Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Case of Dr. Samuel Sheppard

Who Killed Marilyn?

It's more than a century since Jack the Ripper stalked London slums, but nearly every year a new book purports to solve the crimes and reveal his identity.

Marilyn Sheppard (AP)
Marilyn Sheppard (AP)

The case of Marilyn Sheppard hasn't reached that stage yet, but it's getting there.

In April 2002 Bernard F. Conners, an FBI agent turned novelist, published Tailspin: the Strange Case of Major Call. In it he pins the Bay Village murder on James Call, an Air Force pilot who in 1954 deserted and embarked on a burglary spree across the nation.

Call had said he was prepared to kill anybody who got in his way, and on Aug. 5 he did kill a policeman who surprised him during a burglary in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Conners cites evidence that about the time of the Sheppard murder Call visited his sister in Mantua, Ohio, 30 miles southeast of downtown Cleveland. A woman from that town called police the day after the crime to report that on the day after the murder she had seen a man who matched the sketch of the "bushy-haired intruder" catching a bus out of town

The Sheppard murder fit Call's M.O. The crowbar he carried could have been the death weapon and the Luger he also carried could have made the bloody imprint on Marilyn's pillowcase. Fingerprints taken after his arrest for the Lake Placid murder indicated a recent injury to his forefinger that was similar to a bite mark. He was limping at the time (like Sheppard's description of the intruder) as the result of a recent injury. He smoked, which could explain the cigarette in the Sheppards' toilet. He could have taken Sheppard's T-shirt to replace his own bloody shirt.

Call did not have an alibi for the July 3-4 period. He said he had been alone on New York State's Adirondack Trail at the time.

What's more, Conners found Dr. Gervase Flick, who the day after the murder picked up a hitchhiker heading east from Ashtabula, Ohio. The man had blood on his shoes (from kicking a dead dog off the road, he said), asked if Flick had heard about the Sheppard murder and seemed intent on radio newscasts. In 1997 Flick picked out Call's photo as that of the hitchhiker.

In September 2000 Conners found Richard and Betty Knitter, who had seen a bushy-haired man on Lake Rd. shortly before the murder but had been unable to identify him from a book of "mug shots." They identified Call's photo as "the closest resemblance to the man we saw as 'the bushy-haired man.' We were surprised when we saw the pictures and they were so much alike that it was amazing."

However, pictures of Call from the time that Conners reproduces do not show him with hair anywhere near as high as the three or four inches the Nickersons described. Dr. Flick said the hitchhiker he picked up had combed-back hair.

Despite many similarities, Conners cites no direct evidence tying Call to the crime.

At this late date, it appears impossible to prove somebody guilty of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In any event, all the suspects are dead; Call was killed in an auto accident in 1970.

That means murder fans are free to let their imaginations run wild. Conners' book — the second on the Sheppard case in six months — means the floor is open for nominations.

Aside from Call, three possibilities stand out.

****

Eberling's mug shot in 1959, police evidence
Eberling's mug shot in
1959, police evidence

Despite the civil jury's finding, Richard Eberling remains a strong suspect. The jury did not hear about the long string of suspicious deaths with which he was involved. In particular, jurors did not hear about his conviction for the brutal 1984 murder of Ethel Durkin.

Eberling was very familiar with the Sheppard house, including the basement entrance, which was often unlocked. On the other hand, there is no evidence he was in the vicinity of the house at the time of the murder except a vague resemblance to a man in a white shirt that several passing motorists saw. The Nickersons recently identified Call as the man they had seen.

A sketch of the bushy-haired intruder in 1954, police evidence
A sketch of the bushy-
haired intruder in 1954,
police evidence

He fit the general description of the "bushy-haired intruder" with whom Sheppard wrestled. On the other hand, why didn't Sheppard recognize the window washer who regularly came to his home? But then Sheppard may have been away when he came to wash windows.

The "trail of blood" down the steps is almost certainly Eberling's. He volunteered to police in 1959 that he dripped blood in the house; if he hadn't, he might not have become a suspect. On the other hand, he could have been guiltily trying to set up an explanation. And his former employee signed a dying declaration that Eberling had not been at the Sheppards' on the date he stated.

Had DNA testing been available in 1984, it could have solved the case quickly.

Today police follow careful procedures in collecting and preserving DNA evidence. They keep the evidence dry and at room temperature, wear disposable gloves while handling it, avoid coughing or even talking, and seal it in paper — not plastic — envelopes sealed with tape rather than staples. Those procedures weren't followed in 1954 because nobody knew there was such a thing as DNA evidence. Dr. Tahir acknowledged there was a possibility of contamination in some of the samples he tested.

Eberling was capable of violence, as the Durkin murder showed. But, in nearly all the suspicious deaths with which he was connected, he stood to gain monetarily through inheritance; if they were murders, they were planned murders.

He stole repeatedly over the decades and may also have burglarized homes with which he was familiar. However, there is no evidence he was ever involved in a sex crime. He was believed to be homosexual.

Also, Dr. Kirk said the killer was left-handed; Eberling is right-handed. And expert witnesses for the Sheppard family differed as to whether the blood type of the spot on the closet door could have been Sheppard's.

Finally, a 2001 book on the case, James Neff's The Wrong Man: The Final Verdict on the Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case, concluded that Eberling was the killer.

Neff based his opinion on much the same evidence in Mockery of Justice, plus a delphic final interview with a dying and possibly delirious Eberling.

To save delays involved in applying as a reporter, Neff signed in as a visitor and did not bring a tape recorder. He describes an obviously sick Eberling whose "conversation that morning wandered, like a radio signal scanning the dial, coming in and out of reception." Then:

Suddenly Eberling took himself back to 1954. He described himself as snapping to alertness and finding himself in the Sheppards' blood-soaked bedroom. He saw a crimson mess everywhere. He was horrified. "My God, I had never seen anything like it," he said. "I got out of there."

"I asked a follow-up question but Eberling wouldn't answer. Catching himself, he wouldn't talk about it anymore.

It turned out to be as close to a confession as I would get. Richard Eberling died before I could return.

That's dramatic, but Eberling, a pathological liar, had previously given more explicit "confessions" — including one also implicating Sheppard — between repeated assertions of his innocence.

****

That the mayor of Bay Village and/or his wife killed their neighbor is a fantastic theory. Still, all the theories about how the murder happened strain credulity, and one of them has to be true.

The story that Richard Eberling told Sam Reese Sheppard in prison — after Eberling himself became a suspect — is a pastiche of many things that had been said or written before, including Dr. Steve's speculation that his brother might have been bisexual.

But suspicion of the mayor goes back to August 1966 when he was unceremoniously brought to Central Police Station for questioning as a result of leads Dr. Steve had given police. The Houks were F. Lee Bailey's suspects at the second trial, and Bailey was driving to show something similar to Eberling's version before the judge cut him off.

Before the trial, Bailey had hinted to reporters that the killer was a left-handed woman (Unlike William Corrigan, Bailey knew how to use the media).

During cross-examination he brought out that the Houks were familiar with the Sheppard home, could get between their house and Sheppard's via the beach and had set a fire in their fireplace on a July night when the overnight low was 64 degrees. Had he been allowed, he would have called the bakery driver to testify he saw Houk kissing Marilyn.

After Sam's acquittal, Bailey got Bay Village police to look into the evidence against the Houks, but the Grand Jury, after hearing witnesses, took no action. Grand jurors doubted that Houk, who walked with a limp, could have been the man who ran from Sheppard. And why wouldn't Sheppard have recognized his neighbor? Sheppard may or may not have known Eberling well, but he certainly knew Houk.

In 1982 the owners of what had been the Houk property found a pair of fireplace tongs buried four to five inches under their back yard. They were nearly two feet long, weighing one and three-quarters pounds, and appeared to match some but not all of the wounds in Marilyn's head. However, Mockery of Justice reports that they did not match the bloody imprint on the pillow and a metallurgist said the absence of corrosion indicated they could not have been buried for 28 years.

Even after Dr. Tahir said his DNA findings implicated Eberling, Bailey remained dubious. He said Eberling could have been the killer, but he still thought Esther Houk was the more likely suspect.

Young Sam at one time indicated he had a tape of an interview with Spencer Houk made shortly before his death in 1980 which appeared incriminating. In any event, he took the accusations seriously enough to lay out two scenarios, one in which Spencer Houk was the killer and one in which it was Esther. He stopped pursuing them only when the evidence against Eberling began to mount.

Still, suspicions about the Houks continued — and in other places besides the phone line for anonymous tips.

Paul Holmes avoids speculation through most of The Sheppard Murder Case, but in the end suggests a "hypothesis" in which Marilyn is killed with a flashlight by a woman whose husband fakes a burglary to cover up for her and inadvertently sets up Sheppard as a suspect. They get away with it: "No one will ever look for ashes in their grate or examine their car for bloodstains."

Jack Harrison Pollack's 1972 Dr. Sam: An American Tragedy contains a final chapter called "The Guilty." He reports that Harold Bretnall, a private detective who worked for the Sheppards, had planned before he died to write a book about the "explosive new findings" he had uncovered.

In his notes Bretnall had written, "Marilyn Sheppard was murdered by someone who was a frequent visitor to the Sheppard home." Pollack says, "After carefully ruling out all other possibilities, Bretnall concluded that Marilyn's killers were a woman and a bushy-haired man living in bondage with their awful secret."

Pollack was impressed by Bretnall's findings. His own conclusion:

The finger of suspicion, according not only to Bailey but also to more impartial observers, still points most stubbornly to a couple — a woman and a man.

Could it be that the man was having an affair with Marilyn, that his wife found about it and tried to kill her, only to be interrupted by her husband, who, out of guilt, rushed to her aid and "finished the job"?

This theory may have much to recommend it, not least the gossip of Bay Village. And it may not be coincidental that a tooth chip belonging to neither Marilyn nor Sam was found in the bedroom after the murder and that the teeth of one Bay Village resident were reportedly extracted immediately after the crime. [Pollack does not document or give a source for the last statement]

The Houks were both dead when the accusations resurfaced in the 1990s, but their grandchildren rushed to their defense. They said their grandparents could never have committed such a horrible crime. Among other things, they said Esther was not left-handed, as had been often reported.

And they said that as Esther lay dying in 1982, she called her daughter to her bedside and told her, "After I'm gone, if they accuse me of the Sheppard murder, promise you'll defend me."

Finally, in 1994 on the 40th anniversary of the crime, the Plain Dealer ran the usual big anniversary spread. Sheppard's life-long friend Alan Davis wrote one of the pieces. He called Sheppard "my best friend" and said young Sam was almost a son to him.

Yet he revealed that he had his own suspicions of the story Sam and his brothers had told about the murder. He wrote:

Maybe for their own reasons, the three Sheppard brothers decided not to reveal everything they knew, not even to me....But, putting some pieces together, I do have my own answer to who killed Marilyn Sheppard.

Will I name names? No, and for these reasons: What am I to say to accuse someone for whom Sam was willing to spend 10 years of his life in prison rather than reveal the name? Again, who am I to accuse someone without stand-up-in-court proof, which I do not have?

****

Finally, there remains one suspect. Especially among Clevelanders.

Sam Sheppard, after the trial (AP)
Sam Sheppard, after
the trial (AP)

In 1966 Sam Sheppard was found not guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." Local opinion, not bound by the law, was free to use a lesser standard. The 2000 jury, bound to rule on "the preponderance of the evidence," found him "not innocent."

While there had never been direct evidence linking Sheppard with the crime, what had aroused suspicion — first that of the police, then that of the newspapers, then that of the public — was the story he told.

It was so hard to believe — the intruder who attacked his wife while he was asleep downstairs without waking his son in the next room, the shadowy form which knocked him out not once but twice, the long delay in calling police, the missing T-shirt, the lack of corroborating evidence, the many questions to which he could say only "I don't know."

What cooked his goose with the public was denying having an affair with Susan Hayes, then having Susan Hayes fly home from Los Angeles, with flash bulbs popping, to say they had had an affair and he spoke of divorcing his wife and marrying her.

That — along with Gerber's description of the murder weapon as similar to a surgical instrument and the lack of expert testimony to counter the laboratory technologists — also damaged his standing with the first jury.

Yet it is highly questionable that Sheppard faked his own injuries, as the prosecution charged in the first trial. Several doctors testified they were genuine, and one said he had risked paralysis if he deliberately injured his neck. Tellingly, doctors who had examined him in jail at the request of prosecutors were not called to testify. Dr. Robert White, who testified for the state in the third trial, had not examined Sheppard.

Prosecutors did not challenge his injuries in the second trial. More puzzling was their failure to call Susan Hayes, bring in any evidence of other women in his life or attempt to introduce testimony the Sheppards had considered divorce (It might or might not have been admissible).

That testimony had been damning at the first trial — it was said that Sheppard was tried for murder and found guilty of adultery — but was missing from the second, leaving the jurors to scratch their heads about a motive for Sheppard to kill his wife. Similar testimony was ruled admissible in the civil trial over the objections of Terry Gilbert. It's a point which can be raised again on appeal.

Ironically, it was the story Sheppard told that was suspicious. Even his best friend doubted it.

And, ironically, years later it is the story Richard Eberling told police in 1959 that made him a suspect.

 

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