Served: 3 years
March 16, 1928 to March 24, 1931
Just minutes before he was shot as he entered a robbery-in-progress that Tuesday night of March 24, 1931, First District Patrolman William Orma Sorrell and his partner Edward Kist were patrolling their West End beat when one of them decided they should split up. Edward Kist then headed up Laurel Street while William Sorrell walked over to Betts.
Two theories have been given for their decision to separate. A next-day morning newspaper accounting stated that it was Kist’s suggestion that they go their separate ways when something suspicious caught his attention. The Cincinnati Post, however, later that same day wrote that Sorrell split from Kist because he was planning to bring in one Ike Milan, wanted on a shooting-to-kill warrant which had been announced at District One roll-call the previous Sunday. Sorrell’s response at roll call allegedly was: “I know him. I’ll bring him in.”
As Sorrell and Kist separated, two armed robbers entered George R. Lewing’s drugstore, 1400 Linn Street at Betts. According to accounts in the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Times-Star on March 25, 1931 suspect number one, who entered from the front, held proprietor Lewing and his store clerk, Stanley Shaw, 14, a Xavier High School student at gunpoint, forcing Lewing into a telephone booth while demanding that Shaw open the cash register.
Meanwhile, suspect number two, who had entered the store from an alley in the rear, aimed his gun at customer Charles Reynolds, a neighborhood barber who had unwittingly entered Lewing’s not realizing that he was walking into a robbery-in-progress. While keeping his gun on Reynolds, he removed $75 from the cash register.
Patrolman Sorrell also entered Lewing’s unaware of the robbery-in-progress. As Sorrell positioned himself to enter the front door, suspect number two, believed at the time to have been Ike Milan, opened the door for him and, as he entered, shot the patrolman in the forehead.
Sorrell’s revolver was reportedly still in its holster when those on the scene, including first arriving officer Patrolman Charles Elbe, took him to St. Mary Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
After Sorrell was shot, both suspects fled the scene. Suspect number one, at the time thought to be 22-year-old Zera Brooks, who had drawn the gun on Lewing and his clerk in the rear of the store, ran out the back door, according to the Cincinnati Times-Star on March 25, 1931. As that suspect ran, we read in the same article that Reynolds grabbed Lewing’s gun and fired at him three times then chased both suspects north on Linn Street until they escaped down an alley.
Chief of Police Copelen and other police officials ordered the men under their command to “go to the limit” in their efforts to round up Sorrell’s killer. According to one newspaper accounting, minutes after the shooting, “when the word was flashed over the wires…every plainclothesman and every official was on the trail of the slayer and his companion.” Consequently, many officers whose shift ended at 11 pm Tuesday remained on duty throughout the night to continue the search, according to newspaper accountings.
By Wednesday morning police and detectives had rounded up five male suspects. All but Brooks were released. Captain Walter Fricke, Detective Michael McShane and others brought Brooks to the Elm Street barber shop where Reynolds was employed. Reynolds positively identified Brooks at that time, but later waivered in his certainty, according to an article published in The Cincinnati Enquirer March 27, 1931.
On Thursday, March 26, Ike Milan, 32, surrendered to the police. He denied knowing anything about Sorrell’s slaying, but was held for investigation of both the Lewing’s robbery and the murder of Patrolman Sorrell.
While both Brooks and Milan were considered strong suspects in the Lewing’s robbery and in the Sorrell murder, both were eventually released because not all witnesses could positively identify them as having perpetuated the crimes.
In an August 28, 1938 Cincinnati Times-Star article about another false lead in the Sorrell murder, we learn that Detective Lee Flaugher told Chief Emmett D. Kirgan that two brothers, William and Joseph Murphy, who, according to Flaugher had been executed for the 1933 murder of a Silverton Bank Cashier, had also confessed to the Sorrell murder before their execution that same year. However, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction website lists James Murphy and Joseph Murphy (not William who was apparently serving time for another robbery, according to a newspaper report) as having been executed on August 14, 1933. Eventually — it is not known exactly when — Kirgan officially stamped the Sorrell murder case “closed.”
On October 1, 1958, reporter Lee Allen interviewed Marie Sorrell in The Cincinnati Enquirer. They discussed the events of the night Sorrell was murdered twenty-seven years earlier, but drew no further conclusions as to why, possibly because of the initial false leads when the murder occurred and then the arrest of yet another false suspect in August 1938, that Mrs. Sorrell remained unconvinced, apparently despite the case closure by Chief Kirgan, that her husband’s murder had been solved.
William Sorrell was survived by his wife, Marie, and four young children. At the time of his death, the family lived at of 1130 Carney Street. He is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery. Services were held the Fourth Christian Church, 1821 Eastern Avenue. Pall bearers were Patrolmen Richard Crampton, Elmer Knox, Fred Schoenbaechler and Edward Kist.
Marie Sorrell received a pension of $78 per month for the rest of her life. Her children each received $15 per month until reaching age sixteen.
If you have information, artifacts, archives, or images regarding this officer or incident, please contact the Museum Director at Director@police-museum.org.
This narrative was revised March 27, 2012 by Cincinnati Police Operator/Dispatcher Karen Arbogast (Retired), Greater Cincinnati Police Museum Volunteer, with research assistance from Cincinnati Police Lieutenant Stephen R. Kramer, Greater Cincinnati Police Historical Society President. All rights are reserved to them and the Greater Cincinnati Police Historical Society.