The Puzzling Case of Marilyn and Sam Sheppard (2022)

"The Puzzling Case of Marilyn and Sam Sheppard" is a video made by Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej, uploaded onto YouTube on April 10, 2020. It was the fifth episode of the sixth season of BuzzFeed Unsolved: True Crime, and the fifty-third episode overall. You can find it here.

Description[]

A woman is found dead in her home, with her husband as the only possible witness and suspect. Is he guilty, or is he another victim of terrible circumstance?

Background[]

On February 21st, 1945, Dr. Samuel Sheppard and Marilyn Reese were married and settled near Lake Erie, Ohio. Two years later, they had their first and only child, affectionately nicknamed Chip. Sam was a respected neurosurgeon and the attractive couple was believed to have a happy marriage. Their small suburban community was the kind where all their neighbors were friends and maybe a little too friendly. On July 3rd, 1954, the Sheppards hosted their neighbors for dinner, drinks and a movie. Just after midnight, Sam fell asleep on the couch, and Marilyn said her goodbyes to the guests. What transpired in the next few hours has been the source of intense scrutiny and is still a mystery.

At about 5:40 am on July 4th, Mayor Spencer Houk, a close friend of the Sheppards, awoke to a phone call from Sam saying "my God, Spence, get over here quick, I think they have killed Marilyn". Houk and his wife Esther raced to the house to find Sam shirtless in his study holding his neck, seemingly in a state of shock. They called the police, and first responders arrived by 6:00 am.

From the police report, Marilyn's body was found lying upwards, her face turned toward the door, beaten beyond recognition. She had over 20 gashes curved deep into her face and scalp, blood covered the sheets, and the walls were dripping with heavy spatter. Her pajamas were partially removed, leaving her exposed. Eventually the autopsy determined Marilyn's time of death was "about 4:30 a.m." It also sadly revealed that Marilyn had been four months pregnant with her second child, also a boy. According to Sheppard, he had been asleep downstairs when he heard Marilyn shout his name. He ran up to the bedroom to find Marilyn being attacked by a "white form". They fought, but Sam was hit on the back of his neck and knocked out. When he came to, Marilyn was dead and the white form was gone. Worried for his son's safety, Sam ran to Chip's room where he thankfully found him sleeping soundly. He then hurried downstairs to see the form exiting through the back door. He chased the tall and bushy-haired figure down to the shore of Lake Erie. Sam explained that he "lunged or jumped and grasped," at the form on the beach. And then, "I felt myself twisting or choking, and this terminated my consciousness". When Sam woke, it was nearly dawn and he was missing his shirt and watch.

In the early morning hours of July 4th, 1954, the police arrived at the Sheppard house to find a gruesome crime scene, where the only witness to the possible murderer was also the most likely suspect.

Theories[]

  • The entire story was made up and that Sam Sheppard murdered his wife in cold blood.
    • There was no sign of forced entry, and no murder weapon present at the scene. The desk drawers were neat, which would not be normal in the case of a robbery. Coroner Sam Gerber commented on the blood on Marilyn's pillow, saying, "in this bloodstain, I could make out the impression of a surgical instrument". A weapon that would have been convenient for a neurosurgeon. In a bush outside, Gerber found a canvas bag with Sam's wristwatch, fraternity ring, and key all covered in blood.
  • Sam Sheppard was telling the truth and his wife was murdered by a "bushy-haired white form". Beyond Sam's statement, as many as three witnesses testified to seeing someone matching that description. Richard and Betty Knitter told the police they saw such a man near the Sheppards' home around 3:30 to 4:00 a.m. on the morning of the murder, which lines up with Marilyn's time of death at around 4:30 a.m.
    • They described him as "white, between 32 and 42 years of age, wide nose, bushy crew-cut hair, light auburn in color, bushy eyebrows, long sideburns". This was enough detail to provide a forensic sketch.
    • The presence of the bushy-haired man was substantiated in Sheppard's first trial by medical professionals, who attested to the seriousness of the injuries he sustained fighting Marilyn's attacker. A nurse testified that Sam's "feet were all shriveled up, as if they had been in water a long time", consistent with Sam's story that he got knocked out on the shore. A radiologist said Sam's X-Ray revealed a probable fracture of his second cervical vertebra. Two other doctors said there was no way to fake his neck spasms, or the swelling at the base of his skull.
    • But it was Sam Sheppard's son, Chip, who would provide a name to a bushy-haired face. He had spent years trying to solve his mother's murder, and he believed that the blood belonged to Richard Eberling. Richard Eberling had been the Sheppards' handyman for a time, and had intimate knowledge of the house's layout, including an obscure basement entrance. Additionally, he had been found in possession of two stolen cocktail rings that had belonged to Marilyn Sheppard. However, when questioned about the murder, he passed a polygraph test where he denied killing Marilyn, which cleared him of being investigated further.
    • Despite being cleared, in 1989, Eberling was convicted of the aggravated murder of Ethel May Durkin. Nine years into his sentence, Eberling gave a deathbed confession that he had also killed Marilyn Sheppard. One witness testified, "Eberling told me that he had killed her and that he hit her husband on the head with a pail, and that in Eberling's words, 'the bitch bit the hell out of me'".
  • Besides the main theories, there were two other suspects that raised some questions.
    • The first one was Esther Houk. F. Lee Bailey believed that the murder of Marilyn Sheppard could have only been perpetuated by another woman. There were rumors that Marilyn was having an affair with Esther's husband, Spencer, the mayor and the first person Sam called that fateful morning. Bailey said of Houk's motive and means, "one possible motive is feminine jealous hatred, sparked to action by some event disturbing to the killer. A jealous killing requires a woman killer."
      • During the retrial, Bailey got Esther to admit she had ignited her coal fireplace the morning of the murder, despite the fact that it had been a warm summer evening. He implied she might have been trying to burn bloody clothes and other evidence, and also that she was left-handed, like the killer. However, there was no evidence to prove Spencer and Marilyn had an intimate sexual relationship, and seemingly, no further legal action was ever taken against the Houks.
    • The second suspect was Major James Call. Ex-FBI agent Bernard Conners believed that Marilyn was murdered by Major James Call, an Air Force pilot who went AWOL in 1954 to embark on a murderous crime spree. Conners said the Sheppard murder fits with Call's MO in which he would break into a house of sleeping people and use violence against anyone he came across. A small crowbar found in Call's possession could have been used to cause Marilyn's injuries. Even more compelling, Marilyn likely bit her attacker, and Call had a scar that seemed to be from a deep bite mark on his left index finger. When they captured Call, they questioned him about Marilyn's murder, but never pursued the link.

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