The violent death of anyone has inherent interest but the telling of the story should have a greater purpose. The robbery and murder of a Greenfield, Ohio cab driver in 1956 is a captivating story. It is also an example of how inaccurately we think about our past. We cling to the idea that somehow our past was a better time. A time when the streets of our villages and cities were both cleaner and safer. When people were more honest and reliable. Where doors could be left unlocked, windows left open, and children could roam their neighborhoods under the watchful eye of the “village.”
In researching the story of Durward “Bud” Perry’s murder I thumbed through a decade’s worth of archival newspapers. From the late 1940s to the late 1950s the lessons were clear, the good old days weren’t all that good. The headlines of the era were filled with much the same kinds of stories appearing in today’s newspapers, petty crime, vandalism, robbery, burglary of homes and businesses, arson, assault, and homicide.
Certainly there are differences, society today is far less formal, there are many more of us today, drugs are a major contributor to crime that weren’t as prevalent “in the day,” and today’s economic realities are having an effect. But the fact is, people have always had trouble rubbing elbows and being nice to each other.
That being said, the murder of a Greenfield cab driver on December 8, 1956 shocked the community just as it would do so today. Durward “Bud” Perry owned the Greenfield Cab Company and on the evening of his death, outside his Midway Circle office, he accepted a 22-year-old passenger named Robert Lee Curtis. Curtis asked Perry to drive him to an address at the South end of Washington Street. Unbeknownst to Perry, Curtis was armed with a small pen knife which he held at the ready with full intent to rob and kill Bud Perry.
By the time Perry reached the B&O railroad tracks he may have sensed he was in danger. At Oak Street, possibly believing this was where Curtis wanted out, he stopped the cab. Instead of exiting the cab, Curtis robbed Perry of his money and then stabbed him once in the chest. He then got out of the back seat, shoved Perry into the passenger side of the front seat, and drove the cab down the hill on to Creek Road. At some point he opened the window and threw the pen knife out. Further down the road he stopped the cab, pulled Perry out, and abandoned him along the side of the road. Perry was still alive but the knife had cut into his aortic artery and he quickly bled to death. It was reported that Curtis, during his subsequent trial, stated that Perry had begged for help but was coldly told, “Fuck you, die.”
Once Curtis had disposed of Perry he got back in the cab and fled further down Creek Road where he shortly lost control and crashed into a ditch. He proceeded on foot and arrived sometime later at the Mercer farm on what today is SR 753. At the Mercer’s home he ironically requested a cab be called for him. Refusing to give his name and saying to Mr. Mercer that he could read all about who he was in tomorrow’s newspaper, Mercer decided to call the Greenfield Police. Two officers came to the home and placed Curtis under arrest.
The day after the killing investigators retraced the scene of the crime and noted where the murder had occurred, discovered the murder weapon, a pen knife purchased earlier on the day of the crime from Jones’ Hardware Store in Greenfield, and the site Perry had been removed from the cab, and the wrecked cab itself.
When you ask people who remember the murder the one thing they all say is how little money Perry was carrying. Claimed amounts ranged from a few pennies to 76 cents. No one knows for sure but according to trial records a little over $9 was found on Curtis.
Robert Lee Curtis, a veteran of the US Navy who had been discharged for alcoholism, was indicted for the robbery and murder of Bud Perry on December 28, 1956 and found guilty of first degree murder on March 11, 1957. His trial was held in the Highland County Court House in Hillsboro with Judge Darrel Hottle presiding. The county prosecutor was Richard L. Davis and the defense attorneys for Curtis were Donald Riley and James Hapner, both appointed by the court.
From the beginning Curtis did not deny his guilt. The county sheriff had presented a list of five questions to Curtis. “When did you decide to rob someone?” “When did you decide to kill someone?” “When did you decide to rob Mr. Perry?” “When did you decide to kill Mr. Perry?” “Why did you kill Mr. Perry?” Testimony indicated that Curtis’ answers to the first four questions were simply, “As soon as I got in the cab.” His answer as to why was an icy cold, “Just to kill somebody.”
Curtis’ defense argued that he was innocent by reason of insanity. Judge Hottle denied the claim and Curtis was found guilty of first degree murder, a capital crime punishable by death. However, there were two on the jury who did not favor the death penalty and to get a conviction the jury had to grant mercy and agree to life imprisonment.
It was reported that Curtis showed no remorse about what he had done, asked for and was granted permission to stop in Greenfield to say good-bye to his mother, and then driven to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus.
This was not the first murder in Greenfield and unfortunately won’t be the last. There’s little to be said about it other than to express concern for the loss of a good man and the tragedy his family had, and has, to live with. There’s no explaining the actions of a person like Robert Lee Curtis but unfortunately there will always be good people who suffer at the whims of people such as Curtis.
Of historical interest there are a couple of things worth mentioning. I was amazed at how open the jury selection process was at the time. The entire list of prospective jurors was published in the newspaper as was the list of those chosen to sit on the jury. None of the protections and privacy granted jurors today. Also of note was how little forensic evidence existed or was relied on. Pre-DNA, little reliance on blood or physical evidence, few challenges to the testimony of what few expert witnesses called, and no challenges to the interrogation or questioning of the accused. I just wonder how this case may have ended if it had taken place after the Miranda case was decided and Curtis had been informed he had a right to remain silent and to have an attorney present during questioning.