In 1924 Elsie Sweetin got away with murder. Her accomplice/lover, the Rev. Lawrence Hight, wasn’t as lucky.
By her own admission the 32-year-old mother of three gave her coal miner husband, Wilford, three doses of arsenic which had been provided to her by her lover.
“(After) my husband was hurt in the mine Lawrence Hight gave me a paper package which he told me contained poison, and he told me to give some of it to Wilford in anything,” she told authorities after she was arrested. “I gave Wilford, my husband, some chocolate candy in which I had mixed some of the poison. He became very ill but seemed later to grow better and on Tuesday I gave him more poison in oatmeal.
“On him Friday, July 25, I administered the final dose of poison and he grew worse and died July 28, the final dose having been mixed in tomato soup,” she testified. ” Every time Mr. Hight came to the house during Wilford’s illness, he gave me a note of encouragement to give Wilford more poison.”
Before Wilford died the Rev. Hight converted the dying man and after presided at his funeral.
“I saved his soul, friends,” Hight told the congregation. “I sat by his bedside as he lay dying and fought the Good Fight. And I won! It was the best sermon I ever preached,” Hight later told parishioners.
On the way home from the cemetery Hight turned to Sweetin and said: “Well, that’s over. I just wish the rest of the job was off my mind.”
Hight and Sweetin met in the small Illinois 400-person village of Ina when Hight, a circuit-riding Methodist Episcopal minister began preaching at Sweetin’s church.
Soon after he arrived, Hight stopped Mrs. Sweetin in the aisle of the church after a service and professed his love (or at least lust) for her. Sweetin’s marriage to Wilford was troubled and with just a little convincing she was open to new adventures.
“I wanted love and Wilford Sweetin didn’t give me the kind I wanted,” she told reporters. “He was a glacier, cold, no words of affection.”
By contrast Hight, who raised racehorses before finding religion, knew the proper things to say.
“He was our preacher and he told me later that he loved me the moment he saw me,” she continued. “He won my confidence from the start — and later my heart.”
There were several impediments to the couple being together, not the least of which was that they were both married. So Hight came up with the plan that Sweetin would murder her husband and he would kill his wife, Anna.
“It was on another night and again in church that my pastor told me that I belonged to him and that he was mine,” Elsie told reporters after she was arrested. “‘We’ve got to get rid of them,’ he said, ‘We’re going to kill them.’ I ran down the steps and down the road. It was terrible, too terrible to think about. I went home and dropped to my knees and prayed…The more I tried to forget what Hight had said, the more it persisted In my mind.
“And then, it just seemed that I had to do what he told me … It didn’t seem terrible anymore.”
The plan almost worked, but in small towns like Ina there are no secrets.
Wilford Sweetin died first and the doctors simply assumed it was a result of his injuries from the mining accident. Two months later, Anna Hight became ill from what the doctor thought was ptomaine poisoning. However, she failed to improve and on September 12, 1924, she died.
Even before the murders Sweetin and Hight were the subject of gossip. Hight was seen lurking outside Sweetin’s home and signalling to her after Wilford left for work. The fact that the pair spent a great deal of time together before and after church services and even had adjoining cabins at a revival set tongues wagging.
“Elsie just couldn’t see enough of him,” one citizen told a reporter.
It wasn’t long before the town druggist, John Webster, heard the talk and became suspicious. He consulted his poison registry and sure enough, found the entry where Lawrence Hight bought a large amount of arsenic. “To kill rats,” the minister said. Webster went to Sheriff Grant Holcomb and prosecutor Frank G. Thompson, who, six days after Anna was murdered, ordered her body disinterred and autopsied.
The results clearly showed that arsenic, not ptomaine, killed the minister’s wife. An autopsy of Wilford showed the same method of death.
Arrests followed quickly and the Rev. Hight was the first to crack, admitting that he poisoned Anna and gave Sweetin arsenic to kill Wilford.
Elsie was not so fast to crumble and it took an all-night course of the third degree by officials and reporters — along with a plea from Hight to come clean — before she admitted she poisoned her husband. As with so many other cases where lovers murder together, the affection the pair felt toward each other disappeared quickly.
“I gave him a pure heart and I got back a sinful one,” Elsie said. “I was a good woman and now I am bad.”
Anger in Ina toward the couple was so bad that the sheriff was forced to move them out of the county to avoid a lynching.
Since this was the 1920s, the trials happened quickly and each was convicted of the murder of his or her spouse. Among those testifying against Elsie was her father-in-law, who said she had confessed to him in prison.
Because he was deemed the director of the plot, Hight was given a life sentence. Elsie was ordered to serve 35 years.
Hight and Elsie Sweetin disappeared into their respective prison cells until 1927 when the Illinois Supreme Court ordered that Elsie be retried. She had asked to be tried separately from Hight but her motion was denied by the trial court. The state high court ruled that was a reversible error and in September 1927, she went back on trial.
At the second trial Elsie claimed her confession to reporters which proved to be the evidence that convicted her had been coerced. She claimed that “relays of reporters hurled accusations at her,” and that the reporters “became drunker and drunker and more threatening” as the night wore on.
Eventually Hight was brought into her cell, she testified, and urged her to confess.
“Hight told me to confess to anything — anything to get away from the mob he said was waiting for us outside the jail,” she said.
The confession printed by the papers was false, she said. A second confession made to her father-in-law, “Uncle Lum,” was misunderstood. At the end of her testimony she gave the jury an ultimatum: “Either give me death or send me back to my children.”
It took the all-male jury just one ballot to find Elsie not guilty.
Prosecutors sought to have Hight testify to her role in the crimes, but the preacher-turned-prisoner had already adapted to life inside and refused. Prison etiquette prevented him from talking against Elsie.
“I would not have a friend inside if I gave evidence to convict anyone,” he said from the stand.
Reporters said he looked hale and hearty, as if prison life agreed with him. He told them that his only complaint about prison was the food.
“It’s not like home cooked,” he said. “It’s just not seasoned enough.”
Archive for Mark Gribben
In 1924 Elsie Sweetin got away with murder. Her accomplice/lover, the Rev. Lawrence Hight, wasn’t as lucky.
We are warned that when we set out for revenge, we should prepare to dig two graves. The warning, of course, is that by retaliating against our enemy, we will likely destroy ourselves.
In the sad story of the Pardue family of Arkansas, the epigram could be rewritten to be when seeking revenge, prepare three cells.
David Pardue brought his misfortune upon himself, but in seeking vengeance against a former co-conspirator and the prosecutor who put him in prison, Pardue nearly destroyed his father and his son in the process.
He had plenty of help, not the least of which came from the government.
The courts were divided about whether or not the government’s conduct in taking down 72-year-old Jack and Michel — who went from being a 20-year-old University of Arkansas student to a federal prisoner — constituted entrapment, but they were united in the belief that just about everyone connected with this sordid tale (the good guys included) was guilty of some disreputable behavior.
It is only because the entire cast of characters in this morality play survived until the final act that this story does not meet the definition of true Shakespearean tragedy.
David Pardue’s Iago was a fellow Arkansas inmate named Gary Garrett, described by a federal judge as “the most reprehensible character ever to testify before this court,” who Pardue met in 1989 while he was serving a five-year term for a shoplifting incident gone bad.
David ended up in prison because he and his accomplice, Bob Harrington, robbed a Wal-Mart and Maced a security guard during their escape. Both men were arrested and charged, but Harrington apparently had some worth to the county prosecutor, because he not only agreed to testify against David Pardue, he later assisted Benton County Prosecutor David Clinger in prosecuting David Pardue for perjury relating to Pardue’s testimony during his robbery trial.
When Harrington walked and David Pardue went to the Varner Unit of Cummins State Prison for five years, David was obviously perturbed and susceptible to untoward suggestions. While in Varner, David attended a Substance Abuse Training Program (SATP Class), described as “an inmate run program with little supervision which most if not all of the inmates attended whether they were claimed to have substance abuse problems or not because it was an opportunity to meet with the other inmates in a largely unsupervised atmosphere.”
Through SATP, David Pardue connected with Garrett while looking for someone with connections on the outside who could “scare someone.”
Knowing a fish when he saw one, Garrett told David Pardue that, of course, he knew people who could get anything done that he wanted.
According to his later court testimony, Garrett said David told him that he wanted the “backstabbing” Harrington “taken care of.” Garrett said David offered him $10,000 to kill Harrington, his wife, Janis, and their daughter. The deal called for David to pay Garrett five grand and the person who did the job the rest.
Garrett had David write out what he wanted done, which Pardue foolishly did.
“I want both of them picked up,” he wrote. “I want her left in Oklahoma somewhere. ‘Just over the border.’ And him never found!”
David also drew a map of Arkansas, putting Harrington’s hometown of Gentry and his address.
Promising to send the information to a “cousin,” Garrett also managed to get David Pardue to procure photocopies of photographs of the Harringtons. With his plot now ready to move to the next stage, Garrett managed to weasel out the name of the prosecutor who convicted David.
Then he wrote to Clinger:
I have certain information and can get you enough evidence to convict David Pardue and some family members of a certain conspiracy charge. I cannot disclose the nature of the conspiracy in this letter. But can guarantee you it is a major charge. The penalty I believe would be probably life life (sic).
There is little time to stop this from happening.
To sweeten the pot, Garrett wrote, “P.S. Guarantee you’ll be pleased when you hear me out.”
That letter was written on April 30, 1990, and apparently over the month of May authorities were in contact with Garrett. In June, Garrett wrote a series of letters urging officials to “do something.” Evidence at the trial of the Pardue family showed letters written on June 4, June 6, June 15, June 22, June 29, and July 11.
Toward the end of June, the FBI became involved in the case, with an agent playing Garrett’s “cousin Chuck.”
The FBI special agent wrote a letter to Garrett to show to David:
I got the stuff you sent me about the deal in Arkansas. I can help your friend with that problem of his. But not without 1/2 up front. I no (sic) how these things go. You know that might be all I get. Let me hear from you soon. I need some green.
One of Garrett’s letters to Clinger hints at who the driving force behind the hit really might have been: “He’s real protective of his son. He don’t want nobody else but me to meet him. Unless they’re with me. I’ve talked myself blue in the face to him but to no good.”
Visiting day at the prison was July 1, 1990, and an FBI agent posing as “Chuck Ross” met Michel and David Pardue in the visiting room. The agent would later testify that David told him he wanted two people killed and that he provided some details about who they were.
“Ross” told David that he would talk to Michel in the parking lot about the job. In the parking lot of the prison, Michel gave “Ross” $250 as a down-payment on the killings.
From that point, the plan was outside the control of the Pardue family.
“It appears to the court, without question, that each and every contact that Michel had with (Ross) during the course of this matter was planned and instigated by (Ross),” wrote the Honorable H. Franklin Waters, the U.S. District Court judge who heard Michel’s appeal.
The first call to Michel came at 2 a.m. the morning after they met in the prison parking lot. The agent told Michel to get a picture of Harrington, despite the fact that Garrett had already had David Pardue get a photocopy of a picture to send to his “cousin.”
During that overnight phone call, Michel hinted that the killings weren’t a real high priority for the Pardue family.
“I want to get this done if I can unless ya’ll are not interested in doing it,” the tapes of the conversation show the agent saying.
Michel replied that he understood, but that “he had other things to do the next day” and might be hard to contact. Regardless, the next day, Michel and the agent met in Gentry, Arkansas and Michel pointed out the Harrington’s car.
The tapes reveal that the FBI agent was quite adept at playing the cold-blooded killer. While observing the Harrington home, the two men talked about whether the Harringtons had a child, and when Michel advised him that he didn’t know but had heard his grandfather say something about that possibility, the agent told him, “You better find out what they want done with that kid cause I’m not particular, don’t particularly cotton to having anybody testifying against me. I don’t want anybody testifying. If there is somebody in the house I need to know about it. If I can find them setting there, I want to get this thing done pretty quick, tonight probably.”
The agent pushed Michel to implicate his grandfather. He insisted on seeing the balance of the money he had been promised before committing the “killing” and he prodded Michel to tell him where the money was coming from.
“Where is the money?” the purported hitman asked. “Does your grandpa have the money? I mean that’s what I’d gathered from talking to you.”
Judge Waters recounts a heated telephone conversation between Michel and “Chuck Ross” that indicates both Pardues are concerned about the pace of the plan.
“Michel obviously tried to tell (Ross) about his grandfather’s concerns expressed in that conversation but was interrupted repeatedly by (the agent). Michel finally was allowed to say: ‘He’s saying its happening to, he, its happening too fast for him and its a little bit too fast for me, too,’” Waters wrote. “He goes on to tell (the agent) that both he and his grandfather heard of the plan to kill the Harringtons for the first time during the visitation with David the previous day.”
The agent, however, reminded Michel that his father said that the killings had to take place soon because the trial date for David’s perjury charges was nearing.
Michel responded that he expected a continuance in that case because his father was planning to dismiss his attorney.
“Chuck” then played his trump card.
“I’m, you know, I may have to get somebody to give me a little help too, and I, you know, uh, I just want to be able to do this, get my money,” he said. “If I get somebody up here to, to help me then they’re gonna want to kill me about the time I don’t be able to come across with, do you understand what I’m saying? I got expenses and responsibilities.”
At 9:30 p.m., about 30 hours after Michel and Jack Pardue learned of David’s desire to have his former partner rubbed out, Michel met with “Chuck Ross” at a Shoney’s in Fayetteville. At that meeting, “Ross” explains that he has a “friend” on his way to help with the killing and that Jack had to appear with the money or there would be trouble.
The tapes from the wire worn by the agent clearly show that Michel is blown away by the events of the past several days.
“It is obvious from his end of the conversation that (Michel) did not want the murder to take place, at least not that night,” Waters wrote.
After a long discussion about the Pardues being able to procure alibis, despite serious pressure from the agent, Michel calls off the hit. The agent promises to contact him again “later.” The agent did contact Michel a week later, but Michel again put him off.
Garrett, however, was not about to let matters rest. In his July 11 letter, he wrote to Prosecutor Clinger wondering “how its going with helping me get out on early parole and back home with my family.”
On July 14, by his own admission, David Pardue told Garrett that he did not want “Ross” to contact his family any more because he had scared them. At his trial, the septegenarian farmer testified that he and his wife slept one night on an air mattress in his field because they feared “Chuck” would come to the house to hurt them.
On July 31, however, a second FBI agent wrote to Garrett:
Tell Pardue I was ready to do the job that night. I made 2 trips up there. I’m not the one who delayed it. I’m ready to go. But I want to be sure I get paid. Mike said he didn’t have the money and his granddad wouldn’t meet with me or show me any money or tell me he would pay. I know Pardue can’t pay me from the pen so who’s going to pay and when. Tell Pardue to write me.
David Pardue did write to “Chuck” saying that “No more money will be paid until the job is done. The money will be payed (sic) to you.” The letter contains a postscript penned by Garrett: “Pardue is good for the money.”
Regardless, no further action was taken through the summer of 1990 (Except that David Pardue pleaded guilty to perjury and received an additional year in prison, removing the need to have the hit happen quickly).
The feds didn’t realize how conniving Garrett was, however, and he continued to write to various government officials urging them to move the plot along.
“He told me the other day if I get out on some act he wants and expects me to finish the job for him and then contact his son after the job is done and pick up the rest of the money,” Garrett wrote to Clinger on September 17.
Meanwhile the government had taken some action. They staged a crime scene with Bob Harrington playing himself and a policewoman pretending to be his wife. They took photographs of Harrington with duct tape across his mouth and “blood” across his face from a bullet wound behind his right ear. Another photograph shows the police woman lying behind Harrington, her wrists taped with duct tape.
A day before Garrett wrote his last letter to Clinger, “Chuck” called Michel.
“CHUCK”: Real quick. I’ve been in touch with your Dad. You talked to him?
MICHEL: Yeah. I seen him today.
“CHUCK”: O.K. Just told you, I got a letter from him. This thing is gonna go down the 18th, late at night or early in the morning on the 19th. You and your grandpa better get your alibis set.
MICHEL: Well, he never said anything to me about it today.
“Chuck” then tells Michel that he will contact him on September 20, which he did.
“The deal’s done,” he said. “I’m worn out. I need to get some proof and I need to, want you to look at and I need to get out of here.”
Michel replies, “O.K., Well, Chuck I was going to tell you that I didn’t want to meet with you but I guess it’s too late now.”
During the meeting at the Fayetteville Shoney’s, “Chuck” asks if Michel has an alibi.
“Well, I’ll just, uh, yeah,” Michel replied.
“How about your grandpa?” the agent asked.
“I just don’t like talking in here or anywhere else. I just don’t like talking about it. The whole f—ing deal makes me pretty nervous, you know,” Michel answers.
The agent then gives Michel a People magazine holding the “crime scene pictures.”
“They then discuss how the remainder of the amount owed to ‘Chuck’ was to be sent to him and it is obvious from the recording that almost all the suggestions or directions in this respect came from (the agent),” Waters wrote. “In fact, as in past conversations, Michel was allowed … to say very little, and was often interrupted … when he tried to talk.”
The conversation ends with the agent warning Michel, “You get that money in the mail at the latest Monday. I’ll be looking for it Tuesday.”
After 20-year-old Michel and his 72-year-old grandfather put together the remaining $4,500, wrapped it in a Bible and mailed it across the state line to a post office box in Oklahoma, they were indicted and with David convicted of using the mail for a murder-for-hire scheme.
Judge Waters heard their appeal that Michel and Jack were entrapped and that the FBI’s conduct was “outrageous.”
The court has a great deal of concern about whether Michel and his grandfather really planned any of the matters that took place or whether they were, instead, pulled along into this criminal act by the authorities much as someone is caught in a violent undertow at sea. While the court has a great deal of doubt that Michel Pardue and his grandfather would ever have become involved in this dastardly sequence of events without being dragged into it by (the agent), the court readily recognizes that there is a much closer question in respect to whether this court can, under the law, do anything about it.
Eventually, however, Waters found that he could do something about it and vacated the convictions.
Michel and Jack Pardue were placed in the position, they must have believed, of either paying the money for the murders that had already been committed by Chuck and his help, or face the wrath of this man with friends in New Jersey who was willing to kill a man and woman, and perhaps a small child, for $4,500 and who made his living killing people for money. That is not fair. That is not right. That is outrageous. The court believes that fairness and justice demands that this wrong be righted.
He was not so forgiving to David Pardue.
“There was ample evidence for the jury to have found as it did in respect to this defendant who not only clearly set out to solicit the murders of the Harringtons, but who inexplicably and despicably allowed his twenty-year-old son and his seventy-two year old father to become involved in the crime,” he said. “Whether David Pardue, without the aid of the government agents, would have ever been able to complete the crime that he set in motion is not important.”
The story would have had a “happy” ending if it had ended there, but the federal government appealed the case. Two years later, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the convictions and cautioned Judge Waters about letting his emotions get the better of him.
Although judges may express compassion for youthful individuals who become reluctant pawns of others wrongfully influencing them into violating our criminal laws, our human emotions may not dictate legal norms or deviate from the rule of law. We are satisfied that under the law there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find that Michel Pardue voluntarily conspired with his father, David Pardue, to solicit and hire an individual to commit murder of two individuals. Needless to say, this was a serious crime. In this regard we find that the district court misapplied the law of entrapment.
Prior to reinstating the convictions, the government rejected a request from the Pardues to have their $4,500 returned. Of course, after the convictions were reinstated, that request became moot.
We can all sleep a little safer at night knowing that the government, with the help of conscientious citizens like Gary Garrett, is out there protecting us from dangerous criminals like Michel and Jack Pardue.