CHICKEN-HAWK: Poultry and Pederasty in Henryville, Indiana

Posted: September 19, 2018 in Uncategorized

The township of Henryville is inextricably linked to two things: fried chicken and dead boys.

First, the poultry: for weak sisters uninterested in murder Henryville—a municipality of less than two thousand souls boasting only a single (perpetually blinking) stoplight—is best known as the birthplace of crispy chicken magnate Harland D. Sanders.

I had always assumed Colonel Sanders was a fictional advertising construct like Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima but the Colonel—an honorary title bestowed by the state of Kentucky,
unrelated to military rank—was not only a real person but a fascinating one.

A failed attorney with a sideline in bootlegging, the Colonel endured a string of catastrophic business ventures before establishing the Kentucky Fried empire in his mid-sixties.
In perhaps his most famous escapade he shot business rival Matt Stewart during a 1931 gun battle, forever cementing his ranking as the most badass of fast food mascots.
(Clowns may be inherently scary but Ronald McDonald has never, to my knowledge at least, busted a cap in Hamburglar’s ass.)

Matt Stewart survived his injuries and the Colonel—the Teflon Don of his day—managed to avoid prosecution thanks to an affirmative self defense claim and Stewart’s community-wide reputation for belligerence.

The Chicken King laying in state (obscure poultry pun intended)

Now the dead boys: during the three year period from 1974 to 1977 the township of Henryville—so sparsely populated it lacks a police force and relies instead on the Indiana State Police—experienced three still-unsolved homicides involving young male victims.

THE PRIMO

NAME: Richard Lee Sweeney

AGE: 8

DATE OF DISAPPEARANCE: April 28th, 1974

Youngest victim Richard Lee Sweeney was the first to die,
departing his home at 16311 Pixley Knob Road shortly after midday to “play,”
a common pastime for free-range children in the 1970s.

When the Henryville Elementary student failed to return his parents contacted law enforcement and a search commenced;
at 6pm Indiana State Policeman John Booher discovered Richard’s fully-clothed body on the second floor of the nearby Blue Lick Auction barn,
buried beneath stacks of boxes,
rags and old clothing.

An autopsy would later determine Richard was killed approximately three hours after leaving home;
he’d been sexually assaulted, strangled,
and had asphyxiated on his own vomit
due to a too-tight gag.
His hands had been bound behind his back but the binding used has never been publicized.

[Live and Learn: the Blue Lick Auction Barn wasn’t a traditional farm building full of hay bales and livestock;
it was primarily used for swap meets.
One local described it as “ a giant yard sale or hillbilly pawn store.”]

THE SECONDO

NAME: Jeffrey Allen Burkett

AGE: 15

DATE OF DISAPPEARANCE: June 9th, 1977

High school junior Jeffrey Allen Burkett was small
for his age,
weighing one hundred pounds and standing only a single inch over five feet tall.
There is some debate about the 11th grader’s final sighting;
some sources report Jeffrey was last spotted entering a black pickup truck on Blue Lick Road,
while others place his final sighting at a Henryville High drivers’ education class.

Jeffrey failed to return home that evening;
at 10am the following morning, June 10th,
his brother contacted the Indiana State Police and filed a missing person’s report.
At 3:45pm Jeffrey’s body was discovered—by either a motorcycle rider or trail bikers, depending on the source—approximately thirty yards inside the Clark State Forest.
Located eight miles from Henryville High
Jeffrey was found face down, fully clothed,
his hands arched above his head and his wrists bound together with wire.

The medical examiner will later conclude Jeffrey has been beaten, sexually assaulted and throttled;
his skull is fractured but strangulation is assessed as his primary cause of death.
Although these details are uncorroborated the local rumor mill alleges Jeffrey exhibited extensive self-defense wounds and his remains showed evidence of having been dragged some distance through the forest.

“Most of the people are afraid for their children; people are just scared to death. They’re scared to let their kids out alone. The’re scared to let them out in bunches.” Gas station attendant David Roby on the esprit de Henryville, Louisville Courier Journal, October 16th, 1977

THE DOLCE

NAME: Donald Michael Abell

AGE: 19

DATE OF DISAPPEARANCE: September 27th, 1977

A mere four months after Jeffrey Burkett’s death fellow Henryville High student Donald Abell completed his morning classes at 10:58am;
telling friends he intended to walk downtown the fifth-year senior then exited the building and vanished.
Two weeks later—-at 1pm on October 9th—his fully-clothed remains were discovered by a group of walnut hunters splayed at the bottom of a 27-foot ravine.

An autopsy will later determine Donald had been
beaten to death,
his massive skull fracture incompatible with an
accidental fall.
Unlike the previous two victims Donald’s body bore no evidence of sexual assault or strangulation,
and although this information does not appear in the press local gossip alleges Donald’s hands were bound and his 1970’s-style platform shoes were missing.

Like Jeffrey Burkett Donald’s body was found almost 10 miles from Henryville High,
indicating he’d likely been driven, dead or alive,
to his dumpsite.
Although they attended the same school Donald Abell—a fifth year senior completing academic requirements for graduation—and 10th grader Jeffrey Burkett were reportedly not close friends.

The three dead boys were not the only victims of the killer or killers in their midst;
in the 1970s Henryville High had an open campus policy which allowed students to leave the premises during the day.
Although it managed to survive Jeffrey Burkett’s death an additional slaying was deemed a bridge too far—Henryville’s open campus policy was killed by the administration shortly after third victim Donald Abell.

“I know they’re probably investigating it and all but it’s got me very upset to think there’s evidently some nut running loose in this community.” Farmer Jerry Able, Louisville Courier Journal, June 16th, 1977

IF AN INVESTIGATION FAILS IN THE FOREST

In the whispers of townsfolk and nether-reaches of cyberspace the Sweeney-Burkett-Abell slayings—often referred to as the Henryville Forestry Murders though only one victim, Jeffrey Burkett,
died in Clark State Forest—-are believed to be the work of a single assailant or pair of assailants working in tandem.
Investigators from the Indiana State Police, however, have always maintained the murders are,
despite victimological similarities and geographical proximity, the handiwork of three separate slayers.

“The general public is going to believe we’ve got a ghoul stalking the woods snatching up kids but I feel we’re dealing with distinctly separate murders. I’ll tell you this much; if we find enough evidence to prosecute you won’t need a telephone to find out about it—you’ll hear me hollering.” Indiana Police Sergeant Guy Schroeder, Louisville Courier Journal, January 24th, 1979

There’s been speculation through the years the local gentry is purposely stonewalling law enforcement to protect one of their own—a common trope in small town cold cases—but the Indiana State Police investigation,
as chronicled in the media, appears comprehensive.
Although Detective David Markowski recently described the remaining physical evidence as “scant,”
the probe into the boys’ murders has been periodically reopened as technology has improved.
Two highly-publicized top-to-bottom reinvestigations were undertaken in 1983 and 1999, and the inquiry into the murders remains ongoing.

“[I’m] ninety-nine percent sure I know who did it. I’ve just got that little bit of doubt.” Albert Sweeney, father of first victim Richard Lee Sweeney, Louisville Courier Journal, February 25th, 1996

Interestingly, Albert and Juanita Sweeney—parents of youngest victim Richard Lee Sweeney—believe they know the identity of their son’s killer.
As Mrs. Sweeney told to the Courier Journal, in 1998 she confronted this person with her suspicions;
the suspect then “ran and hid,” confirming the Sweeneys’ belief in his guilt.
Whether the Sweeneys’ person of interest is among the many (alleged) suspects implicated on various crime boards is unknown, however;
and it’s unclear if the Sweeneys believe this man is also responsible for the subsequent slayings of Donald Abell and Jeffrey Burkett.
(The identity of the Sweeneys’ person of interest is shielded in the media as he has not been officially implicated by law enforcement.)

MEANWHILE, ON THE INTERNET

I first became interested in the Henryville murders via a true crime post on the Southern Indiana News and Tribune’s Jefferson City forum.
The thread no longer exists, unfortunately, although the first page endures on the Wayback Machine.
Like a Topix thread with folksy grammar and an extra dash of vitriol the posts were informative but undeniably libelous:
aspersions were cast, reputations besmirched and family names dragged through the mud.
It was, needless to say, riveting.

In order to avoid legal jeopardy I have opted to provide pseudonyms for the (alleged) persons of interest fingered on various message boards; for inveterate snoops the participants’ true names can be found here, a sad shadow of the once mighty thread I privately dubbed Libel-palooza.

1) In the 1970s Clark State Forest was home to a boys’ correctional facility known as the Henryville Youth Camp.
In 1979 Dr. Kenneth Heinz, tasked with providing medical care for the incarcerated youngsters,
pleaded guilty to a single count of child molestation and surrendered his medical license.
Although Dr. Heinz did not murder his victim(s)—believed to be numerous despite his single plea of guilt—many crime board posters believe his pedophilia makes him an obvious suspect in the Sweeney-Burkett-Abell slayings.

2) The Burkett family reportedly believes the slayer to be Mr. Starmousse, a then-resident of nearby Russell Springs, Kentucky.
Mr. Starmousse—whose father sported hooks-for-hands, an irresistible detail—is mentioned on virtually every message board as person of interest in all three murders.
As the story is told by a purported Burkett family relation, shortly after the final slaying the entire Starmousse clan decamped for Florida, presumably to hinder the Indiana State Police investigation.
Mr. Starmousse’s motive for the murders is never revealed, however, and it’s unclear if he possesses the predilection for child rape exhibited in the Sweeney-Burkett slayings.

3) Two then-teenaged sons of a local doctor—Dr. Bus, not handsy Dr. Heinz of the boys’ reformatory—came under considerable scrutiny on the deleted News and Tribune  thread.
The Bus boys appear to have been something of a local scourge, protected by their father’s social status;
but as is the case with Mr. Starmousse their specific motivation for the murders is never established and a history of paraphilia, if one exists, is never mentioned.
At least as chronicled on the deleted thread the Bus boys were local bullies and mischief-makers;
in many ways they seem to be simply default suspects, implicated by their prior bad acts in the community.

[The Doctor Who Couldn’t Prescribe Straight: I make no claim of a connection but a Dr. Kenneth Heinz (misspelling intentional) was indicted for trafficking morphine last year and his biographical details correspond with those of the disgraced youth camp physician.
I can’t help but wonder if the (no)good doctor managed to finagle the resuscitation of his medical license—stranger things have happened, especially in the freewheelin’ 1970s.]

Personally, I’m far from certain all three Sweeney-Burkett-Abell slayings are connected.
While the murders of Richard Sweeney and Jeffrey Burkett exhibit a certain similitude—both were rape-strangulations perpetrated against bound male victims—Donald Abell’s slaying bears little resemblance to the first two homicides.
(Although it is certainly possible Donald’s slaying was an ancillary crime, committed because he knew too much about the Sweeney-Burkett murders.)
Without further information or a forensic link, however, the Indiana State Police supposition of three separate killers is probably the safest tack for investigation;
even bucolic burgs like Henryville have no shortage of perverts and bad actors
and I’ve always suspected the separate killers theory might be supported by hold-back evidence to which the public (and internet commentariat) isn’t privy.

“Somebody knows and may die knowing but we won’t let them forget.” Indiana State Police Detective Dallas Meyer, Louisville Courier Journal, July 21st, 1983

He May Be Heavy But He Ain’t My Brother: Never trust the internet. Arguably the most infamous series of solved crimes in Henryville history were perpetrated by a multifarious criminal named Charles Sweeney,
currently serving 60 years in prison for the 1991 murder of business associate Danny Guthrie.
Sweeney’s lawbreaking extravaganza involved a twice-buried corpse,
marijuana plants, a bogus bingo game at the Sellersburg Moose Lodge
and a bomb planted under the car of a Clark County police detective.
As Judge Cale Bradford noted during one of Sweeney’s appeals, “This case has more parts than a Rocky movie.”

Numerous crime-board posters have alleged Chuck Sweeney is the brother of unsolved homicide victim Richard Lee Sweeney but this is not the case.
Richard Sweeney’s father is named Albert and Chuck Sweeney’s full name is Charles Sweeney Jr.,
indicating his father’s name is Charles.
Sweeney is a fairly common name in Henryville, however, so a more attenuated relationship between Charles Sweeney and Richard Lee Sweeney is certainly possible.

SEND IN THE CLOWN

He had no known ties to Henryville but I am utterly incapable of ending a blog post about fried chicken and dead boys without mentioning the most notorious connoisseur of both commodities:
serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

In the late 1960s Gacy—a Kentucky Fried Chicken University alumnus—began managing a trio of KFC franchises owned by his father-in-law in Waterloo, Iowa.
Gacy reportedly delighted in delivering takeout dressed as Harland Sanders, shouting “Colonel John Gacy’s here!” as he made a grand entrance in a white suit and string tie, his meaty arms laden with buckets of KFC.

[Birds of a Feather: I doubt John Wayne Gacy and I would’ve agree on much but we—and all sentient beings with one or more operational taste buds—agree on one thing: Original Recipe is not only the best recipe but the only  recipe.]

A Kentucky Fried loyalist to the end, Gacy enjoyed a bucket of the Colonel’s finest—Original Recipe, of course—as the final meal before his May 9th, 1994 date with the executioner’s needle.

I hope that bastard didn’t even have time to lick his fingers.

John Wayne Gacy in Colonel cosplay; you don’t want to know what he had for dessert

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