Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Christopher Hightower

The LYNX Connection

Brendel family photo
Brendel family photo
It would take more than a month of intense police air and ground searches before a woman walking her dog would find the bodies of the Brendel family buried in two shallow graves on the grounds of St. Andrew's School only a half-mile from the victims' home. The gruesome discovery came as a shock to the small, close-knit community, which had held out hope that the family would be found alive.

Prayer services for the missing family were regular occurrences at the small white church that Hightower once attended. Congregation members, many of whom found it hard to believe one of their own could be involved in the disappearance, prayed for the family's safe return. They also prayed for Hightower.

On November 7, their prayers were answered but not in the way they hoped.

With news helicopters hovering overhead, state police officials began the tedious task of unearthing the bodies, carefully preserving every scrap of evidence including a piece of paper from the bag of lime used to speed the victims' decomposition. Brendel was buried in one grave. His wife was in another. But when they moved Alice's body, they could see the sneakers of the little girl underneath. All hope of finding Emily alive had now been dashed.

Hardened police officials wept at the sight. Even Rhode Island Attorney General James E. O'Neil would wipe tears from his eyes as he told of the grim discovery at a press conference near the burial site.

But the discovery of the bodies did not phase Hightower.

While the five-week search for the missing Brendels was underway, a mute Hightower sat in his jail cell at the Adult Correctional Institute, still refusing to talk about the family's disappearance. But he was not idle.

Hightower still had some business to take care of, even if he was behind bars.

Soon, he began writing anonymous letters from his jail cell asserting his innocence. The letters, signed "Lynx", claimed the murders were retaliation for the theft of $2 million which Ernest Brendel had stolen from the mob. One of those letters reportedly contained a hit list that included the names of Hightower's wife, her children and her parents along with his landlords and others who had offended him. The letter, believed to have been written to a hit man, asks whether $55,000 was enough to cover all the murders. Another letter held specific information about the daily routines of his sister-in-law and father-in-law. Others contained threats against his wife and children, purportedly made by the mysterious "Lynx," who vowed to kill the family if she did not reconcile with the murder suspect.

But authorities found something more chilling in those letters. Many contained detailed information only the killer would know.

Among them was the letter which stated that Brendel had stolen mob money, an assertion that infuriated the dead man's family. The letter claimed that when Brendel refused to return the cash, four men went to his home, searched it then strangled Alice and Emily in front of the terrified man before he was killed.

"Because of Brendel's greed and stupidity, his family was killed. Hightower was set up because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time," the letter writer said. It indicated that Hightower stumbled on the men as they searched Brendel's home and became an unwilling accomplice when they threatened the lives of his own wife and children.

According to the writer, Hightower was ordered to contact Scriabine about the ransom demand and was followed wherever he went even into the bank, where he cashed Brendel's forged check, and the hardware store where he picked up the acid and lime used to clean up after the crime.

"He did everything exactly like we told him to do," the writer said.

But authorities were not convinced of the letters' validity, especially after the inmate Hightower chose to sneak the missives out of jail contacted the FBI.

All of the Lynx letters, as they came to be known, were later traced back to the suspect.

At his trial, Hightower testified that he wrote the threatening letters in order to convince authorities that his family needed protection from the mob. The letters, he hoped, would help provide that security. Instead, they were his undoing.



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