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“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.”

[This 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


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:


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. a 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.

The mystery of Lora Morris’s murder has everything: a note secreted in a coffin, an enigmatic 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.

• As is common among the loved ones of missing persons the Snedegar clan took polygraphs to eliminate family members from suspicion—but they 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 despite an inarguable lack of jurisdiction)

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

As the search for his daughter 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 for the information 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 queried regarding 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’ adopted 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 in the family home,
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 mystery of Lora Morris’s murder has everything: a note secreted in a coffin, an enigmatic 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.

Unsolved Maybe-Murders and Definite-Murders in Triplicate

The unexpected twists in the Becker family slayings didn’t end when the main suspect was acquitted
Although they’re generally referred to as the Friendly murders I suspect the victims found them decidedly less so
An intrepid amateur sleuth tackles the long-unsolved slayings of three Indiana businessmen
In 1966 three young women went to the beach and disappeared in a cloud of speculation
A beautifully-photographed thirty-year retrospective on the Oklahoma Girl Scout murders, Johnny Cash‘s personal true crime obsession
The missing Klein brothers are the American version of the Beaumont children minus publicity
Confession: at the first mention of these missing boy spelunkers the British horror movie The Descent  begins playing on a loop in my subconscious

And last but couldn’t be further from least: even though this blogpost has been brought to us by the number three we’re ending on a double. North Carolina’s Shipman-Glass-Shumate murders have been far too exhaustively examined to be contained in a single link (for dilettantes + for obsessives—you know who you are)

The Klein brothers: and then there was one

Clinton Hill Brooklyn; January 17th, 1947.

New York is a tough town, as the autopsy results of eighteen-year old Anthony Trabasso attest.
His skull and right hip are fractured and internal injuries abound,
but the Pratt University freshman’s least-grave injuries are his showiest: the letters N-A-Z-I, five inches high, have been sliced into his chest above a four-inch swastika;
the letter “A,” significance unknown, has been etched into the flesh of his abdomen.
The wounds are not deep but they are fresh,
still weeping blood when he was discovered—barefoot and clad in underpants and blue striped pajamas—crumpled on a sidewalk half a block from his Ryerson Street rooming house.

A search of Anthony’s ransacked living quarters revealed National Socialist graffiti in a more conventional medium:
NAZIS AT PRATT had been painted on a wall above his bed,
his mattress pushed off its box spring into the middle of the room.
The slogans NAZIS AT PRATT HELP ME and HITLER SUPRESSES MASSES had been scrawled onto a notebook and large piece of tissue paper, respectively.
Anthony’s landlord would later tell investigators she’d passed by his apartment in the wee hours; his radio was playing softly and she noted no sign of disturbance or Wehrmacht operatives.

The child of Poughkeepsie tavern owners,
Anthony told his family he was enjoying his studies at Pratt though he mentioned some friction with his classmates,
most of whom were returning veterans on the GI Bill.
NYPD detectives could find only one associate with information which might explain the Nazi trappings of Anthony’s demise:
longtime friend Norma Elwell informed investigators she and Anthony had attended a YMCA dance
six weeks before his death
and during intermission he’d shared a strange tale about a recent squabble with a Third Reich sympathizer.

According to Anthony
his National Socialist encounter
had begun in Grand Central Station.
While walking through the concourse he witnessed an elderly gentleman who appeared to be blind stumble and fall.
Rushing to the man’s aid,
Anthony ushered him into a taxi and accepted his offer to share the fare to Brooklyn.
The two made idle chitchat until Anthony noticed his new acquaintance was wearing a swastika ring;
World War II had ended less than two years before
and at the time Nazi jewelry was not simply a fashion faux pas—it was treasonous.

When asked about the ring the elderly gentleman deflected Anthony’s questions and instead began to mock him for his good intentions, implying only weaklings and fools offer to help others without remuneration.
Eventually the man smiled and revealed he’d been conning Anthony all along:
“I’m not even blind, sucker,” he reportedly said.
Although it’s unclear exactly why the codger was trolling—for the 1940s version of lulz,
I suppose—Anthony was incensed by the ruse and the oldster’s unpatriotic accessories.
After directing the driver to pull to the side of the road Anthony ejected the aging trickster from the vehicle.
As the cab motored off the old man swore he would one day make Anthony pay for his rudeness.

Is it just me or is headline-writing a lost art?

Although I only recently learned his name I first heard the rough details of Anthony’s death from a former Pratt student in the 1980s; informed of my interest in true crime
a friend of a friend mentioned rumors of an unsolved Nazi mutilation murder near the school’s Brooklyn campus.
In the pre-internet era it was nearly impossible to verify this sort of urban legend—the former Pratt student remembered neither Anthony’s name nor the year of his death
and sifting through microfiche without a timeframe is a pointless endeavor.

Despite the passage of decades and scarcity of specifics the Pratt Nazi murder lodged in my brain;
and a few weeks ago while compiling You Must Dismember This I encountered a crime so similar I was taken aback:
on May 3rd, 1940—six and a half years before Anthony’s death—an employee of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad noticed a foul stench emanating from the rail yard in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania.
Subsequent investigation revealed three corpses rotting in three separate rail cars.
The trio of remains had been beheaded and two had been dismembered.
The victims’ severed heads had been taken from the scene but the hewn limbs were scattered nearby.

Corpse placement at McKees Rock Railyard

In addition to appendage excision one of the bodies had undergone further mutilation; the letters N-A-Z-I—the “Z” inverted—was carved in five inch-tall letters across the chest of one of the torsos,
and it was this flourish that called to mind the murdered Pratt student of urban legend lore.
The railway victim with the chest mutilation would eventually be identified as James David Nicholson, age twenty-nine,
a convicted burglar and sometime male hustler.
The remains of his two unfortunate fellow-travelers have never been identified.

Though discovered in Pennsylvania the McKees Rock railyard victims are usually attributed to the Cleveland Torso Killer,
an unapprehended serial killer who murdered and mutilated a dozen victims in the late 1930s.
Also called The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run,
the Torso Killer preyed upon alcoholics and down-and-outers of both sexes;
his whereabouts after 1940 are unknown although some crime writers believe him to be responsible for several subsequent high-profile mutilation murders including the slaying of the Black Dahlia.

Certain the murders of the Pratt student
and James Nicholson must be linked,
I began scouring the internet for more information
about the student’s slaying.
The alumnus I’d spoken with said the Pratt victim’s ghost was rumored to haunt the school’s campus
and thus I assumed his identity would be easily ascertained;
I was wrong.
After googling infinite versions of “Pratt-student-Nazi-murder” I finally found the information I sought
tucked away in a subscription-only archive;
I also learned why I’d had such difficulty unearthing Anthony’s identity—the former Pratt alumnus had omitted one important detail.

Broken hips are far more common in impact injuries than assaults,
the pathologist who performed Anthony’s autopsy
informed the detectives on his case;
investigators therefore began to theorize Anthony had not been beaten but instead pushed from a roof or window.
Further investigation unearthed a single set of rooftop footprints leading from Anthony’s residence
to the building abutting the sidewalk where his unconscious body was found. Anthony had died barefoot and the soles of his feet were covered with the same black soot blanketing local rooftops.
Detectives also discovered a bloody etching implement in Anthony’s back yard, located directly beneath his window.

Anthony, investigators determined, had staged his own murder.
Feeling marginalized by his World War II veteran classmates, detectives theorized,
the depressed commercial arts major had fashioned a suicide scenario making it appear he’d been slain by Nazi sympathizers in a bid to gain the GIs respect.
He’d planted the (probably bogus) background story of the angry Grand Central Nazi with his friend Norma Elwell,
and the night of his death he ransacked his room, carved the National Socialist messages into his own flesh
and then clambered across several rooftops before jumping to his death.
Although his parents and some detectives remained skeptical Anthony’s death was ruled a suicide,
and the physical evidence seems to support the official verdict.

Although it’s possible Anthony had read about the mutilation of James David Nicholson—both N-A-Z-I torso carvings measured five inches tall,
an unlikely yet still theoretically possible coincidence—their deaths were not linked.
I don’t know where the Cleveland Torso Killer went after 1940 but he wasn’t filleting art students on Pratt’s Brooklyn campus.

Today’s blog post doesn’t have a moral but it does have a theme: disappointment. I’m disappointed I failed to discover a heretofore unknown crime of the Cleveland Torso Killer.
I’m disappointed Anthony Trabasso felt compelled to take his own life—he possessed an epic flair for the dramatic, and the world always needs more fearless creative types.
Furthermore, on a related note,
Nazis are having a resurgence in America at the moment and this also disappoints me.
A few weeks ago we were reliving the civil unrest of the 1970s and now we’re rehashing the merits of World War II.
2017 is destined to be a time-lapse montage of all the unpleasant events of US history, apparently.
Not only does this disappoint me but it frightens me as well.
I suppose I should start looking for blog topics relating to the Civil War as that’s clearly the next cataclysm on the agenda.

“What kind of man is the sock strangler? What dark secret lies deeply embedded in the twisted web of his psyche and compels him to murder again and again? What turns him on?” Fort Lauderdale News, August 30th, 1973 

7am, July 14th, 1973. A man walking his dog past a heavily-wooded yard in Fort Lauderdale noticed a scattered trail of women’s clothing:
following the garments into the underbrush he came upon the body of Jonina Kelpien, age forty-two.
Clad only in her bra, Jonina, an Iceland native, had been garroted from behind with a gold men’s knee sock;
she had also been raped.
Her white Cadillac, the interior flecked with blood, was parked nearby;
in the car’s back seat her cocker spaniel Sponge waited unharmed.

When detectives arrived at the Kelpien residence at 34 Pelican Isle—approximately one mile from the crime scene—they discovered Jonina’s key in the door but the inside chain lock fastened;
she’d been locked out of the house.
Rousing her husband Theodore from sleep, investigators learned he’d last spoken to his wife on the phone at 10pm the previous evening;
during the conversation they’d argued about her drinking.
Detectives later determined Jonina visited with friends in the Icelandic expat community into the wee hours,
and was last spotted at 3am at a nearby convenience store.

Eleven days later, ten blocks from the Kelpien crime scene:
shortly after 9pm a twenty-five year old secretary reentered her apartment after doing a load of laundry.
While groping for a lamp in the darkness she encountered an intruder—fighting like a wildcat and screaming like a banshee, she managed to drive the man out her front door.
The assailant—who had entered via a jimmied-open back window—left his would-be murder weapon behind:
a men’s gold knee-length stretch sock.
Although it appeared identical to the sock used in the Kelpien murder the crime lab determined the items weren’t a matched set—slight compositional differences existed in the fabric.

The Kelpien home

August 3rd, just outside Fort Lauderdale:
one week after the secretary’s attack seventeen-year old Teresa Ann Williams crept into North Miami General Hospital after visiting hours to meet her newborn nephew;
she then dropped her boyfriend at his home around 11:30pm and vanished.
Four days later men hunting land crabs in a marshy area in Hollywood discovered her body,
nude from the waist down.
Her advanced state of decomposition precluded a definitive determination of rape
but her cause of death was readily apparent: she’d been strangled with a men’s maroon knee-length stretch sock.

The medical examiner determined Teresa had been slain shortly after she was last seen.
Her car, a white two-door Comet, was eventually located parked at an apartment complex near her dumpsite;
none of the building residents recognized Teresa’s photo,
and she had no known connection to anyone who lived in the area.
In her car authorities found a dozen eggs, indicating she had likely stopped at a store after dropping off her boyfriend.

Next to die was Hollywood-resident Marisue Curtis, age sixteen.
A recent transplant from Upstate New York, August 28th was her first day of South Broward High school—that evening her stepfather Stanley took her out for a soda to celebrate the occasion.
As they returned home around 9pm
Marisue chanced upon some friends outside the Curtis residence at 901 South Surf Road;
assuring her stepfather she’d be upstairs directly
she accompanied her friends to a nearby convenience store and then disappeared.

The following morning Marisue’s nude corpse was found by a fisherman at a construction site six miles from her home.
Attached to two concrete blocks,
her body had been placed underwater just off the shore of the Intercostal Waterway;
her clothing and bathing suit were found nearby.
She had been raped and strangled; a black men’s knee sock was knotted around her neck.
The building site’s security guard heard screams in the area at approximately 10pm but failed to contact authorities.

[Unimportant but interesting detail: security at the construction site was provided by Wackenhut, the CIA-affiliated company that played a prominent role in the Octopus conspiracy theory. Digging into the crime archives is like playing Six Degrees of Separation with murder victims instead of Kevin Bacon costars.]

Marisue’s stepfather Stanley Curtis, an attorney, wrote an open letter to the strangler

The Curtis family was devastated by Marisue’s death:
“How does something like this happen,” her sister Debbie Cantwell asked a reporter from the Fort Lauderdale News.
“She wasn’t a tramp. I can’t understand it—something like this doesn’t happen to good kids.”
Florida was experiencing a homicide spike at the time,
but even amidst the daily carnage the upper-middle class backgrounds of the sock killer’s victims focused substantial media attention on the slayings.
Dubbing the perpetrator the “Gold Sock Strangler”—“Gold-Maroon-Black Sock Strangler” would’ve been more precise—newspapers abounded with speculation about the killer’s identity and the significance of his chosen murder weapon.

“Perhaps his mother wore gold panties or some other gold-colored undergarment . . . . All right, let’s consider the material of those socks. Men’s stretch socks, weren’t they? Smooth, nylon, silky? Perhaps the smooth softness of the socks reminds the murderer of an undergarment; there is a connection there—the socks mean something to him.” Psychiatrist Dr. Raymond R. Killinger, Fort Lauderdale News, August 30th, 1973

A connection between the sock slayings seemed obvious to the press and area residents,
but in a Fort Lauderdale News  interview
a spokesperson for the Fort Lauderdale Police Department denied the murders were linked.
Homicide Bureau Chief Sergeant Jerry Meltzer acknowledged superficial similarities between the Hollywood victims—Teresa Ann Williams and Marisue Curtis—but he was adamant
the two crimes in his jurisdiction [the Kelpien murder and the secretary attack] were unrelated:

“The victims didn’t come from the same social strata. And I’m not convinced Mrs. Kelpien was raped; in the attack on the secretary I’m convinced the woman walked back into her apartment and surprised a burglar.” Sergeant Jerry Meltzer, Fort Lauderdale News, August 31st, 1973

Apparently law enforcement was so obsessed with quelling community panic investigators were willing to undermine a medical examiner’s findings
and pretend run-of-the-mill burglars arrived equipped with one extra knee sock.
The Fort Lauderdale Police Department’s message was clear: there is nothing to worry about, average citizen.
These attacks are personal cause crimes, and as long as you don’t pal around with homicidal maniacs you’ll be fine.

Although Marisue Curtis was the final victim strangled with a men’s sock the ligature homicides in the area continued.
Six weeks after Marisue’s death Vermont nurse Susan Mickelsen, age twenty-three,
arrived in Fort Lauderdale for a week’s vacation.
On November 20th her body was found in her room at the Fair Winds Motel—she’d been garroted with an item variously described as a woman’s sock, pantyhose, or nylon stocking.
Her assailant had placed an open Bible and a pillow over her face;
clad in a housecoat pushed above her waist, it’s unclear if Susan had been raped—the media reports regarding her autopsy are inconsistent.

Ten weeks later, February 6th, 1974.
When Ann Raub Newman failed to appear at her desk at 9:30am her coworkers immediately presumed disaster;
the thirty-two year old office manager was unfailingly prompt and responsible.
At 10am they went to her Hollywood apartment and found her dead in bed, nude from the waist down—a pillow had been placed over her face and a brightly-colored silk scarf knotted tightly around her neck.
Ann’s killer left two fingerprints behind:
one on the window screen he’d removed to gain entry and one on her bedroom doorjamb.
An autopsy revealed Ann had been sexually assaulted;
the crime lab subsequently determined her assailant was a B-blood type secretor.

Acting on a tip, detectives were able to match the fingerprints at the Raub Newman crime scene to nineteen-year old construction worker Gary Jay Matus.
Matus—like Marisue Curtis a recent transplant from Upstate New York—had been arrested the previous summer for prowling.
Like Ann’s assailant Matus was a B-type secretor,
a fairly rare attribute shared by only ten percent of the population.
Matus was arrested on February 8th while driving down State Road A1A—his car, interestingly enough, was a gold-colored Cadillac.

When questioned by police Matus did the classic dance of guilt, inching himself ever closer and closer to the crime scene.
First he claimed he’d never been in Ann’s neighborhood;
when detectives noted his stepbrother lived nearby Matus conceded he may have been in the neighborhood but had certainly never been to the Raub Newman residence.
When confronted with his fingerprint on the removed window screen Matus pivoted,
now claiming he actually had been outside Ann’s apartment but only at the behest of a friend
(named either Steve or Roy, his companion’s identity as changeable as the details of Matus’s story).

According to Matus he’d been enjoying a beverage at a local bar when he met Steve/Roy,
a friendly stranger who suggested they cap off the evening with a burglary.
Matus had accompanied Steve/Roy to Ann Raub Newman’s apartment, he admitted,
and had then helped remove the window screen—but he had never been inside the crime scene, he insisted.
When detectives cited his fingerprint on the bedroom doorjamb Matus adopted his final stance, a tale he would cling to through two trials:
he had entered Ann’s apartment with Steve/Roy the evening before the murder,
he now admitted, but no one was home at the time.
In a twist you almost certainly saw coming, investigators were never able to locate the elusive bar-hopping burglar who answered to the name of Steve/Roy.

At his first trial Matus was the sole defense witness and the jury split nine for conviction, three for acquittal—his imaginary-codefendant-ate-my-homework alibi was surprisingly effective.
At his second trial, however, luck failed him;
after five hours’ deliberation Matus was convicted of rape and second degree murder.
Sentenced to one-hundred and sixty five years in prison,
Matus’s projected release date is in 2034 at the ripe old age of seventy-nine.

Gary Jay Matus (left) and a court bailiff

Predictably, although the Fort Lauderdale Police Department initially denied the sock crimes were linked
investigators changed their tune after Matus’s arrest—although he was never tried for the sock slayings or the murder of Susan Mickelsen he was identified as the Gold Sock Killer in the press,
and investigation into the other strangulations seems to have ceased after his conviction.
Jonina Kelpien’s husband and Marisue Curtis’s stepfather attended every day of both Matus trials,
so certain were they of his guilt in the sock slayings.

Assessing guilt in the pre-forensic science era lacks the certitude of DNA evidence,
but Gary Jay Matus is almost certainly guilty of Ann Raub Newman’s murder—the imaginary coconspirator is a common guilt-deflection trope and the likelihood Ann had experienced multiple break-ins—-first by a burglar and then by a rapist/murderer—within the span of a few hours is infinitesimal.
Ann had been slain at approximately 7:30am and Matus had arrived at his job—scheduled to start at 7:45am—thirty minutes late that morning; the evidence against him is circumstantial but substantial.

However I’m far less certain is Matus the Gold Sock Strangler—the secretary who survived her attack was unable to identify him in a lineup,
and authorities have never revealed the blood grouping of the semen recovered at the sock crime scenes,
an omission I find suspicious at best.
Law enforcement obviously wanted the public to believe the local serial killer was behind bars, but the case against Matus for the sock attacks is less than overwhelming.

Ironically, the crime I find most similar to the Raub Newman slaying is the Susan Mickelsen murder—both victims were attacked in bed,
nightclothes pushed up, naked from the waist down, a post-mortem pillow covering their faces—but it’s unclear if the Mickelsen murder is even related to the sock crimes.
Approximately ten percent of homicides are committed via strangulation;
while not the most commonplace murder method there’s no statistical imperative indicating every contemporaneous ligature strangulation was committed by the same offender.
The male knee socks transported to the scene are atypical enough to qualify as a signature, but Susan’s killer murdered her with an item of her own hosiery.

There is only a single factor which indicates Matus’s guilt in the sock murders but it’s persuasive:
Matus was a construction worker by trade,
and he was employed at the building site where Marisue Curtis’s body was found.
And Marisue, coincidentally, was the only sock victim whose corpse was concealed; the remains of both Jonina and Teresa were openly discarded.
Attaching the cement blocks and dragging Marisue into the water must’ve been a time-consuming task;
an assailant without ties to the crime scene had no incentive to hide her body.
And the odds of two murderers with a penchant for ligature strangulation frequenting the same jobsite seem astronomical, even in the homicidal wonderland of 1970s Florida.

Of course, astronomical odds don’t equate with impossibility; for example, what are the chances two high-profile murderers would patronize the same drinking establishment?
Matus was a regular at the Button, an infamous Fort Lauderdale dive bar;
and when Son of Sam David Berkowitz visited his stepfather in Boynton Beach he was a frequent customer as well.
When a Fort Lauderdale News  reporter mentioned the unlikeliness of this coincidence to longtime Button employee Bill Penna the barkeep seemed unimpressed:
“I think half the people who come around here are insane,” he replied.
I never knew the Son of Sam had Florida ties, but I can’t say I’m surprised.

Spring Break at the Button in the 1970s; I spent an hour playing Where’s Waldo?  looking for serial killers in the crowd.

Oral Evidence

Love, love will tear us apart again — Joy Division

Judith Mae Andersen‘s appendages were eventually found but her killer has evaded detection for more than five decades
Addiction shatters lives, and in Janine Johler‘s case the damage was both figurative and literal
Oddly, the want-ad Kym Morgan answered said nothing about murder
The torso found in the Willamette River has never been identified, but one theory holds water
An interesting mash-up re: Karina Holmer and Elizabeth Short, bisected victims with Massachusetts ties
And ending on a triple: I couldn’t find a single long-read about Diana Vicari so I’ve selected three articles and created a triptych (mysterysuspectexoneration)

Obligatory trigger warning for the faint and/or millennial of heart:

There’s a torso in the foreground but Barney Fife’s inappropriate grin is still the creepiest thing in this photograph.

This might sound odd, but I miss Satan.

Maybe it’s the recent developments in the Shane Stewart and Sally McNelly murders.
Maybe it’s the increased nostalgia that always accompanies times of turmoil. I’m not sure.
But my renewed interest in slayings with satanic overtones is undeniable—even though the Prince of Darkness is almost always unmasked as a cloven-hooved red herring
the flapping of his leathery wings always adds an extra dash of malevolence to the proceedings.

The glut of wrongful convictions during the satanic panic of the 1980s
forever wiped the Antichrist off the list of usual suspects, I suppose;
in the 21st century blaming Satanists
is as passé as an attempt to use multiple personality disorder as a get-out-of-jail-free card.
The (anticlimactic) Pensacola Blue Moon murders aside,
the last crime I can recall which featured a cameo by Lucifer’s minions was the 2001 slaying of Portland resident Kimyala Henson and the abduction of her children Shaina Kirkpatrick and Shausha Henson.
Although the murder of twenty-one year old Kimyala was solved the fate of her daughters continues to bedevil law enforcement to this day.

In most cases a murder-suicide generates an investigation that is perfunctory at best;
the perpetrator is not only obvious,
but out of reach of all courts with earthly jurisdiction.
The bloody scene an off-duty Collier County sheriff’s deputy encountered at a picnic area outside of Naples, Florida on April 20th, 2001 was an exception the rule.

“There are a lot of perplexing things to this case—it’s puzzling, that’s for sure.” Collier County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Larry Day, master of the understatement. Naples Daily News, May 28th, 2001

While driving home after an overnight shift Deputy Douglas Fowler noticed two figures sprawled awkwardly on a blanket at a rest stop off Route 41 East near Collier Seminole State Park.
Closer inspection revealed a female corpse, shot once in the right side of the head,
and a badly wounded male with a cranial bullet wound—the positions of the bodies and a .22 caliber rifle resting on the male’s thigh indicated he had first slain the female victim and then turned the gun on himself.
Although the male still had a pulse he would die shortly after being airlifted to Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Meyers.

A 1999 maroon Kia Sephia parked nearby had stolen Oregon plates
but the VIN number was linked to a warrant out of Missouri—Frank K.L. Oehring, age twenty-eight, had borrowed the Kia from his parents and then jumped bail on a conspiracy to commit murder charge;
he was believed to be in the company of his girlfriend Christine (AKA Christina) Mayer, age twenty-four.
The couple had departed Missouri exactly one month earlier on March 20th,
the day before Oehring’s preliminary hearing on charges of conspiring to murder his pregnant wife Benita.
Benita Oehring, who had since obtained a divorce,
had been attacked while sleeping and manually strangled;
hospitalized for more than a week, both Mrs. Oehring and the child she carried survived unscathed.

“He could do it (participate in a murder-suicide), but I don’t know if it was a pact. I think it was a surprise to her.” Oehring’s ex-wife Benita, Naples Daily News, April 25th, 2001

The designation “close friend” is a trifle misleading, IMHO.

Although the scenario seemed straightforward—a flight from justice culminating in a murder-suicide—several items found in the Kia hinted at the possibility of other crimes.
A wallet, credit cards and address book belonging to an Oregon resident named Kimyala Henson
was present in the vehicle,
along with a Nevada identification card in Kimyala’s name but featuring Mayer’s photo;
infants’ clothing was scattered on the car’s floorboards.
An investigation of the rest stop trash cans revealed a California birth certificate issued to Kimyala Henson,
the document torn in half.

More than three thousand miles away in Portland Kimyala Henson’s ex-boyfriend Steve Kirkpatrick was worried.
Sixteen days prior Kimyala had embarked on a two-week sightseeing trip to British Columbia with their daughters
Shausha Latine Henson, aged two months,
and Shaina Ashly Kirkpatrick, just shy of two years old.
No one had heard a word from the travelers since;
Kimyala’s mother had passed away from diabetes soon after their departure, but no one had been able to reach her with the news.

Christine Mayer, photo courtesy of

The trip had been a last-minute affair.
Approximately one week before leaving town Kimyala had received a call from an old friend, Christine Mayer,
who had lived in Portland in the early ’90s.
They had once been next door neighbors but lost touch after Mayer moved to Missouri in 1993.
On or about March 30th Mayer tracked Kimyala down through a relative,
claiming she and her husband Curtis were in Portland scouting apartments in anticipation of a move westward.
In truth, Mayer’s husband Curtis was Frank Oehring,
on the run from conspiracy charges—and Oehring’s legal issues weren’t even the biggest skeleton in his closet.

According to his friends and co-workers at a Missouri nursing home Frank Oehring was a Satanist.
Although the Gaia congregation in Kansas City where he worshipped disavowed allegiance to the Dark Lord
Oehring’s ex-wife Benita told investigators he was the head of a coven,
with Mayer acting as his second in command.
When Steve Kirkpatrick learned his ex-girlfriend and two little girls
had hit the road with a Satan-worshipping fugitive from justice and his high priestess
he was horrified.

“There’s something kind of weird about going to a foreign country for two weeks with a friend you haven’t seen in years and a guy you’ve known for a week. It’s weird, isn’t it?” Steve Kirkpatrick, voice of reason. Vancouver Columbian, April 25th, 2001

Using Kimyala Henson’s credit card charges as a guide,
detectives were able to trace the initial stages of the family’s journey:
after departing Portland on April 4th the group traveled south to California.
Americans aren’t required to show a birth certificate to enter Canada,
but Kimyala had apparently been told otherwise—at noon on April 5th she picked up a copy of the document in Alameda.
That evening the three adults and two children checked into the Shasta Lodge in Redding.
Any trace of Kimyala and her daughters then ceased;
Kimyala’s credit cards, however—the receipts now signed by Christine Mayer—continued a haphazard journey across the country.

“There really is nothing that leads us to believe that she [Kimyala] was traveling with them after that. No food receipts, no baby formula or diapers. Nothing.” Collier County Sheriff’s spokesperson Tina Osceola, Naples Daily News, April 27th, 2001

The Shasta Lodge in Redding, California—the last known location of Shaina Kirkpatrick and Shausha Henson.

On April 9th Mayer obtained a Nevada state identification card using Kimyala’s birth certificate.
Kimyala’s credit cards then began traveling east,
racking up nearly fifty charges, mainly for gas and food—all of the meals ordered appeared to be for two people only.
On April 14th Mayer called her family,
informing her uncle she was tired of running and down to her last forty dollars;
although she said she’d call back in an hour they never heard from her again.

On April 29th a half-buried female corpse was discovered in the desert outside Nixon, Nevada;
Kimyala Henson had been shot six times with the same rifle used in the Oehring-Mayer murder-suicide nine days earlier.
Kimyala hadn’t been killed at the scene;
she was slain while in a sitting position at an unknown location and then dumped in the desert—the coroner estimated she’d died within 48 hours of leaving the Shasta Lodge in California.
A bloody hatchet in Oehring’s car will later be forensically linked to Kimyala;
she bore no hacking wounds, however, so investigators believe the blood was a most likely a secondary transfer.
There was no trace of Shaina or Shausha’s blood on the hatchet or anywhere in the car;
there was no trace of Shaina and Shausha at all.

“We’re not convinced the children are dead. We are going on the assumption the kids are alive.” Washoe County Sheriff’s Deputy Michelle Youngs, ABC News, May 11th, 2001

As search planes filled the skies an army of investigators on all-terrain vehicles fanned out in a hundred-mile swath around their mother’s dumpsite
but Shaina and Shausha—and their car seats—were nowhere to be found.
(Sources differ on the fate of the girls’ diaper bags; some publications say the bags were missing, others report they were present in the Kia.)
The breadth of possibilities was daunting; Shaina and Shausha could have been murdered, bartered or abandoned anywhere between Redding, California and Naples, Florida;
three thousand miles is a forbidding expanse but investigators did their best,
using the trail of credit card receipts as a guide.
The last full-scale search concentrated on the thirty-mile stretch of Interstate 80 Mayer and Oehring drove en route to their final rest stop.
Every search, in every state, found nothing.

Sixteen years have passed, and the whereabouts of the girls—teenagers now, hopefully—remains a mystery.
While the odds of Shaina and Shausha’s survival are not robust
there is one factor in the case which has always offered, in my opinion, a ray of hope:
the circumstances of the attack on Benita Oehring on November 26th, 2000.
Oehring wasn’t charged with harming his wife or with hiring someone else to do so—he was charged only with conspiracy.
Several of Oehring’s cronies were willing to testify he had offered them money to murder Benita,
but all claimed to have turned down the job;
although a composite has never been publicized, it appears Benita Oehring did not recognize the man who attacked her.

“To my Dearest Love, Wife/Soulmate: you are my beautiful star I see from afar. I keep my focus on you so I don’t become blue. I only want to be with you.” Jailhouse letter from Frank Oehring to Christine Mayer, penned prior to bailing out on the conspiracy charges. Naples Daily News, May 28th, 2001. (Murder? Check. Child abduction? Check. Crimes against poetry? Check.)

Shaina in 2001, shortly before her abduction

As any adoption agent will tell you, babies are a valuable commodity;
isn’t it at least theoretically possible Oehring repaid Benita’s mystery attacker with the gift of children?
Shaina and Shausha weren’t sold—Oehring and Mayer were out of funds when they died.
And the possibility their abductors randomly happened upon someone willing to keep the girls despite a nationwide manhunt seems remote;
I’ve always felt Shaina and Shausha’s best chance at survival hinged on a prearranged plan for their relocation.
In 1985 serial killer John Robinson gave his unwitting brother an infant he’d stolen from a victim—such circumstances are rare, certainly, but not outside the realm of possibility.

Dueling age-progression photos of Shaina; Shausha’s don’t seem to be available—perhaps she disappeared too young to utilize predictive technology.

Upon reflection, maybe I’m partial to occult murders because invoking the timeless battle between good and evil lends a mythic aura to crimes that are otherwise senseless.
Kimyala Henson, and possibly her children, died because Mayer and Oehring wanted her birth certificate—the very document they’d rip up and toss in a garbage can less than two weeks later.

Mayer and Oehring could’ve asked to borrow her identity, could’ve stolen her birth certificate while she was sleeping, could’ve dropped the girls at a church or shopping mall to be rescued after their mother was dead.
But they didn’t.
Kimyala died for her birth certificate,
but in the end her birth certificate meant nothing to her attackers; so does that mean she died for nothing?

Mayer and Oehring couldn’t have killed a woman who considered them a friend and abducted and possibly murdered her children for absolutely no reason whatsoever;
that would be monstrous.
They must’ve been in the service of Satan—that’s a much easier explanation to accept.

I don’t usually have the patience for non-documentary television,
but at the urging of a friend I attempted to binge watch Mad Men  over the Memorial Day holiday.
Unfortunately I’m in the wrong headspace to enjoy a show about the past—I couldn’t make it through more than a handful of episodes.
Perhaps I’ll give it another try when the political turmoil quiets down.

Luckily my dalliance with Mad Men  wasn’t a complete waste of time—the show’s swinging ’60s setting called to mind a crime which gets far too little attention:
the unsolved murders of Revlon vice-president George Washington Beck and his wife Ina Jo.
Known around the office as the “blonde Adonis,” George was a charismatic New York businessman in the Don Draper mold—and like the Mad Men  anti-hero George Beck had more than his share of secrets.

Cozy Cove Marina, date unknown

Cozy Cove Marina, Dania, Florida; February 4th, 1971. The swarthy stranger stared at the boat with a glower that caught marine mechanic Bobby Laborde’s eye.
The Bachaven—the name a contraction of “bachelor’s haven”—was a 57-foot twin-hulled craft worth $60K, approximately $385K in today’s currency.
After a few minutes the glaring stranger moved on, and Bobby Laborde gave the incident nary a second thought.
Until the next day, that is, when the bodies were found.

“We’ve never had any trouble here.” Cozy Cove owner Zell Skinner, Montgomery Advertiser, February 6th, 1971

Bachaven owner George Beck, age 51, and his wife Ina Jo, age 31, were newlyweds;
married a mere six weeks, the couple had spent every weekend of their brief union on the yacht,
usually flying down from New York in a private plane.
The morning after the stranger sighting marina carpenter Andy Bell boarded the Bachaven at 10am to install some previously ordered cabinetry;
unable to rouse anyone on deck Bell went below and found the stateroom unlocked. He swung open the door and beheld two nude figures on the bed.

“We get some weird people down here and my first thought was that they were sleeping it off after some wild party. Then I noticed the gash on the woman’s throat and ran to get help.” Cozy Cove carpenter Andy Bell, Los Angeles Times, February 7th, 1971

It was six weeks, but who’s counting?

The stateroom was awash in blood. George’s torso was on the bed but his legs dangled to the floor;
Ina Jo—Jo Jo to her friends—was curled face-up in a fetal position beside her husband.
George had received four crushing blows to the head and a total of seven stab wounds—five to the chest, one to the stomach and one to the back.
Ina Jo’s throat had been cut and she received four blows to the head and six stab wounds to the chest;
the killer had wielded the knife so forcefully it passed through her body pinning blood and bits of her flesh deep within the mattress.
Although the couple’s wounds were grisly they had not been fatal;
George and Ina Jo were still alive when the assailant finished the job by smothering them with separate pillows.

“This was done by an animal, an incredibly powerful and angry animal, possibly an insane animal.” Bob Danner, Chief of Detectives at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, Fort Myers News-Press, January 6th, 1980

Nothing of value had been stolen; Ina Jo’s two carat diamond wedding ring and three carat engagement ring were on a nightstand, and her $5K mink coat ($30K today) hung in a closet.
George’s wallet, with $65 and credit cards intact, was present at the scene and he still wore his gold wedding band.
The only item missing from the stateroom was a small curtain snatched off a porthole—detectives will later speculate it was used to clean the murder weapons, which have never been found.
Ina Jo had not been raped—despite the couple’s nudity there were no overt indications of sexual assault whatsoever.

“I don’t see there’s any possibility of a burglary gone wrong. They [the killer or killers] were aboard the boat too long and they took the time to wipe up bloodstains and possibly to clean blood off themselves as well.” Dania Police Chief Ed Baxter, Fort Lauderdale News, February 7th, 1971

Broward County medical examiner Dr. Jack Mickley performed the Becks’ autopsies.
Noting the killer had employed a blitzkrieg-style attack, he told a writer from the Tallahassee Democrat  the couple had been “pole-axed like an ox in a slaughterhouse.”
Dr. Mickley deduced the blunt object used in the crime had been a sharp-edged metal instrument similar to a tire iron,
lug wrench or hatchet.
The doctor estimated George and Ina Jo’s times of death as four or five hours before the discovery of their bodies, placing the attack sometime between 4 and 6am.
The couple had last been seen at approximately 9pm the previous evening when Ina Jo’s aunt and uncle disembarked from the Bachaven after a short visit.

“I have no doubt they [the Becks] were attacked while they slept. It was a butcher shop murder—they were hit on the head and stabbed—and when they didn’t die quick enough they were suffocated with pillows over their faces.” Dr. Jack Mickley, Broward County Medical Examiner, Fort Lauderdale News, February 7th, 1971

With rape and theft eliminated as motives detectives began to investigate the couple’s backgrounds.
A native New Yorker and decorated Navy flyer,
George Beck had been with the Revlon Corporation for fifteen years.
Originally hired as the company pilot,
his charm vaulted him effortlessly up the corporate ladder—many sources describe him as “like a son” to company founder Charles Revson.
Making the princely sum of $50K per year ($325K today),
George’s life looked enviable from a distance but the façade masked a morass of marital and monetary issues—the Fort Myers News-Press  will later call his finances “tangled as the strings of a drunken puppeteer.”
Adding to his financial woes, George Beck was the marrying kind—Ina Jo was his fifth wife.

“George was a swinger among swingers. He was married five times. Indeed, he was married to his second and third wives contemporaneously. One lived in Long Island, the other in town, and neither knew about the other for nearly eight years. (There may even have been another wife at this time also—no one knows for sure.) Beck divorced his third wife and then his second, in that order, to marry his fourth, who thought she was only his second.” Andrew Tobias, Fire and Ice: The Story of Charles Revson— the Man Who Built the Revlon Empire, 1976

George had several children—three or five, depending on the source.
Not unsurprisingly, his alimony payments were staggering; 20K per year ($128K today), nearly half his income.
George lived in a deluxe co-op at 303 East 57th Street and drove a late-model blue Jaguar but he owned neither;
in fact, he owned virtually nothing.
His private plane belonged to Revlon and his equity in the Bachaven,
which he purchased in conjunction with a New York business associate, was less than $500.

“[Ina Jo] was one of the sweetest girls I have ever known. She was the type of person who would do anything for you. I just can’t believe anyone would do anything like this to Ina Jo and her husband.” Johnson family spokesperson, Cullman Times Democrat,
February 7th, 1971

Ina Jo Johnson came from the most humble origins imaginable.
A sharecropper’s daughter,
she toiled in the Alabama cotton fields and plucked chickens in a poultry factory before parlaying her statuesque good-looks into a modeling career.
She had so impressed Revlon executives during an ad campaign she’d been hired as the brand’s national representative,
headquartered at their production facility in Alabama.
Ina Jo and George met at a company event in Birmingham,
where they were later wed;
one local newspaper described their Christmas Eve nuptials as the “most exciting wedding” in the city’s recent social annals.

“Nine years ago Christmas Eve a Cinderella from Alabama’s cotton fields married the Prince Charming of America’s lipstick industry. The storybook romance was destined to last exactly forty days and four hours.” From a nine-year retrospective on the murders, Fort Meyers News-Press, January 6th, 1980

Although not as matrimonially ambitious as George, Ina Jo did have one previous husband—a man named Cleo Umphrey, who currently resided in Alabama.
Erroneously informed her divorce had been granted only weeks before her marriage to George Beck,
detectives raced north to question Umphrey;
subsequent investigation, however, dampened their enthusiasm.
Ina Jo’s stint as Mrs. Umphrey had been brief, detectives learned,
and her divorce had actually been finalized five years prior—rumors of a recent divorce were in error.
When Umphrey provided an alibi placing him in another state at the time of the crime he was eliminated as a person of interest, and detectives cast their attention elsewhere.

With Cleo Umphrey’s elimination as a suspect the investigation faltered. Though law enforcement received several leads all eventually fizzled:

• A month after the murders the Dania Police Department received a letter postmarked Pasadena, California: “I know who made the hit on Georgie Beck; for a price I’ll let you in on the secret.” The note was signed “Ralph Leffler,” but detectives could find no one in Pasadena by that name and the writer never again contacted authorities.
• A few months after the murders investigators received a tip Ina Jo had once been seen arguing with a bellboy at a local hotel; by the time detectives learned of the incident the bellboy had quit, however, and authorities were never able to locate him.
• Despite extensive publicity the swarthy stranger spotted the night before the murders by marine mechanic Bobby Laborde has never been identified; his connection to the crime, if any, remains unknown.

“What made this case so difficult was we never got a single break, not one.” Dania Police Sergeant Ted Grandis, Fort Lauderdale News, December 8th, 1975

Fear not—despite the lack of progress the investigation into the Beck murders had not run permanently aground.
Six months after the slayings a clairvoyant named George Hardy contacted Dania Police Chief Ed Baxter
with a vision to share.
According to Hardy, the killer—a man with a square face and huge, hunched shoulders—felt sexually rebuffed by Mrs. Beck during an earlier, random encounter.
Per Hardy’s vision, detectives should search for an older woman on a nearby boat who witnessed the crime;
the murder weapons, he claimed, would be found buried in the slayer’s back yard.
The Becks’ permanent residence may have been in New York but the investigation into their murders had just gone full Florida.

“I told the Chief the killer lived off Griffin Road. I said the guy would drive a bright yellow car. He also had a blue van. I knew he would be limping on his left leg and live in a house that was all dark. The Chief looked surprised and said, ‘I know who you are talking about.’” George Hardy, Broward Sun-Sentinel, February 10th, 1986

And the kooky image wins.

Although Chief Baxter will later dispute this version of events,
Hardy claimed the Chief then revealed the name of the local resident fitting the (alleged) killer’s description: a man named Charles B. Stackhouse, who resided three miles from Cozy Cove.
After a few days passed without an arrest Hardy decided the Dania Police Department was dragging its heels;
to get things rolling he contacted the Fort Lauderdale News  and divulged the details of his meeting with Chief Baxter and the (alleged) killer’s identity.
The newspaper, in turn, dispatched a reporter to Stackhouse’s home to inform him he’d been implicated in a gruesome double murder.
The visit went about as well as one would expect.

“Oh my dear god, if my mother hears about this it will kill her.” Charles B. Stackhouse, Fort Lauderdale News, September 22nd, 1971

Stackhouse, age 55, was a building inspector in the nearby town of Hollywood;
he had no known connection to the Becks and no criminal record.
Upon learning of Hardy’s allegations Stackhouse immediately scheduled an interview with the Dania Police:
the Becks’ killer had left behind physical evidence—a hair retrieved from one of Ina Jo’s stab wounds and three bloody fingerprints on stateroom furniture.
Neither the hair nor the prints matched Stackhouse and he was soon cleared of suspicion.
The damage, however, had been done.

As it turns out, being accused of murder wasn’t the only millstone around Stackhouse’s neck at the time.
The building department where he worked was under investigation,
and apparently the stress became too much to bear—shortly after being cleared by Chief Baxter he ran an exhaust hose into his car window and expired in a cloud of carbon monoxide.
Although the full text has never been released, his suicide note reportedly mentioned the building inspectors’ investigation and “pressure from city hall.”
After Stackhouse’s demise Captain Carl Carruthers of the Broward County Sheriff`s Office told the Fort Lauderdale News  he personally “dug up every inch of that guy’s lawn.”
He found nothing.

[Unsolved Mysteries  fans may be reminded of the Sherry Eyerly case, wherein an innocent man is driven to suicide after a psychic publically accuses him of murder; years later the actual slayer—serial killer William Scott Smith-—finally confessed to the crime.]

Short answer: no.

Four years after the Beck murders Dania Police Chief Ed Baxter was replaced by Chief Fred Willis.
Harshly critical of the original investigation, Chief Willis immediately reopened the Beck case.
His low opinion of the initial investigation was shared by employees of the Broward County Sherriff’s Office, who had assisted with evidence collection at the crime scene.
“When we got there it looked like a herd of elephants had come through,” Detective Bob Danner told a reporter from the Fort Meyers News-Press. “They [Dania PD] tromped all over the place.”
Despite Chief Willis’ best intentions no new leads were forthcoming and the Beck murders remained cold.
The current status of the investigation and forensic evidence in the case is unknown.

“We still check things periodically but nothing has been fruitful. We really have nowhere to go.” Captain Elihu Phares of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, Fort Lauderdale News, December 7th, 1975

Oddly, the piece of evidence in the Beck case I find most fascinating received almost no press coverage;
the item is mentioned in only two newspaper articles,
once in the Anniston Star  in 1971 and once in the Fort Lauderdale News  in 1982—a stethoscope was left behind by the killer.
In my opinion, an assailant who comes equipped with his own stethoscope is one who wants to be certain his victims are dead—no one brings a stethoscope to a crime of rage, even in Florida.

“In fact, the more I look at this the more I’m convinced that it looks like a contract job.” Dania Police Chief Ed Baxter before veering wildly off course, Fort Lauderdale News, February 9th 1971

I’m aware jurisdictional issues may have come into play, but the Dania Police Department’s failure to thoroughly investigate George Beck’s business and social circles in NYC is baffling.
Random crimes by maniacs certainly have a higher statistical probability in Florida,
but even in the Sunshine State homicide victims are overwhelmingly killed by someone they know.
And I can’t help but suspect George Beck’s financial and matrimonial misadventures garnered some enemies,
his famous charm notwithstanding.
The world may have changed since the testosterone-heavy era of Mad Men, but some things will always remain the same. Only marry one spouse at a time.
Stay the hell out of Florida.
And regardless of whether you’re in a sharecropper’s shack or a fancy yacht, always lock your doors.

. . . OR IS IT?

For Beautiful People Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Isn’t Enuf: Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” —- Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Conspiracy-tracking artist Mark Lombardi committed suicide . . . or did he?
Journalist Michael Hasting‘s car wasn’t transformed into murder weapon . . . or was it?
Aspiring alt-right filmmaker David Crowley was a stereotypical family anihilator . . . or was he?
The unsolved murder of Dr. Mary Sherman had nothing to do with JFK’s assassination . . . or did it?
Crime writer Eugene Izzy‘s bizarre death was a suicide . . . or was it?
Hollywood publicist and rumored CIA operative Mark Sands choked on a free supermarket sample . . . or did he?
And a double: glitterati couple Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake weren’t snuffed out by a Scientology hit squad . . . or were they?

Addendum: in an attempt to get in a conspiratorial groove I spent an evening watching UFO documentaries on youtube; imagine my surprise when disgraced veterinarian/perennial murder suspect Cathy Crighton appeared as an animal mutilation expert. Coincidence . . . yep, this one’s a coincidence—but a weird one nonetheless. (Her debunking tour de force begins at 18:48.)

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