Ohio has more than its share of serial killers and mass murderers. Most are well-known: Jeffrey Dahmer (born and raised in Bath), Charles Manson (born in Cincinnati and raised in a boys' home in Chillicothe), Cleveland's never-caught Torso Murderer. Others, like family killer James Ruppert and prostitute murderer Christian Fuhr, remain mired in obscurity. It's not always based on body count; sometimes killers just don't achieve the kind of lasting infamy that someone like Ted Bundy does.


One badly-behaved Ohioan you've probably not heard of is Cletus Reese. For a long time I didn't believe he'd even existed because his crimes are so obscure. His case is an utterly fascinating example of the way forgotten tragedies are kept alive through folklore. (Murder ballads are notorious for this; see "Stagger Lee" for a good example.) When I first posted the Murder Ridge legend on my website I took a very skeptical tone; I even included a picture of Cletis Spuckler, the hillbilly character from The Simpsons, at the bottom. It all just sounded too unbelievable, too theatrical--and, to be fair, the version of the legend currently being passed around is pretty far-fetched.


The Cletus Reese who inhabits the popular ghost story is sort of like the killer in the thoroughly badass Australian horror movie Wolf Creek. In the 1950s, they say, he cruised the highways and byways in and around Coshocton County--mainly Route 26--looking for stranded motorists. When he came across an unlucky carload he would kill them, then tow their car back to his junkyard, and strip it down for parts, thus eliminating a big piece of evidence. His body count was said to be high--anywhere from 8 to 10 to as many as twenty. No one seems sure.


As is so often the case, reality is less impressive. The real Cletus Reese killed no more than three--at least as far as confessions and body discoveries show.


At any rate, Cletus is said to walk the stretch of rural highway alongside his old farm, even though he died several years later in the Lima State Hospital. His victims roam the field itself, often standing beside the shallow graves where Cletus laid them after he bashed their skulls in. But the real scary one is Cletus himself, the homicial psychopath, who is that rarest of ghosts: one who might hurt you.


What was wrong with Cletus Reese? No one ever figured that out for sure, but he was definitely a complete lunatic. His final capture began with the disappearance of a Fresno high school teacher and part-time car salesman named Clyde Patton, who disappeared while accompanying a customer on a test drive sometime on Wednesday, June 2, 1954. The customer, police quickly confirmed, was Cletus.


Several hours later Cletus drove the brand new Hudson to his home outside Nellie. His sister, sensing that something was wrong, called the police, who questioned and then arrested Mr. Reese. He claimed not to have seen Mr. Patton at all. It only took a day of searching the Reese farm to find Clyde Patton's body in a shallow trench. The thick tree limb used to bludgeon him to death was nearby. Confronted with the evidence, Cletus confessed, but said he'd killed Patton in a fight. Sheriff's Deputies and volunteers searched the Reese farm inch by inch, and over the course of a single week in June uncovered three bodies. One was identified as Lester Melick, 58, a Danville man missing since November 28 of the previous year. He was buried in the plowed earth near Clyde Patton. Melick's head was crushed in much the same way as Patton's. Cletus first admitted the other murders, then retracted. He said, "This has been going on for a long time," but wouldn't offer much more than that cryptic remark. Just a day later he broke under questioning and began to give a full account of his homicidal past.


Details were starting to come out about this man, the "burly 250-pound farmer" with the "stolid composure" and the defective mind. The final body to be identified, the one most badly decomposed, held the key to Cletus Reese's past. He was Paul Tish from Mt. Vernon, who was 39 the last time he was seen alive--when he escaped from the state mental hospital in Cambridge on December 8, 1952. Cletus Reese himself had been released from the Cambridge state hospital one year earlier, following several months' treatment. He'd been hearing voices, displaying schizophrenic tendencies. After a stay in the mental hospital the doctors released him to the care of his family back on the farm near Nellie. But apparently the voices had come back, and the first person they managed to get him to kill was one of his old friends from the asylum.

In his "rambling, almost incoherent" statement to police, Cletus said that "Mrs. Truman" had told him to commit the killings. He claimed to have shot all three men, despite the lack of gunshot wounds and clear evidence that he'd crushed their skulls. When asked about Paul Tish, he replied, "No, I didn't know him. He was a soldier, and he came to my house. We had a difference over theology. I shot him with a .22-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol that I had bought in Roscoe." While Cletus awaited trial and the courts pondered whether to try him as a sane man or not, people talked. They were already calling his farm "Murder Ridge" by the time the second body was unearthed, and the headlines were everywhere. James A. Rhodes, the Republican candidate for governor, blamed the incumbent, Frank Lausche, for his "negative attitude" toward the state's mental health program. "I say with all sincerity," Rhodes announced, "that as matters now stand, every community in this state is a potential 'murder ridge.'"


Ultimately, Cletus never went through a conventional trial. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schzophrenic with homicidal tendencies and turned over to the state hospital again--not the one in Cambridge, though; this time he would be locked up in a maximum-security ward of the Lima State Hospital.


That sentence encompassed the remainder of Cletus's life; it was there, never again having breathed free air, that Cletus and his terrible demons died on May 15, 1966. His body was taken back to Coshocton County, where it was interred in Darling Run Cemetery in Jefferson Township. No one took much notice; they didn't even bother to disguise his name with initials or an omitted last name, as is sometimes the case with notorious killers.


But people kept talking about Cletus--and speculating about how extensive his crimes might have been, which murders he may have committed without ever being caught. They embellished over time; the Reese farm gained a reputation as the haunted Murder Ridge, burial place of as many as ten, twelve, fifteen people! The delusional mental patient became the cunning serial killer, helping stranded motorists on Route 26 only to kill them and strip their cars for parts. Murder Ridge was known to be haunted by the ghosts of his victims--those found and unfound--and by Cletus himself. These tales still circulate heavily, though a depiction of Cletus's true story is extremely rare.


The mythmaking began as soon as the bodies were unearthed, when the Reese farm on Route 1 instantly became "Murder Ridge" to local residents, police, newspaper reporters, and gubernatorial candidates. Shortly thereater, as Cletus sat in a jail cell and awaited a decision on his fate, people began to whisper. There were more bodies on the Ridge, they said; they hadn't all been found. Didn't everyone know that Cletus took in and fed hobos passing through Nellie? Some of them had to be buried on Murder Ridge. There were two men and a woman they hadn't found as well--other local disappearances which hadn't been explained.

The local color column Now and Then, which appeared regularly in the Coshocton Tribune, repeated a wide variety of Cletus Reese/Murder Ridge gossip making the rounds in June of 1956. Here's what they had to say at that time:

"These three, according to the rumors, were all associates of the accused killer, and all disappeared mysteriously in recent years.

"Cletus Reese himself has long been regarded as a strange and dangerous character by people who live in the vicinity.

"A huge, powerful man, neighbors declare he could carry a good-sized hog under each arm and load them onto a truck. Others swear he could carry a 200-pound sack of potatoes on each shoulder.

"Men working in the field with Reese were always a little afraid of him, it is said. They humored the big, mentally retarded farmer, fearing to cross him or poke fun at him.

"Reese was formerly quite a gun collector, acquaintances say, and possessed several expensive shotguns and rifles.

"Until recent times, he lived in an old house which stood about a half-mile from the present home. The old house burned down a few years ago, with most of the gun collection.

"The old house, according to report [sic], was something of a hangout for drifters and tramps. Any wayfarer who happened along, it is said, could obtain food and lodging from Reese.

"Such people, it is pointed out, would not be readily missed if they disappeared."

After comparing the Reese killings to "the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run" (aka Cleveland's Torso Murderer), the Now and Then piece goes on:

"But are there others? What was the motive? These questions may never be answered. Obviously demented, Reese himself may be incapable of answering them.

"Cletus Reese must be put away, where he can never again perpetrate such acts on society. Other than that, it matters little what happens to this wretched, deranged man, whether he goes to prison, a mental institution, or to the electric chair."

There was a fund set up for the family of Clyde Patton, and Cletus's sister, Miss Ethel Reese, was sued in civil court for damages. One story ran in the Coshocton Tribune on June 27, 1954, arguing that Miss Reese was innocent in the matter, and had merely been entrusted with the care of a brother too sick to have been released from Cambridge in the first place.


Other than that, however, Cletus Reese disappeared from the newspapers. Once his obituary ran in the Lima News, there wasn't much to be heard from him. (An interesting piece did appear in the September 19, 2005, Coshocton Tribune, describing an ad in which someone was trying to sell Cletus's stove. His life and crimes are described in the article, which you can read here. He's mentioned in no history books, no magazine articles--only campfire tales and spooky stories. He is remembered only as the most violent ghost haunting the farmland along Route 1 outside Nellie where, more than half a century ago, he murdered and buried at least three human beings. This haunted farm can be visited quite easily--and is visited, especially by curious ghost hunters from eastern Ohio. To take a look at Murder Ridge as it appears today, click the image below.



NOTE: I haven't had a chance to add photos of Murder Ridge yet! This expanded section, and firsthand investigation of the ghost stories, is coming before too long.

Also, not long after I expanded this section from a mere mention on my Coshocton County page, a self-published book appeared in my local library. Written by a woman named Jayne Call Imler, it's titled (in what seems like reverse) The Cletus P. Reese Story: Murder Ridge. It turns out to be a detailed summary of the events leading up to and surrounding the Murder Ridge killings. Imler fictionalizes the story to a surprising degree so she can make it an exercise in novel writing, but by changing names she really confuses things. Truman Capote and Norman Mailer have taken true murder stories and turned them into "non-fiction novels" without changing the names. Naturally, it's unfair to compare nearly anyone to them in terms of writing ability. But turning Cletus himself into "Axal Wadsworth" when his name is in the title seems weird, while giving his address as "Red Rum Road" is just plain clunky and obvious. Also, am I remiss in wondering why she never mentions Forgotten Ohio in the acknowledgments? The events are certainly a part of the real, accessible historic record, but I can say with total confidence that there existed no information about Cletus Reese and Murder Ridge on the internet before I expanded this website with the help of a handful of local researchers. These newspaper clippings are what might be termed an "exclusive." I guess I'm saying that Jayne Call Imler must have noticed this webpage. I don't deny anyone the reuse of any of my original material, photographs or writing, and the information itself naturally belongs to everyone...but I wish she had contacted me or at least made mention of my article in her book. Then again, I honestly don't mind. Maybe she did an entirely independent study. I know she did do original research, and my hat is off to her for that. You can buy her book at Amazon by clicking here.



"Advertisement Recalls Local Killer," Coshocton Tribune story from 2005
The Cletus P. Reese Story: Murder Ridge by Jayne Call Imler


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Sources

"$100,000 Asked for Family of Clyde Patton, Slain Two Years Ago Today." The Coshocton Tribune: June 2, 1956, pg. 1.

"Arraignment of Reese Delayed." Zanesville Times Recorder: June 30, 1954, pg. 18.

"Demented Killer's Half-Sister Sued." Lima News: June 6, 1956, pg. 12.

"Disappearance of Fresno Teacher is Investigated." The Coshocton Tribune: June 4, 1954, pg. 1.

Doubleyou, Arbee. "Now and Then." The Coshocton Tribune: June 13, 1956, pg. 7.

"Ex-Mental Patient Remains Silent; Third Body Identified." Lima News: June 14, 1954, pg. 7.

"Ex-Mental Patient's Farm Searched After Discovery of Second Body." Lima News: June 11, 1954, pg. 1.

"Highlights in Local News in 1954." The Coshocton Tribune: December 31, 1954, pg. 4.

"Hunt More Bodies on Murder Ridge." Mansfield News-Journal: June 12, 1954, pg. 1.

"In Memoriam." Lima News: May 16, 1966, pg. 4.

Lowe, Kristi. "Advertisement Recalls Local Killer." The Coshocton Tribune: September 19, 2005.

"Miss Reese 'Not to Blame' for Cletus' Release." The Coshocton Tribune: June 27, 1954, pg. 1 & 15.

"'Parolee' Arraigned in Murders." Mansfield News-Journal: June 15, 1954, pg. 1.

"Reese Due to Face Court on Tuesday." The Coshocton Tribune: June 27, 1954, pg. 1.

"Reese Gets More Time to Obtain Legal Aid." The Coshocton Tribune: June 29, 1954, pg. 1 & 9.

"Reese is Declared Insane." Athens Messenger: August 12, 1959, pg. 1.

"Third Body Found on Resse Farm." The Coshocton Tribune: June 11, 1954, pg. 1 & 8.

Wallace, Robert S. "'Three is All,' Killer Claims in Confession." The Coshocton Tribune: June 19, 1954, pg. 1 & 5.