The Murder of Marilyn Reese Sheppard

            On the morning of July 4, 1954, the Sheppard household was embroiled in traumatic events while the rest of the United States was preparing to celebrate Independence Day. The night before the murder, the Sheppards enjoyed drinks and dinner with their neighbors, the Aherns, and spent the evening watching the sun set over Lake Eerie. The two couples watched Strange Holiday, which was on one of the two only TV channels available. After some time, Sam Sheppard, who was a doctor and had worked a long shift in the emergency room that day at Bay View Hospital, chose to go to sleep. He went to sleep in a daybed the couple owned outside (Linder). In the early hours of that day, Marilyn was bludgeoned in her bed, blood splatter spreading throughout the room. While this was occurring, the family dog was quiet and their son, Sam Reese “Chip” Sheppard, 7, was sleeping soundly in his bedroom (Wikipedia).

            Sam Sheppard, Marilyn’s husband, called a neighbor, the mayor of Bay Village Spence Houk at 5:40 AM on July 4, 1954, calling for him to come over to his house (Linder). When Houk and his wife, Esther, arrived, they found Sheppard wearing no shirt and with a blood stain on one of the knees of his pants. He seemed to be in some kind of a daze. Upon investigation, it was found that several items were missing from the home. Sheppard fraternity ring, watch, and his keychain and key were all missing. Later, they would be found in a shrubbery outside the house, safely tucked away in a canvas bag (Wikipedia). The coroner,  Doctor Sam Gerber, who also worked as an investigator on the case, became suspicious of Sheppard immediately. While the home had evidence leading to robbery, he felt that the signs were too organized and were a set up. He investigated the case as a domestic homicide, meaning he was less focused on important evidence like fingerprints. He was also heard telling an officer at the scene that he thought, before the investigation was even really underway, that Sheppard was guilty. His interview with Sheppard was only 10 minutes long (Linder).

When questioned by police, Sheppard said he had been sleeping on a daybed when he was awoken by the sounds of his wife’s screams. He claimed to have run upstairs and come upon a white figure of some kind, before being knocked unconscious (Wikipedia). Police found Marilyn in a state of disarray on her bed when they arrived. She was pulled down the bed so that her legs hung over the end, her shirt was pulled up to reveal her breasts, her pants were pulled down to reveal her pubic area, and her head was turned towards the doorway. On her head they found over 20 deep, curved lacerations. Her time of death was determined to be approximately 4:30 AM, and it was determined during her autopsy that she was pregnant, near four months along. While the scene was still being worked on, an unexpected visitor stopped by, wanting to see what was happening at his neighbor’s home: Otto Graham, of the Cleveland Browns. Graham’s wife was friends with Marilyn and, while he was away training for the football season, Beverly Graham would join Marilyn and Sam water skiing on the lake. Graham was allowed to view the bedroom, and declared that it couldn’t have been just a couple blows. He said it looked as if someone had thrown paint around the room (Linder).

            The immediate after effect on Sam Sheppard was the news media, who practically declared him guilty of his wife’s murder before the investigation was really underway. By July 30th, just 26 days after the murder, the local newspapers had called for his arrest with titles such as “Why Isn’t Sam Sheppard in Jail?” and “Quit Stalling and Bring Him In.” He was brought in for interrogation that night. Many articles were ran that were later disproved or had no evidence to support, all demonizing the grieving husband. There was even a radio show in New York that reported on a woman claiming to be his mistress who also claimed to have his illegitimate child (Wikipedia). After more articles appeared calling for Dr. Gerber to hold a public inquest, Sheppard was brought to the Bay Village school gymnasium to be publicly questioned. Corrigan, Sheppard’s attorney, was forced to watch from the sidelines while Sheppard retold the same account he had given to police. Those watching felt that his telling was cold and detached. When the inquest continued the next day, focusing on Sheppard’s extramarital affair, Gerber pushed harder at him to try to get him to admit to the affair even though Corrigan had instructed him not to. Corrigan felt that the affair would be considered unrelated in court. When Corrigan spoke up to protest the continued grilling and the actions of the crowd, her were booing and loudly calling for Gerber to go harder, he was removed from the room (Linder). While the media was already sentencing Sam Sheppard, those who were his jurors were not sequestered from the media as they should have been. The jurors were found, years later, to have been biased due to press contamination (Wikipedia). Books were written about the case as well. The book published in 2001, The Wrong Man: The Final Verdict on the Sam Sheppard Murder Case, concluded that Sheppard was innocent of the horrific murder. The other book, Sam Sheppard on Trial: The Prosecutors and the Marilyn Sheppard Murder, concluded the opposite, however. Both books made forceful arguments (Linder).

            While investigating the case, prosecutors discovered that Sheppard had been having an affair – a three year long one with a nurse at the hospital he worked at, Susan Hayes. They argued at trial that this affair was the motive for the gruesome murder of Marilyn Sheppard (Wikipedia). Another motive brought forward was based hearsay from a neighbor of the Sheppards. This neighbor claimed that Marilyn had told them that Sheppard was sterile, from working closely with x-rays for too long. If this were true, her pregnancy would be considered motive as the baby would have been another man’s. Tests on the fetus disproved this theory (Linder). Despite there being little-to-no evidence that Sheppard had committed the murder, the lead prosecutor, John J. Mahon, focused his efforts on proving that he had done it. His main argument: Sheppard was in the house at the time the murder occurred. He argued that Sheppard’s story was inconsistent and that his inability to describe the person who killed her were signs that he was the true murderer. Along with these, he also argued that Sheppard’s t-shirt should have had blood on it from his struggle with the killer, but a shirt was never actually found to argue this point with. Sheppard also had no sand in his hair, and the daybed he was sleeping on was apparently on the beach. Mahon argued that he would have to have sand in his hair if he was really on the beach, and that the items stolen and found later outside were done to make it look like a burglary. Going further in speculation, the prosecutors had no murder weapon to work with, but the coroner claimed that, based on markings on the pillow under Marilyn’s head, the murder weapon had been some kind of double-bladed surgical instrument with teeth on the blades (Wikipedia). Doctor Lester Adelson was called to the stand and delivered a brutal slide show of the crime scene, as well as his evidence that Marilyn Sheppard had died violently. Sheppard asked to be allowed to leave the courtroom during the slide show, which was colored autopsy photos, but was denied and instead stood at the back of the courtroom facing away. Corrigan tried to argue on cross-examination that Marilyn choked on her own blood, but Adelson would not relent. As far as he was concerned, Marilyn died as a result of the brutal beating (Linder).

            When the trial began, the defense attempted to have the trial moved from Cleveland and have the trial stayed until the media circus died down, but the judge denied this (Linder). Sheppard’s attorney, William Corrigan, argued against the claims with the injuries Sheppard had sustained from his struggle with the intruder. According to Dr. Charles Elkins, a neurosurgeon that examined Sheppard, his injuries were severe and could not be faked. The injuries included nerve injuries, a concussion, and injury around the second cervical vertebra in the back of his neck. Corrigan and the defense also used how bloody the crime scene was to their advantage – Sheppard only had blood on his knee, after all. With a crime scene that bloody, they would have found some blood evidence somewhere else on him. It was believed by the defense that Marilyn had bitten her attacker, as two of her teeth had been broken and pulled from her mouth, though there are some who insist that the teeth being pulled from her mouth is consistent with the beating she endured. Criminologist Paul Kirk seems to agree with the defense on this, stating that, if the teeth were due to her being beaten, her lips would had been damaged and pieces of the teeth would have been found inside her mouth (Wikipedia). Paul Kirk also conducted his own investigation of the crime scene and came to his own conclusions. One, the killer must have been left-handed – Sheppard was right-handed. Two, he believed the murder weapon was actually a flash light, and a neighbor of the Sheppards did find a dented flash light in shallow water while swimming. Could this have been the real murder weapon? He claimed, on top of these two, that he had also found blood evidence that belonged to neither of the Sheppards (Linder).

            Sheppard took the stand during his trial and in his own words, gave his story on what happened. According to Sheppard, he heard his wife screaming, possibly calling his name, and ran inside. His first thought was that she was having a convulsive episode that she apparently had early in her pregnancy for their son. When he barged into the bedroom, he saw what he believed to be someone in a light-colored garment struggling or grappling with someone (it can likely be assumed that this was the attacker fighting his wife). He was seemingly struck from behind at this time, but tried to fight the person attacking his wife. He believed he was knocked out, and when he woke, he was sitting up next to the bed, facing the doorway. He checked his wife’s pulse before checking on his son. Somehow, though he wasn’t sure how, he determined he was okay and went downstairs due to a noise coming from there. He saw someone with bushy hair and chased them down to the Lake Eerie beach near their house and was knocked out again. Along with his testimony, the defense had 18 witnesses to his character and two who claimed to have seen a bushy haired person that night (Wikipedia).

            On November 3, 1954, the jury, along with Sheppard, were brought to the Sheppard household and toured the home. They were shown the desk that had been pulled open evenly by the intruder as well as the room where Marilyn met her gruesome fate. When they came to the room of Sheppard’s son, Chip, the man wept at the sight of his son’s teddy bear. The group were also lead outside, where they could see where Sheppard had struggled with the bushy-haired intruder (Linder).

            On December 21, 1954, Sam Sheppard was found guilty of second-degree murder and received a life sentence. His mother died by suicide not long after his conviction, shooting herself on January 7, 1955, and less than two weeks later, his father died as well of stomach cancer and a bleeding gastric ulcer. He was allowed to attend their funerals as long as he wore handcuffs, and later took part in cancer research that required cancer cells to be injected into his body. This may seem like the end; the killer is in jail, right? To many this sounded like an open-and-shut case of “the husband did it.” However, following several denied appeals by Corrigan, who died in 1961, F. Lee Bailey took the case and successfully filed a writ of habeas corpus on July 15, 1964. Habeas corpus is filed when it is believed by the filer that the detained is being wrongfully detained. It is a way to reopen cases that have not been closed to satisfaction (Wikipedia).

            The judge who approved the writ of habeas corpus ordered that Ohio release Sheppard on bond and gave the state 60 days to bring charges against Sheppard, or the case would be permanently dismissed. This ruling was overturned shortly after by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, where it then was appealed again by Bailey to the Supreme Court. There, the conviction was overturned by a vote of 8-to-1 on July 6, 1966. The Supreme Court found that the trial had been tainted by the media and that fact that the juror hadn’t been sequestered. The judge at the time was also felt to be biased against Sheppard from the start. Essentially, Sheppard’s right to due process. Sheppard was released after spending 10 years in prison and, shortly after release, married the woman he had been corresponding with while in prison. The woman, Ariane Tebbenjohanns, was a German divorcee whose half-sister was married to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief. She insisted she had no Nazi views and in 1969, she and Sheppard were divorced (Wikipedia).

            With the turnover of the conviction, a retrial was slated to begin. The jury was sequestered this time, meaning they had no access to the media during the trial. The prosecution fought the same battle as before, but Bailey was more aggressive with his cross examination and his fight to disprove the evidence the prosecution had. Bailey lead the coroner who claimed the murder weapon was a “surgical instrument” to confess that the murder weapon had never been found, meaning the claim was nothing more than speculation. The coroner confessed that the prosecution had no actual evidence against Sheppard. This trial, Sheppard didn’t take the stand, and his mistress Susan Hayes didn’t either. After 12 hours of deliberation, the jury delivered a verdict of not guilty in the case of the murder of Marilyn Reese Sheppard (Wikipedia).

            So, who did kill Marilyn Reese Sheppard? The answer may have come while Sam Sheppard was still serving time. A man named Richard Eberling, who had worked washing windows at the Sheppard house at the time of the murder, was arrested in 1959 for larceny. After finding a cocktail ring that belonged to Marilyn Sheppard in his home, police worked on a hunch and questioned him about his blood being found in the home. While Eberling didn’t know that his blood was not actually found, he immediately told a story about having cut himself while working their a few days before the murder occurred. Eberling agreed to a lie detector test and, at the time, was deemed as telling the truth when he declared he didn’t murder Marilyn Sheppard. However, later experts found the test to be inconclusive at best. After his arrest for grand larceny, Eberling paid a fine and did 90 days’ time before suddenly seeming to skyrocket up the social latter. His partner, Obie Henderson, was hired as an assistant to the mayor of Cleveland, and through this relationship Eberling was able to get a job decorating the mayor’s house. This lead him to an interior design business that did extremely well, even landing him a contract to restore the city hall of Cleveland. He was later fired from this position by a new mayor, Dennis Kucinich, who ran for president in 2004 (Linder).

            Eberling was known to have committed more crimes than just grand larceny, including defrauding the elderly, insurance fraud, and murder. Working as a nurse’s aide for Ethel May Durkin in the 1970s, and grew close to Durkin. In the early 1980s, it became known that he was reportedly making a new will for Durkin, and in 1983, Durkin died after being found comatose, face down on her kitchen floor. Posing as her nephew, Eberling claimed she had fallen suddenly. An examination showed that there had been a lengthy period of time between her injury and emergency responders being called, which raised suspicions. In 1989, Eberling was charged with her murder as well as fraud. He is also a suspect in the murder of her sister in 1962 – like Marilyn Sheppard, she was beaten on the head and strangled in her own bed (Linder). Eberling died in prison in 1998, after years of speculation on his roll in Marilyn’s death. When he was called to testify during the second trial, Sam Sheppard could not identify him as the bushy-haired intruder, but it is known that he wore toupees sometimes (Steer 2019).

            During the second trial, Bailey produced another theory: the Houks, whom Sheppard called the morning of the murder, were responsible for the death. Bailey theorized that Marilyn was having an affair with Spencer Houk and his wife, Esther, was enraged by this. If we are to believe that there were two attackers, this is possible. Anonymous letters would be found claiming that Marilyn and Spencer were engaged in an extramarital affair, but this was not proven. Bailey believed that the weapon used was fireplace tongs, and that Spender was wrestling with Sheppard while Esther beat Marilyn (Steer 2019).

            In the end, we have no true answer to the question of what happened to Marilyn Reese Sheppard, beyond the brutal details of her death. We have no unturned conviction, though we have theories that float around to this day. It has been 66 years since Marilyn Sheppard was beaten to death in her own bed, in her own home, by an unknown individual. It is likely that there will never be an answer to this case. Those who may have truly known, have since passed to the grave as well.

“Sam Sheppard.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 June 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Sheppard.

Linder, Douglas O. “Dr. Sam Sheppard Trials: An Account.” Famous Trials, www.famous-trials.com/sam-sheppard/2-sheppard.

Linder, Douglas O. “Who Killed Marilyn?: Evidence Concerning Richard Eberling– Was He ‘the Bushy-Haired Man’?” Famous Trials, www.famous-trials.com/sam-sheppard/10-evidence.

Steer, Jen. “Who Killed Marilyn Sheppard?” fox8.Com, fox8.Com, 14 Nov. 2019, fox8.com/news/who-killed-marilyn-sheppard/.

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