Hoosier Killer, Lora Morris? An Indiana Murder Unsolved

Posted: October 23, 2017 in Uncategorized

The murder of Lora Morris has everything: a note secreted in a coffin, a mysterious map, a Soldier of Fortune  hitman and four vanished individuals now presumed dead.
The only thing missing is a solution—and a narrative that makes sense.

Coherence is for lightweights; let’s live dangerously and start at the end.

On August 5th, 1994 the body of twenty-two year old murder victim Lora Lynn Morris was disinterred from her eternal resting place in a Chillicothe cemetery.
From her coffin a taskforce comprised of Ohio and Indiana officials plucked a small black jewelry box,
its jaunty pink ribbon discolored from thirteen years in the grave.
Inside the box was a handwritten note and several waterlogged photographs.

“We can say at this time that the letter was written by Lora Morris’s mother Trudy Snedegar. It is in her handwriting and discusses more than one subject. The box also contained three photographs.” Hancock County Detective Donnie Munden, Greenfield Daily Reporter, October 18th, 1994

Law enforcement officer Donnie Munden and murder victim Lora Snedegar Morris; you’ll see their names again, but this isn’t really their story.
The main characters of this story—notice I fail to use the word “protagonists”—-are the pair’s respective fathers, John W. Munden and Stephen Cabe Snedegar.


Captain John W. Munden (retired) —Sergeant Munden in 1981, the year the Snedegar and Munden stories intertwine—was an employee of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department in Greenfield, Indiana.

Steve Snedegar’s background is harder to pin down.
His past is murky—there are rumors of drug running and work as an FBI informant but in 1981 he is a wealthy businessman in the waste-oil industry.
Steve and his wife Trudy are preparing to relocate to Florida and looking to unload the family business,
J&S Oil Service Company.
A tentative deal is struck with two prospective buyers named Tony—Tony Lambert and Tony McCullough—but at the last moment the financing falls through and hard feelings abound.

Captain John Munden, right, at the Snedegar gravesite

Despite the failure of the sale Steve and Trudy depart for Florida midsummer leaving their daughter Lora at their Greenfield home.
Lora is recently divorced from high school classmate Bryce Morris—the couple has a daughter Brandy, age three, who is spending the summer with her father.
On August 10th Trudy Snedegar arrived in Indiana unannounced; Lora and another daughter—the Snedegars have a total of four children—fetch their mother from the airport and take her out for dinner.
At 11pm Trudy and Lora return home and shortly thereafter Trudy retires to the master bedroom of the family residence at 73 Shadeland Drive.
Trudy will later tell detectives the last time she sees her daughter Lora is wearing a long white tee-shirt and lounging on the sofa watching television.
Lora Lynn Morris will never be seen alive again.

Trudy will later tell detectives she awakened at approximately 6am the following morning; Lora’s car is outside, her purse and belongings are present in the home and the patio door is ajar.
Alarmed, Trudy contacts the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department and Sergeant John W. Munden is dispatched to the scene. The stage is now set.

Sergeant Munden will later claim he was certain Lora was off on a lark until he learned she left her purse behind:
”I made the remark to Trudy, ‘I believe a woman’s pocketbook is like a minister’s Bible—they don’t go anyplace without it,’” Munden later tells an Orlando Sentinel  reporter.
A check of the family phone records reveals Lora spoke with her ex-husband Bryce Morris twice after Trudy had allegedly gone to bed—once just after 11pm and once shortly before midnight.
Bryce’s account of the content of these conversations has never been publicized.

A Short Compendium of Leads that Went Nowhere:

• On August 12th, two days after Lora’s disappearance Trudy Snedegar received a phone call from an unknown man (possibly a Keenen Ivory Wayans fan) who vowed, “I’m going to get you, sucker.”

• The next day, August 13th Trudy received a phone call from a woman sobbing and making “sexual innuendos;” the call was taped—Trudy, Steve, and Bryce Morris all agree the sobbing woman is Lora

• Psychics? Oh, there were several, although you don’t need to think about them again because their information failed to impact the investigation

• Requisite wild card: a former classmate of Lora and Bryce Morris was a rapist on the run from the FBI; Ricky Dean Akers would ultimately be eliminated from suspicion in Lora’s murder but his Kiss Army photo merits inclusion

I want to rock and roll all night/and die in an FBI gun-fight on my last day


Three Investigative Anomalies that Don’t Mean Anything Unless They Do:

In a criminal investigation the line between unconventional and untoward can be difficult to discern, especially with evolving law-enforcement ethical standards and the passage of three decades.
The Greenfield Daily Reporter  and Orlando Sentinel  provide the information; you decide.

• The Snedegar family paid for their own lie detector tests instead of using a police polygrapher

• Steve Snedegar gave the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department 10K cash to protect his family; according to Sergeant Munden’s Orlando Sentinel  interview, “We used a lot of that money to watch Steve.” (A lot? But not all?)

• A long-haul truck driver was certain he’d given a ride to a hitchhiking Lora Morris, a sighting discounted by her family. Sergeant Munden traveled to Lake Charles, Louisiana on the Snedegar family’s dime to convince the trucker to withdraw the sighting (and threatened to charge the trucker with bigamy on an unrelated matter)

Back to the Action Whether You Like it or Not (AKA Hey, Where’d Everybody Go?)

As the search for his daughter’s body dragged on Steve Snedegar,
then forty-one,
became convinced Lora’s disappearance was related to the failed sale of the family oil-recycling business;
prospective buyers Tony McCullough and Tony Lambert became the focus of his suspicion and wrath.

As delineated in this epic Orlando Sentinel  interview,
Hancock County lawman John Munden claimed Steve—a private pilot—devised a plan to lure Tony Lambert to New Orleans to persuade him to reveal the truth about Lora’s fate.
Approximately one month after Lora’s disappearance Tony Lambert traveled to Louisiana to discuss a possible joint Snedegar waste-oil venture and has never been seen alive again.
Steve claims Lambert left their meeting unscathed;
law enforcement will later hear rumors the two men took a sightseeing flight over the Gulf of Mexico and Steve deplaned alone.
.
The next Snedegar family associate to meet a mysterious end is (was?) Charles Darwin Smith,
described as being in his early 20s at the time of his 1982 disappearance.
Chuck Smith had once worked as a truck driver for J&S Oil, the Snedegar family business, but his employment had been terminated for reasons unknown.

Chuck—then employed at a Kocolene Service Station in Greenfield—told Trudy Snedegar he’d had an odd encounter with Lora the day before she vanished.
On the afternoon of August 9th, Chuck said,
Lora, a frequent customer, stopped by to purchase gas in the company of a scraggly-haired, heavily-tattooed man—according to Chuck, she appeared terrified.
For reasons that remain unclear,
Trudy allegedly suggested Smith keep this information hush-hush—word of the Kocolene encounter eventually leaked to law enforcement, however.

By the time the scraggly-haired stranger story reached the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department Chuck Smith was no longer employed at the Greenfield service station.
According to Sergeant Munden, at this juncture Trudy Snedegar became frantic to obtain Chuck’s unlisted phone number,
claiming she had a job opportunity for him.
The second time Trudy stopped by the station to badger Munden the sergeant acquiesced to her demands,
sealing Chuck’s fate and providing us with the true-crime quote of the day:

“Dumb-ass me gives the number out.” John Munden, Hancock Sheriff’s Department; Orlando Sentinel, March 27th, 1994

A few days later Chuck Smith received a phone call from a man who identified himself as John Rogers, proprietor of the John Rogers Trucking Company in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Rogers said he’d received Chuck’s contact information from Steve Snedegar—he was calling to offer Chuck steady employment and a complimentary bus ticket to Tennessee, he claimed.
On March 28th Chuck’s father-in-law dropped him at the bus depot
en route to his new job at a company investigators would soon learn does not exist;
Charles Darwin Smith has never been seen again.

When detectives visited the bus station they learned the ticket seller’s name was John Rogers; the purchaser had likely noted the employee’s ID tag, investigators theorized,
and repurposed the name for the nonexistent trucking company.
When questioned, Steve Snedegar denied he’d given Chuck Smith’s information to anyone,
and apparently law enforcement attempts to tie the Snedegars to Chuck’s disappearance ended there.
Make of it what you will,
but detectives have never revealed the physical description of the person who purchased Chuck Smith’s ticket to nowhere, and Tony Lambert and Charles Darwin Smith have never been entered into NamUs,
the federal missing persons database.

I should further mention, while on the subject of missing persons, the existence of an additional vanished Snedegar associate: James A. Wilkes, Steve’s right-hand man at J&S Oil.
Wilkes hasn’t been seen since the mid-1980s,
but no missing persons report has ever been filed and he too is absent from NamUs.
The only publically-available information regarding James A. Wilkes —aside from the fact that he is missing—is his approximate birth year, 1952, and his last place of residence: Charlottesville, Indiana.
As is the case with Charles Darwin Smith, photos of James A. Wilkes are not available in the Greenfield Daily Reporter’s archives.

Many are Lost but One is Found

Beware the ides of April: on April 15th, 1982 a farmhand tilling a cornfield approximately twelve miles from the Snedegar residence spotted something odd amid the stalks.
At first glance he thought it was a deer carcass; it was not.
Badly decomposed, Lora Morris had been shot three times in the head with a .25 caliber revolver; her body— clad in a white tee-shirt and denim cutoff shorts—was found face up with her legs apart and her arms crossed.
Scattered shell casings were present at the scene leading Sergeant John Munden to tell the Greenfield Daily Reporter, “It’s my belief she was killed in the field.”

Although the medical examiner will determine Lora had been killed shortly after her disappearance it’s not entirely certain her body was present in the cornfield the entire eight months she was missing.
The landowner was adamant her body hadn’t been visible when the field was harvested in late October/early November,
and there is also the matter of the sobbing “sexual innuendo” phone call placed—allegedly by Lora—three days after her disappearance.
It’s possible her parents and ex-husband misidentified her voice and the farmer and his thresher somehow managed to miss her body;
these are only minor mysteries in the scheme of things, and there will be more to come.

Water Finds its Level, or Steve and Trudy Snedegar in Florida

Don’t fret; not everyone in this story manages to evade a happy ending.
Three years after Lora’s death Indiana businessman Tony McCullough—partner of missing person Tony Lambert and onetime prospective buyer of J&S Oil—received a phone call from a man named Gary Stafford.
Stafford, a self-described hitman who plied his trade in Soldier of Fortune  magazine, told McCullough he’d been hired by a Florida man seeking to avenge his daughter’s death.
Stafford had accepted a 5K payment for McCullough’s murder, he claimed,
with 20K due upon completion of the contract.
Magnanimous (or possibly just lazy), he offered to allow McCullough to live for a onetime payment of 10K.

In what is perhaps the sole instance of rational decision-making exhibited in this story McCullough immediately contacted law enforcement;
Stafford was ultimately arrested for extortion and sentenced to two years in prison.
Stafford refused to identify the Florida man with the murdered daughter who hired him, however,
and everyone moved on;
well, everyone except Lora’s mother Trudy—she was the next Snedegar intimate to drop from sight.

Although the impetus for both decisions is unclear, Trudy and Steve had divorced in 1983 but continued to live together in Astor, Florida.
Sometime during the summer of 1986—the specific date is uncertain—Trudy told her daughter Brenda
Steve had awoken her the last five consecutive nights by jamming a gun against her head and threatening to pull the trigger.
Brenda, visiting her parents in Florida, was apparently unfazed by this information;
and so was Trudy, apparently, since after five nights of terror she and Steve hit the town for an evening of country-western dancing.

Investigators believe the night of boot-scootin’ was Trudy’s last; although the genesis of this information is unclear,
investigators will subsequently hear rumors Steve and an associate took a plastic-wrapped body for a one-way boat ride on the Ocklawaha River a few days later.
The earthly remains of Trudy Snedegar, age forty-nine at the time of her disappearance, have never been located.

The day after Trudy’s disappearance Steve—after spending the morning sobbing in his office—led his visiting daughter Brenda to his Mercedes parked in his driveway.
Inside the trunk were stacks upon stacks of cash—one million dollars’ worth, he claimed.
Steve told his daughter Brenda to retrieve the cash if he is arrested but he is not arrested—and the cash, like Trudy, Tony Lambert, Chuck Smith and John A. Wilkes, is never seen again.

The investigation into Trudy’s disappearance is stunted from the onset;
when asked about his wife’s whereabouts Steve alleges Trudy left him,
and for reasons I cannot fathom none of the couple’s three children—Brenda included—bothered to report their mother missing for nearly a year.
When now-Captain John Munden learns Trudy left behind her purse, however,
he is certain she is sending him a message—no woman voluntarily goes missing without taking her purse,
he told Trudy when her daughter Lora vanished.
Trudy’s rationale for sending smoke signals with her accessories
instead of fleeing the second, third, fourth or fifth consecutive night Steve woke her at gunpoint is,
as are so many aspects of this story, incomprehensible.

1988: The Hancock County Sherriff’s Department’s Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very-Bad Year

In the interest of brevity I will spare you the details of the five-way officer sex tape and the deputy murder-suicide that many residents felt was a (cleverly-staged) deputy murder-murder;
let us simply say a plague of scandals descended upon the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department and an investigation by the local prosecutor’s office followed.
At this time we will trouble ourselves only with the specific travails of Captain John Munden,
longtime lead detective on the Lora Morris murder investigation.

Captain John Munden, as it happens, had entered into the bounds of matrimony with the wife of a murder victim whose slaying was being investigated by . . . Captain John Munden.
Optics aside, marrying the wife of a murder victim is not a crime,
and failing to solve the murder of your wife’s first husband is not a crime.
Peddling drugs, however, is a crime, and when Captain Munden’s wife Nieves Lindner Munden was busted selling cocaine he opted to retire from the force.
(For legal reasons I should note the investigation found no evidence Captain Munden was aware of or participated in his wife’s criminal activity, for which she served a brief prison sentence.)

The mantle of the Lora Morris murder investigation now passes to Captain Munden’s son Donnie Munden,
also a Hancock County detective, although John Munden remains an active participant despite his retirement.

Cancer Comes for the King, Does Not Miss

In 1989 a law enforcement official in the Snedegars’ adoptive hometown of Astor, Florida learned Steve was dying of cancer.
Lake County Sheriff’s Detective Lynn Wagner—tasked with the investigation into Trudy’s disappearance—arranged to meet with him for coffee.
During their conversation Steve—citing a disinclination to die in prison—promised to leave a post-mortem confession tying up the loose ends in the assorted crimes after his death.
Malignant melanoma felled the Snedegar patriarch the following year—no written confession was ever located,
but a large bonfire was spotted behind his home in the days after Steve’s death.
Many investigators believe the timing was not coincidental.

Not every scrap of paper in the Snedegar home was incinerated in the post-funeral pyre;
while Steve’s children were packing up his belongings they discovered a map in Lora’s funeral guestbook—a large X marked a spot near the family’s Astor home.
Certain they’d discovered the gravesite of Trudy Snedegar—or John A. Wilkes, or Tony Lambert, or hell, maybe even Chuck Smith—Lake County officials launched an intensive dig of the Snedegar property.

They found nothing.

Home Again, Home Again Jiggity Jig (AKA Ain’t No Fit Like a Retrofit)

The last gasp of the Lora Morris murder investigation transpired in August, 1994;
although the explanation for his tardy notification is unknown, William “Buck” Estes, a Snedegar family friend, informed investigators he’d concealed a note in Lora’s coffin at Trudy Snedegar’s behest.
Hancock County detectives disinterred Lora’s remains but have never revealed the contents of Trudy’s last note to her daughter.

Into this information void steps retired lawman John Munden;
the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office has been stingy with the facts but the case’s first and forever detective has been generous with his opinions—he provided both his theory of the crime
and his confidence therein to an Orlando Sentinel  reporter.

“If Trudy were alive I could get a warrant for her arrest today.” John Munden, Orlando Sentinel, March 27th, 1994

Are you ready? Strap in tight, ‘cause there will be reaching aplenty.

According to the elder Munden’s theory of the crime(s), Trudy accidentally shot Lora three-times in the head during an argument,
possibly because Lora was considering reuniting with her ex-husband Bryce.
Trudy then dumped her daughter’s body (despite the scattered shell casings at the scene and the detective’s earlier avowal Lora had been shot in the cornfield).

Trudy then engineered the disappearance of Chuck Smith,
likely to impede investigators’ ability to identify the scraggly-haired man from the Kocolene sighting
the day before Lora’s murder.
(Trudy’s reason for sending a man to threaten her daughter twenty-four hours before an accidental shooting is not addressed.)

For his part, Steve Snedegar killed Tony Lambert and hired the Soldier of Fortune  hitman to kill Tony McCullough because he mistakenly believed one or both Tonys killed Lora;
he later murdered Trudy when he realized she was the one who had actually murdered their daughter.
(The disappearance of John A. Wilkes is also attributed to Steve, although the details and motive remain hazy.)

Do you feel let down? Did you want a more fact-based conclusion, possibly garnished with an indictment or two?
Perhaps you’re unable to reconcile Trudy as the villain of the story?
Steve Snedegar had to have known he was being set up to take the fall in the Chuck Smith disappearance;
why would it take him five years to decide Trudy was (allegedly) responsible for Lora’s murder?
And more importantly, where are the remains of the four missing players?
If you feel disappointed by the end of this story imagine how the families of Chuck Smith, John A. Wilkes,
and Tony Lambert feel.

Although the unfairness of the situation struck me only in hindsight, the four victims who were never found aren’t the only missing persons in this story—Lora Morris’s remains were located but she’s still essentially absent.
I don’t know if it’s a failure on the part of the Greenfield Daily Reporter or a result of the Snedegar code of omertà but we know not a single thing about her.
Not one sibling or friend or relative has recalled her love of life or uncanny ability to light up a room.
When she was missing none of her nearest and dearest noted her happy-go-lucky nature
or proclivity for lending the very shirt off her back.
Stories about unidentified human remains aside,
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a victim in a high-profile murder case portrayed with such a dearth of human detail.

Regardless of who killed her, Lora didn’t get to see her daughter grow up, her slayer was never punished and her voice was eliminated from the media accounts of her murder. Lora Lynn Morris was cheated.

The murder of Lora Morris has everything: a note secreted in a coffin, a mysterious map, a Soldier of Fortune  hitman and four vanished individuals now presumed dead. The only thing missing is a solution—and a narrative that gives any sense of Lora Morris.

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