adults looking down at her dead parents as their blood began to spread over the tile floor. Pandemonium followed as every police officer in the building and terrified office worker seemed to appear from nowhere. Dr. Wilbur Weinkauf, of the Health Department pronounced the couple dead.
The coroner’s inquest was held to a packed courthouse room and all the details were pretty much covered. Of course the jury ruled the case a murder/suicide and over the months the story slipped away. As in all the other cases there are more details but space prevents their being printed here. I left this story with sadness for The Roe family and especially Donna. I hope the kids managed to live fruitful lives after such a personal tragedy struck them so early in life.
Editor’s Note: Norm welcomes your comments and you can also e-mail him: firstname.lastname@example.org