One of the most famous swindling “Romeos” was captured near Gate City, Virginia. Notorious Lonely Heart, Ernest I. Torrence, gained national attention upon arrest. The fickle Lothario wasn’t just out for love. Research linked him to crimes far worse than swindling or fraud.
To Catch a Thief
It was a rainy July night at the Gate City Depot, in 1949. A stranger made romantic advances towards a lone woman, but she rejected him. He persisted until her rejections alerted nearby railroad detectives. He fled once detectives noticed him, but they already notified state troopers.
Virginia State Troopers tailed him before he even pulled onto the street. They followed his LaSalle through narrow roads until he gave up, fifteen miles later. The chase had gotten close to 100 mph at several points.
Officer C.G. Cunningham arrested him near the Tennessee line. Soon they established Cunningham had done more than catch someone speeding. Authorities eventually established Torrence was a predator of the worst type.
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 start of this incredible case.
Torrence had a virtual fan club in the Tri-Cities. In addition to the woman targeted in Gate City, he had tried to pick up three girls near the railroad tracks in Hiltons, Virginia. He also posed as a Mayflower Hotel Executive, from New York City, while in Johnson City, Tennessee. Rumors of his engagement to a Johnson City woman emerged around May 30.
The LaSalle was registered to Mildred Torrence, in Texas. His driver’s license verified he was Ernest Torrence, of Phoenix, Arizona. The authorities were baffled. Torrence was overweight, in his 50s, and yet appeared to be irresistible to women. To everyone else, he was described as, “bald,” and “seedy.” The press invented variety of clever names for the heartbreaker, including, “The Light, Heavyweight Lothario,” and the “Don Juan Love Looter.”
Torrence wouldn’t cooperate after his arrest. He told police they had the information, and it was their job to build the case. Stalling didn’t work. He’d committed too many crimes and the time had come for restitution.
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.” This is using fraud to either obtain or hold something of value. He’d composed himself by the time he was transferred. Several reporters described him as “polished.”
Stella Hill, the first victim to step forward, reported her fiancé had proposed to her in Carroll County. Hill was a cotton mill worker in Fries, Virginia. Torrence introduced himself as Bradley Franklin McMillan. He claimed he found her through a social club mailing list out of Florida. The couple began corresponding on February 20. They continued to grow closer through letters, or that’s what Hill thought. They finally met on the first day of April. Torrence said he needed to borrow $200. She loaned him the money, and three weeks later was promptly paid back. He sent her a letter on May 7, from Knoxville, Tennessee. He mailed another on May 9, postmarked in Johnson City, Tennessee. She gave him $2,500 to invest in a Florida real estate deal and mysteriously disappeared.
At that time, he was also in a serious relationship with a lady in Kentucky. The Johnson City woman ended the relationship around June 9, but agreed to continue a business partnership with him. She gave him $2,500 for land in Osceola County, Florida. Bradley disappeared along with her investment.
The authorities found a stack of deeds made out to different women in his car. Even though the paperwork looked official, with appropriate seals and details, police weren’t convinced. The Carroll County Sheriff and a Commonwealth Attorney traveled to Osceola County, to examine the deeds at the courthouse. It was as they feared. The deeds were for properties that didn’t exist.
The authorities were only partially surprised when yet another pretty lady entered the jail days later. Mildred DeArmond called herself Torrence’s “common-law wife.” The pretty, young blonde was then arrested as an accessory. The authorities found she was also wanted in Ohio for stealing mortgaged property. Although she stated she never 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 continued to come from across the nation. The Annin family, of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, reported Torrence stolen a whopping $17,000 from them. That amount adjusted for inflation would be $170,823 today.
Julie Annin was a 30-year-old waitress in Arizona when she met Torrence, in 1947. He visited her in Pennsylvania after she returned home. He eventually courted her with the intent to marry. He even purchased her an engagement ring, with her own money. The Annin family claimed Torrence initially showered them with gifts.
Julie’s 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 fruit to their community. The family even met Mildred, but Torrence introduced her as his sister.
Torrence must’ve been a born salesman, because he hadn’t finished with the Annin family. 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. Torrence was then finished with the Annin family. He disappeared as soon as they gave him the money. Julie Annin said the betrayal destroyed her.
Torrence was charged with fraudulent conversion in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. The authorities held paperwork proving 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.
One of Many
Pennsylvania authorities were previously concerned with a case in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Rose Pletcher wrote to friends that she’d abruptly married Charles E. Webb, of Philadelphia. She then just disappeared. Authorities found her information in Torrence’s address book, along with several signed checks she’d written him. Luckily, the 50-year-old lady just moved to one of Torrence’s houses.
By late July, another woman came forward in Texarkana, Texas. She said Torrence took $6,000 from her, part of which she borrowed, and disappeared. He told her he was a rancher, but a drought had almost bankrupted him. He needed money for a well because his springs had dried up, and his cattle were near death due to thirst. Further allegations came from Ohio, Georgia, Maryland, Florida, and Texas.
The authorities remained puzzled as to how he could con so many women, with such varied tales, in such a short amount of time. Not only were they impressed with his verbal dexterity, he actually produced official-looking documents related to his schemes, such as fake deeds. They believed his overall strategy was universal, although never figured out exactly how he obtained victims’ information. One victim reported he’d contacted her as a representative for a non-profit group when their courtship began.
Fingerprints revealed Torrance was actually Glenn Hill. Hill was wanted in Georgia for stealing $700 in jewels from a Waycross woman. He told her that a Pittsburg lady named Rose Pletcher had done him wrong. He just needed time, and money, to figure out how he to end the relationship.
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 fifty minutes. The fake deed he showed Hill was produced as evidence.
Mildred was seen as an accomplice by some, and another victim by others. She claimed Torrence was a good husband, but was gone most of the time. She said they married six years earlier. At that time, she was 22 and he was 51. She told authorities they’d lived in Michigan, Texas, and Florida, since their marriage.
She first read of her husband’s capture while she was in Ashland, Kentucky. She’d hitchhiked across Kentucky, and onto 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 shortly after she arrived. Her dedication to her husband did more harm than good. Torrence had made no attempt to contact her, and it was unclear if he even knew where she was. He gave no indication he was concerned with her whereabouts or future. She was alone and had no money. She was speechless when the authorities showed her stacks of love letters and fake deeds. Women from all over the nation had promised Torrence money and marriage.
She went on trial for her role as an accomplice in September. Authorities charged her 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 pleaded with the courts not to send her to prison. It stunned the court when Julia Annin, Torrence’s victim, also asked the court not to imprison Mildred. She began serving her sentence in January of 1950. She was convicted, but only received a 5-year probation term.
Ernest Torrence was not the man he claimed to be. It is debatable if his true identity will ever be known. Earnest Torrence was the name of a famous Scottish actor who died in 1933. The con artist claimed to be the actor’s son on several occasions.
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 McMillan. Virginia State Police investigator O.C. Pollard discovered even more, including Harry W. Twyman, Herbert West, Allen Torreno, Hubert Orlando West, and John Radar.
Torrence had previously served time in Leavenworth, under the alias Glenn Hill, for a variety of far worse crimes. He was convicted of human trafficking, or more specifically, sexual slavery. He was also convicted for rape and extortion in Illinois.
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, didn’t suggest he was just looking for money. Or love.