Terror on a Downtown Streetcar
NORMAN V. KELLY
Actually this story began on a beautiful fall morning, October 5, 1918, a long way from the terror that the title suggests. It all started when the horrified children of Mr. John (Susie) Zik found their mother’s body in her bedroom between the bed and the wall. The manhunt that began there at 519 Mathew Street in Peoria, Illinois raced quickly across the city as the terrifying news spread. Before nightfall every officer of every description was out looking for the suspected killer, Peter Valha, a ‘friend’ of the victim and her family.
In 1918 there was no sleek rescue vehicle pulling up to the Zik home, no forensic experts, just a driver and his assistant. What they saw in that bedroom on Mathew Street would remain their own personal nightmares for the rest of their lives. Soon the house was crawling with detectives, the coroner and his assistants along with the chief detective himself. Outside the neighbors were joined by hundreds of gawking folks, whispering and talking among themselves. Murder had come to their peaceful neighborhood and it was a scary thing to behold.
A GHASTLY SCENE
Coroner William B. Elliott stood looking down at the victim talking to the chief detective. “Dead about an hour, sexual assault, I’d say. A bullet wound in the stomach, and a nasty wound here in the neck and an exit wound here. Poor thing.”
Officer Frank Pierce Carr was the oldest man on the force, and his duties nowadays were pretty much administrative. Frank at age sixty-five was content to let the younger officers seek the glory. He answered the telephone, listened then made a call to the call box very close to the Zik home. An officer answered and Frank told him what he had just heard.
“Bill, an iceman just called saying he saw a suspicious man over on Helen Street. The man pulled a gun on him, so I feel certain he’s our man. I’ll send some men from here to meet you over there.”
The intense manhunt for Peter Vehla was on and it was going to be a long, long night indeed. Chief Rhodes asked for the help of the Peoria County Sheriff’s office and every retired cop in town joined in the hunt as well. As the news spread, a shiver of fear went down the spine of an awful lot of Peoria folks that early fall evening. Vehla was armed, he was dangerous, and there was no doubt that he would kill again if he felt he had to.
SATURDAY IN BUSY DOWNTOWN PEORIA
Streetcar number 364 was ready to move out of the barn as the motorman Joe Frazee eased the car forward. As his conductor, a man named Nicolson walked to the rear of the car they were on their way downtown. It was going to be a busy trip, and the two men were in for a long day. It was still dark that early morning of October 6, 1918, a day these two men would never forget. As the single light searched down the rail line the car moved to its first stop.
John Ferber was waiting at that stop and as he hopped on he greeted Joe Frazee, followed by Bert Underwood. At the next stop seven would-be-passengers waited for the car. The last man to enter was a man in a brown suit. He sat next to Ferber and asked him if he could have the seat next to the window. Joe agreed. In short order very close to 75 people shared their ride in old number 364, most of them still only half awake. On it raced, the click clack of the wheels lulling some folks back to sleep. The blue light from the spark above the car crackled in the darkness as the car made its way down its own steel highway.
A tall man clung to the strap dangling from the roof of the car. He seemed very interested in the man in the brown suit sitting next to Mr. Ferber. When his stop came up he managed to get close to the conductor. “See that man in the brown suit?’ The conductor looked. “Yeah, am I supposed to know him?”
“No, but you soon will. I am certain that that is Peter Velha, the cops want him for murder.” Mr. Nicolson convinced the witness to stay on the trolley as the conductor stepped off to make a call from the police call box.
Officer Frank P. Carr answered the phone expecting yet another sighting of the killer lose in the city. He had gotten almost a hundred calls and had been up all night answering them. “Hold that car,” Frank yelled into the telephone, “we are on our way.”
Moments later Officers Carr, Hathaway and Siege were heading for Franklin and Adams in an open, Ford patrol car. The lights were on in the streetcar and most of the windows were down as they pulled up behind the stopped vehicle. Both doors were shut tight as the three officers approached the streetcar. Conductor Nicolson stepped off with the witness to converse with the police officers. The front and rear doors of the streetcar were opened as the four men entered, two in the rear and two in the front doors.
Slowly the four men walked down the narrow space between the seats, each officer waiting for a signal from the witness. The man in the brown suit sat quietly as he watched the men coming closer to his seat. The curious passengers watched quietly as well as the drama unfolded before their very eyes. Suddenly a loud, desperate voice screamed, “For God’s sake…don’t shoot!”
SHOTS RANG OUT
The loud report of a shot being fired echoed up and down the crowded car creating an instant stampede of seventy-five panicked people all trying to get out of the streetcar at the same time. The onslaught caught the witness and the three officers completely off guard as they were swept out of the car as if a giant dam had broken loose. The officers found themselves on their backsides on the street. Folks ducked behind trees and parked autos as they heard the report of another shot from within the car.
The conductor and the motorman were now outside as well, leaving the car sitting in total darkness. Joe Frazee went around back and managed to reengage the overhead power line. The lights flickered, went off then back on to stay. Cautiously the officers approached both open doors, guns drawn, looking for the man in the brown suit. It was eerily quite as they stepped aboard.
What was that noise? The officers looked down to the rear of the car searching for the source of the sound. Two men were jammed in their seats as Mr. Ferber methodically whacked the man in the brown suit on the head with a pistol. Thump…thump. The officers raced to the two men.
“You got him, sir. Easy there…you got him.”
“I got him?” the bewildered man said, handing the gun over to the officer.
The crowd began to gather around the car as the officers took Peter Velha off the trolley. “Where’s Frank?”
Officer Carr was found sitting on the top step at the rear of the streetcar.
As Officer Hathaway reached for Frank, the old officer stood, falling into the arms of his old friend.
Officer Carr and the wounded, beaten and moaning Peter Velha were loaded into the ambulance and rushed off to the hospital. Bert Underwood had been wounded in the leg, but chose to be taken to the hospital by a friend.
At the hospital, Dr. Nahas told the officers that the wound to Officer Carr would probably prove to be fatal since it had entered the abdomen and was bleeding freely. In the other hospital room officers heard Peter Velha say, “I killed Mrs. Zik.” The lieutenant bent over the dying man, “Did you shoot Officer Carr?”
The wounded man closed his eyes, “No, a passenger did.”
At 6:04 that evening Officer Frank Carr died from his stomach wound. Frank Carr was sixty-five years and seven months old. Killer Velha died of his gunshot wound to the chest and the multiple beatings about the head.
The coroner’s inquest was held over the bodies of Mrs. Zik, Frank Carr and Peter Velha at the same time in the coroner’s offices within the old Peoria County Courthouse. The hearing was standing room only as the facts of the brutal murder of Mrs. Zik unfolded, culminating in the death of Officer Carr, Peter Velha and the wounding of Bert Underwood. John Ferber stood out as the hero that had captured Velha, and the fifty-nine year old man brought quite a bit of laughter during his testimony describing the battle he had with the killer. After reliving the battle moment by moment he said, “Well, I guess I must of hit him a few times, because…” The audience laughed realizing that Ferber had struck the man many, many times according to previous police testimony.
On Tuesday October 8, 1918 Officer Carr was buried. Because of the ‘No Assembly’ rule in effect, due to the ravages of influenza, only a small group attended the officer’s services. Sixteen honor guard police officers represented the police department at the burial in Dunlap, Illinois where Frank Carr was born on March 5, 1853. He was buried with full honors at the Dickinson Cemetery.
Editor’s note: Next month Norm will tell us about another murder lost in Peoria’s historical past. E-mail at Norman.firstname.lastname@example.org.