August 22, 1975 in Wilmington, Delaware sounded something like a riot. It all started with a peach tree several days earlier.
Sheila Farrell, a 13-year old, and her friends were playing around picking peaches. Before a tree blight, Georgia wasn’t the peach state, Delaware was. Did you know that? It’s still the state flower.
Anyway, the children were picking peaches in the backyard of John Bailey.
The Baileys weren’t living in the house at the time. They were slowly renovating the place. Thieves and vandals regularly damaged the property when John Bailey wasn’t there and at night they would steal away with his building materials.
Despite multiple complaints to the police, no one was ever apprehended. The next chain of events is unproven. Multiple witnesses had multiple stories.
On the night of August 17, Bailey was at the house when he heard voices coming from the peach tree next to the house. Believing the voices to be vandals, he fired a random shot in that direction and Sheila, one of the five kids picking peaches, dropped to the ground.
Another, more likely, story:
Numerous witnesses saw Bailey drive up to the property when he spotted the children in his tree. They saw John Bailey charge after the children who were now scattering. Another witness heard John Bailey yell: “Stop or I’ll shoot.”
What was an indisputable fact not gleaned from witness statements: Sheila Farrell was shot in the back at 6:50 p.m. on a Sunday evening. When shot, she was being chased by Bailey.
Five eye witnesses testified that Bailey pointed the gun at Sheila after shouting his warning, fired a shot and then continued to chase her until she collapsed one block away on the porch of her house.
He then fled the scene but not before frantically explaining to bystanders that she had stolen his furniture. They stared back horrified and shocked at what they had witnessed. Then the called the police.
Police were on the scene within 10 minutes. With so many witnesses they easily obtained a detailed description of Bailey, the house and his license plate number.
Not an hour passed before police closed in on Bailey at his parent’s house not far away. Bailey’s wife refused them entry telling the officers: “What are owners to do when people trespass and pick peaches?”
She claimed her husband was not at the house but a warrant proved otherwise. The police found Bailey hiding in the attic over the garage. The car he had fled in was in the garage too with the hood up, staged as if he had been working on the car during the time of the shooting.
Ammunition was found at the scene but the gun itself was never recovered.
Sheila Farrell remained in a coma for several days before succumbing to her injuries. Bailey was arrested and charged. His family raised $30,000 for bail and his release.
The case was a sore spot. Young Sheila was black and John Bailey was white. Angered by his quick release after a violent crime, black demonstrators gathered outside his home for several nights as Bailey awaited trial.
They broke shop windows on streets adjacent to a protest and police used nightsticks and tear gas to break up the crowds.
The chief investigating officer was hit by a brick and admitted to the same hospital where Sheila had been brought. A curfew was imposed as police lined the streets in riot gear.
For many it brought back memories of the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and the longest ever occupation of an American city by the National Guard. (You can read about that in this post here).
Sheila’s mother, Carolyn, and her ex-husband went on the radio to plead for a stop to the violence.
In a gesture to satisfy public anger, Bailey was re-arrested and his bail was increased to $130,000. Bailey’s family managed to raise that amount too and he was once again freed.
This only enraged the public more. Protesters attempted to firebomb the Bailey’s house. Three months later the trial began but the jury selection of all whites except for one juror did nothing to ease tensions. The Bailey family cut down the peach tree that had been at the center of everything.
During the trial John Bailey took the stand for his own defense. He claimed he hadn’t shot Sheila. It wasn’t a gun in his hand but his chrome door handle which had broken off.
Then he said he could name the real killer: Willie Johnson, a 19-year old who happened to be the state’s chief witness against him. The jury remained unconvinced.
In December of 1975, John Bailey was found guilty of manslaughter. He was sentenced to consecutive sentences of 30 years for manslaughter and 10 years for a felony-weapon offense.
The state had to take extra precautions to keep the unpopular Bailey out of general population in the jail. As a solution they shuffled him between federal prisons in Indiana, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Florida.
Despite the moves his family said he was frequently badly beaten up anyway.