Who killed Marilyn Sheppard?

Marilyn Sheppard (AP Photo)

CLEVELAND (WJW)– It’s been 65 years since one of Ohio’s most infamous murders. Yet, the question remains: Who killed Marilyn Sheppard?

The brutal slaying of Dr. Sam Sheppard’s wife captivated the region. The pregnant woman was beaten to death in the bedroom of the couple’s Bay Village home in the early-morning hours of July 4, 1954.

Sam Sheppard, who served nearly a decade in prison for her death, claimed he struggled with a bushy-haired man on the beach behind their house.

Three trials produced three different verdicts: guilty, not guilty and not innocent. They also produced other possible perpetrators.

Data pix.

Sam Sheppard

Dr. Sam Sheppard waits for a hearing on Aug.12, 1954. (AP Photo/Julian C. Wilson)

Sam Sheppard was the only person ever tried for Marilyn’s murder.

He told police he woke up to his wife screaming, ran up the stairs, chased her attacker and fought with him on the beach of Lake Erie. He said he was knocked unconscious and the killer escaped. As police, members of the press and neighbors walked through the crime scene, Sheppard was taken to Bay View Hospital for neck injuries from the struggle.

“It was a gruesome murder that was staged to look like a sexual assault. And then the crime scene, being the house, was staged to look like a theft or drug theft,” said Steve Dever, who was an assistant prosecutor in Cuyahoga County during the civil trial in 2000.

The case was a media circus from the start. Newspapers, which featured headlines like “Why isn’t Sam Sheppard in jail?”, called for Sheppard's arrest and the carnival atmosphere continued during the trial.

Investigators pointed to his affair with Susan Hayes, a former hospital employee, as motive for murder. Coroner Sam Gerber testified the murder weapon, which was never found, was a surgical instrument, further implicating Sheppard, who was a surgeon.

Sheppard’s 1954 conviction was overturned with the U.S. Supreme Court calling the court proceedings “bedlam” and “a mockery of justice.”

At the second trial, Sheppard’s attorney, F. Lee Bailey, attacked Gerber’s credibility. The coroner originally testified a surgical tool left a bloody impression on Marilyn’s pillow, but when he was forced to identify  what kind of instrument was to blame, he couldn’t.

“I hunted all over the United States and couldn’t find one,” Gerber said at the time.

During the third trial, DNA testing showed blood on the closet door did not belong to Sam or Marilyn, neither did the blood on Sam’s pants.

Richard Eberling

Richard Eberling

At the third trial, the Sheppard team argued that Richard Eberling, the family’s former window washer, was the likely killer.

In 1959, he was arrested for larceny and Marilyn’s jewelry was among the stolen items in his possession. A few days later, he was cleared in her murder after a police investigation and a polygraph.

Advances in DNA testing later cast suspicion on Eberling again.

The tests did not identify or exclude Eberling as the source of blood stains at the Sheppards’ home. Terry Gilbert, who represented the Sheppard estate in 2000, said DNA after the civil trial proved a blood trail from the porch belonged to Eberling.

Richard Eberling

But Sam Sheppard never identified Eberling as a suspect.

"Eberling testified in the second trial,” Dever said. “Sam Sheppard's sitting in the chair, had an opportunity to observe him, he walked right by him. And never said 'Hey, that's the bushy-haired man, that's the guy who killed my wife, that's the guy I had an altercation down on the beach.’”

Eberling was convicted of aggravated murder in the 1984 death of his employer, Ethel May Durkin. Her sister, Myrtle Irene Fray, was murdered in 1962, but that case was never solved.

Eberling died in prison in 1998.

Spencer and Esther Houk

Spencer and Esther Houk

F. Lee Bailey, who represented Sam Sheppard during his appeals and the second trial, presented another possibility.

On the morning of Marilyn’s murder, Bay Village Mayor Spencer Houk and his wife, Esther, received a call from Sam.

“For God’s sake, Spen, get over here quick. I think they’ve killed Marilyn,” he told the couple.

These fireplace tongs were discovered on November 17, 1982 by the Vargos, the current owners of the home occupied by the Sheppards' neighbors, J. Spencer Houk and Esther Houk in 1954. (Cleveland State University)

Bailey’s theory is that Esther caught her husband having an affair with Marilyn and killed her for it, and that Spencer was the bushy-haired man Sheppard wrestled on the beach. Anonymous letters sent to the Bay Village Police Department in the months after support that Spencer Houk and Marilyn Sheppard were engaged in an extramarital relationship.

Bailey also said he thinks a set of fireplace tongs were the murder weapon.

“None of the blows were fatal,” Bailey said. “None of them was struck with great force, which suggests the killer was either a female or young boy.”

More stories on Sam Sheppard here

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