Sunday, July 8

The Other "Son of Sam"

One of the basic tenets of the “Tying My Shoes” belief system is that life swirls around you and all you can do is hang on and hope. OK, Hunter Thompson said it best: "Buy the ticket, take the ride." My first connection to a major news event came when I was seven years old, back in 1954. Let me tell you about the son of Sam.

No, not that “Son of Sam,” not David Berkowitz, the serial killer who terrorized New York City in the late 70s. No, I’m talking about Sam Reese Sheppard, the son of “Dr. Sam.”

Dr. Sam was, of course, Samuel Holmes Shepherd. In 1954 he was arrested, convicted and sent to prison for the brutal bludgeoning death of his wife—freed on appeal ten years later, re-tried and acquitted. I'm referring to his son, “young Sam,” as he was known, or “Chip.” And I'm referring to one of the most famous murder cases in American history and one of the darkest episodes in this history of American journalism.

I know Chip Sheppard. At least I did. Chip Sheppard and I were in the same class at Glenview School in Bay Village, Ohio. The summer after we finished first grade, on the morning of July 4, 1954, his pregnant mother, Marilyn Reese Sheppard, was clubbed to death in a bedroom of the family home on a high bluff overlooking Lake Erie. My purpose isn’t to shock you, but I’ve seen the autopsy photos and I now know why they sometimes say a victim had his or her skull “crushed.” It took someone in an insane rage to murder Marilyn Sheppard. She wasn’t sexually attacked, and nothing of value was missing from the house—although the doctor’s desk had been rifled through and his medical bag was found overturned.

You may already know something about the case. It was called “The Murder of the Century” (years after the Lindbergh kidnapping) and “The Trial of the Century” (years before O.J. Simpson).

“Dr. Sam,” a prominent local osteopath, said he had fallen asleep on a downstairs daybed after a July 4th-eve party with friends. He awoke, he said, in the middle of the night, when he heard his wife scream from their upstairs bedroom. Making his way up the darkened stairs, the doctor said he confronted an intruder and after a brief struggle was knocked unconscious. He awoke, he said, checked and found his wife dead and his son asleep and unharmed in his room, and went downstairs. That’s where, in the pre-dawn light, he saw the intruder, whom he described as a “bushy-haired man” heading out of the house and down a wooden staircase that led to the lake below. The two struggled again, Sam said, and he was knocked unconscious a second time, only to awaken at the water’s edge some time later.

When the residents of Bay Village awoke on the Fourth of July, 1954, they had no idea that their little town—our little town, my little town--was about to be swept up in a media firestorm unprecedented for that time.

Bay Village, then and now, is a small suburb of Cleveland, 15 miles due west of downtown. It’s a “bedroom community:” no industry, no businesses to speak of (except a small shopping center and a couple of convenience stores). Whatever housing boom Bay had came just before and just after World War II—to the point where most land was already built up by 1954 and the population has never climbed above its present 17,000. A handful of elementary schools feed one middle school and the high school (home of the “Rockets”). There’s a city hall/police station, a fire station, a library, and street after street of single-family homes on Osborn Road, Parkside Drive, Sutcliffe Drive, Wolf Road and the like. How’s this for a “fast fact:” in 2004 only 79 crimes were reported within the city, making it the safest in the United States with a population greater than 10,000!

In 1954, it took only one crime to change the face of my hometown forever and put us on the map. As memories fade, so does the connection between Bay Village and that horrible crime; but for many years all you had to do was say “Bay Village” and the response was instant: “Dr. Sam Sheppard!” Sort of like the choral response in church.

My Dad lost track of how many times he was asked “Do you know Sam Sheppard?" and "Did Sam do it?" in business meetings around the country.

The police department—two or three men, if memory serves—was completely overwhelmed by the Sheppard murder. They called in Cleveland police for help. What they got, in addition, was Louis B. Seltzer, Publisher of the Cleveland Press. “Louie” Seltzer, kingmaker, power broker, dispenser of favors and—as we found out—judge, jury and executioner. He painted himself as the protector of the common man, the voice of the little guy, and he quickly decided to paint Dr. Sam Sheppard into a corner.

In retrospect, I guess people should have seen it coming. Sam Sheppard made a convenient target for a crusading up-from-poverty newspaperman. He was prominent—he, his father and his brothers were the four doctors who owned and ran Bay View Osteopathic General Hospital, the only hospital in town. They were wealthy and privileged and looked it. They were osteopaths, at that time resented by much of the "medical establishment." Dr. Sam had a lot of money, standing in the community, drove a foreign sports car, water-skied behind his own boat, was a regular tennis player and an avid skier, and knew how to make a mean cocktail. He had it good. Louis Seltzer may have decided he had it too good.

The morning of the murder the doctor answered a first round of police questions, then was taken by one of his brothers to the family hospital (“whisked away” into “seclusion” according to the Cleveland Press) complaining of neck pain. The fact that he was hospitalized with a cracked vertebra didn't keep the Press from concluding that the injuries were phony and that he was being hidden and protected by his family.

When no “bushy-haired man” could be located, when little outside the murder room seemed to have been disturbed, suspicion turned on Sam Sheppard—and with it the full power of the mighty Cleveland Press and its crusading publisher Louis B. Seltzer.

A dozen-or-so years later, in a journalism class at Michigan State, we studied what happened next. How one newspaper stirred public sentiment—single-handedly assured that because of prejudicial pre-trial publicity Sheppard couldn’t get a fair trial—and railroaded him into prison. Cleveland's two other papers, the Cleveland News and the Plain Dealer were almost as strident. But the editorials in the Press demanded—and got— attention and action.

On July 20th, the Press ran a front-page editorial entitled, "Someone is Getting Away with Murder.”

The next day, the 21st, another front-page editorial: "Why No Inquest? Do It Now, Dr. Gerber." Hours later, Cuyahoga County Coroner Samuel Gerber called an inquest. It was held on live TV in the crowded gym of one of our elementary schools. And, by God, he looked guilty, testifying from behind dark glasses and in a neck brace (The implication in the Press was, Who does he think he is? The phony!)

Finally, on July 30th, just hours after an editorial asked “Why Isn't Sam Sheppard in Jail? Quit Stalling and Bring Him In," Sam Sheppard was arrested.

How hard is it to predict what happened next? Dr. Sam had already been convicted in the court of public opinion and would obviously be forced to prove his innocence if he wanted to go free.

The biggest American trial since the Lindbergh kidnapping started on October 28th and ended on December 21st with Dr. Samuel Holmes Sheppard convicted of second-degree murder (intentional but without premeditation) and sentenced to life in prison. The state hadn’t really provided evidence of his guilt—but neither had he provided evidence of his innocence. If you think our judicial system is skewed to protect the rich and famous (think, "Paris Hilton"), just read the Sam Sheppard "clips." The man went to prison for being a snotty rich kid.

Three weeks after the conviction his mother committed suicide. Eleven days after that his father died of cancer. Dr. Sam was permitted to attend the funerals—in handcuffs. Taking Kurt Vonnegut out of context, “So it goes.”

It took ten years behind bars before a hot-shot young attorney by the name of F. Lee Bailey got the conviction thrown out and Sam Sheppard was free. The appeals went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Justices’ ruling—that the original trial had been a “mockery of justice”—gave Sam Sheppard a new trial, noting that a "carnival atmosphere" had permeated the first trial, and that Judge Edward Blythin refused to sequester the jury, had not ordered the jurors to ignore and disregard media reports of the case, and on the very first day of the trial had said, "Well, he's guilty as hell. There's no question about it." The Supreme Court held that the original conviction was the result of a trial in which Samuel Holmes Sheppard was denied due process.

If it seemed as if Dr. Sam might now have at least a small chance of leading a somewhat normal life, it quickly became apparent that too much had happened to too many people for too long a time for a return to normalcy. Just three days after being freed Sheppard married a German woman, Ariane Tebbenjohanns, who had written him in prison. They moved into a lakefront home in Bay Village about a mile from his 1954 home. That marriage didn’t last. He tried to resume his medical career, but that didn’t work out. He capitalized on his notoriety with a stint as a professional wrestler under the ring name “The Killer,” teaming with partner George Strickland in matches around the country. By then he was an alcoholic, said to be downing two fifths of liquor a day. He died of liver failure on April 6, 1970, at the age of 46, just six months after marrying Strickland's 20-year-old daughter Colleen. He had had four years of "freedom."

Dr. Sam is gone—dead 37 years now!--but the tragedy continues to play out. The ripples continue to spread and to touch lives. 53 years later you can still start a pretty decent argument in pretty much any Cleveland bar along the lines of “did too”/”did not.”

I never saw Chip Sheppard again. He was sent to live with relatives, then off to military school. He has spent his adult life trying to clear his father’s name, with some limited success. He became convinced that the murder was carried out by a window washer named Richard Eberling, who was in the Sheppard home just two days before the killing. Years later it turned out that Eberling was an accomplished petty thief and had stolen one of Marilyn’s rings. In 1989, he was convicted of murdering an elderly Cuyahoga County woman he brefriended, Ethel May Durkin, and as executor of her will looting her estate. His possible involvement in the violent deaths of Durkin’s two sisters remains murky.

It turned out he had also been, for a brief time in 1954, a suspect in Marilyn’s murder. Sam Reese Sheppard remains convinced that Eberling was overlooked in the rush to pin the crime on his father.

For years, from behind bars, Richard Eberling played a cat-and-mouse game with Sheppard, with reporters and with law enforcement. He allegedly told a fellow prison inmate and a nurse that he was guilty in the Sheppard case. He wrote Chip Sheppard he knew what had happened in the home that night. Did he or didn’t he? Was he the murderer? A jury will never be asked to decide: Richard Eberling died in prison at the age of 68 on July 25, 1998. Case closed?

Not for Chip. In 1999 he brought a $3 million wrongful imprisonment suit against the State of Ohio. He hoped to clear his father's name once and for all. Chip and his attorney pointed the finger of blame at Eberling.

DNA testing of Richard Eberling's blood, to see if there was a match with traces of blood found at the murder scene, was inconclusive.

The defense countered that Dr. Sam was the most logical suspect, and presented expert testimony suggesting that Marilyn’s murder was a textbook domestic homicide; that the doctor, having an affair with a nurse at the family hospital and unhappy with the news of his wife’s pregnancy, killed her to get out of his marriage.

After ten weeks of trial, 76 witnesses, and hundreds of exhibits, the case went to the eight-person jury (remember, this was a civil trial not a criminal case). It took just three hours of deliberation for the jury to find that Sam Reese Sheppard had failed to prove that his father had been wrongfully imprisoned. The date was April 12, 2000. Later appeals have been denied.

The Associated Press reported the irony: Dr. Sam had been found “not innocent.”

In 2004, on the 50th anniversary of the crime, Sam Reese Sheppard issued a statement that said, in part,

“I hope that the memory of my loved ones and the historical lessons exhibited in this case will one day lead to reform of a judicial system that continues to operate in dishonor and disrepute.”

Sam and I are 60 now. He has a web site,

Of course, there’s more to the story.

You probably already know that many consider the Sheppard case to be the basis for the TV series (and movie) The Fugitive. Dr. Richard Kimball is wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife, but escapes to try to hunt down the real killer, a one-armed man. Dr. Sam accused a “bushy-haired” man. And, Of course, he never escaped from prison.

Others see echoes of the case in the Stephen King short story Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and the movie made form it. In The Shawshank Redemption a wealthy man wrongfully imprisoned for murdering his wife (and her lover) later learns that an inmate in another prison confessed to a fellow con that he had committed the crime.

Bay High football coach Jack Llewellyn told this story: Dr. Sam was the team physician. He and the coach were avid fishermen, and had made plans to go fishing the morning of the Fourth. As I remember his story, Coach said he was supposed to get up before dawn, check the wind, and if it was right drive over to the Sheppard home to go out in the Sheppard boat. The wind, he said, was wrong, so he went back to bed. If you believe his story unfavorable winds kept him from stumbling into the middle of the crime just as the doctor and the bushy-haired man were wrestling on the beach. If you believe his story. I'm not saying that Coach was a liar, just that he was a good story-teller.

The Sheppard home on Lake Road was torn down in the late 90s and replaced with another bigger, more expensive house. Lakeshore land in Bay is almost impossible to come by.

But I spent time in that house. You’ll never believe it, but I spent the tenth anniversary of the murder in the Sheppard house! By then it was the Hull home. The place sat vacant for several years (too many memories, too many gawkers) before the Hull family bought it, cheap. Grove Hull was my age. We were high school kids in 1964. I don’t know where the adults were that night, but several guys my age spent the night in the house, in the bedroom, telling ghost stories with the lights out! As dawn came up our plan was to head down to the beach, the time and place of Sam’s final struggle with the bushy-haired intruder. I was leading the way down the stairs from the bedroom when something hit me in the chest! TOTAL TERROR! Then we realized it was the Hull family dog—a big black lab I think he was. Anyway—a memorable anniversary. Today, a half-dozen TV crews would have wanted to be there to tape the "event." Then it was just some punk kids.

Bay View Hospital is gone, too, sort of. The building still stands, but now it’s the centerpiece of a fancy condominium development called Cashelmara. I found out later the place wasn’t designed to be a hospital. It was was built as the summer estate of industrialist Washington Lawrence, the president of the National Carbon Company, the forerunner of Union Carbide. When the last of his daughters died in 1948 it was purchased by the Sheppard family. The hospital closed in 1979.

The Cleveland Press and Louis B. Seltzer are both gone. Seltzer was editor of the paper from 1928 until 1966—38 years as the political godfather and champion of all things he thought good and decent in Cleveland. In 1956, well before he was rebuked by the U.S. Supreme Court for pressuring the cops and the courts into convicting Dr. Sam, Seltzer wrote his autobiography, The Years Were Good. Sure they were, if you were Louis Seltzer. Not so good for Sam Sheppard. The book, one of those Horatio Alger up-by-my-bootstraps stories, is available online. It includes an entire chapter in which Seltzer brags about how the public was served by the front-page editorials he personally wrote goading law enforcement into arresting Sam Sheppard. Mel Brooks had it right: "It's good to be the king."

Louis B. Seltzer died in April, 1980. By then the paper he loved was dying, too, a victim (like so many afternoon papers) of falling circulation. In 1960 the paper’s owner, the Scripps-Howard chain, bought the rival Cleveland News to merge the two, but the die was already cast. Despite being named one of America’s top ten newspapers by Time magazine in 1966 (as Seltzer was bowing out), the paper went down for the count in mid-1982. The Plain Dealer is now the city’s only daily.

Here’s a “Tying My Shoes” sidebar: I said Chip Sheppard and I were in the same first grade class at Glenview School (Mrs. Loomis’ class). So was Dewey Graham, the son of legendary Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham. The Graham family lived in Bay throughout Otto’s playing career. He came to class once. I thought he had hands the size of dinner plates—but hey, I was seven years old!. Don't know what happened to Dewey.

Who did it? Sam Reese Sheppard thinks Richard Eberling killed his mother. Many others, including F. Lee Bailey and a lot of Bay residents, are suspicious of Spencer and Esther Houk. “Spen” Houk was the part-time Mayor and ran the town meat market. He and his wife lived on Lake Road a few doors down from the Sheppard home. They were among the last to leave the Sheppard party the night before the murder, and Spen was the first person Dr. Sam called the morning of the Fourth.

In the 1966 re-trial Bailey introduced a lot of evidence about blood spatters in the murder bedroom. The arc of flying blood showed that the murderer had, in all likelihood, been left-handed. Sam Sheppard wasn’t. Esther Houk was. One theory suggests that Spencer Houk was having an affair with Marilyn, and that he returned to her after the party when his wife was asleep. That theory says Esther awoke, went to the Sheppard home, found the two together and in a fit of insane jealousy killed Marilyn. After that (here’s where this theory splits into multiple scenarios), she and Spencer convinced Sam to help cover up the murder. OR Sam came upstairs and was knocked out without ever identifying the two Houks (thus, the 6:00 a.m. call that morning). OR that Spencer committed the murder (although I don’t believe he was left-handed).

There are a lot of “ORs” here. There were later reports of a bushy-haired man seen hitch-hiking on Lake Road that night. Also a drifter with a violent criminal past was known to have been thirty miles away(!!!!).

OR…ORthere’s always Sam Sheppard. That he did it himself, OR that he wanted his wife dead and hired Eberling (or someone else) to do it. Many people still think he was behind the crime. My father (age 88) is one of them. Me? I just don't know.

One thing is certain: it’s all but impossible that anyone will ever be charged in Marilyn Sheppard’s death. You have to remember the case is now 53 years old. All the likely suspects died years ago.

You could make the argument that Sam Reese Sheppard also lost his life on July 4, 1953. It certainly was taken from him. For more than a half-century he has walked a path no one could have predicted and none of us would have wished for him: certainly not Sam and Marilyn, and none of his classmates at Glenview.

Answers are impossible to come by. I hope he finds peace. I wonder if that's possible.