Friday, January 20, 2017

Stella Christoff : Murder With A Smile

Here is a cheery little story about a teenager in downstate Illinois, Madison County....Edwardsville, to be exact., free images

Mr. Nelson Voss, a USPS mail carrier was murdered...his body found in Silver Creek, just outside of Edwardsville.  He had been shot.  On July 13, 1933, a farmer was making a tour of the pasture area to check fencing conditions since his cattle had managed to slip through and off of his property.  While walking past the creek side where a small bridge made a crossing at a lonely, secluded, seldom traveled road, the farmer made the shocking discovery.  He had toured the area once in the morning, but upon his second time that day, about noon, the body was more visible.

Voss was last seen delivering mail at a small farm just a half mile from the place where his body was found in the creek.  He was a young 25 year old substitute mail carrier.  A full life ahead of him. An area farmer said he was cutting hay when he saw Voss stop at his mailbox at the end of the drive.  He just delivered the mail and moved on, just like any other work day. The farmer stated that he did observe an automobile pass down the road at about 10 a.m. that morning, but did not notice any other vehicles, other than the  Voss car.  Residents of the area noticed that their mail had not been delivered on July 13th, which was unusual as the day passed.  Voss used his own automobile to  deliver letters.  He was known to be fairly prompt with his deliveries each day, and the rural residents had grown used to his schedule.

Officials were summoned to the scene as the news of the found body spread through the county.  The Coroner determined the cause of death as a gunshot wound. Mr. Voss had been shot in the back, near the shoulder blade area. In his pockets only 8 dollars were found.  Nothing seemed to have been taken from his clothing.  Detectives and local police scoured the area to look for clues as to what may have taken place at the site.  Empty shells from a .22 caliber rifle and a shotgun shell were found. Mr Voss owned a shotgun, but the Sheriff said he did not believe it had been fired recently after a careful examination of the gun. A pocketknife was also found at the scene, and was handed over to the Sheriff after a quick examination by the Coroner. It showed signs of having been sharpened many times, but was very dull at this examination.  It seemed to be a very cheaply made knife, probably costing less than a dollar.  The handle was of plastic, black and yellow in color. Members of the Voss family were shown the knife, and none of them had seen this knife previously, so it probably did not belong to Mr. Voss.

The Coroner and the Sheriff with detectives came up with a scenario as to what had happened on that morning in July.  If they were to believe that the knife and guns were involved, there must have been three men involved in the murder.  After examining the car belonging to Mr. Voss, they assumed that the murders were laying in wait for the postman.  They must have parked their car on the bridge, not allowing Mr. Voss to cross, and perhaps surrounding his car, forcing him to exit and become their victim.  Detectives examined the mail that was still in the Voss car.  The letters were filed in order of delivery, and no sign of torn or empty envelopes were found.  Perhaps it was a robbery of the mailman hoping to steal money from the mail, but again, they really had no confidence in that theory. Residents of the area were asked to keep track of expected mail and report when and if something expected did not arrive that month. The right side door was left open on the Voss car, with no sign of damage from a forced entry. A shotgun with shells were found on the front seat.

Persons from all over the township were curious about the murdered man.  They crowded in their cars with friends and neighbors to get a closer look at the site where Mr. Voss had been found.  Some had traveled over 10 miles, and nearby farmers walked or rode their horses and mules to get a first hand experience of the area.  They had their own theories about how Mr. Voss met his end. Everyone agreed that the perpetrators must have been very familiar with the secluded area.

After returning to the idea of checking on missing mail, it was determined that the postage stamp and coin change pouch was missing from the satchel the belonged to Voss.  Also, two packages were missing, according to the mail inventory of Voss's deliveries to be made that day.  The local Postmaster was instrumental at supplying necessary records to support this information.

A man who boarded in a shed on the Christoff farm had a trunk. Frank Stroak said that it was seldom opened in his room.  Upon opening it one day in late July, he and a cousin of the Christoff family  found the packages and the missing stamp and coin pouch.  He said that two local girls were seen playing in and around this trunk in the past weeks. So, the conclusion was that the girls must have placed the items in this trunk.  The girls were rounded up and questioned.  They were sisters, Stella and Sophia Christoff.  Their father, brother and cousin were jailed as the coroner was still putting this case together. The girls denied having taken the packages and pouch from the slain mail carrier.

Stella, age 17, finally admitted that she had shot Nelson Voss in the back.  She and her sister were roaming the area of the creek, hunting for squirrels.  She said that Nelson Voss saw them walking near the road and pulled his car off to the side.  The girls were each carrying a gun.  Stella had the 12 gauge shotgun and little Sophia carried a .22 caliber rifle.  Stella said that Voss approached them and said he wanted to show the girls the right way to shoot squirrels.  Stella said she told the mail carrier to keep away and get back into his car.  They did not want his help. She continued her story, stating that Voss grabbed her arm, and told little Sophia to go home.  Voss then tried to force himself on Stella, squeezing her body and attempting to kiss her.  After he let her go, he started toward Sophia.  Stella said she shot Voss in the back, fearing that he might try to overtake her younger sister.  She said that he tumbled to the ground, rolling toward the edge of the creek. She confessed that she took the rifle from Sophia and shot him again as he lay still.  She had her brother's knife with her, and said that she had dropped it on the ground before leaving the area. Sophia, giggling, confirmed the story.  There seemed no remorse from either girl.  The other members of the Christoff family were released from custody. Young Sophia did not actually shoot Voss, and she was released due to her young age.  The Sheriff had his case. A warrant charging murder was issued against Stella Christoff. She was held at the Edwardsville jail.

Fast forward to November of 1933, where the murder trial of Stella Christoff is scheduled for the Edwardsville Circuit Court.  Prior to her court date, Stella seemed very confident.  She laughed and joked with reporters who were able to visit and interview her. She told them that she could not understand why she was being jailed.  In her opinion, she did nothing wrong. Photographers were able to take photos of her, and she loved the attention.  They posted their photos in the St. Louis Star Times, among other publications, and gave her the headline, She Faces Murder Charge With A Smile. After 4 months in jail, her appearance began to change.  She no longer had her tanned skin and bumps and bruises from working on her father's farm.  Her hands were well manicured and her nails were polished.  Her hair was regularly washed and curled.  The jail matrons seemed to really like Stella so they afforded her the luxury of being well taken care of.

Stella had a famous cellmate.  Lillian Chessen, known for having been involved in the August Luer kidnapping case, was jailed at the Edwardsville center while she awaited her trial and eventual conviction.  She look a special interest in Stella, and often made suggestions to the jail matrons as to how the "doll"up the young inmate. Stella also gained 15 pounds while she was incarcerated.  She was eating so much better than she ever had while living on the family farm.  She was rosy cheeked and very, very pretty. She had taken a real interest in working jigsaw puzzles, and often asked for new ones to work on while she waited for her trial date., free images

On Monday, November 13, 1933, the trial began.  The jury was selected and the State Attorney announced that it was going for the death penalty in this murder case. Of course, Stella appeared in a beautiful fashion of a blue dress, bows, hat and high heeled suede shoes with stockings.  Her hair was bobbed and curled under her hat. She wore a bit of makeup and her fingernails were painted pink. On November 14th, in late afternoon, the case was given to the jury.  Stella had held the shotgun that she used to kill Voss for all to see in the courtroom.  She stood up, and at the urging of the defense attorneys, she held the gun exactly as she remembered...but this time she pointed the muzzle at the jury members.  Yikes!  She said she didn't want to kill him, but she just wanted to get away from him before he could hurt her or her sister. She told the court full of spectators that she wasn't really sorry, but wished she had not done it, now that she had to spend the last 4 months in jail.

The prosecutors were curious if she would tell the same story as she had in the past.  She seemed to stick to the same tale, where Voss said he wanted to show the girls how to shoot squirrels.  She refused his help and asked him to leave, when he approached her and tried to force himself on her.  This time she said she slapped him.  When she said he had started for her sister, she shot him.

Sophia, the young sister, was asked why she didn't tell anyone about the murder.  She said  that she and Stella had agreed that they needed to keep quiet about the whole thing. Sophia admitted that she was the one that took the parcels from Nelson Voss.  They were in his car.  She went on to say that she opened the packages at home and found some clothing articles, which she buried in a field on their farm.  She was afraid that someone would recognize the items, so she buried them.

 The prosecutors said they thought that Voss was murdered because the girls were robbing the mail carrier of his parcels. He continued to say that Mr. Voss, a young mail carrier on duty that one fateful day offered to help the girls.  They were afraid of him, probably did not like him, and had plenty of opportunity to run from him.  Instead, they killed him in cold blood and have no regrets.

Stella spent the next day sitting on a couch in her jail cell, munching on candies and apples while the jury hashed over the case.  She seemed stoic and not worried that she could be handed the death penalty. As November 15th came to a close, the jury still had no verdict ....until... 5 p.m.

On November 16, the jury entered their decision.  Stella Christoff was convicted of manslaughter, which carries a sentence of one to fourteen years.    She was taken back to her cell, and she told the matron that she did not understand what it meant to be convicted of manslaughter.  They told her that with good behavior, she would probably be released.  She smiled and said she could be good for a year., free images

The jurors were not going to discuss their deliberations.  The defense attorney said he would move for a new trial.  Meanwhile, Stella, still smiling, was taken to the Women's State Prison in Dwight, Illinois.

In 1937, Stella was denied parole by the State Board of Pardons.  The members declared that the theft of the mail packages from the car of the slain mail carrier, Nelson Voss, was enough to deny her parole.  They suggested another 5 years of incarceration. Stella remained an ideal prisoner at Dwight.
A portion of the contents of  the mail packages was recovered from the Christoff farm.

Stella remained in the prison through 1940, at the age of 23, as a single, white, female.

She married Sterling Hogue, who passed away in 1978. Stella passed away on 13 June 2001 at the age of 85.  She is laid to rest at Sunset Hill Cemetery in Glen Carbon, Illinois.

Newspaper stories can be found about this murder case on various websites.

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