Monday, October 26, 2015

Summer of '65: Murder on the Lake




Historians say America changed in the mid-1960s. It did in the Shoals, but perhaps not for the same reasons it did elsewhere. It was officially less than a week into summer on June 28, 1965. It may have been Monday, but it wasn't unusual for kids out of school to party each night of the week. Many had the money and parents who trusted them--a lethal combination.

It was also a time when there was only one public high school in Florence. Coffee High had five social clubs and an arch enemy across the river in Sheffield, but as anyone would have told you before that night it was all harmless competition.

Robert Stewart Jr., known to his friends as Bobby, had been a big time jock at Sheffield High. A track star, Bobby had graduated in 1960, winning a scholarship to Florida State University. Five years later, Bobby was back in the Shoals and attending what was then Florence State College, but at 23 he still lacked several credits to graduate. If anyone had any concerns about Bobby, it was that most of his friends were younger and still in high school. The youths looked up to Bobby, and he liked it that way.

It became common knowledge that the Nenon Social Club would be having a party that Monday night. Coffee High was home to only the last three grades of public school, so only rising juniors and seniors would be among the girls who had rented a cabin on Lake Wilson. Bobby decided to crash the event, taking along as many as 30 youths from Colbert County.

The Nenon girls had invited boys to the unchaperoned party, but just not any from Colbert County. Once Bobby and his crew reached the cabin on Lauderdale Beach Road, they found themselves unwanted by the Nenons who managed to bar their entrance. It seems if Bobby Stewart and his Colbert County friends couldn't attend the party, he would make sure no one else did.

*****

The car pulled onto the Lauderdale County road leading to the lake house. Inside were four youths, one a May 1965 graduate of Coffee High School and three current students, all football players and all anticipating a summer party. Instead what awaited the boys was a gang of Colbert County youths led by Bobby Stewart.

With the road blocked, the driver attempted to turn around, but was forced into a ditch. Continuing to drive, he made it back onto the road and out onto Highway 72. Heading back toward Florence, the driver realized he was being pursued by Stewart and some of the track star's friends. Speeds reached 65 miles an hour, but the group of Coffee footballers lost Stewart and his gang after turning onto Huntsville Road.

Instead of reporting the incident to authorities, the youths decided to seek the aid of Richard Leland Romine. The Florence butcher was only 40 years old, and many of his son's friends saw him as one of the gang, one who would know how to handle the situation.

Six months before, Romine's son Richard Jr. had been attacked by Bobby Stewart. Friends said the attack was so vicious that Richard Jr.'s own family couldn't recognize him. For whatever reason, the fight was never reported to police, but Richard Sr. had good reason not to like Stewart or his friends.

The boys immediately drove to the Romine home in North Florence and were soon joined by Richard Jr. who had been at a movie that night. The six decided to return to the lake house and confront Stewart. No one suggested calling authorities, but Richard Romine Sr. was going to be prepared for any eventuality. He picked up a gun...

*****

It was shortly before eleven o' clock when Richard Romine Sr, his son, and four friends arrived at the camp on Lauderdale Beach Road. The entrance to the camp driveway was blocked by a car identified as the one that had pursued the four Coffee youths.

The six men exited their vehicle with the intention of walking down to the camp, but were met by another Coffee High School student. The young man sported a bloody lip and informed the group that Bobby Stewart's gang was attacking anyone who tried to get to the lake cabin. It wasn't safe to go any farther.

Romine decided to ignore the young man's warning and began the trek to the cabin, along with his five companions. Before he reached the camp, a group of five young men approached. The oldest one spoke directly to Richard Romine Jr., asking him what he thought he was doing there.

The elder Romine walked forward and asked the man if he was Bobby Stewart. When Stewart replied in the affirmative, Romine extended his hand and identified himself, stating he was concerned about the violence that had been taking place between the Colbert and Lauderdale County boys.

After shaking Romine's hand, Stewart quickly stated he had not attacked anyone, but Romine continued, asking Stewart if he had not instigated most of the violence over the past few months. Romine stated if the violence continued he would have Stewart arrested. Stewart shot back that he could just as easily have Romine arrested.

Whether Richard Romine Sr. was angered or simply tired of the ongoing dispute, he decided to finish it that night in some manner. Pulling the .38 from his pants, he fired into the ground, later telling authorities he simply wanted Stewart to know he was indeed serious.

When Stewart saw the gun, he stepped back. Romine first hit Stewart in the stomach with his fist, then swung at Stewart's head, still holding the loaded gun in his hand. The gun discharged, hitting Stewart just over the left eye. A shocked Romine knelt and held Stewart's head in his lap as others brought a car down to the scene. Romine and some others placed Bobby Stewart in the car and headed toward ECM hospital.

After being met by an ambulance on the way into Florence, Romine helped the group transfer Stewart. He then began to follow the ambulance to the hospital, but abruptly decided to drive to the Florence Police Department instead. Romine entered the Pine Street department and immediately announced he had shot Bobby Stewart, handing his weapon to a surprised police captain.

The call came into the police department that Robert T. Stewart Jr. had died in the emergency department at approximately midnight. Now Richard Leland Romine Sr. was facing a charge of what was then called First Degree Murder.

*****

Richard Leland Romine's trial began on November 29, 1965. Frank Potts and Bryce U. Graham acted as defense attorneys for the North Florence father who had initially faced the charge of First Degree Murder (now known as Capital Murder). A Lauderdale grand jury indicted the 40 year-old Romine on the lesser charge of Second Degree Murder (now known as Felony Murder). Lavern Tate prosecuted for the state.

The trial was unique in that the parents of former high school standout athlete Bobby Stewart didn't feel justice would be done for a Sheffield victim in Lauderdale County. They hired Muscle Shoals attorney Donald Wassner to assist the Lauderdale District Attorney's office in its prosecution of Romine. Their actions may have produced the exact opposite of their intent. Wassner had located in the Shoals in the 1950s. A staunch Republican, he was noted for having been a prisoner of war in WWII, but was also considered an outsider in the then staunchly Democratic area of Northwest Alabama.

The prosecution depicted Romine as leading a group of young Coffee football players, armed with pipes, to confront and attack Stewart. Defense attorney Frank Potts called the defendant to the stand on the fifth day of the trial; Romine related how his son had been bullied and beaten by Stewart at least ten times, perhaps more. He admitted to being at a loss as to the proper way to handle the situation since the Lauderdale County Sheriff's office had not acted. Potts then called a bevy of character witnesses for the defendant, depicting him as a family man with a responsible job. Throughout the trial, Stewart had been presented as a perennial student who socialized with younger boys from Sheffield High who were easily manipulated.

On December 4th, Donald Wassner presented the prosecution's closing arguments while the Lauderdale prosecutors sat silent. The jury took two hours and 23 minutes to acquit Romine.


Editor's Note: It's now been 50 years since the tragic death of Bobby Stewart split the Shoals apart. Both Richard Leland Romine and his son are now deceased, as are the parents of Bobby Stewart. The names of any witnesses, living or dead, have intentionally been omitted from this account.