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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Monday, August 19, 2013

Crime Tidbit: The Case of Marilyn Sheppard

In the summer of 1954, in Bay Village, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland) the 31-year-old wife of well-known doctor was savagely murdered. Sam Sheppard was the wealthy, well-liked surgeon from a family of surgeons, and he and his wife, Marilyn, were an active part of the high-society crowd.

Sheppard Home outside of Cleveland
Sheppard claimed that after having guests over for the evening, he'd fallen asleep watching TV and Marilyn had gone up to bed. He awoke to her screams and ran upstairs to see "a form with a light garment, I believe, at the same time grappling with something or someone." After that he was hit over the head. When he came to, he chased a "bushy-haired" intruder out of the house and down to the beach. A fight ensued and Dr. Sheppard was knocked unconscious.

After a media-obsessed trial, Sheppard was found guilty of murdering his wife and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. Many believed the verdict unjust, however, and his family worked tireless to clear him. Ten years later, in 1966, he was granted a new trial. This was a case that had compelling evidence either way.

Reasons prosecutors thought Sheppard was guilty:

1) The dog didn't bark. Neighbors said the Sheppard's dog was lively and barked a lot when they had visitors. This was countered by Eberling, a suspect in the case (more on him later) who said that when he'd done repair work in the Sheppard house days earlier, the dog didn't bark, so maybe he wasn't as excitable as people thought.

2) Lack of forced entry. There was no sign of an intruder breaking in, but this was countered by the fact that no one could remember whether Marilyn Sheppard routinely locked the back door.

3) Same's t-shirt. He was apparently wearing one when he went to sleep that night, but not when the police arrived. They asked him where it was and he said he didn't know. Maybe he'd given it to the intruder. Not a likely story. Police were interested in the shirt because if he'd beaten his wife, his shirt would have blood spatter all over it. A t-shirt of the right size and color was found on the property down near the lake. There was no blood on it.

4) Delay and inconsistencies. Marilyn was killed between 3 and 4 am. but he didn't call anyone until after 5. Even then, it was his friend, not the police. He claimed to be unconscious by the lake, but that's quite convenient. He might have used the time to clean himself up and hide evidence.

5) Staged scene. The scene was suspiciously staged to look like a burglary gone wrong. Police can tell the difference because most burglars dump out drawers and trash a place, looking for booty. The Sheppard house had rifled-through drawers and things out of place, but no real mess. Why would anyone want the house to look like a burglary murder, rather than just a murder?

6) 27 Blows to Marilyn's body. Might have been a sign of passion.

7) Troubled marriage. Sheppard was found to be having an affair with a nurse at the hospital he worked for.

8) Thumbprint. Sam's thumbprint was found on the headboard in a suspicious spot--one that suggested he might have been standing over Marilyn. No other prints of any kind were found anywhere in the room.

9) Watch. Sheppard's watch had blood on it and water in it. He suggested he might have kept it on while water-skiing (the water) and that the blood had gotten on it when he checked his wife's pulse. However, it was found in a green back with some other accessories on property. Sheppard claimed that the intruder he struggled with might have taken it off his wrist while he was unconscious on the beach, but then dropped the bag while fleeing. The odd thing is that if the intruder was taking things off Sheppard's person, he forgot to snatch the wallet in Sheppard's pants-pocket.

10) Missing lamp. A worker reported having repaired a metal table lamp days before which Marilyn set on her bedside table. Yet, no sign of the lamp was found after the murder. A bloody smear shaped like the lamp was found on the pillow, and the police believed the lamp might have been the murder weapon, but it never turned up. It would have been too heavy for the intruder to carry away, and not worth anything.

Reasons People Believed Sheppard was Innocent:

1) Sam's injuries couldn't have been self-inflicted. So claimed a professional under oath. However, it's conceivable that Marilyn might have inflicted the injuries while under attack.

2) Affection and lack of history. In the hours before the murder, dinner guests reported that Marilyn and Sam were very affectionate, Marilyn even sitting in his lap. It seems unlikely behavior for someone planning to kill his wife in a few hours. Furthermore, there is no record of previous violence on Sam's part. Most people who murder their spouses have assaulted them before or have had the police called on them for various domestic issues. No such thing exists in this case.

3) Position of the body. Marilyn was found spread-eagled and partially exposed, as though she might have been raped. Even if a husband forces himself on his wife, it is unlikely that he would leave her in such a position, exposed for others to see, especially given the mentality of the '50s upper class.

Sam Sheppard's pants
4) No stains on clothing. The room was covered in wall-to-wall blood spatter. If Sam had killed his wife, he should have been covered in blood. Yet, aside from one stain on his pants, he was completely blood-free. The stain on his pants was determined to not belong to either he or Marilyn but, presumably, the killer.

5) Damaged trophies. Sam displayed many of his own trophies in the house with pride. They were damaged in the scuffle. Even if he was the type of man to kill his wife, it's unlikely that he'd damage something he took so much pride in.

Richard Eberling
6) Richard Eberling. A man who did repair work in the Sheppard house days before turned out to have Marilyn's ring. He claimed he'd stolen it from the house days before while working and had also cut his finger and bled in the house. He volunteered this information before anyone even said anything to him about the murder. Some people wondered why. No one thought much of him until years later when he was convicted of murdering three elderly, wealthy widows in their homes. Technology did not exist to specifically link Eberling to the murder scene, but he could never be conclusively ruled out either. A DNA sample in the closet was rare. The DNA specialist said that only 1 in 42 people could have the profile of the sample. Eberling was one of those individuals.

7) Lack of motive. Friends claimed that Marilyn knew about Sam's affairs and was resigned to the fact. She wasn't planning to leave or divorce him, and they still led relatively pleasant lives. They had a 7 year old son (asleep in another room during the time of the murder) and things were good for Sheppard professionally. There was no apparent motive for him to murder his wife.

8) Sam's intelligence and lack of confession. Sam was a doctor, smart and well-educated. If he'd done it, why didn't he come up with a better story. Many believed his story was so preposterous, it had to be real. Also, most people in his situation would have confessed eventually under the brutal scrutiny he got from the cops. (There wasn't as many rules about forcing confessions back then.) But Sam never did. To the end, he maintained his innocence.

9) Eberling's apparent confessions. Eberling did time for other murders, and several of his cell mates claimed he confessed to Marilyn's murder, though the character of these people were called into question. Things he said in interviews over the years also came across as vague and very suspicious.

Both Sheppard and Eberling have passed away now, and the case of Marilyn Sheppard's murder remains open.  It has inspired plenty of books and films over the years. Most recently, it was immortalized in the Hollywood blockbuster, The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford, which was loosely based on the case. 

In more recent years, DNA evidence from the case has been revisited. It's been positively shown that a third person left DNA evidence at the murder scene, though it's still not possible to positively link it to Eberling. (Source)

What do you think? Based on the evidence, who do YOU think killed Marilyn?


  1. Wow, what an interesting case! I'm of the opinion a third person did it. (Whether that's Eberling or some fantastical creature from the depths of a sci-fi/fantasy novel remains for my imagination to decide.) But it's suspicious, and could either way.

  2. Things like this fascinate me. I loved the Harrison movie of this case. Of course, they had him be innocent and his marriage a good one. Really some things we may never know.