It was a terrifying sight to those who saw it. Tearing out of the sky, the wingless fuselage of a small, single-engine plane smashed almost dead center into a yellow line dividing State Road 114, which separated two rural Indiana counties.
Had it been just four inches the other way, Huntington County coroner Edward Merckx could have eaten dinner home that night. As it turned out, there would be many dinners away from home for Merckx in the next weeks because he was about to investigate the only spot in America where wreckage from a small plane crash would spill into three states and two counties. It was Friday, Dec. 10, 1976.
And Joseph Gordon Sharp was dead.
Helen Sharp was at home in Gahanna, Ohio, late that afternoon when she heard the news. The police arrived with two neighbors and informed her that her husband had been in a plane crash. She was upset, but she did not weep - at least not right away.
"What hospital is he in?" she inquired.
But the policeman just shook his head slowly.
A few days later - before she buried Joseph Gordon Sharp in her family's plot in St. Paul, Minn., Helen Sharp, according to sources, called another woman named Sharp - Mary Louise Sharp of Grosse Point Park, Mich.
"Your ex-husband passed away," said Helen Sharp.
"He's not my ex-husband," said Mary Louise Sharp. "He's my current husband."
On Monday afternoon, the calls started coming in to the Toledo office of Docutel, a major manufacturer of automatic bank tellers. Bob Jansen, who was Joseph Gordon Sharp's boss, was there to take them, and it wasn't as if he was expecting them either, because he had already spoken to Helen Sharp, the lady he knew to be the widow.
The first caller said, "My name is Wendy Hue."
"I really can't remember you," apologized Bob Jansen.
"Well," said the caller, "I thought my name was Wendy Sharp."
"Like in Gordon Sharp?"
"From then on," says Jansen, "the stock was really after-shock." Mary Louise Sharp called 10 minutes later, wanting to know why Docutel hadn't informed her of her husband's death, and was told by someone there "she'd have to get in line."
And then yet another woman called anxiously from Chicago - only her last name wasn't Sharp. She was Marilyn Smith, a widow, and the reason she was calling was because Joseph Gordon Sharp, when he had left her that Friday, had promised to return in two or three days. "I don't know why," Marilyn Smith says sorrowfully, "I always worried about him in his plane. He did always call me over the weekend, if he wasn't here, and when I didn't hear from him . . ."
And so Bob Jansen had to tell her what had happened and she was "absolutely heartbroken."
The reason Marilyn Smith was heartbroken is this: she was engaged to Gordon Sharp. "It was just an understanding that we were going to get married," she says.
But that's not the end of this story - not by a long shot. Because other people were waiting for Joseph Gordon Sharp's return from Chicago - namely the Ohio Franklin County prosecutors. Had he landed safely in Columbus, he would have been arrested by the deputies here.
Gordon Sharp had been secretly indicted by a grand jury for defrauding an insurance company of $7,467 - an indictment that had been issued more than a month before. Because he kept landing at different airports the prosecutors had not managed to catch up with him.
That afternoon Joseph Gordon Sharp cheated them once again.
Joseph Gordon Sharp, Jay Gordon Sharp, Jay SHarp, Jordan Sharp, J. Gordon Sharp, Joe Sharp, Gordon SHarp, Jay G. Sharp, Joseph G. Sharp - No one name was enough for him.
In all his disparate lives, he performed within the bounds of convention; it was only in their multiplicity that he departed from it. And Sharp had multiple-everything.
Minutes after he arrived at the crash site, a highway patrolman handed coroner Merckx Sharp's bill-fold containing two sets of drivers licenses, and two sets of social security cards. "Right then," says the coroner, "we knew we had something real strange."
Strange certainly, but decidedly not glamorous, for Joseph Gordon Sharp in any and all of his incarnations was not a dashing figure of a man, not the macho, iron-jawed pilot, not the glorious swinger he might, at first, seem to have been.
By the time he died he was 51, "a tubby, middle-aged man," in the words of a bar waitress he'd asked out for a drink. He was largely bald and his chin receded into a thick neck. It was a fleshly face with a thin line for an upper lip, but the pale eyes were shrewd and lively. And as for his height - well, that varies about as much as his names, depending on which piece of identification you look at; only the weight - 175 lbs. - remains the same.
"He was not an attractive man at all," says Jansen, his Docutel boss. "He did dress well. His clothes were out of style and very conservative. His shoes looked like he'd worn them five or six years. And it looked like he always wore the same suit . . . I have never imagined Gordon in a physical sense with a woman. I couldn't imagine him being really physical . . ."
But in his life Joseph Gordon Sharp married at least seven women, several of them simultaneously. And by his death he was divorced (or annulled) from at least four. One has to say "at least," because as the prosecutors here readily acknowledge there may have been more women in Sharp's life than anyone knows.
In the same way, there may have been more fraud in Sharp's life than anyone knows. In 1955 he was charged with passing bad checks, but there is no known record of conviction - in fact he was trying to get that expunged from his record a week before his death. And authorities now believe he drove a stolen rental car from Detroit for almost two years.
If Franklin County prosecutors are still pursuing possible further wrongdoing, it is partly for this reason: Joseph Gordon Sharp was a computer specialist who worked with 31 banks, helping them implement and install Docutel equipment, overseeing the communications between the hose computer and the smaller ones if there was a breakdown. And he was excellent at his job. In fact Jansen calls him "a technical guru."
Docutel people say it is highly improbable that Sharp committed fraud in his line of work and prosecutors say, as yet, they have no evidence of any further fraud either; that they are, in fact, thinking of formally closing the Sharp case next week. Sharp moved around too much, say Docutel workers, to concentrate on any one bank; security in the banks is very tight, they add.
And several of the banks questioned claimed they had come up with no evidence of fraud by Sharp; or that they didn't think he was in a position to commit fraud.
But Dave Revis, a former boss of Sharp's, says that technically, at least, Sharp had the ability to commit computer fraud. "Anyone in the computer business can," he maintains. "There is no prevention for it."
And if prosecutors are still interested in the dead man, it is also partly for this reason: Joseph Gordon Sharp earned about $23,000 a year from Docutel - plus expenses. On that salary, he managed to buy and maintain a plane with almost $13,000 of new avionic equipment and $3,500-a-year maintenance. On that salary he managed to put down payments on Mary Louise's colonial home in wealthy Grosse Park Park and Helen's $35,800 stucco house in Gahanna (with combined monthly payments of $600). On that income, prosecutors believe, he and Wendy Hue Sharp in Montreal were about to buy a $69,000 house in Montreal from her parents.
With that money he had to pay almost $400 a year for his two Michigan children to attend a private school; and he had to support his two children in Ohio.
True, Docutel paid him the commercial air fare to his destinations. True, Sharp tended to seek out women who had their own incomes: Mary Louise Sharp works as a lab technician; Wendy Sharp operates a school for hairdressers in Montreal; Marilyn Smith works in a car-rental agency. Only Helen Sharp in Ohio did not work, although her background was also in the computer field.
And it is just as true that Joseph Gordon Sharp was several thousand dollars in debt when he died: prosecutors say there was money owing to Master Charge in Ohio and Michigan (he had two cards). In fact it was only after Sharp made his fraudulent claim to his insurance company that he made a down payment on his Michigan home.
He did not, on the other hand, have woman problems - not as near as anyone can figure out, anyway. Joseph Gordon Sharp's work brought him to banks in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Canada, Wisconsin, Minnesota - he traveled all the time, which is why his plane came in handy. So the women never knew about each other, and as for those who suspected . . . Well, no one's perfect.
"It's unbelievable to me," declares Marilyn Smith. "It's such a shock, really. Out of character from what we were shown."
Marily Smith is sitting in her pale yellow living room in suburban Chicago, a buxom 46-year-old woman in black pants and a blue top. She has a soft face haloed by puffed light-red hair, and her blue eyes are framed by glasses which she removes occasionally to wipe her eyes. The Gordon Sharp she knew and cared for in his life simply does not mesh with the Gordon Sharp she discovered after his death.
"He had been coming (to Chicago) more and more for the past three months," she explains slowly. "Every week. Which is probably what made it even harder. And the last week, he stayed (in town) three to four days." And, she adds, Gordon Sharp celebrated Thanksgiving with her and some of her six children.
Marilyn Smith says that Gordon Sharp got along well with the children, paid, in fact, for her young son's violin lessons.
Gordon Sharp, himself, played the violin and piano. Marilyn Smith allows herself a rare smile when she remembers his attachment to exclusively classical music. "He didn't like this rock music at all. I do . . . I have a friend my age who has a group. And on my birthday, April 1st, I brought him to hear them. He bought everyone a round of drinks. And then he said to me, 'Well, when you're finished, tell me.' And he waited for me in the lobby. He would really do anything I wanted him to do."
Gordon Sharp, says Marilyn Smith, was an interesting man. "We talked about architecture, math, music . . . He mostly talked about things that would interest us." In the beginning, they went dancing together; but they also attended a concert, visited a museum where, she discovered, "he knew a lot about art."
A few months after they started dating, Marilyn Smith acceded conditionally to his suggestion of marriage. "I said, 'Well, if everything works out, we will get married.' But I hadn't been alone that long and I wasn't sure I wanted to get married. I'm not saying I didn't want to marry him. It's just that it's no kind of life not having him around all the time. I'm sure we would have married. It's just that we were waiting to see if he got employment here. He was looking for employment here, at least that's what he told me, and I believed him."
But in July 1976, Marilyn Smith didn't see much of her fiance. That was because he was in Montreal, and one of the things he was doing there was marrying Wendy Hue. In fact he obtained Canadian citizenship forms.
When he returned to Chicago, Marilyn Smith noticed the name Helen Sharp on one of his check stubs, and because Gordon Sharp had told her he was a widower, she eventually asked him about this. Sharp replied that he was indeed a widower, but that he also had been twice divorced, and that he hadn't wanted to tell her because "it sounds so terrible saying I've been married three times." Before their wedding, he said, he would have revealed all. She believed him.
Wendy Sharp in Canada became suspicious when she called her husband's Gahanna number which is unlisted, and Helen Sharp answered. Gordon Sharp got on the line and explained it away.
The last time Wendy Sharp saw the man she assumed was her husband was in early September. He was nervous at that time, telling her Docutel was checking his phone calls.
Gordon Sharp was telling the truth this time. Bob Jansen, his boss, found "some unusual calls to Montreal."
Jansen phoned that number and someone's answered, "The Art Institute of Hair Technology." Asked about this, Sharp replied in a memo that he was maintaining a dual residency in Canada and the States. If he wished, he told Jansen, he could check it out by calling the number and asking for Mrs. Sharp.
Even Mary Louse Sharp in Michigan suspected . . . something. After her husband's death she told a friend she wasn't too surprised there were other women in his life - he was, after all, away so much. "It's just that she didn't think he had married them," says the friend.
"She said he came home every two weeks," the friend continues. "Once I asked her if it was lonely for her. And she said, 'Yes it is. But we have our routines. He likes to travel and I like to stay put.' They seemed to be a very happy family and very happy when he came home."
The one thing neighbors and Marilyn Smith agree on is that Gordon Sharp was good with children. And this is fortunate because in his life he fathered eight; in fact two former wives sued him for child support.
He took his children by Helen Sharp swimming and the entire family to church - if he was home on Sundays. Helen Sharp, a pale, black-haired woman with glasses and a soft voice, seemed happy with her husband, the neighbors concur - although they, like neighbors elsewhere, saw little of him and found him reserved. And this is a description with which his fiance agrees.
"I really thought I knew him well," she sighs. "I did and I didn't, I guess. When he was here he just made me feel good, that's all. He just made me feel good."
There are tears in her eyes now, and she has difficulty continuing. "As far as I knew him he was a very fine person.It's very hard for me to dislike him. I probably should. It would make it easier on me if I could."
Marilyn Smith would like to get together eventually with the wives. The wives won't talk to press now. But when the news broke about the other women, Helen Sharp told one Columbus reporter this: "I just don't know what's going on . . ."
There is so much about Joseph Gordon Sharp one does not know. In part because he told a lot of different stories in his life, and many of them were just that. Stories. He was born in Salem, Va. the son of a stonecutter, but grew up in Columbus where he went to North Senior High and played in the band. At 17 he joined the Navy, and during World War II was in underwater demolitions and went to Japan; it was in the Navy, too, that he flew; that he went to Korea in 1950 for a year. He said he was a Japanese prisoner of war - but there is no mention of this in Navy records. He told Marilyn Smith he had a Ph.D. in biochemistry; others that he had a Ph.D. in physics. In fact, it seems he never graduated from any college, although he did attend the University of Detroit for two years.
And, according to one newspaper account, his Canadian wife said he told her he was part-owner of some Bahama property; but so far, prosecutors say, there is no indication of this.
The one pattern that emerges it that Jospeh Gordon Sharp wanted to be everything and do everything and be everywhere. He told Docutel he'd been in his college physics club, flying club, mathematics club and newspaper. He said he belonged to the American Mathematical Society, the Association for Computing Machinery, the Engineering Society of Detroit.
He joined a half-dozen flying clubs, and listed among his past positions: bio-physicist, design engineer and medical technologist (while attending college).
The other pattern that emerges is that he wanted to marry almost everyone he could. The first time he did so was in 1944, when he eas 19. His third wife had a two-month simultaneity with the second. And the fourth - in 1958 - took place almost thre years before divorce ended the third. Only in his last instance does it seem that the wife discovered her rival, and ended the union with annulment in 1961. From that time on when Gordon Sharp married, he got married for good - to all three wives. He began in 1962 with Mary Louise Drolshagen in Michigan and went on to Helen in Ohio and ended with Wendy in Montreal.
And so the question that arises, the obvious question, really, is this: How did he do it? How did Gordon Sharp get away not only with different names or different lives, but with different wives?
"Have you ever thought," suggests Docutel boss Bob Jansen, "that a particular piece of computer software has its own memory, own life, logic and operational function.?
"Because Gordon did this for the majority of this life, it's not too distant a theory that he had the ability to program himself with each woman."
Gordon Sharp at work was quite a different person from Gordon Sharp at home with his wives or fiance.
"Gordon," says Jansen "was respected for his knowledge of computer hardware and software. He was disliked for his defensive attitude. As long as you agreed with Gordon without asking questions he was amiable. But sometimes a question would be asked of him and many times Gordon would perceive that as a questioning of his ability. And he resented this and gave curt, short answers."
He was a hard worker. Dave Revis, who was his boss at a previous computer firm, Management Horizons Data System, remembers him working occasionally 24 hours at a stretch, and adds that he didn't cheat on expense accounts.
But Revis also says, "We had problems with Gordon. He was not doing his job as he should have. He saw a lot more things going on than were going on - political quarrels with a certain company for instance . . . When things didn't get done, he would lay it on other people. The terribly frustrating thing with Gordon is that with machines he had more potential. And that when he didn't have to manage people he did very well . . . He simply did not know how to give people orders, how to crack the whip."
And so Gordon Sharp left this company ("A leaving of mutual convenience," Revis says delicately) for Docutel, telling his future employers that he left the former ones because there was "too much travel."
Bob Jansen noticed that when there were social outings during regional meetings "I could always count on Gordon not to come." And that when Sharp was asked to conduct seminars for his fellow employees, "he could not simplify things. He ewas very impatient."
And that's why it came as a big surprise to Jansen when he heard that the reserved, unsociable employee he'd known had yet another life. A life that was sociable, occasionally boastful, and more outgoing. At the bars.
"He told the girls he'd fly them to Florida for breakfast and Cleveland for dinner," remembers Irene. She is a waitress at one of the small working-class bars Gordon Sharp used to frequent around Columbus - places with jukeboxes that play loud country-western music; places with or without pinballs and bowling-pin machines; places where Gordon Sharp would drink two - just two - Stroh's beers, make a lot of phone calls, and chat up the ladies - sometimes with intimations of wealth. Not that this was always a successful ploy.
We thought it was big joke," says a patron of Jay Dee's bar in Gahanna. "One night he asked every woman out that was in the bar. They used to laugh at him."
For instance, he asked out Dave Gibson's wife at the Paul S. Lawrence VFW bar. "She said, 'A rich pilot asked me out to dinner.' Then she laughed," says Gibson. He pauses, then says, "A lot of us guys in here think he's not dead. He was too smart to be killed."
One time Irene stopped by Sharp's table to find out who, exactly, he was. "I said, 'Gordon. You're an oddball. Do you know you've never told me one damn thing about yourself or your job, or this or that? Why don't you ever say anything about anything.?"
Looking over the top of his beer, Gordon Sharp just grinned at her.
The last life Gordon Sharp led was with his plane, and perhaps it's only fitting that his final moments were spent in it, because he loved that plane. Often he took his 8-year-old son to the airport.
And airport personnel were used to the sight of Gordon Sharp at 3 or 4 in the morning, driving around the place.
It was a 1949 Cessna 195A, a bearcub of a plane, old but good. "It was kind of a status symbol. It was the Cadillac of the air of its time," explains an airport employee.
The irony here is that this Cessna bought five years ago for $10,000,-might have cost Sharp his freedom. For it he went on a spending-spree of almost $13,000 (within a month-and-a-half of its purchase) to redo the instrument panel, overhaul some old equipment and purchase several pieces of the latest avionic gimmickry.
In fact Red Hall, who sold Sharp a lot of the merchandise, claims he had to keep Sharp from spending about $50,000 on it. "It was a long drawn-out process," Hall remembers, "because the way I sized him up, Gordon was not a person who could afford to fly."
The most expensive equipment Sharp bought was about $7,500-worth of a King Nav-Com radio system. Six weeks later he called the police to report it had been stolen out of his locked plane; but no suspects were found. So Sharp immediately filed a claim with the Federal Insurance Company, and he received the money.
On April 3, 1974, he gave a deposition under oath, regarding the theft.
"He was a genius of a liar, as it turned out," says Emerson Cheek III, a lawyer who represented Federal Insurance. "We sized him up as a perfect witness and he was a perfect witness . . . He could look you in the eye and say you had one leg while all the time looking at both of them."
Gordon Sharp may have been a perfect witness, but he was also a perjurer. He'd apparently removed his radios himself, then replaced them a few weeks later. The only trouble was he kept having to fix several of them. One - a King-Bendix VOR indicator - was serviced by three different shops with no enduring results. Back went the ratio to the King factory, and attached to it was a nasty letter.
"Once a piece of junk," wrote Gordon Sharp, "always a piece of junk."
A factory employee took the radio to be fixed and routinely checked the serial number against a list of stolen avionics equipment maintained by aviation theft expert Tony Hirsch.
And so that's how Gordon Sharp got caught - by blowing the whistle on himself.
"We were sprung-loaded to pounce on the guy," says Hirsch.
"We filed our indictment Oct. 28," says prosecutor George C. Smith, "so that was quite a period of time (before it was to be served). Someone may have tipped him off, but it was a secret indictment."
Whether he knew about the indictment, Joseph Gordon Sharp was in good spirits on his last day. That's what an office temporary told Bob Jansen and that's what Marilyn Smith says. He had a 10 o'clock meeting that morning in Chicago; then she had lunch with him.
Around 2 p.m. Gordon Sharp lifted off from Palwaukee airfield near Chicago. Minutes before he crashed he flew into a haze condition. What happened next is pure conjecture. It is likely he went into a tight spiral. But he could also have had a heart attack or an attack of vertigo.
And it is also possible - just possible - that Joseph Gordon Sharp committed suicide in his plane.
"I know he loved his plane and that he was a good pilot," says Marilyn Smith. "That's what's so surprising about the the whole thing. That he would go with the plane."
She is asked if she still loves him, knowing now what she knows, what everyone knows. Marilyn Smith looks up, puzzled. "Well these things, you know, just don't change. I can't fight him I can't fight him."
"Prices for: regulator, wetsuit, good steam iron, electric can opener, Bill Blass sheets and pillowcases, (here full set about $30), stainless steel knives." - note found in one of Gordon Sharp's wallets.
"He loved flying and was a good pilot . . . and he showed great love for his family." - from a newspaper interview with Helen Sharp in Ohio.
"I just feel so sorry for the children because they looked up to him" - a friend of Mary Louise Sharp's in Michigan.
"You know this all makes him sound so terrible. Please don't discredit him. If only for his wives' sake" - Marilyn Smith in Chicago.