Mansfield Reformatory: Movie to tell true story of family's murder

(Photo: Ryan Haidet, WKYC-TV)
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MANSFIELD -- A local author's book on the notorious 1948 murders of an Ohio State Reformatory farm superintendent, his wife and daughter is being made into a Hollywood film.

Two former OSR inmates — Robert Daniels and John West — entered the John and Nolena Niebel house with loaded guns looking for a guard named Red Harris, who lived nearby. The pair claimed Harris had mistreated them while they were inmates in the Mansfield prison, according to News Journal archives.

Although they were at the wrong house, the parolees took Niebel, his wife and their 21-year-old daughter Phyllis, and drove them to a cornfield just off Fleming Falls Road. Daniels and West instructed the Niebels to remove their clothing and then Daniels shot each of them in the head.

The movie will be based on a book written by Scott Fields, 68, of Mansfield, who wrote, "The Mansfield Killings: A Novel Based on True Events" published in 2012.

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Forbidden Tears Productions of Arkansas is producing the film, which details the deaths and manhunt, Fields said this week.

The project, to be filmed in Hollywood and in Mansfield including the historic prison which now operates as a museum, should be completed by January 2018, Fields said.

Mary Kennard, deputy director at the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society, and Dan Smith, creative marketing director, Wednesday told Fields to talk to his film people and tell them the welcome mat is out for them to tour the prison as Fields stopped by the prison off Ohio 545.

Fields, who was born and raised in LaRue, said he spent 25 years working as a Kmart manager in Detroit, but always loved writing, having graduated from Ohio University with a major in English literature. He also worked as a manager of Pep Boys locally for five years.

Fields, who has written a total of 15 published books, all fiction except for the "The Mansfield Killings," said his agent has three other of his books she would like to make into movies.

"I was only three when it happened," Fields said of the horrific murders. In retirement, he became obsessed upon learning about the tragic story, writing the book in four months.

Fields said he had few details of filming locations, having just received the final word that the project is a go.

The Niebel's son Russ Niebel, who Fields and the News Journal interviewed in the past, was at American Television College in Chicago on the day his family was murdered. Russ Niebel, who resides in Mansfield, was only 22 at the time.

The two parolees were captured after a 14-day manhunt in Ohio when they attempted to shoot it out with police and sheriff's deputies at a road blockade north of Van Wert. The blockade was set up as part of the state's biggest manhunt. It included half the personnel of the Ohio Highway Patrol and a majority of sheriff's offices in Ohio, according to a News Journal front-page story July 23, 1948.

West was shot dead in Van Wert. Daniels was captured unharmed, confessed to seven killings within the previous two weeks, including the "ruthless, sadistic, cornfield killing" of the three members of the Niebel family, the newspaper reported. Only a few hours before their capture, West and Daniels had killed their last two victims.

Daniels, who later bragged he was the triggerman in the Mansfield family murders, invited newsmen to share his last supper. He was executed in the Ohio State Penitentiary's electric chair Jan. 3, 1949.

At his trial, Daniels' attorney L.H. Beam, said his client originally was sent to Ohio State Reformatory on a robbery conviction.

"While at the reformatory, Daniels was misused and brutally treated by one 'Red Harris,' a guard there," Beam said.

Before coming to Mansfield, Daniels and West were in Michigan where Daniels conceived a fixation to "square accounts with Red Harris," the newspaper reported.

"He came here, but was unable to find Harris. They went to the Niebel house only to obtain Harris' address," Beam said. "He only knew Niebel by acquaintance and didn't know that he was married and had a family."