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Detectives Call 1976 Polk Slaying Solved

Officials say Johnnie Schell was accidentally killed in a malicious prank

May 18, 2006 | The Ledger

"Sniper's Bullet Kills Polk Man," read the headline in the Dec. 13, 1976, edition of The Ledger.

Johnnie Sullivan Schell, 66, was shot to death by a stranger as he and his wife were driving on Old Combee Road shortly after 2 a.m., heading toward their retirement property in Chiefland.

For 30 years, the death remained an unsolved mystery and a heartache to his family.

As the years rolled on, Schell's wife and two of his four sons died, never knowing who killed him, or why.

Schell's 70-year-old son Bobby Schell, who was 41 when his father died, had given up expecting an answer. Then about a week ago, a sheriff's detective knocked on the door of his Auburndale home.

"He said he had some good news and some bad news," Bobby Schell said, settled in an armchair in his living room. "The good news was, they had found my dad's murderer. The bad news was, the statute of limitations had passed, and they couldn't charge him with anything."

Detectives think Ronald Mitchell, 54, is the man who shot Johnnie Schell. He wasn't a sniper, detectives say. Rather, Mitchell killed Schell unintentionally during a night of gunplay, according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

Mitchell denies the shooting, according to sheriff's spokeswoman Carrie Rodgers.

The State Attorney's Office determined the killing, which is described as a dangerous and malicious prank that turned deadly, was manslaughter. The statute of limitations for manslaughter is four years.

Mitchell is currently in state prison on charges of violating his probation by committing burglary, Rodgers said. He was on probation for a 2003 conviction for leaving the scene of a crash where personal injury was caused.

The crime was solved when two eyewitnesses to the crime came forward recently, detectives said.

One of them, Dennis Harris, 48, of Crystal River, was arrested on drug charges in Polk County and told sheriff's deputies that he had information about the 1976 shooting. His sister, Denise Harris Wood, 52, of Lakeland, confirmed the information he provided.

Both said they were with Mitchell on the night of the shooting, detectives said.

The brother and sister gave the following account of what happened, according to detectives:

They were driving around the Lakeland area with Mitchell in the early morning hours of Dec. 12. Mitchell was shooting at street signs with a .22 caliber pistol. Everyone in the vehicle was intoxicated.

About 2:30 a.m., Mitchell saw a pickup truck coming towards them on Old Combee Road and said he was going to shoot the tires out. After he fired at the truck, the truck pulled off the road.

Everyone fled the scene, not knowing that anyone had been shot.

A sheriff's detective in 1976 told The Ledger that a bullet penetrated Johnnie Schell's arm and lung as he was driving, and he managed to pull off the road and stop before he slumped over the steering wheel and died.

To this day, Bobby Schell remembers how he felt when a sheriff's deputy woke him up at 3 a.m. 30 years ago to tell him his father had been shot to death.

"It just rips your heart out. It was devastating. It was one of the worst shocks I've ever had," he said.

He was an assistant pastor at the time.

"It was weeks before I could function at all as a pastor," he said.

Johnnie Schell was a truck driver who struggled in lean times to provide for his family. "He was a hard-working man. He never had a lot of education," Bobby Schell said.

"Times were real hard. When we were young "Bobby Schell paused for a moment, overcome, near tears. "He was a real sacrificing person. I know there were times that my daddy went hungry, trying to make sure his four boys had something to eat," Bobby Schell said, blinking very hard.

Johnnie Schell also suffered a devastating loss, when his wife, Bobby Schell's mother, died of cancer when she was only 41 years old. But he remarried and had been married 24 years when he was killed.

After all those years of hard work, Johnnie Schell finally planned to retire, spend time with his wife on his property in Chiefland and start drawing social security, his son said.

"But he never got to draw his first check," Bobby Schell said.

Bobby Schell thinks the man who killed his father should be punished for it.

"I'm relieved in one sense, that we know who it is, but it creates a new burden in a way," he said. He wants to find out whether Mitchell could be tried for wrongful death in civil court.

"My one consolation that I always use is, `Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' saith The Lord," Schell said. "One way or another, he'll pay for what he did."

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