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A Birmingham True Crime Story

Birmingham has had its share of criminal activity since it was settled in the early 19th century, and its police force has a long history of protecting its citizens, and maintaining the peace.  A particularly dramatic example took place in the early 1920s, when the department uncovered a far reaching federal crime hiding behind Birmingham’s sleepy streets.

Gaskill PhotoHomer F. Gaskill became the first Chief of Police in Birmingham just after World War I, when it was still a quiet village.  He served from 1919 to 1926.  In looking back on his career in 1955, Gaskill wrote about one particular Birmingham incident from 1922 that stood out for him.  It involved the common elements of marriage, greed, and fraud, and had gone on undetected for decades before being solved.

It all began when Gaskill, in his official capacity as village Chief of Police, began to receive letters from businesses as far away as San Francisco and New Orleans. They asked him to look into Box No. 102 at the U.S. Post Office (now known as the U.S. Postal Service) in Birmingham. Upon investigation, Gaskill later wrote, he found that the box contained a “bushel” of parcels under the name of ”F.G. Willets[1].” The chief asked the postmaster to inform him when anyone came to retrieve the mail.

Two weeks later, Gaskill learned that Willets had picked up his parcels from the post office. The police chief soon found the man at the D.U.R station (located at the time on Woodward, just south of Maple) and began questioning him. When Gaskill asked him where he lived, Willets replied “I don’t live here, but I live at Bloomfield Center.”  (Bloomfield Center was the name used at the time for the small community at Long Lake and Woodward).  But Gaskill, a clever man, had already investigated “all Public Utilities” and learned that “no one was listed under the name of Willets!”

After catching him in this lie, Gaskill placed him under arrest and contacted the sheriff in Pontiac, who soon arrived in Birmingham.  He told the officers that his real name was William Ortell.  Under further questioning, he “broke down and confessed that he and his wife had, for twenty years, been using the mails to defraud.”  He went on to give details of their modus operandi.

First, the Ortells would contact a retail store using the name Willets and ask the merchant to send them a particular piece of merchandise on credit. After they received it, they would send it back with a letter explaining that their daughter had died in an accident, and asking for a refund.  The fraudulent refund checks they received “amounted anywhere from $25.00 to $40.00,” according to Gaskill.  Later that day, one of Gaskill’s officers arrested Ortell’s wife, who had approximately twenty packages from stores in Toledo and Cleveland in her automobile. Caught, as the saying goes, “red-handed.”

Post office/mail fraud was and is a serious crime.  Both Ortell and his wife were tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison.  Within a year, however, Mrs. Ortell had died.  On the other hand, William Ortell served his full sentence.  He returned to Birmingham where he worked as a furniture repairman in his later years, apparently welcome in the community after paying dearly for his crime.

Photo:  Homer Gaskill in uniform, seated inside the Village Treasurer's office (located inside Library Hall) in 1922. (Photo taken January 11, 1922; from Ruth Anne Silbar, 'Birmingham Background,' Birmingham Eccentric, n.d. Clipping in Birmingham Museum collection). Virtual exhibit by Robert Lutey and Leslie Pielack

[1] "Using the U.S. Mails to Defraud." Homer F. Gaskill to Editor of First Person, Reader's Digest. 1955. Birmingham Museum Collection, Birmingham, Michigan.