Did Sam Do It?
A Brief History of the Sam Sheppard Murder Case
More than 40 years before the O.J. Simpson trial there was the Dr. Sam Sheppard murder case.
The victim at its center was Marilyn Sheppard, the doctor's wife, and the crime itself was so heinous and shocking, combining so perfectly extra-marital sex and violence, that it seized the country's imagination and became an international media sensation. The trial was so polarizing it nearly tore apart the small community of Bay Village, Ohio, where the murder was committed, and its eventual verdict was so controversial that the appeals went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The repercussions of its conduct ultimately changed how juries and press-coverage of trials were handled in this country, and the case itself was so compelling that it was thought to inspire the television show The Fugitive, as well as a movie, a docu-drama, a NOVA documentary, and numerous books. At the same time, the case contained seeds of not only the dawning sexual revolution's ecstatic explorations and moral hazards, but also the conflicts and ambivalences inherent in the nascent feminist movement: the competing roles women faced as professionals, spouses, and mothers in the second half of the twentieth century, seismic shifts in the changing expectations of both men and women that were already reverberating in movies like Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. Yet in spite of competing verdicts in three separate trials over the course of nearly fifty years, the Dr. Sam Sheppard murder case remains unsolved at worst, unsatisfactorily resolved at best. More immediately, to peer into it is to gaze on the darkest places of conjugal intimacy, to wonder at the limits and saving possibilities of matrimony, to question assumptions about a man's capacity for fidelity as well as a woman's tolerance of its lack, to ponder the degree to which, if at all, people are capable of change.
How Marilyn was murdered is indisputable: sometime in the pre-dawn hours of July 4, 1954, Dr. Sheppard's wife, four months pregnant with their second child, was savagely beaten to death in the couple's bedroom, struck twenty-seven times in the head and thirty-five times in all, with a blunt-force weapon, while the Sheppards' son, Chip, slept soundly next door. Her injuries were horrifying: a broken nose and shattered skull, terrible crescent-shaped gashes on her forehead and scalp, a fingernail on her left hand nearly torn from the cuticle, and two incisors broken or else ripped out when she bit her attacker. There was evidence of a sexual assault: her pajama top had been pushed up around her neck, the bottom left dangling from her right leg. The room was haloed in blood from sheets to ceiling, headboard to mattress, the walls splattered except for a space off to the side of the bed where her killer stood, his clothes absorbing the spray, his weapon spewing more blood each time his arm was raised. As to motive, there was evidence downstairs of a robbery: drawers were pulled from cabinets and Dr. Sam's medical bag was overturned. His watch, signet ring, and keychain, along with several other items, had been stashed in a green duffel bag that was discovered on the property. Yet there seemed to be something personal about the burglary, more akin to vandalism than theft: several of the couple's sporting trophies' figureheads1, for example, had been broken off, as if in spite. At the same time, the home had been rifled too neatly, as if the robbery itself had been staged. Most mysteriously and suspiciously, only the items in the green duffel bag were taken from the home; Marilyn's wristwatch had been left behind in the study, along with her husband's wallet, with a $1000 check and cash inside.
At 5:45 that morning, Sheppard called his neighbor, Bay Village mayor Spen Houk, in a panic:
"My God, Spen, get over here quick, I think they've killed Marilyn!"
Houk and his wife, Esther, whose lakefront home was two doors down from the Sheppards', oddly chose to drive over2 to find him in his study, sitting in his chair, shirtless and soaked, holding his neck3, the pockets and cuffs of his pants full of sand, the doctor himself hypothermic and disoriented, with contusions to the face and neck, chipped teeth, and blood on his lips and in his mouth. "Someone should do something for Marilyn,"4 he told them. When Esther returned from the bedroom, rocked by the sight of Marilyn's body, she told her husband to call the police, to "Call everybody!"5 By 6:02, Officer Fred Drenkhan had arrived on the scene and taken Sheppard's first statement.6 Then, as later to Cleveland detectives, Dr. Sam told a story full of holes, too outlandish to be true, and riddled with inconsistencies. Yet its illogic, ironically, was what made it most believable.
Nothing in the hours leading up to the crime suggested such horrors were to come. The Sheppard family had spent the previous evening with their neighbors Don and Nancy Ahern and their two children—starting with cocktails at the Ahern's house, followed by dinner at the Sheppard's, with a pre-Fourth fireworks show on Lake Erie that they all enjoyed from the patio and some roughhousing in the basement, when Dr. Sam took the three kids downstairs to punch the heavy bag he'd hung there7. It had been a spectacularly beautiful day and the Fourth promised to be the same, with the Sheppards hosting a cookout at their home for Bay View Hospital's interns and their families. Life couldn't have been better, it seemed. Sheppard and his brothers Stephen and Richard had thriving osteopathic practices at the hospital their father had founded; they were highly respected members of their community, and this night, albeit low-key, capped off another day in the good life. The Aherns stayed late, not leaving until past midnight, and recalled that the Sheppards seemed in very good spirits, even cuddling toward the evening's end. High-school sweethearts now in their early thirties, they'd recently announced Marilyn's pregnancy to their extended families and, after a tumultuous period in their marriage, seemed to be enjoying a new chapter in their lives together.
But it had also been a very long day. Sheppard had already done a full rotation of surgery earlier, had lost a child on the operating table who'd been hit by a utility truck that morning,8 and been called in that evening to set another boy's broken leg. In his statements to police on July 4th and several days later, he claimed that sometime after dinner, while the Aherns and Marilyn were watching the film Strange Holiday in the living room, he'd fallen asleep on the daybed at the foot of the stairs, something he often did, waking at some point in the night to the sounds of his wife screaming his name. As he raced up to their bedroom, he spotted what he described as a "form" and, upon entry, was struck from behind and knocked unconscious. After an unknown amount of time, he came to on the floor and saw his wallet on the floor near his face, the police surgeon's badge he kept inside it glinting. He picked it up and then rose shakily, discovering his wife's savaged body. Unclear in his statements whether or not he confirmed her death by taking her pulse, or if immediately afterward he went to check on their son, he claimed he then heard the intruder downstairs and raced to confront him. The "form" fled through the door leading to the back yard and down the several flights of steps to the beach, with Sheppard in hot pursuit. After tackling him on the beach and after a brief struggle, he once again was knocked unconscious. He came to at the water's edge, with his T-shirt missing. He returned home and, both freezing and confused from his injuries, took his wife's pulse and realized she was dead. He claimed that for an unknown period, he debated what to next, then finally called Houk. After the arrival of the mayor and his wife, and Officer Drenkhan along with two firemen, Sheppard's brothers showed up and pronounced his injuries extremely serious—Richard thought he had a broken neck—and transported him in the emergency vehicle to nearby Bay View Hospital. It was the last time Dr. Sam would see his home as a free man.
Rumor, Innuendo, Inquest
What ensued was a media feeding frenzy, with Cleveland's three competing papers—The Cleveland News, the Press, and the Plain Dealer—enjoying unprecedented sales as they fanned the flames of suspicion with rumors and innuendo mixed in with misinformation and un-interpreted facts swirling, all of this aided and abetted by Samuel Gerber, the Bay Village coroner and lead investigator, a man who resented osteopaths in general and the Sheppard family in particular. (The family hospital had enjoyed tremendous success in the years during and after the war, and a colleague later reported that Gerber had said he would one day "get the Sheppards."9 This, it seemed, was his chance.) After a perfunctory investigation of the crime scene, he decided that Sheppard was guilty but lacked any incontestable evidence. Meanwhile, the relentless headlines that appeared over the next few weeks were pure flim-flam and hearsay, unfiltered speculation mixed with class resentment for this family of rich doctors with supposedly loose morals, with claims of key-swapping parties10, illegitimate children, and Dr. Sam's infertility (a rumor that became an apparent motive). None of this was corroborated, from headlines like "Doctor Balks at Lie Test" to front-page editorials like "Someone is Getting Away with Murder," but the dailies ranted on as if they were the Furies themselves. On July 21st, one paper blared, "Why No Inquest? Do It Now, Dr. Gerber." And that very night, he called an inquest, which convened the next day in a local gymnasium so as to accommodate the ravenous public and press.
This proceeding lasted for three days but yielded no new evidence. Sheppard, who appeared in a neck brace and sunglasses due to his injuries, repeated the same story he'd told to the police ad nauseam, with one terribly costly lie: he claimed never to have had an affair with Susan Hayes, a former Bay View Hospital pathology technician. In fact, they'd been seen together as recently as March, in Los Angeles, where she now lived. They in fact had carried on a three-year affair, which Sheppard would later claim he had ended during his trip out west.
He was arrested on August 17th and indicted for murder. Hayes, who'd been questioned in Los Angeles several days earlier, confessed to their having had an affair, and while most of the evidence in the case remained circumstantial, investigators were now sure they discovered the motive for Marilyn's murder.
The formal statement Sheppard gave on July 10th to the Cuyahoga County sheriff was full of holes. The available evidence closed none of them and instead led only to more questions, some of them damning, others baffling. Consider the following:
- If the intruder had entered the Sheppard home bent on robbery, why didn't he take the shotguns and blank checks in Dr. Sam's den. Marilyn's wristwatch was found on the floor as well—and why abandon that item, for instance? Why had he removed the doctor's wallet from his pocket only to leave it behind? And what about the drugs in his overturned medical bag?
- What were the tiny red fibers found under Marilyn's fingernails? They matched nothing her husband was wearing that night and most likely came from the clothing of her attacker, since she clearly had tried to fight him off.
- Why didn't the Sheppard's Irish Setter, Kokie, bark during Marilyn's brutal attack? Was this because she recognized the killer?
- What about Sheppard's T-shirt? Given that the murderer would've already been covered in blood, could he have taken it in order to get rid of such an incriminating piece of evidence? Why was the torn white T-shirt with brown stains found in the woods nearby the Sheppard's property never submitted as evidence?
- Why would the intruder beat Marilyn so savagely yet on two separate occasions only knock Sheppard out?
- What of the unique blood spot found in the murder room? Neither "impact spatter" nor "contact smear," this circle of blood—the "largest in the room by far, one inch in diameter and nearly round"—was discovered near the bottom of the closet door. Although attempts to type it were unsuccessful, it demonstrated markedly different properties from Marilyn's or Sheppard's blood. So whose was it?
- If Marilyn's two broken teeth indicated that she'd bitten her attacker, if her broken nose and evulsed fingernail indicated a brutal struggle with her killer, if Dr. Sam was the killer and she'd fought her husband as desperately as her injuries suggested, how was it that he had neither a single open wound on his body nor any defensive wounds on his hands and arms?
- If the intruder's intent was sexual assault, why did he pull Marilyn's legs beneath the bed's crossbar, which would have made that impossible? Like the burglary, did Sheppard try to make it look as if that was the intruder's intent?
- Is it true—as Spencer Houk testified, but both Sam and Richard Sheppard denied—that Richard's first words upon treating his brother were, "Sam, did you do this?"
- Why were there no signs of a life-or-death struggle on the beach where Dr. Sam claimed he'd tackled Marilyn's killer?
- Why did Sheppard call Spencer Houk first? And why did he say, "I think they've killed Marilyn," when he never testified to the existence of more than one intruder.
- How serious were Sheppard's injuries? Were the vertebrae in his neck cracked, as his brother Richard contested, or were the X-rays he took inconclusive at best, as the prosecution argued, revealing no life-threatening damage or breaks?
- Sheppard's watch had blood on the expandable band, which he said got there when he took his wife's pulse. But the watch was discovered in the green duffel bag abandoned in the woods. So did the killer take it from him after their second struggle? Why not after knocking him out the first time?
- Dr. Lester Hoversten, who was staying with the Sheppards the week Marilyn was murdered, left the house on the morning of July 3rd to play golf with Dr. Robert Stevenson, who previously had been engaged to Susan Hayes. Lester and Marilyn were barely on speaking terms after he'd made a blatant pass at her several years before. Was his absence simply a coincidence, or was it a perfect alibi?
- Window washer Dick Eberling, who looked remarkably like Dr. Sam, worked for the Sheppards and recalled Marilyn fondly. He was left handed—as was the killer, according to blood-pattern analysis done by Dr. Paul Kirk, a forensic scientist—and had a scar on his left wrist. When questioned by the police about the Sheppards, he blurted out that his blood was in their house because he'd cut himself opening a window screen in the home the week of the murder—a statement no detective ever followed up. Moreover, he had a history of developmental problems and in subsequent years would be convicted first of petty theft, stealing hundreds of items from his employers, including Marilyn Sheppard's wedding ring. Ultimately he would spend the latter part of his life in jail for the murder of Ethel May Durkin, an elderly woman he'd swindled out of her estate and whose neck he'd broken with a blow from behind, shattering the same vertebrae that was damaged on Dr. Sam. Did Eberling break in to the Sheppard home that night with sexual assault on his mind, only to find himself in a battle with Dr. Sam? And why, at any rate, would he have murdered Marilyn?
- Dr. Sam, a serial philanderer, had consorted with Bay View Hospital lab technician Susan Hayes for three years, and his wife had learned of their meeting in March of that year. Is it conceivable that he'd broken off their long relationship so suddenly and then enjoyed a bright new chapter in his marriage? Or was his behavior simply a form of conjugal brinksmanship? Was he daring Marilyn to end their marriage, and had he killed her in a rage of frustration after she refused to leave?
- On the other hand, what could have possibly set off such a violent fight between the Sheppards, since she'd known of his affair with Hayes for some time and it was now, for all intents and purposes, out of sight and out of mind? Is it believable, after a pleasant evening with friends, after his wife had gone to sleep upstairs, that he woke up with the intent to kill her, or that some other fight had broken out between them in the middle of the night?
These questions only scratch the surface of the case's abiding mystery.
The Trials and the Aftermath
Sheppard was found guilty of second-degree murder on December 21, 1954, in what was then one of the longest criminal trials in American history, and sentenced to life imprisonment. On July 16, 1964, after serving ten years in prison, he was released once the federal district court ruled he'd been denied a fair hearing due to the media coverage prior to and during his trial, and also because of the gross mishandling of the jury throughout.
On June 6, 1966, the Supreme Court heard arguments from both the State of Ohio and Sheppard's attorney, a rising star by the name of F. Lee Bailey, who argued that the conviction should be dismissed because his constitutional right to a fair trial had been violated. And indeed the court did so, citing the "carnival atmosphere" that surrounded it, along with the "bedlam that reigned in the courthouse." Retried in October of the same year, Dr. Sam was subsequently found not guilty. A free man, he returned to medical practice but failed miserably—accidentally killing two women on the operating table. Estranged from his son and two brothers, nearly destitute, divorced from Arianne Tebbenjohanns, the woman he'd married after his release, he died in 1970 of drug and alcohol poisoning. At the time, he was married to the daughter of a professional wrestling promoter and performing under the stage name "Killer Sheppard."
In the 2000 civil trial brought against the State of Ohio by his son, Sam Reese, for damages resulting from the wrongful 1954 verdict, the court ruled in favor of the state, tacitly agreeing with the guilty verdict. But of note here is that Reese's attorney, Terry Gilbert, had the window washer and then petty thief Dick Eberling in his sights. DNA evidence from the crime scene suggested that another person had been in the house, someone whose genetic profile closely matched Eberling's. And in 1989, in an interview at Cuyuahoga County jail with the journalist James Neff, Eberling himself said that he "fully expected to be convicted of killing Marilyn Sheppard."But he then enjoyed the good fortune of dying in jail on July 25, 1998, of cardiac arrest.
The case, it seems, will never be closed. —Adam Ross
- Cynthia L. Cooper & Sam Reese Sheppard, Mockery of Justice (New York: Onyx, 1997)
- Jack P. DeSario & William D. Mason, Dr. Sam Sheppard on Trial (Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2003)
- Paul Holmes, The Sheppard Murder Case (New York: David McKay Company, 1961)
- James Neff, The Wrong Man (New York: Random House, 2001)