I believe this to be an authentically senseless chain of correspondences but in the jingle-jangle morning of that summer it made as much sense as anything else did. —– Joan Didion, The White Album

Kimberly Riggsbee

Do you ever wonder if your brain is seeing connections that don’t actually exist?

Durham County, North Carolina; at approximately 2pm on October 7th, 1993 a motorist came upon a grisly scene at the side of Redwood Road near Falls Lake:
a small blue pickup truck idling at the edge of the highway, its driver covered in blood.
Kimberly Walker Riggsbee, age twenty-two, had been shot in the head, hand and shoulder; her cellphone—a relatively pricey item in 1993—lay beside her on the passenger’s seat.

Riggsbee crime scene

Nothing appeared to have been stolen and no overt sexual assault had been attempted; the paltry clues present at the crime scene provided no hints as to the killer’s motive or identity.
Kimberly’s decision to pull to the side of the road was also inexplicable:
“She may have stopped to talk to somebody,” Durham County Deputy Tom Mellown later speculated on WRAL.
“It may have been somebody she knew that she flagged down.”
Although the investigation was briefly reopened in 2010 no new leads were forthcoming; Kimberly’s murder remains unsolved.

Riggsbee crime scene rear view

8pm, December 27th, 2007. Fourteen years later and approximately one hundred miles away thirty-seven year old Beverly Honeycutt departed her mother’s house en route to her home in Sampson County.
Three hours later, alarmed by his failure to reach her by phone,
a friend went to the Honeycutt residence at 214 Mathis Street and found Beverly crumpled on her back steps—she’d been shot in the face.
Law enforcement has never revealed the type of firearm used in either the Honeycutt or Riggsbee homicides,
and as is the case with Kimberly’s murder,
the motive for Beverly’s still-unsolved slaying and the identity of her killer remain a mystery.

Beverly Honeycutt

At first glance these crimes seem to have only superficial similarities; two women gunned down more than a decade apart in a hundred-mile swath of North Carolina.
But further investigation has revealed Kimberly and Beverly had one peculiar trait in common;
the soon-to-be murdered women—mothers of young children both—had endured the recent accidental death of their romantic partner.

Honeycutt crime scene

Three months before Kimberly’s death her husband Donnie Riggsbee had died in a motorcycle mishap at the age of twenty-six—the couple’s daughter, barely a year old at her mother’s murder, was now orphaned.
And Beverly Honeycutt was also in mourning when she was slain;
her long haul-trucker boyfriend had been killed in a traffic accident a mere three weeks before her death—a gold chain her fiancé been wearing during the crash was found near her body at the crime scene.
Beverly’s children were ages ten and two when she was slain.

Street view of the Honeycutt home

I keep telling myself this odd parallel is simply a coincidence; fatal automotive accidents are plentiful as are cold case murders—it’s a mathematical certainty
some homicide victims will be slain while in the process of grieving a loved one killed in a crash.
Yet even as my rational mind deems the situation happenstance
the part of my brain steeped in crime fiction persists in spinning elaborate scenarios linking the Riggsbee and Honeycutt cases to a single shooter.

Beverly Honeycutt

Maybe the assailant perused the obituaries, my irrational mind insists, hunting for vulnerable grief-stricken women to date—and when Kimberly and Beverly rejected his advances he shot them.
Or maybe the perpetrator came into contact with both women while working at the coroner’s office or in some other death-adjacent job, I muse;
after becoming smitten he began to stalk both women with fatal results.
Or what if—bucking the statistical trend—the killer was female? Perhaps an angel of death who lost her soulmate in a car crash shot the victims to spare them the barren existence she now endures.
These scenarios are preposterous but they bubble to my mind’s surface, always trying to tie the murders into a neat, Hollywood-friendly package.

Christmas decorations displayed in the Honeycutt side yard at the time of the crime

These repeated mental attempts to link the Riggsbee and Honeycutt slayings, I am aware,
are almost certainly a form of true-crime pareidolia—a phenomenon which causes the human brain to see patterns where no patterns exist, desperate to impose order on random images.
In grossly simplistic terms, the brain conjures nonexistent patterns because it wants the comfort of knowing what’s coming next; suspense is an excruciating sensation, as cold-case victims’ loved ones will attest.

Regardless of whether Kimberly and Beverly were slain by a single shooter or separate assailants hopefully this will be the year the Riggsbee and Honeycutt families obtain justice;
and as they wait for a break in the case(s) I will continue to scour the web for additional bereaved women gunned down in North Carolina.
Twice might be a coincidence but three times is a pattern—and if detectives need advice I have some novel ideas for investigation.

Bullet hole in the Riggsbee crime scene

Brett Cantor was murdered twice, first by the person who stabbed him to death and then by the conspiracy theorists who hijacked his slaying in an attempt to exonerate O.J. Simpson. To date, both crimes remain unpunished.

On July 30th, 1993 Brett Cantor, age twenty-five, was found murdered in his West Hollywood apartment;
his throat had been slashed and he’d been stabbed repeatedly in the torso.
An A&R executive at Chrysalis Music Group, Brett was a well-known tastemaker in the Los Angeles music scene;
an early backer of the band Rage Against the Machine,
he had also helped Jane’s Addiction obtain its debut recording contract.
Although he’d been sober for years Brett was a fixture of Hollywood nightlife; he owned ten percent of a nightclub called Dragonfly, then located at 6510 Santa Monica Boulevard,
and he was last seen leaving another Hollywood hotspot, Club 434, in the early morning hours the day of his murder.

The LAPD has been tight-lipped about the crime; Brett’s state of dress, the presence or absence of ransacking or theft at the scene, his time of death
and the precise circumstances surrounding his body’s discovery all remain a mystery.

“That’s when I met Brett Cantor, the Pied Piper of People, aka the Mayor of Dragonfly. He co-owned the club as well. Brett had blue-blue eyes and short, platinum, shaved hair. He was lovely. Funny as fuck.” Rose McGowan, Brave (2018)

According to her recent autobiography, actress Rose McGowan was dating Brett at the time of his death.
As recollected in Brave, the couple met at Dragonfly shortly before the murder,
and Rose credits Brett’s support with helping her flee an abusive relationship and overcome an eating disorder.
After Brett’s death Rose began dating his brother Cliff Cantor, who succumbed to an accidental overdose in 2014.

“[Brett will] always have a piece of my heart. The case is still unsolved but I have been trying for years to remedy that.” Rose McGowan, Brave (2018)

Enter the Juiceman: one year later, on June 12th, 1994 O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife and her friend Ronald Goldman were stabbed to death in Brentwood,
an exclusive enclave approximately thirty-minutes from West Hollywood.
Desperate for additional murders which could conceivably be connected—thereby elevating the crime from a textbook domestic homicide—O.J. Simpson’s legal team petitioned to view the evidence in Brett’s case;
Judge Lance Ito granted the request.
Although there is no evidence Brett knew either victim
Ron Goldman had once worked at Dragonfly part-time and Nicole Simpson had frequented the club on several occasions; from these tenuous connections a plague of conspiracy theories were loosed upon the world.

“O.J. defense is trying to establish a serial killer; me and my brother have the same friends and none have ever heard of [Nicole] Simpson or Goldman—we don’t venture very far from Hollywood.” Cliff Cantor, New York Magazine, September 25th, 1994

In search of more information about the Cantor case I checked several O.J.-didn’t-do-it books out of the library—unbelievably, even the basic details provided about Brett’s murder were incorrect:

O.J. Is Innocent and I Can Prove It: The Shocking Truth about the Murders incorrectly identifies Brett as the manager of Dragonfly
• In If I Did It O.J. Simpson identifies Brett as a “Mezzaluna waiter”
• In Trial of the Century: Obstruction of Justice : Viewpoint of a Trial author Loretta Justice incorrectly claims Brett—who “ran” the dragonfly—died at the age of twenty-four
• In his book When the Husband is the Suspect disbarred attorney F. Lee Bailey claims Brett and Ron were “friends”—despite a marked absence of evidence they’d ever met

This photo is a staple of conspiracy sites; Brett is usually misidentified as the man with the ramrod posture and checked shirt (he’s actually center-left in the baseball cap)

[Note: after careful reflection I’ve opted not to link directly to any conspiracy sites—I’d prefer not to draw the lunatic fringe to my doorstep.]

Although there are innumerable variations Brett’s (fictitious) role in the O.J.-didn’t-do-it canon generally falls into three categories:

1) Both Brett and Ron Goldman were Jewish, thus making a Klassic Krazy Konspiracy inevitable. Actual cut-and-pasted title: “The Jews Framed O.J. Simpson and Staged a Race Trial To Cover it Up.” I won’t dignify this with any serious commentary but let’s just say I doubt the Zionist Illuminati were working hand-in-glove with Mark ‘Der Fuhrer’ Fuhrman.

Michael Nigg

2) The drug-related conspiracy theory: this variant alleges Joey Ippolito—a major Los Angeles cocaine dealer with Mafia ties—ordered the murders of Brett Cantor, Ron Goldman and Nicole Simpson because they either a) owed him money for drugs or b) were in the process of setting up a rival drug distribution network operating out of Mezzaluna restaurant. In this version of events the murder of Ron’s friend, one-time Mezzaluna waiter Michael Nigg—which occurred sixteen months after the Brentwood murders while he was employed at a different restaurant—is also related to Ippolito’s cocaine empire.

3) The most recent iteration—the ATV connection—now with more celebrities: in 1985 Michael Jackson purchased the ATV catalog—which includes licensing rights to the music of Elvis Presley and the Beatles—for $47.5 million; approximately two years after Brett’s death, in 1995, Jackson merged ATV with the Sony corporation. This latest conspiracy theory alleges Brett was murdered by O.J. attorney Robert Kardashian—father of the eponymously-named reality show clan—in a bidding war over ATV. Bonus lunacy alert: according to this theory Michael Jackson’s 1994 marriage to Lisa Marie Presley was a condition of the merger in order to quell rumors about his sexuality. (Why are you laughing?)

That ship had already sailed

“Brett’s name brought up as a pawn for the O.J. defense as a way to get O.J. off kind of interrupts the healing process. If anywhere there was a connection I would probably pay for half the investigation [myself].” Cliff Cantor, Philadelphia Inquirer, October 5th, 1994

Thanks to the dated archives of cyberspace you can actually track the distortion of information;
conspiracy theories evolve exactly like the child’s game “Telephone,” the stories veering further and further from truth with each retelling.
The negligible ties in the initial reportage—Brett owned ten percent of a nightclub where Nicole Simpson liked to dance and Ron Goldman briefly worked—became ever more intimate.
Today it is gospel truth that Brett, sole owner of the Dragonfly, was best friends with Ron Goldman and the secret boyfriend of Nicole Simpson.
Pointing out the lack of proof for these claims is futile—insistence on fact-based evidence simply identifies you as part of the cover-up.

It’s not quite Roslynn Carter shaking hands with John Wayne Gacy but it’s still pretty awkward in hindsight

Interestingly, one aspect of conspiracy theories I’d never before appreciated is their reliance on ignorance.
To someone who’s never worked at a nightclub it seems reasonable a ten-percent owner would know every short-term part-time employee—it isn’t.
To someone who’s never worked in the music industry it seems plausible a twenty-five year old A&R rep—whose sole function is to spot new talent and promote fledgling bands—would be involved with the ATV catalog.
In reality, anything involving publishing would be handled by an entirely different department,
mainly staffed by lawyers and MBAs.
(And for the record, there is no evidence Brett Cantor or Chrysalis ever had any involvement with or interest in acquiring the ATV catalog in the 1990s or at any time thereafter.)

“The story on Brett is that he was given a Colombian necktie, his tongue pulled out through his throat.” Los Angeles mixologist Tobin Shea, LA Magazine, December 28th, 2012. (This rumor is indisputably false, as so-called “Columbian neckties” are anatomically impossible.)

Ironically, although Brett had no personal ties to the Brentwood victims he does have an attenuated connection with O.J. Simpson.
Paul Cantor, Brett’s father, was also in the music business and in the 1960s he managed singer Dionne Warwick,
godmother of Simpson’s oldest daughter Arnell and onetime paramour of white Bronco copilot Al Cowlings.

As everyone knows, idiocy is rampant on the internet and fact-checking conspiracies is like shoveling shit against the (metaphorical) tide.
But being encoded and bounced off a satellite doesn’t render falsehoods in cyberspace meaningless; these bogus online rumors matter—irrespective of the renewed pain of the Cantor family—because someday the LAPD may find the actual person who stabbed Brett.
And when that happens the defendant’s lawyer is going to use the conspiracy angle to muddy the waters at trial—and as we saw with O.J., toss enough effluvia at even an airtight case and eventually something may stick.

[If you click through to the video Brett is interviewed at 3:58]

“At his funeral they played ‘Wish You Were Here’ by Pink Floyd and I can honestly say I wish Brett were still here. He deserved to have a full life; he deserved to keep shining.” Rose McGowan, Brave (2018)

Injecting O.J. Simpson into Brett’s murder isn’t only harmful to a theoretical future prosecution; it’s also harmful to objective truth.
Truth always matters; America is in crisis because we’ve lost sight of objective truth—a glut of lies and conspiratorial thinking has left us vulnerable to constant manipulation.
Truth matters and Brent’s murder matters—his death was a tragedy, not a footnote in an Infowars thread about a millionaire football player who used his fame and cash to subvert justice.

It’s not a conspiracy, and it isn’t even a coincidence: truth is dead, and so is Brett Cantor.


 
11:15am, December 25th, 1975. Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Decker strode up the walkway and swung open the door of their widowed daughter’s split-level ranch house in East Vincent Township, Pennsylvania.
The tree was trimmed, the halls were decked and “Silent Night” played softly on the radio.

Moments later Mr. Decker bolted outside, sprinting for a neighbor’s house. “They’re all dead in here,” he screamed. “They’re all dead!”

Upon arriving at the scene Pennsylvania State Police investigators discovered Judith Saneck, age 34, sprawled on the living room floor next to a pile of unopened Christmas gifts;
her boyfriend of one month, Nicholas Foresta, age 48, lay face-up at her side,
a .38 caliber revolver clutched in his right hand.
The bodies of Mrs. Saneck’s three children—Michael, age 12, Joleen, 9, and Joselyn, 7—were found in their respective beds. Every occupant of the house had been shot once in the head.

The Sanecks

“The house was neat as a pin. It appeared to be a typical Christmas eve—the kids were in bed waiting for Santa Claus.” Pennsylvania State Police Detective Henry Wells, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 27th, 1975

Investigators deemed the crime a murder-suicide immediately.
The ambulance crew removed the bodies without delay; no photos were taken and no efforts expended to preserve the sanctity of the crime scene.
Even in the immediate aftermath of the bodies’ discovery, however, a murder-suicide ruling was problematic at best;
only one vehicle—a “luxury car” belonging to Nicholas Foresta—was parked outside the Saneck residence on Hoffecker Road. Judith Saneck’s white Plymouth Satellite was missing.

“That’s the way it looks (murder-suicide); now we have to prove it.” Pennsylvania State Trooper Edward Gallen (street name: Officer Confirmation Bias), Camden News, December 26th, 1975

Problems with the murder-suicide theory failed to abate: the Saneck-Foresta autopsies, performed by Dr. Halbert Fillinger of the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office,
did little to bolster law enforcement’s chosen narrative.
Dr. Fillinger determined Nicholas and the Sanecks had all died at roughly the same time,
between midnight and 2am on December 25th;
none of the bodies bore any defensive injuries and all five victims had a single cranial bullet wound.
The Saneck’s injuries were clearly homicidal in nature, but Nicholas Foresta’s cause of death was less clear-cut.
He’d been shot once in the right posterior occipital region of his skull—the back of his head, in layman’s terms—with the bullet exiting over his left eye.
An unlikely, but still theoretically possible, suicide injury—although the force of the bullet should’ve pushed him face-forward and lividity indicated he’d been positioned on his back.
Much to the dismay of Chester County authorities, Dr. Fillinger listed Nicholas Foresta’s cause of death as “undetermined.”

“Hal’s a capable guy but Dr. Fillinger’s involvement was to perform the autopsy; he’s a medical doctor not a policeman.” Chester County District Attorney William Lamb, apparently unaware forensic pathologists are trained to utilize medical evidence in criminal investigations. Philadelphia Inquirer, February 4th, 1977

The mystery of Judith’s missing Plymouth Satellite was solved within twenty-four hours; the car was found in a mall parking lot in the nearby town of Devon, approximately seven miles from the Saneck residence.
The car was determined to be in perfect working condition but one inexplicable item—a large tree branch denuded of bark—was discovered inside.
As is the case with many of the anomalies still to come, the precise role the tree limb played in the Saneck-Foresta murders remains unresolved.

Judith Saneck had only recently reentered the dating scene—eight years earlier her husband Joe succumbed to leukemia, leaving her with two small children and pregnant with a third.
Judith had last been definitively seen on the afternoon of December 23rd when she’d stopped by a neighbor’s home to borrow cinnamon for a holiday cookie recipe—during the conversation she mentioned buying electric hairdryers for her children as Christmas gifts.
Judith’s demeanor, according to her neighbor, appeared normal.

The Ziegler family

[Odd coincidence: the Saneck murders weren’t the only Christmas family slaying that year; the Ziegler family murders—still chugging along in the Florida court system four decades later—occurred on December 24th, 1975.]

Like Judith Saneck, Nicholas Foresta had three children with a deceased spouse;
he had remarried shortly after the death of his first wife, however, and was recently separated from his second.
He resided with his two youngest sons in the nearby borough of Phoenixville,
where he was a longtime employee of the town’s eponymously named steel mill.
Nicholas’s background lacked any red flags signaling an imminent murder-suicide; he had no history of domestic violence and he and Judith were dating only casually.

“Nobody believes he was responsible for this; he had no health problems, no money problems. He loved children. He never owned a gun and I don’t think he knew how to shoot one.” Nicholas’s brother David Foresta, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 27th, 1975

A canvas of Devon mall employees unearthed an Open Hearth waitress who recalled serving a couple resembling the Saneck-Forestas on the evening of December 23rd.
Nicholas and Judith had probably argued over dinner, investigators speculated, and subsequently opted to abandon her car in the parking lot and drive home together.
The next day, investigators believed, still angry after twenty-four hours of holiday togetherness, Nicholas retrieved a .38 caliber revolver—purchased by Judith for home protection six months earlier—and proceeded to shoot each and every Saneck, then himself.
A classic case of murder suicide, Chester County authorities insisted; case closed.

“We made a complete neighborhood check and we are still treating it as a murder-suicide.” Chester County District Attorney William Lamb, The Mercury, December 27th, 1975

Not so fast. Over the next few months a steady drumbeat of odd facts and crime scene details leaked to the press;
initially Chester County authorities rebutted the majority of these revelations but faced with additional corroboration would ultimately attest to their veracity.
The following information would eventually be confirmed:

• The gun, empty when found, had a five bullet capacity but seven shots had been fired—five into victims, one into a living room wall and one into the house’s exterior

• Six of these bullets were linked to the crime scene weapon but the caliber and origin of the exterior wall ammunition has never been publicized

• Nicholas Foresta’s fingerprints weren’t found on the murder weapon; the only prints on the gun belonged to a responding officer

• Authorities performed a gunshot residue test on Nicholas’s hands but refused to release the results

• Money—mostly tens and ones—was found scattered in the Saneck yard

• A screen had been removed from a second floor window

• Several spent bullet cartridges were found in a downstairs wastepaper basket

Members of Nicholas Foresta’s family, adamant he lacked both the motivation and wherewithal to commit homicide, were certain these peculiar incidentals indicated he and the Sanecks had been slain by an intruder.
Interestingly, a Hoffecker road neighbor told a Mercury  reporter Judith had complained of a prowler,
and also revealed the Saneck home had once been burgled.
Unhappy with the official inquiry, the Forestas hired a private investigator—ex-police officer Joseph Shepsko—to look into the case.
Although he will later proclaim the timing coincidental,
Chester County District Attorney Lamb responded by petitioning (successfully) for the revocation of Shepsko’s private investigator’s license.

“One shot did exit the house but there was nothing unusual about that.” District Attorney William Lamb goosing the laws of physics, The Sentinel, January 12th 1976

Eventually the media outcry reached a crescendo;
hoping to assuage community concerns about a possible killer in their midst the Chester County District Attorney’s Office staged a press conference.
Debuting a new—although hardly improved—theory of the crime,
District Attorney Lamb amended the Saneck-Forestas times of death by twenty-four hours, pathologist’s findings notwithstanding.
This revision served to work out a kink in the accepted chronology of the Saneck-Forestas’ last days:
Nicholas and Judith had (presumably) visited the Devon Open Hearth restaurant on the night of the 23rd,
yet Dr. Fillinger had fixed their times of death in the wee hours of December 25th.
This left an entire day during which the Sanecks were not seen and Judith inexplicably failed to retrieve her car from the mall (if she had in fact abandoned it there).

DA Lamb block quote

The revised time of death, however, was inconsequential compared to the press conference’s bombshell reveal:
Judith Saneck, District Attorney Lamb now alleged, had engineered the murder of her children as part of a suicide pact.
The supporting evidence proffered for this potentially slanderous claim?
The word of God, specifically a passage Judith had underlined in her Bible: “For I am now ready to be offered and the time of my departure is at hand.” (2 Timothy verse 4)
At some point the grieving widow had also written an (undated) letter to her husband Joe stating she longed to be with him. Hardly a solid foundation for a conspiracy to commit homicide charge, to say the least.

[Quandary: if you form a death pact with your current boyfriend so you can be with your deceased husband what happens to your boyfriend in the afterlife post-suicide? Is he an eternal third wheel?]

Not unexpectedly, the Chester County District Attorney’s press conference failed to quell community furor.
The Evening Phoenix, Nicholas Foresta’s hometown newspaper,
published a scathing six-part exposé on the botched investigation, taking particular umbrage at the unilaterally-revised time of death.
Seven separate witnesses, as the Evening Phoenix reported, had encountered Nicholas Foresta shopping in the company of an unidentified woman on December 24th,
a point at which authorities now deemed him to be deceased.
The newspaper’s staff, incidentally, was able to vouch for the reliability of one of these witnesses: Wayne D. Jones, Nicholas’s close friend, the Evening Phoenix’s advertising manager.

“All evidence was reviewed in the case and without a shadow of a doubt it points to murder-suicide.” District Attorney William Lamb, The Sentinel, January 12th, 1976

Some things are inevitable: snow melts in springtime, time passes and eventually questions about the family massacre on Hoffecker Road were packed away like tree ornaments and tinsel in the waning days of Yule.
Michael, Joleen and Joselyn, three children dead in their beds on Christmas eve, presents unopened, faded into memory.
I don’t know who wielded the gun in the house that night,
and without access to the forensic tests—-the Holy Grails of homicide-—the triggerman’s true identity will likely forever remain a mystery.

In some ways the Saneck-Foresta case may lack a conclusion but it does offer a moral, unpalatable though it may be:
every Christmas story needs a Grinch or Scrooge (or stonewalling district attorney) but not every holiday narrative is entitled to a happy ending.

Sometimes Santa’s sack is full of bullets, and it doesn’t matter if you were good all year.

 (Wise men take note: pulling the trigger at that angle and ending up with a left-brow exit wound would truly be a Christmas miracle.)

“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

SLAYING SIMILARITIES:

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

Spegal creek dumpsite

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

SLAYING DISSIMILARITIES:

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

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.