Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Case of Dr. Samuel Sheppard

Father and Son

Jurors revealed that their first ballot had been seven for acquittal, four for conviction and one undecided. Gradually, the minority — mainly older jurors who remembered their first impressions of the case — gave way. The jurors said they thought the police investigation had been sloppy and they were troubled that the prosecution hadn't suggested a motive why Sam would kill his wife.

After the trial, Bailey revealed in a letter to Bay Village police what he had been unable to present at the trial. He said Jack Krakan, the bakery driver, had seen Spencer Houk kissing Marilyn Sheppard.

He also said Sam had been examined under hypnosis and remembered feeling his neck crushed under someone's foot and hearing someone talk about whether to kill him. He said the person walked with a limp — as did Spencer Houk.

A grand jury called witnesses, including the Houks, but declined to bring charges.

The case made Bailey's reputation. The reversal of the first conviction showed him to be a legal strategist well versed in the law. The second trial showed him to be a brilliant trial lawyer.

Thus, people assumed his decision not to have the defendant testify was merely an astute appraisal of the way the case was going in The Defense Never Rests, written after Sheppard's death, Bailey revealed the real reason. His client had deteriorated badly since his release under the influence of "booze and pills."

Bailey told Sheppard he wouldn't put him on the stand because he had already told his story over and over and the prosecution could take potshots at him.

"Both these arguments were legitimate," he wrote, "but the real reason was his condition. Hardly anybody knew it, but during the trial there were times when Sam was unaware of what was going on around him. I couldn't let him take the stand."

Sheppard's life went quickly downhill. Readmitted to the practice of medicine, he was sued for malpractice in the death of a patient. In 1968 Ariane filed for divorce, saying that under the influence of alcohol and drugs he had stolen her money, threatened her and thrown empty bottles at her.

Sam Sheppard holds up poster for his wrestling match (CORBIS)
Sam Sheppard holds up poster
for his wrestling match
(CORBIS)

He moved to Columbus and for a while appeared as a pro wrestler, featuring his ``nerve hold,'' which he had supposedly learned as a neurologist. In 1969, he and Colleen Strickland, the 20-year-old daughter of his wrestling manager, announced they had been married on a motorcycle trip to Mexico.

No documentation of the marriage was found after Sheppard died, but Colleen wouldn't have inherited anything anyway; he was insolvent.

On April 6, 1970, Samuel Holmes Sheppard was found dead in his and Colleen's home. The cause was ruled liver failure; he had been drinking as much as two fifths of liquor a day.

Twenty-five years later, a book co-authored by his son put it more kindly: "Medical terms don't fully capture what killed Dr. Sam. He really died of a broken heart and a spirit that found no solace."

****

What of "Chip" — or, as he preferred to be called as an adult, Sam Reese Sheppard? Reese was Marilyn's maiden name, so the name commemorated both of his parents.

He had been raised by his Uncle Stephen and his wife, living as normal a childhood as a child can live knowing that people are whispering "That's the son of the doctor who killed his wife." Even as a teenager at Culver Military Academy, he knew the whispers went on. He and his father wrote regularly, and he visited Sam Sr. in the penitentiary as often as he could. He indignantly rejected suggestions that he change his name to avoid being identified with the family stigma.

He was a junior at Culver when his father was freed and afterward went to live with him briefly. At Bailey's suggestion, he entered Boston University and lived with Bailey's family, though he returned for a brief appearance at the second trial.

That was mainly to show the jury that he believed and supported his father, though he knew what the jurors didn't: that his father was deteriorating mentally and physically.

After Dr. Sam's death, young Sam slipped willingly into obscurity. As a dental technician in Boston, he refused to talk about the bad memories and, as much as possible, think about them. But in 1979 he was moved by Norman Mailer's book ``Executioner's Song,'' about the execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah.

Then, in 1985, he happened on a newspaper photo: The children of Charlie Brooks were standing outside the fence of a Texas prison where their father awaited execution. What he felt comes through even in the wooden prose of his co-author: "Sam R. knew that it could have been his dad who was sentenced to die. ... The terror of Brooks's sons swept through Sam R."

He became active in a group of families of murder victims who opposed the death penalty. In 1989 he spoke out publicly at a rally in Albany.

The director of the Cleveland City Club, Alan Davis — his father's lifelong friend — invited him to speak at the club's nationally broadcast City Club Forum in October. He accepted.

Samuel Reese Sheppard (AP)
Samuel Reese Sheppard (AP)

At the age of 42, he was coming home. Not to the city where he could never feel comfortable, but to the cause which would become his life work.

"The Fourth of July, at dawn," he began his speech, "my mother lay dead, just down the hall from me as I lay asleep. On the shore of the lake below our house, my father lay half in and half out of the water, viciously knocked unconscious."

Later, he said, "My father sat in the Cuyahoga County Jail, weathering one of the most potent blitzes aimed at any one individual by the news media in modern times."

Noting that the state originally sought the death penalty, he said his father's death would have killed him too. "I feel it, and I will feel it for the rest of my life, how close we came to death — my father and I — 35 years ago in this city."

Now, he said, law enforcement authorities were once more "dragging their feet" in finding the real story of what happened July 4, 1954. They were not pursuing leads about the connection of someone who had recently been convicted of another murder. "I have reason to believe this individual conspired with others in the murder of my mother," he said.

He did not use a name. Those in the audience who had been reading the papers knew who he meant.

The window washer.

Richard Eberling.

 

Categories
Advertisement