Deathbed Tale Offers a Solution to 1955 Slayings
By Craig Whitlock and April Witt
Police say Edward V. Dobek told his sister-in-law that on June 15, 1955--back when he was a skinny 17-year-old from Hyattsville--he aimed his squirrel rifle at two teenage girls passing through a county park on their way to school.
The girls, Nancy Marie Shomette, 17, and Michael Ann Ryan, 14, apparently had offended Dobek in some way several days before. Dobek pulled the trigger 17 times, killing them both, police said.
The slayings stunned and petrified the Washington region. News of the case ran on the front pages of local newspapers for two weeks straight, elbowing aside the Cold War. Someone had gunned down two innocent young girls in the peaceful suburbs, but even more frightening was the fact that the killer was on the loose. Parents refused to let their children out of their houses for days.
"Unfortunately, we're almost used to these things now," said Betty Miller, a classmate of the girls who lives in Bowie. "But back then, these things didn't happen. It was terrifying."
Prince George's police, the FBI and D.C. police interviewed 5,000 people, identified hundreds of suspicious characters and obtained three false confessions. They drained a pond and searched every inch of Northwest Branch Park, where the girls were shot. But they could not find the murder weapon, much less the killer.
For decades, the case haunted Prince George's homicide detectives, who refused to drop the investigation, even though the few fresh leads and tips that tantalized over the years invariably failed to bring resolution.
That changed on Jan. 23, 1997, police say, when they received a phone call out of the blue--from a town called North Pole, Alaska.
The woman on the line was Jean Dobek, and she said she knew something about an unsolved double murder from 1955. The woman reported that her brother-in-law, Edward Dobek, had made a deathbed confession nine months before in Hollywood, Fla., and she felt obliged to share the details.
Today, on the 45th anniversary of the slayings of Nancy Marie Shomette and Michael Ann Ryan, Prince George's police say they believe they may have solved the mystery after nearly a half-century of frustration.
Based on Jean Dobek's version of what happened, police said they are all but certain that Edward Dobek was the killer. Her description of the confession included details about the crime that had not been publicly disclosed, investigators said.
"At first, I had a little bit of reservation about it," said Sgt. George Swope, the lead detective on the case. "But my feeling is that she's telling the truth, because I haven't been able to disprove anything she said."
Added Lt. Michael McQuillan, commander of the Prince George's homicide unit: "We didn't just take her story and run with it and believe it. We're confident in what she said. She didn't make this up. She's got firsthand knowledge."
There is plenty of mystery left in this tale. While police say that Jean Dobek's account rings true, they acknowledge that they don't have much evidence or other witnesses to corroborate her account.
They also believe she may have tried to deceive them when answering some of their questions during an interview in January, based on the results of a voice-stress analysis test. Further detracting from her credibility is the 60-year-old woman's record as a convicted thief.
Edward's oldest brother, Robert Dobek, 65, of Philadelphia, said in a phone interview that he doesn't believe anyone in his family could have been involved in the slayings.
"It doesn't make sense to me," said Robert Dobek, an Air Force veteran and retired postal worker. "My brother Edward was the nicest guy you'd want to meet. [He] would never do anything like this. . . . I can't understand why they are digging this up."
Jean Dobek could not be located for an interview for this story. Her son said he has not heard from her for more than a year, when she skipped town in Alaska after he paid her bail and restitution in an insurance fraud case.
What is known about Edward Dobek is this: In 1955 he lived with his parents and four brothers at 6642 23rd Ave. in Hyattsville, where he was a sophomore at Northwestern High School. His father, Alexander, worked as a builder and landscaper, and his mother, Wanda, stayed home and took care of the kids, according to relatives.
The Dobeks, however, did not otherwise leave much of an impression on their neighbors or classmates. Several students who graduated from Northwestern High in the mid-1950s said they didn't remember much, if anything, about Eddie or his family.
"He wasn't part of any group," said Carolyn Davis Curtis, a member of Eddie's high school class and now a real estate agent in Carroll County, Md. "We had the jocks and cheerleaders, the real smart kids and the thespians. He wasn't part of any group I can identify. He must have been one of the outsiders."
Carol Sue Dodds was assigned to sit next to Eddie Dobek in their 10th-grade homeroom in 1955, according to an alphabetized class list. Dodd, who now lives in Ohio, had no problem recalling other classmates who sat near her. But when asked about the boy that police now describe as a killer, she drew a blank. "Edward who?" she said.
Details of the crime remain vivid, however, for many people who attended Northwestern or lived in Hyattsville and College Park in the mid-1950s. They remember hearing how Nancy Shomette needed to pick up her final report card from school that morning, and how her younger friend, Michael Ann, had accompanied her on the walk through Northwest Branch Park shortly after 8 a.m.
The girls' bodies were found in the park almost three hours later by a neighbor's English spaniel named Tiny, whose barking alerted a passerby. Police said the killer had dragged the teenagers more than 160 feet each and tried to cover their bodies with twigs and brush.
Nancy's purse and $2 in cash were missing, but detectives doubted robbery was the motive, pointing out that the shooter had fired from a distance of 50 yards. Authorities also said the girls were not sexually assaulted.
News of the slayings spread quickly.
"My biggest recollection is that a pretty good friend of mine lived on that street that faced the park," said Miller, a former Northwestern student. "She was home alone when she heard the news. She locked all the doors and windows and stayed down. She was on the phone calling different friends, but no one would come over to be with her. They were all too afraid."
Police interviewed hundreds of people who lived in the area. Even so, there is no mention of Edward Dobek in the voluminous case file, said Swope, the homicide detective.
There is a reference to Dobek's 14-year-old brother, John. According to police, a friend reported that John owned a gun similar to the .22-caliber Marlin Microgroove rifle used by the killer.
The friend also described John as a "gangster-type" kid, police said, but nothing further came of the tip and investigators never considered the Dobeks as suspects.
A year after the slayings, the Dobek family moved to Florida, which is where Edward spent the rest of his life. He married in 1961 and had three children before divorcing his wife 10 years later, according to Florida public records. Relatives said he lived in the city of Hollywood, north of Miami, and worked in a Sealtest ice cream plant.
Dobek died in Florida on April 26, 1996. His younger brother, John, died two months later in San Antonio.
John had been married to Jean Dobek, the woman who reported the deathbed confession to police. She also recounted the conversation to her son, Ronald, 25, an Air Force enlistee who lives in Texas.
In a phone interview, Ronald Dobek said his mother told him the same tale of murder and confession that she gave police. According to her version of events, Edward Dobek had been talking and flirting with Nancy Marie and Michael Ann one day and became enraged when he felt the girls had rejected his advances.
"Something did not go right," Ronald Dobek said. "So he waited for them. He was sitting in a tree waiting for them and he shot them. He got mad. He was an angry person and so he shot them."
Ronald Dobek said he believes the story, although he concedes that his mother is not the most credible witness. He said his childhood was spent moving from state to state so his parents could make a living pulling off insurance fraud scams. Alaska court records show that Jean Dobek was convicted of insurance fraud, theft and forgery in 1997.
"They were always not the normal breed, my parents," he said. "The Dobeks are a really weird family. Trust me."
Although Prince George's detectives are confident that they are closer than ever to solving the case, one of the victim's relatives said he wasn't so sure.
Print "Pete" Shomette Jr., who was 12 when his sister Nancy was killed, said he was unable to celebrate the news that police have a suspect. His family has been disappointed too many times before, he said.
"After so many years, it's a kind of an unemotional moment," said Shomette, 56, who lives in Montgomery County. "There have been so many conflicting stories.
"I think for me to have closure at this point in time, somebody would have to walk up to me and say, 'I did it.' Then I might believe them."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company