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The Stranger in My Bed
By Michael Fleeman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Michael Fleeman
All rights reserved.
As the afternoon shadows grew long in a lonely corner of Indiana, Sam Kennedy brought his truck to a stop, looked in the rearview mirror, and saw that the rest of the road crew from the Newton County Highway Department had fallen behind. If the afternoon had been any colder, Sam and his partner Russell Trail would have stayed in the truck, heater blasting, waiting for them to catch up. But spring had finally come to northwestern Indiana, with temperatures in the 50s and the skies clear. Sam got out of the truck and surveyed the landscape: miles of farmland dotted with silos and barns. Dead trees lined the side of the road. The warmer weather was thawing out the cornfields from the winter freeze.
It was Tuesday, April 22, 1980. Sam and the rest of the crew were repairing winter damage to a section of County Road 400 North, known locally as Hopkins Park Road. One of the few paved east-west roads in the area, Hopkins Park Road connected busy Route 41 on the western edge of Indiana with the little town of Hopkins Park in far-eastern Illinois, 40 miles south of Chicago. Sam and Russell squirted oil in the cracks and the second crew came along behind sprinkling little rocks in the oil, creating what is called a "chip-along" road surface. But Sam and Russell had gotten too far ahead. The oil would harden before the second crew got there with the rocks.
As Sam stood on the roadway, he let his eyes wander to the surrounding farmland. That's when he saw it, lying in the weeds on the far upslope of a drainage ditch that ran parallel to the road. A wooden box. It was about five feet long and a couple feet wide — the size and shape of the toolboxes in the beds of pickups. Sam pointed it out to his partner. They trudged into the three-foot-deep ditch and walked up the other side to get a closer look. From its darkened, weathered surface, the box appeared to have been outside for some time. It looked to have been constructed by hand with plywood and finishing nails.
They picked it up and carried it back up to the roadway, where they set it down next to the truck. With a crowbar from the truck, Sam pried open the lid and peered inside. A faintly musty smell hit him. Stuffed inside were a soiled blanket or quilt, green and old, and a tangle of clothes made of denim and plaid cloth. Sam poked at the quilt with the crowbar, pushing it aside to see what was underneath.
As an object appeared, he gasped. Sam shouted to the other workers to stay right where they were until he called for help. He jumped into the pickup cab and radioed his boss, Highway Superintendent Ernie Collins, telling him to come out to Hopkins Park Road, just a couple miles west of 41, immediately.
The old quilt in the box was covering a human skull.
Larry Bartley had been driving home in his work car, a white Malibu station wagon, when over the radio he heard the dispatcher say, "Signal 8 — 10-79 at 400 north, west of US 41 in Newton." A crime scene technician for Newton County, Bartley knew the lingo: a body had been found on Hopkins Park Road. Turning around, he drove five miles to a spot on the road just west of Route 41 where he saw the highway workers standing near an old, weathered wooden box. They looked shaken, their faces ghostly white. At about the same time he arrived, his friend, Newton County Sheriff's Deputy Gerald Burman, pulled up in his chocolate-brown-and-tan Ford LTD cruiser. Also arriving were Sheriff Ed Madison and the county's part-time elected coroner, Pat Cardwell, a funeral home owner.
As Sheriff Madison interviewed the road workers and Deputy Burman posted himself a few hundred yards up the road to keep cars away, Bartley took pictures of the scene from various angles with his 35-mm Pentax, first in black-and-white, then in color. He also photographed the box. On paper, he diagramed the location where the box was found — the weeds had been tramped down and were dead. When he finished documenting the scene, he looked inside the box.
Pushing the matted and rolled-up blanket and clothing around, Bartley could see that there wasn't just a skull, but dozens of other bones, enough to make up an entire skeleton. With darkness approaching, Bartley wanted to get the box into a protected, lighted place. He helped Cardwell load it into the coroner's station wagon, then the pair drove separately to the Cardwell Funeral Home in the hamlet of Morocco, eight miles to the south. Bartley and Cardwell carried the box inside, placing it on an embalming table and pulling off the lid that Sam Kennedy had partially pried off with a crowbar.
Wearing rubber gloves, they removed the quilt first. Up closer, it looked more like an Army blanket, though it was badly soiled. They removed, logged and placed into brown bags a collection of women's clothing that seemed to come straight from the 60s: bell-bottom blue jeans, a turquoise hippie-type blouse with wooden buttons, a badly decomposed white nightgown, another white nightgown with a lace top, a bright red dress, a multi-colored dress with puffy sleeves, a blue dress, a black-and-white dress, a striped shirt, a plaid skirt, a blue Western-style shirt, a bathrobe and several bras. There was also a pair of blue jeans with a picture of a smiling mushroom on the crotch. Nearly all the items were size small. They also removed two rings, a gold crucifix on a chain, and strands of brownish hair.
With the clothing out of the way, Bartley and Cardwell could see that the bones were dry and stained dark, the soft tissues of the muscles, skin and organs eaten away by insects and the elements. There was the skull that had startled Sam Kennedy, along with the collarbones, chest bone, ribs, vertebrae, arm bones and the little bones of the hands. The bones appeared to be those of a woman or a small-framed male; they were too big to be those of a child.
But what was most intriguing were the bones of the lower legs. They had been cut a couple inches down from the knee. The rest of the leg bones and the feet were missing. The person in the box had had his or her legs chopped off at the shins.
Bartley and Cardwell decided to leave the bones in the box for the time being. Bartley put the bagged clothing and quilt in his car and drove home. The next day, he checked the bags into the evidence room of the Indiana State Police post in Lowell.
Over the next two weeks, the box with the bones was carted across northern Indiana in a quest to figure out whom they belonged to and what had happened to this person. A forensic pathologist at the Physicians Laboratory in Lafayette examined the bones and determined they were those of a woman between the ages of 20 and 40 years, and that it looked like the legs had been sliced off with a power saw. The bones then went to Purdue University for an examination by an anthropologist, who believed the woman was probably in her early twenties, with brown hair. The condition of the pelvis showed that she had borne no children. She may have been Hispanic, but the anthropologist wasn't sure. The bone structure of the skull and exceptional teeth suggested that she was very pretty.
Word quickly spread through Newton County about the discovery of what would be called The Lady in the Box. A front-page story in the Newton County Enterprise on May 1, 1980, said "Box Lady Remains A Mystery" and quoted "one informed source" as saying that police in Indiana were pursuing "significant leads" in the case. The source told the paper that if it turned out The Lady in the Box was murdered, "This will be one of the most bizarre cases in Newton County history."
Seeking her identity, authorities put out the word over the police network systems to other agencies asking if they had any missing women fitting that description: young, brown-haired, possibly Latina, and attractive. The chopped-off legs weren't mentioned — that was supposed to be the truth test if anybody responded — but the grisly detail got leaked to the local media anyway.
Despite the optimistic tone in the Enterprise, the investigation was actually going nowhere. No replies had come in with anything close to a woman or girl fitting the description of The Lady in the Box. Newton County sheriffs contacted the Chicago Police Department to see if the remains matched those of any missing big-city women; it was not uncommon for the bodies of homicide victims to turn up buried in Newton County farmland. "We used to joke that they did it here because the soil was soft and sandy," Burman recalled. The size of the skeleton allowed authorities to quickly rule out the possibility that this was a missing woman in a notorious case of the time — the 1977 disappearance of candy heiress Helen Vorhees Brach, from suburban Chicago. Police combed their files for missing prostitutes or drug addicts, but found nothing.
After several weeks, the investigation had stalled and authorities were beginning to resign themselves to the possibility that The Lady in the Box might always remain a Jane Doe, and so decided to give her a proper burial. But first they kept some of the evidence in case a tip came in. The quilt, the clothing and the box were left in storage in the state police post in Lowell. Also kept were the lower leg bones in case a weapon or tool turned up that could be matched against the cut marks. Coroner Cardwell kept the skull for himself, storing it at the funeral home.
Under Indiana law, unclaimed remains must be buried in the township in which they were found. These remains were discovered closest to McClelland Township in Newton County, but the township had no cemetery. The Lady in the Box was to be laid to rest in the next closest township, Morocco, in the potter's field section of Oakwood Cemetery. The bones were put in white plastic bags, which were placed in an inexpensive, plastic child-sized coffin. It was a simple burial, attended by Coroner Cardwell, crime scene technician Bartley and a small crew from the cemetery that did the digging. No words were spoken that anybody could remember. A metal plate was ordered for a marker. Since nobody knew her name, or her date of birth or death, the marker read, "Jane Doe, 1980."
Over the years, The Lady in the Box became a local legend. Teenagers would go to Hopkins Park Road west of Route 41 to check out the very spot where she was found by Sam Kennedy that pleasant spring afternoon. Those who weren't morbidly fascinated by her grew to feel compassion, this unknown woman abandoned on the side of the road, evoking sympathy and a curious sense of protectiveness, her anonymity allowing people to create their own histories for her. Flowers would be found on the Jane Doe marker at Oakwood Cemetery. Cemetery workers tried to see who brought them, and a couple of times saw a car drive off, but they couldn't get the license plate. Thinking the flowers might have been left by the killer out of guilt, Newton County authorities set up a stake-out at the cemetery. Soon, they saw a woman leaving flowers on the marker. The woman turned out to be no killer, but a relative of somebody else buried in the cemetery. When she came to put flowers on her loved one's grave, she would save a few for The Lady in the Box because she felt sorry for her. In time, the original marker was stolen, then replaced by a New Age-looking one with a circle pattern — why and by whom, nobody knew.
As years passed, the investigation would be as dead as anybody in Oakwood Cemetery. There were no leads, no reports of missing women or girls fitting her description. There was nothing to do but to remember. Bartley, the crime scene analyst, would stop by the jail occasionally and ask Burman, "Heard anything about The Lady in the Box?" And Burman would reply, "Haven't heard a word. Nothing."
"Any open case always haunts you, for lack of a better word," Bartley would say years later. "You try to pride yourself that you're better than the average bear, so to speak, and you're going to get your man. And if you don't, it eats at you, not bad, but it gnaws."
It would gnaw at him for more than twenty years.CHAPTER 2
"Private chalets in a rustic setting." That was the sales pitch in the brochure for the Stricklands Mountain Inn in Pennsylvania's Poconos resort. Just how rustic, John and Fran Smith were about to find out. Midway into their belated honeymoon, while Fran soaked in the ruby-red heart-shaped hot tub, their television conked out. After John called the front desk for a repairman, help arrived sooner than expected. Fran was still soaking. The tub sat in the middle of the suite, a romantically cheesy feature typical of Pocono lodgings, some of which also feature hot tubs shaped like martini glasses. When she heard the knock at the front door, she carefully stepped out of the tub and walked toward the privacy of the bathroom, dripping water as she went, being careful not to slip on the wet tile.
The Smiths had checked into the Stricklands Mountain Inn on Labor Day weekend, 1991, a year after they had impetuously married in Florida. At 49 years old, Fran, whose full name was Betty Fran Gladden Smith, was ten years older than John, her third husband. She was attractive and petite, with long blond hair and capped teeth. In her youth she had taken modeling jobs for extra money, and now into middle age she still had a taste for glamour, her most recent portraits taken in the soft-focus, boudoir style. John, by contrast, was as geeky as she was pretty. No focus was soft enough to cover his freckled face, skinny build and the perpetually bad cut of red hair. The two had met at work and married on the beach, taking their vows as their bare feet wiggled in the sand; afterwards, they had moved from Florida to New Jersey. But the romance wouldn't last and the young marriage suffered. The Poconos were supposed to help change that.
With the TV man at the door, Fran was walking halfway between the heart-shaped tub to the bathroom when she felt her feet fly out from under her. She had slipped on a wet spot on the tile and her 5-foot-2, 100-pound frame crashed to the floor, pain radiating from her hip. John called the paramedics, who soon arrived at about the same time as a security man from the inn. The paramedics examined Fran as she lay on the floor. The pain was so bad she couldn't get up. An ambulance took her to the Pocono Medical Center in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, where X-rays showed she had a broken hip.
Fran would have to spend the rest of her honeymoon, and then some, not in a hot tub in a mountain inn, but laid up in a hospital bed. When she was well enough she would be sent back to her new condominium in West Windsor, New Jersey, near Princeton. She would be bedridden for weeks and then, if all healed properly, able to move around on crutches or with a walker before regaining full use of her legs. As cruel fate would have it, the New Jersey condo, which Fran didn't want to live in anyway — she had preferred staying in Florida near her family — was on the third floor, with no elevator. She wondered how she would ever leave the place. New Jersey was going to be worse than she imagined.
"I'm really frustrated about being here and not being able to move around like I want," she complained to her daughter, Deanna Wehling, in a phone call not long after she broke her hip. Deanna, 26, a single mother of two small children, ages 7 and 8, lived in Houston, Texas, and called her mother every other day for updates and to try to keep her spirits up. Other relatives, including Fran's sister, Sherrie Gladden-Davis, who lived in Indiana, also phoned, so that at least one person a day checked in on Fran. By nature a bubbly woman, Fran tried to make the best of her situation, but the pain and isolation weighed on her. She had time to think, reflect and worry about her troubled marriage to her secretive husband John. She didn't want to be divorced a third time. But it was getting tough. John was making it tough.
Fran had grown up as a military brat, her family following her soldier father from base to base before settling in Houston. Pretty and vivacious, she made the best of things in her youth, joining school clubs, modeling on the side. As a woman, she always went for military men like her father — she said she was a sucker for a man in uniform — but neither of her first two marriages lasted, the second ending in divorce in 1981. Single throughout the '80s, Fran focused her energies on her children — Deanna and her two brothers — and her grandchildren. Fran was a doting and protective mother and was always there for them.
Excerpted from The Stranger in My Bed by Michael Fleeman. Copyright © 2003 Michael Fleeman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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