The Redhead Murder Case
(Reprinted from The Morgan Messenger, May 24, 2000)
He was out hunting for mushrooms that afternoon, but Benjamin Mills found a dead redhead instead. The 45-year-old Hancock man was walking along old U. S. 522, about 300 yards south of the Hancock Bridge, when he spotted a woman's naked body down the hill.
Since he was so close to Hancock, Mills hurried back over the Potomac River Bridge in search of Police Chief Howard Murfin. Soon, Mills, Murfin and Maryland State Trooper R. E. Garvey headed back to the gully where the body lay in the weeds.
And so it began that warm, cloudy Wednesday afternoon, May 10, 1950, fifty years ago.
The investigation begins
West Virginia Trooper Charles S. Burke, 40, was feeling overworked even before he was called by Maryland police around 4:30 p.m. The Berkeley Springs detachment was a trooper short, and Morgan County Sheriff Paul Munson was away on a fishing trip in Western Maryland. Now, a woman's body.
From his office on the first floor of the Morgan County Jail, Burke called Deputy Sheriff Lawrence Michael and County Coroner Clifton Dyche, who was also a justice of the peace. Before long, the three were driving the six miles to Brosius Hill where they met the men from Hancock.
When Burke climbed down the steep 42-ft. embankment to see the body, he never imagined the case would keep him and other officers working around-the-clock for weeks, and would stick in his mind the rest of his life. His first impression was that it didn't look like a very complicated case. Burke figured they'd solve it quickly. He was wrong.
None of the police officers recognized the victim. She was a white woman with a reddish tinge to her hair. They guessed at first that she was in her twenties. Her face was swollen and discolored and she looked as if she had been dead awhile. She wore no jewelry. Her arms, back and legs had been torn by brambles and thorns as her body had tumbled down the hillside. Her neck showed puncture marks or indentions.
Coroner Dyche asked Burke to radio back to Berkeley Springs to a funeral home and a photographer. Waiting, they combed the hillside for clues, but found no clothes or anything out of the ordinary.
About 6:15 p.m. the body was covered by a white sheet, loaded onto a stretcher and carried up from the gully by undertaker Bill Hunter and his assistant, Knute Graham.
Henry Ruppenthal, the Associated Press correspondent in Berkeley Springs, took official photos for the police.
The first lead
Prosecuting Attorney S. D. Helsley was waiting at Hunter Funeral Home when the body arrived. He immediately ordered an autopsy. Doctors C. G. Powers and J. H. Armentrout were summoned from Martinsburg to perform it.
As they waited for the doctors, Trooper Burke fingerprinted the victim. Sheriff Paul Munson soon showed up, having rushed back from his fishing trip. And the word circulated. Crowds gathered and people lined up for a look at the woman, to see if anyone knew her.
By 11 p.m., when the Martinsburg doctors began the autopsy, nearly 500 people had already viewed the body.
Reporters began showing up, too.
That first night, police also got the first of dozens of false leads. Two women thought the victim looked like the redhaired ex-wife of a man who had moved to Cumberland a year before. So, at 1 p.m., with the autopsy under way in Hunter's preparation room, Trooper Burke and Sheriff Munson headed for Cumberland to find the fellow.
Lewis Buzzerd, who covered the case for The Morgan Messenger, remembered watching them leave. He was steamed because he thought he saw a Washington Star reporter hop in the back seat and he hadn't been invited to go along.
With the help of Maryland State Police, Burke and Munson made the rounds of Cumberland boarding houses in the middle of the night. They found the man at 5:30 a.m., roused him from his bed and brought him back to Berkeley Springs.
He said, however, that the murder victim wasn't his ex-wife. A call confirmed that she was living with relatives in Pittsburgh. Just to make sure, authorities even had Berkeley Springs dentist Andrew Hoffman check the woman's dental work, to no avail.
Meanwhile, the autopsy was completed about 3 a.m. The doctors determined the woman had been strangled some 48 to 96 hours earlier. The indentations on her neck were caused by a rope or "similar object" being drawn tightly around her throat. She also had been beaten about the face and head. There was no sign that she had been raped.
The doctors estimated her age at 35 to 40, older than the police had originally guessed. She was 5'5" and weighed 125 to 130 lbs. The body showed well-healed scars from a hysterectomy and an appendectomy. She had a "Y" scar on the outside of her right wrist and a "W" scar in the center of her forehead. Her shoe size was 4 1/2. She had a strawberry birthmark on her calf, a fact that was withheld to aid police in sorting out leads.
Those present at the autopsy remembered another odd detail years later. As the operation was conducted, the woman's body smelled strongly of tobacco.
Over the next several months, some of the police officers began to doubt some of the information from the autopsy, which had been conducted under hectic conditions in the depth of the night. But Prosecutor Helsley, who witnessed the autopsy, said, "I don't know what else they could have found. The main purpose of an autopsy is to establish the cause of death."
Case gets its name
The Morgan Messenger was published on Thursdays in those days and the May 11, 1950 issue headlined: "Body of Nude Woman Found Off Old Brosius Hill Road." Newspaper stories also appeared in Martinsburg, Cumberland, Baltimore, Washington and as far away as Newark, New Jersey.
An Associated Press story, which was carried far and wide, set the general tone with its headline: "Slain Redhead's Nude Body Found." Ever after, even the police referred to the investigation as The Redhead Murder Case.
Trooper Burke felt from the start that inquiries would flood in from all over the United States, and they did. No one knows whether blondes and brunettes would have gotten the same attention, or if there were simply more redheads missing in May, 1950.
Actually, Burke never liked to describe the victim as a redhead. In his police report, he was careful to specify "auburn red," meaning reddish-brown or brown with red highlights. A beautician told him that the woman's short auburn hair had been given a permanent within the past ten days. As for the autopsy, it reported: "The hair is curly and auburn in color."
Trip to FBI headquarters
Millions of people may have been reading about the Redhead Murder Case as they drank their coffee on Thursday morning, but Trooper Burke and Sheriff Munson were already on the road again.
They traveled to Frederick to meet with Captain C. W. Magaha of Maryland State Police. All agreed that since the body was found near the state line, the murder should be investigated by authorities in both states. Maryland Trooper Harold L. Basore, then a Hancock resident, was assigned to the case.
Burke, Munson and Basore immediately headed to the FBI headquarters in Washington in hopes that the woman's fingerprints would match prints in FBI files. They spent the day searching through prints of female criminals, women who'd worked in defense industries during World War II, war brides and other women who'd been fingerprinted for one reason or another.
They left Washington that night without a clue. "It was a real letdown to me when I came out of the FBI lab and realized she hadn't been fingerprinted," said Burke. "I'd hoped she'd been in trouble."
Plenty of missing people
Back in Berkeley Springs, a stream of people filed past the woman's body at Hunter Funeral Home.
"Some would say they were almost sure who she was. For three or four days, it was almost steady, night and day," said Bill Hunter.
As Trooper Burke had expected, calls came in from all over the nation, asking about lost relatives.
"It's surprising, I guess, the missing people in our country," said Hunter.
In came a Washington lawyer to make sure it wasn't his client, a woman who'd dropped out of sight after testifying at a gambling trial.
In came relatives of a Waldorf, Maryland woman who they said had been kidnapped a week earlier by a man in a black panel truck.
In came women looking for their friend, a Washington waitress who had disappeared.
But it was none of them.
"It was a mystery all the way," Burke said.
Stolen car in Sharpsburg
When they returned to Berkeley Springs that Thursday night, Trooper Burke and Sheriff Munson were exhausted. Neither had managed to get more than a catnap in a moving car since Tuesday night. They might have been hoping for a good night's sleep, but they came home to a new report. A stolen 1946 Plymouth had been recovered near the C & O Canal at Sharpsburg. Auburn hair had been found on the passenger seat and sticking to a pair of work gloves that were in a dungaree jacket in the car. A 3-ft. length of rope was also inside the vehicle.
Burke drove back to Sharpsburg where he met Maryland Troopers Basore and Garvey, and Sgt. Emmett Roush of the Martinsburg detachment of West Virginia State Police. They combed the stolen car and found a red bobby pin in addition to the items previously recovered.
Police were also given a buff-colored summer dress, with no labels or laundry marks, that had been found in a field a few miles from Sharpsburg. The dress, size 16, was taken back to Berkeley Springs where it was tried on the body. Photographs were taken of the woman wearing the dress. Fifty prints were circulated to police and newspapers in West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. In the black and white newspaper pictures, the woman looked a little like actress Joan Crawford.
At 8 a.m. on Friday, Burke, Munson and Basore made their second trip in two days to the FBI lab in Washington. They took along the auburn hair samples and other items found in the abandoned Plymouth.
But that night they again returned home empty-handed. Preliminary tests suggested the hair didn't match the victim's, though the FBI promised a more conclusive test.
Still, the stolen car was their best lead so, despite the early lab results, police continued to investigate the vehicle's history on Friday and Saturday. They traced the Plymouth to Brownsville, Pennsylvania, and learned that a stolen Ford had also been recovered not far from there. The Ford was traced to Moundsville where it was believed to have been stolen by an escaped prisoner.
The prisoner – John Raymond Shriver – had run away from a work detail at the West Virginia State Penitentiary on May 4. The 32-year-old Berkeley County native had climbed over a wall while working at the home of the warden. At the time, Shriver was serving a
life sentence as an habitual criminal, having been convicted of burglaries and car thefts in Berkeley and Jefferson counties. He'd escaped from prison
the previous summer, too,
and was captured at gunpoint in a stolen car near Martinsburg.
All day Saturday, police questioned Shriver's relatives and searched summer homes along the Potomac River in Washington County looking for signs of him, but they turned up nothing. Shriver was never caught, according to West Virginia Penitentiary records.
False newspaper reports
Aware of the developments in Sharpsburg, The Baltimore American all but announced on Sunday that the case had been cracked. "Hair of Victim Clue in Woman's Slaying" read the headline over an error-strewn article. The paper even alleged that Prosecutor Helsley had received a telegram from the FBI confirming that the hair from the 1946 Plymouth matched the victim's, though there were "official denials."
Helsley had good reason to deny the report. The FBI had actually informed him that the auburn hair from the stolen car didn't match the dead redhead's, and there was no reason to believe the rope from the car had been used in the killing, either.
The Baltimore American's false story added to Helsley's irritation with the press. For days, he'd found it impossible to cross the street from his office to the courthouse without reporters questioning him.
Out-of-town reporters seemed to be everywhere. Bill Hunter recalled that they even grabbed the phone when it rang at the funeral home. "I didn't have any privacy for a week," he said. "They hung around everywhere. They'd listen to everyone's reactions when they were viewing the body. It was a little hard to cope with."
Prosecutor Helsley tried to put aside the rumors and out-of-the-blue remarks and inquiries and just zero in on the known facts. He didn't believe this was a case of a Morgan County woman killed in Morgan County by a Morgan County killer. He tended to believe the redhead was killed somewhere else and her body was transported south into West Virginia and dumped.
One thing always nagged at him, though. He felt an absolute stranger probably wouldn't have turned off U. S. 522 onto the old road where the body was found.
One of the decisions facing the prosecutor was how long to keep the woman's body at Hunter Funeral Home. Though May had turned cool, the redhead had been on display for more than three days by Saturday night, and she was believed to have been killed as long as four days before that.
So, on May 13, after 2,000 people had viewed the body in Berkeley Springs, Helsley arranged to take the corpse to Newton D. Baker Veterans Hospital in Martinsburg. There, it was put in cold storage and rolled out whenever relatives of missing persons came to see it.
The body may have been out of sight on a cooling board, but interest in the case didn't end, and the police investigation continued.