Chief of Police John J. Finnell

Chief of Police John J. Finnell

Elmira Police Department, New York

End of Watch Tuesday, March 23, 1915

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John J. Finnell

Chief John Finnell and Detective Sergeant Charles Gradwell were shot and killed while attempting to question two burglary suspects in a rooming house on Baldwin Street. The two men they went to question were suspected in a string of recent burglaries. Both officers were shot in the room where the men were staying.

Both suspects fled the scene. One was apprehended a short time later but the other was identified but never apprehended. The suspect was convicted of murder in the second degree of Sergeant Gradwell and sentenced to 20 years to life. He was paroled in 1930 and sent back to Chemung County to face a 1915 burglary charge. He was convicted of burglary, sent back to prison, and released in 1935.

Chief Finnell was survived by his wife.


  • Age 44
  • Tour Not available
  • Badge Not available

Incident Details

  • Cause Gunfire
  • Weapon Handgun; .38 caliber
  • Offender One apprehended

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Suspect in Elmira police chief's 1915 murder was never caught after several false leads

June 14th 2021 Star Gazette News

“Over all the countryside the shimmering glow of automobile headlights betokened to anyone in hiding of the approach of a posse," the Star-Gazette reported on March 24, 1915. "Automobiles disregarded all speed limits as they sped over the pavements for the rural regions. Inside each car was a throng of man-hunters carrying shot guns, rifles, revolvers. All were armed to the teeth and prepared for any sort of an emergency.”

This automobile posse had been dispatched by Chemung County District Attorney Ely W. Personius and Capt. Elvin D. Weaver, of the Elmira Police Department, at about 1 a.m. of the 24th in pursuit of the man suspected of the murder of Elmira Police Chief John J. Finnell the day before.

Armed policemen, special deputies, soldiers of Company L and citizens made up the posse. They were searching for Jack Penny, alias John (Jack) Cramer.

The Star-Gazette report continued, “The experience of those who were members of searching parties after dark last night or even those who were entering barns, lumber yards and freight cars yesterday afternoon was most thrilling. They did not know what moment the revolver carried by the outlaw might speak out its death-telling bark.”

Jack Penny and Edward Westervelt had come to Elmira on March 18. They were parolees from the New Jersey State Penitentiary, having served time for burglary. Upon arrival, they had booked a room at Mary J. Collins’ boarding house at 314 Baldwin St. Soon after, reports of burglaries increased.

Elmira police Det. Sgt. Charles Gradwell was assigned to investigate. On March 23, Finnell and Gradwell, in response to leads, decided to call on Penny and Westervelt.

Erin Doane, curator at the Chemung County Historical Museum, described what happened in the September 2015 “Chemung Historical Journal.”

“Chief Finnell and Detective Gradwell arrived at the boarding house at about 3:30 in the afternoon. Mrs. Collins let the officers in then went to the back yard to hang some clothes. Both Westervelt and Penny were in the room this time. Gradwell told the men that he had brought the Chief and they were going to talk a few minutes. He took off his overcoat and draped it over the chair. After a brief conversation, he told the men they had to go to headquarters to be searched. That was when the two suspects decided to flee.

“Westervelt dove toward the window and Penny ran for the door. Chief Finnell grabbed Westervelt’s leg and broke it as he dragged him from the window. Westervelt in turn pulled a revolver from his pocket and shot the Chief in the head at close range. He died almost immediately. Detective Gradwell pulled his gun from his pocket but was shot twice before he could return fire. The first bullet entered the left side of his body about four inches to the left of his spine while the second entered his face at the left side of his jaw and went upward into his brain. Penny bolted the door then he and Westervelt escaped out the window.”

Westervelt and Penny were separated upon leaving the boarding house. Westervelt would be apprehended at the First Methodist Church just down the street later that day with a revolver having fired three shots. Penny escaped and became the subject of the aforementioned search by the posse.

The emotions surrounding this murder were volatile. Garth Wade wrote in the Star-Gazette on Dec. 2, 1978 that upon Westervelt’s arrest, crowds yelled “lynch him … kill him.” He also noted that when Weaver (who would become the next chief) found the bodies, “the sight almost drove the captain crazy with grief. He stiffened up and the cold tears ran down his face.”

At the time of the chief’s funeral, the newspaper reported, “when grief steps in all men think alike. Thousands of broken hearted Elmirans filled the streets around the residence of the late police chief … and the St. Patrick’s church this morning. They didn’t attend the funeral of the chief of police, nor of a man who had laid his life down for the protection of others. They attended the funeral of 'Hop' Finnell. They had lost a friend and were heartbroken" (Star-Gazette, March 27, 1915).

The search for Penny continued. On March 3, 1917, the Star-Gazette reported, “District Attorney Personius runs down Jack Penny serving with English Army in France only to find he is the wrong man.”

On June 2, 1920, the paper headlined “Police Now Feel Confident Fugitive Being Held In Oklahoma is Jack Penny; Elmira Officers Go To Identify Him.” The officers planned to use the Bertillon system of measuring instruments to identify him (measure head and fingers, determine height and weight, record color of eyes). On June 11, it was reported that measurements and fingerprints “proved beyond a doubt” he was the wrong Penny.

On Nov. 22, 1928, the Star-Gazette headline read, “Elmirans Have Visions of Return of Murderer Penny When Arrest Reported.” However, the “swindler” captured in Los Angeles did not match the “Elmira” Penny.

Wade reported in his 1978 article that the “hunt turned up a man in Salt Run, Pennsylvania who matched Penny’s description identically but wasn’t Penny. Three men were detained in Hornell and Mrs. Collins was taken to the Maple City to identify one of them as Penny. None was Penny" (Star-Gazette, Dec. 3, 1978).

Penny was never caught.

Elmira Police Chief Thomas J. Donnells doubted Penny’s guilt. He told Wade, “I have never found anything that has substantiated the claim that Penny was there. That was based on sort of a hearsay.”

Westervelt would be tried in Binghamton and convicted of murder in the second degree. He was sentenced to 20 years to life at the Auburn prison. His defense for the chief’s murder was that Penny did it. Westervelt would serve 15 years and was paroled in 1930 to Chemung County to face other indictments. A plea deal was arranged whereby he pleaded guilty to burglary, and the murder indictment on Finnell’s death was dismissed. He served five years of a seven-year sentence, being released in 1935. He died in New York City in 1952.

According to Wade, Donnells believed that Westervelt was not executed because of the way he was treated after his arrest; he was held nearly 24 hours without medical treatment.

In January 2021, Elmira Police Chief Joseph Kane told me that the case is classified as “Office Review.” In effect, there are no solvability factors present, and no further active investigative efforts will be made.

The chief also noted that four Elmira police officers have died in the line of duty. All the deaths took place on Baldwin Street.

Retired Police Officer

June 14, 2021

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