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Mildred McConnell's Scrapbook Articles

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Super Cop Kept Word

Reprinted from Master Detective, April 1957

Stocky, 200-pound Kelly H. "Bear" Darnell stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of the Clinchport post office. Gradually he turned his face northward and allowed his deep-sunk, piercing, steel-blue eyes to survey the Saturday morning brightness, of the little Blue Ridge mountain town. Encompassed by towering hills, the old village lay as calm as the Clinch River that curved placidly along its far edge

Seeing that all was well, the town sergeant lit a cigarette, blowing smoke against the pulled-down brim of his old creased Stetson. The sergeant suddenly jerked to dutiful attention, alerted by the excessive speed of an oncoming vehicle. He was about to step into the street and flag down the drive when the operator cut in at the curb and brought the car to a grinding halt. Sergeant Darnell recognized the man as one of his longtime friends, who lived on a farm some five miles south of Clinchport.

"Bear!"  the farmer almost shouted.  "Something's wrong at Charlie Johnson's place. His cattle are out. Last night they got in my cornfield and just about ruined it. I went to Charlie's house, but he's not there. We hollered and shouted. We looked in at the windows. He's not in the house. Least ways, we didn't see him anywhere."

"Okay."  Sergeant Darnell said, holding his exterior calm.  "Get back in your car. I'll follow in mine."

Town Sergeant Darnell had come to be loved throughout the hills and respected because of his performance at a job for which the pay was relatively small. A broken leg, incurred in an accident some seven years before, had put an unfortunate end to a profitable and responsible position. Now, in his 50s, he was a "small town cop" with a bum leg.

Bear Darnell directed his attention along the winding road and brought his vehicle to a stop at the picket fence in front of the home of Charles Frank Johnson. The neighbor, his face paled by apprehension, stood holding the yard gate open.

The burly officer strode to what he knew was a bedroom window in the one-story house, cupped his hands against the glass and peered inside. The morning sum showed a disordered double bed and general disarray in the room, which struck Darnell as unusual, for Charlie Johnson was considered neat in his habits.

After his eyes had grown accustomed to the interior, Darnell noticed the trousers piled on a chair and a pocket turned inside out. The bachelor's gold watch was on a bedside table, the gold link chain dangling over the edge. Darnell said somberly, "Let's go inside.  Maybe he's had a spell somewhere. In the kitchen maybe."

But a hurried exploration of the rooms failed to produce Charlie Johnson. The officer, now alarmed and sensing the worst, cautioned, "Don't touch anything in the house, particularly in the bedroom. The way things look right now, if anybody harmed Charlie the trail started in the bedroom". We don't want to mess up anything." While the neighbor stood obediently aside, Bear Darnell thoroughly checked the bedroom which obviously had been the scene of abnormal activity. The drawers of the bureau and a chest had been opened and apparently rifled. In the closet, the pockets of several of Johnson's coats and trousers had been turned out, as had the pockets of a dress coat that hung on the back of a rocker and the matching trousers on a straight chair.

"Charlie must have been all dressed up and just come back from a date," the neighbor ventured.

"He didn't have time to put his good clothes away before ---"

"Now," Darnell raised a reproving hand, we're not sure yet that anything worrisome has happened to Charlie."

The officer clung to that hope, in view of the absence of blood in the bedroom, or anywhere else in the house. But he was deeply disturbed by what his keen eyes had spotted on one of the two bed pillows. Several long strands of golden hair gleamed against the white linen. Charlie Johnson's hair was raven black, the sergeant knew.

Now he left the house and crossed the narrow gravel road that split the property, moving rapidly toward the ancient log barn. A roan mare stood disconsolately in the lot, switching at bothersome flies, and inside a stall another horse champed irritably. Bear Darnell's knowing ears caught the sound and knew the animal wanted feed.

As Darnell stepped under the high shed roof that jutted from the west side of the barn, he stopped short. Sight of the blood, splattered. about waist high beside the wall ladder to the hay loft, froze him in his tracks. Cautiously, the officer climbed the ladder and eased his head into, the loft. expecting to see his friend dead in the hay. He found a great deal of blood and bits of flesh on the golden hay, but no Charlie Johnson.

He descended the ladder and began inspecting the dry earth beside the shed. Two slow, short steps beyond the ladder and he saw the six-inch spot of thickened blood .

"What's the trouble, Bear?" the neighbor asked tensely from beyond the shed.

They were about to enter the barn proper when Darnell noticed the green, wilted weed stalks scattered on a pile of wide planks close to the barn wall. Strange, he thought. that tall weeds had been pulled from outside the lot and heaped there. Then he saw, between two of the planks, the shoe.

Quickly, their sense of horror mounting, the two men lifted the planks away and stared aghast at the riddled, swollen body of Charlie Johnson, half-buried in the barn dust with a gaping hole under his right shoulder blade. Sadly, Bear Darnell walked outside, leaned against the barn for a moment and then headed back to his car, leaving the neighbor to guard to body. He drove four miles to a service station on the Purchase Ridge road, from where he telephoned the State Police.

At one o'clock, Troopers Lon Beavers and E. G. Cunningham arrived with Scott County Coroner Dr. W. L. Griggs Jr., from Gate City. In their wake came sheriffs department personnel.

"I will place the time of death at 24 to 30 hours ago," Dr. Griggs announced. rising from his tentative examination."

"That would put it at sometime between Thursday midnight and Friday dawn."

Bear Darnell's eyes followed the ambulance as it moved slowly down the ridge road and, although as town officer of Clinchport he had no jurisdiction in the case, the scene being beyond the town limits, he led the officers to the house and assisted in the investigation. A careful search of the premises unearthed no clues, other than the fact that the house had been rifled and private papers scattered from a deck. Two pocketbooks, known to have belonged to Johnson, were missing. State Police Investigator Oscar Pollard was called from divisional headquarters at Wytheville, 105 miles to the east, and although he spent the entire afternoon at the scene, he was unable to produce a single clue. .

"I can only conclude," he said wearily," that the physical evidence indicates robbery."

"I'm sorry, for I understand he was your friend. But call me if you need me at any time," he told Darnell.

Like a man obsessed, Bear Darnell went about the countryside that evening, seeking information. He confronted men, women and children, seeking one tiny clue to the killer of Charlie Johnson. He knocked at farmhouse doors, strode into joints where Saturday night revelry held sway back in the hills, into the boisterous merriment of square dances, stopped automobiles on lonely mountain roads .

.. "How can a man like that be murdered in these hills and nobody know anything?" he asked out loud in the kitchen as his wife poured coffee.

"It'll come out," his wife replied, compassionately. "It'll come out. ..

The next morning he heard from Sam Willis, a farmer near the village of Fairview, eight miles beyond Purchase Ridge, that one Bob Bowman had been in the area on Thursday afternoon .

"I saw him drive through the village," Willis said. "He didn't stop, but he waved. A woman was with him. He was driving a black Pontiac."

Darnell was encouraged by that revelation, because he recollected that Bob's kinsman, Clyde Pannell, several years ago had lived as one of Charlie Johnson's tenants on the south side of the farm, Bob and his wife, who lived in Tennessee, were occasional visitors. During that time another relative, Aubrey Pannell, had drowned in a large pond on the Johnson farm, The tragedy had occurred at night, and while questions had arisen over the manner of his death, it finally was listed as accidental. Not long afterwards, Clyde Pannell had moved away settling in Tennessee.

Sunday night he pondered in the solitude of his front porch. He toyed with the idea that, possibly, Charlie Johnson's murder had been the outgrowth of his having aided the officer, back in 1951, in breaking up local cattle rustling. Charlie, a cattleman, had been invaluable in supplying Bear with information that had led to the arrest and conviction of a gang of rustlers who had been stealing cattle in the Virginia mountains and later selling the animals in Kentucky.

" It's about time for those rustlers to be getting out of jail," he mused. "Could be they came back here and got even with Charlie. He shifted uneasily in his old rocker, remembering those strands of blond hair. Definitely a woman was there. And she had been in Charlie's bed.

Next morning Charlie Johnson's funeral was held in the cemetery at Gate City, the county seat 12 miles to the east, and as the large crowd moved slowly down the hill from the grave, Bear Darnell stared, his eyes frosted with a grown man's grief and futile anger, into the opening.

"Whoever it was Charlie, I'll get him. I'll spend the rest of my life, every day of it. until I get him or her, or whoever it was."

Several days later Bear questioned two teenagers who proved helpful. On Thursday afternoon they had been practicing basketball shots outside when they had observed Charlie Johnson striding down a short-cut trail through a hillside field from his house to the main road to Fairview.

"Then a black car came along," one of the boys recalled. "A black Pontiac. A man was driving and a woman was in the seat beside him. She was really a hot number. The car stopped, the woman changed from the front seat to the back seat and Mr. Johnson got in the back seat with her. Then the car moved on down the road toward Fairview."

Darnell thanked the boys, the thrice mentioned black Pontiac burning in his mind. He drove fast to Fairview and sought out Sam Willis.

"Sam, you told me you saw Bob Bowman with a woman companion drive through town last Thursday. I checked him out. I am convinced he was in LaFollette at the time you said you saw him here. So, you must have been mistaken."

Sam Willis tugged at his left ear as Darnell continued, "You know Clyde Pannell. Could that have been Clyde you saw? You know they look a lot alike."

"Well, come to think of it, they do. But Clyde hasn't been around here for years. It might have been him I saw though."

Instinct now convinced Bear Darnell that the man he wanted was Clyde Pannell. He had heard rumors, from time to time, that Clyde and a woman friend had been pursuing one of the most sordid rackets in the books. As the officer had heard it, Pannell would arrange for his woman friend, a girl named Thelma, to have dates with middle-aged men. In most instances, they were bachelors who had money, as well as social position in their community and particularly bachelors who lived in rural areas, away from close neighbors. Such dates arranged, at the propitious time, Clyde Pannell would come upon the compromising scene, declare the woman was his wife and threaten to prosecute unless money was paid as balm to his injured pride. Thoroughly frightened. and instinctively fearful of ruinous publicity, the duped bachelor usually paid off.

Teaming with Kingsport's captain of detectives. James Broyles, they finally located Clyde Pannell living with his woman companion in Kingsport. Ironically, Pannell was working for the city and his girl friend was doing welfare work for the municipality. Pannell was relentlessly grilled. At mention of Charlie Johnson, he flushed deeply and his eyes seemed to fog. Beyond that, the officers obtained nothing conclusive, other than that his reactions to questions qualified him as a strong suspect.

Pollard was eager to put his lie detector to work on Pannell, but he refused to permit the use of the device. Darnell had felt certain. however, that they had the right man the moment he looked at Thelma. Her hair was the same color as were the strands he had found on the pillow of Charlie Johnson's bed. She too, was questioned. She said she had, never heard of Charlie Johnson.

Both Darnell and Pollard found themselves in the position of being baffled by the obvious.

Pollard concurred with Darnell's theory that Clyde Pannell and his woman companion had been plying a sex con game with bachelors and that Sam Wills, while he believed he had seen Bob Bowman, actually had caught a glimpse of Clyde and Thelma Grant as they drove through Fairview the day before the crime.

Darnell said, "I'm sure it was Clyde and the woman. I have no doubts now. It's written all over their faces. But you can't arrest a man on what you think."

"That's right, Bear," the state officer confirmed. "You've got to have the facts before you go before a jury, unless you. want to be made to look stupid." Reluctantly, they released' the couple.

The months rolled away until one night in March,' Kingsport Constable Montague Upchurch telephone Darnell: "Bear, we think we've got a rape case over in your county. It happened three nights ago. Constable Howard Hensley and myself have been working on it, trying to pin down exactly where it happened. Can you drive down here and confer with us?"

The Virginia deputy immediately drove to the Tennessee city where he learned from the officers that Clyde Pannell 'had been charged with the rape of a 10-year-old girl. At mention of the name, the deputy's hopes again soared and he listened carefully to this latest information .

It seems that this fellow Clyde Pannell, around 44, was taking his 11-year-old niece and a neighbor's 10-year-old daughter home from a picture show. Instead, he drove somewhere out in the hills, forced his niece to remain in the rear of the car and then raped the 10-year-old child. This was at night. But the little girl remembers graphically two things she saw: one was a sign that read . Keep Virginia Green, and later an old tree with dead limbs that made her think of a big ghost with its arms stretched out. It was near that tree, she believes, that she was assaulted."

"I can tell you now where that sign is, " Darnell offered.

"We know it's at the state line on the highway between here and Gate City. If Pannell drove the little girl north of that sign, then the crime occurred in Virginia, and probably in your county. If we can prove that, then the crime becomes Scott County's case and we can avoid a legal technicality that could help Pannell in court."

Early the next day, Darnell and Sheriff Haynes drove to Kingsport, picked up the little girl and drove back up the highway to the sign at the state line. They moved along from that point, turning off at. each side road and driving slowly to its termination in the timber, the little girl constantly searching for the ghostly tree.

At mid afternoon, as the car rolled gently along a woods road some three miles from the state line, the little girl cried out, "There it is!"

The officers agreed that the ancient dead oak, with its outstretched and dangling branches, was suggestive of a gray ghost with reaching arms. Near the base of the tree the officers found the child's ripped panties, thus definitely establishing jurisdiction. On a warrant drawn. by Scott County Justice of the Peace James H. Babb, Clyde Pannell was re-arrested, waived extradition and was transferred to the jail at Gate City, where he was held n in lieu of $20,000 bail.

Given a preliminary hearing, he was ordered held for the grand jury. Darnell said to him, as he was being led back to his cell, "You're the man who killed Charlie Johnson. I'm sure you did it and I'm going to prove it. And your woman friend was in on it. You're in jail now. You'll have a hard time keeping her from talking."

With that, Darnell walked away. Two mornings later a trustee, serving breakfast to the prisoners, approached Pannell's cell, glanced in through the bars and, called to S. B. Culbertson: "Pannell's hanged himself!"

Jailer Culbertson tore through the corridor, and hurriedly unlocked the cell door against which Pannell's body was dangling, his legs crumpled on the floor. He had looped the leather belt from his trousers about his neck and knotted the other end to the steel grill. Culbertson whipped out his pocket knife, slashed the belt in two and Pannell tumbled to the floor.

It was decided legally expedient to send Clyde Pannell to Western State Hospital at Marion for observation. Bear Darnell delivered his prisoner there in June, 1956. Two months later, the doctors notified Sheriff Haynes that he could retrieve his prisoner.

Again in jail, Pannell's first visitor was Thelma Grant. Darnell secreted himself behind a partition and listened in on the conversation. While the pair discussed personal matters in low tones, Darnell caught one phrase, spoken fearfully by Clyde Pannell: "Thelma, has Bear asked you anything about Charlie Johnson while I was gone?"  "No," the woman replied.

In the days that followed, Pannell would admit to nothing. Then Darnell played his final card. In the county jail at the time was a prisoner who was serving a 99-year term for .the murder of a Scott County deputy sheriff. Although the man had committed a terrible crime, Darnell considered him a friend. And he reasoned that if the two men were placed together in a cell they might, sooner or later, begin exchanging confidences. It had happened before.

Within a month, he had the evidence he needed. Clyde told his cell mate that Thelma Grant had spent the night with Charlie Johnson, robbed him of $300 and, when the bachelor discovered what had happened and threatened to call the sheriff, she had shot him. He said she had returned to Kingsport with her dress bloody and they had fled the area until they thought it safe to return.

The lifer passed that information on to Darnell, who obtained a warrant, drove to Kingsport and, accompanied by Captain James Broyles and Investigator Pollard, immediately took Thelma Grant into police custody.

.. So you spent the night with Charlie Johnson, robbed him of $300, them you shot him. Clyde has told us all about that, Thelma. He's exonerated himself. He's put the finger on you!" Darnell accused.

"He's lying! That's not how it happened."

The woman broke down. She agreed to waive extradition and that night, October 2, 1956, signed a confession at Gate City. She explained that many times Clyde had arranged dates with her for other men and, while. they were making love, Clyde would make a pre-arranged entry, declare he had been wronged and extract money from the duped man. Such a date had been arranged by Clyde with Charlie Johnson, she said, and Clyde also had gone along.

Charlie had met them on the road below his house, got in the car and they had first driven around Fairview. Later that night they had gone to the house. All three had been drinking and Clyde went to sleep on the floor. She and the victim had shared the bed.

Next morning, she said, Johnson missed his pocketbook. There had been an argument. Clyde had told Johnson he would have to pay him $25 per week because he had "violated his wife." Johnson had gone to the barn to feed his stock instead. Clyde had taken his shotgun from the Pontiac, followed Johnson to the barn and shot him in the back. Clyde was afraid Charlie Johnson could not be bluffed, and that he planned to go to the authorities about the theft of the $300.

"Clyde made me help him carry the body into the shed and cover it with planks. Then he pulled a lot of weeds out of the field and covered the planks with them."

At this point Thelma Grant made an impassioned plea. She attempted to shift responsibility, as fully as possible, onto the considerably burdened shoulders of her accomplice, Clyde. The officials closely attended her pitiful protestations, accumulating facts to present the grand jury.

Confronted with the details of Thelma's confession, Clyde Pannell, the next day also signed a confession, substantially agreeing with Thelma Grant's account of the crime.

In the final week of November, 1956, Clyde Pannell was brought to trial at Gate City, charged with first-degree murder and with rape. He was permitted to enter a plea of guilty to both charges and, after a conference between defense and prosecution, was given a 50-year sentence for the murder of Charlie Johnson and 25 years for the rape of the child. Thelma Grant was still charged with first-degree murder, was released from custody, but, was never prosecuted.

Bear Darnell, who spent several thousand dollars of his own money in effecting justice, was not completely satisfied. He was still working on the theory that two other murders were committed in the same manner and by the same brutal hands that killed his friend, Charlie Johnson.

On November 30, when Clyde Pannell was sent to Richmond to begin serving out his time in the penitentiary, Bear Darnell climbed the hill on the edge of town and stood beside Charlie Johnson's tombstone.

"There's a little more to be done, Charlie. Just give me a little more time. "

Then, favoring his bad left leg, the officer moved slowly back down the hill, climbed in his car and went about his duties.

The names Thelma Grant, Sam Willis and Bob Bowman are fictional names used to protect the identities of those persons.

Kelly Huston "Bear" Darnell served as a Clinchport town policeman, Scott County deputy, and served as sheriff from 1959-1962.


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