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Missing or Just Gone? : Police Chief Left Town in Suspense. . . .

Times Staff Writer

There was no hint, none at all. He ambled in that Friday morning as usual. The shop was busy. He asked for coffee, a medium-sized cup. He put cream in it as usual, but no sugar, and that was normal, too.

He lit a Salem. He always did. As the chief of police, Mel Wiley seemed imposing--a little rumpled, maybe, but imposing. That was to be expected. All police chiefs look imposing, especially in uniform. A customer came in and asked for a dozen doughnuts. The chief stopped him. The customer gave a start.

“They’re horrible tasting,” Chief Wiley said. “And they look terrible. Don’t buy ‘em, ‘cause you’ll get sick.”

“Mel!” Mary Kirby said. “Don’t do that!”

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The police chief smiled. The customer winked--and bought the doughnuts anyway.

A Running Gag

All of this was unremarkable. Among the three of them--Mary Kirby, 49, and Carol Kosman, 48, the proprietors of K&K; Donuts, and Mel Wiley, 48, the chief of police of Hinckley, Ohio--this was a running gag. It was easy humor, and it made the day look like any other.

But this was, in fact, an unusual day.

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It was the last day the townspeople saw Mel Wiley. He left the doughnut shop, went to his office at the police station and spent an uneventful morning and afternoon at work. Then, over the weekend, he disappeared. The chief vanished.

A year has passed. Mel Wiley has not been seen. He has not been heard from. In Washington, D.C., the National Crime Information Center, run by the FBI, says that 54,430 regular people are missing in the United States--and one chief of police. This is the story of that police chief and some of his friends. It is the story of an enduring American mystery.

Mel Wiley became a Hinckley policeman in 1978.

Before that he was a fingerprint clerk for the FBI in Washington, then a soldier assigned to Army intelligence--part of the time at Ft. Ord, Calif.--then a newspaper reporter on the Gazette over in Medina, eight miles southwest of Hinckley, and then a deputy sheriff for the county.

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When Len Keller, a fellow deputy, became chief of police in Hinckley, he hired Mel Wiley to be his sergeant. When Keller quit, Wiley became chief.

He gained a reputation as an ideal police chief for this town of 5,000 people. Hinckley is at the crossroads of state highways 303 and 3. The residents live in white-shingled, red brick houses, tucked into the woods along the east side of the Rocky River Valley. Many of them commute to work in Cleveland or Akron.

The big thing in Hinckley is Buzzard Day.

Once, Hinckley was woods, filled with wild animals. The animals ate the settlers’ first crops. On Dec. 24, 1818, the original residents surrounded the town and drove the animals to the center of the circle. They shot them and celebrated Christmas by feasting on the game. The leftovers froze. In mid-March, the carrion thawed and attracted buzzards. Since then they have returned each year on March 15--four days before the swallows come back to Capistrano.

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As sure as Buzzard Day is a big thing, crime in Hinckley is pretty humble.

Never, while Mel was chief, was there any kind of crime that would suggest, even remotely, something that might cause him to vanish. Nor did Mel seem to be the sort of cop who would get involved in anything big, much less anything sinister. By every account, he was an unassuming and modest man.

“He was not the spit-and-polish cop,” said Jim Bigam, 39, the police detective in Medina who headed the investigation into Mel’s disappearance--because Mel’s apartment was inside the Medina city limits. Bigam recalls that Mel stood about 5 feet 11 and weighed about 165 pounds. He looked solid, but he had a bit of a paunch.

He wore his hair in a butch cut. Mary Kirby at K&K; Donuts had noticed that he was getting a little bald.

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Pale Spots on Arms

His neck and arms had patches of extra-pale skin. These were caused by radiation, says his mother, Doris Wiley, 66, who lives near Hinckley. Mel was affected by the radiation, she remembers, when his military duties took him to Nevada. She says he got the white patches while at the Nevada Atomic Test Site.

Otherwise, the chief seemed healthy. He did have a wart on his nose. He rubbed it when he talked. And, at times, Mel Wiley had a Basset-hound sadness in his eyes.

In some ways, he was an unlikely cop.

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“He was a policeman who didn’t hunt and who didn’t like guns,” Doris Wiley says. “He would never have joined the National Rifle Assn.” He was fascinated by trains. He had a model railroad collection and he displayed model engines and cars on the shelves in his office.

And he loved music. He collected records--of classical music, jazz and, particularly, the big band sounds like Jimmy Dorsey. He taped his records and added his own commentary, like a disc jockey.

“He wanted to try out as a D J at one time,” Mary Kirby remembers. “He said he’d thought about it, and his voice was very good.” For his friends over at the doughnut shop, he played one especially beautiful tape. “He made it sound like he was in San Francisco. You would think--when he described the city and the evening with the setting sun--you’d swear that you were sitting in your home in San Francisco, listening.

‘Loved San Francisco’

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“Mel had been there when he was stationed at Ft. Ord. He loved San Francisco. On the tape, he talked about the cable cars.” And Chinatown. He said San Francisco was his mecca.

He also liked to write. He had started a mystery, which he called “Harvest of Madness.” He set it in Burnt Cabins, Pa., the scene of an unsolved murder. He had visited Burnt Cabins, and everybody supposed that he was plotting the novel in a way that solved the killing. Not long before he dropped out of sight, he asked Jim Bigam, the Medina detective, if they could confer about the latest in forensics. “He wanted to be sure,” Bigam says, “that the forensics he was going to use in the book were correct.” But the two never got together.

Mel did not show his novel to anyone. “I do not know,” his mother said, “if he ever got beyond three chapters.”

His family and friends believe, however, that Mel did complete a book of poetry. He did not show that book to very many people, either, but Bigam had seen a bit of it. “It was mostly emotional and romantic,” he remembers. “About nature, life, the sun, trains passing in the night.”

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Wrote Nostalgic Column

Mel wrote a column for Hinckley’s two weekly newspapers, entitled “Glimpses of Yesterday.” He used it to evoke, often nostalgically, the great days of radio, the styles, fads and music of the 1950s, the glories of San Francisco, ghost towns of the West--and a 15-year-old boy named Mel Wiley who sat by himself on an empty baggage cart at the New York Central station in Painesville, Ohio, and watched the 20th Century Limited roar past, saluting the Midwest on its way to New York.

“The twin steel ribbons of Track Two came to life,” he wrote, “filling the nearby air with the song of steel upon steel. . . .”

Like many other people, Mel had heartbreaks.

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His brother, Clark, died of cancer at 38. Mel treasured two gifts that Clark had given him: a book and, in his will, a tan 1980 Toyota station wagon. “He cared for his brother deeply,” Mary Kirby recalls. “That was the only time I’ve ever seen him close to breaking down.” But after a couple of weeks of grief, Mel became himself again.

Not long afterward, Mel and his wife were divorced. They had been married 17 years. Mel took it hard. “That time,” Carol Kosman says, “it seemed like it took almost a month before he started having a good time again.”

Began Dating Again

But he did. Mel even started noticing some of the women who stopped in at K&K; Donuts. In time, he began seeing one of them regularly.

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He made enough money--$23,500 a year--to live, perhaps not well, but to live in small-town Ohio.

And he seemed to be happy.

He would stop by the doughnut shop at 7:30 every morning on his way to the police station. He would have a medium-sized cup of coffee, or a small cup if he was running late. About three times a week, he would have a doughnut with his coffee. He would stand at the end of the brown wooden counter and smoke a Salem. Sometimes he’d buy a pack.

Invariably, he would joke with Mary Kirby and Carol Kosman and their customers.

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“I wouldn’t buy that if I were you!” he would counsel someone choosing among the glazed, chocolate, maple, coconut, cream-filled, buttermilk, sour cream, honey wheat, pina colada and apple custard doughnuts. “You ever bought one before? Well, I wouldn’t try it.”

“Mel!” Mary Kirby would say in exasperation.

But she and Carol and most everyone enjoyed the teasing. One morning, Mel walked in, asked for a doughnut, walked back out, raised the hood of his car and tossed it inside.

Doughnut Shop Gag

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“Needed an oil change,” he said.

Another morning, a letter arrived from the Hinckley Police Department:

“For about the sixth time today, someone has stopped in over here at the office and has inquired as to whether they should have reservations to have coffee and doughnuts over at your place,” Mel wrote. “I, of course, gave them the only answer that I could think of . . . ‘Why, certainly you should . . . Nearly everyone else I know of has reservations about eating there!’ ”

Sometimes, if Mel happened to be at the doughnut shop, he would answer the phone. It was a pay phone, on a wall just out of reach from behind the counter.

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“Joe’s Pool Hall!” he would say. Or, “Mortuary!”

“Don’t you dare answer that phone!” Mary would shout.

So he wouldn’t, until she and Carol were too busy to run around the end of the counter and get it themselves. Then Mary would ask, “Please pick it up, Mel. Just pick it up.”

And he would--pick it up, look at it and hang it back up.

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“Mel!”

“But you said . . . “

Eventually, Mary and Carol got even.

Jailed for Charity

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A year ago, when the Medina Chapter of the American Cancer Society had its annual Jail-N-Bail Day fund-raiser, someone made the $25 donation required to have an arrest made--and had Mel arrested. To this day, the perpetrator has not stepped forward, but Mary Kirby does admit detaining the chief at the doughnut shop long enough for the Medina County sheriff’s deputies to pick him up.

And when Mel telephoned the doughnut shop from jail to plead for enough Cancer Society contributions to make his bail, Mary told him: “I don’t think so, Mel.”

“Please,” he pleaded. “I called my mother, and she said to go somewhere else, too!”

Worse, when Mel finally rounded up enough contributions to get out, he was arrested a second time. This time, while he was in jail, his friends jacked up his tan station wagon and put it on blocks. They put a “For Sale” sign in the window. Then they taped a neatly lettered poster to his police cruiser. It said: “Batmobile.”

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Despite all this, no one ever doubted that Mel Wiley was a professional cop.

“He was a 100% police officer,” says Ron Rhodes, 49, a former township trustee whom everybody calls “the mayor,” and who had given the Hinckley Police Department his special attention while he was on the town board.

Described as Aloof

At the same time, Mel’s friends had noticed that he seemed reticent--not entirely candid.

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To Bob Brown, 63, a retiree who often volunteered as a police dispatcher, Mel Wiley was never the kind of person who could become a close friend. “I wouldn’t say he was aloof,” Brown said not long ago, sitting at one of the two tables with red-and-white checked tablecloths near the counter in K&K; Donuts.

“Yes, he was aloof,” Ron Rhodes, “the mayor,” interrupted.

“Well, to a certain degree he was, yeah,” Brown agreed.

Was he shy? a visitor asked.

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“I don’t think so,” Rhodes replied.

“I think we hit the word,” Brown said. “Aloof. He wasn’t what you’d call ‘stuck up’ to the point where he considered himself better than anyone else. He didn’t seem to be that way, but he wasn’t an outgoing person.”

Was he an introvert?

“Possibly. That’s a very good word. Yeah. You always had the feeling that he was . . . “

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“Holding something back,” Rhodes completed the thought.

“Yeah,” Brown agreed. “Holding something back.”

On Wednesday, July 24, 1985, Mel Wiley talked with his mother on the telephone. She remembers nothing remarkable about the conversation: “He said he’d get back to me the following Sunday.”

Late that Sunday, rangers at Edgewater Park, 20 miles north of Hinckley on the shore of Lake Erie, spotted Mel’s cherished Toyota station wagon. It was near a grassy knoll that led to the beach.

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Mel did not stop in at the doughnut shop on Monday. He did not show up for work.

On Tuesday, the rangers reported the tan Toyota abandoned. David Yates, 46, who was Mel’s sergeant, drove up to Edgewater Park. It was Mel’s car, and it was locked. The sergeant broke in. He found Mel’s badge, his driver’s license, his police I.D., a pair of pants, a shirt, a belt, shoes, socks, some suntan lotion, a beach towel folded on the seat and a pack of Salems tucked into one shoe.

Mel’s wallet was in the glove compartment. Inside the wallet were his credit cards, two $5 bills and some ones. There was some change in a pants pocket. In all, the cash came to about $15.

Lake Search Fruitless

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The Coast Guard began searching the lake, figuring that if Mel had drowned over the weekend, the July-warm water would lift his body to the surface.

They found nothing.

Yates telephoned his wife. Virginia Yates is the full-time dispatcher at the Hinckley police department. He asked her to contact Jim Bigam, the police detective in Medina. Virginia Yates and Jim Bigam drove to Mel’s apartment.

The door was locked, but someone had left a window ajar. The dispatcher and the detective opened the window. They stepped inside.

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The apartment was neat. Maybe a little too neat.

In the year since, memories have faded--but Jim Bigam and David Yates remember that Mel’s police revolver, a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson, and his off-duty pistol, a .38 with a short barrel, were either at the apartment or in his car--neither was missing. Inside the apartment, Jim Bigam and Virginia Yates found the ammunition.

Mel had cats, and the two police officers found several days’ worth of cat food portioned out in dishes--along with extra water.

Manuscript Was Missing

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But the working manuscript of “Harvest of Madness,” Mel’s mystery novel, was gone.

So was his book of poetry.

And so were his tapes of music and description and commentary.

Because of the white patches on his arms, Mel liked long-sleeved shirts. Most of them were gone. So were his envelopes, postage stamps, typewriter paper and address book.

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Mel’s refrigerator had been cleaned out. It held a single jar of mayonnaise.

There was a note on the table--a reminder to pick up laundry. Jim Bigam drove to the laundry-dry cleaner where Mel had his uniforms done. Some were still hanging there, pressed and waiting. The proprietors had found some papers in one of Mel’s pockets. They had put the papers into an envelope and saved them.

Bigam opened the envelope.

Inside was a Yellow Cab schedule and a Greyhound bus schedule.

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Meanwhile, Virginia Yates had driven back to Hinckley. She had found a train schedule, as well, and she told Jim Bigam about it. He remembered that Amtrak ran past Edgewater Park, no more than 100 yards from where Mel’s car had been found.

Key in Desk Drawer

At the Hinckley police station, David Yates opened the top drawer of Mel’s desk. As Mel’s sergeant, he had been in and out of the drawer often, usually to get the property room key or any one of the assorted odds and ends that Mel had kept there, in a tumble of confusion. Now the drawer was clean.

It held a single key. Yates picked it up. It bore a conspicuous red tag: “104-B.” Mel’s apartment number.

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Mel’s model locomotives and cars were still on the office shelves, but Virginia Yates noticed that certain other things seemed to be missing: his reference books, some boxes of empty manila folders.

Jim Bigam decided to talk to the woman Mel had been seeing since his divorce. She said that Mel had told her he was going to go swimming at Edgewater Park with a friend from out of town. That had sounded odd, since Mel’s patchy skin made him shy. He didn’t like to go swimming. He didn’t even have a bathing suit.

She said that Mel had told her he intended to go to a nearby K mart and buy some swimming trunks he had seen on sale.

Bigam went to the K mart.

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There was no swimsuit sale. There had been none.

Bigam checked with Mel’s ex-wife. Mel’s alimony check was due--but he wasn’t behind.

Back at the police station, Virginia Yates thought of Mel’s office typewriter. It was a Royal. It had a cartridge ribbon--the kind that can be used only once and retains the imprint of the keys that strike it.

Painstakingly, she began to transcribe the words she could decipher on the ribbon.

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It was difficult, because Mel had made plenty of typing errors and every time he made a mistake, he used the back-space. That caused strike-overs on the ribbon.

Slowly, the last thing that Mel had written became clear.

It was a letter to another woman friend.

It indicated that he was leaving, that he was fed up and that he would be thousands of miles away by the time she read this. He said he might visit in years to come--but just to look around and to reminisce. Nobody would know he had stopped by:

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“Where I’ve gone is of no critical importance,” he wrote, “and it’s very doubtful that I will ever return.”

But it was not clear what had caused Mel to feel fed up.

Letter Never Received

Bigam questioned the woman friend. She said she never received the letter.

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He checked Mel’s bank accounts. There had been no recent, large withdrawal. Bigam checked Mel’s police pension fund. It contained thousands of dollars--untouched.

There were some signs that Mel had been setting aside money for a month or two. When Doris Wiley, his mother, took over his affairs, she discovered that he had not paid his bills for June or July.

But the last paycheck or two the city had sent after he vanished more than covered what he owed.

It was, indeed, an enigma.

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To this day, more than a year later, Doris Wiley says she has not heard from her son. Nor, she says, has Mel’s former wife. Nor any of Mel’s friends.

“Mel is 48 now,” she says. “If he’s alive.”

Does she think he is?

“I sure hope so . . . oh, God, I hope so! I don’t know. I do not know.”

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Does she think that he is in danger? “It’s very possible . . . Sometimes I’m optimistic, and sometimes . . . It’s like a seesaw . . . Some people think he either was killed or left to keep from being killed.”

At the doughnut shop, Mary Kirby frets: “I don’t think he killed himself. I can’t see him doing that . . . but I worry inside.”

Mary nods toward Carol Kosman: “She doesn’t worry. She thinks he’s fine.”

“I do,” Carol says. “I think he’s someplace.”

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But Mary puts her hand on her own abdomen: “I have a horrible little feeling, right here. I don’t feel as confident as she does, but there’s nothing to base it on.”

Unexplained Behavior

She looks for reassurance: “Is there? I mean, other than the fact that I don’t like how some of these things look.

“The fact that his car was where it was and that he cared so much about that car. Would you leave your precious train collection? Would you leave your mom, who already lost a son? Would you leave her--when you cared? You have a pension fund that has, I don’t know how much in it. Would you leave that behind? Would you not have done things just a little more to secure yourself? I mean, would you just walk off and leave whatever you possessed behind?

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“Did he want to disappear so badly that he threw it all away? Credit cards? Your driver’s license? Wallet? Would you leave that in your car? Would you have left everything? And just walked off and not even cared about s omething ?

“I don’t know. I really don’t know. I get a bad feeling.”

David Yates, the sergeant, now chief, is convinced that Mel Wiley did not drown. Jim Bigam agrees: “That whole business about the bathing suit doesn’t wash.”

Left Home With Care

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Bigam has a few hunches: The window in Mel’s apartment was left open, for instance, to give his cats a way to get in and out until somebody found the apartment key in the desk drawer. The key itself? “Obviously it was planted there,” the detective says. “Like he was saying to us, ‘Hey, here’s how you get in.’ ”

Bigam says he checked all of the angles: “We investigated it like a homicide, but homicide doesn’t add up. Suicide doesn’t add up. Gangland slaying doesn’t add up. Kidnap doesn’t add up.”

Had there been any hint of a crime that Mel might have been investigating, or might have been a part of, that could explain things?

“No,” Bigam says. “It all just doesn’t add up. None of it does.”

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Jim Bigam thinks that Mel might have left town to write--maybe gone to San Francisco, perhaps to act out one of his own mysteries.

Ron Rhodes, “the mayor,” agrees.

“Could be,” says David Yates. “I think what he really wanted to do was be a writer.”

Job Held Frustrations

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Mary Kirby is skeptical: “He wanted to retire from police work at 50, then maybe do his writing. Why did he leave three years early? . . . And do you really think he’d make it in San Francisco? Live there? Make it there?”

Mel’s mother is skeptical, too: “I’d say, he’s probably within 50 miles of this place. Why would he go anywhere? If he were going to San Francisco, he would take everything and make it permanent.”

She says people have told her that Mel was depressed, but David Yates says: “Probably no worse than anybody else.” Frustrated, maybe. That is something Yates, the heir to Mel’s job, can understand:

“This can be a crummy job . . . It’s a pain. The guys on the road have to worry about themselves, and the sergeant worries about the guys on the road, and the chief worries about the sergeant and the guys on the road . . . .”

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Yates himself has fancied quitting. “Haven’t you ever been tempted to change your job?”

But that, Mary Kirby says, would mean that Mel deliberately hurt people.

“If he knew that he was going to leave, that he would never see us again,” she says, “he would have maybe just stayed a few minutes longer that Friday and said, ‘Hey, you know, if I never see you guys,’ you know, ‘If I could never see you again, I’d miss you.’ Or something--he would. He would have said something like that.”

To solve most problems, Mary Kirby says, “you write down everything on a piece of paper. The pros on one side, the cons on the other. But when you do that with this, it doesn’t come out. There’s no answer.

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“We just don’t know.”

Times Researcher Nina Green contributed to this story.


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