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Money, Mystery . . . and Murder : A missing heiress. A gigolo. Dead horses. And now a prison term. After 18 years, Helen Brach's case is closed.

June 21, 1995|MEGAN GARVEY | THE WASHINGTON POST

CHICAGO — For 18 years the plot twisted and turned as though it had been lifted off the pages of a Dick Francis mystery novel. A wealthy elderly woman was missing, leaving behind a suspicious houseman, a handsome gigolo, a retiring brother, lame racehorses and a web of insurance fraud that stretched across the country. But this whodunit had no ending. As the years went by, one fact became clear: Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.

Who killed Helen Vorhees Brach, heir to the candy company fortune, and why?

One answer finally came last week in a federal courtroom in Chicago. It was Richard Bailey, the handsome gigolo.

Earlier this month, at Bailey's unusual sentencing hearing on federal charges of racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder, U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur ignored Bailey's claim of innocence and said he was at least part of the plot to eliminate Brach.

Bailey, 65, had pleaded guilty to a lifetime of fraud, admitting that he had spent 20 years proclaiming false love to bilk women of their money, but he told the judge that he didn't know what had happened to Brach. Shadur didn't believe him.

"It is more probable than not that Bailey did commit the offenses of conspiring to murder and soliciting the murder of Helen Brach," said Shadur before postponing the sentencing.

Justice, so slow to come, finally was imposed Thursday when Shadur sentenced Bailey to 30 years in prison, calling the ruling, "in effect, a life sentence." Even with credit for good behavior, Bailey will serve at least 25 years.

*

Helen Vorhees Brach slipped from existence on a cold winter day in Minnesota. Accounts of her disappearance list the events of Feb. 17, 1977, the last day prosecutors think she was seen: a routine checkup at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, a brief stop at a gift shop for purchases on her credit card and then--nothing.

Days passed before her houseman reported her missing to police in Glenview, Ill., the affluent Chicago suburb where she lived on the estate she had shared with her late husband, Frank.

The police informed the houseman, John A. (Jack) Matlick, that a member of her immediate family needed to make the report in person. Matlick contacted Brach's only sibling, a brother named Charles Vorhees, in Hopedale, Ohio. Vorhees agreed to make the trip to Chicago but not until the end of the week.

When he arrived at the Brach estate, he and Matlick destroyed his sister's personal papers before heading to the police station to file a formal missing-persons report. The delay in alerting police to her disappearance and the burning of her diary were only the first instances of unusual behavior in the case.

Police began looking for Brach, the trail as fresh as it would ever be, but there was barely a trace of the former hatcheck girl.

Law enforcement officials suspected that Bailey, an admitted confidence man and gigolo who was known for his ability to sell horses to women at inflated prices, knew exactly where Brach was, or at least what had happened to her. But for almost two decades they could prove nothing.

At a 1979 deposition taken by lawyers for Brach's estate, Bailey took the Fifth Amendment on every question he was asked, including his address. By remaining silent, said the lawyer who questioned him, Bailey gave authorities no foothold from which to pick away at his alibi and actions.

The disappearance of Brach became a local legend. But the conjecture and rumor stilled as the years ticked by, the case fading for all but those closest to it. Almost no one remembered the message scrawled in red paint on the road running by one of Bailey's stables in 1978: "Richard Bailey knows where Mrs. Brach's body is! Stop him! Please!"

*

John Cadwalader Menk had no idea of the hornet's nest he was stepping into when, in the fall of 1977, he was asked to be the guardian for Brach in matters concerning her considerable estate--estimated to be about $30 million at the time of her death.

Recently retired as president of the Chicago Bar Assn., Menk was recruited by the court to administer the estate. Menk's appointment settled the battle over her fortune, one part controlled by her longtime financial manager and the other a $7-million trust set up by her husband at Continental Bank.

But Menk was soon drawn into the intrigue that reached far beyond the money. "This was a case in which everyone had acted very peculiarly," said Menk, 81, sipping water on the back porch of his home in Winnetka, Ill.

Menk began poking around. One day, almost a year after Brach disappeared, Menk searched her house in hopes of finding a copy of her will. (Brach's personal lawyer would not turn over the will, saying it would violate the confidentiality of his client.)

What he found in plain sight was a suitcase with baggage tags for the Minneapolis-to-Chicago flight Brach was supposed to have taken the day she disappeared. In two previous searches of the house by police, the bag was not there.

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