5 Absolutely Bananas Ways Criminal Cases Got Solved
Solving a mystery can mean doing some old-fashioned detective work, stumbling upon a clue by pure coincidence, or just listening as somebody succumbs to a nagging guilty conscience. But every now and then, crime-solving gets so convoluted and downright bizarre that it can feel like a rerun of a shitty old WB drama. Like when ...
A Murderer Was Caught Because Of A Made-For-TV Movie
In 1985, Ellen Sherman was found dead in her Connecticut home. Police, believing an intruder had strangled her earlier in the day, ruled out her husband Ed as a suspect. Ed had left for a fishing trip the day before, had been with friends the day of, and had been overheard speaking to Ellen on the phone at his buddy's house the previous night, all of which gave them a pretty solid timeline. The case then sat around for five years. An investigation unveiled some details about marital troubles, but nothing concrete. Then, in 1990, a daughter of one of Ed's friends remarked that she had been on the phone line when Ed was speaking to Ellen, and had only heard Ed saying "I love you" into a ringing phone, with no one ever answering.
OK, maybe it was just a kid misremembering something that happened years before. But then someone else recalled that on the Saturday of his trip, Ed had been talking about a TV movie called Blackout, which aired a few days earlier. Blackout was a by-the-numbers HBO potboiler that featured a man killing his wife, then using an air conditioner to slow her body's decomposition. This causes the police to misjudge the time of death as two days later than it really was ... at least, until they catch on and apprehend him.
The air conditioner had been running when Ellen's body was discovered, and based on this new evidence, a reexamination concluded that she'd actually been killed the day before Ed left. While Ed almost fooled investigators who couldn't afford premium cable, he was eventually convicted of the murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison, where he died of a heart attack in 1992.
Please take a moment to show some sympathy for the journalistic credibility of New York Times critic John J. O'Connor, who in his mixed review said that Blackout was "never entirely convincing." If only he had been working the case instead of evaluating Keith Carradine TV projects.
A Killer Was Caught When He Emulated His Crime In A Murder Mystery Game
In 1988, Floridian Peggy Carr developed mysterious flu-like symptoms which doctors were unable to attribute to any obvious illness, including all the ones associated with living in Florida. When her son and stepson came down with similar symptoms, the family simply thought a bug was going around. But Peggy's sister-in-law, a nurse, suspected something more serious. She took Peggy to the hospital, where poisonous thallium was discovered in her system. It eventually killed her.
Her husband was the first suspect, but doubts arose when thallium was discovered in the family's soda. Rat poison isn't usually a key ingredient in Dr. Pepper, unless we're talking some store-brand Back Alley Surgeon Pepper. So the police turned their attention to neighbor George James Trepal. Trepal had frequently complained about the Carrs' dogs chasing his cats, their teenage kids playing their music too loud, and pretty much everything else. When investigators asked why he thought someone might want to poison them, Trepal said they must have wanted the Carrs to move away.
His comment was eerily similar to an anonymous note left at the Carr house a few months earlier, warning them to move or die. The police also learned that Trepal would regularly host murder mystery events for Mensa members, which itself sounds like a sign of sociopathy. One event featured a "move or else" scenario and a family being poisoned over time. This is like if Jeffrey Dahmer did an off-Broadway show listing all the men he'd murdered.
An undercover officer going by "Sherry Guinn" was sent to strike up a friendship with Trepal. In December of 1989, Trepal handed a house key to Guinn, believing he was helping her escape an abusive husband. Instead, Guinn searched his house and found a bottle of thallium in his garage, among other evidence. Trepal was arrested, and the murder mystery game was cited during his trial. He was found guilty and is currently on death row. This no doubt taught him that crime -- and, uh, helping domestic abuse victims -- doesn't pay.
A Wrongly Convicted Man Collected DNA Evidence From The Real Killer, Who Happened To Be In The Same Prison Block
In 1998, Clarence Arnold Elkins was convicted of killing his mother-in-law, Judy Johnson, as well as raping both her and her six-year-old granddaughter. He was sentenced to life in prison. One problem: The case against Elkins consisted entirely of an identification made by a six-year-old who wasn't actually accusing him.
The victim told police that the perpetrator "looked like Uncle Clarence," but that was merely her way of describing his appearance. She wasn't literally saying it was him. Plus, there was no physical evidence, and Elkins had an alibi. He was convicted anyway. His wife Melissa remained confident that he was innocent, and she came up with a more likely suspect: Earl Mann, a sex offender who lived next door and had just been arrested again for three other rapes.
Mann eventually happened to be transferred to Elkins' cell block. If this were a TV show called something like Cell Blocked, Elkins' six years in prison would have hardened him and he would have vengefully murdered Mann, probably in the laundry room. Instead he gathered evidence to convict Mann by snagging a cigarette butt he dropped. He mailed the butt to Melissa, whose lawyers had Mann's DNA tested. Sure enough, they matched it to the Johnson rape and murder.
Elkins' conviction was overturned, while Mann pleaded guilty to all charges and the sentence was piled on top of the one he was already serving. Although none of those amazing events should have been necessary, given that when Mann was arrested for an unrelated robbery a few weeks after Elkins' arrest, he drunkenly asked officers, "Why don't you charge me with the Judy Johnson murder?" Police noted this in a memo, and then promptly did nothing with it. Good thing he was a smoker who was randomly transferred!
A Court-Martialed Captain Was Cleared By A Kid Who Watched Jaws
Hunter Scott was an 11-year-old Floridian and perhaps the only child in history to watch Jaws and not be most interested in the shark attack or nudity parts. He was instead captivated by Quint's lengthy monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the sharks that devoured its survivors. So for a school history assignment, he chose the Indianapolis as his subject. And what he learned convinced him that there had been a miscarriage of justice.
On the night of July 30, 1945, the Indianapolis was hit by two Japanese torpedoes and sank within 12 minutes. 890 of the 1,195 crew members made it off the ship and into the water, but only 316 survived the ensuing four days with no food or water (but plenty of nasty weather and ornery sharks). The Indianapolis had been operating under radio silence while returning from a secret mission to deliver atomic bomb material, and so by the time a patrol discovered them, the ship had suffered the greatest single loss of life in American naval history.
But the curious part is that, while the U.S. lost hundreds of ships during World War II, Captain Charles B. McVay III was the only American to ever be court-martialed for losing his. He was convicted of "hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag," in a controversial ruling that didn't account for him not being informed that a sub was operating near his assigned route. McVay's career was ruined, he was bombarded with hate mail like "Merry Christmas! Our family's holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn't killed my son," and in 1968 he took his own life with his Navy service revolver.
When Scott began his research, the details of the sinking were still somewhat hazy, and so his project evolved into a years-long crusade to clear McVay's name. Scott interviewed nearly 150 survivors, reviewed more than 800 archival documents, and ultimately testified before Congress at an age when the only documents we were carefully reviewing were intensely pornographic.
Survivors (and McVay's son) had long been working to rehabilitate McVay's name, and even the captain of the Japanese sub got involved -- he maintained that he had been in a position to sink the Indianapolis regardless of whether or not it zigzagged. But Scott's efforts were able to break through the bureaucratic barriers, with McVay's son commenting, "He's gotten farther in Congress already in a few months than I or the survivors have in 52 years." In 2000, Bill Clinton signed a resolution that exonerated McVay, and Scott later embarked on his own naval career. So the clear lesson here is to always show violent movies to children.
A Serial Killer Was Caught Because His Son Committed A Crime Decades Later
In the 1980s, Los Angeles police kept turning up the bodies of black women who had apparently all been killed by the same man. The victims were either drug users or sex workers, so the case was internally labeled "NHI" -- short for "no humans involved," because the police can be just so charming. It took a whole lot of yelling from frustrated activists to get the murders taken seriously.
Police finally dubbed the case the Strawberry Murders -- "strawberry" being a slang term for women who trade sex for drugs. Not all the victims fit that description, but that was the name they went with until 2002, when a new victim turned up. Then the killer was dubbed the Grim Sleeper, because he'd laid off on killing for 14 years. It's possible that everyone put more effort into naming the crimes than solving them, because police had no leads.
They did have the killer's DNA -- that's how they linked the victims -- but it didn't match anyone on record. So they extended their search to "familial DNA" and matched their evidence to Christopher Franklin, who had once been brought in on a weapons charge. Police then turned to picking up DNA from Chris' relatives, in a process that maybe wasn't super legal.
Police suspected Chris' father, Lonnie Franklin, who had worked at an LAPD station as a mechanic in the '80s. An undercover officer followed him to a pizza place for a birthday party and, posing as a waiter, collected a napkin, glass, and discarded pizza crust. His DNA matched, he was arrested in July 2010, and in 2016 he was convicted of ten murders. So if you're concerned about your privacy and aren't a brutal serial killer, always remember to eat your crusts.
E. Reid Ross has a book called BIZARRE WORLD that's on store shelves as we speak. Or you could just order it now from Amazon or Barnes and Noble and leave a scathing/glowing review. Pete has a Twitter where he posts jokes. Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for bits cut from this article and other stuff no one should see.
For more, check out Why No Cop Show On TV Is Accurate (Yes, Even 'The Wire'):
Follow us on Facebook. Because we said so.