A Very Cold Case

The brutal 1961 murder of patrolman Donald Martin haunted generations of Cincinnati Police Officers. Until two detectives dug into the case with open minds.

On the wall of the main auditorium at the Cincinnati Police Academy in Lower Price Hill, a line of plaques depicts a morbid fraternity. Portraits of officers slain in the line of duty cast watchful eyes over the new recruits as they prepare to take their places in the thin blue line. In 1981, when I entered the academy, the display featured photographs. Our instructors explained the simple purpose behind the photos: Study the facts surrounding each officer’s death, we were told. Learn from these tragedies.

Back then, the first photo in the lineup was of a handsome young man with dark hair topped with a white police cap. His face bears an affable smile under kind brown eyes open wide with apparent anticipation. His name is Donald Martin. As a young recruit, I found Martin’s photograph far more disturbing than any of the others. Our instructors explained the details of each officer’s slaying and the conclusion of each case; only Martin’s murder was unsolved. It stayed that way until last year.

In February 2005, two homicide detectives pulled the Martin file from cold-case storage. There are, of course, remarkable forensic tools not available to law enforcement in 1961 that sometimes help investigators solve cold cases today. But this 44-year-old mystery did not give up its secrets that easily. So the officers took a journey into the past, recreating a murder scene that has long since disappeared, retracing the footsteps (and missteps) of a dormant investigation, and probing a family’s dark history. In the end, they solved the murder of Donald Martin—a crime committed before they were born.

On the evening of March 10, 1961, patrolman Donald Martin was excited when he reported to work. Life was changing for the 29-year-old west-sider. That winter, Martin and his wife, Gail, had applied to become adoptive parents through the Protestant Orphan Home. Now the two had great news: They were getting a baby.

Adding a child to the family would require a larger car, which is why Martin asked his supervisor, Sergeant Hike Bogosian, if he could visit some of the car lots on his beat if the night proved quiet. Sergeant Bogosian gave his permission. He knew that Martin’s presence on the neighborhood’s car lots meant he’d be doing extra security checks at the same time—all the better for local businesses. Martin’s beat was the Pendleton neighborhood, which lies along Reading Road northeast of downtown. Back then, I-71 was nonexistent, railroad tracks ran where the expressway stands today, and Reading Road was a major thoroughfare into the city. It was a good place to have an upscale auto dealership, and one of the businesses located there was Downtown Lincoln-Mercury.

At around 3 a.m., Martin notified the police dispatcher from his in-car radio that he was out of the cruiser checking the southern end of Reading Road near downtown. Today there’s a Staples office supply store and the I-471 entrance ramp on the east side of the road; in 1961 the block held the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) building at 721 Reading, the Lincoln-Mercury dealership at 715, and a parking lot in between. That’s where the mystery began.

Just minutes after Martin’s call to the dispatcher, a carload of young men, returning home from a night of gambling in Newport, witnessed an event that would haunt them for years. “We were in my friend’s car. I was on the passenger side in the back when we heard a couple of shots, two or three, I don’t remember,” says Harold Stiver, one of the witnesses. “I remember the guy standing behind the officer when I first spotted him. The officer had his hands up in the air like he was begging for his life, and the guy lowered the gun at full arm’s length, point blank range, and shot him.”

Shocked, the young men turned the car around to help the fallen patrolman. “[The suspect] fired a shot toward us that went through the back window of a car close to where we were,” Stiver remembers. “I jumped out and flagged down a police car that was coming by.”

According to one of the officers on the scene, Martin muttered a few words, but the only thing the officer could understand was “I’ve had it.” Martin was admitted to General Hospital (now University Hospital) with multiple gunshot wounds at 3:19 a.m. and rushed into surgery. At 5 a.m., almost two hours into the operation, the surgeon pronounced Donald Martin dead.

Harold Stiver, now 69, retired, and living in Florida, still pities the police officer he saw brutally murdered so long ago. “It wasn’t like it was a gunfight or anything,” he says. “It was cold-blooded.”

Donald Martin was born in Kentucky on May 4, 1931, to Claude and Allie Martin. He attended the Ohio Mechanics Institute, then enlisted in the Army in 1948. He served in the 1st Cavalry Division in Tokyo, followed by 12 months of combat duty in Korea, earning the rank of corporal, the Korean Service Medal, and three Bronze Stars. Discharge came in 1952, and four years later he became Patrolman Don Martin. According to his application to join the police department, he was a shade under six feet and a shade over 200 pounds, and he enjoyed baseball, swimming, reading, and “working around the house.” Martin found his calling with the police department. “He was just a great, clean-cut guy, a real team worker who always got the job done with no excuses,” says 86-year-old Hike Bogosian, who was Martin’s immediate supervisor. “Don ran a tough beat [and] he was a good policeman. You wished you would have had eight or ten like him.”

Don and Gail Martin married in 1954 and bought a home on Foley Road, a quiet Price Hill street. By the spring of 1961, Gail had resigned her job—she was secretary to Chief of Detectives Lieutenant Colonel Henry Sandman—in anticipation of becoming a full-time mother.

The handsome young officer had endeared himself to neighbors. “He was king of the neighborhood,” says Bob Ellerman, then the Martins’ 8-year-old neighbor. “He always had a smile on his face; he’d take the time to do things like throw a ball with us, and he was always playing pranks on us. I remember how excited he was to be adopting a baby. He’d shown us kids the nursery he and his wife had prepared.”

Martin appeared on the Ellermans’ front porch before leaving for work on March 10. “He said he had good news,” says Gene Ellerman, Bob’s father. “He said ‘We’re bringing the baby home next week.’ ” The elder Ellerman offered congratulations and suggested they have a drink to celebrate. “No,” Ellerman says Martin told him, “I have to work tonight, but I’ll have a Coke.” It was the last time the Ellerman family saw him alive.

By sunrise on March 11, teams of officers were combing every inch of the car dealership and surrounding area for clues. The department poured every available resource into the investigation, and scores of off-duty officers joined in. The lot where the killing occurred yielded evidence of a violent struggle between Martin and his assailant. A copper Cincinnati Police uniform button, torn from the officer’s jacket, was found where police believed the confrontation began. Near it was an ordinary white button, assumed to be the perpetrator’s. There was a red thread hanging from it—a clue that eventually pointed to the gunman’s escape route. Based on the witnesses’ account, the location of the torn-away buttons, and the spot where Martin was found, investigators surmised Martin encountered the perpetrator on the car lot. A struggle ensued and the officer was somehow disarmed and shot three times with his own revolver. Martin was trying to make it to his vehicle to call for help when he was shot again in the back, then finally in the head behind his left ear.

Northwest of the scene in Mt. Auburn, on a street made up mostly of five-story apartment buildings, the big break seemed to come. In the alley behind 542 Dandridge, a patrolman spotted the butt end of Martin’s revolver sticking out of a garbage can. Detectives converged on the alley. Going through more garbage cans, they found a gray jacket and a red and white flannel shirt wrapped in a white pillowcase. The shirt was minus one white button. “When we find the owner of the shirt and jacket,” Chief of Detectives Henry Sandman told reporters, “we’ll have the killer.”

Police followed up on scores of tips and clues. Investigators checked the tags in the shirt and pillowcase, trying to narrow the search to patrons of a specific dry cleaner or clothing store, but that proved fruitless. An FBI analysis of hairs found in the shirt pocket only confused matters. The FBI said the hairs belonged to an African American but the car full of witnesses clearly described a white suspect. Police flooded the city with flyers containing information on the crime and photographs of the killer’s jacket and shirt in hopes a citizen could match the clothing to an individual. Nothing significant came to light.

Martin’s funeral was held at Concordia Lutheran Church at 1524 Race St. in Over-the-Rhine on March 14, 1961. The Times Star quoted the eulogy offered by the Reverend Arthur Scheidt. “This was no monster who committed this crime,” he said. “It was a man. One of us here might be a friend or relative of the man who stooped so low as to commit this crime, which so tragically ended the life of Don Martin.” His tribute might have been interpreted as an entreaty for one of those friends or relatives to come forward with information. But no one did.

Days turned into months and, eventually, to years. Lt. Colonel Sandman even sought help from true-crime magazines—one way to reach crime-curious citizens back in the days before television shows like America’s Most Wanted. In the August 1963 issue of True Detective Magazine, Sandman is quoted as saying, “The Patrolman Donald Martin case is over two years old. Hundreds of leads have been followed without success. This case, like all other unsolved murders, will remain active and any new leads will be vigorously pursued. The best hope for the apprehension of Patrolman Martin’s killer is some information not yet revealed to our police department.” He then asked the magazine’s readers for any leads or information they could provide.

In 1965, the Martin killing officially became a cold case when records from the investigation were moved into the file catacombs locked deep in the basement of Cincinnati Police District Four in North Avondale. But even though the file was out of sight, the murder took on a life of its own, achieving folklore status within the department, with speculation and stories passed from generation to generation.

The most persistent of these was that the killer was a criminal named Frank Murph. The theory was born in April 1961, when an anonymous source mailed a newspaper article from the Cincinnati Enquirer with a note that suggested police look at Murph for the Martin murder. The article reported that Murph, 30, of Mt. Auburn, had been sentenced to nine months in the Workhouse and a $900 fine for violently resisting arrest when caught shoplifting from the Kroger store on Madison Road. One sentence near the end of the article got everyone’s attention: “Murph was arrested after a struggle in which he disarmed Patrolman Raymond Davis.”

Murph as a suspect must have seemed to make sense. He’d tried to disarm another officer and he lived in the neighborhood where Martin was shot. The story that circulated among officers was that Murph was black, but light-skinned, which could have explained the discrepancy between the hair samples in the shirt pocket and the witnesses’ description.

In reality, Homicide Lieutenant Charles Martin (no relation to Donald) had investigated the Frank Murph lead after the tip came in, just a month after Martin’s murder. What he found was that Murph couldn’t have killed the officer because he was in jail when it happened. Lt. Martin noted his findings in the ever-growing mound of paperwork generated by the Martin case, but because he died suddenly in 1962, he wasn’t around to set people straight when Murph’s name was repeatedly added to the Martin murder legend. As a result, to most police officers, Frank Murph remained a likely suspect—especially after 1965, when he was shot and killed trying to disarm a police officer after a botched robbery in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

There were other theories and speculation about Donald Martin’s murder, but nothing was ever substantiated. The unsolved case left a frustrated hollowness in officers of every generation.

Detectives Jeff Schare and Kurt Ballman happened to be on duty in February 2005 when a small, fragile-looking woman with a disturbing story came into the homicide squad offices downtown. The woman’s health was failing and she told the detectives she needed to ease her conscience about something her former husband said four decades ago. She was a young bride back then—a newlywed who quickly discovered her husband to be a violent alcoholic. She learned to fear the man’s drunken rages, a fact that was magnified one night when, during a whiskey-induced rant, he told the tale of how he had “once shot a cop.”

Schare and Ballman listened intently as the woman related how her now-ex-husband said that he and an accomplice were breaking into a train car in a Cincinnati railroad yard when they were confronted by “a figure in the shadows.” Assuming they were caught by a police officer, both men pulled pistols and fired, shooting the victim. “If you ever tell anyone, I’ll fucking kill you!” he told the terrified woman. The threat had silenced her for years.

The woman said she’d been married in 1963, and she thought the incident had occurred a few years before that. Even though Donald Martin had died before they were born, the detectives had heard the stories about his murder and went in search of the file. “If God had a hand in it, if there was divine intervention, this was it,” says Ballman. “The first box we looked in was marked ‘miscellaneous homicides.’ The first file we pulled read ‘Patrolman Donald Martin Homicide.’”

Reviewing the details, it was quickly apparent that the aging woman’s confessional was not about the Martin case, and they could find no record of similar unsolved crimes in the area in the early 1960s. It appeared that the husband’s drunken tale was just that—a fabrication. But for detectives Schare and Ballman, it was the beginning of a new investigation—one they were going to own. “When we were going through the evidence,” recalls Ballman, “I pulled out Don’s uniform and police hat and realized it’s the same kind we wear today. I got teary-eyed. I knew we had to give it a shot.”

Schare and Ballman have a lot in common. Partners on the Homicide Squad for four years, both were born in May 1963, both graduated from the same police academy class 15 years ago, both hold advanced degrees from the University of Cincinnati, both are experts in the martial arts, and both “hate to lose,” says Schare. That’s where the similarities end. Kurt Ballman stands 6’5″ with muscular girth to match. He has an easy smile and is not afraid to share his emotions. At 5’7″, Jeff Schare is compact and wiry. Schare’s businesslike demeanor belies the nickname “Pee Wee” given to him by coworkers who’ve noticed a similarity in his appearance to Pee Wee Herman. For these detectives, “giving it a shot” meant starting from scratch. Simply going through the file alerted them to holes in the Martin lore. For one thing, they realized that despite the enduring stories, Frank Murph had been cleared four decades ago. “Once we destroyed the myth that it wasn’t the person everybody assumed,” says Schare, “it gave us the resolve to believe we could solve this case.”

They ignored hearsay; they also reconsidered previous leads that had been labeled dead ends. They examined every piece of evidence and every shred of documentation they could find and turned to forensic tools developed since the early 1960s. Still, a contemporary technique for recovering fingerprints on fabric failed to produce anything usable from Martin’s uniform jacket; even the “Super Glue” fingerprint process—in which vapors from the adhesive can reveal latent prints—failed to retrieve anything definitive from the murder weapon.

This was the first cold case either of them had ever worked, and it was frustrating. “One of the things about being a homicide detective [is] you always want to go to the scene,” Ballman says. “Being that the scene in this case is completely changed, we just couldn’t get a feel for it. That’s when Jeff got the idea to find retired detectives who had actually worked the case.”

Now 73 years old, Jerry Schimpf was a young detective working out of the Juvenile Bureau in 1962, almost a year after Don Martin’s murder. Schimpf had gone to a downtown diner where the mother of a rape suspect worked, hoping the suspect would show up. When a group of young men came in, Schimpf recognized the suspect among them, so he snuck out the back door, came in through the front, and sat down at the group’s table. He told the suspect he was under arrest. The suspect’s brother decided to play tough. “You think you can take all of us?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Schimpf responded, “but you better look under the table. You’re first.”

The kid glanced under the table and, noticing Schimpf’s pistol pointed in his direction, decided to change his tack. “Do you think you can help my brother out if I give you the name of a cop killer?”

Walter Baker Walls was the name Schimpf received. Walls, a 29-year-old who lived in Over-the-Rhine, had a long criminal record and a propensity for tough talk. He told one girlfriend that he was a member of Satan’s Disciples, a motorcycle gang with a bad reputation, and he bragged to friends and family that he had ties to organized crime in Newport.

Schimpf took Walls’s name to Lt. Colonel Sandman. Sandman in turn assigned Schimpf to work on the case with veteran homicide detective Will “Staggie” Stagenhorst. Stagenhorst and Schimpf traveled to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, where Walter Walls was serving time for a parole violation from a burglary conviction. Short and stocky with slicked-back black hair, Walls looked remarkably similar to the sketch that the police artist had drawn from the witnesses’ descriptions. So similar, in fact, the detective’s next move was to bring Stiver and his friends to the Ohio Penitentiary for a positive identification. “He sure looked like the guy,” Stiver remembers. “I just couldn’t be 100 percent sure.” The abandoned clothing also fit Walls, who persistently denied knowledge of the crime. Walls agreed to a lie detector test, which, according to Schimpf, he “failed miserably.” But that’s where the investigation stalled.

“Will Stagenhorst was convinced it was Walter Walls, but didn’t have enough back then to prove it,” says Schare. “They just didn’t have any solid physical evidence, the witnesses weren’t sure, and nobody in the Walls family would talk for fear of Walter.”

Time passed and no charges were brought. Jerry Schimpf left the police department in 1967 and became an attorney. Will Stagenhorst retired from police work in May 1965 and died in 1992. Ballman and Schare had the Martin case file, but the file Schimpf and Stagenhorst had kept on Walls was missing. They speculate that Stagenhorst took the Walls file with him for safekeeping when he retired. That wasn’t unusual at the time; often detectives felt protective of unsolved cases and wanted to hold onto their records so they would not be lost. Ironically, that’s exactly what Schare and Ballman think happened when Stagenhorst died—the file was probably discarded, and with it, the history of Walls as a suspect.

Today Jerry Schimpf can’t explain why Walter Walls’s name didn’t attach itself to the department’s chatter about the murder in the 1960s. “I think it kind of fell through the cracks when Staggie retired,” he says now. For years, apparently satisfied with the story of Frank Murph, no one knew to associate Walls with the case. The job for Schare and Ballman, then, was to find all the bits that “fell through the cracks” and piece together the puzzle.

Released from prison in 1963, Walter Baker Walls continued life on the fringes of the criminal justice system, including involvement in the 1969 murder of his wife, Ann Walls, at the hands of his girlfriend, Brenda Anders. He died of cancer in 2002, but not before leaving a legacy of threats and violence.

Schare and Ballman identified and tracked down anyone they could associate with the case—family members, friends, and any police officers and witnesses who might know anything. Their first interview was with Walter Walls’s daughter, Anna Dove. It was an auspicious beginning. When the detectives identified themselves and asked if they could talk with her, Dove immediately blurted out, “This isn’t about my dad killing a cop, is it?”

Dove told Schare and Ballman that she was a teenager when Brenda Anders shot her mother. Dove was there when it happened, and as a witness to the murder she became the object of her father’s wrath because he feared her testimony in court. Dove told Schare and Ballman of an encounter where Walls grabbed her, pulled her down an alley, held a handgun to her head and said, “I’ll fucking kill you just like I killed that cop!”

The two detectives worked their way through interviews with the rest of Walter Walls’s children and other family members. No longer cowed by the violent man, they recounted how, through the years, Walter often bragged that he had “killed a cop.” William Walls, Walter’s brother, told Ballman and Schare that Walter said he was trying to break into a car on a dealership lot to steal a battery when he was confronted by a police officer. According to William, Walter said that he was able to get the officer’s gun and shoot him. William also claimed that when it happened, Walter said he was with another Walls brother (Jesse, now deceased) and an associate nicknamed Cadillac Charlie. Walter later told William, “You won’t be seeing [Cadillac Charlie] anymore. He’s in a shallow grave.”

Eventually the two detectives tracked down Brenda Anders, Walter Walls’s one-time girlfriend, who had served eight years in the Ohio Women’s Reformatory in Marysville for the murder of Anna Walls. Anders recalled Walter talking about killing a cop and told them that he even pointed to a particular house on River Road, identifying it as the place where he murdered Cadillac Charlie because he was an eyewitness to the killing. Brenda and Walter parted ways when she was convicted of Anna Walls’s murder in 1969. Initially charged with complicity to murder, Walter avoided jail by agreeing to testify for the prosecution.

Schare says that in their conversation, Anders also insisted that Anna’s murder was another of Walter’s brutal acts. “This man just totally had me hypnotized or something,” she told the detective. “The psychiatrist said that he totally had me brainwashed.”

In the end, Ballman and Schare determined that Walls and two accomplices—his brother, Jesse James Walls, and Charles “Cadillac Charlie” Jillson—were responsible for the murder of Donald Martin during the early morning hours of March 11, 1961. Here’s the scenario they pieced together:

While Donald Martin worked his shift, brothers Walter and Jesse James Walls were hanging out at Ozzie’s, a bar at the corner of 13th Street and Reading Road. They were walking that night because neither had a car in running condition. To remedy the situation, Walter called his friend Jillson, who lived in Covington, for a ride. Jillson picked up the brothers and Walter suggested driving around downtown to see if he could locate a suitable car battery to steal. The trio decided to try the Downtown Lincoln-Mercury dealership. While Walter got out of the car and headed onto the lot, Jesse stood on the sidewalk as a lookout and Cadillac Charlie waited in his car. As soon as Walter found a vehicle with a battery he wanted, he popped the hood and went to work removing it.

Around 3 a.m., Don Martin pulled his patrol car onto the Nabisco parking lot next door to Downtown Lincoln-Mercury. He walked up a ramp onto the car lot, browsing the available automobiles. When he saw Walter Walls tampering with a vehicle, he confronted him. Walls became violent and a fight ensued. Martin was wearing his uniform cross-draw holster with his issued .38 caliber revolver. In this close-quarter struggle, Martin had to reach across his abdomen to get at the firearm. But the pistol was already near Walls’s right hand, making it easy for him to seize. Martin assuredly felt the chill every cop fears—the criminal had the drop on him. Walls grabbed the gun and shot Martin in the chest. Wounded, Martin turned and ran for the police cruiser. Walls pursued, shooting him twice more in the back. The officer faltered, his knees buckled, and he began to fall to the ground. Walls caught up, shot him in the back again, and finally, execution style, delivered a fifth shot to the back of Martin’s head.

Right about then, Walls noticed a car on Reading Road slow down to get a view of the scene. Cadillac Charlie was nowhere to be found; he apparently left in a panic. Walls felt trapped and fired a shot at the witnesses’ vehicle, blowing the rear window out of a parked car. While the witnesses’ car slowly proceeded up Reading Road and turned around to go back to the fallen officer, Walter Walls ran across Reading Road and up some pedestrian steps to Dandridge Street, where he dumped his clothing and Martin’s revolver into trash cans. By now the four witnesses were at the scene, where they saw Jesse Walls, who had come over to look at the mortally wounded officer before running east through the Nabisco lot toward the railroad tracks.

In his official review of the Donald Martin homicide investigation, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters writes: “…based on the statement of the surviving eyewitness to the shooting, as well as statements made to family members of Walter Walls over the years, there is a reasonable likelihood of a conviction for aggravated murder against Walter Walls were this evidence presented to a jury…. Although we cannot bring criminal charges against Walls, I hope your investigation…brings some sense of closure to the family of Patrolman Martin.”

Gail Martin eventually remarried and left Cincinnati. Late in 2005, Police Chief Tom Streicher located her. “There’s no doubt that this helped her healing process after 40 years,” Streicher says. “It was obvious to me that this offered her some sense of comfort, that finally there was closure to a very difficult part of her life.” Schare and Ballman are still on the force and have received much-deserved recognition for closing the Martin case.

Donald Martin lies in a neatly manicured section of Arlington Memorial Gardens in Springfield Township. He is surrounded by his mother and other family in a plot beneath a mature black walnut tree, which was probably only a sapling when he was interred there. His headstone carries a brass disc bearing the seal of the Fraternal Order of Police, and upon it the motto “Justidus / Libertatum”—“Justice and Liberty.”

Were justice and liberty served too late for Don Martin? Perhaps not. Streicher says that Martin’s case suggests there can be value in examining a suspect’s family lore, even when a case has been unsolved for generations. This summer, he presented the Martin investigation to the Major City Chiefs Association as an example of a new approach to cold case investigation. “If it provides dividends somewhere around the country, then he really didn’t die in vain,” Streicher says. “Maybe it’s Don Martin’s contribution to policing and society some 40-plus years later.”

Kurt Ballman and Jeff Schare take pride in solving the 44-year-old murder of a brother officer. Their only regret is the lack of the final piece of the puzzle: a judge and jury announcing “guilty” face to face with Walter Baker Walls.

Originally published in the August 2006 issue. Photograph courtesy of Cincinnati Police Department.

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