The Circleville Letters

Hey, Readers. Another Monday has rolled around, so that means it’s time for another mystery. This one is certainly baffling and is still unsolved. It’s been the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles as well as episodes of Unsolved Mysteries and 48 Hours.

There has been lots of speculation, but just who was this mysterious letter writer? Read on.

cars, street, buildings

Main Street, Circleville, Ohio. (Photo by Analogue Kid at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Circleville, Ohio is a quaint midwestern town located about twenty-five miles south of Columbus on the Scioto River. It’s best known for the Circleville Pumpkin Show, an annual event that dates back to 1903. It’s not the sort of place you would expect anything sinister to occur.

But that’s exactly what happened.

In 1977, residents of the small town began receiving anonymous letters that detailed personal information about their lives. No one was exempt—newspapers, elected officials, and private citizens were all recipients.

Mary Gillespie, a wife, mother, and school bus driver was the main target. The letters claimed she was having an affair with school superintendent Gordon Massie.

“I know where you live. I’ve been observing your house and know you have children. This is no joke. Please take it serious.”

The envelope was postmarked Columbus, Ohio.

Mary’s husband, Ron Gillespie, also received a letter “informing” him of the alleged affair and stating that if he didn’t do anything to stop it, he could end up dead.

“Mr. Gillespie, your wife is seeing Gordon Massie. … You should catch them together and kill them both. … He doesn’t deserve to live.”

“We know what kind of car you drive … We know where your kids go to school.”

Mary was on vacation in Florida with her sister-in-law on August 19, 1977, when Ron received a phone call, supposedly from the anonymous letter writer. He told his daughter he was going to confront the letter writer. He was traveling at a high rate of speed, lost control of his truck, went off the road, hit a tree, and was killed.

At the time of his death, Ron had almost twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system, but those closest to him stated he was not a heavy drinker. Beneath Ron’s body was a .22 caliber revolver. One shot had been fired. Some questioned if Ron had been shooting at the letter writer. The coroner ruled his death an accident, but his brother-in-law, Paul Freshour, believed Ron had been murdered and pressed the sheriff to continue the investigation.

The letters didn’t stop after Ron’s death. Both Mary Gillespie and Gordon Massie continued to receive threats. Letters arrived at various businesses, government offices, schools, and other Circleville residents.

Mary had always denied having an affair with Massie, but after Ron’s death, Mary and Gordon began seeing one another. The threats escalated.

“It’s your daughter’s turn to pay for what you’ve done.”

On February 7, 1983, Mary was driving her empty school bus when she saw a handmade sign on a fence about her daughter. She stopped, got off the bus, then attempted to remove the sign. But when she did, she discovered it was rigged to twine and a box. She took the box home. Inside was a handgun rigged to go off. Mary contacted the police.

Investigators from Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation found the serial number on the gun belonged to a coworker of Paul Freshour. According to 48 Hours, he admitted he’d sold the gun to Paul.

Paul’s estranged wife Karen—a sister to Ron Gillespie—told police that Paul was responsible for the letters and was furious with Mary over her involvement with Massie. Freshour was cooperative with the police. He admitted it the gun belonged to him but claimed it had been stolen. Paul did not ask for an attorney and he allowed police to search his house and car. He also provided handwriting samples. When he agreed to take a polygraph, he failed.

He was arrested for Mary’s attempted murder, but no charges were ever brought for the letters. Some interesting facts about the case:

  • Mary was allowed to testify about the letters and answer questions from the defense about them. Some experts say this was damaging to Paul’s case.
  • The judge allowed 39 letters to be brought up at trial, due to the fact the writing on the booby trap was similar to the block letters used in the handwritten letters.
  • Handwriting analyses indicated Paul Freshour could have written the letters. A second expert—originally a defense witness—agreed.
  • Paul’s fingerprints were never found on the booby trap or the box with the gun. However, he was off work the same day. The industrial size chalk box containing the gun was similar to those seen at Paul’s workplace, Anheuser Busch.
  • No one saw Paul near the booby trap and he had a fairly good alibi for most of the day.
  • Paul Freshour didn’t take the stand, but multiple defense witnesses testified to seeing him at home.

Paul was sentenced to 7 to 25 years for attempted murder, but some in the community doubted his guilt.

The letters continue to come after Paul was in prison, despite being banned from using paper and pens. The sheriff was convinced it was him but couldn’t answer how he was able to do it, but the prison warden said it was “impossible.”

Eventually, Paul himself received a letter boasting about how they had set him up. 

“When we set him up, we set him up good,” it read.

Paul Freshour served 10 years in prison for the attempted murder of Mary Gillespie. He died on June 20, 2012, at the age of 70. He continued to maintain his innocence. Today, the identity of the Circleville Letter Writer is still unknown.

The Murder of Marilyn Sheppard

“I didn’t kill my wife.”

“I don’t care!”

Some of you might recognize those lines from the 1993 film, The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones.

Ford plays Dr. Richard Kimble, a prominent Chicago vascular surgeon accused of murdering his wife. He claims he’s innocent and that the killer was a one-armed man who was in his house when he arrived home.

The evidence against him is compelling, and he’s sent to prison. On the way to the penitentiary, a bus carrying Kimble, two guards, and three other prisoners is involved in an accident with a train. Kimble escapes, goes on the run, and attempts to prove his innocence. U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (played by Jones) was sent to capture a fugitive and bring him to justice.

Although the film’s creators deny it, many speculate both the film and earlier television series were based on the following true story.

Dr. Samuel Sheppard, a respected neurosurgeon, married Marilyn Reese in February 1945. They settled near Lake Erie, Ohio. Two years later had their first and only child, a son nicknamed Chip.

Bay View Hospital where Dr. Samuel Sheppard practiced medicine (Public Domain)

On July 3, 1954, Sam and Marilyn hosted a neighborhood party, including dinner, drinks, and a movie. Sheppard fell asleep in the living room. Marilyn walked the neighbors out.

In the early morning hours of July 4, Sheppard heard Marilyn cry out. He ran upstairs where he saw someone in the bedroom before being knocked temporarily unconscious. When he came to, he heard a noise downstairs where he confronted the intruder and chased him from the house.

At 5:40, Sheppard telephoned neighbors. They found him shirtless and wearing pants with a bloodstain on the knee. Authorities arrived a short time later.

Police subsequently arrested Sheppard for the murder. His trial began on October 18, 1954. There was extensive media coverage of both the investigation and trial.

The defense argued that Sheppard also had extensive injuries, including a cervical concussion. His attorney also noted the crime scene was extremely bloody, but Sheppard’s clothing had only a small amount of blood.

The trial lasted nine weeks. On December 21, after four days of deliberation, jurors found Sheppard guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison.

But the story doesn’t end there. Sheppard’s attorney, William Corrigan, spent six years making appeals. All were rejected. Corrigan died on July 30, 1961.

Enter F. Lee Bailey. (Recognize that name from somewhere?)

A federal judge granted Bailey’s appeal for a writ of habeas corpus on July 15, 1964. He called the original trial a “mockery of justice.” The State of Ohio appealed the ruling, and the appeals process eventually went to the United States Supreme Court. On June 6, 1966, the high court, by an 8-1 vote, struck down Sheppard’s murder conviction.

The retrial began in October of that year. Unlike the first trial, the judge sequestered the jury. On November 16, after deliberating twelve hours, members of the jury found Sheppard not guilty. After his release from prison, he later remarried, but died on April 6, 1970, at age forty-six.

Sheppard’s son, Chip, devoted considerable time and effort to clear his father’s reputation. Alan Davis, a lifelong friend and administrator of Samuel Sheppard’s estate, sued the state of Ohio for wrongful imprisonment.

In 1997, Samuel Sheppard’s body was exhumed. DNA testing absolved him of the murder.

So, who killed Marilyn Sheppard? The most likely suspect was Richard Eberling, an occasional handyman and window washer at the Sheppard’s home.

Authorities questioned Eberling about a series of burglaries in the area. He confessed to the crimes. Included in his loot were two rings belonging to Marilyn, but he claimed he stole them in 1958 from the house of Sam Sheppard’s brother. (Of note, police found a canvas bag containing Sam Sheppard’s wristwatch, fraternity ring, and key chain outside the residence at the time of Marilyn’s murder.)

In subsequent questioning, Eberling admitted his blood was at the crime scene but that he had cut his finger while washing windows just prior to the killing. He underwent a polygraph test, and the examiner concluded Eberling did not show deception in his answers. This conclusion was later refuted by other experts as being inclusive or that Eberling had shown indications of deception.

Eberling was associated with several women whose deaths were suspicious. He was convicted of killing elderly widow Ethel May Durkin in 1984 after claiming she died as the result of falling down the staircase of her home.

F. Lee Bailey stated he rejected Eberling as a suspect in 1966 because “I thought he passed a good polygraph test.” When presented with the news an independent polygraph expert said Eberling either murdered Marilyn or had knowledge of who did, Bailey stated that he probably would have presented Eberling as a suspect in Sheppard’s 1966 retrial.

Although he denied killing Marilyn Sheppard, a woman who cared for Ethel Mae Durkin testified that Ebberling confessed to her in 1983. He died in an Ohio prison in 1998.

A 2002 book proposed the theory that James Call, an Air Force deserter, killed Marylin Sheppard while passing through Cleveland on a multi-state crime spree. The book showed comparative photos of Call’s Luger pistol and Sheppard’s blood-stained pillowcase.

It’s likely we’ll never know the true identity of the murderer, but if I were placing a bet, my money would be on Eberling.