One summer evening in 1954, Marilyn Sheppard’s life was taken. The attacker? Either her husband – well respected doctor named Sam – or a “bushy-haired figure” who, according to Sam, grappled with him and then knocked him unconscious in the lake behind their house. To this day, no one knows.
At the time, the public was clearly set on Sam. The man was demonized by the people, grilled in the editorials, and even the judge present in his trial whispered to one of the detectives: “It’s obvious that the doctor did it.”
Sam Sheppard’s trial for the murder of his wife is arguably the most impartial case to date. But thanks to the carnival that went on in that courtroom, the U. S. Supreme Court brought up the topic of fair trial rights, something that was tragically overlooked for decades.
Whether or not Sam did it remains a mystery. The case is so messed up that it’s virtually impossible to reach a clear conclusion. If you want, you can try and crack it yourself.
The date was Saturday, July 3, 1954. The evening was warm and pleasant at the Sheppard’s household, and sitting around the dinner table were Sam, Marilyn, their son Chip, and their neighbors from across the street, Don and Nancy Ahern, with their two children. Relaxing on the porch, the Sheppards and the Aherns enjoyed the food and marveled at the orange sky as the sun set over Lake Erie.
By nightfall, Don Ahern walked his kids back home to tuck them in bed, then returned to the Sheppard’s home to finish the night with a black and white movie playing on one of the two channels available. Marilyn sat on her husband’s lap until Sam, having had a long day at work at the hospital, retreated to a different couch in the living room and fell asleep. When the clock struck 12, Marilyn walked the Aherns to the door.
A few hours later, Sam woke up to her screams.
A little before 6 a.m., the mayor of Bay Village, Spencer Houk, received a disturbing phone call. On the other end of the line was his good friend, Sam Sheppard. Short of breath and sounding more frazzled than ever, Sam exclaimed, “My God Spence! Get over here quick. I think they’ve killed Marilyn.”
Houk and his wife Esther drove as quickly as they could to the Sheppard’s home, where they found Sam, white as a ghost, rocking back and forth in his swivel chair, holding onto his neck as if it were to tumble off him if he were to let go of it.
When asked what happened, Sam mumbled one of the strangest stories Houk had ever heard. He said he had fallen asleep on the couch and was woken by Marilyn’s panicked shriek: “Sam!” He then rushed to their bedroom and found a “form” standing right beside his wife’s bed.
Sam reportedly attacked the form but as soon as he plunged at him (or her?), he was hit on the back of his neck, causing him to pass out. When he regained consciousness, he was alone. It was just him and a hollow-eyed Marilyn, her arms flung lifelessly by the edge of the bed. He checked her pulse. She was dead.
Sam went into Chip’s room, and luckily, found his son sound asleep and unharmed. Determined to find the killer, the doctor ran down the flight of stairs to inspect the rest of the house. He saw the form again, this time, running out the back door and onto a path leading to the shore.
The doctor chased the suspect outside and grappled with the “tall bushy-haired” figure, tumbling closer and closer towards the lake. But in his attempts to subdue the attacker, he blacked out once again. “I felt myself twisting or choking, and this terminated by unconsciousness,” he told the mayor.
Sam blinked open his eyes at the crack of dawn, his body wet and throbbing with pain. That’s when he limped back to the house and called Mayor Houk. He was missing his T-shirt and his watch.
Houk listened to Sam’s story in silence. There were many vague details Sam couldn’t clarify, like the sex of the so-called form he fought? And what was this so-called form wearing?
Sam attributed his confusion and lack of memory to the effects of being knocked unconscious twice. Houk took his word for it and tried not to jump to any crazy conclusions. Sam was his friend. There was no way he could have murdered his wife…right?
When police officer Fred Drenkhan arrived at the scene, he found Marilyn Sheppard lying on top of blood-stained sheets, her head facing the bedroom door. Her breasts were bare, and her pants were removed from one leg, leaving a small bit of her private parts exposed.
What hit Drenkhan the most, however, was her face. It was practically unrecognizable, slashed with over twenty deep cuts. It was sickening. The blood that once ran through her system had now colored the room in a sticky, eerie maroon. An autopsy of her body determined that her time of death was around 4:30 a.m. It also revealed that she was four months pregnant.
Inspecting the rest of the crime scene, Drenkhan found evidence of a robbery. But he wasn’t sure if it was staged or real. Sam Sheppard’s medical bag was out in the hallway, its content scattered across the parquet. And on the living room floor, a track trophy of Sam from high school and a bowling trophy of Marilyn were found shattered.
But what really puzzled Drenkhan was Sheppard’s work desk. The drawers were opened, but everything was neat and tidy, and nothing appeared to be missing. If someone were to be looking for something specific, they surely would have moved some files around, the officer thought.
As investigators kept collecting data from the crime scene, Sam Sheppard’s neighbor, NFL quarterback Otto Graham (of the Cleveland Browns), decided to peek in and see what all the fuss was about. Otto and his wife Beverly were on good terms with the Sheppards. It was disconcerting seeing their house being raided by men in uniforms.
Otto was permitted to step into Marilyn and Sam’s bedroom, which, come to think of it, is an absolute disgrace – the crime scene wasn’t secured, yet people were walking in and out as they pleased. Later on, Otto Graham was quoted by The Saturday Evening Post saying, “Oh my God. It looks like someone stood in the middle of the room with a great big can of red paint and a brush and flicked it all around. This wasn’t a couple of blows. Oh no. Whoever did it, they had to be out of their mind.”
A little before 8 a.m., Cuyahoga County’s Coroner Sam Gerber arrived at the scene and listened to what officer Drenkhan had to say of the evidence he had collected up until now. Things didn’t quite add up, Gerber believed. Suspicions of Sam Sheppard rose in his mind.
The neat drawers weren’t something one would expect from a robbery, and there was no sign of forced entry, no broken windows, nothing. Gerber hastily reached a conclusion. The crime was a domestic homicide. And Sam Sheppard was the killer.
As a result of Coroner Gerber’s rapid conclusion, he wasn’t as interested in recovering fingerprints and didn’t spend much time collecting blood evidence, as he should have done in a proper, neutral investigation. All he did was sit down with Sam Sheppard for a brief talk and later gathered the doctor’s clothes, including his wet shoes, boxer shorts, and pants.
He spotted a large bloodstain on the trousers’ left knee, a stain he saw as reassuring evidence of his belief. Gerber was overheard whispering to a police officer, “It’s obvious that the doctor did it.” Later that day, he ordered two detectives to visit Sheppard in the hospital where he was treated for his wounds. They were sent to force a confession out of him.
“I don’t know about my partner, but I think you killed your wife,” detective Robert Schottke asserted. “I loved Marilyn,” the doctor responded. The detectives failed to achieve their mission. Sam stuck to his bizarre account, insisting that someone else was responsible for his wife’s murder. Some tall figure he couldn’t give much detail about.
After a long and tiring interrogation, the detectives gave up. Later that day, he was visited in the hospital by two more guests – his fellow neighbor, Otto Graham, who was worried about his friend’s condition, and defense attorney Bill Corrigan who agreed to salvage the poor doctor’s reputation.
Marilyn’s murder made it to the front page of every Cleveland newspaper. The morning after her death, a large picture of the butchered lady was published. Underneath it, a photo of Sam in a neck brace lying helpless in his hospital bed. The headline read: “Doctor’s wife murdered in Bay Village.”
The article seemed to be leaning in Sam’s favor, suggesting that drug thieves raided the house. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before facts and rumors began to spread around town, and the story was turned on its head. In a matter of days, Sam went from being the victim to being the cold-blooded killer.
The press turned increasingly hostile toward the doctor, mostly due to the workings of Louis B. Seltzer, editor of The Cleveland Press and a man who was 100% convinced of Sam’s guilt. On July 8, he helped publish an article accusing Sheppard of trying to obstruct the investigation.
The article quoted the state’s prosecutor, John Mahon, saying: “In my twenty-three years of criminal prosecution, I have never seen such flagrant stalling as in this case by the family of Dr. Samuel Sheppard.” The press also released a statement claiming that Sam had refused to take a lie detector test while being questioned about his wife’s death.
By the end of July, the press had created such a fuss over the investigation that the public was now roaring in Marilyn’s defense, pointing fingers at her husband and demanding for an immediate inquest. The burning question wasn’t whether Sam did it – it was why.
Investigators came up with all sorts of possible motives. One was that Sam was sterile from having worked with X-ray equipment for such a long time, and when he found out that Marilyn was pregnant, he turned into Jack the Ripper and tore her to bloody pieces. But a test of the fetus refuted that theory.
Theory number two argued that Sam was cheating on his wife and wanted to wipe her out of his life in favor of the new woman. Police officers discovered that there was, indeed, another woman. A 24-year-old nurse working at Bay View hospital named Susan Hayes.
Police discovered that Sam had been showering his co-worker with gifts. When asked about the relationship, Sam responded that they were no more than ordinary colleagues who happened to get along well. But when they reached out to Susan, she gave a different account. The prosecutors were delighted to hear her admit to their sexual encounters.
After Susan’s confession, Sam’s crime was set in stone. The public now saw him as a liar and a murderer with a motive to kill. Sam Gerber scheduled an inquest, and Sheppard was called in, still wearing his neck brace, to answer the coroner’s questions.
According to spectators of the questioning, Sam seemed oddly detached and chillingly cool, as he responded to the details of his wife’s slaying. When asked, for instance, whether he ran or walked to catch the alleged form on the way to the lake’s shore, he said: “I can’t give you a specific recollection. I proceeded as rapidly as I could.”
When the topic of Susan Hayes was brought up, Sheppard denied any sexual relationship and answered “absolutely not” when Gerber asked him whether he and the nurse had ever slept in the same bed. Gerber kept pressing the doctor, asking him specific questions about a mysterious four-night stay at a private residence in California.
Sheppard’s attorney, Bill Corrigan, watched as his client was being slammed in front of a mostly female crowd that was cheering Gerber on. Corrigan intervened by shouting at a court reporter to report the hollering audience in the transcript he was writing. That didn’t help. Corrigan was kicked out of the room.
The following day, the front page of The Cleveland Press read: “Quit Stalling – Bring Him In.” The article urged police to grab Sam by the ear and drag him into a courtroom as fast as possible. “Everybody’s agreed that Sam Sheppard is the most unusual murder suspect ever seen around these parts,” the editorial read.
On cue, police locked Sheppard’s wrists in handcuffs at about 10:30 that night while he was home with his parents. Over the next 48 hours, investigators blinded the doctor with an oppressive interrogation lamp and violently grilled him. But to no avail. Sam Sheppard stuck to his story.
As July came to an end and the scorching heat of August unfolded, the grand jury got together to go through all the evidence. They listened carefully as Mayor Houk described a conversation he once had with Marilyn, where she described her husband as “a Jekyll and a Hyde.”
Susan Hayes also reported to the jury and told them the ins and outs of her intimate relationship with Dr. Sam. Investigator James MacArthur was another spokesperson that day who told jurors that there was evidence that Sam wanted a divorce, but Marilyn refused to give it to him.
Unsurprisingly, the jury concluded that he must be arrested for first-degree murder. And just one day after he was released on $50,000 bail, Sam Sheppard was re-arrested and thrown right back into his jail cell.
The trial began on October 18, 1954. Journalists from all over the state flocked to the city to document a showdown enveloped with mystery, a lustful love triangle, and a cold-blooded murder. The judge was seventy-year-old Edward Blythin, who was, unfortunately, a far cry from impartial.
Reporter Dorothy Kilgallen was assigned to select the jury, and on one of her breaks that day, she listened in shock as Blythin muttered, “He’s guilty as hell. It’s an open-shut-case.” Killgallen kept the judge’s comments a secret during the trial for fear of getting him into trouble.
The trial got off to a horrible start, at least for the defense. Judge Blythin refused to move the trial out of Cleveland, denying Sam a chance to stand on neutral ground, and he refused to delay the trial until the publicity surrounding it would die down. In other words, Sam Sheppard entered the courtroom a convicted man.
Every single person sitting in the jury admitted to having read and seen reports on the case. None of them were entering the trial as clean slates, and all had already formed a pretty established opinion. Not to mention that several of the jurors’ names had been published before the trial began.
Yet the trial still proceeded, with a partial jury and a judge who had already hit the gavel on Sheppard’s fate.
During the trial, the jury was taken to the Sheppard’s home where they were led on a tour around the rooms, including the bedroom where the killing took place, Sam’s workroom with his neatly drawers evenly pulled out, and the outdoor stairs leading to the shore.
Sheppard tagged along with the people who would determine his fate, hands cuffed to a deputy, eyes down on the floor. When the jury entered his son’s room, Sam broke down in tears at the sight of Chip’s stuffed teddy bear placed atop a dresser.
The following day, the opening statements were given. Prosecutor John Mahon turned to the jurors and said: “A reasonable interpretation of the state’s evidence will point the finger of guilt at Sam Sheppard.” The story was simple, he argued – Marilyn found out about her husband’s affair, and in response, he decided to get rid of her.
On the defense’s end, a man named Fred Garmone claimed that the evidence was lacking, and that Sam and his wife had just “enjoyed the best four months of their marriage.” She was pregnant with his baby and Garmone argued that there was virtually no reason for Sam to kill her.
Dr. Lester Adelson, the prosecution’s first witness, was called to the stand and made an impressive claim that Marilyn had died a violent death. He showed some gory autopsy slides, hoping the images would leave an unforgettable mark on the jury’s minds.
Sam Sheppard asked to leave the room when the slides were shown, but he was denied permission. He stood in the corner with his back to the screen. The defense tried to make a claim that Marilyn had died from choking on her own blood, but Dr. Adelson’s claims were far more convincing.
When the topic of the onshore quarrel between Sam and the “bushy haired form” came up, a patrolman named Fred Drenkan told the jury he found no reason to believe it ever happened. There were no signs of forced entry, no signs there was ever a struggle inside the house, and no reports that night of any neighborhood prowling.
And there was the prosecutor’s star witness, Coroner Sam Gerber, who brought up what he believed was the murder weapon. He talked of a bloodstain on Marilyn’s pillow, a blotch he saw as evidence of the murder weapon, “A surgical instrument,” he told the crowd.
Gerber didn’t stop there. He brought the pillowcase with him to court and handed it to the jurors to pass around. As each member inspected the stain, Gerber directed their attention to a pattern that looked like an outline of a claw-shaped object.
Defense attorney Corrigan was infuriated by Gerber’s baseless claims. The pattern could have easily been a random blotch created by the pillow’s crumpling when the blood was still fresh and wet. Still, Gerber ignored the defense and insisted that the blood imprint was valuable evidence.
Detective Robert Shottke was the next man to point out Sam’s obvious crime. He spoke of the inconsistencies in the doctor’s story. How he was once hit by the form while going upstairs, and in another case, he was clubbed in the hallway, and in a third account, he was knocked unconscious in the bedroom.
“Which one is it?” he told the jurors who looked back at him with engrossed stares. Shottke also brought up the Susan Hayes affair, reminding the jury that when he asked Sam to describe their relationship, the doctor said they were no more than “good friends.”
The prosecutors brought in fingerprint expert Jerome Poelking to make his case. Jerome said that the only fingerprint he found in the bedroom came from the table near Marilyn’s bed and matched with Sam Sheppard’s left thumb.
Defense attorney Corrigan sprung up and said, “Did you ever hear of a man coming into a bedroom and kissing his wife at night?”
Other than that, a medical expert named Mary Cowan stated that Marilyn had type O blood, the same blood type that was found on Sam’s left trouser. But she admitted that the evidence wasn’t entirely conclusive.
Finally, on December 1, Susan Hayes walked into the courtroom. She answered in a flat voice and kept her head down as she walked the jury through her relationship with Sam Sheppard. She said she was aware that he was a married man. With that, prosecutor John Mahon concluded, “Your honor, the state rests.”
The defense was helpless in light of Susan’s claims, so he tried to go for a different tactic – to persuade the jury that Sam Sheppard suffered major injuries on the night of the murder, ones that were impossible to self-inflict. While it could have been caused by Marilyn’s struggle to fight him off, Bill Corrigan hoped that the severity of the injuries would convince the jury that only a tall, bushy-haired man could have inflicted them.
The injuries brought up in the courtroom were pretty convincing. Dr. Steven Sheppard, one of the first experts to examine Sam, said, “Touching his neck, [I noticed] muscle spasms, involuntary movements.” He added that Sam was blacking out and “had to be practically dragged” to the hospital.
Corrigan called in a few more nurses and doctors to share their accounts. Nurse Anna Franz said that Sam’s feet were “all shriveled up as if they had been in water a long time.” And radiologist Dr. Gervase said that an X-ray revealed a fracture in his vertebra. Another doctor named Clifford Foster testified that he found swelling at the base of Sam’s skull.
Finally, Sam Sheppard was put on the stand. The defense hoped he would draw in some sympathy from the crowd, but no. Sam’s odd behavior and weird responses came off as arrogant and aloof. He described his marriage to Marilyn as a happy one. He said he always felt she was “in [his] corner.”
When Sheppard described the events that night, his choice of words was bizarre. He “visualized” the form, rather than saw, he was “stimulated” to check up on Marilyn when he heard her yell, and he had “a vague sensation” of being underwater as he grappled with the alleged form who had “a good-sized head.”
When it came time for the closing arguments, assistant prosecutor Tom Parrino mocked Sam’s story. “Could this man “in the prime of his life have been “rendered senseless with a single blow? Why were there no signs of struggle in Marilyn’s room?” he asked.
Tom’s list of questions went on and on and managed to strike a chord with the jury. The defense, on the other hand, focused on the prosecutor’s weaknesses, saying that the state still has no idea how the murder was committed, what weapon was used, or why.
Bill Corrigan looked at the jury for the final time and said: “You have the opportunity to turn back the tide—to tell the people of the nation–—of the world—that the constitutional right to a fair trial still lives.”
After two days, the jury reached its final verdict: “We find the defendant not guilty of murder in the first degree, but guilty of murder in the second degree.”
Sheppard was sentenced to life. And for the next couple of years, he spent his days at a maximum-security prison, locked behind bars, unsure of how his life got to that point. While in prison, he lost both his parents. His mom killed herself, and his dad died of cancer.
Just as Sam began accepting his fate, a few discoveries surfaced, shedding new light on the case. A California criminalist named Paul Kirk who asked to inspect the Sheppard’s home published a report that offered some promise. He concluded that Marilyn Sheppard’s murderer was left-handed, used a flashlight as the murder weapon, and was likely someone who had it out for the family.
Three months after Paul Kirk’s report was published, a dented flashlight was spotted in a shallow part of Lake Erie.
In November 1959, a man who had worked for the Sheppard’s named Richard Eberling was arrested for larceny. A home search discovered, among other stolen items, a cocktail ring once owned by Marilyn Sheppard. When police took him in for interrogation, he told them some astonishing things.
Police lied to try and get a confession of some sort, so they asked him why his blood had turned up in Marilyn’s bedroom back in 1954. Eberling answered that he had cut himself while washing their windows a few days before the murder.
Sam Sheppard wasn’t willing to give up on his freedom. And when his lawyer, Bill Corrigan, died in 1961, he found a new one. A young attorney named F. Lee Bailey. In 1963, Bailey demanded another trial, claiming that the prejudicial publicity before the case went to court completely violated Sam Sheppard’s rights.
Incredibly, in mid-1964, Judge Carl Weinman overturned Sam’s conviction. He called the 1954 trial “a mockery of justice,” and argued that so many editorials were involved in steering the audience’s opinion and that the trial was far from fair. Sam was released from jail on a $10,000 bond. But not for long, because as soon as he got out, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals threw him right back in.
Finally, in October 1966, it was decided that Sam deserved another trial. F. Lee Bailey argued for Sheppard, and attorney William Saxbe argued for the state. The man holding the gravel was Judge Francis Talty. This time, Talty made sure that the trial would be nothing like the one from 1954, which he called “a carnival.”
William brought in medical expert Mary Cowan to testify that the blood splatter found on the rims of Sam Sheppard’s watch was the product of flying blood that could have splattered like that only if he were the killer.
As for the defense, Bailey brought in forensic expert Paul Kirk to examine the watch, and he argued that the “lack of a symmetrical tail” left the issue in “doubt.”
Though young and inexperienced, attorney F. Lee Bailey made sure to do his homework. He read the transcript of the 1954 trial, through and through, and made sure not to repeated Bill Corrigan’s mistakes. He presented the jury with a potential killer: Esther Houk, Mayor Houk’s wife.
He argued that Marilyn had an affair with Spencer Houk, and when Esther found out, she lost it. As proof, Bailey called in a delivery guy who claimed he had seen Marilyn a few days earlier sitting with a “distinguished older man.” In support of his case, he got Esther to admit that she had started a fire on the morning of the murder. That day, the temperature was around 69º F, surely not cold enough to warm up by a coal fire. Bailey hoped the jury would conclude that Esther started the fire to burn her bloody clothes.
Incredibly, in the fall of 1966, the jury reached a conclusion – Sam Sheppard was free to go. Bailey managed to convince the public that the trial in 1954 was unjust, and that seemed to be enough evidence for the people to change their minds.
Sadly, Sam’s life didn’t get any better after he was released. He ended up marrying a woman named Arian Tebbenjohanns but divorced her a few years later after a rocky marriage full of infidelities and threats. His relationship with his son Chip was a mess. And to cope with his sad life, he turned to drinking.
On April 6, 1970, aged forty-six, Sam Sheppard collapsed in his home, vomiting blood on the kitchen floor as medics attempted to rescue him. An autopsy report listed the cause of his death as liver disease.
It has long been assumed that the story behind “The Fugitive” – the Harrison Ford action packed film from 1993 and the popular series from the 60s are loosely based on the Sheppard’s murder case. Both Sam Sheppard and the fictional Richard Kimble were doctors, and both were wrongly accused of killing their wives after an unkown intruder broke into their house.
But the creators of the 60s show have denied any relation to Sam’s turbulent trial. “I suppose connecting Kimble to Sheppard makes a more sensational story,” Roy Huggins, creator of the original show told the LA Times in 1993, a little after the film remake was released.
Even so, many believe Sam Sheppard had indeed inspired Richard Kimble’s character. “There was never any doubt when Dr. Richard Kimble was running around on TV, he was inspired by the Sheppard case,” F. Lee Bailey firmly stated.