Murder Near the Family Tree, Part 4

This is the 4th and last post in a series recounting the events associated with the murder of Catherine Aureila Vermilyea on the night of Thursday, October 4th, 1934. Mrs. Vermilyea was the mother-in-law of my wife Ellen’s second cousin, twice removed, Dr. James Albert Faulkner. The murder case and the ensuing murder trial of Mrs. Vermilyea’s son, Harold Vermilyea (pictured on the left) caused a sensation in 1934 southern Ontario that was followed across North America.

Bringing a Murderer to Trial

When Harold Vermilyea, the son of the murder victim returned to his home in Ontario, California on Saturday, October 6th, he was greeted by the police who arrested him on a charge of murder. Harold professed his innocence stating that he had been away in northern California seeking employment at the time of the murder. On October 17th, Harold left Los Angeles where he had been held in custody and boarded a train, accompanied by two police officers from Ontario, Canada.

While on the train, Harold told a Toronto, Ontario newspaper reporter that he was glad he was going back to Belleville. “I want to get it over with.” The crime was reported on across both Canada and the United States. Police boarded the train car in which Harold sat every time the train slowed or made a scheduled stop to provide additional security. By October 20th, Harold’s trip ‘back’ had brought him to Toronto and an overnight stay in the infamous Toronto ‘Don’ Jail. The police made good use of Harold’s short time in Toronto to construct several police ‘line-ups’ to allow potential witnesses, taxi drivers and hotel employees, to try and identify Harold. Not having enough men for the purpose, Toronto police reportedly went to the streets around police headquarters and ‘recruited’ passersby until they had sufficient numbers for the line-up.

On Sunday, October 21st, Harold was admitted to the Hastings County Jail in Belleville, Ontario, a place that was to be his ‘home’ for the next several months.

The Evidence

There was such interest in this case that crowds waited for hours, sometimes in the rain, in order to get a seat in the courtroom. Harold was identified by Miss Mountney, the maid, as the man who came to the Farley home on the night of October 1st, refused to give his name and left abruptly before Mrs. Vermilyea could greet him. Next, four hotel workers testified that Harold had stayed at the Walker House hotel in downtown Toronto, under the name of Mr. Carter, from Septmber 30th until October 5th. A taxi driver, named John Bannas, testified that he had driven Harold from Toronto to Belleville and back on both October 1st and October 4th. The round trip fare that they had agreed upon was $15.00.

A medical expert testified that blood stains were found both on the pants that Harold was wearing and that blood stains were also found in the taxi that Harold had been in for the return to Toronto. As this was before DNA testing could provide more definitive evidence, all the expert could provide the court was that the blood was human.

The evidence showed that Harold upon returning to his hotel in Toronto learned that the Belleville murder was already in the early editions of the newspaper. He immediately checked out of the hotel in the early morning hours and took a taxi to Hamilton, Ontario where he boarded a train, using the name of B. F. Collins, bound for Chicago, Illinois. Arthur Iszard was the porter on that train and he was able to identify Harold as the passenger named Mr. Collins who, upon entering the United States at the Sarnia, Ontario and Port Huron, Michigan border, wired ahead to Chicago for an “aeroplane reservation.” The pilot on that Chicago to Los Angeles flight along with a passenger, the publicity director for the Metro-Goldwyn Moving Pictures Company, also identified Harold as being on the flight to L.A., occupying seat number 11.

And finally, the evidence showed that Harold had stored his car in a garage from September 25th until October 6th and then tried to have the operators of the garage erase the record of the car’s stay.

The Defense

Two well respected lawyers were appointed to defend Harold at his trial. Both Charles A. Payne and Col. Richard H. Greer had received the honourary title of King’s Counsel or K.C. in recognition of their legal work. They depended on the evidence of Dr. J. J. Robertson, a Belleville physician, to show that Harold was insane. Dr. Robertson testified that, based on his examination and interviews, Harold had thought up “the plan for weeks and weeks.” Harold, the doctor continued, thought his mother should divide up part of her estate (which was valued at $40,000 at the time of her death). Harold’s proposal was that he and each of his three siblings could be given $5,000 by their mother. As Dr. Robertson stated, “His mother was well off, a sister was well off and they didn’t need any money, but his his children did need help.” When his ‘begging’ letter was responded to by his sister, Harold saw this as a sign that they were conspiring together to ruin him, at least that’s what the defense wanted to the jury to believe.

The Decision

Mr. Justice Jeffrey, the presiding trial judge, in his charge to the jury stated, “Some might say that it was only circumstantial evidence, but sometimes circumstances linked to form a chain of evidence beyond any reasonable doubt.” The jury took four and one half hours to reach a verdict. During this time, the courtroom spectators refused to give up their seats but rather waited in the courtroom, in some cases sending their children home to bring food and drink. When the jury returned, they pronounced their verdict of guilty as charged.

The following day, Mr. Justice Jeffrey pronounced sentence on Harold – “The sentence of the court upon you, Harold W. Vermilyea, is that you be taken from this place to the place from whence you came and there be kept in close confinement until the second day of May, and upon that date you be taken to the place of execution and be there hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”

After the trial and sentencing, Harold’s brothers, Arthur and Clarence told a reporter, “He got justice. He got a fair trial. What has happened is best for him and everyone else.” His lawyers appealed his case unsuccessfully and on May 2, 1935, the sentence of the court was carried out in the yard of the Hastings County Jail ending the sensational trial saga of the mid-1930’s, believed at the time to have been one of the longest murder trials in Ontario history to that time.

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