Velma West – Prison Break!

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Velma Typing in Prison

Velma goes off to Marysville Woman’s Reformatory hoping to be paroled in seven years.  But that comes up and the parole board says that Velma must wait until 1938 for a parole hearing. November 1938 comes around and the Parole Board rescinded Velma’s rights to parole, giving her the maximum penalty a life sentence.

So, Velma gets busy.  Even though Mrs. Reilley the prison supervisor is her best friend, has given her lots of privileges including escorting visitors through the prison, wearing “Honor Dresses” which weren’t part of the normal blue uniform, having access to the entire prison, studying stenography, she decides that she needs one last adventure.

Velma and the Escapees

June 19, 1939, Velma West, 31 along with Virginia Bawdy, (an incorrigible), Mary Ellen Richards, 23, (serving a term for robbery) and Florence Sheline, 23 (convicted of breaking and entering) escaped from Marysville Reformatory.  Velma left a note saying that she wanted one more fling. 

Escape Note

Between 9:30 and 10:00 pm on June 18, 1939 Velma and the three other inmates escaped from the Marysville Reformatory.  At 9:30 Velma slipped a piece of paper with a key in it under her door.  Lenora Leach who was an inmate whose cot was in the hallway unlocked the door for Velma. Velma came out of her room wearing blue overalls and an orange jacket.  She carried a pink dress over her arm.  She then went to Florence’s room and opened it and gave Florence the pink dress to wear.  They then unlocked the barred door at the end of the hall with another key, after they left Lenora relocked the door.  Velma warned all the inmates on that hallway to keep their mouths shut and that she would get anyone that told.   They then unlocked the doors for Virginia and Mary Ellen and left.  When they didn’t show up for breakfast the following morning a search of the reformatory was performed, and an alarm was sounded.  


Marguerite Reilley

Marguerite Reilly the reformatory superintendent thinks that Velma may have gone to Canada.  Three prisoners had escaped April 28, 1939 and were headed to Canada.  They told Velma that you couldn’t be returned from Canada.  Velma’s mother wrote an open letter which was published in many newspapers across the country.  “You do not know the heart ache that you are causing me.  Your little fling will only mean more suffering and God knows you have had plenty of that.”

Mrs.  Reilly the reformatory superintendent told the press that she was considering asking for a new lock system to replace the 20-year-old one that they were using at the time of the escape.  She was also considering of a fence around the building and a guard at the front gate.  Let’s see they had an escape in April, and then this one in June, and no fences or guards at the gate?  Maybe that isn’t a bad idea? You think?

Lenora Leach who had been accused of making the prison escape possible, told Mrs. Reilly that she got the key from Florence Sheline and opened her door, nor Velma West’s door. 

June 22, Velma and Virginia are spotted in Kenton, OH.  Sherriff Norman said that two women one in a red plaid dress and the other dressed as a boy stopped in Kenton at 10:45 am and were fed in a private home and given a ride out of town.  Reformatory officials stated that Virginia had a red plaid dress like the one described and that Velma had often dressed as a boy

June 23, Cleveland police interview Velma’s mother and her 18-year-old brother.  They were asked to take a lie detector test.     Escapees still on the loose with no clues.  A travelling salesman came forward two days after he gave them a ride to Defiance, Ohio.  But there was no trace of them there.  No clues as to the whereabouts of Velma, the story has been posted all over the country with photographs, no one has come forward in a timely manner.

July 24, Velma still on the run.  Still in all the newspapers.  Mrs.  Reilly says “She can’t keep hidden forever.  I feel that someone helped them escape and is now maintaining them.  Velma is unable to support herself and is of no value to the underworld.”  She also expressed surprise that there were no clues. 

July 26, 1929 Detective CO Buchanan, JE Daniel and Ben Sanford arrested Velma and Mary Ellen Richards not far from a tavern that they were working, in Dallas.  The officers were cruising the area when their headlights flashed on the two women as they crossed the street.  Velma was dressed in slacks and Mary Ellen in a blue dress.  The arrest was peaceful.  The officers had heard that they were in the area from a tip they received from someone that recognized their pictures in the newspaper. 


Mary Ellen and Velma

When questioned Velma said, “After seven years, the board of pardons told me it was useless for me to seek my release anymore.  Ever since then I was looking for a chance to escape. 

“I found the world changed.  I had never been outside of Ohio until I escaped.  I wanted to see some night clubs but the nearest I got to them were a few honky-tonks.   However, I found lots of changes. 

“I don’t know whether you would call this a fling, but I did want to see some of the outside world.  I wouldn’t call my last three weeks exactly a good time, and I wouldn’t escape again if I had the chance.  It isn’t worth it.  But it was easy for us to get away.  I was a trusty and so was Virginia.  We secured a set of keys opened the gates and walked out. 

” I wanted to go back and walk into the reformatory by myself.”

As they had hitchhiked to Dallas, Florence Sheline gave up on the way, and Virginia Brawdy had left Dallas, so they were still on the loose.

 When the inmates in Marysville heard about Velma’s capture, they threatened to beat up Velma on her return.  Her escape precipitated the suspension of privileges for all the inmates.  The capture of Velma was cause for celebration among the prisoners because their privileges including visitors would be restored.

Mrs. Reilly the reformatory superintendent told the press that as punishment for the escape, that Velma and Mary Ellen would have their heads shaved, be in solitary for 30 days and exist on bread and water during the solitary. There was a lot of uproar across the country for such harsh punishment, some newspaper editorials suggesting it was vengeance  for Mrs. Reilley’s hurt feelings. Velma had garnered a lot of publicity and a lot of sympathy.

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