Yesterday's News

Life for a life

Teen convicted in city's only case of slain HPD cop

By FRANK BOYETT, The Gleaner
November 20, 2005

The only Henderson Police Department officer ever to be murdered in the line of duty fell 50 years ago still clutching the evidence that would convict his killer.

It was a bloody driver's license.

Jack William Ranier was only 24 years old when he was shot three times by who The Gleaner described as "a young mad dog killer" near the corner of Washington and Green streets on Nov. 21, 1955.

Ranier, a Korean War veteran, came to this area from Florida after joining the Army and training at Camp Breckinridge. He met and married a local girl, Lorene Walker, and they had a 3-year-old son. He had been on the police force little more than a year, earning $56 a week, and had only recently gotten off the parking enforcement detail.

The killer was Benjamin Charles Sitton, an 18-year-old from Fayetteville, Ark., whose father was in prison, who had dropped out of school in the seventh grade, and who had only recently been discharged from the Marine Corps as undesirable.

Here is how the two came to meet.

Sitton and two buddies from Fayetteville -- Charles Winger and Joe Pearman -- had stolen a car in that city, filled it with 20 stolen pistols, two shotguns and ammunition, and headed for Chicago on a wild crime spree. The Windy City apparently didn't agree with them because they headed south through Indiana, committing four robberies along the way. While hitting a gas station at Fort Branch they ran afoul of state police, who engaged them in a high-speed running gun battle. They ditched the police, then the car, stole a pickup truck, and came to Henderson about 4:30 a.m.

They parked the truck at a used car lot near Washington and Green, looking for another car to steal. The lights were on and the motor running when it was spotted by Ranier and his partner, Sgt. Sherman Hill. They ran the plates on the truck, but it had not yet been reported stolen. They decided to investigate further, so Hill used the radio while Ranier checked the man's driver's license.

Hill watched as his partner was shot three times and slumped to the street. The truck sped away, as three more shots were fired from it.

"Ranier still had the man's driver's license in his hand as I assisted him into the cruiser and it fell to the floor of the cruiser, stained with blood," Hill related.

Both of Sitton's companions had abandoned him by that point. He got rid of the truck, stole another car, and sped back to Arkansas via back roads at speeds of up to 80 mph. An intensive interstate manhunt got under way, but somehow Sitton managed to elude it until he arrived in Walnut Ridge, Ark., where police arrested him.

He waived extradition and slept nearly all the way back to Henderson. Ranier, meanwhile, was buried with full honors. Thirteen police officers from Owensboro, including the police chief there, patrolled Henderson and provided traffic control so every HPD officer could attend Ranier's funeral.

"At 'Taps,' tears rolled untouched down the cheeks of hardened policemen standing stiffly at salute," The Gleaner reported, noting that each officer dropped a carnation on the coffin.

Large crowds attended both the funeral and Sitton's court appearances. His initial trial occurred at the end of January 1956. It was Henderson County's first capital case since 1892 and the first time a local jury had been sequestered overnight since 1942. John Palmore, who later became chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court, was the prosecutor.

"It has become almost a joke around here that a man will get a harsher sentence for chicken stealing and hog stealing than for taking a life," Palmore said. "Human life has been called 'the cheapest thing on courthouse hill.' I want to stop this killing in Henderson County. I want to make it expensive to take a life in Henderson County."

The jury gave Palmore what he asked, sentencing Sitton to death. The defense won a new trial, however, and Sitton was sentenced to life in prison in June of 1956.

100 years ago

Amos Brown, a motorman operating a city street car, was very surprised to find a fat tom turkey perched atop his streetcar while waiting on a switch on the south side of town, The Gleaner reported in 1905.

He climbed up and took the fowl in hand, taking it home to fatten up for Thanksgiving. But the publicity about his good luck worked against him. A few days later Henry Smith of South Main Street said the turkey was one of his flock who had been scared by a dog and flew atop the streetcar as it passed. Brown reluctantly surrendered his planned Thanksgiving dinner.

75 years ago

The Charles Argue Tobacco Plant at First and Water streets was sold to the Atlas Tobacco Co., formerly of New York City and Louisville, according to a 1930 article in The Gleaner.

The new tobacco industry was expected to employ about 200 people after about $25,000 of remodeling was completed. Headquarters of the company were moved to Henderson.

25 years ago

A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court was expected to result in the removal from local classrooms of plaques of the Ten Commandments, according to a 1980 article in The Gleaner.

The Ten Commandments in classrooms had been authorized by the Kentucky General Assembly in 1978, provided they were paid for with private money.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2006 HCH&GS