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Did judge free a murderer?

Kevin Collier • Jul 21, 2015 at 1:05 PM

That was on the night of April 23, 1906.

A year later, authorities arrested William Shimmel, a Muskegon factory worker employed with Continental Motors, for the murder. Shimmel went on trial in 1907.

Shimmel was actually tried for the murder twice.

The first trial in June 1907 resulted in a hung jury with no verdict. Shimmel was retried that November.

It was the second trial that determined Shimmel’s fate.

In the deciding trial, Judge Philip Padghan rejected a motion from defense attorney Willard Turner Sr. for a direct verdict of not guilty, placing the decision entirely in the hands of the jury. Padghan was convinced that the lack of evidence was so clear that there would be no conviction. 

When the jury returned with a verdict of guilty, Padghan was stunned.

Thus, the judge set the verdict aside, and Shimmel was acquitted and set free.

It’s always been a mystery whether or not the judge released Golden’s killer, or released an innocent man. And, if Shimmel was not guilty, then who was? Someone had gotten away with murder.

Martin C. Golden was born June 16, 1870, close to Dennison, a small town not far from Nunica. He lived most of his life in Polkton Township and was a teacher in Ottawa County schools for several years, which included two years at Coopersville High School. At the time of his death, Golden owned and operated the town’s general store, and also served as its postmaster.

The Grand Haven Tribune reported, “The murder of Golden was one of the most dastardly in the criminal annals of this, or any other county.”

Golden, just shy of 36 years old at the time, had just locked up his general store, concluding a day of business, and headed down the boardwalk to his home. An unknown assailant approached him, shooting him twice. The gunman stole about $100 in currency, some checks, a wristwatch and a bag of coins from the victim, and fled.

Ed McCarthy and his cousin, Tom, were standing outdoors in front of their home, no more than 200 yards away, when the shots rang out. As they approached in the direction of the sound, a shadowy man ran past them, gun in hand.

Spotting Golden laying on the boardwalk, the two did not pursue the gunman, and rushed to his aid. Golden died from his wounds the following day: April 24, 1906.

Weeks after the crime, a cap, pocketbook and gun were discovered hidden behind a log on the property of Emerson Averill, also of Dennison.

After the trial, the Grand Haven Tribune published an editorial on Nov. 15, 1907, defending the judge’s decision to set Shimmel free. It read: “Judge Padghan’s stand in the Shimmel case ... meets with the approval of 99 out of 100 people in Ottawa County, and his firm position is to be commended.”

William Shimmel, who was in his late 40s when he became the focal point of the infamous murder, lived to a ripe old age. His obituary, carried by The Associated Press, was published in several Michigan newspapers on Nov. 24, 1936. It read: “William Shimmel, 77 years old, 157 Ottawa St., whose funeral is to be conducted here tomorrow at 2 p.m. from the Sytsema Funeral Home with burial at Ravenna, once figured prominently in the headlines for the part he played in the celebrated Martin Golden murder case in Ottawa County.”

The article also noted evidence was circumstantial and the judge had set Shimmel free,

What the obituary failed to mention was that William Shimmel was sent to the Traverse City State Hospital in 1936, after going to jail for assaulting his wife with an ax. He died at the State Hospital that same year.

James Fitzpatrick thinks that Shimmel was likely the killer of his great uncle Martin C. Golden, but commented that the circumstantial evidence was not enough to convict the man.

Golden’s home still stands in Dennison and has changed hands many times over the past 100 years.

What hasn't changed is the historical question: Was a killer set free?

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