The Petersburg Constable, Monroe County Deputy Sheriff, and the Monroe Chicken Thief

Tragedy sometimes strikes as quickly as a chicken gulping a grasshopper, and its effects can be as jarring as a rooster crowing at 3 a.m. Gunshots shattered the stillness of a chilly October night in rural Monroe County and decades later families still work to deaden their echoes.

Dilapidated_Barn_on_Hickory_Road,_Milan,_Michigan_-_panoramio
Old barn on Hickory Road in Milan, Michigan.

On the night of October 28, 1929, Petersburg, Michigan Constable Frank William Miller, said goodbye to his devoted wife Alice, and their children. Monroe County Deputy Sheriff James Van Vleet picked him up in the police car, and they sped off into the night pursuing a gang of armed chicken thieves on what they likely considered routine police business. On the same night, Ralph Aldrich of Monroe helped steal some chickens, and made a fateful decision.

 Three Men Meet on a Country Road

Frank William Miller married Alice Emiline Quigley in Blissfield, Michigan, in 1911 .  They had seven children in 12 years.

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Miller Family Photograph

Frank William Miller

Frank William Miller was born on April 15, 1889, in Lenawee County. On his draft registration he listed his occupation as a carpenter and the 1920 Census also showed his occupation as a carpenter.

005251406_00132The 1920s Census also showed Frank W. Miller, 32, living on Carey Street in Deerfield with his wife Alice, 32, and their children Marjorie, Doris, and Mary.

James Van Vleet

James Van Vleet was born on February 10, 1884, and he identified his occupation on his 1918 draft registration as a farmer, the same occupation he listed on the 1920 census. James, 36, lived on Railroad Road in Summerfield in 1920, with his wife Beatrice,34, and their children Charles, Maud, Alvin, and Eston.

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Ralph Aldrich

Ralph Aldrich was born on July 25, 1889, and he wrote on his 1919 draft registration that he worked as a laborer. In the 1920 Census Ralph, age 30, said that he was a fireman at an RR Paper Mill. Ralph and his wife Estelle, 30, lived 1232 East Elm Avenue in Monroe with their children Raymond, Beth, and Virginia.

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Chicken Thieves Were No Cackling Matter

On the cool fall night of October 28, 1929, three days before Halloween, a gang of armed chicken thieves of the human instead of fox, dog, or hawk persuasion raided the chicken coops on the Lawrence Keller farm on the outskirts of Petersburg, Michigan and they fled the scene in a speeding sedan.

Chicken thieves were a serious threat in Monroe County farm country in 1929. Reports of professional gangs of chicken thieves circulated in the area and rumor had it that the thieves chloroformed the chickens to keep them quiet enough to be stolen and then carted them off to markets in Detroit, Toledo, or Lansing.  One story even had it that the young wife of a chicken thief gang member had smuggled a hack saw into the prison at Jackson and helped him escape, receiving two years of Probation for her trouble. There were tales of shootouts between chicken thieves and outraged, armed farmers protecting their poultry.

chickens

A story in the Saline Observer reported that Mrs. Ethel Hofstetler of Route 2, Tecumseh, had discovered a way to offset her losses when chicken thieves visited her poultry house making off with 30 ready-to-lay pullets. Mrs. Hofstetler had the foresight to insure her chickens against theft through the Poultryman’s Mutual Protective Association. When the thieves came for her chickens, she eventually received a check for her losses,  the second person ever to receive an insurance check for stolen poultry and the second claim that the Poultryman’s Mutual Protective Association had ever paid.[1]

 Chicken Thieves Clash with a  Constable and Deputy Sheriff

Chicken thieves were taken seriously in Petersburg and the police heard of this latest chicken theft at the Keller farm, they sent Monroe County Sheriff Deputy James Van Vleet to chase them down. Deputy Van Vleet didn’t waste any time driving to Petersburg to pick up Village Constable Frank Monroe and the officers quickly located the the sedan with its chicken thief drivers and captive chickens.

Monroe County Sheriffs Deputy Van Vleet told what happened next in a Monroe Evening News story dated October 29, 1929. He said when the chicken thieves shot at them,” one bullet came through the glass in the back of the car and struck in front of me just above my head. I had the gun, so I gave it to Frank and told him he had better use it. We had fired a couple of shots in the air before that to try to halt the fellows, but it hadn’t done any good.”

Deputy Van Vleet continued telling his story to the Monroe Evening News Reporter. He said that he stopped the car and Constable Miller started to get out.  Just as he stepped onto the running board of the police car, a shot rang out and a 38 caliber bullet hit Constable Miller in the back and plowed through his body, killing him instantly. The chicken thieves sped away, dumping the chickens on the side of the road as they made their escape.[2]

Additional Monroe Evening News articles tell the next chapter in the story. Immediately after Constable Miller’s shooting, dozens of officers, farmers, and citizens scoured the countryside around Petersburg searching for the chicken thieves turned murderers. The searchers rounded up several suspects and the police arrested some of them. Police found several suspects in a Garden City home, cleaning chickens. They admitted to stealing the chickens, but they denied shooting Constable Miller.

Two months ticked by while Constable Miller’s wife and children tried to deal with the daily reality of his death and officers, farmers, and citizens continued to hunt for the person who shot him. The police didn’t find any new suspects and the case remained unsolved for the next two months.

In the meantime, Ohio police had imprisoned Ralph Aldrich on charges of breaking into an Ohio chicken coop. During police questioning, he confessed to shooting Constable Miller, but he didn’t explain why he had found it necessary to kill the law officer. A judge sentenced Ralph Aldrich to life in prison in Michigan State Prison in Blackman Township, Jackson, Michigan. According to her family, Constable Frank W. Miller’s widow Alice was so traumatized by his murder that she refused to discuss it with her family or outside of the family.

A Family Remembers Constable Miller’s Story

The story doesn’t end there  to be remembered as a sad part of Monroe County Depression-Era history and gradually forgotten as the decades rolled on toward the 21st Century.  More than six decades after Constable Miller’s murder, his children and grandchildren worked to have his named included on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C. which honors 20,267 U.S. law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty throughout American history.

Constable Miller’s grandson, Lehr LaVoy, a retired police officer from the Tempe, Arizona police department, visited the memorial on a trip to Washington D.C. and he wondered why his grandfather’s name wasn’t included on the memorial. Lehr knew that his grandfather had been killed on duty, but he didn’t know the circumstances of his death. He and his sister Bonnie Damon had been born in Petersburg, Michigan, but had moved away as adults. Constable Miller’s grandchildren decided that they needed to gather the information they needed to have his name added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

Bonnie Damon and other family members spent hours and shoe and tire leather and telephone time gathering the data that they needed to prove that her grandfather had been killed in the line of duty so many years ago. They located a coroner’s report and other documentation, including numerous newspaper articles about the circumstances of Constable Miller’s death, enough to prove that his name should be included on the Memorial.

Constable Frank William Miller- End of Watch

Finally, Constable Miller’s son and grandchildren witnessed his name being added to the National Law Enforcement Memorial and participated in the ceremonies honoring the addition of his name.

frankmiller

Constable Frank William Miller

Petersburg Police Department, Michigan

End of Watch: Monday, October 28, 1929

Constable Miller was shot and killed during a traffic stop which he conducted while investigating the theft of poultry from a local farmer.

Resting in Blissfield, Petersburg, and Monroe

Alice Miller survived her husband Constable Frank Miller by 34 years, dying on January 7, 1963 in Toledo. She is buried alongside him in Pleasantview Cemetery in Blissfield, Michigan.

James Van Vleet died in 1939 and he is buried in Pleasant View Cemetery in Petersburg.

The 1930 Census showed that Ralph was a prison inmate at Michigan State Prison, Blackmon in Lansing, Michigan. Ralph E. Aldrich died on April 8, 1955 in Dundee and he is buried in Woodland Cemetery, Monroe.

 Notes

[1] Saline Observer, November 7, 1929, p. 2

[2] Monroe Evening News, October 29, 1929, p. 1

 

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