The case began with a telephone call to the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office in early December 1962.
Lyle McDonald, the newly elected sheriff, took the call and was asked whether a loss claim for a wallet found in a schoolyard near Herrick had been made. The wallet contained $500 and belonged to a man named Tony O’Dell.
The caller said he did not want to get involved, but the sheriff should check some schoolhouse wells in the Herrick area for a body.
After taking all day Sunday and checking three wells, Sheriff McDonald gave up, thinking it was a hoax.
Then the Peoria sheriff, Ray Frank, contacted him. He, too, had received a telephone call. The anonymous caller told the sheriff that the body of Tony O’Dell would be found in a well near Herrick.
Sheriff McDonald then notified the Fayette County sheriff, W. David Brown. Brown, completing his first week in office, headed to Ramsey and with the Ramsey deputy, Harley Rosenberger, initiated a search of school wells near that city.
As chance would have it, the first well they checked was that of the abandoned Sturgeon School five miles northeast of Ramsey.
Even though there did not appear to be recent disturbance of the well covering, the lawmen decided to inspect the well anyway.
Meanwhile, the Ramsey switchboard operator, Elizabeth Donaldson, received an anonymous call telling her that the body of a dead man would be found in the well at Sturgeon School. Ms. Donaldson, in turn, put in a call to Doris Crow, who lived one-quarter of a mile from the old schoolhouse, and asked if there had been a drowning in the school well.
Mrs. Crow, with her 2-year old daughter, Terri, and in-laws, Tony and Vonceal Crow, who happened to be visiting that day, walked down to the school and were there when authorities recovered a body that turned out to be that of a Peoria man named Tony O’Dell.
An attempt to drain the well to search for further evidence failed, because water rushed in too quickly. More equipment was brought in and when they reached the 1-foot level, the pumper entered the well and found only a dead raccoon.
An X-ray taken at Fayette County Hospital showed that the victim had been shot through the temple at close range with a small caliber weapon. Fingerprints would later prove his identity.
Mrs. Crow recalled that until Sheriff Brown visited their home after the discovery of the body, she still thought it was an accidental drowning. As he questioned them about strangers in the area the previous Tuesday night, she became alarmed and then frightened.
That night, her husband, Bill, had been working in their dairy barn and remembered there was an unusual amount of traffic on the road that evening. He also remembered that two cars had stopped at the old schoolhouse site for a fairly long time before speeding away.
As authorities began their inquiry into the identify of the victim, they found that the 32-year old O’Dell was under indictment for his part in a $57,000 mail heist carried out in Peoria the previous August.
O’Dell stood accused of replacing two pouches of cash and securities mailed from the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago with two dummy pouches.
During their investigation, postal inspectors recovered $20,000 cash from the home of William O. Whitlow, who was also under indictment along with Tony O’Dell.
It took a month or two for authorities to figure out where the murder took place, so they could determine which county had jurisdiction for prosecution of the alleged murderers.
On April 30, 1963, a Fayette County grand jury indicted Whitlow, age 32, for murder and a second man, Carl Detienne, alias, Carl Davis, for aiding Whitlow, as a fugitive, following the murder of Tony O’Dell.
Both men were brought to Vandalia and placed in Sheriff Brown’s jail, where they remained for a month before being bailed out. Whitlow entered a plea of not guilty and was released under a $25,000 bond in May 1963. Both he and Davis returned to Peoria.
Their defense attorneys, who flew in to Vandalia for the court appearances, argued that most of the evidence was circumstantial … and won.
Who made the telephone calls? Not one, but four. Why was the well at Sturgeon School chosen to dispose of O’Dell’s body?
Who killed Tony O’Dell?
Mystery surrounds his death and probably always will. What began with a series of telephone calls ended on Feb. 2, 1965, when the state’s attorney filed a motion not to prosecute and dropped the charges against Whitlow and Davis.