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Book Names New Suspect in 1954 Sheppard Killing

Crime: A writer says an ex-Air Force major killed the doctor's wife in Ohio. The case drew national attention for years.

April 28, 2002|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

That notorious July night remains just a blur to Sam Reese Sheppard.

Only 7 at the time, Sheppard remembers being awakened from a deep slumber and rushed from his suburban Cleveland home in a panic by neighbors--vaguely aware, he says, that "something was terribly wrong."

Sheppard and many other sleuths both amateur and professional have spent nearly the last half-century trying to figure out exactly what happened that night when his pregnant mother, Marilyn Sheppard, was bludgeoned to death.

From one of two new dueling whodunits comes the latest chapter--and one of the more novel twists--in a mystery that America seems unable to put down.

In a provocative book due out next month, former FBI agent Bernard F. Conners uses forensic evidence, an odd bite mark, eyewitness testimony and other clues to point the finger at a new suspect in the case.

Conners' book, "Tailspin," joins the ranks of thousands of articles, books, documentaries and movies aiming to solve the 1954 murder. Even the courts in Ohio have revisited the issue, turning down an appeal a few months ago from the Sheppard family in their effort to exonerate the victim's husband, Dr. Sam Sheppard, who served 10 years in prison for the murder.

Conners argues that the real killer was not Sam Sheppard nor the couple's much-maligned window washer but rather a handsome, "bushy-haired" Air Force major named Jim Call who went AWOL and became a gambler, a burglar, a convicted cop-killer and a fugitive.

Call died in a car accident in 1974, six years after he was released from Attica prison in New York, but Conners believes that solving the mystery even now is crucial. "We have a very compelling case. I feel very strongly that Sam Sheppard should be vindicated," Conners said. "It was outrageous what happened to him."

Conners' book is already stirring controversy. Some people familiar with the case are attacking his evidence as thin, while others, including several prominent law enforcement officials, praise Conners as a real-life Hercule Poirot.

Sam Reese Sheppard, now 54 and a dental hygienist in Oakland, is among the believers.

"I think we now have a serious suspect who was basically ignored at the time," the victim's son said in an interview.

So begins a fresh round of scrutiny into a case that Sheppard expert James Neff said "has all the elements."

"It was a case that just shook us up. It was all so powerful. It was the original media frenzy," said Neff, who published his own book, "The Wrong Man," in November, concluding that Richard Eberling, the Sheppards' window washer, was probably the culprit.

With a headline-hungry Cleveland newspaper publisher pushing the case, Marilyn Sheppard's murder on July 4, 1954, became a national sensation with decades-long staying power.

There was the shock of a pregnant young wife murdered in her own bedroom in an elite suburban enclave. There was the arrest of her handsome husband, a doctor in a prominent medical family that ran a local hospital. There were his proclamations of innocence--and his insistence that he had battled a "bushy-haired man" who fled the scene.

There was the defense attorney, F. Lee Bailey, catapulted to fame by the case. And there was "The Fugitive"--and the legend, often discounted, that the popular television series and the Harrison Ford film about a wrongly accused doctor searching for his wife's one-armed killer were inspired by the Sheppard case.

Long before Charles Manson, O.J. Simpson or Robert Blake, the allegations against Sam Sheppard led to one of the first great "trials of the century" in America. "Everyone was asking, 'Did he or didn't he? He's a doctor, he's so handsome, how could he?' " Neff said.

Sam Sheppard was convicted of murder, but the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial in 1966 because of the "carnival" atmosphere at the first one. At his retrial, Sheppard was found not guilty. But the damage was already done.

The suicides of three Sheppard family members were linked to the trauma surrounding the killing and conviction, and Sheppard descended into depression, eventually becoming a pro wrestler by the name of "Killer" Sheppard. He died in 1970.

Prison "destroyed him," his brother, Stephen Sheppard, a retired doctor in Oregon, said in an interview. "He came out and turned into a user of uppers and downers and alcohol and anything else. You go to prison for 10 years, you come out a convict."

One of the many amateur detectives on the case was Air Force officer George Warburton. He was convinced that a burglar, Jim Call, who was briefly questioned in New York about the murder, was involved. Warburton took his theory to Neff, who was then researching "The Wrong Man," but Neff wasn't persuaded.

Warburton also sent Conners a batch of material, however, and the former FBI agent was intrigued.

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