Detroit during Prohibition and the Great Depression was a city of great excesses on one side and great poverty on the other. In this chaotic time, one crime grabbed the headlines like no other: The first-degree murder trial of Rose and Bill Veres. "The Witch of Delray," by Grosse Pointe Woods author Karen Dybis, is a true-crime, non-fiction book set in Detroit that re-examines the 1931 murder. The History Press Detroit's Delray neighborhood was home to many immigrants. Rose Veres, a Hungarian widow, ran a boarding house for many years there. Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library Rose Veres was known in her Delray neighborhood for keeping a tight leash on her boarders, treating them like her own three sons. But the 1931 death of one of her boarders, who fell from a ladder outside her home, drew suspicions that led to a murder trial. Author's collection Duncan C. McCrea, seated, was one of the assistant prosecutors assigned to the Rose and Bill Veres trial. He soon took over the majority of the prosecution in the case and was quite the showman. McCrea was said to be taking bribes from the time he was elected Wayne County prosecutor in 1935. Like many others at city hall, he soon would come under investigation. Author's collection The fraternity of Detroit police was strong, as officers faced regular danger from an increasingly mobile population. They had a huge population of 1.5 million to patrol; many of them were immigrants or newcomers from the South. They also were battling with Prohibition and many men out of work because of the Great Depression. Author's collection John Whitman became the Detroit police's lead detective in the Rose Veres case, organizing the investigation on Medina Street. He became uncomfortable with the way the prosecution was building the case against her. Whitman family collectionBuy Photo Rose Veres' middle son, 16-year-old Gabor, was questioned by assistant prosecutor Duncan McCrea, right, about the deaths of 10 men in their home over a 10-year period. At left is Veres' attorney, Frank M. Kenney Jr. The Detroit News archivesBuy Photo Sometime during what the prosecutor's office described as a hundred hours of grilling, Rose Veres supposedly confessed to Steve Mak's murder. It was front-page news. The jury would convict her and her son Bill Veres. The Detroit News copyBuy Photo On Oct. 15, 1931, Rose Veras and her son William, 18, both were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Defense attorney Frank M. Kenny Jr. asked to file a motion for a new trial, saying that several jurors had come to him since the trial and said they now believe their verdict was wrong. The motion was denied. The Detroit News archives Detroit city clerk (and future mayor) Richard W. Reading, left, swears in Thomas Wilcox as Wayne County sheriff. Within a few years, both men would be indicted on graft charges and sent to prison. Author's collection Janet McDonald set the city hall corruption scandal in motion. When her boyfriend, who worked in a Detroit gambling house, left her, she committed suicide and left behind a series of letters for the FBI, the police and newspapers outlining city hall's bribery setup. The letters resulted in a grand jury investigation. Author's collection Circuit court judge Homer S. Ferguson, right, was tapped to lead a grand jury investigating charges of graft among Detroit's political elite. Author's collectionBuy Photo Detroit Mayor Richard W. Reading is fingerprinted in April, 1940. He would be was sentenced to 4½ to 5 years for graft, selling protection to numbers' racketeers and promotions to police officers. Dozens of others were sent to prison including Sheriff Thomas Wilcox and Prosecutor Duncan McCrea. It was the largest political scandal in the city's history. The Detroit News archives Assistant prosecutor Duncan C. McCrea's hat, which he had to leave behind when he was run out of the prosecutor's office, remains in the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice as a reminder of his misdeeds. But yet in prison, McCrea met Bill Veres, and it was in part thanks to McCrea's interventions that Bill got a new trial. Author's collection Attorney Alean Clutts, right, a crusader against the unfair treatment of women, got Rose Veras a retrial. In December 1945, she was exonerated and released. Clutts is seen here with another client, Maude Cushing Storick, who spent 25 years in jail for her husband's death before Clutts proved her innocence. Author's collection
One of the most infamous figures in Detroit crime history got a raw deal, according to a new book by a former Detroit News reporter.
Rose Veres — known as “The Witch of Delray” — is featured in many crime and “spooky” tours of Detroit. Veres, a Hungarian immigrant who ran a boarding house on Medina Street in the Delray section of southwest Detroit, was arrested in 1931 for the death of boarder Steven Mak, who fell from a ladder outside a second-story window in the house.
While Veres is known for being convicted of murder in connection with Mak’s death, few realize she was eventually acquitted, said Karen Dybis, author of “The Witch of Delray: Rose Veres & Detroit’s Infamous 1930s Murder Mystery.”
“I don’t think she got a fair trial in 1931,” said Dybis, a former News business reporter. “A lot of the things said in the trial didn’t make sense. The prosecutor (Duncan McCrea) was a showman, and people thought if Duncan said she did it, she did it.”
McCrea would later be convicted of corruption in office after he was found to have taken bribes to protect gambling and prostitution operations.
Witnesses testified that Veres had the “evil eye,” and that she was feared throughout her neighborhood as a witch. Local newspapers gobbled up the witch angle.
Prosecutors said it was suspicious that 10 men had died in Veres’ house in the 10 years before her arrest; and that she had taken out several life insurance policies on Mak. But Dybis points out it was common in the immigrant community for boarding house owners to take out insurance policies on their boarders.
“A lot of (Veres’) conviction was based on the story of a guy named John Walker, who rented the other half of Rose’s duplex,” Dybis said. “He owed her rent money, and my theory is if he could get rid of her, he wouldn’t have to pay what he owed her. But the whole story of what happened doesn’t make sense. People claimed (Veres) beat (Mak) and carried him up the stairs, but she couldn’t have done that.”
Veres was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Her oldest son, 18-year-old William, also was convicted as an accomplice.
“The son got out of jail in 1944, after the prosecutor basically admitted they’d screwed up,” Dybis said. “Everyone agreed, and he was released on a technicality. Then, the next year, Rose got a new trial, but this time she had a good attorney, Alean Clutts, a female who was a crusader against the unfair treatment of women.
“She showed evidence that Rose couldn’t have done as alleged, and she was released from prison.”
Veres died Aug. 14, 1960, leaving behind what Dybis said is an unfair legacy.
“As much as I respect people who practice witchcraft, I don’t like how she was held up as a witch in court, and being tried for hexing people,” she said. “It was the 1930s, I get it. I hope my book can help demystify her, and make her human. People were alleging she could shape-shift, and all kinds of crazy things. She didn’t get a fair shake.
“Ultimately, I’d like to see her removed from these tours that talk about her as the Witch of Delray,” Dybis said. “There are bars that have ‘Witch of Delray’ drinks, and I think it’s unfair.
“This was just a human being who got thrown into the court system. She was a mom, and a widow who couldn’t speak English very well. She probably didn’t know what was going on. You see a lot of Innocence Project cases nowadays; I think Rose would fit right in there.”
“The Witch of Delray” is available through Arcadia Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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