Friday, April 7, 2017

The Trial of Cecil B. Penton

After the murder of S. G. Babe Collins, the investigation of the Gainer murder came to a halt.  There were also few leads in the Collins killing.  Long John Collins was an older brother of Babe Collins, and had himself been a  two term sheriff of Santa Rosa County.  He had also been Postmaster, and Mayor of Milton at one time.  He was frustrated with Sheriff Mitchell’s lack of progress, and kept digging into his brother’s murder on his own.
For some reason, he strongly suspected Cecil B. Penton for the killing.  Just after the Collins murder, Penton had caught a ride with a newspaper truck delivery driver to Marianna, Fl, and then he traveled on to Jacksonville.  The driver later testified that as they passed through Milton, Penton lowered himself down in the seat, and pulled his hat low over his face.  He told the driver that “they” were after him about the murder. Long John traced him to Jacksonville, and then later to Sarasota, FL.
While Penton was in Sarasota, he was arrested, and convicted of burglary.  He was sentenced to a 2 year stretch, at the Raiford State Prison.
Long John Collins, who had long suspected Penton of involvement in the murder, found out about Penton’s prison sentence, and paid a visit to the warden, Leonard F. Chapman.  After telling the warden his suspicions, they agreed to place informants with Penton.  
When Penton left Milton, he went to Jacksonville, and visited an old friend named John M. Rollo, who was also from Milton. Rollo was also now in Raiford on a robbery charge.  He was called into the warden’s office and told that he was going to be placed with Penton, and to get him to confess.  Two other informants were also recruited to back up Rollo’s story.
In the last election for Santa Rosa County Sheriff, Joe T. Allen defeated Sheriff Mitchell in a close election. The lack of progress in Mitchell’s investigation of Collins’ murder was a factor in his loss.  Sheriff Allen welcomed the effort of Long John Collins, and in November of 1933, he and Collins drove to Raiford with an arrest warrant for C. B. Penton in the murder of Spencer G. “Babe” Collins.  Penton was brought to the warden’s office and Allen took possession of his prisoner.  In handcuffs, and leg irons, Penton was driven back to Milton, and then taken to the Escambia County jail for safekeeping.
In January 1934 a Milton Grand Jury was presented evidence in the Penton case, and refused to indict.  On the second try on May 31st, a different Grand Jury, seeing the same evidence voted to indict Cecil B. Penton for the murder of S. G. Collins.
In his second floor cell at the Escambia County jail, Penton wrote a note to Attorney John Lewis Reese, asking for representation, and dropped it through a window to the alley below.  The note was found by a trusty named Norvie Lee Brown, and delivered to Reese.  (One would think that Penton would have had representation before the indictment. It was a different time for prisoners in the 1930s.)
Reese tried to visit Penton, and was turned away by Escambia Sheriff Hampton E. Gandy, who stated that he didn’t think anyone in Santa Rosa County knew Penton was in his jail. Reese had to go see Judge Leo L. Fabisinski, and threaten to get a writ of habeas corpus, before he was granted permission to speak to Penton.
The Penton trial started on June 12, 1934.  Judge Fabisinski presided, with the Prosecution E. Dixie Beggs, John M. Coe, and J.T. Wiggins presenting the state’s case, with Reese, assisted by young lawyer James N. (Cotton) Elliot, 25 years old.
The State’s case depended largely on the alleged jailhouse confession to John Rollo, and the two other informants.  Rollo’s testimony was that Penton told him that he was at a filling station, about a mile down the main highway from the site of the murder.  He was picked up from there by someone else, and drove to the location across the bayou bridge where Collins, and Estes were talking.  They passed by Estes’ house, and turned the car around, and approached Collins slowly as he was starting to cross the road.  After shooting Collins he tossed the shotgun in the river as they crossed the bridge back into Milton.  Penton told Rollo there was someone with him but didn’t divulge his name. Rollo also testified that after the murder he was running a cafe in Jacksonville, and Penton came in and ordered a piece of pie, and a glass of milk trying to pay with a hundred dollar bill. Rollo mentioned the Collins killing, and Penton said, “Yeah, they are after me on that”.  Rollo denied being promised anything by the state for his testimony.
The other two informants to present testimony corroborating Rollo, did not show up for court.  The Judge called a recess, and asked Sheriff Allen to see if he could find them.  The informants, Wesley Herndon, and Levi Ivy, were in hiding.  Allen used an informant to track them down hiding in some bushes next to the highway.  They told the Sheriff that as they were hitchhiking to town a car full of masked men pulled up to them and warned them not to testify.
These two men were weak witnesses.  Reese was able to show that when Penton allegedly confessed to Herndon, he was actually in solitary confinement.
Another witness, W.O. Eiland was a newspaper delivery truck driver for the News-Journal, and he stated that Penton caught a ride with him to Marianna, offering him two dollars as payment.
The most important information during this trial was the time the shooting occurred.  Collins was killed around 8 pm. This was verified by Sheriff Mitchell’s original investigation, and witness reports, and Dr. Thames estimate of time of death.
C. B. Penton’s story was that he was at the filling station owned by Mr. and Mrs. R. B. Bell at the time of the Collins killing.  The Bell’s testified that he was there from the early afternoon visiting the Bell’s daughter Lucille, until right around dark he jumped into a Ford Model A, and was gone for about a half an hour. When he returned, he stayed until just after 8 pm when Caleb Cox came by the station with the news that Collins had been shot. Penton and Cox drove out to the murder scene across the Bayou bridge, then drove back into Milton, stopping at The Pool hall  owned by Leon Barnes. Barnes testified that Penton came in not long after 8 pm, and went to the rear to the bathroom.  He seemed fidgety, and didn’t shoot pool, but Barnes did not see any powder marks left on someone when they fired a shotgun.  Penton left after a few minutes.
The defense called Ernest Carson to the stand. He was a meteorologist from Pensacola, and stated that it was dark by 6:22 pm on Sept 11, 1931.  The alibi was that if he left the Bell’s station shortly after dark, and was gone for only a half hour, he could not have been on the road in front of Estes house at 8 pm.
After closing statements, the jury retired to deliberate.  Reaching no decision that night they adjourned.  The next morning they reached a decision, and announced a not guilty verdict.

It’s my feeling that Penton was actually guilty in the Collins shooting.  I talked to a lifelong resident once, who has since passed away, that an older brother of his was on the street close to the bridge coming into Milton, and he heard the shot, and then saw a car speed into town with three people, and he identified one as being Penton.  I don’t believe we will ever know for sure who all was involved and who devised the plan for revenge.  I think Collins, and possibly his lawyer L. V. Trueman were behind the KIlling of Aubrey Gainer, and in the future I will have a good story about Trueman, and his eventual (karmic?) fate.  Milton was an incredibly interesting town back in the early part of the 20th century.  

No comments:

Post a Comment