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 happy–go–lucky 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 dog–walker or free-range urinator) is in fact a mannequin.
This is one of those stories. Well, mostly.
“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
Exactly 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
Seventy-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 uneasiness,
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 inexplicable—despite Carvel’s brawn there were no signs of disturbance or forced entry at 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
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—defying expectations,
the figure was not a mannequin but a human corpse.
Like Dolly, sixty-eight year old Evelyn Dieterich had been murdered in her backyard, her nightie pulled up over her battered skull. Evelyn had 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
The plague of mannequins had 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 Kathleen Patricia Gouldin, age twenty-three.
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,
and Howard County investigators possessed 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 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 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 clear, there’s still one mystery that’s never been solved;
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 failure to solve these murders seems inexplicable.
Their failure didn’t stem from a 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 snarling visage may be the very last face they see.
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.