Arlene Hale, Cheryl and Lee Irwin, Deputy Slaughter, Harley Austin Conner, Samuel Lane Pittmen, Sheriff Eli Mark Read, WIllie James Ellison
The “certifiably haunted” Old Gilchrist County Jail has sold. On June 4, 2021, Cheryl and Lee Irwin purchased the 2,078 square foot jail for $117,500. The former owners, Gary and Arlene Hale, purchased the old building on March 10, 2005, for $30,000. Ms. Hale maintained the property until she decided that she was getting too old. The new owners are looking to expand the events by adding an AirBnB. For many in the paranormal community, this location has yielded a lot of evidence of multiple hauntings.
The 2-story jail was built in 1928 with 8 cells with toilets and sinks. For decades, the county sheriff’s department did not employee overnight staff. It wasn’t until 1965/1966 that a jailer’s quarters were added so that there were employees guarding prisoners through the night. The jail ceased operations in 1968. Since 1980, when the county property records were added to the database, there were many owners—even a few who re-deeded the property after deeding to another person. Hmm.
The interior has not changed in the 50+ years since it closed. Metal beds and doors appear original. The building has little graffiti and is ripe for investigations. Several articles announcing the sale do, however, have some of the facts incorrect.
First, there was only one officer technically killed in the line of duty.
In 1934, the sheriff’s deputies did not work overnight shifts. Therefore, merchants hired off-duty officers as watchmen. Deputy Sheriff Sidney L. Slaughter, age 32, was working at a grocery store on the night of January 22, 1934, in Trenton, Florida. Three bandits initiated a “midnight gun battle” while robbing the store. Deputy Slaughter was able to get off three shots before being fatally stricken. One of the bandits fired a bullet that broke Slaughter’s neck. He died at the scene. The only witness Mrs. Caswell merely heard the shots fired but did not see the robbers. The case remains unsolved. A theory at the time was that the robbers were the same men who kidnapped and beat another Gilchrist County deputy weeks before. That officer resigned. Unfortunately, Deputy Slaughter was hired to replace him. “Thy valor shall be unforgotten” is inscribed on his tombstone.
The second death was in 1956. Sheriff Eli Mark Read had only been appointed to the position a few months prior when he was killed. On Sunday, December 9, 1956 (which horribly was his birthday), Sheriff Read was responding to a complaint from Edward Conner and Claude L. Rodgers about their father and father-in-law drinking and brandishing a shotgun. They believed him to be dangerous. Several attempts to disarm him were unsuccessful. They drove into Trenton to get the Sheriff to disarm the man.
The man was Harley Austin Conner, age 55, of Bell, Florida, a tiny town in Gilchrist County. Conner was made aware by his family members that Read was coming out to relieve him of his gun. Sheriff Read honked his horn while pulling his car onto the property. He exited his vehicle, walked around, and was returning to his car when he was shot in the stomach and arm. He got into his car and radioed to Mrs. Robert Dodson that he was shot. Read drove his car into a tree. Conner’s neighbor, Amos Philman, found Read and drove him to an awaiting ambulance in Trenton. Read was transported to Gainesville, Florida, where he died three hours later. He had 8 shotgun pellets (buckshot) in him.
Conner was located at another son’s house. Leonard Conner testified that his father initially admitted the shooting but appeared intoxicated. In addition, Sheriff Read told several witnesses that Harley was, in fact, the shooter; however, the state had to prove their case in court. A jury rejected Conner’s defense that he was not guilty for reason of insanity and found him guilty of 1st degree murder; he was sentenced to death. Conner was electrocuted on June 1, 1959.
In a few articles, paranormal investigators claimed to have communicated with Willie James Ellison, a man who was killed in 2008. This is one that seems dubious.
Willie James Ellison (12.9.1969-5.31-6.1.2008) was incarcerated several times during his life. However, none of the instances were in Gilchrist County, and most certainly never in the old jail. Willie had a cocaine habit. He also sold the illegal drug. On April 16, 2007, Willie was released from the Florida Department of Corrections. He returned to Trenton and resumed family life. However, something went tragically wrong for Willie between May 31-June 1 of 2008. During that 2-day period, he was shot twice with a 12-gauge shotgun. It took several days for Willie’s body to be found. On June 4, Willie’s body was discovered on Tyler Grade Road by someone passing by. (Note: The medical examiner placed the date of death between those days.)
Samuel Lane Pittman, age 29 at trial in 2011, was arrested and charged. Just prior to the commencement of his trial, Pittman struck a no contest plea deal whereby he confessed to manslaughter and was sentenced to 9 years, 3 months, and 14 days in jail. According to the inmate database, he remains incarcerated.
I see several flaws in Willie haunting the jail. First, he was never incarcerated in that jail. Nor was he incarcerated in Gilchrist County. Second, his body was not found close to the jail. In fact, he was found outside of town. Sure, he resided 5 blocks from the jail, but why would he want to haunt it? I need more evidence.
The new owners are beginning to add content to the website, https://oldgilchristcountyjail.webs.com/. Even though there are historical inconsistencies in the reporting of the hauntings, you should still give it a try. This may be an ideal location to learn how to properly investigate and to learn how your equipment works.
You mention that the new owners are looking to expand events by adding an AirBnB. Does this mean you could sleep at the prison?
The Haunted Librarian said:
Yes! If you go to their webpage, https://oldgilchristcountyjail.webs.com/, it has the contact information for the new owner. Call her! Keep me posted, too. Would love to hear about your experiences.