Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mel Ignatow

A gang of Cubans will execute you

After six months, the investigation into Brenda Sue Schaefer's disappearance was grinding to a halt. Although the police, and much of the surrounding community, were convinced that Mel Ignatow had been responsible for the crime, no conclusive evidence linking Ignatow to the crime had been discovered. For months, Ignatow had been publicly complaining about the interest the police were taking in his actions leading up to Schaefer's disappearance, accusing investigators of "police-state" tactics. These tactics, however, hadn't stopped him from dating several other women in the interim.

On March 22, 1989, Ignatow received a letter that seemed to validate his assertions of persecution. Postmarked from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., the letter demanded that Ignatow reveal the location of Brenda Sue Schaefer's body or "a gang of Cubans" would execute him.

The letter continued:

"I have arranged for the Cubans to arrive in Louisville 1 week prior to the termination...and remain in Louisville until contract is completed. Upon proof of your execution, they will receive remainder of the $15,000 plus $5,000 expense money if that amount is needed."

Through his lawyers, Ignatow demanded, and received, SWAT team protection. The irony of taxpayers footing the bill for Ignatow's protection seems to have been too much for the police to swallow: soon after the court-ordered SWAT protection had been stationed outside Ignatow's apartment, the primary investigators on the case revealed that they knew all about the letter. In fact, they had already read the letter and counseled its author, Dr. William Spalding, against mailing the threat. Spalding, Brenda's employer, had told the police during a previous interview that he intended to send the letter to Ignatow in the hope that the threat would scare Ignatow into confessing. Spalding was devoted to Brenda and had taken the lead organizing the $25,000 reward that was being offered for information about her disappearance. In the months since Brenda's disappearance, Spalding had grown obsessed with and terrified of Ignatow. Spalding carried a handgun at all times in case Ignatow attacked him.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Ignatow had Spalding arrested for making terroristic threats. During Spalding's trial, his defense tried to bring to the foreground Brenda's disappearance rather than Spalding's attempt at intimidation. As such, the nature and health of Ignatow and Schaefer's relationship was called into question. Ignatow again, but this time under oath, declared that they had been happily in love. Spalding was convicted, but his trial ultimately became pivotal to Mel Ignatow's fate.

Charlie Ricketts
Charlie Ricketts
He'd spent the six months since Brenda's disappearance claiming that he couldn't go on and that the police were unfairly targeting an innocent man. In the wake of the Spalding letter he was further emboldened.

It's rare that a defense attorney will be willing to bring his or her client before a grand jury. The investigating officers knew this, but they were dealing with an infuriatingly hard case. He was holding up against questioning. The investigation had hit a brick wall. With little hope, they approached Charlie Ricketts, Ignatow's attorney, with an offer: if Ignatow would testify before a grand jury he could hold a press conference promoting his cooperation. Ignatow, eager to proclaim his innocence, agreed.

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