A Tale of Two Cheryl(l)s: the Murders of Cheryl Segal and Cheryll Spegal, Solved and Unsolved

Posted: December 4, 2017 in Uncategorized

“You are going to know I’m not guilty when you get the next one.” Condemned inmate James Albert Findley’s protestation of innocence en route to death row. Cincinnati Enquirer, November 4th, 1971

James Findley, age twenty-nine, had been sentenced to death for the mutilation murder of high school junior Cheryl Segal, age sixteen.
On October 17th, 1970 Cheryl and her best friend Karen Bulvanker were socializing at Cincinnati’s Firefly Café when they accepted a ride home from Findley, a friend of a friend.
Karen, who was dropped off first, asked Cheryl to phone her when she arrived home—when the call failed to materialize she contacted Cheryl’s mother, who contacted the police.

Eighteen hours later horseback riders discovered Cheryl’s body twenty-three miles from the Firefly Café,
buried under a blanket of leaves on the banks of Gregory Creek.
Shot once in the left temple, her left nipple had been excised and a large Z etched into the flesh of her torso.
Although Cheryl was found nude her postmortem revealed no evidence of rape;
her clothing was later discovered scattered on nearby roadways as if tossed from the window of a moving car.

Cheryl Segal

Findley was arrested the next day,
the evidence against him overwhelming:
a dried smear of Cheryl’s type blood was on his jacket,
the tires of his Plymouth convertible matched tracks near her dumpsite,
and a .25 caliber revolver tucked into the car’s visor had fired the bullet retrieved from her brain.
Findley had recently purchased the gun
from the owner of the Firefly Café—Karen Bulvanker had spotted it in his car the night of the murder.

Findley, a member of the Iron Horseman motorcycle club,
was no stranger to the justice system;
as a juvenile he’d spent four years incarcerated in Ohio’s Boys’ Industrial School and he’d served five years in an adult penitentiary for burglary.
All told, he’d been arrested five times, mostly for property
and drug crimes—the most serious charges he had ever faced, assault with a deadly weapon, had been dropped before trial.

Findley was the last person seen with Cheryl Segal; she’d been slain with his gun and his vehicle had been present at the crime scene.
Findley’s failure to dispose of the murder weapon or take measures to avoid detection may have been shortsightedness—the idiocy of criminals never fails to astound—or it might have had,
as he would later claim, a less damning explanation.
When arrested the morning after her body was found Findley told investigators he had no idea Cheryl was dead.

After dropping off Karen Bulvanker, Findley told detectives, he and Cheryl had made a quick stop at the home of his brother-in-law Dennis Smith, a fellow Iron Horseman.
Smith had asked to borrow his car, Findley claimed, and after Smith promised to drop Cheryl at home Findley agreed.
According to Findley, his gun had been in the car’s sun visor when he’d turned the vehicle over to Smith;
the blood smear on his jacket, Findley’s lawyer would later theorize,
must’ve been secondary transfer via traces of blood Smith left on the front seat.

[Caveat: one recent web source claims Findley retained possession of Cheryl’s excised flesh as a trophy; this allegation is contradicted by contemporaneous media coverage.]

At his capital murder trial Findley took the stand in his own defense and implicated his brother-in-law;
subpoenaed to appear as a witness, Dennis Smith denied he’d seen Findley or Cheryl on the night in question and proffered an alibi supported by two fellow Iron Horsemen.
Unmoved by Findley’s testimony the jury returned with a conviction after three hours and subsequently sentenced him to death.
Decrying his innocence, en route to death row Findley warned prison guards Cheryl’s killer would strike again: “You are going to know I’m not guilty when you get the next one.”

[SEGUEThis is the Zodiac Seeking: although he was an Ohio native Findley had lived in the Bay Area during the Zodiac killer’s reign and an FBI investigation into his status as a possible suspect unearthed some intriguing circumstances—not only had Cheryl Segal’s torso been carved with a letter Z but she’d been slain almost one year to the day after final confirmed Zodiac victim Paul Stine. And the parallels didn’t end there: ten months after Paul Stine’s death two murders occurred which at the time were considered possible Zodiac slayings: Brenda Vance and Janice Smith were found bludgeoned to death in San Francisco in August, 1970—like Cheryl Segal, Janice Smith’s left nipple had been excised.

Despite a thorough investigation, however, no hard evidence emerged tying Findley to the Zodiac slayings—and confirmed Zodiac correspondence continued until 1974, three years after Findley’s confinement on death row. Eventually the two bludgeonings in San Francisco were determined to have no connection to the Zodiac murders: Stanley Nelson was convicted of murdering Brenda Vance and Janice Smith in 1973, along with a third victim, Jacqueline Truss.]

October 19th, 1971; Cheryll Spegal’s tenth birthday would be her last day.
Exactly one year and one day after Cheryl Segal’s murder the Highland Heights fifth-grader left home at 6:25am to walk to the bus stop;
though located over the state border in Kentucky Cheryll’s residence at 78 Rose Avenue was only eight miles from the Firefly Café where the similarly-named Cheryl Segal embarked on her final journey home.


A thick fog blanketed the area and the sun had not yet risen when Cheryll began her journey,
hampering visibility; although her older brothers Mickey,
then age thirteen, and Mark, then eleven,
had departed just five minutes earlier they neither heard nor witnessed anything amiss.
The bus stop was less than two blocks
from the Spegal residence but Cheryll never boarded the bus,
never made it to school, never returned home on that day or any other.
For nearly two weeks her whereabouts remained a mystery—but on November 1st
a truck driver named Gayle Gaines espied Cheryll’s submerged remains in a creek in rural Pendleton County,
twenty-three miles from Highland Heights.

Nude and dumped in approximately one foot of water,
Cheryll’s body was positioned face-down in the muck of the creek bed,
seven large stones stacked neatly upon her back.
She had been stabbed and mutilated—the wounds on her back aligned in a precise circular pattern—and she had been sexually assaulted with instruments.
The plaid jumper, gold blouse and brown oxfords she wore when last seen have never been located; forty-six years later Cheryll Spegal’s murder remains unsolved.

The names Cheryl Segal and Cheryll Spegal differ by only two letters;
despite residing on opposite sides of the state line both lived in the same general area
and their mutilation murders were separated by exactly one year and one day.
At the time, journalists from the Cincinnati Enquirer  speculated Cheryll Spegal had been the “next one” James Findley had prophesied as he was transported to death row;
is it possible that despite the jury’s verdict Findley was innocent of the crime for which he’d been condemned?

Map of the Cheryll Spegal recovery site

SLAYING SIMILARITIES:

Both victims were young females
Attempts had been made to cover both bodies
Both victims were discarded in or near a creek
Both victims were mutilated and dumped nude
Both Cheryl and Cheryll had been disposed of approximately twenty-three miles from the locus they encountered their killer

Spegal creek dumpsite

A closer look, however, reveals more inconsistencies than uniformity:

SLAYING DISSIMILARITIES:

Cheryl was a teenager/Cheryll was a child
Cheryl had been shot/Cheryll was stabbed
Cheryl had not been sexually assaulted/Cheryll had been raped with implements
Cheryl had been discarded on a creek bank/Cheryll was submerged in water
Cheryl’s body had been buried in leaves/Cheryll’s body had been camouflaged with stones
Cheryl’s clothes were scattered around town/Cheryll’s clothing was never located
The mutilation of their bodies was markedly different (a letter Z vs. circular pattern)

Certainly, serial killers don’t always commit identical slayings—the fact that the Segal/Spegal murders aren’t cookie-cutter crimes isn’t conclusive evidence of a lack of connection.
Today we have the luxury of scientific certainty via DNA evidence
but in the forensic-free 1970s juries were largely reliant on their intuition and common sense:
Findley’s alibi implicating his brother-in-law, while theoretically possible, was undeniably farfetched.
It’s unclear if the Cincinnati Enquirer’s speculation about a Segal/Spegal connection
engendered any law enforcement interest;
authorities have never revealed whether Dennis Smith was investigated as a possible suspect in Cheryll Spegal’s slaying, and the current status of the physical evidence in both the Segal and Spegal murders is unknown.

Ironically, despite the passage of four decades determining a link between the Segal and Spegal murders is now more critical than ever before.
Spoiler alert: James Findley evaded execution courtesy of Fuhrman v. Georgia  and after forty-six years in prison he’s currently eligible for supervised release.
The board rebuffed his first attempt at parole—possibly because he continues to deny his guilt—but Findley’s next hearing, scheduled for 2018, inches ever closer.

I have no special insight into James Findley’s guilt in Cheryl Segal’s slaying; the jury who heard his trial testimony believed he was lying and I respect their assessment—but with the glut of DNA exonerations the fallibility of juries, particularly those bereft of forensic evidence, is no longer in dispute.
So instead of insight I will leave you with a prediction:
if Findley did in fact murder Cheryl Segal yet still manages to obtain parole
I foresee additional mutilation murders in his future.
To paraphrase his assertion as he was led off to death row: we’ll know he was guilty when he gets the next one.

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