Every cripple does his dance — Irish proverb as quoted in On the Track of Murder (Barbara Gelb, 1975)

 

I swear to god I’m not racist.

I live in the city; I despise all races equally.

Airing the fruits of my google alerts in Daily Dread, however, has shed a somewhat unflattering light on my monochromatic crime obsessions—I’m tracking more missing middleclass white women than Fox News and Nancy Grace combined.

I don’t know the words to “Kumbaya” and I’m not interested in learning but I do think equal representation is important;
all murders matter, to repurpose the phrase.  
Cases that receive more attention garner more resources and are thus more likely to be solved—so this seems to be an ideal time to revisit the crimes of Charlie Chop-off, killer of urban nonwhite males,
a demographic underrepresented in media coverage and overrepresented in victimology statistics.

charliechop2

FOR PEDANTS ONLY:  a Note on Sources and Nomenclature

One of the most exasperating aspects of reinvestigating the Charlie Chop-off murders is a dearth of reliable contemporaneous sources. 
Although the slayings were mentioned somewhat fleetingly in the New York Times I’ve opted to use their coverage as the gold standard—the Times’ current political bureau is odious but their 1970s crime reportage is,
in my experience at least, above reproach.

Published in 1975, Barbara Gelb’s book On the Track of Murder is considered by many to be the seminal work in the Charlie Chop-off canon;
I was initially skeptical about relying on a source using pseudonyms—anonymity has historically been exploited to tweak facts into a more salacious narrative. 
That said, with one minor exception Ms. Gelb’s reportage tracks perfectly with the Times, lending credence to the details in her book which failed to make it into the newspaper’s coverage.

The New York Daily News and the Harlem-centric Amsterdam News both published a smattering of articles about the murders but their reportage is too rife with inaccuracies and contradictions to be taken as gospel—the Daily News’s varietal spellings of the participants’ names is particularly atrocious.

The only (somewhat) recent source I consulted is this Court-TV article written by the venerable Katherine Ramsland;
it’s only available via the Wayback Machine, however,
and a glut of unreliable (and often debunked) information has sprung up on the web in recent years.

Finally, I should note the name “Charlie Chop-off” appears only in On the Track of Murder;
Ms. Gelb claims the nickname originated with the youngsters in the targeted communities but the appellation fails to appear in any print archives—I’ve opted to retain it for the sake of convenience, however.

 

THE LOST BOYS

Name:  Douglas Owens

Age/Race:  8 years old, African American

Date:  March 9th 1972 (with some variations noted below)

Location: Douglas’s body was found on the roof of 221 East 121st Street, two blocks from his home

Circumstances:  Douglas was waylaid after dark while running an errand for his mother. 
He was stabbed 38 (some sources say 39) times in the neck, chest and back; he had also been sexually mutilated—his penis split in half but not severed.  
Douglas was fully clad although his pants had been slashed open; his sneakers had been removed and placed neatly near his body. 
According to On the Track of Murder the coroner found “inconclusive” evidence of sodomy, but the precise indicia exhibited are unspecified.

Although I was unable to find much information about any of the Charlie Chop-off victims the media coverage of Douglas Owens’ death was particularly abysmal.  
His murder received not a single contemporaneous article in the press, and although March 9th is the date most often cited for his slaying an early New York Times article gives the date as March 4th;
a more recent Daily News article lists the date as March 16th.

 

Name:  On the Track of Murder uses the pseudonym Jimmy Wallace but we shall call him The Boy Who Lived

Age/Race:  10 years old, African American

Date: April 20th, 1972

Location: the attack occurred on the roof of the victim’s dwelling at 174 West 107th Street

Circumstances:  The Boy Who Lived was on his way to a nearby shop when he encountered a mid-30ish, white but olive-skinned (possibly Italian) stranger;
introducing himself as Michael, the man had a slender build, bad skin and a prominent mole on his left cheek. 
The victim, preternaturally observant for his age, also noted his soon-to-be attacker was right-handed, walked with a limp, had foul breath and stood approximately 5’7” tall. 
After a few pleasantries the man offered the Boy Who Lived fifty cents for assistance with a task on the roof;
the pair proceeded upstairs.

Upon reaching their destination the assailant forced the Boy Who Lived to disrobe;
the victim was then sodomized, castrated, and stabbed in the neck and back (the precise number of wounds has never been publicized).  
After the assault was completed the perpetrator moved the child to a downstairs hallway where he was subsequently discovered by a neighbor; although some sources note the victim’s sneakers were placed nearby it’s unclear if the shoes were located at the roof attack site or hallway dumpsite.

Although the significance of these anomalies remains unknown, the Boy Who Lived is the only victim moved to a secondary location post-assault;
he’s also the only castrated victim whose missing genitals surfaced—his penis was found the following day by a trio of frolicking children in a playground several blocks away.

“On April 21st, 1972 one Eugene Q. G— approached Patrolman Lavendero, 24th Precinct, and said he discovered some youths playing with a black penis on Amsterdam Ave. He turned it over to the Officer, who in turn brought it to the attention of the (major crimes) squad.”  Police report as quoted in On the Track of Murder (Barbara Gelb, 1975)

 

Name:  Wendell Hubbard

Date: October 23rd, 1972

Age/Race:  9 years old, African American

Address:  The attack occurred on the roof of the victim’s residence, 2013 Fifth Avenue near the corner of 125th Street

Circumstances:  At approximately 5:45pm Wendell asked his father for a quarter to buy candy at a local shop;
as Brooks Hubbard later tells the Daily News, “I never seen the boy no more.”  
At around 9:45pm a gaggle of neighborhood children playing on the roof discovered Wendell’s body,
sneakers removed and placed at his side.

The medical examiner will later determine Wendell had been sodomized, castrated and stabbed 17— some sources say 19—times in the neck, chest and abdomen;
his pants had been pulled down but not removed.  
The assailant absconded with the victim’s penis which to date has never been located.

A week after Wendell’s death the Amsterdam News had a small blurb about the crime,
the first Charlie Chop-off attack mentioned in the press. 
Two child homicides and one castration in a fifteen-block radius and the New York Times won’t mention the murders for another ten months.

“I have the death certificate. I have a little Boy Scout flag and a little cap he had from Troop 157. I keep them in a drawer. Sometimes I go into that drawer and look at them.” Wendell’s father Brooks Hubbard on his mementos of his murdered son, New York Daily News, February 4th, 1993

 

Name:  Luis Ortiz

Date:  March 6th, 1973

Age/Race:  10 years old, Hispanic (Puerto Rican)

Location:  Luis’s body was found in a basement stairwell at 200 West 106th Street, one and a half blocks from his home

Circumstances:  At 8:15pm Luis’s mother sent him to a nearby store to buy bread and milk;
he arrived at the shop, successfully completed his purchase—despite being 13 cents short—and then promptly disappeared.  
When he failed to return home in a timely manner his mother notified law enforcement;
the NYPD launched an overnight search but no trace of Luis could be found.

[Short at the Register, Shortly to Die:  Luis’s cash shortage at the market calls to mind 5-year old Eric Shunk of Philadelphia, 15 cents short while buying a notebook in 1983; and 7-year old Holly Ann Hughes of Staten Island, 5 cents short when buying a bar of soap in 1981. Both children departed the store with their purchase but neither returned home alive.]

At approximately 1pm the following day Luis’s body was found in a basement stairwell by a woman taking out her trash;
the location is only one block from the site of the attack on the Boy Who Lived. 
Luis had been sodomized, castrated and viciously stabbed (37, 38, or 40 times, depending on the source).  
The victim’s sneakers were placed at his side but his groceries and genitalia were missing.

A canvass of local inhabitants revealed several neighbors had seen Luis in the company of a stranger shortly before he vanished. 
The description of Luis’s mystery companion— a slender, olive-skinned man with bad skin,
between the ages of 35-50, standing between 5’7” and 5’10” inches tall—closely mirrored the description of the Boy Who Lived’s attacker with one minor difference: 
Luis’s companion had black marks on his chin while the living victim’s assailant sported a prominent mole on his left cheek.

Eventually investigators located a woman in the neighborhood who may have previously interacted with the killer;
On the Track of Murder uses the pseudonym Mrs. Hernandez but we shall call her Mama Bear.  
Two days before Luis’s murder a man approached her 9-year old son Juan
offering a free bicycle in exchange for help with an errand. 
Juan agreed to accompany the man, who introduced himself as Tony, but not until the next day because Mama Bear was strict and he knew he had to ask permission first.

Ortiz crime scene

The next day at the appointed time Juan failed to appear—instead Mama Bear arrived at the meeting place and told the stranger to stay the hell away from her son or she’d call the police.  
Even though at this point the neighborhood attacks had barely made the news Mama Bear implicitly understood the price of a “free” bike would be far higher than 9-year old Juan could imagine.

The day after Mama Bear’s confrontation with the gift-bearing stranger Luis disappeared. 
Although Mama Bear’s description closely matched that of the surviving victim there was one notable discrepancy;
the Boy Who Lived said his attacker was an olive-skinned white man but Mama Bear said the man she encountered was Hispanic and spoke with a slight but noticeable Dominican accent. 
Mama Bear later worked with an NYPD artist to produce the first composite sketch of the slayer.

Luis was the first Charlie Chop-off victim seen with his attacker and his death marked another milestone as well—his slaying was the first murder to get significant media traction. 
On March 10th, four days after his death protestors staged a demonstration at the 24th Precinct on West 100th Street, angry the NYPD had failed to devote more resources to finding the predator in their midst.
The event was given saturation coverage in the newspapers;
the precise number of dead nonwhite children necessary for media attention has now been definitively determined: 
three (Douglas Owens, Wendell Hubbard, Luis Ortiz) and a half (the Boy Who Lived).

“Are you crazy?” Get back here, right by the door where I can see you!”  Worried mother on 108th Street screaming at her children out a fifth‐floor window, New York Times, March 12th, 1973

According to On the Track of Murder the NYPD, galvanized by the community’s wrath, now created a taskforce with the sole objective of finding the Harlem castration killer. 
The unit was soon besieged with leads, including a phone call from a Bronx woman who identified a man she felt closely resembled the composite: chronic mental patient Erno Soto, currently institutionalized. 
Detectives paid a visit to Soto’s wife at her 125th Street apartment; at 6’1” her husband was much taller than the suspect’s estimated height of 5’7,” she informed investigators.  
A subsequent consultation with the Ward Island’s Manhattan Psychiatric Center confirmed Soto had been in custody at the time of The Boy Who Lived’s attack, dismissing him from contention.  
Investigators then moved on but spoiler alert:  the hospital staff had failed to give a full accounting of their 33-year old patient’s proclivities. 
Erno Soto’s involvement in the Charlie Chop-off case had not yet reached its final chapter.

[Errata Interlude AKA Three Wrongs Don’t Make a Right:  in The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers Michael Newton states the phone call implicating Erno Soto was received in 1972, soon after the murder of first victim Douglas Owens; the correct date is March 23rd, 1973, shortly after the Ortiz slaying.   In Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters  author Peter Vronsky incorrectly lists Erno Soto’s name as Miguel Rivera, the pseudonym used in On the Track of Murder.  Also, the Charlie Chop-off illustration proliferating on the web isn’t an approved NYPD composite.  I tracked down the attributed artist, Nathan MacDicken, who was kind enough to take a few minutes to correspond with me.  Mr. MacDicken said he’d been contracted to draw the illustrations for Court TV articles; he was given only a description of the suspect and his victims.]

The Serial Killer Who Wasn’t and the Victims Who Weren’t


 

Name: Steven Cropper
Date: August 17th, 1973
Age/Race: 7 years old, African American
Location: Steven’s body was found approximately two blocks from his home on the roof of 325 (or 323, according to On the Track of Murder) East Houston Street on the Lower East Side

Circumstances: Steven and a friend were idling in front of a community pool imploring passersby for spare change when a slender, limping Hispanic man approached.
Steven exchanged a few words with the man and then he and his new acquaintance departed the scene;
several bystanders saw the duo walking together in the area at approximately 3:30pm.
Steven would never be seen alive again.

At 5:30pm a woman walking her dog discovered Steven’s bloodied body on the roof of her building,
his sneakers placed nearby.
His shirt had been pulled up above his shoulders and a deep 9-inch “X”—administered postmortem, according to Medical Examiner Michael Baden—had been etched into his chest.
A third gash traveled the length of the victim’s arm, severing the artery in his left elbow; the gore-encrusted razor used in the crime was discovered beneath the boy’s corpse.
Steven’s pants—two pairs of tightfitting jeans, an unlikely choice on day the temperature reached 91 degrees—were unbuttoned but not removed; no overt evidence of sexual molestation or mutilation could be detected.

“It effected everyone. It split the whole family up. The tragedy of Stevie’s death is not only did we have to deal with him dying, we had to deal with the rest of us dying.” Victim’s brother Christopher Cropper, New York Daily News, February 2nd, 1993

Cropper crime scene

Initially NYPD detectives were uncertain if Steven’s death was related to the Charlie Chop-off series; aside from his age and race his murder shared few commonalities with the Harlem child slayings.
Unlike the previous victims Steven had been assaulted during daylight hours, slashed three times with a razor
instead of stabbed repeatedly with a knife;
more significantly, he hadn’t been raped or castrated and his attack occurred a hundred blocks distant from the previous crimes, which had all been perpetrated within a fifteen block radius.

“I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve seldom seen anything like it [Steven’s murder].” NYPD Lieutenant Louis Karcher, New York Times, August 18th, 1973

Steven’s sneakers were found next to his body, but—as chronicled in On the Track of Murder—some investigators downplayed the significance of the footwear placement.
If an assailant intended to sexually assault a child, one detective reasoned, he’d tell his prospective victim to disrobe—which in almost all cases necessitates a prior removal of shoes.
Perhaps Steven’s attacker had aspired to rape but pivoted to homicide when the boy attempted to flee,
or perhaps he’d been slain by a copycat killer.
The similar description of the suspect in the Harlem and Cropper slayings, however, convinced other investigators both the uptown and downtown crimes had been committed by a single assailant.

“The probability that the same man did all four crimes is fantastic.” Enigmatic proclamation of unnamed NYPD detective, New York Daily News, June 27th, 1974

INVESTIGATION FRUSTRATION

“Every lead is investigated no matter how whacky (sic) it seems.” Lieutenant John Yuknes, New York Times, August 23rd, 1973

During the 16 months of Charlie Chop-off’s reign the NYPD utilized every then-existing investigative technique including:

• Obtaining the mailing list of a chicken-hawk magazine and interviewing local subscribers
• Casing the area methadone clinics perchance the killer was a loose-lipped opiate addict
• Sorting through 9,000 police records of known child molesters
• Knocking on thousands of apartment doors searching for witnesses and clues
• Distributing more than 1,500 fliers featuring the suspect’s composite to police departments throughout the country
• Bringing 150 persons of interest down to the station for questioning
• Contacting Interpol in a fruitless search for similar murders abroad
• Canvassing the local bike shops since Mama Bear’s son was enticed with a free bicycle

NYPD detectives also created a revised image of the suspect using an Identikit, a then-cutting age technology which promised to revolutionize the field of forensic composites.
The Boy Who Lived spent an entire afternoon choosing facial features from a catalog to recreate the face of his attacker—the result was a new, more accurate depiction of the suspect.

“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, but needles have been found in haystacks before.” Sergeant Edmund Klan, NYPD optimist, New York Times, April 17th, 1973

Although the field of profiling had not yet been established investigators asked an NYPD psychologist to devise a blueprint of the castration killer’s psyche.
Dr. Harvey Schlossberg theorized the perpetrator was a self-hating homosexual who endeavored to emasculate his victims as an antidote to his same-sex yearnings; by turning the little boys into little girls, the doctor opined,
the slayer believed he could negate his own homosexuality and absolve his acts of sodomy.
Dr. Schlossberg also detected erotic undertones in the assailant’s penetration-heavy modus operandi.

“Symbolically, it’s an orgasm—it’s really quite sexual.” Dr. Harvey Schlossberg on the assailant’s frenzied stabbing technique, New York Times, April 17th, 1973

A week after Steven’s murder the New York Times announced the first named suspect in the case; Daniel Olivo, age 30, arrested for the rape of a 5-year old boy in a Bronx park on August 20th, three days after the Cropper murder.
After luring the child to a secluded area on the pretext of playing ball
Olivo pounced on the victim and committed an act of sodomy.
The child managed to escape after the attack and alerted his father, a hot dog vendor stationed nearby.

According to the Times, Olivo—standing 5’7” and weighing 140 pounds—was “Hispanic in appearance” with a pockmarked complexion and noticeable limp.
Investigators were unable to develop any information linking Olivo to the Charlie Chop-off crimes, however, and he was eventually dropped as a suspect.

UNQUIET RIOT

August 22nd, 1973; “Let’s kill him,” screamed the mob. Luis Alberto Gonzalez’s ordeal showcased the ugly side of community activism—all he wanted was a job and he ended up cowering from a lynch mob in a downtown precinct house.

I hope you like riot photos because we have riot photos

While applying for a technician’s position in a Lower East Side health clinic an employee noticed Gonzalez bore a striking resemblance to the Charlie Chop-off composite, prominently featured in area storefronts.
The suspicious employee alerted law enforcement who transported Gonzalez to the station and summoned the witnesses in the Steven Cropper case; Gonzalez was then interrogated and showcased in an identity parade.

After a thorough grilling failed to elicit any incriminating information and witnesses confirmed Gonzalez was not the man who led Steven Cropper to his doom detectives were confident he had no involvement in any of the slayings.
Gonzalez was now dismissed from suspicion but dismissing him from the police station would not be so simple; erroneous reports of the killer’s arrest had spread throughout the neighborhood like wildfire.
As Gonzalez was questioned 500 irate citizens, many brandishing nooses and makeshift weapons, encircled the police station demanding he be handed over for a swift administration of NYC street justice.

“We might have been out catching the real murderer instead of protecting this guy.” NYPD Sergeant Richard Bowes on the resources wasted quelling the riot, New York Times, August 26th, 1973

The horde was unmoved when an NYPD spokesperson grabbed a bullhorn:
“This is not the man! Go home!” officers announced in English and Spanish—but law enforcement’s entreaties were met only with jeers and projectiles from the crowd.
Howling for vengeance, the rabble-rousers refused to budge for hours, pelting the precinct house with bricks and garbage.
Worried the increasingly lawless assemblage would breach the station’s defenses detectives smuggled Gonzalez out of the building clad in a police officer’s uniform.
The outcome of his employment interview at the health center has never been publicized but I’m fairly certain Luis Alberto Gonzalez didn’t take the job.

Nine months passed, community furor lessened and detectives continued to chase worthless leads; eventually the taskforce was quietly disbanded, the NYPD unwilling to further fund an investigation stalled on the fast track to nowhere.
Then, finally, on May 25th, 1974 a major break in the case:
Erno Soto, the too-tall suspect fingered shortly after Luis Ortiz’s murder was arrested while trying to abduct a dark-skinned 9-year old boy on East 8th Street in the Village.

“He was walking along holding the kid up over his head, holding him up to the sky, and the kid was screaming.” Retired NYPD homicide detective Ed Gomez, New York Daily News, February 4th, 1993

ERNO SOTO RIDES AGAIN

Back in the NYPD crosshairs, detectives launched a reinvestigation of Soto—and this time investigators unearthed information which indicated his dismissal as a suspect may have been premature.
Soto, who had an eleven year rap-sheet for burglary and narcotics but no known history of pedophilia, had ties to both the Harlem area—his wife lived on 125th Street—and the Lower East Side where Steven Cropper was slain:
Soto’s father Felix lived on Ridge Street, directly around the corner from the crime scene.

A check with the Ward Island’s Manhattan Psychiatric Center revealed Soto had been free on a weekend pass when
Steven was slain, and during the interview asylum employees revealed a pertinent fact they’d previously omitted:
Soto had a history of creeping out of the psychiatric center undetected.
Although he was listed as confined during the Boy Who Lived’s attack that didn’t necessarily mean he was present—-it was possible he’d been absent without leave.

“He was crazy. There was no doubt about that. He was nuttier than a fruit cake.” Retired homicide detective Ed Gomez on Soto’s mental state, New York Daily News, February 4th, 1993

Periodically committed since 1965, Soto wasn’t covertly mentally ill; he was psychotic, a raving maniac, babbling incessantly about religion and careening with a shambolic gait as he crooned along to the voices in his head.
Disheveled with subpar hygiene—“slovenly” was the tactful descriptor favored by the New York Times—Soto was described in hospital records as being “so out of it he can’t give useful information.”
Nonetheless when interrogated Erno Soto confessed to Steven Cropper’s murder, though he declined to take credit for the Harlem slayings.
Soto was unable to provide any details about Steven’s murder but in the 1970s a confession was sufficient for the NYPD to close the case.

According to On the Track of Murder, the homicide taskforce was divided in their opinions about Soto’s guilt, the team breaking into a three-way split.
One third of the detectives believed Soto had committed all of the attacks,
one third believed he’d killed Steven Cropper but not the uptown boys, and the final third believed him to be a false confessor, innocent of all crimes.
One of the most interesting things I stumbled upon in my research was a July 11th, 1974 article in the New York Times absolving Soto of the Harlem murders;
two-thirds of the NYPD may have decided Soto wasn’t Charlie Chop-off but the crimes would stick to him forevermore.

I know what you’re thinking; you want to see a photo of Erno Soto to determine whether he resembles the composite sketches in the case.
Brace yourself for bad news; below I’ve posted the only image of Erno Soto available in the newspaper archives:

Not very helpful, is it? I have no idea why the New York Times would print the mugshot of a minor suspect like Bronx rapist Daniel Olivo and fail to provide a photo of a man actually arrested for child murder but here we are.
Amplifying their unhelpfulness, none of the contemporaneous newspapers conclusively state whether Soto resembled either the Identikit or composite sketch—but here’s what we do know about his attributes vis-à-vis the witnesses’ descriptions:

Pros:
• The phone tipster who initially fingered Soto believed he looked like the sketch composite
• 33-years old when arrested, Soto fell into the witnesses’ estimated age range of 30-45
• As all witnesses reported and both composites reflected, Soto had bad skin
• I’m going out on a limb here, but if Soto had poor hygiene he probably also possessed the swamp breath noted by the Boy Who Lived

Cons:
• At 6’1” Soto was significantly taller than the 5’7”-5’10” reported by witnesses
• Soto was left-handed while the Boy Who Lived believed his attacker to be right-handed
• Soto had a Puerto Rican accent, not the Dominican accent detected by Mama Bear or the absence of an accent reported by the living victim
• Soto had neither black marks on his chin nor a prominent mole on his left cheek
• Soto did not limp, although he did favor the Thorazine shuffle

Hewing to the case’s three-way split theme the results of Erno Soto’s identity parades were mixed.
Witnesses to Steven Cropper’s final amble through the Lower East Side identified Soto as the victim’s companion,
but the Boy Who Lived was adamant Soto was not his attacker—according to On the Track of Murder he deemed Soto far too tall.
Tragically, Mama Bear was unable to give her opinion on the matter;
she’d moved without leaving a forwarding address, a common witness hazard in the pre-computer era.

[Overlapping Murder: on June 10th, 1974, two weeks after Erno Soto’s arrest for the attempted 8th Street abduction, his younger brother joined him in police custody. Eugenio Soto, age 31, was engaged in an airing of grievances with family paterfamilias Felix when things took an ugly turn. Eugenio blamed Felix’s poor parenting for brother Erno’s legal and mental travails, according to police reports; decisively seizing the last word, he stabbed his 60-year old father to death with a kitchen knife. Eugenio was later convicted of first degree manslaughter and sentenced to a ten-year term in the penitentiary; he was released on February 10th, 1982.]

Personally, I’m of the opinion Soto most likely did kill Steven Cropper—I find the eyewitnesses and geographic proximity compelling—but I’m not convinced he committed the Harlem crimes.
On the Track of Murder‘s author theorized Soto was driven to homicide by his wife’s promiscuity—-during a period of marital separation she birthed a mixed-race son—and in retaliation he eliminated black boys
in a campaign of psychological revenge.
I find this explanation too pat—especially since the uptown victims were sodomized, an act unnecessary for racial cleansing and incompatible with Soto’s lack of history as a sex offender.
Viewed with modern sensibilities the racial motivation theory fails to impress.

“When the police find [the killer] they’ll just say he’s a sick man and send him to a hospital for two years.” Max King, prescient Delancey Street shopkeeper interviewed during the Lower East Side riot, New York Times, August 26th 1973

Did someone say riot? Here’s some police station riot footage, courtesy of the Associated Press:

Theories are plentiful but for practical purposes debating Soto’s guilt in the Steven Cropper case, at least, is moot;
although he was found competent to stand trial Soto was acquitted of murder by reason of insanity on December 1st, 1976—not a surprising outcome for a man with a documented 20-year history of psychosis.
After trial Soto was remanded back to Ward’s Island, this time to the maximum-security Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center,
an institution impervious to his Houdini act—as far as we know, anyway.

“The history and nature of his psychosis renders him to be a dangerous person; he is in need of constant surveillance. When he is out in society on his own he is literally a walking time bomb.” Trial testimony of Soto’s psychiatrist Dr. John Baer Train, New York Times, December 1st, 1976

As the years passed Erno Soto faded into obscurity, remembered only in the nightmares of his victims’ kin and schoolmates—as they grew into adulthood they would always hold their children a little closer than most.
As all horror connoisseurs know, however, the boogeyman is never truly vanquished:
in 1993, seventeen years after his acquittal in Steven Cropper’s murder Soto emerged like Nosferatu from a coffin and swooped back into the public’s consciousness.

According to his lawyers the now-55 year old Soto was terminally ill, confined to a wheelchair and dependent on daily dialysis, a souvenir of his youthful drug abuse.
Seeking to be released on compassionate grounds, Soto’s application for emancipation set off a bombshell in the media and occasioned a three-day series in the Daily News rehashing his storied history as the number-one suspect in the Charlie Chop-off crimes.

“My parents were never notified. We didn’t know anything until we read the [Daily News series] on Friday. I know my mother was shocked. And my father—I thought he was going to have a heart attack. I thought he was going to die right in my arms because he was crying and he was very upset.” Steven Cropper’s brother Christopher on the possibility of Soto’s release, New York Daily News, February 2nd, 1993

Dubbing Soto “the Monster of Ward’s Island” and painting him as unquestionably guilty in both the Cropper and Harlem attacks, Daily News journalists interviewed the families of Steven Cropper and Wendell Hubbard
and revealed Soto’s extensive history of misbehavior while confined.
Soto, reporters learned, had faded from the news cycle but his stay at the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center had not been uneventful: Soto had been disciplined for cold-cocking a staff member, possessing marijuana,
attempting to slit his psychiatrist’s throat and threatening to “jab the eyes” out of a fellow patient.

In court, citing Soto’s still-active psychosis Manhattan Supreme Justice Bruce Wright declined to release him from maximum-security confinement,
but as a mental patient—as opposed to a convict, sentenced to a finite term—-Soto is eligible to apply for emancipation every two years.
Soto is not a registered sex offender and he’s never been convicted of homicide;
he was committed not as punishment for Steven Cropper’s murder but as a societal panacea—as soon as Soto is adjudicated sane, as unlikely as that seems, the Monster of Ward’s Island will be back on the prowl.

Erno Soto’s name never again appears in the newspaper archives but he’s still with us;
if he had a terminal illness in 1993 it’s a slow-acting one.
Now 79 years old, his address is listed in online databases as 1 Wards Island, New York, NY—not the Kirby maximum security ward but a combination psychiatric hospital/homeless shelter.
It’s unclear how much freedom Soto has gained over the years—and due to stringent medical privacy laws the public has no right to know if he’s eligible for day passes, just another maniac on New York City streets.

L’Hôpital Erno-Soto, an abandoned mental asylum in France—tell me again how there are no coincidences

The assumption of Soto’s guilt in the uptown Chop-off attacks—as propagated in the Daily News’s 1993 series—has carried over online, unfortunately;
I’d like to do what I can to combat that misapprehension—considering the Harlem crimes closed is an affront to the victims and their families.
It’s too late to help Douglas Owens, Wendell Hubbard and Luis Ortiz but the Boy Who Lived may still be alive and to discount his fervent disavowal of Soto as his attacker is reckless and disrespectful.
The Boy Who Lived was maligned in the Daily News series, incidentally—portrayed as beset by “mental problems” and too unstable to recognize his assailant.
More recently, the baseless allegation the living victim “refused” —as opposed to “failed”—to identify Soto as his attacker has metastasized online like free downloads and porn.

I’m aware of the vagaries of eyewitness identification, of course;
but the Boy Who Lived’s disavowal isn’t the only evidence which tends to exonerate Soto in the uptown crimes—and there’s absolutely no meaningful evidence implicating him, even by 1970s standards.
To paint the Boy Who Lived as incapable of recognizing his attacker is heartless; “Believe the Victim” is our current mantra and it’s not solely applicable to heterosexual sex crimes.

Let’s give the Boy Who Lived the benefit of the doubt—-even the Marquis de Sade would agree he’s suffered enough.

I can’t find much about this missing family online but I’ve been searching for years; maybe someone else will have better luck. The article is available in google archives but the print is smeared so I’ve provided a clearer copy.

Since the article’s publication David Dennison’s mother and father have passed away—he’s listed in both obituaries as a surviving son residing in Zaragoza. Oddly, Sylvia Dennison’s obit lists his wife as “Marylin” which is slightly different than the Pittsburg Post Gazette’s “Marialin,” but the discrepancy may simply be a typo.

I rarely don my tinfoil hat but I’m pretty sure the answer to this mystery can be summed up in three little letters: C(entral) I(ntelligence) A(gency). I’d love to know more, however—Mary Dolores, if you’re out there, ayúdame por favor!

Andrew and Pamela Harrison first laid eyes on the site of their demise on their honeymoon; they were charmed.

Pamela Harrison

The couple, raised in the middleclass suburbs of Philadelphia, spotted their dream home while sightseeing in the Blue Ridge Mountains—a six-room log cabin on eighty acres of woodland in the rustic town of Surgoinsville, Tennessee.
It would be, they later told their loved ones, the perfect place to raise a family.

Andy Harrison’s face is illegible in every available photograph

The cabin, lacking a phone and electricity, needed extensive repair work but the couple was undeterred;
in April, 1979 Andy and Pam purchased the property and moved south.
Andy, age twenty-eight, a former high school sports hero, got a job delivering Pepsi products to local convenience stores; Pam, age twenty-seven, a former cheerleader and model,
manned the front desk at a nearby Holliday Inn.
It appeared their life together was just beginning, but Pam and Andy Harrison had less than two years to live.

Although the Rogersville Review never specifies I believe these photos are from Pam’s modeling portfolio

Their last day, June 24th, 1981, dawned as a typical workday; the couple had only one car, a 1968 Camaro, and at approximately 6:30am Pam drove Andy to his job at the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company in Johnson City.
She then returned home for a few hours before her scheduled shift at the Kingsport Holiday Inn;
that afternoon Pam, known as a conscientious employee, failed to report to work.

“She’s the nicest person I ever met—so bubbly and friendly. Everybody here loved her.” Unnamed coworker of Pamela Harrison, Philadelphia Inquirer, July 3rd, 1981

At 4 pm that evening a fellow Pepsi employee drove Andy to the Holiday Inn to retrieve the couple’s vehicle
as was his routine, but the Camaro wasn’t in the parking lot.
A quick check with her coworkers revealed Pam had never arrived at the hotel;
Andy, stranded, helped his coworker with some deliveries for a few hours in exchange for a ride back to Surgoinsville.
He subsequently arrived home at approximately 8pm where he discovered Pam’s keys, purse and the family car—everything in its proper place except Pam herself.

That evening Harry and Janie Rimer—a salt-of-the-earth couple who lived across from the Harrison cabin on Longs Bend Road—heard Andy walking in the area calling for his wife.
He later stopped by the Rimers’ home in the company of a bespectacled stranger;
according to the Rogersville Review, when the Rimers said they hadn’t seen Pam that day Andy replied, “Oh, well, I guess she’s among the missing.”

Andy and his companion soon drove away in a two-tone blue automobile; approximately a half hour later,
at 10pm, the Rimers witnessed the same car, a 1980 Plymouth Horizon, return to the Harrison home.
A few minutes later a shot rang out;
the sound of gunfire was apparently commonplace in the area, however, and the Rimers were unperturbed.
The vehicle then departed and for the next forty-eight hours the Harrisons’ cabin was silent.

When the Harrisons failed to report to work for the next two days the couple’s coworkers became anxious.
The Holiday Inn staff asked Bobby Baird, a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent staying at the hotel,
to visit the Harrison home for a wellness check.
Just before midnight on June 26th Agent Baird arrived on Longs Bend Road;
although the Harrisons’ door was padlocked and nothing appeared amiss he immediately noted the odor of human decomposition.
Forcing his way inside, Agent Baird discovered the body of Andy Harrison in the front hallway,
his remains covered with an assortment of women’s clothing.

Andy had been shot once in the back of the head with a .25; his billfold was absent but everything else in the cabin appeared undisturbed.
Although the residence was thoroughly searched Pam, almost three days she’d last been seen,
remained among the missing.

The next morning a search of the Harrisons’ property revealed several items of Pam’s clothing scattered on a creek bed forty yards from the cabin;
as Hawkins County Deputy Charlie Godsey searched nearby he noticed a cistern for an unused septic tank—peering into the chasm he discovered the decomposing remains of Pamela Harrison.
Wrapped in a maggot-infested blanket and clad only in a bra and hiked-up shirt,
Pam had endured a sexual assault and a massive skull fracture;
she’d also been shot once in the back of the head with the same weapon that killed her husband.

“Andy and Pam went down there looking for their dream, and then this.” Andrew Harrison’s stepfather Alfred Gilbert, Philadelphia Inquirer, July 3rd, 1981

Andy had been slain shortly after 10pm on the 24th, the coroner estimated, and Pam a few hours earlier,
sometime in the early afternoon.
Luckily for law enforcement neighbors Janie and Harry Rimer had exceptional recall of the events on Longs Bend Road on the Harrisons’ final day.
When interviewed the Rimers provided a detailed description of Andy’s companion and his vehicle
including a partial license plate number.
Mrs. Rimer further revealed she’d seen the same car at the cabin midday, after Pam returned from driving Andy to work.
The TBI had to search through more than ten thousand vehicle registration records but agents were eventually able to identify the automobile and its driver.

Kingsport resident David Jordan, age twenty-five, was employed in the collections department of the First National Bank of Sullivan County.

Jordan, married with two children, told investigators he’d met the Harrisons approximately one year earlier when Andy delivered Pepsi products to a Jiffy Market Jordan was then managing.
At first Jordan denied he’d been at the cabin the day the Harrisons were slain but when confronted with the Rimers’ recollections his story mutated.
Eventually he verified the Rimers’ account—he’d been at the cabin midday, he admitted,
and had later returned to help Andy look for Pam—but Jordan was adamant he hadn’t harmed either of the Harrisons.

Although her family and friends scoffed at this allegation, Jordan claimed he’d been having an affair with Pam. He had visited the cabin around noon on the 24th to drop off some personal use marijuana he regularly sold Andy, Jordan said,
and then had sex with Pam. The crime lab found pubic hair and semen consistent with Jordan’s in the blanket wrapped around Pam’s remains,
but even a consensual affair couldn’t explain the serological evidence in the Plymouth:
when doused with Luminol the interior of the car—specifically the steering wheel, accelerator, radio, air conditioner, floor, glove box, and light switch—lit up like a kid on Christmas.

During their yearlong acquaintanceship personal use marijuana wasn’t the only item the Harrisons purchased from Jordan;
he also admitted he’d sold the couple a .25 caliber gun, the same type of weapon used in the slayings—the .25, like Andy’s billfold, has never been located.
Jordan was arrested on July 6th, ten days after the murders, and held without bail at the Hawkins County Jail.
While in custody Jordan reportedly confessed his guilt to fellow prisoner Dennis Evans Taylor; rape of Pam had been the primary motive, he allegedly stated, and then Andy had to be eliminated to prevent retaliation.
Andy was “a fool,” Jordan purportedly said, but even he would eventually figure out who murdered his wife.

“[Jordan said] Pam was one of the most beautiful women he had ever met; he said he burned inside every time he got close to her.” Inmate Dennis Evans Taylor, Rogersville Review, October 21st, 1982

The murders of Pam and Andy Harrison—while certainly tragic—seemed to be destined for a tidy conclusion;
Jordan, charged with two counts of capital murder, faced death in Old Smokey,
the Tennessee State Prison electric chair.
The sense closure lurked right around the corner was illusory.
This was Appalachia; the Harrisons were strangers and Jordan was from a prominent local family who provided him with the best legal counsel money could buy. Three trials ensued.

The first jury declared themselves hopelessly deadlocked after only 24 hours of deliberation; the second jury, which reportedly split eleven-to-one for guilt, suffered a similar fate.
(According to a Newsweek article penned by Andy’s mother the second trial’s hold-out juror claimed an auditory issue had prevented him from hearing testimony—an affliction he neglected to mention before the alternates were dismissed.)
Finally on September 1st, 1983 the third jury returned with a verdict after a single hour of deliberation:
Jordan was found not guilty on all counts.

[Three degrees of Sid Vicious: after the Harrison murders Andy’s mother Louise Gilbert attended a Philadelphia-area Parents of Murdered Children support group with the mother of infamous punk muse Nancy Spungen.]

And thus the legal saga of the Harrison murders ends and the crime slipped into the realm of legend;
whispers of strange happenings at the couple’s murder scene fueled rumors the risen spirits of Pam and Andy could not rest in peace.
Subsequent residents of the cabin reported phantom footsteps, doors slamming,
and spontaneous woodstove fires—one tenant even claimed she saw Pam’s face reflected in her bathwater.
More gruesomely, the blood stains in the foyer where Andy was slain reportedly returned several times despite being masked over with plywood, tar paper and oak flooring.

The most spectacular otherworldly event at the Harrison home, ten months after the David Jordan’s acquittal,
actually garnered front page coverage in the Rogersville Review.
Star prosecution witnesses Harry and Janie Rimer remained on Longs Bend Road after the murders despite several incidents of intimidation—their house was vandalized,
and midway through the first trial Mrs. Rimer had almost been killed by an unidentified sniper while hanging out her wash. The couple didn’t scare easily, however,
and despite the harassment the Rimers persevered and testified at all three trials.

On July 14th, 1984 several Rimer family intimates—Janie Rimer, her two daughters, a granddaughter and a friend—happened to stroll past the Harrison residence at approximately 10pm.
The cabin, still lacking electricity, was unoccupied at the time but Mrs. Rimer and her companions noticed a small light flickering inside.
As the onlookers stood transfixed the light swelled to brilliance, an unearthly glow illuminating the entire structure—and it was then Mrs. Rimer noticed a spectral figure standing on the porch.

There, three years after his murder stood Andy Harrison,
still clad in the Pepsi uniform he wore when he breathed his last.
Suddenly one of Mrs. Rimer’s daughters screamed—and as if a switch had been thrown the cabin was again plunged into darkness.

Mrs. Rimer later said she felt no fear when she saw the shadowy figure on the Harrisons’ porch; she wasn’t sure what he was trying to say, she told a Rogersville Review reporter, but she had the feeling Andy was trying to send her a message.

Click through for an October 27th, 2000 Rogersville Review article about the hauntings

Speaking for the dead, obviously, is a tricky proposition but I believe I know what Andy was trying to convey;
and he chose Mrs. Rimer as a conduit, I’m sure,
because considering her fearless trial testimony he knew she’s be the perfect person to tell the tale.
Andy Harrison, in my opinion, was sending a message to the person who killed him—and regardless of the jury’s verdict Andy knows exactly who that person is.
I think Andy wants his killer to know he’ll be waiting patiently on the other side
to avenge the rape and murder of his beautiful wife Pam—and this time a cowardly gunshot from behind isn’t going to stop him.

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.