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Museum’s speaker series presents ‘Murder and Mayhem in Seneca County in 1948’

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File photo of the Seneca County Museum

Tiffin, Ohio — On a steamy summer evening in July 1948, Jim Smith looked at  his young wife and said, “let’s get a root beer.” That suggestion proved to be a fatal mistake.

Unbeknownst to the newlyweds, sitting in a nearby sedan at Stewart’s Root Beer stand that  evening was Robert Murl Daniels and John Coulter West, fresh off their killing spree near  Mansfield. Within the hour, Smith would be dead at the hands of the thugs dubbed The Mad Dog  Killers.

During the chaos, Rita Smith made a desperate and miraculous escape. But the killers weren’t  finished. They drove on to Old Fort where they murdered a truck driver who had pulled off the  road to rest near a beer joint called the Flat Iron Inn.

A half-century later, Rita Smith-Keller sat down with author/historian Lisa Swickard to recall the  still vivid memories of that horrific night.

On Thursday, Sept. 30, Swickard will present “Murder  and Mayhem: The Day the Mad Dog Killers Came to Town” at the Seneca County Museum.

The program will cover the crime spree that started in Columbus and ended in Van Wert, with a special spotlight on the Seneca County connection.

“I’ve been researching this story for more  than 30 years,” Swickard said. “My folks knew Jim Smith. Everybody in Fort Seneca and Old  Fort at the time knew him and his family. It was such a blow to the community. And getting to talk to Rita almost 50 years later, with a box of Kleenex sitting between us, was one of the highlights of my career. She was such a kind woman. How she came out of that ordeal with any  semblance of sanity is beyond me.”

Thanks to a generous donation by the Smith family, the Seneca County Museum is home to  some of the heartbreaking remnants from that night. Jim’s shoes and wallet, Rita’s dress and several other items illustrate how two ex-cons forever changed the course of so many lives.

Museum Director Theresa Sullivan will create a special, temporary display of the items to highlight Swickard’s presentation.

“As the audience listens to Lisa recount the somber story, the audience will be able to view some  artifacts from the Seneca County crime scene,” Sullivan explained.

The free program will start at 7:00 p.m. on Sept. 30 in the Fort Ball Room of the Museum. The Seneca County Museum is located at 28 Clay Street, Tiffin.


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