The way we were: caught in the act

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Caught in the Act! The photo that landed the infamous night prowler. (Photo courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center)

Somedays, a job in Orlando law enforcement means cracking a murder by poison at the San Juan Hotel (detailed in the June issue), and somedays the job involves a harrowing courthouse shooting (from the July issue).

Other days, the job may be slightly more… unusual. That didn’t curb the dedication and creativity shown by Orlando Police Sergeants Robert Chewning and Bill Yohn in late 1956 – early 1957 in breaking the case of a prowler who had slashed more than $200 worth of women’s clothing and undergarments hung on clotheslines to dry during the night.

The officers were assigned the case on Oct. 5, 1956, after the first “attack,” and spent months trying to catch the culprit by lying in wait overnight between their normal shifts. When that didn’t work, Sgt. Yohn turned to his recent Christmas gift: a 35-mm flash camera.

The detectives set up the camera with a trip cord lying across the lawn of the most frequently targeted house. Concerned that the suspect would destroy the camera once he realized his picture had been taken, they had an electrician help connect several flood lights and an alarm to the trip wire in hopes that the prowler would run away instead of tampering with the evidence. They even set up a small electric fan to blow on the camera’s lens to keep it from fogging and rerouted the garbage pickup for that morning so the camera wouldn’t be accidentally triggered.

At 5:15 a.m. on Jan. 10, 1957, the prowler sprung the trap. The residents of the house woke up and watched him start to run, then make a turn back for the camera. He smashed it several times before making his final retreat, but fortunately the film was unharmed and clearly showed Jewell Dallas Williams of Winter Park, mouth agape and knife in hand. Sgt. Yohn’s Christmas present, however, was not as lucky.

23-year-old Williams was quickly identified and arrested by Chewning and Yohn on the charges of prowling, disorderly conduct, and carrying a deadly weapon. On Jan. 15, 1957, Williams pled guilty to all three charges and was sentenced to 60 days in jail, or, until the young man’s father could arrange for care in a psychiatric institution.

The dynamic Chewning and Yohn duo made headlines together for many years until promotions broke up their crime fighting partnership. Robert Chewning became Chief of Police in 1967 and retired in 1976 as the public safety director. Bill Yohn became a captain before his retirement in 1972. Even the camera had a happy ending when the city council agreed to purchase Yohn a new one. Quickly, Chewning and Yohn put their strangest case of 1957 behind them… that is, until a con artist began claiming to cure Orlando women’s tumors with a device crafted from a box, a bunch of wires, and two empty beer cans.


Whitney Broadaway is the Collections Manager at the Orange County Regional History Center.

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