The Murder of Sheriff Orville Litchfield and Policeman, John Leonard by Joseph Stemas
Most Sensational Murder in Marshall County, Illinois of the 1920's

Taken with permission from the Henry News Republican, September 24, 1925
Also included are articles on Stemas capture, the results of the trial and Stemas' death in prison


Taken From the Henry News Republican, Thursday, September 24, 1925

Tolucan Slays Sheriff, Policeman; Eludes Capture.
Orville Litchfield and John Leonard Shot Down in Cold Blood When They Attempt Arrest of Joseph Stemas
Men, Aeroplanes, Dogs add Cars Fail to Find Fugitive in Most Sensational Manhunt in Territory; Killer Desperate and a Dead Shot; Capture Expected Hourly.

Bulletin.
At 4:15 this aftenoon Stemas had not been captured, nor had any additional worthwhile clues about him been attained.
Bloodhounds from Monmouth have been ordered and are now on the way to Toluca.

With cold-blooded murder in his heart, Joseph Stemas, a coal miner of Toluca, shot and almost instantly killed Orville Litchfield, sheriff of Marshall county, and John Leonard, night policeman of Toluca, when they attempted to arrest him in his home Monday evening about 7 o'clock for beating up his family. Litchfield and Leonard had been called by the man's wife because he had been unusually abusive and they feared for their lives.

The officers battered down the doors and upon entering the darkened house were met with a fusillade of shots from the tow guns in the crazed man's hands. The sheriff with a gaping wound in his right breast and a shattered right forearm staggered to the back porch where he collapsed and died in a pool of his own blood almost immediately. His fellow officer got out the front door after receiving a load of shot in the right side and a revolver bullet in the stomach and meeting Deputy Wm. G. Dorsey who was coming to aid them was helped to the car the three had driven up in, where he collapsed. He was taken to his home a few blocks away and there he died 25 minutes later.

The slayer is still at large, though the greatest man-hunt ever staged in this part of Illinois has been carried on almost incessantly since these two highly respected officers were ruthlessly murdered while in the performance of their duties. Heavily armed posses, two aeroplanes, dogs and motor cars have been employed in running down rumors as to the fugitive's whereabouts and in searching the fields, thickets; timbers and buildings of the countryside around Toluca for track of him. It is believed by many that the murderer is still in hiding in that section of the country between Toluca and La Rose or possibly along the Crow Creek valley leading down to the Illinois river near Holton.

Following the shooting of the two officers, Toluca townspeople gathered at the Stemas house of tragedy in the northwest part of town and soon had the premises searched but the desperado had fled and had taken some of his guns with him. Neighborhood children saw him leave and said he was clad only in his underwear. A check-up of his clothes indicates that that is about all the apparel he took except that a pair of trousers belonging to one son are missing. He is also shoeless.

His stockinged foot tracks were followed for several miles west and south into the country. Numerous times since then they have been picked up by searchers only to be lost when he got into the grassy places or on hard ground. Bloodhounds obtained from Decatur failed to track him Tuesday and they were sent home. Yesterday just after the noon hour a posse of about 50 carefully searched the heavy mile long thicket in the upper valley of the north branch of Crow Creek and though footprints were found in the mud along the creek and in a cornfield adjoining, no sight of the killer was obtained.

Rumors keep flooding in that Stemas has been seen in many parts of the country thereabouts, but have availed nothing. Tuesday afternoon it was reported that he had sought a ride from a motorist passing along the hard road north of Toluca but a careful search brought no clue. The report got out that a motorist had been stopped by him but upon being refused a ride he stepped back into a cornfield. Some believe that Stemas has taken refuge in the home of some friend and has been spirited out of town. To back up this belief they point out that Stemas' crippled condition, resulting from an injury to his hip tow years ago and prolonged walking over rough ground barefooted would be too much of a hardship for the injured man.

Stemas has generally been regarded as a bad man for a number of years. He has resided there for more than a quarter of a century, and worked in the mines until he was injured in a mine accident about two years ago. Since then he has stayed at home in bed most of the time and this has no doubt caused him to grow more unruly and subject to spells of extreme bad temper and manners. His 15-year-old son John answered all questions regarding him and said that the parent had been unusually wild recently and had caused the whole family to live in constant fear seemed to come upon his father worse on "big" days like Christmas, New Years, Easter and other holidays.

The trouble which culminated in the double murder Monday evening had been a rather long drown out affair. The son John had left home at the noon hour and the mother of the terror-stricken family ad left an hour or so later following a marathon around the place in which Stemas had threatened here with a long butcher knife. Apparently getting worried about getting back into the house for the night, she reported the trouble to Officer Leonard, who called Sheriff Litchfiled. With his deputy, Wm. G. Dorsey, the sheriff went to Toluca and picking up Leonard they drove to the Stemas home. A block from the house they were met by Stemas' son John who warned the officers that "dad will kill the first man who enters the house". Doors were found bolted. They broke open the back door and then the front, Litchfield entering by the front and Leonard by the rear entrance. In the middle room Stemas was found waiting with a 12-gauge shotgun.

In the darkened house he had the advantage and was ready with the trigger when the officers hove in sight. Litchfield was shot first and called to Dorsey, who begged them not to enter, "He got me Bill". With another click of the trigger Leonard was shot and then to make sure of his dastardly crime, Stemas shot Leonard again with his revolver. Both officers got in a shot apiece but whether the slayer was hit is not known. While Dorsey was taking Leonard home, Stemas escaped.

The Stemas home is a little five-room affair sitting well up from the ground. Most of the yard is given over to gardening as is usual with many of those of foreign birth in southern Europe. Going through the front room Litchfield had just stepped through an archway into the middle room and was only two feet away when Stemas shot him. He had his gun in his right hand up along his chest ready to use, but apparently expected no such reception as that which awaited him.

The load of shot from Stemas' shotgun tore its way through his arm half way between the elbow and the wrist. Its entrance caused only a small hole in the arm but when it passed out of the sheriff's arm it tore a holde threee by two inches wide. Passing into his right breast the charge of shot tore a hole nearly two inches wide and then tore a great hole in the heart of Marshall county's uniformly-liked sheriff. Staggering out through the kitchen to the back proch he left a trail of blood on the bare floors. Weakening from the loss of blood he crumpled before he could get outside and then died in a welter of crimson fast ebbing out through the gapping wound.

Leonard's wound from the shotgun was in the right abdomen and was two inches across. The single bullet of 38-calibre penetrated the body a little to the right and below the center of the abdomen, ranging downward. Either wound was fatal.

At the coroner's inquest conducted by Coroner W. C. Thierry of Wenona, Wednesday morning, a verdict of murder at the hands of Joseph Stemas was returned. The two juries found that both men came to their deaths while in the fearless discharge of their duties without provocation on their part and that the double murderer be apprehended and held int the county jail until discharged by due process of the law.

Stemas' son John told of his father loading shotgun shells with the all bearings from the mine pit cars, balls of steel large enough to fit a shell. For wadding he used old rags. No one knows if he has any of these loads with him. No. 7 shot taken from the heart of Litchfield and the abdomen of Leonard were emhibited to the coroner's jury. John, the son was at a neighbor's across the corner when he heard the death shots ring out. He thought there were six of them.

Stemas (pronounced Stee-mas) has been in a great deal of trouble during his life in Toluca. 12 to 15 years ago he pulled a double barrelled shotgun on Walter Jenkins, operator at Custer. Jenkins knocked the gun from the aim on his own head and gave Stemas a severe beating that required eight stitches in one wound in the head. He is now handling the keys at Greenfield. Some ten years ago he was arrested by the mayor and the next night the latter's house was set afire. Another attempt at arson was made supposedly by Stemas a few weeks ago, it was said.

While out hunting seven years ago he threatened to kill the land owner who ordered him off his property. A similar threat was made on the life of Gus Steinke when he was caught stealing corn from the latter's fields. And, a year ago, he took tow shots at another in Toluca, but missed. It was reported in Toluca that he was confined to Bartonville some 18 years ago but this could not be verified.

Stemas is thoroughly familiar with the country between Toluca and La Rose, having hunted there a great many times. He is known as a desperate character and a dead shot and it is the belief of the majority that he will not hesitate to kill those who attempt to capture him. As a result the order to those seeking the slinking human, are to shoot to kill. It is known that he has two of his five guns with him. One is a Winchester automatic and the other a .38 revolver. Two other guns are missing but hemay not have taken these with him.

Stemas is of heavy build. He is about six feet tall and weighs between 200 and 220 pounds. The man's face is heavily pock-marked and he has a small dark mustache. He has a low forehead and has a limp from the injury to a hip. He is an Austrian by birth and 56 years old. Of the family of seven children, two were married - the sister and oldest brother. They live in other communities.

Sheriff Orville Litchfield was one of the youngest sheriffs ever elected in Illinois, being 29 years of age at the time of his death. He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Robert I. Litchfield, farmers, residing a mile southwest of Toluca. He worked on the farm until World war when he joined the Marines. Three years ago he was elected sheriff. Shortly after that he married Miss Esther Culp, who survives. A brother and three sisters also survive.

He was exceedlingly popular and universally liked. Being a star baseball player, he won many friends among the followers of the great American game. Funeral services for him were held at the Christian church, Toluca, at three o'clock this afternoon.

John Leonard, the dead police official, has resided in Toluca for more than thirty years and was held in highest esteem. He formely was a member of the board of supervisors from Bennington township and had held many positions of trust. He is survived by his widow and five children, tow in Chicago, two in Auburn and one a school teacher in Toluca. When his term as supervisor expired he did not come up again as a candidate for that office.

On the death of Sheriff Litchfield, Coroner Theirry of Wenona automatically became sheriff which office he holds until a successor is elected or another properly appointed.

Taken from the Henry News Republican, Thursday, July 18, 1926

Joseph Stemas, Slayer of Sheriff Litchfield and Officer Leonard At Toluca, September 21, Caught At Evanston Sunday; In Peoria Jail.
SURPRISED BY DETECTIVES ON STREET; UNABLE TO OFFER RESISTANCE; ELUDES CAPTURE FOR NINE MONTHS, TAKEN FROM SCENE OF CRIME TO LA SALLE BY A SON
Sheriff's Brother Ray Lead In Tracing Fugitive
CLAIMS JEALOUSY OF HIS WIFE AS CAUSE; INSANITY TO BE HIS PLEA AT TRAIL IN OCTOBER, RUSES SHOW HE HAD HELP; LYNCHING FEARED IN THIS COUNTY.

Joseph Stemas, who shot and killed Orville Litchfield, sheriff of Marshall county, and John Leonard, night marshal of Toluca in his home in Toluca, September 21, was apprehended and taken into custody at Evanston Sunday and on Monday was taken to Peoria where he is now held in the county jail. Stemas has been a fugitive from justice for more than nine months, though a constant vigil has been kept, especially by Ray Litchfiled, a brother of the slain sheriff.

Probably the first worth-while inkling of Stemas' whereabouts and one that lead up to his capture was when he was seen to pass the home of his daughter in Evanston a week ago Sunday. It is presumed that as Stemas was on the outs with this daughter and her husband and they fearing him that they gave the tip that resulted in his being taken by the officers on the street there Sunday.

When word reached Sheriff Whittaker that Stemas had been taken, he immediately left with his deputies Axline and Young to bring him back. Their plan was to take him to Chillicothe and then into Lacon but the word was passed to them at Streator that there was danger going through Toluca on the Santa Fe and in making the transfer at Chillicothe to Lacon. As a result they took their prisoner off the train at Streator and then drove to Peoria by way of El Paso, where he was lodged behind the bars in the Peoria county jail to await trail at the October term of court on the two indictments for murder placed against him.

Stemas has been staying in Evanston for the past several weeks, stopping at a small inn and posing as a retired farmer. It is supposed that up until his arrival in Evanston that he has been in Minneapolis, Minn. He has steadfastly refused to talk much but claims self-defense and admits the shooting by saying that "Litchfield shot first".

The slain sheriff's brother, Ray Litchfield, has been constantly on the hunt for his brother's slayer and it is greatly through his efforts than many details of the shooting and of the capture were obtained. He has spent much of his own money and time in following up clues and in running down rumors. Some of these details were obtained by lying in hiding in the Stemas garden through long hours of the night. In this manner he heard the family telling the sordid details to the daughter and husband who were in Toluca for a visit and knew little of the actual story. He there learned Sunday night that a son had taken his father out of Toluca to la Salle the next night (Tuesday) after the murder. From there it is presumed that he went directly to Minneapolis. Stemas had been taken on the streets of Evanston several hours before. He was taken by surprise and could put up no struggle to get free.

The first night was spent in the cornfields north of Toluca. It is reported that he said he took aim and attempted to fire at the aeroplane searching for him Tuesday afternoon but that the gun failed to go off. With this new information there is almost definite evidence that Stemas had a lot of help in eluding the officers and the hundreds searching for him. If he was out for but one night then all the tracks of barfoot and stockinged feet were but the ruses of others to hold the attention of his pursuers to the Toluca neighborhood in order to give Stemas time to get far away.

Other hoaxes were the discovery of a supposed sleeping place in the barn on the Walter Carrithers place amile north of Toluca; food scraps and a bed in the cornfield south of Carl Guderjan's a mile west of Carrithers, and in the basement of the house of murder; that Stemas had sought a ride from a autoist along the hard road. There are indications that the family has given him at least $400 during the past winter. Two of his sons also live in Evanston.

Sheriff Whittaker was fearful of bringing the double slayer to the county jail at Lacon and hence took him to Peoria for safekeeping. There it is reported that Stemas is surly and has set up actions indicating insanity which it is expected will be his plea when he come to trial this fall. About three weeks ago Staney Slapinsky of Toluca was in Chicago and saw Stemas on a elevated train, but though recognizing the face a sone he knew, was unable to place the man a Stemas until the latter had gottten away.

The trouble which culminated in the double murder Monday evening had been a rather long drawn out affair …………. (remainder repeats previous story).

Taken from the Henry News Republican, Thursday, December 9, 1926
Stemas Denied New Trial; Must Serve Life

A new trial was denied Joseph Stemas this morning by Judge Frank Shopen, sitting in court at Toulon. Stemas' attorney filed a motion for a hearing in which to ask for a new trial immediately at the close of Stemas' trail at Toulon, Friday night, November 12th.

For the killing of Sheriff Orville Litchfield, Stemas must serve a life sentence in the penitentiary, where he will be taken immediately. He has never been tried for the murder of John Leonard.

Taken from the Henry News Republican, Thursday, April 14, 1827
Stemas Taken to Joliet Monday For Life in Pen
ATTORNEY FAILS TO COMPLETE APPEAL TO SUPREME COURT FOR RE-TRIAL

Joe Stemas, the Toluca coal miner convicted of the murder of Sheriff Orville Litchfield on September 21, 1925, is finally to pay the penalty for this double crime. The 120-day suspension of sentence granted him expired Friday, and as soon as W. F. Young, clerk of Stark county circuit court, received word that the appeal to the supreme court had been abandoned by Stemas' attorney, Geo. Sprenger of Peoria, he proceeded to make out the mittimus committing Sttemas to the state prison at Joliet and placed it in the hands of Sheriff Edwards.

At eight o'clock Monday morning Stemas was loaded into an auto with Sheriff Edwards by his side, and with Deputy Sheriff R. L. McClellan at the wheel and James Graham as guard, the party started for Joliet, arriving thre shortly after noon, and was turned over the officials of the penitentiary, and was given a number; was photographed, had his measurements taken, and followed the usual course. After spending the first day in solitary confinement, Stemas was assigned to his work, and unless his sentence in interrupted at some time in the future, he will continue in confinement there for the term of his natural life. He was taken from Toulon to Joliet with manacles, and made no attempt to escape. Stemas is now nearly 58 years old.

The case was heard in Toulon in November and a verdict of guilty was returned by the jury on the 13th. A motion for a new trial was argued December 9 and overruled. Attorney Sprenger asked that the issuing of a mittimus be stayed for sixty days to give him time to appeal the case to the supreme court. This was granted. When the sixty days expired, the attorney appealed to Judge Daily in vacation for a further stay of thirty days, which was granted. And when that time expired he requested and was granted a further stay of thirty days making 120 days in all, during which time the prisoner remained in the Stark county jail.

A record of the trial was made up, but was not filed in the supreme court, and after delaying the matter to the limit, Sprenger last week "laid down" on the case. Two reasons have been advanced for his action. One, that Stemas could not raise the additional fee; and the other, that Judge Daily erred in granting the extension of time out of term-time, and that it is now too late to file the record in the supreme court.

Taken From the Henry News Republican, Thursday, July 18, 1933
Toluca Murderer Dies At Joliet

Word was received last week end of the death of Joe Stemas, murderer, at Joliet. His body was brought to Toluca for burial. Stemas was obliged to submit to a surgical operation and was unable to pass through the ordeal. His crime was a cold blooded one. As officers Sheriff Orville Litchfield and Marshal Jack Leonard, went to his home in Toluca to arrest him, he barricaded himself and when one of them undertook to enter the front door, Stemas shot him dead. The other officer ran to the back door to enter. Stemas shot him as soon as he made his appearance.

Back to Marshall County Illinois History and Genealogy