JT Townsend is a Cincinnati-based true crime writer with two published books about famous cases in Cincinnati. Queen City Gothic, about unsolved local murders, and Queen City Notorious, a just-published tome about the greatest solved murder cases in Cincinnati history. JT and I sat down over lunch recently to discuss his writing, crime and criminals. Part 1 of this interview can be found here, and features information about JT’s life and career. Today he discusses his thoughts on some truly intriguing crimes and criminals, both national and local.
In 1892, businessman Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby were murdered in their Fall River, Massachusetts home. Andrew’s daughter Lizzie was tried and acquitted for the murder. Spoiler: She did it.
Jerry Smith: What would make a case like Lizzie Borden become so well known?
|Andrew and Abby Borden|
JT Townsend: The Borden family was not well known outside their own hometown. If they had died natural deaths, we wouldn’t know anything about them. The murder of Andrew and Abby Borden and the trial of their daughter Lizzie makes you wonder why that case has stayed with us when other sensational cases, other sensational ax murders, have not. I will say this—the Lizzie Borden case—one of my favorite true crime writers, Edmund Pierson, revived it 1924, then wrote an article about it in a magazine. He ended up reviving the case. I’m sure I’ll do a Lizzie Borden book. I mean, why not? I’m still mad about that case.
JS: Some people still think she’s innocent. Do you think anyone outside her hometown still thinks she didn’t do it?
JT: Tons of people think she’s innocent. It’s frustrating for me. If she didn’t do it, it’s not even a good story anymore.
JS: I did attend your Lizzie Borden presentation. With just a simple preponderance of the evidence, it’s glaringly obvious that she committed the murders.
JT: With the technology they have today they would have nailed her.
JS: Unless she lived in California.
JT: People can lie, behavior never lies. Her parents had been murdered, the cops were there, Lizzie’s at the door, her stepmother is laying in the next room, ten to fifteen feet away, butchered. The police ask, “Do you know anyone who would want to do harm to your mother?” Lizzie angrily says, “That is not my mother, that is my stepmother! My mother died when I was a child.” The woman is lying butchered there. You feel no sympathy for her? An innocent person would. Of course the cops suspected her. She cleaved in her [stepmother’s] skull and she still hated her. That’s really all you need to know, I think.
JS: What surprised me the most about your presentation ... in this day of equality, diversity, everyone having a say, seeing the picture of the jury. They were all middle-aged, dark suited white men.
JT: With daughters her age.
JS: With daughters her age. It really brought home at that moment how different society and justice was back then.
JT: She had poisoned them—she had poisoned her parents. They’d have hung her. A woman’s weapon. To think that an upper class, boring high society woman would take an ax to her parents was preposterous. No man would want to believe that.
JS: By most accounts she did love her father. That’s the only mystery to me. Why would she murder him so viciously if she loved him?
JT: He got ready to leave that morning, his wife was supposed to meet him at the bank to change his will. I can’t prove that, but I can prove there was a carriage in front of the Borden house that morning waiting. Lizzie said a note was delivered that morning from a sick friend. Abby was going to rush to their bedside. Ridiculous. Abby only had one friend. Why wouldn’t Lizzie just say Abby went out shopping? Why would she say a note came—something that could actually be verified through a messenger? A note did come. I think it was for her parents to meet and change the will. I’m pretty sure she heard them talking the night before. She wasn’t going to let her stepmother inherit all that money. She’d be in the poorhouse.
JS: That’s a fascinating theory. I know you can’t prove it, but it fits the facts well.
JT: Why would a wealthy man like Andrew Borden die without a will? It’s always those little things people forget about. He was seen coming back home from downtown with about 10 minutes to live. A neighbor saw him carrying a small document of rolled up paper, like a legal document. They never found that. A policeman said in the kitchen fire there was a burned paper in a rolled up shape. The way Lizzie manipulates facts at the inquest ... Her stepmother died around 9:30am in the guest room, right next to Lizzie’s room. Lizzie was taking some laundry up. I think she had a hatchet in the laundry. There was a tiny blood speck found on Lizzie’s skirts. Her lawyer tried to say she was on her period, which may have been true. But this blood came from the outside. Today they would test that blood and it would turn out to be Abby Borden’s. They would say, how did this blood get on your underwear, in the same room where a murder occurred? So she manipulates facts so well. They say she laid a single stick on the fire. You build up the fire to keep the iron hot. A single stick? That was the hatchet handle. Remember the hatchet head with no handle found in the basement? Someone had dipped it in ash, which fooled no one. You can’t get blood off wood, so you stick it on the fire.
JS: So why did she get off? Was the prosecutor not doing his job? Was the jury not buying it?
JT: The three-judge panel was very biased in her favor. The inquest testimony was ruled inadmissible, the judges said she was virtually under arrest at that time, though she was not under arrest, coming and going from her home. Three witnesses were ready to testify that she tried to buy poison before the murders. Her lawyers admitted she did try to buy it, but said it was for a different purpose.
JS: That rises to the level of farce.
JT: Probably the most important thing that forced an acquittal? There was no middle ground. It was either hang her or acquit her. There were only two verdicts. Guilty with the death penalty or acquittal. There was no manslaughter, no 2nd degree murder, no 1st degree murder with mercy. They jury literally had to hang her or set her free. I think her afterlife was no picnic.
JS: Your Lizzie Borden presentation brought that out. None of the movies I’ve seen or articles I’ve read deal much with what happened after she was acquitted. I remember the story you told about the contractor who was working on the stone wall in her back yard. They argued, she said something like, let me go get my ax and show you how it should be done.
JT: The guy said “Uh, yeah.” He was gone. I’ve been all around that neighborhood up there. Where the murder occurred and where she moved to, it’s only a mile and a half apart. It’s right next to downtown. Where Maplecross is, you can see the bay from the front yard. Three beautiful Victorian homes. All her friends lived there before the murders. She used to visit up there. Of course you’d want to live up there. Her father said no—he wanted to be close to his businesses.
JS: She did have money later in life—she did get her father’s estate, correct?
J.T: She and Emma, yeah.
|Nicole Brown Simpson|
In 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson, ex-wife of former professional football star, actor and sports commentator OJ Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman were brutally murdered outside Nicole’s Brentwood, California home. OJ Simpson, the only suspect in the case, was quickly arrested. He was put on trial for both murders and acquitted by a jury of his peers.
JS: The most frustrating to me is probably OJ. There’s less evidence that the sun is going to rise tomorrow morning than that OJ committed those murders. Yet he got off due to some misguided jury nullification. Was OJ a sociopath?
JT: Don’t get me going on OJ.
JS: It just seems like a cold, brutal, calculated crime by someone who was a media superstar and had everything in life. I could see why someone who had nothing would take those chances. But why would someone with everything take those chances? Was hate and revenge that important? Or was it a pathological need to win?
JT: I think all of that. He was definitely a narcissist. It goes narcissist, sociopath and eventually psychopath. Those are the guys up on the rooftop with a rifle. Thank God there are very few of those.
People at that dance recital [Ed. note: The dance recital that Nicole Simpson attended the day she was killed] said that he and Nicole walked off to a corner in the parking lot in deep conversation. I think she said, “F*** you!” It really nailed him. Paula Barbieri had broken up with him. Two of the most important women in his life had rejected him. He’s adrift. There’s only one question I need answered about the OJ Simpson case. The whole case stems on it: Is Ron Goldman there? Is he alive when he walks up on OJ and Nicole? Ron Goldman was parked over by the trees. There’s motive right there. If O.J.’s just going over there to slash her tires, they get into an argument and he starts killing her. If Ron Goldman walks up, it’s a different crime.
JS: I’ve never heard that speculation. I always assumed Nicole and Ron came out of the house together.
JT: He was never in the house. The one ear witness, the guy walking his dog, said he heard a young man’s voice say, “Hey, Hey, HEY!” Ron Goldman’s father said that’s exactly what he’d say if he walked up on a man attacking a woman ... “HEY!” That’s the only question I need to know. Was Goldman already there, or did Goldman walk up on them. Not a lot of other mysteries in that case. I was a big fan of OJ Simpson. (Sarcastically:) “Sorry you slit throats ... but I’m done with you bud!” He’s exactly where he should be now.
JT: It’s beyond frustration with those cases. But I’ve just kind of let it go. It was jury nullification. Some people say it was racial. Maybe. But here’s what I know: rich men do not get convicted of murder. And he was a rich man. So there you go.
Ted Bundy was a serial killer, kidnapper, rapist and necrophiliac who assaulted and murdered numerous young women during the 1970s and possibly earlier. He confessed to over 30 murders, but the actual amount could be much higher.
JS: You mentioned the Ted Bundy case. Why does that case keep you up at night?
JT: You know my wife said once when I was researching Queen City Gothic, she said I woke up in the middle of the night and said, “She’s his sister and his mother,” and fell back asleep.
JT: My wife goes, “What was that?” I didn’t know. His sister and his mother ... could be Ted Bundy. The Ted Bundy case haunts me because it was a case of incest. They never identified his father. His grandfather was a big, virile violent man whose own life was troubled. Bundy’s mother was the eldest daughter. She was a Christian woman, the school valedictorian, yet she’s used, impregnated and abandoned by some shadowy guy nobody knows? Her own family didn’t believe that story, her other relatives. It was her father, I’m sure if it. That one bothers me.
I think of that little girl, Ann Marie Burr, who disappeared from her neighborhood in 1961. Ted Bundy is their paperboy? Those keep me up the most, where you have an unsolved crime where you have a known perpetrator nearby—those I just can’t get out of my head.
The Bricca Case
In 1966, Jerry Bricca, his wife Linda and daughter Debbie were found stabbed to death on Greenway Avenue in the Bridgetown neighborhood of Cincinnati. Townsend characterizes this case as the most important unsolved crime in Cincinnati history and the second most famous in Ohio after the Marilyn Sheppard murder. It still touches a nerve in the folks that come out to his Bricca lecture presentations, especially on the West Side of Cincinnati.
|The Bricca Family|
JS: What are the oddest facts in the Bricca case?
JT: In the Bricca case, Valerie Percy, daughter of a senatorial candidate is murdered in Kenilworth, outside of Chicago—she went to the same high school as Linda Bricca. Linda Bricca was a senior when Valerie Percy was a sophomore. They knew each other. Their fathers knew each other. Both women were murdered in different cities within a week of each other. That bothers me. See why?
JS: I understand, but the kind of conspiracy that would have to be taking place in order for those events to be related, that’s an even scarier thought.
JT: It’s very scary. Weird coincidences like that keep me awake at night. And rumors. Like when I first heard the rumor that Glen Ryle may have been involved in the Bricca murders. I laughed. [Ed. note: Glen Ryle was a WWII veteran and local Cincinnati television personality for many years, most notably as the children’s cartoon show host Skipper Ryle]. It’s funny how he was interviewed by the police twice. He and Leininger [Ed. note: Dr. Fred Leininger was a veterinarian at the Glenway Animal Hospital where Linda worked part-time. Leininger was and continues to be the main suspect in the case] were the only people interviewed twice. He and our prime suspect were like this [holds two fingers together]. A notation in the file on Ryle said, “Subject is close friends with Dr. Leininger. We should not expect to get anything useful from him.”
Then there is the rumor that Leininger and his wife committed suicide here in Cincinnati [Ed. note: the Leiningers had retired to Florida]. I’m like, “Oh, you’re kidding me.” His obituary said he died in Sarasota. I pulled the death records. No, he and his wife died up here. I got a line on a family friend and they told me, “Oh no, they committed suicide up here. He was in poor health.” The rumor was true. Good question.
JS: Is that the most frustrating local case to you? The Bricca case?
JT: Yeah. They had a clear suspect, who incriminated himself based on his behavior and his lack of cooperation. What are you going to do? What can you do? He lawyers up and his lawyer says either charge him or leave him alone. I guess they could have charged him. But I can’t see a grand jury indicting him on what they had.
JS: Even if he were indicted, could they convict on the evidence they had?
JT: It was all totally circumstantial. Not really enough. They can place the suspect half a mile away that night from the murder scene, the Bricca house, at a Pony Keg. He was acting erratically. Acting distraught. He said he had a medical emergency and tried to use the pay phone. He put a coin in the slot and stalked out. So they can place Leininger there.
JS: Maybe they could have convicted him.
JT: He was still a half mile away.
JS: People have been convicted on less. I’m almost surprised they didn’t railroad someone due to the public outcry.
JT: He was a prominent guy. He didn’t just get any lawyer, he had a lawyer from a prominent West Side political family. It’s frustrating. I’ve been through the file, I’ve interviewed the wife of the lead investigator. Imaging being an investigator and catching a case like this. Bricca. You don’t get cases like that. It’s beyond huge. You bring it right to the doorstep of the guy, and you can’t do anything. I’m frustrated by it, I can only imagine how he felt. So that’s the most frustrating local case.
Ed Gein is one of the creepiest serial killers on record. He confessed to only two murders, but became famous for exhuming corpses and fashioning trophies from their bones and skin. He was active in the 1950s, but was institutionalized until he died in 1984.
JS: You mentioned Ed Gein.
JT: There was a girl named Evelyn Hartley from Wisconsin in 1953, kidnapped from a house where she was babysitting. Huge Wisconsin case. Disappeared. Research has shown that Ed “Psycho” Gein, serial killer of some note, was in La Crosse that night visiting his aunt, who lived two blocks over, where Evelyn Hartley was taken. Those are delicious coincidences.
JS: Wasn’t Gein the guy Texas Chainsaw Massacre was based on?
JT: There’s a lot of stuff that is loosely based on him. Psycho is loosely based on him. The guy in Silence of the Lambs [Ed. note: the Buffalo Bill character] is loosely based on him. He was far crazier than any of them. The found lampshades made out of human skin in his house. They found all kinds of body parts all over. Among them were the internal organs of an unidentified sixteen year old girl the same age as Evelyn Hartley. When you can put Ed Gein two blocks away from a girl who has been kidnapped ... stuff like that keeps me up at night. Creepy. Some detectives say there is no such thing a coincidence. Then others might say, then why do they have a word for it?
JS: That’s obviously a frustrating case.
JT: No it’s not. You know, when it comes to serial killers, I can be harsh. Guys like John Wayne Gacy, Jeffery Dahmer, they’re just worthless guys who should have been caught a lot sooner. The victims they were taking—runaway boys, homosexual men ... who cares? Why did Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, manage to kill eighty-two women? They were almost all prostitutes.
In 1954, doctor Sam Sheppard was convicted of the brutal murder of his pregnant wife Marilyn Sheppard in their Bay Village, Ohio, home. He was convicted and spent almost ten years in prison. He was acquitted in a retrial in 1966.
|Dr. Sam Sheppard|
JT: Another famous case, the Sam Sheppard case in Cleveland.
JS: Yes, that case scared me to death when I was a child. There was a George Peppard TV movie—I had nightmares about that case for years. I was very invested in that case—what happened, who did it. I still don’t know. It scared me that was possible in a residential neighborhood.
JT: I am reasonably certain that Sam Sheppard didn’t do it. They had a very good suspect, a window washer, Richard Eberling, who they connected to at least four other deaths. I think what’s frustrating is the police sealed the Sheppard crime scene, and didn’t give Sheppard’s lawyer a chance to test the blood. This is one of the first blood spatter/blood trail cases and it became very important. They needed a guy like Dexter—I love that show!
JS: (Laughs) That was a great show.
JT: So there was a blood trail from the murder room where Marilyn Sheppard was beaten to death that leads downstairs out of the house. The police assumed it was the victim’s blood dripping from the weapon he used. But when the defense finally got in the house, well after the conviction, Paul Kirk, the father of forensic blood spatter analysis, said wait a minute! This isn’t blood from the victim, it’s oxygenated blood from an open wound! And by the way, this isn’t Marilyn’s blood type, it’s a different blood type. There’s a third blood type found in the house the night of the murder? And Sam Sheppard’s in prison? Something’s very wrong there. There’s a third person in that house the night of the murder. In the interrogation—this is why detectives ask the same questions over and over. If you’re lying, you have to think, what did I say an hour ago about this? You get so confused. But if you’re telling the truth you’re telling the truth. Sam Sheppard’s story never changed. Not one iota. It’s so weirdly significant that he struggled twice with the “bushy haired intruder.” He was knocked out twice. In the staging, the turning over of the [medical] bag and dumping it out. The smashing of his and his wife’s athletic trophies. Why would he do that? Why would Sam Sheppard stage a robbery and smash his own athletic trophies? That’s someone who didn’t care. I think the answer was there all along. Richard Eberling had a window washing business. He didn’t care about his business very much. He had light fingers, he stole from his clients. He was in the Sheppard house two days before the murder. He was alone with Marilyn. She caught him stealing. She threatened to expose him and ruin his business. Plus, he’s got a thing for her. He comes back and kills her two days later. Two people on the road outside the Sheppard house saw two cars driving by at 3 and 4am, saw a tall, bushy haired man on the road near the Sheppard house.
Eberling was tall with bushy hair. The guy Sam Sheppard described fits Eberling perfectly. The DNA on the blood trail? Eberling could not be eliminated. It was a low number. Something like one in 30 men have this characteristic. In the DNA world that’s not a big deal. Look at the OJ Simpson number—one in seven billion men.
JS: Yes, it almost couldn’t have been anyone but him.
JT: Yeah. So in the Sheppard number, Eberling couldn’t be eliminated from the profile. The killer bled, Marilyn bit him. Actually Eberling had a scar on his wrist he couldn’t explain.
JS: Was he ever questioned or considered a suspect?
JT: In 1959, five years after the murders, he was questioned about his thievery. They found all these stolen goods. In that interview session, very odd, he volunteers, oh, by the way, I worked in the Sheppard house a couple days before the murder, and I cut myself on a nail and I bled in the house. The cops are like, we didn’t ask you that. Who’s asking? We didn’t ask you about the Sheppard murder. He volunteered that. You see why this is a frustrating case?
JS: Sure, absolutely.
JT: Poor Sam Sheppard. Served 10 years for a murder he didn’t do ... became a hopeless alcoholic. He was finally set free and lived another four years. And this guy was there the whole time. I think they tried to look at this as a domestic violence murder.
JS: The Sheppards’ own children never believed he did it, did they?
JT: They just had the one son. He was asleep in the next room. No. Marilyn Sheppard was raped. This has all the characteristics of a sex/revenge crime.
Special thanks to JT Townsend for his time and insights. Here’s where you can find more information about JT and his work:
Follow JT Townsend’s blog (https://jtsiteblog.wordpress.com) or connect with him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/TrueCrimeDetective)
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