Mrs. Waples of Naples: Unhand Me, You Brute!

Posted: December 29, 2019 in Uncategorized

Some people are born in Florida—others travel south to fulfill their destiny.

Does any story that begins with the detection of a foul odor end happily? I suspect not; this one certainly doesn’t.

For the better part of a week a putrid stench wafted across the exclusive community,
its intensity growing with each passing day.
The year is 1973, the location the Coquina Sands subdivision in Naples, Florida.
On July 26th resident Phillip Smith realized he hadn’t seen his elderly neighbor in a while and did the math;
at 6pm he phoned the Naples Police Department and requested a wellness check for Mrs. Ruth Rogers Waples,
age seventy-one, at 630 Murex Drive.

Wealthy. Eccentric. Outspoken. Rare is the media account of her murder which does not include at least one of these descriptors.
Widow of Harold Jirou Waples, a former Michigan Attorney General and thirty-second degree Mason,
Mrs. Waples was an unforgettable character who spoke her mind and flaunted her affluence with brio.
Unapologetically loud, sporting more bling than an upwardly-mobile gangster rapper,
Mrs. Waples was a familiar presence at community meetings where she tirelessly advocated her (prescient) pet cause: the elimination of smoking in public spaces.

Mrs. Waples had emigrated from Michigan twelve years earlier, shortly after the death of her husband.
A more fitting relocation is unimaginable,
as the Widow Waples was the embodiment of the phenomenon we currently identify as “Florida woman.”
Her hectoring letters to the editor—signed with her infamous nom de plume, Mrs. Waples from Naples—were a fixture in the Naples Daily News.
She hijacked a 1964 meeting of the Zoning Board to demand reimbursement for a pair of panties she’d torn on a local fishing pier.
She told neighborhood children she loved pharmaceuticals and motored recklessly in an aircraft carrier-sized Cadillac. Draped in diamonds, nuttier than Mr. Peanut’s bowel movements,
Mrs. Waples let her freak flag billow out like a sail at full mast and laughed (maniacally, perhaps) in the face of convention.

When Officer Frank Baughman arrived at the Waples home the stench was overpowering. He swung open the unlocked front door and a German Shepherd bounded outside, desperate to escape.
That someone or something had died inside was a foregone conclusion but the grisly spectacle the patrolman encountered still managed to shock;
amid perilously stacked possessions—Mrs. Waples was a bit of a hoarder—he found the nude, decomposing body of the home’s occupant.
Splayed face-up on the living room floor, Mrs. Waples’ arms were upstretched and her hands were missing.

“Mrs. Waples was eccentric to say the least and finding her nude was not unusual. She was known to walk around her home nude at various times.” Unnamed police officer, Naples Daily News, July 29th, 1973

Seven days earlier: June 18th was Mrs. Waples’ last night on earth and she lived it in the most Waples way possible.
The evening began with several phone calls to the Naples Police Department;
someone was knocking on her door,
Mrs. Waples informed the dispatcher, and she wasn’t expecting visitors.
An average person might be hesitant to trouble law enforcement about such a picayune matter but Mrs. Waples was not an average person;
her peccadilloes were well-known to the Naples Police Department and they sent out a squad car to mollify her.

Please pardon the low-quality Naples Daily News images; Mrs. Waples looks ready to sing “Swanee”

Knock-knock; who’s there? Patrolmen from the Naples Police Department, responding to your call for assistance.
Despite being assured by the dispatcher the strangers now at her doorstep were law enforcement agents Mrs. Waples refused to open the door.
Not once, not twice, but three times:
that’s the number of trips officers made to the Waples home at the behest of Mrs. Waples’ repeated calls to the station but each time the patrolmen were denied entry.
Eventually the officers gave up and the identity of Mrs. Waples’ (original) uninvited guest would later be a subject of speculation.

It’s now midnight and Mrs. Waples is just getting started. Next door on Murex Drive the thunderous ring of the telephone—1970s landlines were calibrated to deafen the dead—echoed through the Smith residence.
Twelve-year-old Jackie Smith, daughter of the neighbor who will later request the wellness check,
answers the phone.
Mrs. Waples is on the line with some important news: she is going to be murdered and an African-American family with six children will thereafter move into her residence.
Young Jackie Smith is unperturbed; Mrs. Waples was always claiming she was going to be murdered,
as it so happens, just another one of her (many) eccentricities.
Nobody in the Smith home gives the phone call another thought—until the odor of rot pervaded, that is.

4am, the switchboard of the American Ambulance Company. “Help me! Help me! They’re trying to kill me!”
The screaming woman on the line did not give her name but the screaming woman did not have to: dispatcher Jack Bridenthal recognized her voice.
Mrs. Waples was a frequent caller, and had in fact made a similar call only one week previously.
Mrs. Waples’ wolf-cries, at this point, were no longer taken seriously at American Ambulance;
per company policy the dispatcher hung up the phone, failing to contact law enforcement.
(Unlike 911 operators, an amenity not yet available in Florida, private emergency services had no duty to investigate.)
After this ignored plea for assistance Mrs. Waples fell silent—and the next time she is seen both her hands and her pulse will be long gone.

At the Waples residence the crime scene investigation is off to a poor start. Cluttered with possessions and reeking of dog excrement and decomposition, the home was the forensic version of a Superfund site.
The survival of Mrs. Waples’ (unnamed) German Shepard,
aided by fortuitously blasting air-conditoning, was near-miraculous;
he’d been trapped with her body for a full seven days.
Although investigators initially presume he has consumed Mrs. Waples’ hands the German Shepard will ultimately be exonerated;
at autopsy the medical examiner determines Mrs. Waples’ stumps have not been gnawed off but neatly severed.
[Mrs. Waples’ doggie, the ultimate survivor, was rehomed with a local family, a nugget of good news in a motherlode of bad.]

Hoarding detritus and dog feces weren’t the only impediments at the Waples crime scene. For reasons I cannot fathom Naples Detective Barrie Kee—instead of, say,
one or more trained crime scene technicians—was tasked with gathering forensic clues.
To prepare for this important role he was given a fifteen-minute presentation on fingerprint detection and analysis while en-route to the Waples residence.
This appears to have been the extent of Detective Kee’s forensic training and his lack of expertise and the repercussions thereof will hamper the investigation in perpetuity.

Dr. Heinrich Schmid, Collier County Medical Examiner, performed Mrs. Waples’ autopsy. Her remains exhibited no self-defense wounds, according to his report,
and no evidence of sexual assault was detected.
Mrs. Waples’ death had been caused by a single .38 caliber bullet fired into her mid-back, lodging in her chest;
the wound would have caused collapse in approximately five seconds and death in approximately five minutes.
Interestingly, the postmortem suggested a killer with a split criminal profile:
willing to hack off Mrs. Waples’ hands, presumably to steal her rings,
yet lacking the necessary fortitude to shoot a helpless old lady face-to-face.
Greedy and cowardly; what a way to go through life.

Mrs. Waples’ jewels were missing but detectives caught a lucky break; photos of her most recent acquisitions were available courtesy of a local retailer.
During the last four years of her life Mrs. Waples had purchased a staggering $70,000 ($500,000 in modern currency) worth of trinkets from Thalheimer’s, a business which retained reciepts—including photographs—of every transaction.
The Naples Police Department put out a nationwide BOLO for Mrs. Waples’ jewelry and nine months later the pieces began to surface in Rockford, Illinois, fifteen hundred miles away.
Diamonds, in this case, were a homicide investigation’s best friend.

“Evidence”

Bad sleuthing to the back, stellar sleuthing to the front: with only a vague description of a wristwatch Rockford Police Officer Joe Shickles was able to blow the Waples case wide open.
A local jeweler phoned the station with a tip: a drunken man had attempted to sell a $2,000 timepiece,
an item which appeared inconsistent with his socioeconomic status.
Sensing shenanigans, the jeweler refused the sale;
although he neglected to ask the drunkard’s name he did remember the watch’s manufacturer: Girard.
It wasn’t much but it was all Officer Shickles needed.

Unable to find any locally-stolen Girard watches, Detective Shickles checked the nationwide BOLOs and discovered the Waples jewelry alert.
He then canvassed Rockford area jewelers with photos of Mrs. Waples’ purloined baubles,
eventually locating two of the missing items: a $10,000 diamond pendant and a multi-carat sapphire and ruby ring.
The pieces, according to the purchasers,
had been pawned by a visibly intoxicated man named John Masterson.
Masterson, when confronted by Officer Shickles, revealed he was selling the jewelry on behalf of Richard Lee Mitchell,
a paroled felon who had until recently resided in Naples.
The Waples case finally had a suspect.

Detectives from the Naples Police Department, as it turns out, had already interviewed Richard Lee Mitchell.
Mitchell, age thirty-four, had a lengthy history of violence including but not limited to:
armed robbery, home invasion, weapons violations, and aggravated assault of an eighty-seven-year old victim.
Shortly before the Waples slaying Mitchell had been paroled into the custody of his sister Dorothy Marlowe,
a Naples resident whose husband Larry was friendly with Mrs. Waples.
[Larry Marlowe and Mrs. Waples became acquainted at Naples Community Hospital while Dorothy was being revived post-suicide attempt, the Florida version of a (platonic) meet-cute story.]

Richard Lee Mitchell had surfaced on detectives’ radar early in the investigation because the patrolmen who spent Mrs. Waples’ final night playing door tag had recorded the license plate of a car parked near her home;
the vehicle was registered to Mitchell’s sister Dorothy Marlowe.
Dorothy reported the car had been in her brother’s possession the night of the murder but Mitchell denied being present on Murex Drive.
This denial—despite the verified presence of the car near the scene—was apparently sufficient for Naples detectives.

Richard Lee Mitchell was arrested in Rockford on March 11th, 1974 and fought extradition to Florida vigorously but to no avail; his trial began on May 6th, 1975.
Ironically, this was not the first high-profile Florida murder trial to feature Mrs. Waples’ involvement:
eight years earlier, in 1967, Mrs. Waples—described as a “a tall, portly blonde”—made a cameo appearance at the trial of Carl Coppolino, a surgeon accused of murdering his wife.
As F. Lee Bailey, counsel for the defense, recounts in his his 2008 book When the Husband is the Suspect:

“[W]e had one candidate who was bound and determined to be on the jury. She announced herself as ‘Mrs. Waples from Naples,’ and went on to recount that her recently deceased husband had relied heavily on her advice throughout his years of legal practice. She opined that she could be an excellent juror. The courtroom was all a-chuckle as she carried on.”

Say what you will about Mrs. Waples’ sanity but she always brought the party with her.

I’m guessing Mrs. Waples would say “murder”

The case against Richard Mitchell, also known as “Butch,” was not a slam dunk.
The murder weapon remained missing and—thanks to the bungled crime scene investigation—no hair or fingerprints tied Mitchell or anyone else directly to the slaying.
In the 1970s, however, testimonial evidence was paramount and Mitchell’s admissions and incriminating statements were plentiful, according to witnesses:

    • Chester Treadwell, a longtime friend, claimed Mitchell bragged about “popping a cap in an old broad in Florida,” more specifically “a lady in Naples”
    • Dale Kelley (or “Kelly,” depending on the source) testified Mitchell admitted “taking care of a woman” in Florida by shooting her in the back, then severing her hands to steal her (unbudgeable) rings
    • Alcoholic beverage enthusiast John Masterson said Mitchell had paid him $25 per piece to sell Mrs. Waples’ jewelry (demonstrating Mitchell knew the jewelry was connected to a crime)

And Eugène Vidocq wept

In the 1970s jurors were not expecting a CSI moment. Mitchell met Mrs. Waples through his sister and observed her great wealth.
He purportedly confessed (on two separate occasions) to killing a woman in Florida.
A car under his alleged control was present at the time and place of the homicide, and he had possession of Mrs. Waples’ jewelry after her death.
Despite the absence of forensic evidence the trial outcome was looking grim for Richard Lee Mitchell,
but there was a bombshell revelation in store . . . and it wasn’t hidden up Mrs. Waples’ sleeve.

It was hidden up her skirt. Mrs. Waples, Medical Examiner Heinrich Schmid testified, was intersex.
You might ask, I suppose, what the existence of Mrs. Waples’ undscended testes, invisible to the naked eye, had to do with her murder?
She was shot in the back in the sanctity of her home; a crotchful of alien tentacles or snappish vagina dentata would not change the facts of the case.
But let’s not be coy.
This revelation was intended to dehumanize Mrs. Waples, to imply she was a freak of nature who, by daring to exist as God made her, got what she deserved.
Predictably, the tactic worked; after one hour and forty minutes of deliberation the jury acquitted Butch Mitchell of homicide.

Richard Lee Mitchell did not live happily ever after. Convicted at a separate trial for transporting Mrs. Waples’ stolen jewelry across state lines, he received a ten-year sentence.
Upon his release he continued to flout the terms of his parole,
eventually receiving thirty-three years as habitual offender.
Mitchell, age forty-nine, slithered off this mortal coil in 1991, now subject to celestial courts impervious to double jeopardy protections.
The venue will be hot, the punishment will be excruciating, and, God willing, this time there will be no possibility of parole.

“[Mrs. Waples] lived her life the way she apparently wanted to without regard for gossip or what people thought of her.” Unnamed acquaintance, Naples Daily News, July 29th, 1973

The story of her murder has a depressing ending but the story of her life does not.
Mrs. Waples left her entire million-dollar estate—not to an African-American family with six kids—but to an assortment of charities for orphaned and abused children.
She had a flair for the dramatic, amazing jewelry, and her generosity at death made the world a better place.
She kowtowed to no one.
Rest in power, Mrs. Waples; and may your missing hands, should they ever be located, look exactly like this:

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