Police in Arkansas are sure of one thing: There is no carnival mafia.
Everything else about the deaths of Pauline and Alfred “Sonny” Carpenter, whose bodies were found in the Ozark National Forest on July 18, is a mystery.
Why would a traveling carnival worker impersonate a made-up mafia boss online?
Why would she use that persona to trick her romantic partner into allegedly committing murder?
How were the Carpenters, a semiretired couple in their late 70s, chosen as a target?
And why would two other carnies come along for the ride, allegedly helping to hide the dead couple’s bodies in a shallow grave?
While it might not make much sense, a 70-page investigation report from the Van Buren (Ark.) Police Department says that’s exactly what happened.
The strange saga started in Great Bend, Kan., during the Barton County Fair. It was a typically wholesome July affair: a tractor pull, watermelon feed, 4-H rabbit show, sunrise prayer service, country tribute concert and a root beer float social. Ribbons were awarded to the best homegrown rhubarb stalks, green beans and summer squash, and the largest potato. Spinning Ferris wheels and signs for funnel cake lit up the midway.
And after the rides shut down for the night, several of the carnies allegedly turned violent, murdering a couple who had been selling purses and jewelry at the fair, and then taking their camper truck and fleeing to Arkansas.
“it’s done their dead,” Michael Fowler wrote in a Facebook message just before 2:30 a.m. on July 14, according to the police report.
“Good Job, now get out,” Frank Zaitchik replied.
“I am trying to calm down right now,” Fowler replied.
“Deep Breaths,” Zaitchik responded. “The 1st is always the hardest. Jen sent me pictures of the man. I sent onto the heads of council. War is over.”
But there was no war. There were no “heads of council.” And, most importantly, there was no Frank Zaitchik. Nobody by that name appears in public records. Police found evidence that the messages came from a Facebook account controlled by Kimberly Younger, 52, who was either dating or married to Fowler, 54.
There is a Frank Zaitshik — spelled slightly differently — who owns Wade Shows, Inc., a traveling carnival company based in Michigan. Reached by phone, Zaitshik told The Washington Post that he did not know the alleged suspects, and, to his knowledge, they had never worked for Wade Shows. He had no idea why they would have used his name, he said.
“It’s kind of bonechilling,” he said, adding that he would gladly talk to law enforcement but has not been contacted. “I’m a solid citizen, and Wade Shows has a wonderful reputation.”
“We believe that Younger was acting as ‘Frank’ and claiming that he was a part of this carnival mafia,” Detective Jonathan Wear of the Van Buren Police wrote in an email to The Washington Post.
Police can only speculate, because Younger hasn’t admitted to doing any such thing. Instead, she told police that she was part of a carnival mafia “which involved money laundering and murder.” The cops don’t believe that — at least, not the part about there being a carnival mafia.
“We believe she fabricated the carnival mafia thing,” Wear wrote. Zaitshik, too, says he’s never heard of such a thing. “Unlike some stereotypes of yesterday, the carnival industry is an upstanding, law-abiding business,” he said.
Nevertheless, Fowler seems to have taken “the carnival mafia thing” seriously. He told police that he shot Alfred Carpenter with his Ruger 9mm, then went into the couple’s camper and shot Pauline Carpenter twice. “It was supposed to be my blood in,” he told a detective, explaining that he would be initiated “into the family” after killing the couple.
After the cops found that Younger had allegedly logged into Frank Zaitchik’s Facebook account from her phone, they went back and told Fowler what they had discovered. He expressed surprise that Younger could send messages that looked like they were coming from someone else.
“She had me suckered the whole . . . way,” Fowler allegedly responded. “I just threw my whole life away.”
Whether that’s true remains to be seen. Kansas officials, who would be responsible for bringing charges since the killings allegedly took place there, have not wrapped up their investigation.
In Arkansas, where the Carpenters’ bodies were found, Fowler, Younger, and two other carnival workers have been charged with abuse of a corpse, theft by receiving and tampering with evidence. The charges are based on allegations that they drove the couple’s camper from Great Bend, Kan., to Van Buren, Ark., then dumped their bodies off a dirt road near a creek bed in the forest.
All four have pleaded not guilty and are represented by Crawford County’s public defender, who did not respond to requests for comment.
The story of how the Carpenters’ bodies were found is equally strange. On July 17, the Van Buren Police Department got a call from a woman who told them that her sister was being held hostage at the Vista Hills Apartments. The kidnappers had killed two people and stolen their RV, she said.
Officers immediately went to the apartment complex, where they found Christine Tenney, who supposedly had been kidnapped. But she told them emphatically that was not the case.
Police also found the Carpenters’ camper, which was parked outside and had a bullet hole in it. Trash bags — containing bloody paper towels, the Carpenters’ blood-soaked clothing, two 9mm spent casings, and a blood-spattered sleep apnea machine, police say — were scattered outside.
And they found Younger, whose explanation about the Carpenters’ whereabouts and refusal to give her name made officers suspicious. (She had driven the couple to a car rental place, and they had headed to the casino, she claimed, according to the police report. But she couldn’t remember the location of the car rental place.)
Authorities brought all the carnival workers in for questioning. Eventually, Tenney and Fowler told police where to find the bodies.
Attempts to contact the woman who had initiated the search were unsuccessful, the police report says.
Wear told The Post that police do not have a clear motive as to why the Carpenters, both in their late 70s, were singled out.
Age might have been a factor: Messages between Fowler and Zaitchik show the two had discussed “hitting” the couple because they would be an easy target, the police report says.
They may have simply have had the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After retiring from Boeing, where they both worked, the couple began traveling around Kansas each summer and working as vendors at county fairs, their grandson, Miles David Medaris, told the Messenger-Inquirer, a newspaper in Owensboro, Ky. In one of their last conversations, Medaris recalled, he asked them to hang it up. But his grandfather told him they wanted to get rid of their inventory first.
“They said it would be last year of their circuit,” Marshell Goins, Alfred Carpenter’s cousin, told the Messenger-Inquirer. “I didn’t think it would be like this.”
This story has been updated.
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