murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

Murder That Boomeranged

Suddenly, without warning, he began firing.



by Zeta Rothschild

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Private Detective Stories | June 1944 | Vol. 15 | No. 1

Est. Read Time: 10 mins

Though women are generally considered experienced in chicanery and intrigue, they are really not good at constructive plotting. Certainly not where murder is involved. Perhaps it is because they have had too much authority in the home. What they say is accepted by children and husband without argument so they become convinced that the outside world will accept any story they tell in the same fashion. And there is their first big mistake.




A Pennsylvania case of a few years ago provides another illustration of a plot that backfired.

The second week in August, 1940, the family of John Cole, Green County, Pennsylvania, was awakened around eleven o’clock at night by the sound of a woman screaming on the porch of their farmhouse.

Cole hurried to open the door. There stood Mrs. Ada Headley, a neighbor, blood streaking her face, her clothing stained.

”We’ve been held up by gangsters,” she sobbed. “They’ve kidnaped Bob.”

And then she fainted.

After carrying the badly-wounded woman to a couch, Cole made two telephone calls: to Greene County Memorial Hospital and to Sheriff Henry Flowers.

Just before the sheriff arrived, Cole heard hurried footsteps outside his door. It was Bob Headley, who later told Sheriff Flowers the most puzzling story he had heard in many a day.

”We, my wife and son, were returning from a visit to West Virginia,” began Bob Headley. “I stopped the car close to the barn when two men stepped out of the shadows and called ‘Hands up.’ “

One man had quickly stepped behind Headley and poked him in the back with a gun and Headley had handed over his wallet.

The other bandit was covering Mrs. Headley, standing a short distance from her husband. The son, John, was still in the car. Then, suddenly, without any warning, the second bandit began firing at Mrs. Headley.

The poor woman staggered and collapsed.

”Get in the car,” the bandits ordered Headley.

The man, hands high up over his head, had to obey. Then the men saw the boy and told him to get out and go in the house. And they watched the boy until he was inside the door. ,

Headley, in the machine, was ordered to take the wheel while one of them kept him covered. He drove down the road a way, then the bandits ordered him out of the car. That was the last he had seen of them. He had waited until they were out of sight and hurried back. Seeing a light in the Cole house, he had hurried here.

Both men were masked, Headley told the sheriff. Both were middle-size, one larger than the other, rather shabbily dressed. He knew of no reason for the hold-up. He rarely carried large sums of money and he had had only a few dollars with him. Why he had been chosen for a victim, he could not see.

An alarm was sent out immediately for the Headley car. At the hospital Mrs. Headley was put on the operating table. There was one bullet in her jaw, three in her breast and another in her abdomen. In addition, there were fourteen punctures in her intestines, said Dr. Henry Scott.

“It will be a miracle if she pulls through,” Dr. Scott told the sheriff.

Not much could be done until daylight. Then Sheriff Flowers and his colleague, Deputy Sheriff Jack Ohndorf, started out on the hunt for the Headley machine.

Fortunately there had been practically no traffic on the road during the night and the tracks of the Headley car were still clear-cut. The bandits had traveled down toward Kuhntown and Nettle Hill as Headley had said.

But the tire treads stopped abruptly shortly after Headley had been put out of the machine. Now on foot Flowers and Ohndorf tried to find the explanation for the missing prints. And they soon located the Headley car, turned into a side road, Hoover Run Road, concealed from the main route by overhanging trees and thick bushes.

Other tire marks showed the presence of another machine. And the explanation was obvious. The bandits had parked their car here. On their return from the hold-up, they abandoned the Headley car and stepped into their own.



Two details in this mysterious affair stood out. According to Headley, and Mrs. Headley had backed up this detail before going on the operating table, the second bandit began firing at her after her husband had handed over his wallet.

Why? There was no reason for the shooting. Neither husband nor wife had offered any opposition.

Then why kidnap Headley? They didn’t need him as a shield to protect them from the bullets of pursuers. No one else had been around. And why that mile ride in the Headley car? Were they afraid their own machine might be recognized? Were the bandits local people, known to the Headleys?

The watch for the Headley machine was called off. Had anyone seen another car, color and make unknown, on the road around eleven o’clock? Or noticed anything else suspicious during the night?

Constable Ralph Lohr, who also runs a general store on Route 18, was closing up shortly after eleven when he heard a car racing down the road. He watched it. It was a gray sedan. This had been barely a half hour after the hold-up and the machine came from the direction of the Headley place. And for lack of a better clue, a call now went out for the gray sedan.

The sheriff hadn’t much hope of locating the machine. To his great surprise, however, it was found the next day abandoned in a field on the farm of George Bissert, just outside Waynesburg.

The sedan wasn’t Bissert’s. But its license plates quickly identified the owner. It belonged to a Mrs. Otis Cumberledge over at Nettle Hill, a community on a direct line from Pine Bank where the hold-up had taken place.

Mrs. Cumberledge was well-known, a widow with two children, having a hard time making a living since her husband’s death.

She hadn’t used the car the night before. It was usually left on a path that led from the road to her house. Evidently the bandits knew this custom and had simply taken her machine.

The rest of the day was spent by the men under Sheriff Flowers cruising along the roads in the neighborhood of Waynesburg, asking all who lived off it if they had seen the gray sedan. It hadn’t yet been identified as the machine used by the bandits but there was a chance it had been.

The returns were nil. But Deputy Sheriff Ohndorf, his keen eyes skimming over both sides of the road, noticed something unusual in a field off Route 18 close to Nettle Hill. Getting out of his car, he hurdled the fence for a better look.

His hunch was a good one. For here Ohndorf picked up two suits of clothing, one rather small, the other much larger.

But even more intriguing were the two masks underneath. The bandits had worn masks. Were these the clothes they had worn? And why had they discarded these garments and in an open field?

It didn’t make sense. Bandits wouldn’t take the time to change garments, especially within such a short time of the hold-up and so close to it. Their main interest would be in getting as far as possible from the scene.

Sheriff Flowers was by now convinced the shooting of Mrs. Headley was no ordinary hold-up. Nor were the persons involved ordinary bandits. There was something peculiar about the whole affair.

Gossip in a small community often provides an important clue. Sheriff Flowers now let it be known that he was interested in any chit-chat that involved either of the Headleys.

Of Mrs. Headley he heard only the best. She was a devoted wife and mother. Of late, however, she had been much upset. Neighbors had seen her with red eyes, tearful. And local gossip credited her unhappiness to the roving eye of her husband. For that roving eye had lighted on a local widow and stayed there. And the widow was none other than Mrs. Cumberledge.

A couple of years earlier, Bob Headley had been an employee of the Equitable Gas Company and this job brought him along Route 18, close to a gas station the Widow Cumberledge had opened across from her home after the death of her husband.

Headley often stopped here for a chat. The friendship ripened. The two were often seen together in the Headley machine. Mrs. Cumberledge’s family had disapproved; both her mother and sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Pettit, who lived with her, tried to persuade the widow to stop running around with Bob Headley.

But their arguments had not broken up the romance.

Sheriff Flowers now began to wonder if there was any tie-up between this thwarted affair and the surprise hold-up. That Mrs. Headley had been shot and not her husband puzzled him considerably.

The two suits of clothing abandoned by the bandits were worn and shabby. But the garments worn by one gave off an odor, earthy and personal. They had been worn recently, he was sure. And he hoped they might be recognized.

He began showing them to some youths of the neighborhood.

One lad, in his teens, admitted they looked familiar to him. After much persuasion, he added he thought he had seen them on Ellis Cumberledge, the widow’s fourteen-year-old son.



That was enough of a tip. And the sheriff, in his car, headed straight for the Cumberledge home. Had the son, he mused, decided to take matters into his own hands and have it out with Bob Headley? Was the shooting of the wife an accident?

He found Mrs. Cumberledge and her sister together and came quickly to the point. He showed the mother the smaller suit of clothing. It had been identified as belonging to her son.

”I’m going to take Ellis back with me,” he finished. “I think he’s tied up with this hold-up.”

Mrs. Cumberledge began to cry.

“I can’t let you take Ellis,” she sobbed. “He knows nothing whatever.”

”But you do?” interrupted the sheriff.

The woman nodded her head.

In a few minutes she told a story that was to shock the community for many a day.

”We did it, Elizabeth and I,” said Mrs. Cumberledge quietly.

”You two women?” ejaculated the astonished man.

Bob Headley had shown no inclination to divorce his wife and marry the widow. If his wife were dead, they reasoned, he might. And together they worked out the hold-up as a blind, planning to shoot the wife and thus clear the way.

Mrs. Pettit had donned Ellis Cumberledge’s worn suit; Mrs. Cumberledge had put on an old pair of trousers and coat belonging to her late husband. Then the two women drove to the Hoover Run Road, parked their own machine, and walked to the Headley farm to wait for the Headleys’ return from their trip to West Virginia.

”Then you deliberately planned to kill Mrs. Headley?” demanded the astonished sheriff.

Both women nodded.

”Which one of you fired at her?”

Mrs. Pettit spoke up. “I did,” she admitted.

Then came an explanation which provides a sample of the amazing logic, or lack of it, by which some minds arrive at a conclusion.

”My sister thought it wouldn’t be right for her to marry the man whose wife she had shot,” explained Mrs. Pettit. “So I said I would shoot her.”

So pretty and slim Elizabeth Pettit had taken on this task. They each had a pistol. But Mrs. Cumberledge’s had been only a toy. Lest Headley recognize her, she had stood in back of him, pressing her pistol into his back. But Elizabeth Pettit had deliberately aimed the old .22 caliber Iver-Johnson breakdown model revolver which had once belonged to Mrs. Cumberledge’s husband at Mrs. Headley and fired.

Both guns, thrown into a field on the way home, were recovered.

Mrs. Headley recovered. But the two women were held. And despite his denials, Bob Headley was also, the authorities concluded, involved.

In March, 1941, both Mrs. Cumber- ledge and her sister, Mrs. Pettit, were found guilty with the former getting a sentence of from two to six years, the latter, from two to four years.

And the last week in April, a jury decided Bob Headley had known of the plot against his wife and found the husband guilty, sentencing him to a period of three and a half to seven years in prison.

And Waynesburg, satisfied, relaxed.