I Must Protest: The Unsolved Murders of June Eberlin and Mary Ellen Lenihan

Posted: May 11, 2017 in Uncategorized
Hate is a strong word but it pales in comparison to my visceral loathing of Trump spokesperson Sean Spicer.

Mistah Kurtz—he dead / A penny for the Old Guy

I hate his bloodshot eyes, his ill-fitting suits, and his fumbling attempts to have nonconsensual sex with one of the greatest loves of my life, the English language.
I can only think his daily habit of swallowing thirty-five pieces of chewing gum before noon is somehow to blame for his tortured syntax—perhaps the gum fled his digestive tract and lodged permanently in his brain.

My rage-fueled focus on politics is giving me flashbacks to the 1970s—and because crime is never far from my thoughts this retro vibe has called to mind the long-unsolved murders of Mary Ellen Lenihan and June Penny Eberlin,
two nineteen-year old Queens residents who disappeared en route to a peace march in Washington, D.C.
“A Catholic girl and a sweet Jewish girl found something in common—faith in people,” Mary Ellen’s grieving mother will later tell a Philadelphia Inquirer  reporter.
Sadly, then as now, faith in humanity is dangerously misplaced.

Saturday, October 24th, 1970. As the Viet Nam war raged on peacenik Queensborough College nursing students Mary Ellen Lenihan and June Eberlin departed for a protest rally in Washington D.C.
Although they assured their respective families they’d be traveling by bus friends believe they planned to hitchhike.
There’s no evidence the girls completed their journey to the Capitol;
no witnesses could place them at the march and the friend they’d arranged to stay with in Washington
said they never arrived.
Mary Ellen and June were scheduled to return home in three days, on October 27th;
they did not.

Wednesday, November 4th, ten days after the girls’ departure. Pennsylvania Department of Transportation employee Otis Shives was clearing brush on the side of a McConnellsburg highway when he made a ghastly discovery —two female bodies.
One corpse was fully clothed and located forty feet off the road,
the other—wearing only knee socks and a rope neck garrote—had tumbled down a nearby forty-foot embankment.
In the weeds surrounding the clothed body investigators found June Eberlin’s Queensborough College ID card;
two hundred miles from any direct route from NY to D.C.,
the missing student nurses had at last been found.
Otis Shives’ timely decision to trim the roadside shrubbery was a lucky break—the only one the investigation would ever receive.

“At first I thought somebody had thrown a plastic dummy over the hill. I saw a leg sticking out through the grass with a stocking on it. Then I just stood there a bit, just looking. I couldn’t believe it.” Otis Shives, Louisiana Town Talk, November 5th, 1970. (While not exactly “at first I thought it was a mannequin,” Mr. Shives’ proclamation will suffice.)

The discovery of the girls’ bodies wasn’t the only aberrant event in the normally low-crime area;
the previous evening an attempted robbery had occurred in the nearby town of Warfordsburg,
approximately a half hour’s drive from the recovery site.
Gas station attendant Bernard L. Spade had just finished changing the tire on a cream-colored Mercury Comet when the driver—a bushy-haired man in a buckskin jacket—attacked him in lieu of payment.
Attendant Spade managed to overpower the assailant by brandishing a tire-iron,
and the would-be robber motored off with his traveling companions,
two longhaired girls in hippie garb.

Although the gas station attendant was unable to identify either of the attacker’s accomplices as June or Mary Ellen the Pennsylvania State Police surmised a connection;
two violent crimes in such a sleepy area in a twelve-hour period must be linked, they believed.
Two days after Mr. Shives’ gruesome discovery a bushy-haired hitchhiker in buckskin coat was arrested in Connecticut—gas station attendant Bernard Spade failed to identify the man as his attacker,
however, and investigators were unable to place the arrestee in the state of Pennsylvania.
The hitchhiker was eventually released, and the investigation sputtered onward.

The girls’ autopsies were conducted by Franklin County pathologist W.E.B. Hall.
Theft had not been the primary motive for the crime, he revealed—June had money hidden in her shoe and Mary Ellen had money secreted in her knee socks, approximately $50 total.
The innumerable injuries inflicted instead hinted at a darker motivation, according to Dr. Hall;
in an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News  he described the slayings as “a murder orgy that involved narcotics.”
“I’ve done many autopsies but I’ve never seen in excess of this,” he said.
“I’d hate to have whoever did it free on the roads in any community.”

The Eberlin Family at June’s funeral

June’s postmortem examination revealed she’d been shot twice:
one bullet had entered the back of her left hand near her little finger and exited her palm.
The second bullet traveled a circuitous route,
entering her face one inch below the left corner of her mouth,
exiting her chin then reentering her neck, ultimately nicking her aorta and lodging in her lower left lung.
Although June had been found fully dressed in a fringed leather jacket,
beaded denim overalls, a green tee-shirt and white tennis shoes she’d been raped shortly before death;
a wad of LSD-infused chewing gum—a very 1970s detail—-was found embedded in her clothing.

Mary Ellen’s autopsy yielded several unexpected findings: although she’d been found nude she had not been raped,
despite her rope garrote she had not been strangled,
and even though she’d suffered three gaping cranial lacerations her skull had not been fractured.
Her back exhibited extensive postmortem scraping,
possibly indicative of being dragged, and she’d been shot once behind the right ear,
the bullet exiting at the bridge of her nose.
Both victims had been shot with the same gun, a .32 caliber revolver, and both exhibited a surfeit of additional cuts and gashes.

I’m a sucker for any vintage news story with a maniac, fiend, phantom, or a bushy-haired man

The autopsy results led Dr. Hall to conclude the girls had been held captive for some time—both had empty stomachs,
and extensive bruising on both victims had been inflicted as many as four days before death.
Bizarrely, within thirty minutes before
or just prior to their demise the girls had been subjected to cold temperatures, possibly immersed in water.
The bodies—transported to the scene in a prone position—had been at the discovery site no more than 6 hours after being dumped.
Dr. Hall believed at least two assailants had been involved in the crime, and would later describe his reasoning thusly:

“The multiple injuries inflicted on the girls both before and after death were evidence of an unrestrained exhibition of hatred—the acts of persons gone berserk. The methods used to inflict the injuries and the angle of the blows are indicative of a straight ritualist murder. The investigation indicates the use of possibly five different instruments in the torture of the girls—a knife, scissors, a gun, a rope, and a flat object, probably a two-by-four. The injuries were inflicted at different angles from all sides of the girls indicating they were either sitting or lying down while their murderers were moving around them in a circle.” Medical Examiner W.E.B. Hall, Bridgeport Post, January 9th, 1971.

Despite the grisly nature of the girls’ wounds the real bombshell in the autopsy report
concerned the victims’ times of death:
Dr. Hall concluded Mary Ellen and June had been slain as many as six days before being dumped,
definitively ruling out a connection with the gas station attack.
The bushy-haired buckskin-clad would-be robber—though never apprehended—was off the hook.

With the loss of their sole suspect the Pennsylvania State Police were at an impasse.
Investigators had no witnesses—not a single soul had been located who recalled seeing the girls in the ten days between their departure from NY and the discovery of their bodies.
Detectives also had no crime scene, since June and Mary Ellen had been killed elsewhere and dumped.
With the only lead in the investigation revealed as a (buckskinned) red herring detectives had only one remaining option to solve the case:
linking the girls’ murders to a similar slaying with more plentiful clues.
Connecting crimes in the pre-DNA era was an inexact science at best, but it was the only avenue of investigation yet unexplored.

College communities were rife with hitchhiker slayings in the 1970s—the Pennsylvania State Police had plenty of comparable crimes to choose from,
and the following year investigators announced a tentative link between the Lenihan/Eberlin case and the murder of Paget Weatherly,
age twenty-three,
slain while hitchhiking in Connecticut.
There were some similarities in the crimes—all three victims had been shot with a .32 revolver—but Paget’s murder lacked the overkill of the Lenihan/Eberlin slayings,
and a media report claiming all three girls had been slain with the same gun would later prove to be erroneous.

Like every other lead in the Lenihan/Eberlin case the connection with Paget’s murder was illusory;
a relationship between the slayings was definitively ruled out in 1975 when mental patient Richard Delage confessed to Paget’s murder and sundry other crimes but denied any knowledge of the Pennsylvania slayings.
Out of investigatory options,
the case then went cold;
the law enforcement announcement ruling out a link with Paget Weatherly was the final mention of June and Mary Ellen’s murders in the media.
Forty years on, the crime remains unsolved.

Personally, I’ve always wondered if June and Mary Ellen were slain by a trucker with a refrigerated semi—-aside from morgue attendants I can’t think of anyone else
with an ability to store two prone corpses in a cold environment for six days.
In fact, investigators’ failure to make such an obvious inference makes me wonder if the theory was definitively ruled out by hold-back evidence.
Perhaps the idea of a homicidal maniac piloting a tractor-trailer on the open road while jacked on LSD was simply too terrifying to contemplate;
with the Manson murders barely a year old and Viet Nam body counts dominating the evening news
the populace already had plenty to worry about.

With the dearth of clues and the passage of four decades a resolution in the Lenihan/Eberlin murders is unlikely but not impossible.
The status of any biological crime scene evidence is unclear, but—confession aside—a CODIS cold hit is probably investigators’ best hope of cracking the case.
It’s also possible, although far less likely,
the killer(s) could one day be identified via the discovery of the girls’ possessions.
June’s pavé Star of David necklace has never been found,
and all of Mary Ellen’s belongings—an official boy scout knapsack, green plaid shirt, white sneakers, purple beret, denim bellbottoms, and light brown riding jacket—are still missing as well.

Perhaps someone cleaning out their weird uncle’s belongings before shuttling him off to hospice will discover a trove of blood-stained clothing and contact law enforcement.
It’s a longshot, certainly, but the odds have been stacked against the investigation from the moment highway worker Otis Shives thought he spotted a plastic dummy discarded by the side of the road.
Even before then, really;
solving interstate stranger murders in the pre-DNA era was like a blindfolded game
of pin-the-crime-on-the-serial-killer;
the investigation was fated to fail as soon as June and Mary Ellen stood at the roadside and stuck out their thumbs.

June and Mary Ellen’s Queensborough College memorial service

I should be clear, of course: hitchhiking is a terrible decision but it’s not a capital crime.
No one deserves to die for having faith in their fellow man.
So next time I’m out raising political Cain I’ll think of June and Mary Ellen, my fellow New Yorkers, and wish they’d chosen to take the bus or opted to demonstrate in the city instead.
Being murdered en route to a peace march is decidedly ironic,
and this folly of idealism brings us to the moral of today’s blog post:
although peace is a laudable goal it’s imperative to prepare for war—good intentions, no matter how deeply-held, provide no magical talisman against violence.

Of course, in order to effectively prepare for war it’s essential to retain a nodding acquaintanceship with sanity;
so from now on whenever I hear Trump (mis)spokesperson Sean Spicer butchering verb syntax
I’ll tell myself he’s chewing a big ole’ wad of crime scene LSD gum—that’s the only rational explanation I can conjure for his unfamiliarity with English, his mother tongue.

A time-traveling Rebel Wilson at the Eberlin/Lenihan memorial service

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