Murder Ridge. Sounds like a pretty frightening place doesn’t it? The story behind the name goes that in the 1950′s, Cletus T. Reese tooled around the highways and byways in and around Coshocton county, Ohio looking for stranded motorists. He would offer to help those he found, but instead of fixing their car trouble he would bash their skulls in and scrap their cars for money. As for the infamous ridge itself, the story goes that Murder Ridge is haunted by Reese’s’ victims, as many as fifteen of them, and the big man himself.
Those are the stories, at any rate. The real events behind the story of Murder Ridge played out quite a bit differently than local legend suggests. Don’t get me wrong though, “Murder Ridge” is a real place. It’s a rural stretch of highway in Coshocton county that runs in front of what was then the Reese farm. Cletus Reese was a real guy too, although he wasn’t the coldly calculating serial murderer of legend.
Cletus T. Reese was a bear of a man, easily tipping the scales at 250 pounds, with a history of psychological problems. He did a stint in a mental hospital in Cambridge, where he was treated for schizophrenia. He was released a year later. It became pretty obvious later that the treatment hadn’t helped, especially after Clyde Patton disappeared.
Mr. Patton was a high school teacher and part time car salesman, who disappeared while taking a customer on a test drive. The customer was quickly identified as Cletus Reese. However, it wasn’t until Reese’s’ sister became suspicious of his having arrived home with a new car and called the police that Reese was arrested. It didn’t take long before the police turned up Mr. Patton’s body – his head had been crushed with an oak branch and he was found buried in a shallow grave. Reese fessed up to killing Mr. Patton, but he claimed it was an accident, that he and the part time car salesman had gotten into a fight that had gone too far.
Police searched the farm and turned up two more bodies, belonging to Lester Mellick and Paul Tish. Tish was an escapee from the very same hospital where Reese was treated. Mellick was from Danville, but there doesn’t seem to be any more details about him. Both men had their heads bashed in.
Reese changed his story and confessed to the murders. But his story changed with each telling – once he told police”this has been going on a long time”, and another time he said told investigators that the three bodies that they found were his only victims. He retracted his statement at one point, after which he came back and gave an incoherent story to police. Reese said “Mrs. Truman” told him to kill the men, and he claimed he shot all three with a .22 caliber pistol. Reese claimed he killed Tish over a difference of theology.
It was pretty clear by that point that Cletus T. Reese was out of his mind. Reese was labeled a paranoid schizophrenic with homicidal tendencies and he was remanded to the custody of Lima State Hospital. He lived there in the maximum-security ward until he died of a heart attack at age 48.
Sometimes truth is more disturbing than legend. Other times, legends take a mundane truth and inflate it so much the truth can no longer be seen.. I think Reese’s’ story lies somewhere between the two extremes.
It should be noted that the murders were discovered during a contentious gubernatorial campaign, where the Republican candidate used the incident to bash his opponent for not being willing to put more money into the state mental health system. The media jumped into the frenzy (“It bleeds it leads”), dubbing the farm “Murder Ridge” before the bodies even went cold. I think the facts of the case became obscured by the political theater and the media frenzy, and the true story became little more than a historical footnote. I, for one, knew nothing about it until a friend mentioned that they had visited Murder Ridge on a ghost hunt, and I’ve lived in the area my entire life!
I don’t mean to denigrate the grisly nature of Reese’s crimes – three men had their lives cut tragically short. But, it is fascinating to me how the story has evolved in the fifty or sixty odd years since the events that inspired it. Reese was, in reality, a very sick man who probably would not have killed had he gotten the help he needed. But, in the popular consciousness, he became the cold, calculating killer of local folklore
Then again, there may be more to the true story than what I’ve set forth here. There is some speculation among those familiar with the case that Cletus T. Reese might have killed more people. There is only one man who can answer that with any certainty – Reese himself. I doubt he’ll be talking anytime soon though.