Chapter One: Deeds Will Rise
Cleveland had shrunk considerably from 1954 to 1989. The city dropped from the seventh largest metropolitan area in the United States to somewhere below the twentieth. To Sam R. it mattered little. The city was overwhelming, not because of the size but because of the power it packed in his life.
Staying on the East Side, far from where his parents had lived, seemed like it would make things easier when Sam R. returned to face Cleveland on his own in 1989. But markers of his family, he soon realized, were everywhere.
Cleveland is a city that divides from east to west, almost like two cities joined at the head by a downtown. When people say they are from Cleveland, the first question bounced back to them is: "East Side or West Side?"
Bay Village, the place most closely identified with Sam R.'s family, is on the West Side. The Sheppards had opened Bay View Hospital there, the first osteopathic facility on the West Side and part of the dream of Sam R.'s grandfather for an expanded osteopathic center comparable to the Mayo Clinic. Sam R.'s grandfather, Dr. R. A. Sheppard, his two uncles, Dr. Richard and Dr. Steve, and his father had all worked there. Sixteen miles from downtown, Bay Village saw itself as a pleasant township of a certain affluence, more than a suburb of a decidedly urban city. His mother's murder had totally bewildered the community and its tiny suburban police force of five full-time officers.
Sam R.'s family had roots on the East Side, where both of his parents had grown up in the suburbs. In the early 1940s, the popular duo had graduated from Cleveland Heights High School, a large, well-known school. His grandfather's original clinic had been in the inner city on the East Side, at East Thirty-first and Euclid.
Coming to face Cleveland on his own in 1989, Sam R. was staying less than a mile from his grandfather's old clinic. Gone from the East Side was the old arena where major-league hockey and basketball teams had played. The Sears store was torn down, and even some of the majestic churches along the avenue had disappeared. True, the Cleveland Playhouse had opened a new space on the East Side. And there was a huge medical facility, the Cleveland Clinic, but much of it was walled off from the community.
For the most part, the inner city of the East Side had lost its vibrancy. Affluent African Americans had moved to suburbs, as had the potpourri of European immigrants before them. Vast expanses of empty lots lined the major streets where abandoned buildings had been torn down. This was a sign of civic improvement to Clevelanders anxious to be rid of fire hazards, eyesores, homes for rats and drug dealers. To Sam R., the vacant lots made it look barren, pockmarks on the face of an urban desert.
As city edged to suburbs on the East Side, Sam R. recognized the church with the distinctive copper spire. The "oil can" church, his mother used to call it, when they rode together to visit relatives. Nearby were the art museum, orchestra hall, and Case Western Reserve University. There too was the morgue, and, above it, the offices of the coroner. Sam R. had been taken there to give "testimony" as a child. From there, the ugliest aspects of the case still hung in the air. The coroner, Dr. Samuel Gerber, had had as great a hand as any in wrongfully accusing Sam R.'s father. Now Gerber's name was inscribed on the building.
Downtown, where Sam R. was to speak at the City Club, east and west joined. The recession years had been rough, although a new civic pride was trying to put life back into the city. Six or so office towers poked into the sky, ringing the old Terminal Tower, a fifty-two-story clone of New York's Empire State Building. The Terminal itself had had a major reconstruction, adding Tower City, fountains, and a mall. Once-industrial warehouses in the Flats at the edge of downtown had been refashioned into art shops and upscale restaurants. The multiagency Justice Center, a brick structure filling a city block, replaced the old courthouse and police station and jail that the Sheppards had unwillingly come to know so well.
To get to the West Side from downtown, the road crosses over the Cuyahoga River (pronounced Kigh'-ya-ho'-ga). Cuyahoga, also the name of the county, is said to be a Native American term for "crooked," supposedly referring to the snaking path of the river. Given Cleveland's history, "crooked" could have more than one meaning, as well.
The river flows to the one feature that spans east and west--lake Erie. Sam R. remembered it well. Filling the northern vista, the lake has a spectacular sweeping breadth and high rolling waves that crash. Fifty-seven miles across to Canada, 241 miles in length, the lake's crescent-shaped shoreline spreads as far as the eye can see.
For all of its overpowering natural grandeur, Lake Erie had been largely ignored by the city. The lake was simply there, clinging to the city's backside like the trunk on a car. Even at the Lakefront Stadium, where the Browns played football to eighty thousand of the world's most dedicated fans, people might not see the lake unless they happened to be sitting on a riser high in the sky or flying over in a blimp. Until the 1980s, when city leaders finally made plans to build a festival park along the downtown harbor, featuring the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, the lake had been seen only as a utilitarian aid for commercial traffic.
To enjoy the lake as a body of water, people had to make an effort. Sam R.'s parents, Dr. Sam and Marilyn, did. When they were sweethearts in high school, Marilyn spent her summers at her grandparents' cottage at Mentor-on-the-Lake, a distant suburban town that had one of the few accessible swimming beaches on the East Side. For a good swimmer like Marilyn, the waves were ocean without the salt, and swimmers bounced up and down as if they had found the Atlantic. On summer nights Sheppard would borrow his brother's car and drive out to be near her, sometimes spending the night at a beach house rented by his high school fraternity.
Equidistant on the West Side, Bay Village rose on the cliff over the lake providing stunning panoramas from above and beaches for swimming an boating below. For those who could not own property along the lake, Huntington Park offered public access. The park was a mere 250 feet--one house, two lots--from the home that Dr. Sam and Marilyn bought.
Samuel Holmes Sheppard and Marilyn Reese--her real name was Florence Marilyn Reese, but she had dropped the "Florence" as a bit flat--left Cleveland as East Siders in the mid-1940s and came back as West Siders in the early 1950s. Married, parents of four-year-old Sam R., more confident, they moved to 28924 Lake Road in Bay Village, near the hospital begun by Dr. R. A. Sheppard.
For several years they had lived in Los Angeles, where Dr. Sam had attended the Los Angeles College of Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons. He asked Marilyn to come and join him, and they married in California in February 1945. There they discovered a sporty, freewheeling lifestyle that fit their personalities. As a couple, sometimes with son in tow, they would head for beautiful ocean sites like Malibu, where they swam until the fog rolled in. Often, after the tragedy, as Sam R. came to call his mother's murder, it was easy to look at their paths and say, "If only this, " and, "Because of that": if only they hadn't moved back to Cleveland; if only they had not been exposed to the fresh openness of the West Coast.
The compensation in moving back to Cleveland, perhaps, was the lake. They found an expansive Dutch Colonial home that was modest on the inside but luxurious in its embrace of Lake Erie. The house had a porch on the bluff above the water, its own beach, and was the only house among the neighboring homes to have a changing house by the lake. Dr. Sam swam practically every morning in good weather. And in the evenings and on weekends, he and Marilyn practiced the new sport of water skiing flying down the lake despite its bumpiness, waving broadly to and neighbors. They celebrated by buying each other the joint Christmas gift of a powerful outboard motor.
The house they bought even had a front door that faced the lake, a factor that caused continual confusion in the trial that came later, particularly since the street was called Lake Road, or sometimes West Lake Road. "We are calling the lake door the front door," an attorney tried to explain to one witness. The other door, the one that faced the street, was considered the back door.
If they were reluctant to return to Cleveland, Dr. Sam and Marilyn at least had a perfectly splendid lake view.
Sam R. had quietly returned with no fanfare earlier in 1989. He had been on a focused mission to retrieve boxes of family papers. That was when his aunt first showed him the articles about the interior decorator and former window washer who was under arrest for the murder of an elderly woman in a West Side suburb. On that trip, Sam R. had stopped by Huntington Park, where he studied the lake from more or less the same view that he had had from his second-floor bedroom window as a child.
This fall visit to Cleveland was about more--about opening boxes and windows, expanding personally, and letting fresh air breathe on the case. It just wasn't so easy. Cleveland held too much of his history. Too many powerful images gripped him, filtering into every sight.
Most outsiders find Cleveland not nearly so dreary or dumpy as the jokes that dog it. The snide remarks (Q: "How does Cleveland differ from the Titanic?" A: "Cleveland has a better orchestra" melt away.
A niceness pervades Cleveland. But a person couldn't forget that it was the place where robber barons and Mafia and Teamster arm twisters also made their way, hidden and sometimes protected. Beneath the niceness, a brutal argument could erupt on the street, at City Hall, in the courthouse.
A murder could happen in the middle of the night and never be solved. A trial might take place and certain evidence might be ignored and suppressed. And a person couldn't ignore the images of all those abandoned lots along the East Side.
The irony was that for Sam R. the negative reputation of Cleveland held true, not because of dumb jokes or bad public relations, but because of specific bad experiences. Here was the place where the newspapers had actually mounted a campaign to send one man, his father, to prison or to the electric chair; and when his father was finally released and acquitted through the efforts of outsiders, the same papers had abandoned any attempt to solve the murder of his mother, which had so devastated the community, his family, and him.
No agency had repaid them for the loss, his dad's years in prison. No official had ever offered regrets, said the simplest of words: "We're sorry." None had held out a hand, given an understanding pat, offered to help patch the wounds, speed the healing.
Sam R. Sheppard was hoping that at least some of Cleveland would listen.
Standing at the podium of the City Club on October 27, 1989, Sam R. readied himself to deliver his speech: "Mistrial, Prison Reform, and the Death Penalty." These three ideas were the magnets that drew him to speak up. Later, he would talk at a program arranged by CURE, the prison reform group that had originally suggested the trip. There the audience would be more predictable. Here he wasn't sure what to expect. He had researched carefully, crafted his speech as he wanted. The message: based on his father's own brush with it, Sam R. opposed the death penalty. The feelings he could supply on his own. The facts he sometimes had to look up, since his own recollections were based on impressions gathered at an early age and then held inside for many years.
The City Club was a tradition in downtown Cleveland dating to 1912. The guest appearance of Sam R. was facilitated personally by the then-executive director, Reverend Alan C. Davis. Davis had grown up in Cleveland Heights with Dr. Sam, where they have been neighbors and school buddies, the kind of friends that go way back and never go away.
Davis could remember when Sheppard and Marilyn Reese met at Roosevelt Junior High school. Even though Marilyn was a year and a half ahead of Sheppard, they seemed destined to marry each other. Reverend Davis could remember Dr. Sam as the gracious successful athlete, the popularity contest winner, the darling of the Sheppard family.
Dr. Sam had been a do-right fellow at the vortex of a large circle of friends. He was elected president of virtually every club he joined and was voted class president every year. A high school newspaper once teased that Sheppard had "made it his ambition to aid the school by being connected with as many beneficial activities as possible," listing thirteen. In the sports teams photos, he was dreamily attractive, with hazel eyes and Hollywood poster-boy looks, and he was usually in the center, surrounded by teammates. He had lettered in varsity football, basketball, and track, with his relay team making it to the state competition. At graduation he secured the title he coveted: Most Valuable Athlete.
In his last year of high school, Sheppard was jokingly called "Skidmore" by some of his friends because he was so close to Marilyn, then attending Skidmore College in New York. If anyone was more popular than Samuel Holmes Sheppard, it might have been Marilyn Reese. In the summertime, boys from other high schools gathered around her out at the Mentor beach, and in the winter she had her pick from the varsity boys. She was good in sports, too, and was readily pledged into fashionable sororities. Later Dr. Sam recalled how she dated only the "best fellows," older boys whom he admired. " The fact that she was now my constant companion in a way placed me in their class, which was sort of an honor," he wrote. They exchanged school pins with deep reverence. Occasionally they had tiffs, usually over another fellow seeing Marilyn or another girl dating Sheppard. But after a sorority dance and scavenger hunt and a long walk on a moonlit road lined with poplar trees in 1940--Dr. Sam could recall the date, October 11, more clearly than his wedding date--Marilyn told him she loved him. No girl had ever said that to him before.
Although Marilyn was already a college woman, she came back to Cleveland Heights to see the graduation ceremony for the class of 1942. Sheppard, as class president, was the designated student speaker. He echoed the high-minded values of his civics lessons. He exhorted his classmates to "strive for greater learning, greater tolerance and better understanding, for in these lie the hope of the future."
Reverend Davis knew what kind of person Dr. Sam Sheppard was; his belief in Dr. Sam's innocence never wavered.
Members crammed the City Club, and as executive director Davis worked the crowd with a professional hand. Friday lunch forums at the City Club were broadcast on 156 radio stations across the country. Newspaper reporters attended every week, and when the speakers touched a local nerve, such as today, television cameras appeared as well.
Sam R. was leery of the press. He had personal reasons, and good ones, to feel cautious. The U.S. Supreme Court had even validated his reasons. Thirty-five years earlier, the Cleveland Press had printed 399 Sheppard articles in a six-month period: front page, accusatory, sensational. The other two daily papers had kept pace. Television reporters had found a new use for the medium. Dozens of reporters from around the country had taken over the courtroom with the consent of the judge. Loudspeakers had been installed in the courtroom to amplify the proceedings, and the constant coming and going of reporters had still created a disruption. The judge had permitted jurors to be photographed over forty times and had brazenly violated courtroom decorum by setting up a special table for the press in front of the bar, next to the jury box and the witness stand. These same reporters had for months mobbed Sam R.'s family, crowded onto their lawns, stationed themselves outside their homes. Sam R. could still remember cameras clicking when, as a sleepy seven-year-old, he had been led away from the early-morning murder scene.
Sam R. intended not just to face the press but to face down the press. The press had always had an important place in Cleveland. The city was so-named because of a newspaper's arbitrary decision. Unable to fit the correct spelling of namesake Moses Cleaveland on its masthead, a letter was dropped. "Cleveland" without the first a was the version that stuck. In Sam R.'s view, that was a minor matter compared with how the press had vilified his father.
Cindy Leise, a reporter for the Chronicle-Telegram, wasn't one of the old-guard reporters. The newspaper she wrote for was published in the small city of Elyria but had a large West Side readership. Leise's managing editor, Arnold Miller, had worked for the Cleveland Press, although after the days of the Sheppard murder case. But the Sheppard mystery was inculcated in Miller while he was at the Press, and it lingered after he left. Leise, with ten years at the Chronicle-telegram, had stepped up from beat reporter to investigative pieces. At the urging of Miller, she read the old clips. She was tantalized by the way that, over the years, with the slightest prompting, the Sheppard case would be revived. But Leise came at the story fresh.
"For too long the public has depended on faulty information about this case from a prejudiced, unthinking, and careless press. At least now a new generation of newspeople seek the true story in the interests of fairness, Sam R. planned to say in his speech.
The sparks that were reigniting the Sheppard case right then came from a different murder case. The homicide of Ethel May Durkin had taken place in another West Side Cleveland suburb, Lakewood. Richard G. Eberling (pronounced EBB-er-ling) had been tried and convicted of murder in the Durkin case less than three months before Sam R.'s visit. Eberling had been a prosperous, active, even prominent, West Sider before moving to Tennessee with his close friend and companion, Obie Henderson, not long after Durkin died.
A couple of times the Chronicle-telegram had run articles about Eberling and the way that he had transformed a former farmhouse on the West Side into a "homes and garden" tour showpiece. What specifically interested Leise's editor was that Eberling had been a window washer in 1954 at the home of Dr. Sam Sheppard. The nature of his business gave him access to homes and people all along Lake Road. He knew the interior and exterior of properties well. He told a tale about having cut his hand in the Sheppard home a few days before the murder, and claimed to have inside knowledge about who committed the murder.
The Durkin homicide itself was a peculiar case that might have been borrowed from an Agatha Christie story, since it seemed both too odd and too pat to happen in real life. Ethel May Durkin was an elderly widow who died in 1984 and from whom Eberling had inherited three-quarters of a million dollars. Initially, Durkin's death came under no special scrutiny. While alone with a caretaker, she fell in her home in 1983. The caretaker called the paramedics, but Durkin died after six weeks in the hospital. Only years later did the death come to be charged as a murder, with the caretaker, Richard Eberling, as defendant. After a trial and conviction that summer, Richard Eberling was sentenced on September 13, 1989. By coincidence, Sam R. arrived in Cleveland five weeks later.
Not many reporters had followed the Durkin case closely, and Cindy Leise had no great love for trial coverage. She had skipped most of the month-long trial. The only surviving daily paper in Cleveland, the Plain Dealer, had run a few stories each week of the trial, usually carrying them without great hype in the Metro section.
The Sheppard case was of far more interest. The Plain Dealer devoted considerable space in the month of July to thirty-fifth-anniversary coverage of the Sheppard case, turning to the same tired reporters who had editorialized for Dr. Sam's conviction in the first place. They ran a picture folio, a review of the murder and trial in 1954, and a slight mention that Dr. Sheppard had been found not guilty after all in 1966.
Added to the retrospective this summer had been a revived call by Sam R.'s uncle, Dr. Steve Sheppard, for Cleveland officials to find the murderer. Dr. Steve had long ago moved to California. He was weary of the case, and young Sam's interest came as a welcome relief.
Local authorities were not likely to heed Dr. Steve. Even in 1989 the local prosecutor was the very man who had prosecuted Dr. Sam in 1966, John T. Corrigan, called "John T." or "J.T" by those who worked with him. After the fair trial in 1966 that had freed Dr. Sheppard, John T. proclaimed that Dr. Sam was guilty anyhow. His son, Michael Corrigan, a judge in Cleveland, later reiterated the point when John T. became incapacitated. "My father believes that the man that killed Marilyn was Sam Sheppard without a doubt. They had the right guy." Young Sam was hard pressed to see a glimmer of possibility that any official in Cleveland would do anything at all.
Outside Cleveland, even modest distances away, the treatment of the Sheppard case had often been different. One of the biggest critics of the media coverage in 1954 had been a newspaper in Toledo, Ohio. Cleveland reporters had become so prosecutorial, the Toledo paper had said, that they had a vested interest in the conviction. The sensationalism of the press was overstepping the bounds of freedom and interfering with the conduct of fair trials.
From the perspective of many who stood a distance from this city, by either geography or time, there was a maze of wonder layered on top of the puzzle of murder. The question was not only "who done it" or why, but something much deeper, more fundamental, touching on matters of justice and the judicial system. These were the issues that troubled Dr. Sam Sheppard, too, as he sat in jail awaiting his trial. "Is this the free country, U.S.A., that we studied about in school, where a man is innocent 'til proven guilty? It hasn't seemed like it in the past six weeks." As if inherited, the same question confounded Sam R. as he stood to speak before the City Club.
The Durkin case was receiving a much more cautious treatment from the Chronicle-Telegram than Sheppard had received from the Cleveland newspapers. The paper waited until the guilty verdict was returned against Eberling before publishing the copyrighted stories Cindy Leise had put together about Eberling's background and his connection to the Sheppard case. The articles were accompanied by a graphic with the caption "Shadowed by Death." The New York Times came out with a folksy country journal report later in August 1989, noting how interest in the Sheppard case, the "crime of the century," picked up as if the Sheppard trial had ended the day before and not decades before.
A judge had once tried to describe the Sheppard phenomenon: "Murder and mystery, society, sex and suspense were combined in this case in such a manner as to intrigue and captivate the public fancy.... Circulation-conscious editors catered to the insatiable interest of the American public in the bizarre.... In this atmosphere of a `Roman holiday' for the news media, Sam Sheppard stood trial for his life." The paragraph was repeated often, but to Sam R. even it was not enough to explain away the events that engulfed his life.
In an entirely different context, an explanation was offered by a witness in the case, Dr. Lester Adelson. The chief pathologist at the coroner's office, he had conducted the autopsy on Marilyn Sheppard. In 1960 Adelson published an article reflecting on Shakespeare's Hamlet. "It has been said that `Everyone can find in this play something to stimulate his speculative nature and stir his imagination.' " And so it was with the Sheppard case. Sam R. was also a fan of Hamlet, but he was moved by another part of the play, a speech that called to him through the years: "Foul deeds will rise, Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes."
Unlike Dr. Adelson and many of the principals of the Sheppard case who went on regular speaking engagements, Sam Reese Sheppard had not spoken publicly about the Sheppard case since 1966, when his father was acquitted. The acquittal spoke for itself, he thought. There was no need to go around and explain that his father was not guilty. Slowly, Sam R. was beginning to discover that "not guilty" was not enough for some people.
Leise joined the crowd at the City Club, curious to hear whether Sam R. would indulge in Hamlet-like speculation and imagination. Leise thought she might try to get an interview. And there was the distinct possibility that Sam R. would be interested in the letters she had received from Richard Eberling.
After the introductory formalities, Sam R. started with 1954, the beginning of a saga that was still being unraveled. Changes had come about as a result: how defendants could be treated, how the press could cover trials, how the law would be interpreted. The saga had changed his life, and it was still going on.
"The Fourth of July, at dawn, my mother lay dead, just down the hall from me as I lay asleep. On the shore of the lake below our house, my father lay half in and half out of the water, viciously knocked unconscious ..."
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