Of course, love and violence sometimes intervene and turn tranquility into turbulence, as it did in the late spring of 1928, near Chapman, on upper Clover Fork.
Alvia Teter and Owen Vankirk
Alvia often visited Will Pritt’s store at Knawl which was just over the ridge and a short distance further from the abandoned house Alvia had been frequenting with Owen Vankirk. Willis Townsend visited the Pritt Store and asked Will Pritt if he had seen Alvia. Pritt told Townsend that he had not seen him. Pritt did relate that Owen Vankirk had been in the store and had told Pritt that he had sent Alvia “up into the mountains to get a load of moonshine a few days ago and that he had not returned.” Vankirk expressed to Pritt that he was worried that something must have happened to his pal, Alvia Teter. Pritt told Townsend that Vankirk was acting very strangely and appeared to be “nervous and fidgety, pacing back and forth” and that he suspected that Vankirk knew more about Alvia Teter’s absence than he was revealing. Agreeing that Alvia’s disappearance was suspicious, the Teter family contacted A. M. Berry, the Sheriff of Braxton County.
It was reported that Owen encouraged the searchers to scour the hillsides for Alvia since, according to Vankirk, “that was where Alvia most likely would be.” The searchers did scout the hillsides looking for the missing person but found nothing.
During the search for Alvia Teter, Willis Townsend kept in the back of his mind that Owen Vankirk, on a previous occasion, while he was half-drunk on moonshine whiskey, had bragged that if he ever killed anyone and wanted to dispose of the body, he would dump the corpse down a well and toss debris on top of the victim. Willis Townsend began gravitating the search toward the old abandoned Hanson "Hanse" Bennett house where Owen Vankirk and Alvia Teter had been known to visit. Sensing that the search was headed toward the old house Vankirk resisted and said the search would be more fruitful if they stayed on the hills with the search and that he was familiar with the old house and that “there was nothing there.” Nevertheless the search party continued toward the old Hance Bennett house.
One of the state’s witnesses for the trial was Guy Teter, brother of the murder victim. Guy Teter was well known to the law as a moonshiner and during the pendency of the trial of Vankirk, he was serving a sentence for moonshining. However, as the trial of Vankirk approached, Guy Teter who had been working on a road gang, escaped from custody and was not available for the trial. The prosecuting attorney asked the court for a continuance in the trial because of the absence of the material witness and the trial was delayed. Eventually, Guy Teter was retaken into custody and testified along with Erma Cosner, Willis Townsend, and several other law enforcement witnesses.
The evidence presented to the court theorized that Vankirk was jealous of the attention being given to Alvia Teter by Irma Cosner. The state also gave evidence that Vankirk and Teter were roasting potatoes in the fireplace of the abandoned Hance Bennett house. During the course of the potato roast, Vankirk suggested that Teter go to the Irma Cosner house and borrow some salt and butter to season the potatoes. The state further theorized that when Teter returned with the salt and butter and was bent over at the hearth of the fireplace in the process of seasoning the potatoes, Vankirk struck Teter over the head with a fatal blow from a fireplace andiron. The state then alleged that Vankirk disposed of the body by dumping it down the well.
With the conviction of Owen Vankirk, the murder of Alvia Teter was solved. Alvia Teter was buried at the Prince Cemetery near Lake Lane in Braxton County.
Note From the Author
Sometimes dialing a wrong number pays dividends. For many years I had in the back of my mind the tale of the young man who was murdered on Clover Fork and his lifeless body was then dumped down a well. The years had eroded my recollection of the facts of the case and I couldn’t even put names to the tragic event. Years ago, when I first heard of the dastardly deed, while my first thought was for the victim of the crime, my second thought was, “What a terrible thing to do to a water well where people get their water.” A few months ago, while I was mulling over this story in my mind, I thought that I would call my best source for old Orlando happenings, my cousin, Dale Barnett. Dale, true as ever, spotted me the last names of some of the people involved in the murder, and gave me a kick start on the story. This story had laid dormant in my file for sometime while I wrote other stories but eventually I got back around to it. One of the witnesses who testified at the murder trial in Braxton County was Willis Townsend. Through a little research I determined that Willis Townsend, who was probably long dead, had a daughter Nellie, who had married Dee Cayton. Checking the telephone directory for the central West Virginia area, lo and behold, I found a listing for “Nellie Cayton.” An elderly sounding woman answered my telephone call and I asked if I were speaking with Nellie Cayton. She replied in the affirmative. I told Nellie the purpose of my call and the memories of the murder of young Teter came flowing back to her. Nellie told me that she was eighty seven years of age and was a young child at the time of the murder of Alvia Teter. Obviously she had listened carefully as adults around her had talked of the grisly events of 1928. In detail Nellie told me with remarkable minutia of the events surrounding the murder of Alvia Teter. I couldn’t believe my good fortune as a researcher to find such an animated recollection of an event which took place nearly eighty years ago. Nearing the end of the fascinating conversation with Nellie I asked her if she had a photograph of her father, Willis Townsend, who had been a witness during the murder trial. Nellie then advised me that she was the daughter of Walter Taylor, not Willis Townsend, and that I should speak with her sister in law, whose name was also Nellie Cayton. Nellie came to my assistance and told me that the Nellie Cayton I had intended to call was her late husband’s brother’s widow, who was just a little younger than she, and that she was the daughter of Willis Townsend. I thought to myself what a stroke of good luck I had when I dialed the wrong telephone number.
My father, Walter Taylor, was a blacksmith at Knawl. When I was young I used to help my father at the blacksmith forge by pumping the bellows to keep air flowing across the coals. He often talked to me about the Alvia Teter murder and the events surrounding it. I remember that I was shocked to hear the tale and could scarcely believe anyone would do such a thing.
Owen Vankirk did not take kindly to Willis Townsend and Tony Mick participating in the search for the murdered Alvia Teter. Vankirk reportedly threatened to kill both Townsend and Mick which caused them to be afraid for their own lives. Townsend refused to go outside after dark for years after the murder of Alvia Teter.