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.


Texarkana’s Phantom Killer

This month’s Mystery Monday is about a series of murders that took place in 1946. Almost eighty years later, the mystery is still unsolved. Interested? Read on.

Texarkana is a city in Northeast Texas. Along with its twin city, Texarkana, Arkansas, it’s home to around 65,000 people. In the 1940s, the combined population was less than 30,000.

While there is some dispute about how the town got its name, most believe it’s a portmanteau of Texas, Arkansas, and nearby Louisiana. State Line Avenue is the demarcation line dividing the two cities. I couldn’t resist sharing this vintage postcard photo because of its humorous caption.

I stand in Texas with my ass in Arkansas.

Several famous people were born in the twin cities, including ragtime composer Scott Joplin, businessman/politician Ross Perot, and numerous NFL and MLB players.

But in 1946, Texarkana wasn’t thinking about politics or sports. Many of its residents lived in fear because a phantom killer was on the loose. And there was certainly nothing humorous about the series of horrendous crimes.

The first attack occurred on February 22, 1946, when twenty-five-year-old Jimmy Hollis and his girlfriend Mary Jeanne Lowry parked on a secluded road known as “Lover’s Lane.” A man wearing a white cloth mask resembling a pillowcase with holes cut for his eyes shone a flashlight in the driver’s side window.

The mysterious stranger ordered the couple out of the car, then struck Hollis in the head with a pistol, fracturing his skull. He then sexually assaulted Laney.

Hollis and Laney both survived the attack. Others weren’t so lucky.

On the morning of March 24, a passing motorist discovered the bodies of Richard Griffin and Polly Moore in Griffin’s car. Like with the first couple, Griffin had parked along a secluded road. His body was in the front seat, Moore was in the back. The killer shot both victims twice in the back of the head. A nearby blood-soaked patch of earth suggested the couple had been killed outside and their bodies placed in the car.

On April 14, around 1:30 in the morning, Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker left a musical performance at the VFW club. Police found Martin’s body at 6:30 by the northern edge of North Park Road. He had been shot four times. They found Booker’s body almost two miles from her boyfriend’s. She had been shot twice. Martin’s car was located three miles away at Spring Lake Park with the keys still in the ignition.

Area stores sold out of guns, ammunition, locks, and other protective devices. Residents stayed inside their homes after dark, believing they would be safe. But that wasn’t the case for Virgil Starks and his wife, Katie, who lived almost ten miles northeast of Texarkana.

Around 9:00 p.m. on the night of May 3, Virgil Starks was sitting in an armchair reading the newspaper when someone fired two shots to the back of his head from a closed window. After hearing the sound, Katie ran into the room. When she saw her husband slumped in the chair, she rushed to call police, but the killer shot her in the face.

Katie tried to get a pistol but was blinded by her own blood. Hearing the killer at the back door, she ran out the front to a neighbor’s house to get help. Katie survived the shooting.

Several enforcement officers were involved in the investigation, including the sheriffs of Bowie County, Texas and Miller County, Arkansas, Texarkana police, Arkansas State Police, and Texas Rangers.

Police searching for clues. (Public Doman)

Hollis and Laney were the only victims that could describe their assailant. Both described him as around six feet tall. However, Hollis believed he was a dark tanned Caucasian. Laney thought he was a light-skinned African American. Police repeatedly questioned their accounts, believing they knew the attacker and were covering for him.

The “Phantom Killer” nickname came after the deaths of Booker and Martin.

Authorities questioned over four-hundred suspects during the investigation. At least nine people confessed to being the killer, but their statements didn’t agree with the facts.

Included in the list of suspects were a local car thief and counterfeiter, an 18-year-old university freshman who died by suicide in November 1948, an ex-Army-Air Force machine gunner, a hitchhiker, and a taxi driver.

On April 27, police in Corpus Christi, Texas, arrested an unknown man who tried to sell a saxophone to a music store. Victim Betty Jo Booker played the saxophone at the VFW the night she died. Her instrument was missing. After several days of questioning, authorities released the man for lack of evidence.

On May 7, someone found the body of Earl McSpadden on the Kansas City Southern Railway tracks sixteen miles north of Texarkana. A passing freight train severed his left arm and leg. The coroner’s verdict stated his death was “at the hands of persons unknown.” He further stated that McSpadden was dead before being placed on the railroad tracks.

Because McSpadden’s murder was never solved, many locals speculated he was the sixth victim. One rumor claimed McSpadden was the phantom, and he committed suicide by jumping in front of the train.

The Phantom Killings was the subject of the 1976 film, The Town That Dreaded Sundown as well as a 2014 remake.