Not everything is bigger in Texas, y’all:
in the 1980s the Lone Star State had its very own homicidal maniac with a penchant for communicating in enigmatic clues.
The Texas killer called himself the Madman,
and although he claimed fewer victims than his Bay Area counterpart he and the Zodiac have one terrifying trait in common—neither one of them is currently behind bars.
Little Mary was afraid of the dark. She had good reason to be.
October 31st; Baytown, Texas. Halloween is a spooky time
and in 1985 residents of the greater Houston area had a real-life boogeyman to fear—six weeks earlier eleven-year old Carolyn Hahn had been butchered in nearby Mont Belvieu, stabbed, strangled,
her throat slit from ear to ear.
A child killer frolicked in the shadows alongside the holiday’s traditional ghosts and goblins.
For her final Halloween
Mary Stiles dressed as a baby.
The pigtailed eleven-year old
was last seen alive at approximately 5pm
near her home at the Woodhollow apartment complex—carrying a baby bottle as a prop,
she was clad
in a pair of peach Care Bear pajamas.
Mary’s father became alarmed when her brother and sister arrived home later that evening without Mary in tow;
he had assumed she was trick-or-treating with her siblings.
When she hadn’t returned by 9pm the Baytown Police Department was notified
and a search of the area was launched;
no trace of Mary could be found.
Grief and fear roiled the community as the search for the missing sixth-grader foundered.
Finally, ten days after Mary’s disappearance
the Baytown Police Department received a letter marked “Urgent-Mary Stiles;”
the envelope, bearing a local postmark,
contained a Baytown Sun
news article detailing the investigation
and a hand drawn map which purported to show the location of Mary’s body.
The area depicted—a wooded lot behind the Woodhollow Apartments—had been previously searched to no avail.
(Note: authorities have never released the entirety of the killer’s correspondence but I’ve cobbled together the excerpts printed in the Baytown Sun and Houston Chronicle. The transcription, however, is incomplete.)
First letter (received November 9th): “I killed her. Diped (sic) in the ditch—I stabbed her here twice. I dragged her up the slope she fell here stabbed her again and choked her. Sock. Find her and get her a decent burial.”
The letter was signed: “The Madman who wishes he never was.”
In addition to the large “X” signifying the body’s location
the killer had traced the path he and Mary had traveled through the woods, providing a running commentary
on their actions.
Arrows pointed to a ditch in which Mary had been dunked
and a spot where she had dropped a nickel during the attack.
The Madman’s cartography was accurate; Mary’s remains, still clad in her Care Bear pajamas, were found exactly where the anonymous writer had indicated.
Although she lay a mere 150 yards behind the Woodhollow complex Mary’s body—secreted in deep brush—had somehow been missed during the initial search.
An autopsy revealed Mary had been slain shortly after she was last seen. The 5’3,” 100lb. tween had been overkilled,
stabbed four times in the neck and—as noted in the Madman’s letter—asphyxiated with her own sock,
which had been jammed down her throat;
she had also been strangled.
Due to her advanced state of decomposition
the medical examiner was unable to determine if Mary had been sexually assaulted, although her pajama bottoms were pulled down to her knees.
Defensive wounds stippled her arms—despite her small stature Mary had fought for her life.
At the time a connection between Mary’s murder
and the slaying of Carolyn Hahn
ten miles away and six weeks before
seemed a foregone conclusion—the similarities in the crimes were striking.
Both Mary and Carolyn were eleven-years old,
both had been strangled and stabbed in the throat,
and although neither victim
displayed overt signs of sexual assault both were found partially disrobed.
Mary and Carolyn had never met
but their fathers worked for the same company,
Young’s Plumbing & Air Conditioning,
creating a direct nexus between the victims.
These similarities seemed too numerous to be coincidental.
When the crime scene details were submitted to the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit,
however, agents were unable to affirm a link
due to inconsistencies in the modi operandi:
Carolyn Hahn had been murdered at home during daylight hours
and Mary had been slain in the forest at night.
Yet despite the inability
to definitively establish a connection
the criminal profile of each girl’s assailant shared several key characteristics: both Mary and Carolyn had been slain by a high-school aged white male acquaintance operating within his comfort zone, profilers concluded;
and the killers of both girls were at high risk to reoffend.
There was also one final, unfortunate similarity in the Stiles and Hahn cases: both investigations were going nowhere.
Weeks passed, and the Madman stayed silent.
But as the Christmas season approached
a flurry of envelopes featuring the killer’s oddly slanted handwriting began arriving in the Baytown Police Department’s mailbox.
Second letter (received December 3rd): “The time is soon coming that the madman will surrender his tool of death….the pain……….is more than I can stand. In time the truth will be opened for all to hear.” (This missive contained a Baytown Sun clipping about the discovery of Mary’s body.)
Third letter (received December 4th): “There will be another before I die.” (A Baytown Sun clipping citing a 10K reward offered for information regarding Mary’s death was included.)
Unsatisfied with the progress of the investigation, the Madman began sending clues to help detectives along.
Fourth letter (received December 5th): “The game begins now. Day by day will go forth; get them right and soon the name will appear, get them wrong and the price will be a life!!! Look out beyond the words and sentences for only far beyound (sic) will be the answers. This time has past (sic) from long ago, but a name remains. The name of the weigher (sic) of the heart against the truth of the feather — the Genesis in this name holds the letter that belongs to mine. Twice do I wright (sic) this, when my signature is written, once in the first and once in the last. Open thy eyes and see the progress unfold.”
Although the exact wording of the request has never been released
the Madman bade investigators to print the riddle’s answer on the front page
of the Baytown Sun.
Since the police department staff knew nothing of ancient lore they consulted a local prosecutor,
Ray Speece, who had an interest in the subject.
Prosecutor Speece immediately recognized the Madman’s riddle as an allusion to an Egyptian myth in which a decedent’s heart is weighed against a feather—those in possession of an organ heavy with lies
are devoured by the crocodile god.
Investigators contacted the Baytown Sun
and conveyed the Madman’s request,
asking the editor to print the name “Anubis” on the front page of the paper without tipping off the townsfolk to the literary lunatic
in their midst.
The editor of the Baytown Sun obliged,
and on December 6th
the paper’s front page
featured a tiny item headlined:
“Police Receive Unusual Request.”
The article ended with the sentence: “I understand, reading between the lines, life after death and Anubis.”
Alas, there was a slight problem with the police department’s response—although Prosecutor Speece had correctly identified the origin of the referenced myth
he’d neglected to realize Egyptian mythos vacillated over centuries.
Anubis weighed hearts only in the earliest Egyptian dynasties; by the Middle Kingdom Anubis had been supplanted by Osiris, ruler of the afterworld.
Prosecutor Speece then realized his mistake;
the next day the Baytown Sun published this snippet in a front page gossip column:
“Robin Richards gets a first-class tour of Washington, D.C. . . . Oma Jones goes to Osiris.”
Since the Madman had indicated the first letter of the correct answer appeared once in his first name and once in his last
detectives now knew the letter “O” would appear in both the killer’s given name and surname.
The communications continued.
Sixth letter (received December 9th): “In the beginning, there was no land but only a place ruled by his hand. The Romans worshiped him every day even more so when they had to travel far away — his name serves your purpose for the letter at the end comes in fourth in the first of mine.”
On December 10th
at the behest of investigators
the front page Around Town column of the Baytown Sun
featured a sentence invoking the Roman god of the sea:
“James Z. Bobb sees The Poseidon Adventure
for the fourth time.”
Although factually correct—Poseidon was the sea god worshipped by Romans—this
was not the answer the Madman was hoping for,
as he made clear in his next message.
Seventh letter (received December 10th): “Don’t make me angery (sic) again!!!!!!! Chrismas (sic) will soon be here, it be (sic) a shame to have to ruin that holiday cheer. Madman.”
On a hunch authorities then offered up the name of the Greek god of the sea instead;
the next Around Town column featured the following sentence:
“Ben Jelman says it’s going to be cold enough to freeze the tines off Neptune’s trident.”
Detectives now knew the Madman’s first name
contained the letter “E”—the killer was playing
Wheel of Fortune,
homicidal maniac edition.
As the top brass at the police department dickered about mythology veteran detective Harry Gore shepherded the ground forces. The FBI profile predicted Mary’s killer was operating on his home turf,
so Detective Gore began staking out the mailboxes
near the Woodhollow Apartments hoping to catch the Madman in the act of mailing a clue.
Detective Gore, himself a Woodhollow tenant,
also set up hidden cameras in vacant apartments trained on every mailbox within sight of the sprawling, 1000-unit complex.
The ploy was brilliant in its simplicity,
and on December 11th Detective Gore hit pay dirt—a teenager on a bicycle peered around furtively
before slipping a letter into the slot of a surveilled mailbox.
After the youth pedaled off
Detective Gore called a postal employee to open the box—inside
lay an envelope featuring the Madman’s spiky handwriting.
(The letter had apparently been written prior to viewing the Neptune response in that day’s edition of the Baytown Sun.)
Eighth letter (received December 11th): “It is Wensday (sic) and there is no answer in the paper!! I promised and I shall, you will pay with another life just like Mary Stiles. By Christmas night at 12:00 there will have been done!!!!!!! There is but one way to change it and that is to put in the paper by Friday the reason for not having the answers their (sic) and give the answers then do not forget — or my word is to say the same another will die!!”
The teen mailing the letter had been caught on videotape,
and Detective Gore toted a copy to the local high school straightaway—Assistant Principal Charles Ray Polk identified the subject on the tape
as sophomore JOsEph Lee FOrdham, age sixteen.
Fordham, a Woodhollow complex resident, was the step-brother of Mary’s best friend. The pieces were falling into place.
Investigators immediately began 24-hour surveillance of Fordham and the reconnaissance paid off on the very first day:
Fordham was spotted scouting about for witnesses before depositing a black garbage bag in the trash.
Detectives retrieved the bag from the dumpster—the contents included a copy of the riddle the police department had received on December 9th
and an additional puzzle which had never been sent to the police.
The next day while Fordham was in school a search warrant was executed at his family’s apartment—a surfeit of incriminating evidence was found, including newspaper clippings about the Stiles’ killing,
several books on mythology,
bloodstained clothing and shoes, and a pocketknife which would later be identified as the murder weapon.
The Madman’s reign of ungrammatical terror was over.
Fordham was arrested that day as he stepped off the school bus.
Described as meek and hyper-religious,
he was the product of a fractured family—his
unemployed beautician mother was on her fourth marriage,
and his family unit featured a collection of half- and step-siblings.
Shuttled back and forth
between his mother’s marital pick-of-the-week
and maternal relatives in Georgia,
Fordham’s life had not been untouched by tragedy—three years previously his grandfather and uncle had been slain
in a family dispute by an irate in-law.
(Note: although some recent accounts claim Fordham witnessed the murders of his relatives contemporaneous accounts—including his grandmother’s trial testimony—state Fordham was vacationing in Florida when his uncle and grandfather were slain.)
A profusion of physical evidence tied Fordham to Stiles murder—he’d left four palm prints and twenty-three fingerprints on the Madman correspondence, and several practice riddles were found in his room—but detectives were unable to find any evidence linking him to the murder of Carolyn Hahn.
Unbelievably, despite the uncanny similarities the two crimes were unconnected;
Carolyn’s killer, a family friend, confessed in 1988 and is currently serving a 99-year term in the penitentiary.
(More information about the Hahn case can be found here.)
At trial Fordham’s attorney, faced with overwhelming forensic evidence, opted to pursue an insanity defense.
In 1984 Fordham had been briefly committed to the mental health ward of Houston International Hospital;
diagnosed as suicidal and homicidal, his family had removed him from treatment against medical advice
and discontinued his psychotropic medication upon his release.
Although Fordham declined to testify a defense psychiatrist read a copy of his confession in court—he blamed the crime on the most classic of insanity defense bugaboos: “voices in his head.”
Whether these voices were also responsible for the atrocious spelling in the Madman correspondence is unclear.
The jury evidently had mixed feelings about Joseph Fordham—he was convicted of aggravated murder after ten hours of deliberation,
but when it was time to determine his sentence the twelve men good and true
balked at sending the Madman away for life;
although he was eligible for a ninety-nine year term he was sentenced to a mere twenty-five years in prison.
Even though his own defense psychiatrist had deemed him in need of “in-depth and long term psychological care”
the Madman was back on the streets in less than a decade—prison overcrowding spurred his a mandatory release in 1994.
Fordham’s stint on parole has not always been idyllic;
in 1998 he was returned to prison after moving out of state without notifying his parole officer—three months on the run in Indiana garnered him an additional six years behind bars.
Since 2004, however, he has lived quietly with his Grandma in rural Georgia;
twenty years after he first shuffled out of the penitentiary
his period of supervised release was due to expire on September 13th, 2014.
Yet Joseph Lee Fordham’s time in the spotlight was not yet over; three weeks before completing his parole Fordham, now age forty-five, disappeared.
At 3am on August 16th Fordham texted his supervisor at the Blue Bird plant in Fort Valley, Georgia—our nation’s number one school bus manufacturer—and reported he would not be arriving at work.
He then turned off his cell phone and went off the grid.
Although the search for missing adults is generally a low priority for law enforcement
the Bleckley County Sheriff’s Office put out an all-points bulletin for the missing parolee;
as Deputy Jeff Simpson told the Baytown Sun,
“With his past history, we are just taking precautions. We don’t want a Baytown here in Cochran, Georgia.”
Three days later Fordham was observed making a cash withdrawal at an ATM approximately thirty miles from his home,
and a check of area parking lots
unearthed his 2012 gray Dodge Avenger at the nearby Warner Robins Comfort Inn.
When deputies from the U.S. Marshals Office entered Fordham’s hotel room they interrupted him mid-suicide attempt;
his self-inflicted wounds were superficial—apparently the Madman found himself much harder to kill than an eleven-year old girl.
Fordham was again shipped back to prison,
but not for long—according to the Texas Department of Justice website Joseph Lee Fordham is back on the streets,
a turn of events certain to delight parents everywhere;
after all, as his recent actions demonstrate he’s mentally stable and making great choices all the livelong day.
And if the voices in his head again begin to whisper, if the Madman again takes hold, well, what can be done?
The man served his time—life is about taking chances, and nothing is for certain.
(Coda: upon further reflection I must concede that my last sentence a lie;
one thing is for certain—if you live in Cochran, Georgia and allow your kids go trick-or-treating without a chaperone this year
you’re a bigger maniac than Fordham is.)