Words by Jordan Howell. Illustration by Tim Foley
As current events echo the past, we look back at the killing of Sheila Ferrell and hear from the family devastated by this race-related crime.
THE PEACH TREE
Sunday, Aug. 17, 1975
veryone picked peaches from that tree. Its canopy hung low over the sidewalk near the corner of 35th and West streets in Wilmington, tempting the neighborhood kids during the final weeks of summer, when the days were hot and the fruit was ripe.
The peach tree stood on the side yard of the corner property—200 W. 35th St.—a detached redbrick row home that had sat vacant for years. The hardened patch of dirt between the brick wall and concrete sidewalk was hardly a hospitable place for a fruit tree to take root, but it did so nonetheless. Limbs forked out from the trunk wildly, the tallest branches reaching barely higher than the second-floor windows.
So it was on the last day of summer vacation in 1975—the day before starting eighth grade at Marguerite H. Burnett Middle School—that Sheila Ferrell stepped outside to get peaches from that tree. Her family was new to the neighborhood. Along with her mother Carolyn and siblings Larry and Sylvia, Sheila had moved into a second-floor apartment at 210 W. 35th St. The area was safe, integrated. Many of the white neighbors were welcoming to this single mom and her three children. (Carolyn’s youngest daughter, Aletha, lived with her godparents in New Castle.)
“A 13-year-old Wilmington girl was shot and critically wounded last night after being chased by a man for taking peaches from his tree.” —The Morning News, Monday, Aug. 18, 1975
Sheila’s parents, Carolyn and Howard “Toots” Ferrell Jr., had divorced 10 years earlier. Carolyn was granted legal custody, and Toots was spotty with the child support payments. Despite her job at House of Watches, Carolyn relied on social welfare programs to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Summer was a reprieve from all of this. Carolyn would send the kids off to their grandparents in Philadelphia for a few weeks and just soak up the peace and quiet.
This evening, Carolyn was having one last night out with friends before returning to the daily routines of a single mom during the school year. She told the kids to stay inside, so of course they didn’t, except for Sheila’s older sister, Sylvia, who remained in the apartment with her boyfriend.
Sheila was excited to be back home from summer vacation. She had just turned 13. She was outgoing, as the neighbors quickly learned when they discovered her knocking at their front doors, asking if anyone had kids who wanted to come out and play.
Around 6:50 p.m.—roughly two hours before sunset—Sheila was outside watching her younger brother Larry
and their cousin Kevin Matthews pick peaches from the tree. A green and yellow Chevrolet prowled to a stop next to the vacant row house. One of its passengers, an outraged white man in khaki pants and a white shirt, confronted the children.
“Get the hell out of the tree.”
heila always wanted to be a dancer. “We can never get her to sit still—even at the table,” her mother said in March 1974 to The Evening Journal, which featured an image of Sheila practicing ballet poses on the barre. In 1973, Sheila qualified for a scholarship with the Ballet Repertory Company in Wilmington and began lessons along with 60 other promising dancers from low- income families. “She’s always dancing around, imitating every dancer she sees on television.”
Sheila’s picture in the newspaper caught the eye of James Jamieson, Wilmington’s most renowned ballet instructor, who offered Sheila a scholarship to study with his company at the Academy of Dance. Sheila was good. Really good. She qualified for another scholarship the year after that.
Sheila thrived under Jamieson’s tutelage. She had an innate athletic ability that confounded Larry and Sylvia. Sheila was one of those people who couldn’t help but make everything look easy, like she was carrying her own beat to life.
Carolyn insisted her children grow up in the church and devote their talents to the Lord. Many were their childhood days practicing in the children’s choir, or serving as ushers, or participating in church events, like the annual tea and fashion show, where Sheila once performed a dance routine without any music due to technical difficulties.
“That’s OK,” Sheila said. “I don’t need any music. I can just count and dance.”
he sudden arrival of the angry white man startled the children. Sheila was standing near the road when the man emerged from the vehicle, followed by a woman holding a broom. The kids scattered. Larry was startled and fell from the tree. The woman chased after him with the broom until he escaped through the alleyway between 34th and 35th. Running home, he looked back for Sheila, but she was gone.
“They all started running,” eyewitness Darryl Wright would later testify in court, “and the girl, she took and ran, and then [the man] took and ran after her till he got to the corner.”
Sheila was quick—dashing around the corner onto 34th toward Washington Street, where her cousin Kevin lived with his sister Karen and parents Ralph and Doris Matthews.
From behind her, a voice called out, “Stop or I’ll shoot!”
On the second floor of his home at 204 W. 34th, 19-year-old Willie Johnson was watching football when he heard what sounded like a firecracker. He looked out the window and saw Sheila running for her life.
“Capt. William O’Neill approached the front door and announced that a child had been shot. As he was speaking, the door opened slightly and a young blonde woman peered out. ‘What are owners to do when people trespass and pick peaches?’ she asked, then shut the door.”
“He stopped and extended his arm,” Johnson would later testify. “I seen a pistol in his hand. I heard another shot, I saw a little smoke, and Sheila clenched her chest.”
The sound of her desperate, pained scream cut through the peaceful summer air.
But she kept running, leaving a trail of blood on the sidewalks along 34th and Washington. Approximately 500 feet from the peach tree, Sheila collapsed on the front steps of Kevin’s house.
Eyewitnesses claimed that the white man came around the corner of 34th toward Sheila.
“She stole my …” the white man started upon seeing Sheila’s family and neighbors gathering around.
What happened next is unclear. Willie Johnson told a reporter for The Morning News that he pursued the white man and found him standing over Sheila, “telling her he would kill her,” which was confirmed by a neighbor, Sondra Pritchett. According to Sheila’s cousin, Karen, the white man muttered something about stolen furniture before fleeing down 34th.
The green and yellow Chevrolet was waiting at the corner of 34th and West as the shooter retreated from Sheila’s family. The woman was now behind the wheel. Ralph pursued the shooter on foot while Karen tended to Sheila. As the car pulled away, Ralph recorded the license plate number.
ylvia was in the apartment with her boyfriend when she heard a loud bang outside, she recalls in an interview on January 26, 2020. Moments later, Larry burst through the door, calling for her.
“What was that noise?” Sylvia asked. “There’s some guy out there shooting.” Just then their cousin Kevin entered the apartment. “You’ve gotta come now! Your sister’s been shot!”
Friends and neighbors gathered around Sheila. Helpless as they waited for an ambulance, all they could do was hold her, pray and try to keep her calm.
“She was moving around. She was conscious but in a lot of pain,” neighbor Bernice Lyons said to The Morning News. When Sylvia and Larry arrived at the scene, paramedics were already cutting away Sheila’s shirt to access the wound and stop the bleeding, recalls Sylvia. Sheila looked up to Sylvia. They had been arguing earlier that day, and all Sheila could say was, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Then Sheila closed her eyes and lost consciousness.
arolyn couldn’t believe the baby was hers. Light-skinned with red hair and blue eyes. This must be a mistake.
“Where’s my baby? You gave me the wrong baby,” she called to the nurse, slightly delirious after giving birth to Sheila. “That’s not my baby.”
Only later did Carolyn recall that her Aunt Mary had blue eyes, and now, so too did Sheila. But her eyes didn’t stay blue.
“Her eyes changed color,” Sylvia recalls in an interview recorded October 19, 1990, preserved in the archives of the Delaware Historical Society. “Sometimes she had green eyes, and sometimes she had blue eyes, sometimes she had hazel eyes.”
Sheila was born into a family of legends. Her mother, Carolyn Bailey, was the daughter of Carroll Taft Bailey, a dedicated “church man,” founding member of the Monday Club and direct descendent of Frederick Douglass. In 1941, Bailey married Lillian May Holmes Redding, younger sister of Louis Lorenzo Redding, the prominent Wilmington attorney and first African American admitted to the Delaware State Bar Association. Louis Redding rose to prominence after serving on the NAACP legal team that argued for desegregating Delaware’s public schools in Gebhart v. Belton, one of five legal cases that coalesced into Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Meanwhile, both Lillian and her older sister, Gwendolyn Redding, worked as public school teachers on the front lines of desegregation in Wilmington.
Everyone loved Sheila. She had a magnetic personality. Outgoing and athletic, she reminded folks of her father, “Toots”, a local baseball star who had played in the Negro League, starting in 1947 as a pitcher for the Newark Eagles. He played alongside Jackie Robinson with the Baltimore Elite Giants and even followed Robinson to Brooklyn, though he never made the big time.
He was introduced into the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame in 2000.
Over the years, Sheila developed a close relationship with her great-aunt Gwendolyn, who was now retired from teaching, living alone and suffering from eczema. On her way from school or ballet practice, Sheila would check in on Gwendolyn and, with any luck, walk away with treats.
But the last time Sheila checked in, Gwendolyn refused to answer the door. Her eczema was flaring up and she didn’t want Sheila to see the rash that was consuming her body. Just then Gwendolyn heard the mail slot open and saw Sheila’s bright eyes peeking through.
he manhunt was underway within minutes. Detective Sgt. Larry Curtis arrived to find Sheila unconscious and in shock.
Paramedics were preparing to transport her to the emergency room at Delaware Division. Ralph provided Curtis with a description of the shooter, as well as the license plate number of the Chevrolet. He said there was also a woman in the car, and maybe some kids.
The Wilmington Police Department (WPD) Evidence Detection Unit arrived shortly thereafter and discovered a single shell casing for a .32-caliber bullet near the corner of 34th and West, almost exactly where Willie Johnson saw the shooter. Bloodstains on the sidewalk were circled in chalk and photographed as evidence.
Not long after Curtis reported the plate numbers, a WPD dispatcher responded with a match: The car was registered to Vernon Bailey (no relation to Carolyn Bailey) of 4400 Washington St. Extension, just 12 blocks north, near the city limit. Within an hour, the car was spotted at the address. Police also learned that the vacant house with the peach tree also belonged to the Vernon Bailey family.
With the shooter on the loose and the gun unaccounted for, officers exercised extreme caution, taking cover behind patrol cars while Capt. William O’Neill approached the front door and announced that a child had been shot near the Baileys’ house on 35th Street.
As he was speaking, the door opened slightly and a young blonde woman peered out. “What are owners to do when people trespass and pick peaches?” she asked, then shut the door.
Detective John Doherty and his two daughters had just arrived at Riverside Hospital from church when the call came in over the radio: A little girl not much older than his own had just been shot on the north side. The alleged shooter had gone into hiding, and the family was not cooperating. WPD needed a search warrant.
Given the circumstances, Doherty concluded WPD did not have sufficient time to schedule an in-person hearing with a judge. Instead, he left his wife’s bedside as she recovered from surgery and drove to an emergency responder telephone, known as a red box, which connected him to a police dispatcher. In 1975, all calls made over red boxes were recorded by the WPD communications system. Doherty asked the dispatcher to connect him to a judge for a search warrant to be dictated over the phone. Back then, Doherty says, state law did not stipulate that a search warrant must follow exact language, or even that it be printed on an official letterhead.
“The only requirement was that the search warrant be issued according to ‘form,’ which basically means whatever satisfies the court,” Doherty recalls in an interview this past February. “So that’s what happened.”
Searching for a standard-size sheet of paper, the best Doherty could find was his daughter’s elementary school notebook, adorned with cartoon panda bears in the corners of each page, and he began writing out the search warrant with the help of the judge on the other end of the line.
The Vernon Bailey family remained uncooperative when Doherty and the WPD returned with the panda bear search warrant shortly before 9 p.m.
“This was a maximum-stress situation,” Doherty recalls. “Whoever was in there was alleged to have shot this little girl with a pistol that was unaccounted for. I did not want to be the next victim of that pistol.”
While searching the house, officers found an empty box for a .25-caliber semi- automatic handgun, along with ammunition.
A green and yellow Chevrolet matching the description from the crime scene was parked in the garage with the hood up. Oily rags laid across the engine. The carburetor had been disassembled—quickly.
“This was a maximum stress situation. Whoever was in there was alleged to have shot this little girl with a pistol that was unaccounted for. I did not want to be the next victim of that pistol.” —WPD Detective John Doherty
As he was turning to leave, Doherty spotted a trap door with a pull-down ladder leading to the attic above the garage. Leaving his radio behind so as not to give away his position, Doherty—still in his church clothes from earlier—climbed
up into the dark attic alone. There was a noise. Something was moving. Crawling. He closed his eyes for his vision to adjust to the darkness.
When he reopened his eyes, he spotted the shadowy figure of a man hiding behind sheets of plywood.
Doherty unholstered his firearm and announced himself as WPD.
“I would really like for both of us to be alive when we leave,” Doherty said, before asking without expecting an answer: “Where is the gun? Do you have the gun?”
To his surprise, a slight voice responded, “No.”
“What did you do with the gun?”
“I threw it in the river.”
he sun had set. A crowd was starting to gather when detectives Curtis and Doherty escorted the suspect out of the house—less than three hours after the shooting.
The man who emerged looked hardly older than a boy, with a stature that could be intimidating to a child but
cut a diminutive figure next to other men. He was thin. No visible facial hair. Wispy blond bangs. Handcuffed. His wife and two young boys looked on from a white bench on the front porch. At that moment, the alleged shooter was photographed by journalist Donaghey Brown for the morning papers.
John Bailey, age 24, would soon become the most infamous man in Wilmington.
While police transported Bailey to jail for processing, Doherty traveled to Delaware Division to speak with the victim’s family.
“My concentration at that point was getting people to work, gathering evidence, and of course, the girl,” Doherty says. “Sheila was still alive.”
Sheila’s mother was in a daze when they arrived at Delaware Division, pleading with anyone who would listen.
Where’s my baby? Where’s my baby?
Sylvia explained who they were there to see. Attendants escorted them into a small waiting room. A few minutes later, they received an update on Sheila’s condition.
She was in a coma. The bullet that struck her in the back had pierced the left lung, damaging the pulmonary artery before exiting out the chest. She lost 70 percent of her blood, requiring 13 pints of transfusions to reestablish cardiovascular circulation. Doctors feared her brain was starved for oxygen for several minutes, potentially causing irreversible neurological damage. Her lungs collapsed. She was intubated.
A ventilator was keeping her alive.