Take Jannie Bell Brown, murdered 63 years ago to the date.
The file on Brown’s demise is packed with dozens of handwritten notes, witness testimonies and pictures chronicling her death. A few of the photos, all black and white, show detectives in trench coats standing over her body, which was found sprawled in a field beside West Bogart Road in Perkins Township.
To this day, her murder remains unsolved. It’s the oldest known murder mystery in Erie County.
The sheriff’s office is not required to keep Brown’s case on file, nor does the office have to hang onto hundreds of other death cases dating back decades.
But the sheriff keeps them anyway — just in case any new evidence pops up.
The office keeps hard copies and all evidence, including on-site reports, photographs, fingerprints and countless other documents considered a public record. The files are associated with homicides, suicides, accidental deaths and other unnatural fates met by people in Erie County.
“We strive to keep all paperwork of death investigations,” Erie County Sheriff Paul Sigsworth said.
The county’s records retention schedule, which outlines how long government officials must keep public documents, mandates local officials hold onto solved and unresolved death cases for at least five years. Sigsworth, however, wants to keep each file of a suspicious death for as long as possible, seeing several benefits to this practice.
Foremost, it allows family members and others to examine the documents.
“From time to time, we will get a call from a family member of an individual,” Sigsworth said. “Maybe they were a small child and the information wasn’t shared with them. They can now look at that person’s file and see what happened.”
Journalists, attorneys and researchers might also find value in the mountains of data.
Files from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s offer tales of bygone trends and troubles, such as the case of John Clarence Reynolds, a 28-year-old Sandusky man murdered in a Doerzbach Avenue home on Jan. 20, 1956. The prime suspect — Pauline Martin, a 21-year-old woman — initially told police that Reynolds tripped and fell on a nail.
He was actually stabbed in the chest. Martin was later charged with second-degree murder. One detective who worked on the case wrote that he arrested a witness “due to a complete loss of memory” in the incident. The murder happened during a dice game inside a home.
“We get requests for death investigations more than any other investigation,” Sigsworth said.
The more recent files also ensure the state’s parole board knows about a criminal’s haunting past, sometimes detailing who they killed.
“If someone has been convicted and they come up for parole, it’s nice to have copies of this evidence for the parole board,” Sigsworth said.
With the files on hand, deputies can also add new details to older cases.
“Someone can come forward with information at a later date that might change a ruling in a death investigation,” Sigsworth said.
Sigsworth encourages anyone seeking to view any file of a death in Erie County to make an appointment. He can then arrange for visitors to examine the files.
“These are the people’s records,” Sigsworth said. “We are the temporary caretaker of these records. We will keep putting information in them as best as we can and ail lame them available as needed.”
The sheriff’s office is located at 2800 Columbus Ave. in Perkins Township.