By Sean Barron
Special to The Vindicator
NEW CASTLE, PA.
When people hear the expression “The trial of the century,” many undoubtedly think of the infamous 1995 O.J. Simpson double murder trial in Los Angeles. But the phrase often was used to describe another sensational trial nearly seven decades earlier – and much closer to the Mahoning Valley.
“It made national news, the [nationwide police] chase and the two murder trials,” said Bill Warnock of Hookstown, Pa., whose love of history sparked his interest in the cases of Irene C. Schroeder and W. Glenn Dague, who were convicted in the 1929 killing of a Pennsylvania state trooper near New Castle and sentenced to death.
At least 20 newspapers from across the country as well as the Associated Press and numerous foreign correspondents covered Schroeder’s first-degree murder trial in March 1930, the Beaver County (Pa.) Times reported in February 2011. Among those in the press corps was future longtime TV personality Ed Sullivan, then a syndicated columnist with the New York Daily News.
Locally, a Youngstown Vindicator reporter named Ella K. Resch covered the Schroeder trial, but was charged with contempt of court when she was called to testify and refused to reveal her sources for a story she had written, with the headline “Life of Irene Schroeder,” which also was published in other newspapers. When she refused to answer, presiding Judge R.L. Hildebrand sentenced Resch to jail.
A while later – and after having remained in the Lawrence County jail – Resch was given a second opportunity to reveal where she had obtained her information but again dug in and refused to do so.
Also reinforcing Warnock’s desire to learn more about the tragedy and the key players is the fact that his father, Theodore Warnock, a 27-year-old auto mechanic from East Brook, Pa., served on the jury that had convicted Schroeder.
Warnock recently shared his knowledge and insights of the long-ago case while next to a headstone that was dedicated to 25-year-old Cpl. Brady C. Paul of the Pennsylvania Highway Patrol, who was killed in a shootout with Dague, Schroeder and her brother, Thomas Coleman, on New Castle Road, now Old Butler Road, in Shenango Township. The headstone marks the spot where Paul, a four-year veteran of the department, was gunned down along the road, which at the time was the only connector between Butler, Pa., and New Castle.
Warnock also had on hand a copy of the 2013 book on the case, titled “Family Secrets & Lies,” by D.J. Everette, who is Schroeder’s granddaughter.
According to reports, Dague, 33, Schroeder, 20, and Coleman had robbed the P.H. Butler Co. grocery store in Butler at gunpoint Dec. 27, 1929, after having driven to the area from Wheeling, W.Va., where she and Coleman had relatives.
Paul and another state trooper, Ernest C. Moore, who was in an attached sidecar, set up a roadblock on New Castle Road about three miles east of downtown New Castle after having received a description of the two-door green Chevrolet containing the robbers. Soon after the holdup, Paul’s boss, Sgt. Martin J. Crowley of the state police, passed along what information he had to the trooper, who was dispatched to the area on his motorcycle on the assumption that they were headed his way.
Paul and Moore stopped several cars, but when one matching the description of the suspects’ vehicle arrived, Paul asked Dague for his driver’s license and to step out of the car while Moore checked the rear license plate. Within seconds, Crawford, who was in the back seat, shot Moore in the face before Schroeder and Dague fired at Paul, hitting him three times. As Paul returned fire, they sped away.
Also in the car was Schroeder’s 4-year-old son, Donnie.
Moments after the shooting, a local truck driver helped Paul into his truck and drove him back to New Castle. Moore survived his injuries, but Paul died a short time later in Jameson Memorial Hospital in that city.
“Tell the boys I did my duty; tell them I did the best I could. You will soon see Mother, because I am dying. Kiss Mother goodbye for me,” Paul was quoted as saying just before his death.
After the shooting, the fugitives continued on to New Castle, where they carjacked a salesman, stole his Chrysler sedan near Cascade Street and left their bullet-riddled vehicle behind. The first of several pieces of evidence police found in the Chevrolet was a receipt for a scarf bought at a Wheeling department store and, after following up, authorities learned that the clerk had sold the item to a regular customer, Irene Schroeder, according to reports.
At the beginning of their run from the law, Schroeder and Dague left Donnie with relatives near Wheeling and nearby Bellaire, Ohio, and dropped Coleman off in the same area. Then they headed west and committed a series of hold-ups for a little extra cash – and didn’t hesitate to shoot it out with any law-enforcement officer who got in their way.
“They were essentially a poor man’s Bonnie & Clyde, robbing grocery stores, diners [and] filling stations in small-time jobs, seldom netting more than $100 a job,” wrote Robert Walsh, a freelance true-crime writer from West Cornwall, England.
Nevertheless, it was Schroeder’s 4-year-old son who would be his mother’s undoing.
“Mommy shot a cop like you,” the youngster reportedly told an officer from the Pennsylvania state police who had acted on the department-store tip four days after Paul’s killing. “Uncle Tom [Coleman] shot another in the head. He shot right through the windshield.”
By Jan. 4, 1930, the wanted fugitives had made it to St. Louis, the home of her brother, Arthur Crawford, but their arrival was anything but uneventful. After an officer named William Kiessling had stopped them for driving too slowly, Dague reportedly shot at him three times and, during a struggle between them, Schroeder fired two shots as Dague knocked the officer unconscious. He received a minor injury in the fight with Dague, but somehow was not hit in the shooting.
After stealing Kiessling’s service revolver, the pair continued through the southern Plains states, robbing gas stations and picking up hitchhikers.
By mid-January, Schroeder and Dague had reached Arizona, but it wasn’t long before two law-enforcement officers would have the misfortune of crossing paths with them. When a Pinal County sheriff’s deputy spotted Schroeder at a gas station, she and Dague took him hostage at gunpoint before the fugitives reached Chandler, Ariz., where they shot the deputy and tossed him from the car during their escape, according to some accounts.
In another shootout, they killed a Maricopa County sheriff’s deputy before abandoning their car and hiding in a cave in the Estrella Mountains near Chandler. There, Dague and Schroeder engaged authorities in another gun battle before finally surrendering and being extradited Jan. 21 by train to New Castle to face first-degree murder charges in the Paul killing, according to Lawrence County historical records.
Three or four days later, Schroeder and Dague arrived at the Pennsylvania & Lake Erie Railroad train station near New Castle and were greeted by a crowd of several thousand who had assembled to catch a glimpse of the infamous duo, the account says.
“They basically waved the white flag,” Warnock said of their surrender, noting that they likely gave up because they ran out of ammunition.
By most accounts, the deck was stacked against Schroeder early on.
The youngest of eight siblings lost her mother – who apparently had tried to abort her – when Schroeder was 8, and much of her childhood was spent in poverty and being shipped from relative to relative.
The Benwood, W.Va., native married at age 15, but less than two years later, Schroeder’s husband, Homer, left her (some accounts contend she walked out on him). For a while, she worked as a server in a Wheeling restaurant.
Dague, by contrast, seemed to live an ordinary if not respectable life.
Before turning to a life of crime, he had been a World War I veteran, a devoted father of two young children, a used-car salesman, a Sunday school teacher and a Boy Scout leader and Scoutmaster.
But as fate would have it, the two met in August 1927 – literally by accident – when Dague unintentionally bumped Schroeder with his car as she crossed a Wheeling street, then insisted on getting her to a nearby hospital or home. Soon after, they began a two-year affair.
While together – during which time Dague had left his family permanently in April 1929 – the two apparently drifted between Pennsylvania, Ohio and several other states, where they scraped by working odd jobs that included everything from selling washing machines and cars to trimming trees. By most accounts, their patchwork of employment failed to pay the bills, and soon after Dague and Schroeder decided to rob small stores and gas stations in Ohio, Kentucky and elsewhere.
The Dec. 27, 1929, holdup at the Butler grocery store was the latest in the lovers’ string of robberies – and the one that led to the ill-fated encounter with Brady Paul.
In separate trials, Dague and Schroeder were found guilty of first-degree murder in the Paul killing and given the death penalty. On Feb. 23, 1931, both were executed at the Rockview Penitentiary in Bellefonte, Pa. The 22-year-old Schroeder, who also had acquired nicknames such as “Iron Irene” and “The gun girl,” was the first woman put to death in the state’s electric chair.
After the trial and executions, Schroeder’s 4-year-old son, Donnie, lived for a while with his father, who had remarried. As an adult, he joined the Air Force, where he became a decorated military veteran for his service as a gunner in the Korean War, according to D.J. Everette, one of his daughters and author of “Secrets & Lies.” Later, he studied engineering, moved to Florida and worked on several space missions for NASA.
In December 2009, the man who evidently had spent most of his life painstakingly distancing himself from the past and trying to forget the fateful car ride died at age 84.
Warnock said it remains a mystery to him why his father had a change of heart that led the elder Warnock to send Pennsylvania Gov. Gifford Pinchot a telegram asking him to spare Schroeder’s life – even after having been on the jury that voted for the death penalty. The telegram’s whereabouts are unknown, Warnock continued, adding that in many ways, Dague’s and Schroeder’s crimes mirror those of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, famously known as Bonnie and Clyde, a few years later.
Also interested in the decades-old case was John R. Baldwin of Volant, Pa., whose father, Leal Baldwin, was 12 and living on New Castle Road when he witnessed the roadblock.
“He had never talked about it,” Baldwin said of his father. “I never knew about it until he was older and did more research. As a child, he was too young to be called in as a witness or to serve on a jury.”
Nevertheless, another relative later testified that Schroeder had indeed shot Paul, Baldwin continued.
Warnock’s father also was tight-lipped about the case, except to dispel rumors that someone other than Dague and Schroeder could have gunned down the young trooper.
Paul is buried in Mount Prospect Cemetery in his native Washington County, Pa., where some of his descendants still live, Warnock continued, adding that Dague is buried in a family plot near Dallas, W.Va.
Even in death, however, Dague continued to generate controversy.
His headstone faced the opposite direction as those of the rest of his family, evidently to express their disappointment, though a second inscription was eventually added to the other side of the headstone, Warnock noted.
Schroeder’s final resting place is in Greenwood Cemetery in Bellaire, but curiosity seekers who visit the property looking for her tombstone or for other macabre reasons likely will leave disappointed and empty-handed, Warnock said.
“She has no marker, nothing,” he added.