One of the most famous swindling Romeos was captured near Gate City, Virginia. Ironically, at the same time of the “Lonely Hearts” serial killers, notorious “Lonely Heart” Ernest I. Torrence gained national attention after his arrest. The famous con artist Romeo wasn’t just out for love, research linked him to something far worse than mere swindling.
To Catch the Thief
The fateful night began at the Gate City train station, in July of 1949. Torrence made romantic advances towards a lone woman at the station, but she rejected him. He persisted until her vocal rejections alerted nearby railroad detectives. Torrence fled when the detectives noticed him, but they had already notified state troopers.
Unfortunately for Torrence, state troopers were behind him before he pulled onto the street. They followed his LeSalle through narrow roads until he finally gave up, fifteen miles later. Virginia State Trooper C. G. Cunningham made the arrest near the Tennessee line. The chase had gotten close to 100 mph at several points. It was soon established that Trooper Cunningham had done more than catch someone speeding or harassing.
Authorities established that Torrence was the worst type of predator. The initial reasons for arrest were speeding and reckless driving, however countless women across the nation were saved. Torrence’s suitcase contained over 300 love letters. This was only the beginning of this incredible case.
Just in the Tri-Cities region, Torrence had a virtual fan club. In addition to the woman he targeted in Gate City, he tried to pick up three girls near the railroad tracks in Hiltons, Virginia. He posed as a Mayflower Hotel Executive, from New York City, to several women in Johnson City, Tennessee. Reports that he was actually engaged to a Johnson City woman had emerged by May 30.
His car was registered to Mildred Torrence, of Texas. His driver’s license said he was Ernest Torrence, of Phoenix, Arizona. The authorities were absolutely baffled. Torrence was overweight and in his 50s, yet seemed to be irresistible to women. To everyone else he appeared, “bald,” and “seedy.” The press invented variety of clever names for the unsuspecting heartbreaker, including, “The Light, Heavyweight Lothario,” and the “Don Juan Love Looter.”
Torrence wouldn’t speak to the police when they arrested him. He told them they had the information they needed and it was their job to build the case. He refused to do their job for them.
He was jointly indicted in Virginia and Pennsylvania. He was first taken to the jail in Wytheville, and then onto Hillsville jail, in Carroll County. He was charged with “fraudulent conversion.” By the time of the transfer, he’d composed himself and several papers described him as “polished.” The victim reported her fiancé had proposed to her in Carroll County, Virginia. He had taken $2,500 from her to invest in Florida real estate and disappeared. The fiancé was Ernest Torrence.
She was Stella Hill, a cotton mill worker who in Fries, Virginia. Torrence introduced himself as Bradley Franklin McMillan. He claimed he found her through a social club mailing list in Florida. The couple began corresponding on February 20. They continued to grow closer through their letters, or that’s what Hill thought, and met on April 1. He said he needed to borrow $200. She let him and was promptly paid back three weeks later. He wrote her from Knoxville, Tennessee, on May 7. Authorities also found a letter he mailed on May 9, postmarked Johnson City, Tennessee. She gave him $2,500 for a piece of land in Osceola County, Florida. Bradley disappeared along with her investment money.
At that time, he was also in a serious relationship with yet another lady in Kentucky. The relationship with the Johnson City woman ended around June 9, but she agreed to continue a business partnership with him. He bilked her for $2,500 in the guise of real estate investment.
The authorities found a number of deeds in his car made out to women. They were suspicious of their validity, even though they looked official, with the appropriate seals and detail. The Sheriff of Carroll County and a Commonwealth Attorney traveled to Osceola County, to examine the deeds at the courthouse. It was as they feared. The deeds were all for properties that didn’t exist.
It didn’t surprise the authorities when a woman came to the jail days later. She claimed to be his wife. Mildred DeArmond was Torrence’s common-law wife. The pretty, young blonde was arrested as an accessory. The authorities found she was also wanted in Ohio for stealing mortgaged property. While she never admitted she knew he conned women, she did present herself as Torrence’s sister to some of his victims. She was held in the Wytheville jail.
The Annin Family
Torrence was held in Wytheville, but charges from across the nation continued. The Annin family, of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, reported Torrence taken a whopping $17,000 from them. That amount adjusted for inflation would be $170,823 today.
Julie Annin was a 30-year-old waitress who met Torrence in Arizona, in 1947. He visited her in Pennsylvania after she returned to her family. He eventually courted her with the intent to marry. He even purchased her an engagement ring, with her own money. The Annins claimed Torrence showered them with gifts, in the beginning.
Her mother, Anna, played a key role in the events that followed. For some reason, Torrence shipped 80 crates of oranges to the Annin household, with a collect charge, and the family had to pay. Fortunately, they made most of their money back by peddling the oranges to their community. The family actually met Mildred Torrence, but Ernest said she was his sister.
Torrence must’ve been a born salesman, because he hadn’t finished with the Annin family even after the orange fiasco. He visited again and claimed he was not only an agent for a major film studio, but was working on his own television studio and needed investment capital.
Anna Annin rounded up her life savings, as well as funds from some of her children, to invest in what seemed like a legitimate purpose. However, Torrence disappeared as soon as they gave him the money. Julie Annin said the relationship destroyed her.
Torrence was charged with fraudulent conversion in Allegheny County, and authorities established he took over $14,000 from the Annin family. He was charged with grand larceny and embezzlement, and held under a $50,000 bond. He couldn’t make bond, so he remained in custody. Charges poured in from four more states.
One of Many
Authorities grew concerned about a case in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Rose Pletcher wrote to her friends that she’d married Charles E. Webb, of Philadelphia. She then just disappeared. Authorities found her information in Torrence’s address book along with several signed checks from her. Luckily, the 50-year-old just moved from her original address.
By late July, another woman came forward in Texarkana, Texas. She said Torrence took $6,000 from her, part of which she had to borrow, and disappeared. He said he was a cattle rancher, but the drought bankrupted him. He needed the money to dig a well because his springs had dried up. He said his cattle were near death due to thirst. Further allegations came from Ohio, Georgia, Maryland, Florida, and Texas.
The authorities were baffled as to how he was able to con so many women, with such varied tales, in such a short amount of time. Not only were they impressed with his verbal creativity, he somehow produced official-looking proof of his stories, such as the fake deeds.
They believed his overall strategy was universal, although never figured out exactly how he obtained his victims’ addresses or information. One victim reported he’d contacted her as a representative for a non-profit group and their courtship began at that point.
His fingerprints revealed he was Glenn Hill, who was also wanted in Georgia. He swindled $700 in jewels from a woman in Waycross, Georgia. He told her that Rose Pletcher, in Pittsburg, had done him wrong, but he needed time, and money, to figure out how he would tell her it was over.
The Past Catches Up
Torrence was convicted of grand larceny in Carroll County, on September 20, 1949. He was sentenced to ten years in the state penitentiary. The jury deliberated for 50 minutes. The fake deed he showed Hill was produced as evidence.
Mildred was seen as an accomplice by some, and a victim by others. She claimed Torrence was a good husband, but was gone most of the time. She said they’d gotten together six years earlier, when she was 22, and he was 51. She told authorities they’d lived in Michigan, Texas, and Florida since their marriage.
She was speechless when the authorities showed her the stacks of love letters and fake deeds. Women from all over the nation had promised Torrence money and marriage. Mildred was in Ashland, Kentucky, when she read of her husband’s capture in a newspaper. He made no attempt to contact her, and it was unclear if he even knew where she was. She was alone and had no money.
She hitchhiked across Kentucky, and on to Wytheville, where authorities held him. It was never established why she didn’t just walk away, but she told authorities she wanted to “stick by” her husband.
She was arrested when she arrived. She claimed she was Torrence’s “common-law wife.” Her dedication to her husband was not to her benefit. She went on trial in September for her role as an accomplice. She was charged with fraudulent conversion, for stealing $3,200 from the Annin family. Mildred told the court it was a loan, but the court didn’t see it that way.
She was convicted, but only received 5 years probation. She pleaded with the courts not to end her to prison. It stunned the court that Julia Annin, Torrence’s victim, also asked the court not to imprison Mildred. She began serving her sentence in January of 1950.
Ernest Torrence was not the man he claimed to be. It is debatable if his true identity will ever be known. Federal authorities traced him to over a dozen aliases. Some of them were Charles Webb, M. E. Dearmond, D. J. Raider, Don Raider, Glenn Hill, Ray Teldon, and Ernest McMillian. Virginia State Police investigator O. C. Pollard discovered even more, including Harry W. Twyman, Herbret West, Allen Torreno, Hubert Orlando West, and John Radar.
He’d actually served time in Leavenworth, under the alias Glenn Hill (believed to be inmate #30258), for a variety of horrific charges. He was convicted of human trafficking, or more specifically, sexual slavery. He was also convicted of rape and extortion that he committed in Illinois.
Earnest Torrence was the name of a famous Scottish actor who died in 1933. The con artist Torrence claimed to be the actor’s son on several occasions.
We are left to wonder the true number of his victims, as well as the total number of women he didn’t just take money from. Was Torrence just a mere con artist, or was that a cover for someone in the “white slavery” industry? His attempt to abduct multiple young girls, as well as his aggressive pursuit of the Gate City woman, doesn’t suggest he was just looking for money.