Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Case of Dr. Samuel Sheppard

The Murder of Marilyn Sheppard

This much is certain: Marilyn Sheppard was brutally beaten to death. Sam Sheppard served 10 years in the Ohio Penitentiary for her murder, only to be freed by a landmark Supreme Court ruling. And, 35 years after the murder, young Sam Sheppard began a crusade to clear his father's name and bring to justice the man he believed killed his mother.

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It had been a hot, sunny Saturday in the quiet Cleveland suburb of Bay Village — perfect for picnics, boating and swimming, an ideal start for the three-day holiday weekend. Tomorrow, the Fourth of July, and Monday, the legal holiday, promised more beautiful mid-summer days.

Now, as darkness fell, cool air was moving in from the south. Around the barn-like home perched on the edge of Lake Erie, a gentle breeze stirred the trees. Good sleeping weather.

Shortly after midnight, a man and woman emerged from the house, calling out their "good nights" and putting the lock on the door. Inside, Marilyn Sheppard went upstairs to prepare for bed while her husband Sam sleepily watched a late movie. Their seven-year-old son Sam, known as "Chip," was already asleep. The house settled back into the quiet darkness.

What happened in the next few hours is a murder mystery still alive in the courts and the public mind more than a half-century later. For now, though, on this soft summer night in 1954, Bay Village slept.

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Clevelanders awoke late on the holiday Monday. When they opened their front doors, they got a shock. Because it was a holiday, all three papers — the afternoon Cleveland Press and Cleveland News as well as the morning Plain Dealer — published in the morning.

"BAY DOCTOR'S WIFE IS MURDERED; Beaten, He Tells of Fight With Intruder," said the double banner in the Plain Dealer.

"DOCTOR'S WIFE MURDERED IN BAY; Drug Thieves Suspected in Bludgeoning," said the Press.

"FIND TOOTH CHIPS UNDER BODY OF BAY DOCTOR'S SLAIN WIFE; Grappled With Brutal Slayer, Physician Says," said the News.

Sam & Marilyn Sheppard, the ideal couple (Cleveland Press)
Sam & Marilyn Sheppard, the ideal couple
(Cleveland Press)

For the next month, the Sheppard murder case was to be the play story in virtually every edition of all three papers. Gradually, however, the tone of the stories changed.

What they described at first was an idyllic family. Marilyn Sheppard, 31 years old, was a devoted wife and mother who taught Sunday school at Bay Methodist Church and was active in community affairs. At 5 feet, 7 inches and 125 pounds, with brown hair and hazel eyes, she was, in the jargon of the day, an "attractive suburban housewife."

Sam Sheppard as osteopathic college student (Cleveland Press)
Sam Sheppard as osteo-
pathic college student
(Cleveland Press)

Samuel H. Sheppard, 30, was known to all as "Dr. Sam" to distinguish him from three other doctors in the family. With his father Richard and his brothers Richard and Stephen, he helped run Bay View Hospital, a 110-bed osteopathic hospital in an 80-year-old converted mansion.

While he was listed as a neurosurgeon, he was also skilled at emergency care. Only Saturday afternoon, he had struggled valiantly but unsuccessfully to save the life of a child who had been struck by a car. His work had earned him the good life —a lakefront home with a Lincoln Continental and a Jaguar in the garage.

Marilyn Sheppard as high school student (Cleveland Press)
Marilyn Sheppard as
high school student
(Cleveland Press)

Sam and Marilyn had been childhood sweethearts at Cleveland Heights High School, where he was president of his senior class and quarterback of the football team. They were "deeply in love," said Marilyn's father. "Like sweethearts," said their once-a-week maid. Marilyn was four months pregnant, though only close friends knew.

They were "popular among the younger set" in the clubby community, said neighbors — "beautiful people," as one put it. Only a few days earlier, they had gone water skiing after midnight in the lake behind their home.

The day bed in the living room (Cleveland Press)
The day bed in the living room
(Cleveland Press)

That peaceful existence was shattered early on the holiday morning, as Sam Sheppard groggily related it to police at 6 a.m. After the departure of their dinner guests, neighbors Don and Nancy Ahern, Sam fell asleep watching the late movie, Strange Holiday. Marilyn left him on the downstairs couch and went to sleep in the twin bed next to Sam's.

Sheppard was to tell that story many times, always substantially the same. As he put it in a formal statement six days later, sometime after he fell asleep he awoke, believing he heard his wife calling his name.

He ran upstairs and saw "a form with a light garment, I believe, at the same time grappling with something or someone." He heard moans or groans. Suddenly he was struck from behind.

When he came to, he was lying on the floor. His wife was covered with blood. He checked her pulse and felt none. He ran to the next room and saw that Chip was still sleeping soundly.

The
The "bushy-haired
intruder" police sketch

Hearing a noise below, he ran down the stairs. The back door was open and he saw "a form progressing rapidly toward the lake." It was somebody, as well as he could tell, about 6 foot 3, middle-aged, with dark bushy hair and a white shirt.

He chased the form across the lawn and down the wooden steps to the beach 50 feet below. Then, he said, "I lunged or jumped and grasped him in some manner from the back, either body or leg. It was something solid." He struggled with the form, then felt himself "twisting or choking, and this terminated my consciousness."

He could not say how long he was unconscious, but when he came to again he staggered up the stairs to the house and the bedroom in which his wife lay dead. "I believed or thought I was disoriented and the victim of a bizarre dream and I believe I paced in and out of the room and possibly into one of the other rooms. I may have re-examined her, finally believing that this was true."

A phone number came to his mind, that of his neighbor, Bay Village Mayor Spencer Houk. He didn't remember what he told Houk, but Houk did: "For God's sake, Spen, get over here! I think they've killed Marilyn."

Houk and his wife Esther dressed quickly and drove the short distance to the Sheppards'. Mrs. Houk ran upstairs and found Marilyn's body in the blood-spattered bedroom. Houk called Bay Village police. It was 5:57 a.m.; the Fourth of July dawn was breaking.

The newspapers reported his tale of terror, the brutal tragedy that shattered this ideal family and the combined sympathy and horror it stirred in the quiet community. "They Shared Duties, Pleasures of Life," said a headline about the couple. "Sheppards Face Tragedy Bravely," said one about the family.

Gradually, though, the headlines were to change.

 

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