Growing up, Rhoda Penmark was my spirit animal.

Rhoda Penmark, The Bad Seed  with the best accessories

In an attempt to achieve the proper mindset to write about Mary Bell I re-watched The Bad Seed,
Mervyn LeRoy’s 1956 camp classic about a fictional juvenile serial killer;
today the dialogue is dated and the acting is hammy as hell but as a child it was one of my favorite films.

As an adult my girl-crush on Rhoda makes perfect sense; she was everything my younger self longed to be.
I was fearful; she was fierce.
I felt awkward and unattractive—Rhoda was nattily attired and perfectly poised in every situation.
Her ability to dispatch her enemies was handy, certainly,
but looking back what I really I coveted was her confidence.

Pondering Rhoda’s hubris brought to mind the Mary Bell of the Pacific Northwest,
little-known juvenile murderess Michele Gates.
At an age at which I couldn’t successfully lie to my mother about completing my homework Michele was lying to homicide detectives and getting away with murder—for a while, anyway.

Michele, age thirteen, with a court counselor shortly after her arrest

[A not-so brief note on sources, spelling, and segues:

“Some sources say.” Get used to that phrase—“some sources say”—-because you’re going to see it in every paragraph. Since the juvenile proceedings in the Matter of Gates  have been expunged there is no official case record, and the available media reports differ in myriad details. I’ve reconciled the facts as best I can, but when the stories are too disparate all iterations will be noted.

Minor details aren’t the only discrepancies in the Michele Gates media coverage; the spelling of the participants’ names varies widely. Is her legal name Michele Gates? Or Michelle? Are her neighbors the O’Neils, or the O’Neills? There’s one doomed little boy— Naytah Ottino, Natyah Ottino, Nahtyah Ottinio, Nahtyah Ottino—gifted with more varietal spellings than years of life on earth. Despite the expungement two Gates-related pretrial reports are still extant, and I’ve opted for the iterations used therein; as for the ill-fated Nahtyah Ottino, I utilized the (presumably correct) spelling etched on his grave.

Finally, as is appropriate for a story about bad seeds this tale has innumerable tendrils: there will be segues and asides, and the occasional peripheral factoid—all non-essential minutia will be added in bold and brackets throughout. The progress of Michele Gate’s criminal career reminds of me of the germination of a poisonous jungle vine—inching along, curving and curling and so beguilingly pretty you’re completely unaware as it loops itself round and round into a hangman’s noose.]

Where does the story begin?

Some might say it begins with the fatal excursion to Washington Park Zoo,
where three-year old Nahtyah Ottino—Michele Gates’ cousin and babysitting charge—met his maker in the wildfowl pond on November 8th, 1978.
Almost exactly one year before this unfortunate occurrence, however, there was another unnatural death in eleven-year old Michele’s purview: at 2am on August 21st, 1977
a Portland resident named Norman Reese shot a twenty-eight year old woman named Diane Gilchrist Gates in the face with a shotgun.
An unnamed lothario who had been in flagrante delicto with the victim managed to flee out a bedroom window unscathed.

Norman Reese was Michele Gates beloved step-grandfather;
he and his wife Deletta, her maternal grandmother, had raised her since birth.
The woman he shot, Diane Gilchrist Gates, was his stepdaughter—Michele’s mother.
At trial Norman would claim he killed Diane because he feared she’d been drawn into a life of prostitution—a fate worse than death, apparently.
He evaded a murder charge but was convicted of menacing and first degree manslaughter and sentenced to five years behind bars.

Michele Gates’ childhood home, present day

[Although some recent accounts claim Michele witnessed her mother’s murder this does not appear to be the case: the crime happened at Diane’s home at 216 S.E. 32nd Avenue, not at the Reese residence at 1535 S.E. 35th Avenue; and it happened in the wee hours of the morning, a time an eleven-year old child is unlikely to be stirring. More importantly, no contemporaneous media accounts mention the presence of a child at the scene, and witnessing this traumatic event is never proffered as mitigating evidence in any of Michele’s subsequent legal proceedings.]

The fateful trip to the Washington Park Zoo capped an eventful period in Michele’s life—her grandfather’s imprisonment and the loss of her mother and cousin transpired in just over a year.
Concerned about the impact of these traumatic events on her granddaughter’s psyche
Deletta Reese sought counseling for Michele:
“The psychiatrist said he had never heard of anybody with as many tragedies as our family,” Mrs. Reese will later tell a reporter from the Oregonian.
The psychological help didn’t seem to take; on December 13th, 1979,
a year after Nahtyah’s death Michele was expelled from Catlin Gabel, a tony private school where she shone on the synchronized swim team.
She had been accused of theft after stealing another student’s purse.

[Catlin Gabel alumnus of note: hipster auteur and Pacific Northwest gateway drug Gus Van Sant.]

Purse theft wasn’t the only crime in Michele’s milieu that December;
just before Christmas a burglary occurred at 1543 S.E. 35th Avenue, located a few houses down from the Reese residence.
The home was occupied by Gail O’Neil and her daughters Bethany, age six, and Ruth Anne, age four;
Michele was a frequent babysitter.
In fact, the youngest O’Neil—familiarly known as Ruthie—was the child Michele was allegedly chasing after while Nahtyah drowned.
Gail O’Neil will later tell an Oregonian  reporter her initial impression of Michele was “the sweetest, best-mannered, (most) well-dressed, best-behaved girl I have ever known.”

Ruth Anne O’Neil

Oddly, the only items stolen during the break-in were Christmas presents intended for Ruthie—Michele had helped Gail select some of the gifts.
The theft marred what was scheduled to be the O’Neils last holiday in Portland;
their home had been sold and the family was set to move out of state in two weeks—a short span of time, but not short enough.

[Overlapping crime: the O’Neil family will suffer its share of tribulations—in 2006 Ruthie’s first cousin Joseph Raymond O’Neil will murder his mother (Ruthie’s aunt) Timmie O’Neil and stepfather Craig Stumpf. Joseph O’Neil is currently serving life without parole in the Oregon State Penitentiary.]

There are three different versions of the precipitating events of January 4th, 1980:

1) According to the Associated Press Ruthie had gone alone to Herfy’s, an ice-cream parlor located three doors down from the O’Neil home.
2) According to the Portland Mercury  Michele stopped by the O’Neil residence and took Ruthie out for a treat.
3) According to the Oregonian  Michele surreptitiously lured Ruthie out of the home while her mother Gail was distracted on the telephone.

Ruthie (at left)

The precipitating events may be in dispute but the ensuing chaos is indisputable:
when her daughter failed to return home Gail went to Herfy’s and discovered Ruthie’s boots in the dumpster—she immediately notified the police.
As the child’s babysitter Michele was superficially questioned by detectives;
then the sweetest, best-mannered girl Gail O’Neil had ever known joined in the hunt for the missing child.

Later that evening a volunteer searching the backyard of a residence at 1534 S.E. 34th Avenue found Ruthie’s body discarded on a rubbish heap.
Although she was fully clothed her underpants and socks were missing—in some accounts her stolen Christmas gifts were scattered nearby.
According to Portland historian JD Chandler Ruthie’s scanties were later discovered in a nearby shed, possibly in an attempt to frame the homeowner for murder.
The coroner will later determine Ruthie—who exhibited no overt indicia of sexual assault—had drowned shortly after leaving home.

Crime scene technician at 1534 S.E. 34th Avenue

Curiously, the rear of the property at 1534 S.E. 34th Avenue abutted the backyard of 1535 S.E.35th Avenue,
the home Michele shared with her grandmother Deletta.
When detectives compared notes about Michele’s statements during the search some discrepancies were noted,
and two days after Ruthie’s murder investigators called then-thirteen year old Michele to the station for clarification.

When asked to theorize about the motive for Ruthie’s murder Michele suggested the child been slain in a sex crime,
or perhaps Gail O’Neil had accidentally killed her daughter with a drug overdose.
When pressed about the inconsistencies in her earlier statements Michele’s story began to morph—she eventually admitted she had been with Ruthie on the day of her death.

Michele initially claimed she’d happened upon Ruthie’s corpse in the midst of a spirited game of hide-and-seek,
but kept mum as she feared she’d be blamed.
Sensing detectives’ skepticism her story again changed.
Michele’s home had an aboveground pool which despite being drained retained ten inches of water;
she told detectives she and Ruthie had been splashing around when the child slipped,
hit her head and drowned.

According to the Portland Mercury  Michele’s interrogators then appealed to her ego by claiming Ruthie’s killer had been “brilliant”—and finally Michele revealed the true course of events that culminated in murder.
She had lured Ruthie to the backyard pool with a new swimsuit and the offer of a swimming lesson,
Michele told detectives—she then purposely held the child’s face underwater until she drowned.
Michele subsequently re-dressed Ruthie—socks and underpants excepted—and tossed (some sources say carefully laid) the child’s body over the backyard fence into her neighbor’s yard.

Michele’s recitation of her criminal brilliance didn’t dead-end at Ruthie’s demise;
she also admitted Nahtyah Ottino’s fall into the wildfowl pond at the Washington Park Zoo hadn’t been a tragic accident—she’d intentionally pushed her cousin into the water and watched (some sources say held him down) while he drowned.

Michele’s interrogation—lasting ninety-minutes and conducted without a Miranda  waiver or guardian present—was over;
but the criminal case against her would stagger on for the better part of a decade.
The Matter of Gates—-the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce  of the Oregon courts—was reportedly the single longest juvenile proceeding in state history.

After her arrest Michele was moved to the Donald E. Long Detention Center;
upon her arrival she reportedly confessed to several residents.
Eventually diagnosed as a narcissistic sociopath,
the Oregon Youth Authority ultimately decided it lacked a proper venue in which to confine her—the homicidal tween was then dispatched to the Élan School in Maine,
where she tarried for three (some sources say two) years on the taxpayer’s dime.

[Élan alumnus of note: Michael Skakel, the Kennedy-adjacent murderer of Martha Moxley.]

Screen-grab of Michele leaving court, date unknown

Michele’s stay at Élan was not fruitful;
citing her “consistent pattern of manipulation,” school authorities shipped her back to Portland circa 1984.
As Élan psychiatrist Dr. Gerald E. Davidson would later testify: “Michele, in our experience with her, demonstrated that she is still more interested in getting even than in getting ahead.”

Five years and counting after Ruthie’s death Michele was still in pre-trial limbo;
her initial confession was tossed out of court for Miranda  violations—then it was tossed back in.
At one point she was found incompetent to assist her attorneys due to her psychiatric diagnosis,
but was eventually deemed compos mentis.
The Oregonian  sued to open up the Matter of Gates  (and all subsequent juvenile proceedings) to the public and won,
a rare victory in a case which seemed to slog on with no end in sight.

Michele in flight, date unknown

Strangely, for a case so minutely examined a definitive motive for Ruthie’s murder has never been established.
It’s unclear if her motivation is referenced in Michele’s initial police statement,
but according to the Oregonian  Ruthie’s mother Gail O’Neil believed Michele—who frequently bragged about her superior only-child status—murdered Ruthie to free the elder O’Neil daughter Bethany from the indignity of sisterhood.

[Oregonian  quote of note: “(Michele said) wouldn’t it be really weird if somebody grabbed Ruthie and killed her? Bethany would then have all these toys and everything she wants would be hers and she wouldn’t have to have a little sister anymore.” Gail O’Neil, February 10th, 1985]

I have no idea what’s going on in this 1985 photo, but once you notice one of the participants has his hand on Michele’s lawyer’s ass it’s impossible to look at anything else

Although the motive for Ruthie’s murder remains nebulous subsequent legal proceedings revealed Michele’s murder of Nahtyah Ottino was prompted by jealousy: in court her attorney D. Lawrence Olstad described his client as “programmed to kill” to avoid competition for her grandparents’ affections.

[Oregonian  quote of note: “She doted on her grandfather so he could do no wrong; and that was the lesson. Her grandfather had killed her mother, and that was just fine…..after she had been taught by her grandfather that the way to improve your condition is to kill somebody, when the next generation of little ones came along and started to attract the grandparents’ attention (committing murder) was obviously the logical thing to do.” Michele’s lawyer D. Lawrence Olstad, February 10th, 1985. Attorney Olstad was eventually disbarred for narcotics violations; the role the glacial pace of Matter of Gates  played in his descent into addiction is unknown.]

For masochists and the minutia-obsessed here is a timeline of Michele Gates’ byzantine journey through the juvenile justice system:

While back in Portland awaiting trial Michele became romantically involved with a man named Eric Meiier;
unaware of her past,
he helped her obtain a job as a swimming instructor for handicapped children at the local YMCA.
When word leaked of Michele’s complicated history with water the community outcry was deafening.
As it happens, fellow volunteer Dorothy Graber had long suspected things weren’t quite right with the Y’s new swim instructor;
Michele once ignored repeated directives to rescue a flailing five-year old swimmer adrift in the pool’s deep end—she would later claim she let the child struggle in order to gain confidence.

Michele and her grandmother Jean Gates in 1984

Now nineteen-years old and living with her paternal grandmother Jean Gates,
Michele’s dance-marathon with justice finally ended with a whimper—the case had outlived poor Ruthie O’Neil by more than a year.
On January 15th, 1985 Michele was convicted of the juvenile equivalent of murder after stipulating to the facts in the police reports implicating her in Ruthie’s death;
she was then released into her grandmother’s custody.
The convicted murderess never spent a single day in the Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility, Oregon’s juvenile version of Alcatraz.
Despite her confession Michele was never tried for drowning her cousin Nahtyah Ottino—her extreme youth at the time of the crime precluded the possibility of prosecution.

[Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility alumnus of note: Nirvana-adjacent rock star and provocateur Courtney Love.]

And then the record falls silent.
For approximately five years after her 1985 conviction Michele is absent from the media, but in 1990 she came roaring back into the news—exploiting a loophole in Oregon law,
she filed a court petition seeking to expunge her juvenile record.
Ruthie’s mother Gail O’Neil was understandably outraged.
Although the law would eventually be amended to prohibit the erasure of juvenile homicide convictions
Michele prevailed;
in 1991 her criminal record was expunged,
the interminable Matter of Gates  funded by taxpayers for naught.

[Salem Statesman Journal  quote of note: “I feel that to close the record is to say that it didn’t happen. It completely invalidates that my daughter ever existed.” Gail O’Neil, November 9th, 1990]

1991 was an eventful year for Michele;
now twenty-five years old, she legally assumed her boyfriend’s surname and became Michele Dee Shorthouse.
Joe Shorthouse—previously married to a woman named Lisa Mackie—was the father of a five-year old son.
Michele, according to some sources, is infertile—and she was allegedly very interested in obtaining custody of her boyfriend’s child,
who just happened to be the same approximate age as Ruthie O’Neil when she breathed her last.
On April 21st, 1991, Lisa Mackie’s home in Vancouver, Washington burned to the ground.
Officials determined the fire had been deliberately set.

Approximately one year later, on February 6th, 1992,
a reporter at the Bellingham Herald  received a telephone call from an anonymous source.
The caller claimed he’d participated in the arson of Lisa Mackie’s home and received 3K of a promised 10K advance payment for her murder.
The Herald  reporter contacted authorities;
a phone trace ultimately revealed the tipster to be one Anthony J. Johnson, ex-boyfriend (some sources say longtime friend) of Michele Gates Shorthouse.
The no-longer convicted (but confessed) murderess was arrested on February 20th, 1992, eligible for adult court at last.

Michele at her 1992 arrest

Unlike the serpentine progress of Matter of Gates  Michele’s adult proceedings hustled along at a rapid clip;
on June 10th, 1992 she pleaded guilty to procuring the use of fire to commit arson
and travelling in interstate commerce with the intent to commit murder.
No longer a cute little girl, there would be no avoiding justice this time—she was sentenced to ten years for solicitation and five for arson, the terms to be served consecutively.

[For legal reasons I should note Joe Shorthouse was never implicated in the plot to murder his ex-wife. Shacking up with a child killer while parenting a young child is criminally unwise, certainly, but such behavior is not currently prohibited by state or federal statutes.]

Michele Gates Shorthouse’s release from custody received no fanfare;
I can find no mention of the date online, but as there is no parole in the federal system I assume her cell bars swung open sometime in 2007.
Ruthie O’Neil and Nahtyah Ottino are almost forty years gone,
fashions have changed and circled back, but still Michele is with us.
Over the last decade there has been nary a peep or a snicker from Portland’s most infamous babysitter-gone-bad,
although sightings of her are frequently logged on various message boards.
It’s possible the bad seed has finally matured into a benign oak—she’s currently managed to stay out of the news for ten years, twice as long as her flirtation with anonymity in the late 1980s.

For the record, Rhoda Penmark wouldn’t have been caught dead in that frumpy sweatshirt

Of course, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition) narcissistic sociopaths are notoriously resistant to treatment;
the afflicted can learn to conform their behavior to societally accepted norms
but even the priciest psychiatrist can’t confer empathy or a conscience.
Diagnostically speaking, even with the passage of almost half a century there’s a good chance Michele Gates Shorthouse is still more interested in getting even than in getting ahead.
Only time will tell if her storied criminal career has reached its final chapter,
but if I lived in the Pacific Northwest I’d take a good long look at my child’s swimming instructor—and if even the sweetest, best-mannered stranger offered my children free swimming lessons
I’d immediately contact the police.

Gail O’Neil (right) and Nahtyah Ottino’s mother Susan Gilchrist (left) at a 1980 court hearing. Their majestic 1980s glasses-frames are trendy again; Gail O’Neil reminds me of Barb from Stranger Things.

                and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death

        —-e.e. cummings

Crow victim Gregory Villemin pulled from l’eau

Billy Bodenheimer: Houston had several high-profile icebox murders in the 1960s, but the fad eventually cooled

Towheaded moppet Kurt Newton wandered into the woods and never wandered out

Charles Christopher Francis: his fate is unknown but a serial killer prowled his ambit

As the family of Gregory Villemin knows, Crows were ruining lives long before Brandon Lee’s death

Terry Bowers: sometimes getting pantsed isn’t the worst thing to happen at Boy Scout camp

Richard Streicher‘s murder was never solved, and we never found out if he named his sled Rosebud

All right, you know the rules—all posts about boys require at least one unsolved murder with a prime suspect sporting a clerical collar; Danny Croteau, step on up!

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
 And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all

——-Emily Dickinson (1861)

On May 6th, 2013 the parameters of possibility shattered.

As I’ve previously mentioned, no matter how dire the surrounding circumstances I find it comforting to concoct imaginary survival scenarios for missing persons.
Even I don’t believe my ridiculous tales of amnesia and human trafficking; they’re just my personal way of keeping the darkness at bay.
But as unlikely as my survival yarns may be, none has ever been as farfetched as a tall tale about two women,
separately abducted, being held in captivity together for more than a decade.
In the very neighborhood from which they disappeared.
Along with a third woman no one ever bothered to report missing.
The rescue of Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus bestowed an entire aviary of hope, not just upon the families of the missing, but on all of us.

And since we’ve got it we might as well spread it around.

Wanda Faye Walker

Climatologists know the adage “lightening never strikes twice” is a myth, and so does the family of Wanda Faye Walker.

When the matriarch of the Walker clan disappeared five months ago her family’s sense of dread had a tinge of déjà vu.
Mrs. Walker, age sixty, a beloved mother and grandmother,
was last seen on October 5th at the home she shared with a cousin on 11th Avenue in Nashville, Tennessee.
Later that day she failed to report to her job at the Dollar Tree store on Franklin Pike,
and a week and a half later her Nissan Maxima was found behind a home on Wade Avenue—a ten minute drive from her home—with doors locked and no signs of disturbance.
Mrs. Walker’s loved ones are certain she would not vanish voluntarily,
as she intimately understood the anguish her disappearance would engender—seventeen years earlier her daughter Deana had mysteriously vanished, leaving a hole in the Walker family time has been unable to fill.

“I know she wouldn’t do us like this because my mother is already missing. She wouldn’t want us to go through that again.” Mrs. Walker’s grandson Rayvon Walker, WSMV Nashville, October 20th, 2016

Deana Walker and her son Rayvon

In 1999 Laresha Deana Walker—familiarly known by her middle name—was a twenty three-year old mother of a two-year old son and an employee of the Peterbilt Motors Company.
On November 19th she dropped her son Rayvon with her sister Lakesha Chambers, citing early-morning plans to drive to Murfreesboro for a car appraisal;
later that evening she spoke with her father Sidney Walker at approximately 9:45pm and nothing appeared to be amiss.
When she failed to retrieve her son the next day
her sister visited Deana’s townhome at 3858 Edwards Avenue in East Nashville—the door was locked, the lights were on, the music was blaring—but nothing seemed out of place.
The only thing missing was Deana—even the medication she took for a heart ailment and the clothing she’d worn earlier that day was present in the home, which she had lived in for less than a month.

“Anyone who knew [Deana] knew she did not play—she would not go down without a fight.” Sister Lakesha Chambers, WKRN Nashville, November 17th, 2016

Automotive doppelgänger of Deana Walker’s missing vehicle

The sole clue in the young mother’s disappearance was provided by a neighbor—at some point during the night Deana had been heard arguing with someone outside her home.
As far as her family knew Deana had no known enemies and was not dating anyone at the time of her disappearance.
Her car, a 1995 maroon Oldsmobile Achieva, vanished as well and has has never been recovered.
According to retired detective Pat Postiglione,
the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department believes Deana was the victim of an abduction:
“All indications are she was a good mother and would not have left her son,” he told a reporter from WKRN.
The Walker family was devastated by Deana’s disappearance,
and despite the passage of time investigators have failed to unearth any evidence whatsoever indicating her ultimate fate.

“[My family] says she was very caring—they said when she had me I was all she really cared about. I was her everything.” Son Rayvon Walker, WAVY Hampton Roads, November 17th, 2016

There’s no denying the odds look bleak for both missing Walkers—Deana has been missing for the better part of two decades, leaving her adored child and heart medication behind.
And though she has been missing for a far shorter period of time Mrs. Walker’s predicament may be just as dire;
according to a family member’s Facebook post Wanda was last seen with her boyfriend Harold Henderson—-it’s a fairly common name and I make no claim of a connection,
but if Mrs. Walker’s boyfriend Harold Henderson is this Harold Henderson the possibility of a happy ending could be tiptoeing towards the exit in the elder Walker’s case as well.

“Closure is it. Whether the outcome is good or bad, we just need to know.” Lakesha Chambers, WBTV Charlotte, October 20th, 2016

And so even while I acknowledge the odds do not favor a safe return for either missing Walker the feathered creature inside me is pecking away at a tiny keyboard,
working on a story about a mother forced to fake her own death in order to liberate her daughter from a human trafficking ring.
I’m calling it A Mother’s Vengeance: the Rescue of Deana Walker.
And all it needs is a happy ending.

That which has been will be again, that which has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. —- Ecclesiastes 1:9
I haven’t been reading much crime lately; it’s hard for me to concentrate on things that happened in the past when so many terrible things are happening right now,
with even more terrible things sure to follow.

That said, a recent arrest in the Julie Mott missing body case has me pondering thematically akin crimes—crimes that aren’t identical or connected but are uncannily similar nonetheless.
It seems that even the most bizarre slayings have corollaries;
there are only so many awful things human beings can do to one another,
I suppose, thus even the oddest circumstances are statistically destined to reoccur.

Julie Mott: the fear of being abducted by a maniac no longer ends at death

I should clarify that though the main suspect has been arrested the Mott case has not been solved.
Julie, a 25-year old San Antonian who succumbed to cystic fibrosis last year,
was body-napped from a funeral home while awaiting cremation.
Julie’s family is certain her allegedly obsessed ex-boyfriend Bill Wilburn is responsible;
although he denies these allegations and Julie’s body is still missing
Wilburn was arrested last week and charged with violating a restraining order issued in the case.
(A not-at-all-crazy collection of Wilburn’s online commentary can be found here.)

As peculiar as this bodysnatching amour fou might seem,
it wouldn’t be the first time a stalker has pilfered his victim’s remains;
in the 1930s original tomb raider Carl Von Cosel liberated the corpse of Elena Hoyos from her crypt,
keeping the young tuberculosis victim’s body for almost a decade,
sleeping beside—and if you must know, with—her mummified corpse.

The mummified remains of Elena Hoyos—because sleep is overrated anyway

Here are some other unusual crimes I find thematically akin:

The Sodder children (1945) / Chloie Leverette and her brother Gage Daniel (2012)
Mary Morris murders (2000) / Michael Green murders (2011)
Annie Laurie Hearin & Daffany Tullos (1988) / Orja Corns & John Navickas (1948)

It’s not even necessary for the crimes to be separated by any length of time;
although it happened only two years before and is still unsolved there’s an American murder which has always reminded me of the handiwork of infamous British child murderess Mary Bell.
Mary’s first victim, 4-year old Martin Brown, was slain the day after her 11th birthday;
a few months later, aided by her 13-year old friend and accomplice Norma Bell (no relation),
she would go on to murder Brian Howe, age 3.
Norma was acquitted at trial and has reportedly passed away,
but Mary Bell served twelve years for manslaughter and currently resides in the UK under various pseudonyms.

The crimes of the child-murdering child murderess are notorious in Britain and abroad,
and the question of whether Mary was a victim of her unfortunate upbringing or a pint-sized psychopath remains a matter of contention.


Mary Bell, Manson-lamps present and accounted for


Despite their eternal association with sugar, spice and everything nice violent crimes committed by juvenile females are not unheard of; when Paul Benda, age 5,
was slain in New Jersey in 1966 there’s a good chance his assailants were a stateside version of Mary and Norma—or as I like to call them, Hell’s junior Bells.


Paul Benda lived with his divorced mother and two siblings in a modest home abutting swampland in Union Beach,
a blue collar town on the Jersey Shore.
There are some discrepancies in his final sighting—some publications say he was last seen at 5pm by his mother,
others by his friends at 6pm—but all agree Paul was officially reported missing at 8:19pm on June 21st.
The Memorial School kindergartener had gone out to play in the fields near Brook Avenue Creek and vanished.

An intensive search by the Union Beach Police Department was launched at 9pm and continued on ‘til the wee hours;
the fields surrounding the Benda home were covered with ten-foot high cattails,
making the search process onerous,
and no trace of the missing boy was found.
Three hundred firemen,
policemen, and civil defense employees resumed the hunt the next morning;
finally, at 7:45pm,
approximately 24 hours after he was last seen,
Paul’s remains were discovered secreted in deep underbrush in an area that had previously been searched. Paul was nude,
his clothing—a white tee-shirt and grey shorts—discovered ten feet from his body.

An autopsy would reveal Paul had been dead approximately ten hours,
and his last moments alive had been horrific.
As county physician C. Malcolm Gilman told Asbury Park Press,
“The little fellow’s chest was covered with burns”— twelve cigarette burns, to be exact.
Paul had also been beaten with a broken stick,
leaving seven jagged wounds across his back,
and he’d suffered an (unspecified) sexual injury.
Although these wounds were numerous they were not fatal—Paul had also been stabbed several times (three or five, depending on the source) in the heart and esophagus with a metal spike.

Dr. Gilman was unable to definitively identify the weapon used in the crime—the implement was longer and thicker than an icepick— but he believed the device would be most consistent with a marlin spike,
a pointed tool used by sailors to splice rope.
The crime scene was scoured with a metal detector but the murder weapon has never been found.

A vintage marlin spike for those in need of visual aids or nightmare fuel

As ghastly as Paul’s injuries were,
his wounds weren’t the most singular aspect of the crime—a woman who lived 150 feet from the crime scene heard a child screaming at approximately the same time Paul had been slain:
“Don’t do that to me. Don’t touch me. Don’t hurt me,” pleaded a little boy’s voice before abruptly falling silent.
The voices of the child’s attackers were too faint to discern specific verbiage,
but according to the witness the voices seemed to belong to a most unexpected source: two little girls.

Although investigators and the press seemed skeptical young girls could commit such a brutal murder
two years after Paul’s death Mary Bell would prove female juveniles quite capable of atrocities against small children.
The similarities between the Benda murder and Mary’s crimes are numerous:
the ages of the victims,
the localized crime scene which negated the use of a car,
and the sexual mutilation inflicted upon Paul and second Bell victim Brian Howe.
And the similarities don’t end there.

The death of Mary Bell’s first victim,
Martin Brown, was originally written off as a natural death;
it was only after the murder of second victim Brian Howe that detectives recognized a pattern and reopened Martin’s case.
And Paul Benda wasn’t the first little boy found dead in the fields near Brook Avenue Creek—three years previously the body of 10-year old James Konish had been discovered only feet from the Benda crime scene
(some sources say as little as five feet away, others as many as twenty).
Jimmy had been missing for nearly three weeks and county physician Dr. Julius Toren was unable to determine his cause of death due to severe decomposition.

At 4pm on October 24th, 1963,
Jimmy, a 5th grade student at Cottage Park School,
grabbed his fishing pole and headed out for an afternoon on the banks of Brook Avenue Creek—he was never seen alive again.
A three-day search was launched and the creek and area lakes dragged but no sign of the missing boy or his fishing gear could be located.
Union Beach Police Chief Walter Hutton, however,
didn’t seem especially keen on investigating Jimmy’s disappearance: “We feel the boy is alive but unless sheltered by someone is not in this borough,” he told the Asbury Park Press after calling off the search,
essentially washing his hands of the matter.

A single three-day search seems to be the only law enforcement effort expended on Jimmy’s behalf;
if a criminal investigation was initiated it was never mentioned in the press.
Distraught, the Konish family distributed thousands of missing person posters and offered a $500 reward but no clues were forthcoming.
Twenty-seven days later Jimmy’s body—still clad in his sneakers,
tan pants and white sweater—was found near the creek by a boy walking his dog,
hidden in underbrush in an area that had been searched several times.

From the very outset authorities seemed determined to declare Jimmy’s death natural despite several anomalies which appear to indicate foul play.
Although the coroner was unable to determine a cause of death Chief Walter Hutton assured newspaper reporters Jimmy had fallen into the creek and drowned—despite the fact the creek had been dragged and the boy’s body was found sixty feet above the high tide line.
Moreover, Jimmy’s fishing gear was found beside him,
an unlikely occurrence if both had been deposited by the tide.

Not surprisingly, Chief Hutton was also adamant the Benda and Konish deaths were unrelated:
hours after Paul’s body was found the Chief pooh-poohed media speculation of a link—Paul’s autopsy had not yet been completed, nor had any meaningful
investigation into the possibility of a connection been undertaken at the time.
In fact, Chief Hutton went so far as to tell reporters covering the Benda case the coroner determined Jimmy Konish drowned,
which was blatantly untrue—in media interviews Dr. Toren deemed Jimmy’s cause of death undetermined.

The proximity of their final resting places wasn’t the only similarity Paul and Jimmy shared;
although they’d never met the boys had numerically identical addresses:
Jimmy lived at 727 Front Street and Paul at 727 Prospect Avenue. Lillian Yengle, Paul’s grandmother,
was certain Jimmy Konish had been murdered in a case of mistaken identity—Jimmy was, she told a reporter from the Asbury Park Press, a dead ringer for one of her older grandsons;  she was sure both boys had been murdered by someone with “an ax to grind” against the Benda family.
“[My grandson Paul] didn’t just walk into this. It was no sex killing—it was a hate murder,” she told the reporter.

The Konish recovery site; the ink smudges are too-too Ringu

Justice was only obtained for Mary Bell’s first victim because authorities were willing to admit they’d misjudged his manner of death; Jimmy Konish wouldn’t be so lucky.
Chief Hutton was unmoved by the suspicions of the Konish and Benda families;
and the impossibility of a drowned corpse migrating sixty feet up a creek bank didn’t appear to faze him.
On a perhaps related note,
Chief Hutton also apparently discounted the witness
who heard two little girls tormenting a male child the night Paul was slain;
he instead became fixated on a local mentally challenged youth, although the teen was never charged.
Although it has been periodically reopened the Benda case has never been solved, and Jimmy Konish’s death has never been criminally investigated.

Fifty years on, barring a confession or a technological breakthrough the chances of an arrest in either boys’ murder—and it’s highly likely Jimmy was murdered—is slim, but it’s imperative to examine the crimes of the past to predict and understand the crimes of the future.
History is on an endless loop, and we ignore the merry-go-round of repetition at our peril.

So next time a wee child is slaughtered amidst the demonic cackling of little girls it’s time to start interviewing juvenile females; ask not for whom the bell tolls, because as long as the victims are weak and defenseless
the Mary Bell tolls for thee.

The “Mother Bitter” tagline slays me. Her son was hideously murdered and no one has ever been arrested; did they expect to find her dancing the Watusi?

Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle. She died young. ——- The Duchess of Malfi

Cathy Moulton‘s shopping excursion ended in the abyss where the price of toothpaste and pantyhose is much too high
Amber Lundgren’s last night out was her last night alive
Michelle Von Emster was attacked by a coldblooded predator, but did he have gills?
Sometimes stinging jellyfish aren’t the scariest creatures on the beach, as Rachel Hurley discovered
And a triptych: Carla Walker’s killer had a taste for torture and pharmaceutical access (part 1 + part 2 + coda)
Addenda I:
I’d intended to include Sunny Sudweeks in this post but her murder is no longer unsolved. Note the sleight of hand in the Costa Mesa Police Department’s spin: yes, DNA facial-simulation technology is cool, but sentient readers will still notice CMPD apparently waited at least a decade before entering the crime scene prints into AFIS. Jessica Fletcher would weep.
Addenda Part II, Postscript’s Revenge:
Sunny Sudweeks isn’t the only damsel missing from today’s blogroll. When I tried to post a Guardian  interactive feature about Kari Leander the story was gone, wiped from the internet—as is any mention of Kari Leander herself. This troubles me.

The Guardian  deletion isn’t the first time a longread destined for Linkage Blindness has disappeared. An insane multi-part article about the Bailey fire was earmarked for the previous edition, and a full-page article about the Bobby Tipp icebox murder was intended for next month’s compendium of murdered little boys—both have vanished, unavailable even in the way-back-machine.

Professional writers should be paid for their work, obviously—I wouldn’t be upset if the articles disappeared behind a paywall, as long as the information was still available. But I don’t think society benefits when information about unsolved crimes is permanently excised. I’ve considered making copies of Linkage Blindness stories before I put them in the queue, but I can’t think of a way to distribute the material that isn’t disrespectful. Even if I email the stories individually they’ll end up posted somewhere—that’s the nature of the internet.

If anyone has a karmically-sound, copyright-friendly solution to this issue I’d love to hear it. And for posterity’s sake, here is Kari Leander’s photo:

Kari Leander

A predator took her life, but he didn’t erase her existence. A little corner of cyberspace isn’t much but it’s something.

Addenda Part III, the Final Chapter:
The Guardian’s Kari Leander article is now restored. I love a happy ending:)

Oakland Junior Commerce Mother of the Year awards ceremony; May 12th, 1963.

The woman of the hour is 43-year-old Mary Elizabeth Martin, Betty to her friends, chairwoman of the Oakland Council of Church Women and a tireless fundraiser for First Presbyterian Church.
Mrs. Martin is the loving wife of Dr. Francis Martin, a prominent osteopath,
and mother of two beautiful daughters, Carolyn, age 18, and Susan, age 16.
The Martins are a model family—well-known and -loved within the community—but then as now an absence of enemies confers no immunity from murder.
1963’s Mother of the Year will not survive her reign;
within nine months both Mrs. Martin and her daughter Carolyn will be dead.

From right: Carolyn, Dr. Francis Martin, younger daughter Susan, and Betty

From right: Carolyn, Dr. Francis Martin, younger daughter Susan, and Betty

The Martin residence, June 20th, 1963.

Located at 1140 Ashmount Avenue in Oakland’s tony Crocker Heights,
the twelve-room mansion is as polished and tasteful as the Martin family themselves.
Although the décor is mid-century traditional—the home’s sunken living room features marble accents and a full-size grand piano—a decidedly unconventional crime is in progress.
A burglar has entered the residence by unknown means;
bypassing the family’s valuables, in a few moments he will slip away with a most unusual booty—three nightgowns, two dresses, a quantity of lingerie and a ladies’ watch.
The theft of a timepiece is à propos, because for Carolyn and Mrs. Martin, the clock is ticking.

The Martin residence, January 22nd, 1964.

The telephone operator logs the frantic call at 5:50pm: “I think my mother and sister are dead!”

Susan Martin has returned home from pep squad practice and stumbled upon the unimaginable.

feetcarolynwithbangsSide by side on the living room carpet lay the battered, strangled bodies of her mother and sister.
Both have been bizarrely trussed,
Carolyn with her silk stockings tied end-to-end,
Mrs. Martin with a seven-foot extension cord torn from a nearby lamp.
Positioned face-down,
both corpses have one leg hoisted in the air via a ligature wrapped around a big toe (Carolyn’s left, Mrs. Martin’s right, according to most sources).
Fastened with simple overhand knots, the bindings appear to be a foot fetish-friendly attempt at hogtying:
both women’s wrists have been lashed behind their backs,
their arm and leg bindings connected to a slipknot neck garrote designed to tighten at the first sign of struggle.

Although similarly bound, the victims’ states of dress diverge:
Carolyn is nude and barefoot, her stretch pants, blouse and undergarments ripped from her body—the medical examiner will later conclude she has been raped.
Mrs. Martin is fully attired in a dress and light coat; only her footwear—some sources say only a single shoe—has been removed.
Although both victims have been beaten Mrs. Martin sports a particularly large gash on her forehead;
a broken, blood-spattered marble ashtray, 6” by 6” square, is resting on the floor near her head.
The Martins’ dog, a black and white Pekinese-mix named Touchdown, waits near his mistresses’ bodies, unharmed.

Violent crime was an anathema in Crocker Heights,
and the law enforcement response to the Martin murders was torrential;
crime scene technicians descended upon the home strewing fingerprint powder like pixie dust,
doggedly searching for clues.
Prints found on the bloody marble ashtray were too smeared to be of use,
but numerous quality prints—specific locus unknown—were found inside the residence.
The scene bore no signs of forced entry or indications of theft—the purses of both mother and daughter were left,
cash intact, on a kitchen counter.
Fingerprints aside, the only forensic finding of note was a small piece of metal, possibly a pen or tie clip,
mashed into the living room carpet.


The last known hours of mother and daughter were routine.
Carolyn, a sophomore at Chico State, had arrived home for winter break the evening before the murders—her suitcase, only half unpacked, still sits on a dresser in her bedroom.
On the morning of the crime Dr. Martin departed early as always, dropping his younger daughter Susan at Oakland High en route to his downtown office.
The final sighting of Carolyn and Mrs. Martin occurred at 9:45am at a local veterinarian’s office—Touchdown (referred to as “TD” in some sources) received a distemper vaccination.
After departing the pet clinic the activities of mother and daughter slip into the realm of conjecture.

If they had driven home directly—a reasonable assumption given the lack of subsequent sightings—the victims would have arrived home at approximately 10:20am.
Mrs. Martin’s gloves were found near her body,
indicating she lacked time to tuck them into her pockets or purse—investigators therefore believe the women were attacked immediately upon entering the residence.
Since the medical examiner would later affix their time of death as sometime between noon and 4pm,
a substantial time gap between the slayings and the initial attack is probable;
as Captain Alvin King told a Eureka Humboldt Standard  reporter, “It’s possible the killer merely stunned his victims [initially] and then toyed with them like a cat with a mouse before strangling them.”

Carolyn's yearbook photo

Carolyn’s yearbook photo

Detectives launched a classic two-pronged homicide investigation,
some officers rousting local sex offenders while others fanned out among the Martins’ friends and acquaintances.
Dr. Martin was quickly cleared from suspicion—his patients and staff vouched for his presence in his office all day.
Hundreds of potential suspects, pillars of the community and vagrants both,
were grilled to no avail.
Investigators teletyped other jurisdictions in search of similar slayings—the unidentified fingerprints from the Martin home were compared against those of the (still-at-large) Boston Strangler and the (never apprehended) killer of Karyn Kupcinet.
There was no match.

Detectives were unable to find any crimes with the specific signature of the Martins’ slayer—his toe-looped ligatures were unique—but Oakland did have one other bondage murder in 1964:
Oral Kenneth Lundell, age 46, strangled on December 28th, eleven months after the Martins.
Mr. Lundell, an electrical design engineer at Nuclear Research Instruments, was found by his male roommate on the bedroom floor of their duplex apartment—he’d been traditionally hogtied with a long leather belt,
his fuzzy slippers placed neatly at his side.
Due to the differences in victimology investigators were ultimately disinclined to consider the crimes linked;
like the Martin murders, the slaying of Mr. Lundell remains unsolved.

In the five decades since the Martin murders there has been only a single (minor) person of interest in the crime:
a Berkeley University student known to Carolyn.
Although investigators had no physical evidence tying the student to the murders he piqued the interest of Oakland Detective Jack Richardson.
It was his own mouth; he said some things,” the retired investigator told the East Bay Times.
Detective Richardson went undercover as a Berkeley student for a week,
sitting near the person of interest hoping to overhear an admission, but the sting was a bust.
Authorities have never revealed precisely what the Berkeley student said or why it was deemed incriminating,
and he is reportedly now deceased.


Despite the passage of time the Oakland Police Department is still intent on solving the Martin murders—the physical evidence is periodically resubmitted for crime lab testing,
although authorities have never revealed whether a DNA profile of the assailant has been developed
and entered into CODIS.
The “Mother of the Year Murders” were sensational in their day;
more than fifty years later the media ardor has cooled but still Oakland investigators persevere,
struggling to provide Carolyn and Mrs. Martin the justice that has so long eluded them.

If the Martins’ killer is still alive—ensconced amid stacks of lingerie and back issues of Foot Fancy  magazine, I’m sure—I hope his next shoe-related experience is the clomping sound of police footsteps as detectives arrive at his door to arrest him.

Failing that a swift kick in the ass with a stiletto heel wouldn’t do him any harm either.

The google image results for "police feet" were a lot tamer than I expected; there may be hope for the human race yet

The google image results for “police feet” were a lot tamer than I expected; there may be hope for the human race yet

Michael Bebek’s Final Repose

Posted: January 16, 2017 in Uncategorized

He saw it coming.


[All quotes courtesy of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.]

January 8th, 1988; 1011 King Street, Santa Cruz, California. The small home’s décor is strewn with a profusion of religious symbols—crucifixes and ankhs vie for space with prayer beads and Christian iconography.
Emblazoned upon the walls are several airbrushed murals depicting the home’s forty-four year old resident,
Michael Bebek, decked out in Egyptian drag.
Michael is, or he was, a professional psychic.
Now he is sprawled across his bed, dead—his skull fractured by a series of vicious blows.
The weapon used in the attack and Michael’s state of dress when found have never been released;
twenty-nine years later, his murder remains unsolved.

“Growing up, he was my god. He was so one-of-a-kind, so charismatic—if you met him you never forgot him.” Michael’s sister Suzanne Gardner, January 17th, 1988

A beloved figure in the local paranormal community,
Michael—under his professional name Orion—hosted classes in psychic development and offered one-on-one readings for $75 (approximately $150 in today’s currency).
A bit of a renaissance man, he also wrote a food column for Good Times,
a local alt weekly,
and peddled vintage clothing from a stall in a downtown boutique.
In 1983 Michael told a reporter from the Santa Cruz Sentinel  he’d been telepathic since childhood—“I used to get visions of people’s past lives and wait for them to laugh at me”— but he’d only begun practicing professionally at the behest of a spirit who encouraged him to share his gifts.

“A spirit guide came to me and told me to use his name and his vibration. It was on a Halloween, as a matter of fact, in 1974.” Michael on his extra-sensory résumé, October 30th, 1983

Although communing with the dead is an unorthodox profession detectives don’t believe Michael’s metaphysical work played any part his murder;
Orion wasn’t Michael’s only assumed name,
and his food column wasn’t his only connection to Good Times  magazine.
For three years preceding his death he’d taken out a weekly ad in the paper’s intimate massage section
under the name Mike Davis:
“Sensitive massage for men 18-30s—first time free for the young and fun.”
In the days before languidly swiping right on Grindr the sex lives of gay men were fraught with danger;
the ad used a pseudonym but the contact number was Michael’s home phone.

“There were times he was afraid, but he was addicted to what he used to call ‘the loveline.’” Sister Suzanne Gardner, January 17th, 1988


Although detectives aren’t certain Michael connected with his killer via the loveline,
investigators do believe homosexuality probably played some role in his death.
As Sergeant Bob Henning told a Sentinel reporter, “[The killer] could have been a jilted lover . . .
or somebody who answered his ad.”
Since so few details have been released it’s impossible to gage whether Michael’s murder was a hate crime,
but considering the stigma of homosexuality in the 1980s it’s certainly possible homophobia—either overt or internalized—was involved in some capacity.

“He was aware of all the dangers [of the loveline], but he felt confident about it because he was good with people and could talk his way out of things.” Longtime friend and fellow psychic Carolyne Gaudier, January 17th, 1988

Michael’s murder has received little press coverage in the three decades since his death:
in 1999 the Santa Cruz Police Department announced they’d collected DNA samples from several persons of interest,
and in 2002 Sergeant Steve Clark told a Sentinel  reporter he’d zeroed in on an (unidentified) suspect,
but too many people had access to the crime scene to justify an arrest warrant.
Since Michael was such a colorful character I’m surprised his death didn’t receive more media attention;
no forensic details have been released,
and the aspect of the crime I find most fascinating was relegated to a throwaway line in a single newspaper article:
according to his friends, Michael knew his days on earth were numbered.

“He was aware he was going to die this year. He talked about it; he joked about it.” Psychic Carolyne Gaudier, January 17th, 1988


I’m crestfallen the Sentinel  didn’t pursue the story of Michael’s premonition—-did he know how he would die, or give any hints about the identity of his killer?
Murdered mediums are a pet obsession of mine;
assuming an afterlife exists, they’d be ideal candidates to come back and reveal what lies beyond—and frankly, I’m dying to know (pun intentional—deal with it).
Most professional psychics are hucksters and bullshit artists, unfortunately,
but there have been a handful of inexplicable cases that defy rational explanation—most famously the spectral voice of Teresita Basa—so I always remain open to the possibility of the paranormal.

“What is the worth of your days? What was the message of your life, what came to be?”  Michael Bebek while entranced, January 17th, 1988

Although these failures never seem to get much press,
recent cold-case developments have debunked two longstanding psychic prognostications:
in 1989 a medium predicted the phrase “flowers for Joe” would be important in solving the mystery of Jacob Wetterling’s disappearance (it wasn’t).
And in 1997 a psychic dragged a frantic mother and a horde of police detectives all over Christendom looking for missing student Kelli Cox,
claiming she was alive and gaining weight in captivity (she wasn’t).
Hopes dashed, law enforcement resources wasted, and no apologies or media scrutiny forthcoming—until there’s some accountability charlatans will continue to prey on the desperate and gullible.

“To make [your life] more significant, then count the journeys of your love, count the people who touched you back. That touched back. That loved you too.”   Michael entranced, January 17th, 1988

I’m always hopeful a legitimate medium will someday provide incontrovertible proof of post-mortem sentience—but in the meantime I think it’s important to expose unscrupulous “psychics” who swindle the unwise and unwary for personal glory and monetary gain.
But even if death is the end and extrasensory powers are a fairy tale Michael Bebek’s murder is still worthy of attention.
His friends and family were clearly devastated by his loss,
and I’ve always adored the remembrance chosen for his headstone, a fitting epitaph for a man with a sideline as an amateur masseuse:


Michael, if you want to chat we’re here; pick up the astral loveline and reach out and touch somebody—the young and fun await your call!

“Murder is like potato chips: you can’t stop with just one.” —- Stephen King

Although the doll is lovely, if I survived the massacre of my family I'd hope for a more practical present---like a Bullmastiff, perhaps, or maybe a military-grade flamethrower

Although the doll is lovely, if I survived the massacre of my family I’d hope for a more practical present—like a Bullmastiff, perhaps, or a military-grade flamethrower

The Bluebell bloodbath and the amazing tenacity of eleven-year old Terry Jo Duperrault, the original Final Girl
Enduring mysteries: the Kingfish Boat Ramp slayings and Florida’s inexplicable popularity as tourist destination
A thirty-year retrospective on the Colonial Parkway murders with more twists and turns than the road itself
The unsolved annihilation of the Rundle-Sturm family—not all Valentine’s tragedies are affairés de cœur
The novel 1984  brought us doublethink; the year 1984 brought us this yet-unsolved triple murder at Golf’n’Stuff
Last on this list but tops in weirdness: not unsolved but woefully unavenged, the Gavis family murders are full of surprises—you think it’s going to be a ho-hum teen-kills-his-family story . . . and then the grave robbing begins

David Manwarren’s first year selling Christmas trees would be his last.


November 26th, 1977; Battle Creek, Michigan.
The Battle Creek Enquirer  article was scheduled to run on December 11th—a holiday puff piece on Christmas tree sales.
Later, in hindsight, the photographer would recall only one red flag during his visit to the home of David Manwarren, novice tree salesman;
a request that the Enquirer  refrain from printing the family’s home address—455 West Van Buren Street—in the newspaper. “There are people looking for us,” David Manwarren, age twenty-two, said without elaboration.

Homicide detectives would later rue the photographer’s lack of follow-up questions.
Within a week three members of the Manwarren family—David,
wife Glenda, age twenty-two, and son David Jr., age three—would be dead; only eighteen-month old Terry was spared.
The lighthearted write-up on Christmas tree sales was scrapped;
photos taken for the piece would instead run alongside grisly accounts of the family’s murder.


When David failed to report to the tree lot for two days—December 3rd and 4th—his father paid the family a visit.
Finding the Manwarren car in the driveway and a front window smashed he contacted the police.
Officers from the Battle Creek Police Department entered the house and found the three eldest Manwarrens
slain in the bedroom—Terry, unharmed, had been toddling through blood-soaked scene for hours.

Investigators have been fairly tightlipped regarding the crime scene details, but the following facts are known:
all three Manwarrens had been killed with a single shotgun blast to the head or neck.
David, clad in his undershorts, was found sprawled on the couple’s bed.
David Junior, state of dress unknown, was found on a mattress on the bedroom floor
and Glenda, in her nightgown, was on the floor nearby.
The Battle Creek Enquirer would later report “a rape occurred in the house,” but the identity of the victim
and the type of assault inflicted has never been disclosed.


The murder weapon, a shotgun belonging to David Manwarren, was also found in the bedroom, devoid of fingerprints.
Due to the gun’s location some newspaper articles initially raised the possibility of murder-suicide,
but the coroner would later determine all three Manwarrens died as a result of homicidal violence.
Investigators suspected murder-suicide was unlikely as soon as they entered the crime scene—though this detail took almost a week to leak to the press,
the Manwarren’s killer left the murder weapon behind but he stole the family’s living room furniture.

Detectives were unable to determine the means by which the killer or killers entered the Manwarren home.
The shattered window—located on the west side of the house—had been broken from the inside,
and investigators believe it may have been damaged during the removal of the furniture.
The family’s overturned Christmas tree, the only sign of struggle in the home,
was a possible casualty of the furniture theft as well.
Oddly, the assailant(s) carried off the couch, loveseat and easy chair but left the Manwarren’s color television behind—a few days after the murders someone kicked in the front door and stole the TV as well.

Copycat crime?

Copycat crime?

Acting on a tip, investigators located the Manwarrens’ furniture less than a week after the crime,
brazenly displayed in an apartment inhabited by local ne’er-do-well Robert Lee Tanner, age sixteen.
Tanner, known on the streets as Beaver, was a one-man crime wave;
his juvenile record reportedly contained more than twenty-five felony arrests,
and he was the prime suspect in a homicide which had occurred the previous summer.

Possession of the murdered family’s furniture was incriminating, certainly, but insufficient for a murder conviction.
In the pre-forensics era detectives were far more reliant on testimonial evidence,
and Beaver Tanner wasn’t talking.
He declined to explain how he came into possession of the Manwarrens’ furniture,
and due to his fearsome reputation in the community none of his criminal associates were talking either.
Approximately one month after the murders, on January 31st, 1978,
Tanner was convicted of possession of the stolen living room set—since he was only sixteen
his prosecution was confined to juvenile court.
He was bound over into the custody of the Calhoun County juvenile authorities for an indeterminate sentence,
and the investigation into the Manwarren murders stalled.


“Is the [Manwarren] investigation closed? Not by a damn sight. We know, and a lot of people on the street know, who did the murders. We also suspect this creep to be the killer of Deborah Bradley, the young black woman found dead behind a church on Van Buren Street, not too far from the Manwarren house. We know he killed Miss Bradley. We know he killed the Manwarrens. We have the knowledge but not the evidence he murdered them. We’re going to keep this case open until somebody comes out of the woodwork and gives us some good information so we can go to the prosecutor and get a murder warrant.” Battle Creek Police Chief Russell Sholes, Battle Creek Enquirer, December 4th, 1978


August 24th, 1976, fifteen months before the Manwarren murders.
Twenty-four-year old Deborah Bradley, accompanied by her fourteen-year sister, dashed out to buy milk at 12:45am.
While crossing a vacant lot a man sprang from the bushes carrying a shotgun and demanded both women follow him.
Her sister managed to break away and flee, but Deborah wasn’t so lucky.
Law enforcement immediately launched an extensive search but to no avail;
approximately twelve hours later Deborah’s nude body was found behind the Church of God in Christ,
just around the corner from the Manwarren home.
The recent divorcée, primary caretaker of her invalid mother, had been raped and shot once in the head.

It’s unclear whether Deborah’s sister got a good look at the assailant—he may have simply been a person of interest due to his previous criminality—but Battle Creek detectives immediately zeroed in on Robert Lee Tanner, local scourge.
Authorities arrested him shortly after the crime but,
unable to develop enough evidence to obtain a murder indictment, they were forced to release him shortly thereafter.
Approximately one year later the Manwarrens would be dead.


The sentencing guidelines of the 1970s were lenient, and juvenile sentencing especially so;
six months after being incarcerated for possession of stolen goods Beaver Tanner,
now age seventeen, was back on the streets of Battle Creek.
He wouldn’t stay out long, however—two months after his release, on August 2nd, 1978,
an armed robbery would land him back behind bars.
Eligible for adult court at last,
he was sentenced to ten to fifteen years in the penitentiary for home invasion robbery.
The Manwarren murders, already cold, were getting colder.

“He was caught in connection with an armed robbery of several persons in a house. [Robert Lee Tanner] had the three of them—a woman and her two daughters—lined up sitting on the couch. He had a gun he found in the house leveled at them. We think he was about to shoot them when the uniformed guys arrived. He split, but thankfully we were able to catch him nearby both with a stolen gun and money. What made it so bad for the three people was that one of the daughters recognized him. That was a bad thing. He’s not one likely to leave any witnesses.” Unnamed Battle Creek homicide detective, Battle Creek Enquirer, December 4th, 1978


A year into his armed robbery sentence investigators,
aided by a prison snitch, finally gathered sufficient evidence to prosecute Tanner for Deborah Bradley’s murder.
According to the Battle Creek Enquirer,
detectives had been able to “tie” Tanner to the stolen gun used in the crime,
and his presence behind bars had reportedly loosened the lips of several of his criminal associates.

Media accounts of the testimonial evidence against Tanner are vague,
and the reason for the District Attorney’s next move is unclear:
Robert Tanner was allowed to plead down from capital rape and murder to a single count of voluntary manslaughter,
punishable by a maximum of ten to fifteen years in prison.
In February of 1986, just over six years later, twenty-six year old Beaver Tanner was back on the prowl.
He was not rehabilitated.


On December 6th, 1987, nearly ten years to the day after the Manwarren murders,
recent Calvin College graduate Joan Rudenga, age twenty-four, encountered an intruder in her Grand Rapids home—in the ensuing confrontation she was stabbed twenty-seven times.
A roommate who ran to her aid, John Pierik, age twenty-one,
was stabbed six times as he chased the assailant from the house.
Responding officers followed the killer’s bloody footprints in the snow and swiftly apprehended the attacker.
He’d been paroled less than one year earlier,
but prison hadn’t diminished Robert Lee Tanner’s unquenchable thirst for violence.

Although Jon Pierik made a full recovery, Joan Rudenga was permanently paralyzed in the attack;
she had never seen Robert Lee Tanner before their fateful encounter. [A 2015 video of Joan Wegner née Rudenga speaking about her ordeal is embedded below.]

Sentenced to life in prison for two counts of assault with intent to commit murder,
Beaver Tanner has dwelt behind bars ever since—and with the passage of years the Manwarren murders have fallen off the media, and presumably law enforcement, radar.
In light of this lack of attention my Christmas wish this year is directed at the Battle Creek Police Department:
do a little digging in the crime lab Santa sack and see if you can find the rape kit from the Manwarren crime scene.
Even if we choose to trust the parole board and assume Tanner will pass all future Christmases in prison
I’ve always wondered if he had an accomplice in the Manwarren murders—he may have been a one-man crime wave,
but I doubt even a super-predator could move a sofa and loveseat all by himself.

Robert Lee Tanner, present day

Robert Lee Tanner, present day

In the spirit of the season, a merry Christmas to you and yours, dear readers; or happy holidays, festive Kwanzaa, jolly Festivus—hell, hail Satan if you prefer.
And remember, on Christmas eve—as you nestle snug in your bed, visions of sugarplums adance in your head—if you hear a strange noise in the dark of the night
it probably isn’t Santa Claus climbing down your chimney.

In true crime the clichés are inescapable.
Female victims light up a room.
Male victims would gladly give the shirts off their backs.
All victims irrespective of sex or circumstances were happygolucky and /or loved life.
The bodies of the slain, without exception, are dumped like trash;
and every time a passerby stumbles upon a discarded corpse in the wild the tale of discovery must begin: “At first I thought it was a mannequin . . . .”
Of course, once in a great while a true crime narrative takes an unexpected turn—while rare, there have been times the sprawled human form discovered (typically by a dogwalker or free-range urinator) is in fact a mannequin.
This is one of those stories. Well, mostly.

This creepy mannequin image is completely unrelated to today's post but I wanted to share it---why should I be the only one who can't sleep at night?

This creepy mannequin image is unrelated to today’s post but I wanted to share it—why should I be the only one who can’t sleep at night?

“People are so paranoid around here they think mannequins are falling out of the sky.” Howard County Police Information Officer Randolph Roby, Washington Post, March 23rd, 1980

The first mannequin appeared on January 15th, 1980, a grim harbinger of things to come.

The affluent Lawyer’s Hill section of Elkridge, Maryland is an enclave long on elegance and short on excitement;
the appearance of a flesh-toned female torso dangling from a tree branch—red paint slathered on its neck and nipples, knife in its chest—caused a community-wide panic.
If the placement of the dummy was intended as a joke it was a sick one.

“I’ve seen it, and it was depicting somebody having been murdered. If I came home and saw a mannequin on my front porch I wouldn’t go inside. I’d hightail it to the police.” Elkridge homeowner John Powers, Louisville Courier Journal, March 24th, 1980

mannequinrebeccadavisphotothenExactly one month after the mannequin’s appearance longtime Elkridge resident Rebecca Davis—Dolly to her friends,
who were legion—departed from her tutoring position
at Carter Woodson Elementary School in Cherry Hill;
she would never be seen alive again, except by her killer.

“She was a super-nice individual; I haven’t talked to one person who ever said anything negative about her. Who would want to kill a nice person like Dolly Davis?” Howard County Police Detective Richard Witte, Palm Beach Post, May 25th, 1981

Dolly Davis was by all accounts a lovely woman—despite being born into a life of privilege the former debutante and Bryn Mawr graduate had dedicated her life to good deeds.
She performed missionary work in Haiti,
taught religion at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis,
tutored children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods
and visited the sick and infirm.
In her youth Dolly had been an accomplished artist,
but in her later years she focused solely on making the world a better place.
Her good deeds and the goodwill of her community, however, could not save her.

“A couple of times I have known her to pick up somebody on the road. When I would say she shouldn’t Dolly would just smile and say, ‘you can tell about some people.’” Friend Phyllis Fiddler, Baltimore Sun, March 9th, 1980

mannequinrebeccadavisphotoSeventy-year old Dolly never married, and she lived alone in a stately Lawyers Hill home her family had owned for generations.
On February 22nd—a week after she’d last been seen—a housekeeper arrived at the residence and sensed something awry.
Although the inside of the house was undisturbed Dolly’s car had been parked half in and half out of the garage,
and one of her shoes had been abandoned in the back yard.
The cleaning lady contacted one of Dolly’s friends,
who contacted authorities.
An intensive search of the grounds revealed Dolly’s remains buried in a shallow grave on the far reaches of the property,
still clad in the dress she’d worn to Cherry Hill.
The lifelong humanitarian’s good deeds were over.

“There’s not a phantom killer, we don’t see that. There are no maniacs running around the neighborhoods of Elkridge.” Howard County Police Sergeant Angus Park, Baltimore Sun, July 9th, 1989

The coroner determined Dolly had been murdered on February 15th, probably within hours of leaving Woodson Elementary;
she’d been stabbed nine times in the neck with a short blade—possibly a pocketknife—and scores of small defensive wounds crisscrossed her arms.
Although law enforcement kept this detail from the press,
she’d been sexually assaulted,
probably post-or perimortem.
The nicest woman in Elkridge had died a most horrible and unjust death.

“This was the case in the county that caused people to put deadbolt locks on their doors.” Howard County Police Detective Keith Fisher on the Davis murder, Baltimore Sun, August 10th, 1999

Compounding the community’s distress,
Dolly’s death wasn’t the only unsolved murder in the area;
the previous year a couple had been slain in Ellicott City, a rural hamlet just outside Elkridge.
Carvel Faulkner, age fifty-eight—a bull of a man weighing three-hundred pounds and standing well over six feet tall—was found in a pool of blood next to his bed; he’d been shot in once in the head.
His fifty-six year old wife Sarah, her throat slashed, had been trussed hand and foot and stabbed repeatedly in the back.
The crime, which occurred on April 26th, 1979,
was baffling—despite Carvel’s brawn there were no signs of disturbance in the home,
and $1000 dollars left out in plain sight was left untouched.

“People are scared to death—you know, it’s an awful way to live, scared to death.” Dolly’s neighbor Esther Bennett, Palm Beach Post, May 25th, 1980

Adding grist to the community’s rumor mill, shortly after Dolly’s body was recovered a second mannequin appeared,
once again with tell-tale markings of murder.
Howard County investigators took the dummy into evidence and dusted it for prints but none could be found.
As time marched on the investigation into Dolly Davis’s death began to sputter,
with nary a suspect or motive in sight.
Leads may have been scarce but mannequins were not—for nearly a year, usually midmonth when Dolly had been slain,
the ghoulish spectacles materialized in Elkridge and the surrounding towns.


“There’s no proven correlation between the mannequins and the homicide. You have a homicide [in a wealthy area], which is bizarre; and also the mannequins, which are bizarre. They’re apples and oranges . . . but they’re both fruit.” Howard County Police spokesman Randolph Roby, Washington Post, March 23rd, 1980

Is it me, or is this the face of a man rethinking his career decisions?

Behold the face of a man rethinking his career decisions, and weep

Although the condition of the mannequins varied all bore overt marks of violence;
yet despite the extensive mutilations none provided investigators with any meaningful evidence.
On some occasions only disembodied limbs were found—one notable discovery consisted solely of severed legs
fanned out like a perverse Radio City chorus line.
Howard County investigators were unsure if the mannequins were connected to Dolly’s murder,
but among the populace the link was self-evident.
Behind the polished oak doors of their majestic homes Elkridge residents were armed for war and jumping at shadows.

“It’s strange—they look so harmless in the store windows.” Davis neighbor Maureen O’Connell on situational disparity in mannequin aesthetics, Washington Post, March 23rd, 1980

The final mannequin appeared in Bodkin Creek approximately one year after Dolly’s murder;
a knife had been plunged deeply into its upper back.
Thereafter the mannequin discoveries—which numbered nearly a dozen in all—stopped, but the unsolved slayings resumed.
On March 29th, 1981,
a child cutting through a neighbor’s yard in the nearby town of Catonsville stumbled upon a supine form—this time the figure was not a mannequin but a human corpse.
Like Dolly, sixty-eight year old Evelyn Dieterich had been murdered in her backyard; an autopsy revealed she’d been bludgeoned, strangled and sexually assaulted, probably after death.

“She had the most beautiful outlook—she was an old, crippled-up lady, and a widow, but she loved life in spite of everything.” Unnamed Dieterich neighbor, Baltimore Sun, March 30th, 1981

mannequinevelyndietrichThe plague of mannequins may have ceased but the bodies kept on coming.
The next local resident to meet an untimely end was Ellicott City widow Iva Myrtle Watson,
her battered remains discovered in a copse of pine trees near her home on December 28th, 1984;
she’d been bludgeoned and sexually assaulted.
Iva, age eighty, lived just a few houses down from the Faulkners;
her murder was the area’s fifth unsolved slaying in five years—bodies were beginning to pile up like mannequins.

“There are a few people who say it’s time to leave. Mostly people don’t understand why it keeps happening here—people here aren’t into murders.” Postmistress Susan Bennett, Baltimore Sun, July 9th, 1989

In a change of pace, the next Elkridge resident slain was much younger: Kathleen Patricia Gouldin, age twenty-three, manager of Fat Tuesday’s, a Baltimore nightclub.
On July 4th, 1989
an assailant perched outside her home and fired through a window—as she lay dying
he climbed inside and raped her.
The field of forensics was nascent at the time,
leaving Howard County investigators with only a single piece of physical evidence—a discarded pizza box found outside the victim’s home.
Detectives traced the name on the box to a woman in nearby Anne Arundel County who claimed she’d been eating pizza shortly before the murder with Vernon Lee Clark, age thirty-four—latent prints on the box were later determined to match Clark’s fingerprints.

“He was small, but he was strong—a scrapper.” Stepfather Samuel Carter on Clark’s physical prowess, Washington Post, November 8th, 1999

Clark, an Elkridge resident, worked at a nearby rendering plant wrangling slaughtered animals;
he supplemented his income by performing odd jobs for pocket change.
Clark freely admitted he’d been near Kathleen’s home the night of the murder,
but claimed he’d stopped there randomly
while too zonked on narcotics to drive.
Despite spirited interrogation he denied entering her home
and investigators were unable to place him inside the crime scene.
For more than a year the case was at stalemate,
but over the last decade as the bodies and mannequins multiplied the field of forensics experienced a revolution—DNA evidence would be Clark’s downfall.
Arrested on January 26th, 1990, he was convicted of Kathleen’s murder and sundry other charges and sentenced to life plus twenty-eight years in prison;
his trial marked the first time DNA was utilized in a Howard County courtroom.


“If there was ever any trouble in town the police always came to me. I’ve got trouble with reading and writing and I’m black. Put that all together and I’m the solution for the cops’ frustration.” Vernon Lee Clark, Baltimore Sun, August 6th, 1999

Clark’s guilt in Kathleen’s murder wasn’t the only evidence which tended to implicate him in the other Elkridge area slayings—defying the odds of probability, he’d been Dolly’s handyman. And Evelyn’s gardener.
And he’d once worked at a chicken-feed concern owned by Sarah and Carvel Faulkner.
(Although Iva Watson had no direct ties to Clark it’s possible he spotted her vulnerability while visiting the Faulkners, her neighbors.)
For his part, Clark has continued to deny a connection to any of the murders, even Kathleen’s;
his denials have repeatedly been belied by DNA evidence, however—in 1999, nearly a decade after their deaths,
Clark was forensically linked to the murders of Dolly and Evelyn;
despite decrying his innocence he pleaded guilty and accepted two more life sentences.
Just last year the strides made in DNA testing finally provided a link between Clark and Iva Watson,
thirty years after her murder;
he racked up another life sentence via plea, bringing his total to four.

“It’s important that justice be done, but for Dolly’s sake it really doesn’t matter. Her approach would be, ‘oh that poor person, think what they’re going through now, think about the problems they have.’” Friend Phyllis Fiddler on Dolly’s penchant for forgiveness, Baltimore Sun, March 9th, 1980

Clark at his arraignment for the murders of Dolly and Evelyn

Clark at his arraignment for the murders of Dolly and Evelyn

Clark has yet to be forensically tied to the Faulkner murders, but to most local residents his guilt is a foregone conclusion.
Assuming the identity of the Faulkners’ killer is settled, there’s still one mystery left unsolved;
was Clark responsible for the rash of murdered mannequins?
It seems to me an illiterate odd-jobs man would be a tad short on whimsy—and mannequins
are neither easy to procure nor cheap.
With Clark firmly clinging to his protestations of innocence it doesn’t look like we’ll ever know for sure.

“They did the best they could with the technology [available at the time]. I am just the lucky guy who was here when science caught up with Vernon Clark.” Howard County Police Detective Keith Fisher, Baltimore Sun, August 10th, 1999

It’s pointless to Monday-morning quarterback,
but with hindsight the Howard County Police Department’s delay in solving these murders is inexplicable.
The failure didn’t stem from lack of trying:
on the first anniversary of Dolly’s death detectives staked out her gravesite overnight,
and over the years a total of thirty investigators
followed leads in the slayings as far as Texas—all while an obvious suspect idled in plain sight.
As I said earlier, true crime is full of clichés, and this one is etched in blood:
when an unmarried older woman is slain the killer is almost always someone who’s done work on her house.
Women of a certain age should take great care when vetting a gardener or handyman,
because his may be the very last face they see.

Noted scrapper Vernon Lee Clark, present day

Noted scrapper Vernon Lee Clark, present day

The morals of today’s blogpost are fourfold: ladies, dial down your wattage—lighting up a room lures predators like menstrual blood lures sharks.
Gentlemen, regardless of the situation it’s imperative to keep your own shirt on your own back at all times.
Fellow misanthropes, rejoice:
come what may, a scowl is a must-have accessory—hating life is the best way to ensure you’ll live a long one.
And finally, good news for the squeamish: every time you see an al fresco human corpse feel free to take a good long look—there’s a chance, albeit slight, it may turn out to be nothing but a mannequin.