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Jean Fatur Murder Case - Ellwood City PA

Miss Jean Fatur was born in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, in 1925, but at some point she relocated to Wurtemburg, just outside Ellwood City, to live with a paternal aunt named Kate Ogrizek. Her aunt died in May 1941, but Fatur continued to live in Wurtemburg with her uncle John Ogrizek.

She attended the local schools and was a 1943 graduate of Lincoln High School in Ellwood City. In late 1945, at the age of twenty, she was working as a clerk in a local “five & dime” store, but aspired to be a nurse. Back in late 1943 she met a married man named Irvin C. Herge, a local electrician who was twice her age, and within a year they became involved in an illicit love affair. Herge, age forty-one, resided on Pershing Avenue with his wife Esther.

Irvin Herge was born in 1904 and was one of six children raised in the Hazel Dell section of Ellwood City by William and Gertrude Herge. His father, of German heritage, was a longtime employee of the National Tube Mill. Herge and his siblings attended the local schools while growing up. When he reached adulthood he generally drifted around western Pennsylvania and throughout Ohio. Herge, known to be quite unstable and prone to violence, would undergo psychiatric evaluations several times in the coming years.

He was a “ladies man” and had relationships and affairs with scores of women. In September 1923 he married Lillian Lersch of Ellwood City and they relocated to Beaver Falls. They had several children together. They were likely divorced soon after he was convicted of attempted rape (listed as “aggravated assault and battery”) of a young girl in 1927 and spent three years in the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh. After his release he moved to Ohio, was married a second time, and fathered at least one more child. In 1937 he was convicted of forgery and was sentenced to serve time in the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. In July 1940 he was one of several inmates who received a state pardon.

By the early 1940’s he was back in Ellwood City working as an electrician. He and his wife were employed at Herge Radio & Electric on Lawrence Avenue. That company was owned by his older brother Ralph J. Herge, who went on to become a well-known local businessman and civic leader in Ellwood City.

On the late morning of Wednesday, October 17, 1945, Fatur, who was feeling ill, called Herge and asked him to take her to see a doctor. Herge picked her up near the North Star School in Franklin Township. As they drove back towards Ellwood City an argument ensued. Herge stopped the car on the Ewing Park Bridge and got violent. He apparently beat and strangled Fatur until she was dead. He then drove to his house and parked in the garage. Herge wrapped her body in some blankets and placed her in the truck of his car.

Details of what follows have always been a little cloudy. It seems Herge drove to a family cottage at Celia (near Fombell). He wrapped Fatur’s body in thick burlap and apparently hid her somewhere. He then went to New Castle and stayed with a lady friend, before returning to Celia three days later. He put her body back in the trunk. He stayed put a day or two before driving west into Ohio. He soon made his way to an uncle’s house in Malinta, about fifty miles southwest of Toledo. On the night of Saturday, October 27, 1945, he drove north and threw Fatur’s naked body off the rural Damascus Bridge and into the Maumee River. He stayed in Ohio hoping to avoid suspicion. It is possible that Herge told or sent telegrams to several people saying the he and Fatur had run off together.

Two days later a couple of fisherman found Fatur’s remains about a half-mile downriver from the bridge. The authorities were alerted and Henry County Sheriff Fred H. Bartels took up the investigation. The naked female body, with a bruised face and a broken nose, provided few clues as to her identity. An autopsy held on Friday, November 2, 1945, revealed she had died of strangulation or suffocation, but not from drowning. It was apparent that the woman had been killed elsewhere and then thrown into the water.

Bartles inquired around the local area and scoured reports of missing persons from around the region. The investigation dragged on for several weeks but no matches were found. Bartles then came up with an idea to make a detailed drawing or graph of her dental work. He made about 2,500 copies of that graph and beginning in late December 1945 he distributed them to police departments throughout Ohio and seven neighboring states.

Meanwhile, back in Ellwood City, Police Chief Clark W. Ricer distributed the graph to several dentists. In January 1946, Dr. Carl W. Hayes, a longtime local dentist with an office in the Simon Building, recognized the dental work and believed it was that of young Jean Fatur. Excitement ensued back in Henry County as it appeared Sheriff Bartles’ diligence might have paid off.

It was soon learned that Fatur was missing. It was also learned that she may have been dating Irvin Herge – and he was missing as well. A description of his car and license plate number was distributed to police departments throughout the region. Local authorities escorted Dr. Hayes to Toledo, where he was able to positively identify the body. The case was initially taken up by Beaver County officials because it was believed the crime occurred there.

Sheriff Bartles, working with the Toledo Police Department, tracked down and located the vehicle on the afternoon of Monday, January 21. It was parked along Jefferson Avenue in Toledo. Undercover policemen staked out the area and a few hours later Herge emerged from a neighboring business, where he had been working as an electrician. As Herge climbed into his car Bartles and his posse swarmed the vehicle and took him into custody.

Herge was soon questioned in Toledo by Sheriff Bartles, Beaver County Detective Michael J. Kane, and Cpl. Clarence C. Snipas of the Pennsylvania State Police. Herge denied he knew Fatur or had any knowledge of the crime. Two days later he broke down and said he knew her. He soon “confessed” to the crime, but provided several stories about how she died.

Herge initially indicated they were fighting and Fatur jumped out of the car and fell into the Maumee River. He soon changed his story and said she died in his car in Ellwood City. One story was that he braked really hard to avoid a car and Fatur’s head slammed into the dashboard, while another version was that he slapped her several times and didn’t realize she was dead until later. Herge said he was afraid and didn’t know what to do, so he drove her remains around for ten days figuring out what to do. His story changed multiple times but in the end he admitted to dumping her body off the Damascus Bridge.

Local authorities from Lawrence County took over the investigation once it was learned the crime took place in their county. Lawrence County District Attorney Leroy K. Donaldson and County Detective Charles Ross soon arrived in Toledo. Herge waived extradition and was transported back to Pennsylvania. He showed authorities where he killed Fatur and also where he hid her body in Celia.

On the morning of Monday, January 28, 1946, he was arraigned before Justice of the Peace J. E. Van Gorder in Ellwood City. He was then transported to the Lawrence County Jail in New Castle to await a grand jury hearing scheduled for early March. Authorities soon had a motive as Dr. Henry E. Helling of Ellwood City said Fatur came to his office last fall and said she was pregnant. Meanwhile, in early February, Fatur’s remains were shipped to the Darroch Funeral Home in Aliquippa, where her family make arrangements for her burial.

The court soon appointed several attorneys to defend Herge. On Monday, March 4, 1946, a grand jury was seated in the Lawrence County Court House and heard arguments from both sides. That afternoon the grand jury handed down a “true bill” against Herge and a jury trial was scheduled for the following week.

On the morning of Monday, March 11, 1946, all parties convened in the Lawrence County Court House to start the trial. Before any proceedings could take place it was announced that Herge had entered a guilty plea. That nullified a trial by jury and his fate would now be decided solely by Judge W. Walter Braham. Over the next four days Braham listened to testimony from attorneys, doctors, policemen, and various witnesses.

Herge’s family members testified about his cruelty and how they unsuccessfully attempted to have him committed to a mental institution the previous summer. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of Thursday, March 14, 1946, reported, “Irvin Herge, two-time ex-convict, forger, rapist and now murderer, watched gloweringly this afternoon as his brothers, sisters and wife took the witness chair, one after the other, to testify that the killer is too dangerous ever to be at liberty and should be locked up for life.”

Herge testified in his own defense on day four of the trial. He talked at length and with great detail at first, but on cross examination by the district attorney he suddenly couldn’t remember things. Despite his plea of guilty he started to testify that he just couldn’t recall what happened. The New Castle News of Thursday, March 14, 1946, relayed that Herge said, “If I killed Jean Fatur so help me God I didn’t know it. Why should I have killed her? She did more for me than my own mother ever did.”

The trial concluded on Thursday, March 14, and Braham retired to begin reviewing the testimony. On Tuesday, April 9, 1946, Braham met with the interested parties to determine the “degree of guilt.” District Attorney Donaldson argued for a charge of first degree murder, while Herge’s attorneys, citing a lack of both a murder weapon and premeditation, argued for second degree murder. Braham soon ruled that the charge would be for first degree murder, meaning the death penalty or life imprisonment were possible sentences.

On Monday, April 22, 1946, Judge Braham announced that Herge was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Jean Fatur. On Saturday, April 27, Herge was led from his cell in New Castle and transported by Sheriff Frank I. Coen and Deputy Sheriff Fred Shaffer to the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh to begin serving his sentence.

His attorneys soon filed the first of a dozen appeals in local, state, and federal courts. They claimed that his conviction was unlawful and began requesting a trial by jury. Herge also claimed that his confession was coerced and that brother Ralph Herge had set him up. Over the years Herge would serve part of his sentence at the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia and the Rockview Prison in Centre County. In March 1956 his wife Esther, citing his lengthy imprisonment, was granted a divorce from him.

During his twelfth appeal, in January 1970, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ordered Lawrence County officials to hold a hearing to determine if Herge’s confession given back in January 1946 was voluntary and lawful. Because the District Attorney’s office (having trouble finding witnesses twenty-five years after the fact) could not prove the confession was voluntary, Lawrence County Judges John F. Henderson and Howard W. Lyon ruled in June 1970 that a new “degree of guilt” hearing should be held. Herge, at age sixty-six, remained in jail pending that hearing.

On Thursday, November 5, 1970, three judges, including Howard W. Lyon and two from other counties, presided over a hearing in New Castle and ruled that Herge should have been tried for second degree murder. Because the maximum sentence would be twenty years for that charge, Herge was granted his release after serving twenty-four years in prison. Before he could be released Assistant District Attorney Glen McCracken Jr. filed a successful motion to have Herge committed to a mental institution for evaluation.

Herge was transported to the Farview State Hospital in Wayne County for a thorough mental evaluation. Doctors soon ruled that Herge exhibited signs of mental illness and displayed “a mixture of psychopathic and paranoid elements.” In January 1971 he was committed to the Dixmont State Hospital in Pittsburgh, but was apparently released a few months later.

Herge was remarried for the third time to Mary Ann Tokar in April 1971. Eighteen months later his new wife, citing “indignities,” was granted a divorce. Herge subsequently took up residence on Todd Avenue in Ellwood City. He filed a lawsuit in federal court in Pittsburgh seeking restitution for the extra four years he served in prison, but it was dismissed in October 1973. At some point he was married a fourth time to Rose Malack and moved to Beaver Falls. On Saturday, January 14, 1984, while residing in the Hastings Nursing Home in New Brighton, Herge passed away at the age of seventy-nine. It is likely that he was buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in New Brighton – or with other family members in Locust Grove Cemetery in North Sewickley Township.

Jean Fatur, a 1943 graduate of Lincoln High, was brutally murdered by her illicit lover Irvin Herge in October 1945. (1943)

Irvin Herge had a history of criminal convictions and psychiatric evaluations. He murdered a pregnant Jean Fatur in October 1945 and served 24 years in prison for the crime. (1946)

Irvin Herge (on left), soon after confessing to the murder of Jean Fatur, is led back to his cell in Toledo OH. (Jan 1946)


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