Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Case of Dr. Samuel Sheppard

The Real Story?

Here's what really happened on the night of July 3, 1954, as Richard Eberling said Sam Sheppard related it to him 15 years later and as young Sam reported it in Mockery of Justice in 1995:

"Spen came over after the Aherns left. Esther was half-bombed. Esther snuck over. Sam went to sleep. Spen gave a hug. [Apparently to Marilyn; the quote isn't clear]. Esther just went wild."

When Sam awoke, he went on, it was Esther who was upstairs yelling "Help me!" She fell into Sam's arms, saying she had gone temporarily insane and suddenly realized what she had done. Sheppard felt sorry for her. Houk talked Sheppard into a cover-up and Sheppard went along.

In the next couple of hours Houk got rid of the murder weapon — a "patty shell iron" from Esther's kitchen — and burned her bloody clothes in his fireplace (Hence Bailey's question about the fire at the second trial) while Sheppard faked the burglary, never realizing he was setting himself up as a suspect.

Sheppard had told him the story, Eberling said, because he was an old friend and because he had kept quiet about Esther's threat to kill Marilyn.

****

It was a wild story. But it did nicely tie together some things that had never been adequately explained. And it could have accounted for Houk's reluctance to arrest Sam when Cleveland police demanded it.

What's more, it seemed to tie in with rumors, which had been prevalent in Bay Village. Later, when young Sam established a telephone number for people to call with tips about the case, Houk was mentioned by caller after caller: "I think the mayor did it. ..." "The mayor at Bay Village, he killed her, I have no doubt...." "I was a friend with a man who was a part-time policeman. The feeling of the police was that the mayor was a prime suspect."

Mayor and Mrs J. Spencer Houk (CORBIS)
Mayor and Mrs J. Spencer Houk (CORBIS)

The Houks had been Lee Bailey's suspects in the second trial, though the grand jury had looked into the facts after Sheppard's acquittal and declined to take action. Young Sam took the suspicions seriously enough to develop two scenarios, which are laid out in the book.

Scenario 1 has Houk seeing the light on in the Sheppards' dressing room — a "signal" that Sam is not home — and sneaking over, not realizing Sam is asleep downstairs. He awakens Marilyn, who screams. Houk panics and begins to hit her with a flashlight or screwdriver. Sam runs upstairs and Houk knocks him out.

Houk runs down to the stairs to get to his house along the beach. Sam catches him and he knocks him out again and leaves him lying in the shallow water. When Sam calls him at 6 a.m., Houk is amazed he is still alive and pretends he has no idea what happened.

Scenario 2: Houk sneaks over to Marilyn's bedroom. Esther trails him, armed with a weapon. Esther dashes into the room and begins beating Marilyn. Marilyn cries out.

Sam runs into the room and Houk knocks him out. The Houks fake the burglary. Esther, a smoker, forgetfully throws a cigarette into the toilet. When Sam comes to, he doesn't see Esther and chases Spen down the stairs and onto the beach.

Young Sam weighed the scenarios — and decided there was a better suspect.

****

Young Sam had trouble believing Eberling's claim that his father was homosexual. His book notes that, if anything, "his overagressive heterosexuality seemed to be what had caused so much difficulty."

Problems with Eberling's version quickly came to light. He said Bay Village police had questioned him about the Sheppard murder in 1954; police had no record.

He described himself as such a good friend of Sam Sheppard that Sheppard confided in him alone the story of the murder. Sheppard relatives said Sam was usually at work when Eberling came to clean windows and may not even have known him.

Eberling's story changed as he repeated it over and over. Bay Village police listened to it and said they doubted it.

Then young Sam got a letter from a man named Vern Lund, who said he wanted to tell him something before he died.

Lund was now dying of cancer, but he said in 1954 he worked for Eberling's company, Dick's Window Cleaning, and that on July 2 it was Lund, not Eberling, who came to wash the windows. Eberling was not in the house.

Lund repeated his story to Cynthia Cooper in a videotape and signed an affidavit to its truthfulness before he died.

****

Richard Eberling, prison photo (AP)
Richard Eberling, prison
photo (AP)

Prosecutors and Cleveland police still showed no interest in Eberling, but reporters did, especially Cindy Leise of the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram.

Her Page One five-part series revealed another trail of blood — a long string of suspicious deaths: suspicious deaths which had marked Eberling's path.

What's more, it included an interview in which Eberling said, as the headline put it, "I Know Who Killed Marilyn Sheppard.'' He would not expand on the statement except to say it was someone who lived nearby.

Both Young Sam and Dr. Steve told Leise they did not believe Eberling's boast. Dr. Steve, however, did say something that would be significant in view of Eberling's interview with Young Sam six months later.

He said that Eberling was homosexual; police thought that too, though Eberling vigorously denied it. And he said his brother might have been bisexual, that womanizers (which he seemd to concede Sam was) were sometimes also homosexual. He called it "the Don Juan complex."

Other reporters jumped on the story, as did Cynthia Cooper, a New York lawyer and author who became an investigator for the Sheppards and later co-authored Mockery of Justice with him.

Here's what they turned up:

Richard Eberling had been born George Lenardic in 1929. His unmarried mother abandoned him at birth. He was raised by a series of foster families.

His last foster father, George Eberling, died in 1946 when he swallowed poison which had somehow wound up next to the cough syrup he thought he was taking.

George Eberling had refused to adopt Richard Lenardic, but after his death Richard legally changed his name to Eberling and became caretaker of his foster mother, Christine Eberling — just as he would later become caretaker of Ethel Durkin. When Christine died, her children discovered Richard had obtained title to most of the family farm.

His connection with the 1954 murder of Marilyn Sheppard didn't come out until 1959, when he was arrested with her ring among other items he had stolen from his window washing customers. That was when he volunteered to police that he had dripped blood in the Sheppard home two days before the murder.

In 1959 a girlfriend, Barbara Ann Kinzel, was killed in an auto accident in which Eberling, the driver, was not injured. Strangely, she had been a nurse at Bay View Hospital at the time of the Sheppard murder.

In 1962 Myrtle Irene Fay, Ethel Durkin's sister, was strangled and smothered in her Cleveland apartment. It went as an unsolved homicide. In 1970, Sarah Belle Farrow, Ethel's other sister, died in a fall at the Durkin home in what was ruled an accident.

Both had disliked Eberling and tried to get Ethel to fire him, but no one saw any reason to be suspicious — at least until after Ethel's "accidental" death was changed to homicide.

In 1996, publicity about Eberling brought forward a woman named Kathie Collins, who had been a night nurse for Ethel Durkin. She said that in 1984, on a night when she and Eberling had both been drinking heavily, Eberling asked her, "Have you ever heard of Marilyn Sheppard?" and said he killed her, adding "The bitch bit the hell out of me too, but I got her ring."

Collins said that when she told the story to her mother, her mother said, "Don't worry about Dick. He's a crazy fag."

So she didn't tell anybody else. In 1989, when the case was back in the news, she said she tried to tell a Cleveland detective. He brushed her off.

****

Young Sam now had a cause — proving that his father was more than just "not guilty," as the second jury had found, but that he was innocent — that he could not have killed his wife and young Sam's mother.

 

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