Sometimes you hear a story that simply won’t let you go.
That’s what happened to Ashley Sylva.
Sylva was working at the Beaufort Branch Library last year when a headline on the microfilm whizzing in front of her caught her eye. It was from a 1943 newspaper article about a murder on Parris Island. It did not name the victim. It only referenced “the child.”
Sylva had one immediate question: “Who was this child?”
In the months that followed, Sylva found herself spending lunch breaks and days off doing extra research. She discovered two indisputable facts:
▪ 8-year-old Diane Tatton, the daughter of a U.S. Marine Corps officer, was murdered on Parris Island in December 1943
▪ A 16-year-old 7th grader, Ernest Edward Feltwell Jr., was charged with and convicted of the crime.
Everything else was buried beneath a mountain of paperwork and ensuing years.
“Looking at her picture and knowing her memory has been stripped really motivated me,” said Sylva.
She quickly began to research not only what happened to Feltwell, but why Tatton’s name was removed from subsequent archival material. What she found was evidence that the case was anything but clear and straight forward.
She found inconsistencies with the initial reports.
The autopsy and the court transcripts from the trial had Tatton’s body being discovered in different places on the base.
The autopsy also claimed death was due to suffocation. The trial notes listed strangulation.
Paperwork and newspaper articles show that Feltwell was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Those same articles reveal he spent time at the mental health facility in Columbia before being transferred to a reformatory in Ohio.
But Sylva has run into various roadblocks in attempting to verify his life as a prisoner. Though the 20-year sentence was handed down in early 1944, by 1957 Feltwell was free, married and well on his way to starting his own family.
In the absence of mental health and incarceration records, Sylva tracked down the few remaining members of both the Tatton and Feltwell families.
Both sides agreed there was more to the story.
Soon after the murder, the Tatton family was reassigned and left Parris Island and the stain of memories there. But neither they nor the Feltwells believed the teenage Feltwell was the true murderer. His grandchildren recall him telling them he was “in the wrong place at the wrong time” and warning them to be careful with whom they associated.
Some believe Feltwell only witnessed the crime, and became, in the process, a sort of victim himself.
According to initial statements, Feltwell was walking down a deserted street near the outdoor movie theater on Parris Island when he saw the 8-year-old Tatton, a carefree, long-haired little girl, walking with an adult officer.
Since he and that officer were the last two to see Diane Tatton alive, Feltwell quickly moved from witness to suspect.
After all, it’s much easier to explain children accidentally killing children than it is to think a Marine Corps officer could be involved. At the height of World War II, what kind of recruitment poster would that have made?
Sylva found evidence that Beaufort County Coroner Roger Pinckney called for an inquest but was denied “indefinitely” by the FBI.
Feltwell had told two FBI agents that he had seen the officer walking away with Tatton on the evening of her murder. But he later signed a statement that said he had made the story up and lied to federal agents about killing the girl because he was afraid.
That’s a possibility that Sylva acknowledges.
“I’m aware that he could have done it and lied, but there are too many gaps in the story for it to make sense,” she said.
One of those gaps is that Feltwell’s signed statement to police says he washed mud off his shoes after the murder.
However, in court he told the prosecutor that he took his shoes off so as not to muddy them and rolled up his pants to walk in bare feet.
But in the end, it was the word of a teenager against that of a Marine Corps officer.
And what of that officer that Feltwell saw – or didn’t see – walking off with Tatton that afternoon in December?
He was never charged with a crime so he can’t be named here. Sylva knows his name and has found evidence that he was court-martialed for a different offense and transferred from Parris Island shortly after the murder.
And that’s where the story puts up a “to be continued” banner.
Sylva, who has a degree in European History from San Jose State and is working on both a Master’s degree in Public History and her Archivist certification, continues to track down the paperwork on the court-martialing of the officer.
“I just want to finish the story,” said Sylva. “We might never know what exactly happened to Diane Tatton, but we at least have the potential for some kind of closure.”
All the main characters are long gone, but the trail of paperwork lives on.
Ashley Sylva thinks that paperwork speaks for itself and for those involved.
Her research continues to give voice – and a name – to the memory of Diane Tatton, the little girl living on a war-time Marine base whose life was taken by someone, sometime too soon.
Ryan Copeland is a Beaufort native. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.