History Thursday: ‘Death car’ shown at Ohio Statehouse after ’48 trial

This headline printed in the Sept. 1, 1950 edition of The Newark Advocate newspaper.

On Sept. 1, 1950 came this front page headline in The Newark Advocate: Will Bring Death Car To Statehouse.

Emile Reiss wanted the governor to see the old Chevrolet in person.

Only then, the Columbus attorney reasoned, would Gov. Frank Lausche understand that a murder had not taken place inside of it. 

Reiss told reporters of his plan to transport the vehicle from Cleveland to the Ohio Statehouse. He hoped Lausche would see the injustice of his state incarcerating a possibly innocent man at the Ohio Penitentiary less than a mile away.

How it got to that point a death car headed to the state capital is the story of a tragic death, a high-profile murder trial and the efforts from a ragtag group of legal activists to reserve a conviction.

A death on ‘Lover’s Lane’

Jeanette Weimer clocked out from her Friday evening shift as a car hop in April 1948 and Clark Hill was waiting for her. The two Medina County teenagers headed out for their third date, she a 17-year-old student at Ohio State University and he a 19-year-old OSU dropout working at a local foundry.

They went to the movies, then afterward got milkshakes. From there, he drove her to a road known to area teens as a “Lover’s Lane.”

What exactly happened next is difficult to know for sure. Hill would go on to describe the ordeal in a 23-page confession letter to authorities, but he then recanted the confession and pleaded innocent in court. 

A newspaper spread showing Jeanette Weimer and Clark Hill.

Hill is believed to have slipped a toxic substance into her milkshake earlier in the evening, mistakenly believing it to be an aphrodisiac. He put far too much in, and she became unconscious in the passenger seat.

In his confession letter, Hill said he felt panicked by her negative reaction to the milkshake and worried she would die from it. He decided to rig the exhaust pipe of his car to fill the inside with fumes, then left the motor running with her inside the car.

The plan was to make Weimer’s death look like a carbon monoxide poisoning accident. He sat inside the car feigning his own illness until the next day, hoping someone would find them, but no one did. He then drove to a local State Highway Patrol post, where officials found Weimer dead and Hill claiming to have been poisoned.

Hill was taken to a hospital and authorities immediately became suspicious. She was found to have severe carbon monoxide poisoning, but there was no trace of carbon monoxide in his blood. His skin color and breathing pattern did not resemble that of a typical carbon monoxide victim, though he also had an unexplained burn on his ear officials believed came from contact with an exhaust pipe.

A short time later came his confession to County Prosecutor William G. Batchelder and Sheriff Charles Williams. 

The Trial

As the trial approached, Hill recanted his confession and stuck with his initial alibi — that she died of carbon monoxide poisoning due to a faulty exhaust pipe and he miraculously escaped.

On the trial’s opening day, Batchelder announced he would seek the death penalty for Hill.

Batchelder had first been elected county prosecutor earlier in the decade and was re-elected while serving abroad in World War II. His son, William Batchelder III, would go on to serve as speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives more than a half-century later. The elder Batchelder practiced law into his 90s, dying in 2011 at the age of 96.

The murder trial made headlines throughout the state of Ohio.

In the 1948 murder trial, Batchelder presented medical experts disproving Hill’s alibi. The prosecutor also presented a number of witnesses who saw Hill awake in the car despite his claim of being knocked out by the fumes.

Clark never testified. A three-judge panel found him guilty of murder by poison, but spared him from the electric chair as it could not be proven the killing was premeditated. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Hill filed a motion for a new trial, which was promptly denied.

The ‘Court of Last Resort’

Two years passed until the “Court of Last Resort” learned of the case and got involved.

This unofficial group gained publicity across the country for drawing attention to criminal cases and convictions which its members believed were wrongfully decided.

Leaders of the group included a doctor, a private detective, a murder-mystery novelist and a magazine publisher.

The Court of Last Resort occasionally saw results. Around the same time as the Clark trial, a military veteran from Cleveland was sentenced to death for the robbery and shooting death of a grocery store owner. 

The convict reached out to the Court of Last Resort, which identified a number of issues with the trial. The group’s persistence led Gov. Lausche to issue a temporary stay of execution just 50 minutes before the scheduled electrocution.

Though successful in spurring an investigation, the Court of Last Resort wound up pulling out of the case shortly after Lausche issued the stay. Members conducted a lie detector test on the man in private which found he was lying. He then confessed to the murder, prompting Lausche to reschedule the execution. (Years later, the group would seek to conduct a lie detector test on Dr. Sam Sheppard following his high-profile Cleveland murder trial.)

The group was controversial. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Edward Blythin accused members of illegally interfering with the Ohio justice system and wanted the governor to outlaw their presence in the state. When it sought to intervene in a West Virginia murder case, the local prosecutor disparaged the “group of publicity seekers headed by the author of 25-cent mystery thrillers.”

Gov. Frank Lausche led Ohio for several terms in the 1940s and ’50s. Photo courtesy the Ohio History Connection.

At some point after his conviction, Hill reached out to the Court of Last Resort for help. Group members were sympathetic to Hill’s story and connected with Columbus lawyer Emile Reiss to pursue clemency.

Lausche caused a stir in mid-1950 when he asked the Ohio Pardon and Parole Commission to review the case and determine if Hill deserved to be released from prison.

Batchelder, the Medina County prosecutor, was stunned by the news. Hill was convicted. He had already tried and failed to get a new trial. Why the sudden doubt from the governor’s office? 

“There is nothing that entitles Hill to reconsideration,” Batchelder told a reporter.

A request for clemency

Over the next few weeks, Reiss made headlines for a series of requests and claims about the murder case.

Reiss contended it was impossible for Hill to have deliberately poisoned his date with carbon monoxide. The length of the hose was not long enough, Reiss argued, to have been rigged in the manner alleged in court. 

Reiss announced plans to bring the “death car” to Columbus in order to show it to Lausche in-person. It’s unclear if the governor wound up seeing it.

Reiss sought the original 1948 autopsy records and requested permission to have Weimer’s body exhumed. Soon after, he claimed the county coroner was keeping the records from him. 

The lawyer publicly accused Batchelder of unlawful prosecution tactics, requesting the FBI step in and investigate. Reiss eventually called for the arrests of Batchelder, the coroner and the sheriff.

Reiss’ final move was to present the governor with a petition signed by 200 Medina County residents asking for leniency.

Lausche was unswayed. He decided to keep Hill in prison.

A few years later, Hill was transferred to a prison in Marion. He was eventually released in 1973 and died in 2010 at the age of 81, according to an Akron Beacon Journal article recalling the “love potion killer.”

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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.