For 18 years the plot twisted and turned as though it had been lifted off the pages of a Dick Francis mystery novel. A wealthy elderly woman was missing, leaving behind a suspicious houseman, a handsome gigolo, a retiring brother, lame racehorses and a web of insurance fraud that stretched across the country. But this whodunit had no ending. As the years went by, one fact became clear: Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.
Who killed Helen Vorhees Brach, heir to the candy company fortune, and why?
One answer finally came last week in a federal courtroom in Chicago. It was Richard Bailey, the handsome gigolo.
Earlier this month, at Bailey's unusual sentencing hearing on federal charges of racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder, U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur ignored Bailey's claim of innocence and said he was at least part of the plot to eliminate Brach.
Bailey, 65, had pleaded guilty to a lifetime of fraud, admitting that he had spent 20 years proclaiming false love to bilk women of their money, but he told the judge that he didn't know what had happened to Brach. Shadur didn't believe him.
"It is more probable than not that Bailey did commit the offenses of conspiring to murder and soliciting the murder of Helen Brach," said Shadur before postponing the sentencing.
Justice, so slow to come, finally was imposed Thursday when Shadur sentenced Bailey to 30 years in prison, calling the ruling, "in effect, a life sentence." Even with credit for good behavior, Bailey will serve at least 25 years.
Helen Vorhees Brach slipped from existence on a cold winter day in Minnesota. Accounts of her disappearance list the events of Feb. 17, 1977, the last day prosecutors think she was seen: a routine checkup at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, a brief stop at a gift shop for purchases on her credit card and then--nothing.
Days passed before her houseman reported her missing to police in Glenview, Ill., the affluent Chicago suburb where she lived on the estate she had shared with her late husband, Frank.
The police informed the houseman, John A. (Jack) Matlick, that a member of her immediate family needed to make the report in person. Matlick contacted Brach's only sibling, a brother named Charles Vorhees, in Hopedale, Ohio. Vorhees agreed to make the trip to Chicago but not until the end of the week.
When he arrived at the Brach estate, he and Matlick destroyed his sister's personal papers before heading to the police station to file a formal missing-persons report. The delay in alerting police to her disappearance and the burning of her diary were only the first instances of unusual behavior in the case.
Police began looking for Brach, the trail as fresh as it would ever be, but there was barely a trace of the former hatcheck girl.
Law enforcement officials suspected that Bailey, an admitted confidence man and gigolo who was known for his ability to sell horses to women at inflated prices, knew exactly where Brach was, or at least what had happened to her. But for almost two decades they could prove nothing.
At a 1979 deposition taken by lawyers for Brach's estate, Bailey took the Fifth Amendment on every question he was asked, including his address. By remaining silent, said the lawyer who questioned him, Bailey gave authorities no foothold from which to pick away at his alibi and actions.
The disappearance of Brach became a local legend. But the conjecture and rumor stilled as the years ticked by, the case fading for all but those closest to it. Almost no one remembered the message scrawled in red paint on the road running by one of Bailey's stables in 1978: "Richard Bailey knows where Mrs. Brach's body is! Stop him! Please!"
John Cadwalader Menk had no idea of the hornet's nest he was stepping into when, in the fall of 1977, he was asked to be the guardian for Brach in matters concerning her considerable estate--estimated to be about $30 million at the time of her death.
Recently retired as president of the Chicago Bar Assn., Menk was recruited by the court to administer the estate. Menk's appointment settled the battle over her fortune, one part controlled by her longtime financial manager and the other a $7-million trust set up by her husband at Continental Bank.
But Menk was soon drawn into the intrigue that reached far beyond the money. "This was a case in which everyone had acted very peculiarly," said Menk, 81, sipping water on the back porch of his home in Winnetka, Ill.
Menk began poking around. One day, almost a year after Brach disappeared, Menk searched her house in hopes of finding a copy of her will. (Brach's personal lawyer would not turn over the will, saying it would violate the confidentiality of his client.)
What he found in plain sight was a suitcase with baggage tags for the Minneapolis-to-Chicago flight Brach was supposed to have taken the day she disappeared. In two previous searches of the house by police, the bag was not there.
Matlick, the houseman, told police when the missing-persons report was filed that he had picked up Brach from O'Hare International Airport after she returned from the Mayo Clinic and had dropped her back off at the airport a few days later for a trip she had planned to her home in Florida.
From the beginning, police believed Brach never boarded the plane in Minneapolis.
Helen Brach loved animals. Her dogs Candy and Sugar were buried in the plot next to her husband. The Helen Brach Foundation to benefit animals was established in accordance with her will after she was declared legally dead in 1984. It is now worth more than $50 million.
The terrible irony is that when the FBI reopened the Brach case in 1989, it exposed a lucrative and cruel industry--killing horses for the insurance money.
The indictments of Bailey and 22 others handed up last year by the U.S. attorney in Chicago paints an ugly picture of the equestrian underworld. As the indictment alleged and Bailey admitted in his plea to the racketeering charges, he and his cohorts sold horses to women at inflated prices and then used the horse trade as an opener for further fraud.
"He specialized in conning women who were alone in life or who were seriously ill," said U.S. Atty. James Burns last July at a news conference announcing the indictments.
A more sinister side job was being carried on by others connected to Bailey through multimillionaire horse breeder Silas Jayne, notorious in Chicago horse circles for dirty dealing and violence. The indictments charged 23 people with crimes related to the killing of horses for insurance money. Most terribly, the indictment described the means of death for the animals: electrocution, Ping-Pong balls up the nose, being burned alive.
How much of this Brach knew or suspected is unknown. But according to statements by people close to her, she had realized that the horses Bailey sold her were not worth what he promised, and she was angry.
At all points--the insurance fraud, the Brach disappearance--the story leads back to Silas Jayne, uncle of Bailey's business partner, Frank Jayne. Silas Jayne made his fortune buying and selling horses, and he was not afraid to play rough. At the time of Brach's disappearance, he was serving a prison sentence for hiring a hit man to kill his brother George, who was shot to death in his home while playing bridge with his wife and two children.
Jayne's feud with his brother had resulted in the deaths of at least two other people before George died. A horse trainer was blown up by a car bomb when she started George Jayne's car, and one of George's employees was gunned down when he appeared at Silas' front door. Silas claimed self-defense and was acquitted in the case.
There were other murders too. During the course of the Brach investigation, several infamous unsolved Chicago crimes were reopened. Last fall, a longtime employee of Silas Jayne's was charged with the sexual assault and murder of three young boys--a gruesome case that dated from 1955.
Jayne's death in 1987 at age 80 provided an opening to the Brach mystery. After his death, mouths began to loosen.
Richard Bailey cuts a debonair, if oily, figure. He met Helen Brach at a carwash, frequented by wealthy women, where she took her beloved lavender Rolls-Royce and pink Cadillac. Brach must have been a tempting target for a man who had honed his routine of romance and rip-off on far less affluent women.
At first, the 65-year-old Brach was impressed with the suave Bailey, who was almost 20 years her junior. She invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in horses, but she became disenchanted with Bailey after the horses lost more than $100,000 in the first year. Brach complained loudly to several friends about him, prosecutors said, and claimed she would go to the authorities. Bailey learned of her threats, which she never acted on, but continued to see her.
In fact, Bailey made the arrangements for her visit to the Mayo Clinic, as he had for another ladyfriend in the past. It was from this trip that Brach never returned. In the end, Bailey's false professions of love finally caught up with him.
In 1989, Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven Miller was in his office at the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago basking in the resolution of a murder case when the conversation turned to other long-unsolved crimes.
Over coffee and sandwiches, the case of Barbara Morris, one of the women from whom Bailey admitted cheating money in his guilty plea, was discussed. At first Miller was uninterested, because the case seemed like small potatoes--until someone mentioned that the man she was accusing had ties to Helen Brach. For six years federal prosecutors built a case against Bailey, stumbling along the way onto the horse schemes.
"We knew this would be largely circumstantial. No body has ever been found, no confession, no forensics," Miller said earlier this month. "Someone has been brought to justice for a crime he committed almost 20 years ago. I'm ecstatic."
His triumph came on a risky legal maneuver by Bailey's lawyers. By pleading to only eight of the 10 offenses listed in the indictment, Bailey attempted to sidestep a jury trial while not admitting to any of the charges relating to Brach's murder. For one of the few times in his life, Bailey's luck was not enough to pull him through a mess.
"He miscalculated," Miller said. And instead of needing to prove him "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, we needed to prove [only] that a preponderance of evidence indicated that he was involved. The judge made every factual finding in favor of the government's theory."
But Bailey was not giving up. Standing beside him in the courtroom was his latest wife, Dr. Annette Hoffman, a wealthy plastic surgeon who met and married him in April, 1994, after a whirlwind romance in Las Vegas.
Although she had the marriage annulled when a private detective found that he was being sued by several women for embezzlement, she changed her mind and married him again in December in a jailhouse ceremony.
"He makes you feel like you're the only woman in the world," said Hoffman, even after the judge said her husband was responsible for a murder.