Newsman recalls murdered publisher — and the officer who was involved
Bobby Cutts Jr., meet Floyd Streitenberger.
You guys may have a lot in common. Both Canton cops. Both charged with murder.
But the murders we’re talking about are separated by almost exactly 81 years.
Chances are Cutts Jr., charged last Saturday with the slayings of Jessie Marie Davis and her unborn baby, never heard of Floyd Streitenberger.
Back in the hot summer days of July 1926, Canton police detective Streitenberger was involved in what, up until now, was probably the most sensational case in Stark County history — the murder of newspaper publisher Don R. Mellett.
My role in this came some 33 years later — in July 1959 — when I was a young reporter with the Akron Beacon Journal.
I was the guy they usually sent out from the State Desk when things happened in places like Canton or Youngstown, where we didn’t have news bureaus.
Actually, Stark and Lorain counties had — and still have — a lot in common.
Though Canton was the largest city, it had a fierce rivalry with Massillon, just a few miles away.
Both were home to lots of heavy industry and large ethnic populations.
But when it came to crime and vice, bootlegging and prostitution, Stark County was the northern Ohio champ. Stark had it all and was reputed to be under the thumb of the Mob out of Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
I got my feet wet in Stark by covering a “revolt” by a group of Massillon cops who, fed up with the alleged politician-mob ties, staged a series of off-duty raids on gambling joints. It was big statewide news.
Eventually, the revolt toppled the Massillon police chief and brought in the FBI and a special investigation task force ordered by then-Gov. Mike Di Salle.
Beacon Journal executive editor Ben Maidenburg eagerly OK’d a series of stories tracing the history of Stark County vice, leading off with the murder of publisher Mellett and the role played by police detective Streitenberger.
Don Mellett, just 35, came from an Indiana newspaper family. He was hired by Scripps Howard to work in the ad department of the old Akron Press.
In 1925, Mellett was named business manager and then publisher of the Canton Daily News, owned by James M. Cox of Dayton, a former Ohio governor and onetime Democratic candidate for president. Mellett’s brother, Lloyd, became city editor.
Mellett shook up Canton and Stark County with a series of hard-hitting stories and editorials on the unholy alliance among officials, cops and racketeers.
He was warned a number of times to “lay off.” He refused.
July 6, 1926. A hot, muggy night in Canton.
Mellett, his wife, Florence, and neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Vail, returned from attending a dance and sipping sodas at a drug store near the Mellett home on Claremont Avenue NW.
Florence and the Vails were in the kitchen for a midnight snack. Mellett put his car, a big Rickenbacker, in the garage.
A volley of gunfire split the night air. Don Mellett fell mortally wounded with a .38 caliber bullet in the head.
The murder triggered a national wave of horror and outrage. A reward fund quickly topped $27,000, a big sum in those days.
The big break in the case came six days later when a Cleveland man, Steve Kascholk, came in on his own.
He said he and a friend, Pat McDermott, 26, had been brought to Canton to “beat up an editor,” but that he had backed out of the job.
He said he and McDermott had been brought by a man from Massillon.
The investigative trail led to Louis Mazer, whom Mellett had dubbed a “prince of the underworld.”
Mazer talked. And talked.
He said Pat McDermott was the ambush trigger man.
Mazer also implicated police detective Streitenberger. “Streity” in turn implicated police chief Saranas “Jake” Lengel.
Arrested as the “payoff” man was Ben Rudner, son of a once wealthy Massillon merchant.
Four months later, Pat “Red” McDermott was arrested at his family’s home in Nanty Glo, Pa. Also arrested was a Cleveland bootlegger, Ben Nadel.
Justice moved swiftly.
On Christmas Eve, 1926 (perhaps the jury caught the spirit of the season), McDermott was sentenced to life instead of the electric chair in the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus.
Detective Streitenberger also got life. So did Rudner. Mazer copped a plea and got 5-to-20. Chief Lengel’s life sentence was later overturned by the Ohio Supreme Court.
Rudner died in prison. Nadel, convicted of harboring McDermott, was released after a few years and was later “taken for a ride” by rival Cleveland bootleggers.
McDermott, fingered as the “trigger man,” later told a reporter that Streitenberger and Mazer did the actual shooting in the Mellett “firing line.”
McDermott later escaped but was recaptured.
Streitenberger became a “model” prisoner and was later transferred to the London (Ohio) Prison Farm, where he was in charge of the farm’s tool room.
The murder of Don Mellett. A hot July night 81 years ago. A murder whose echoes reverberate through the decades to where the fate of another Canton cop, Bobby Cutts Jr., is still to be decided.
Miller is a retired managing editor of The Chronicle-Telegram.