Son's Evidence Revives 1950s Sheppard Case


Front-end loaders have scooped up the remains of the Dutch Colonial on Lake Erie's shore where Marilyn Sheppard was bludgeoned to death. The owners demolished the place to build a grand new house.

The Sheppard family hospital, Bay View, has been converted to posh condominiums. And Samuel Holmes Sheppard--Dr. Sam, the golden boy whose arrest for his wife's murder riveted the nation--has been buried now for 26 years.

Yet the 1950s morality play that was the Sheppard drama will not go away. "The Fugitive" TV series and the 1993 movie of the same name helped keep the mystery alive. Conspiracy theorists still wander into the Bay Village Police Department to offer fresh insights.

Now comes the Sheppards' son, after a five-year quest for answers, with new evidence and an alternative suspect for a crime dating back to July 4, 1954. The Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office takes his information seriously.

Once more, the case is unfolding in a courtroom in downtown Cleveland, 15 miles to the east. Sam Reese Sheppard, a 48-year-old dental hygienist from Oakland, wants a judge to clear his father's name. Under Ohio law, if he obtains a formal declaration of innocence, he can seek damages from the state for the decade Dr. Sam spent in prison.

Blood samples were drawn March 1 from Richard Eberling, the Sheppards' window washer, who is in jail for the 1989 death of an elderly widow--although he denies a role in either killing. DNA tests are underway, comparing his blood to a splotch on a piece of wood from the Sheppards' cellar.

The Sheppard murder and its aftermath were "the O.J. Simpson case of its time," Dr. Sam's son notes. It provoked a national discussion. The topic was not racial division, but a changing moral code.

The investigation highlighted an America where marriage was the subject of experiment, a territory that would later be mined by fiction writers John Updike and John Cheever. Dr. Sam's suburban sexual adventures were real. The still-young technology of television was also put to use in the Sheppard case in a way that foreshadowed the cameras in today's courtrooms.

Sam Reese Sheppard's version of events, by contrast, bears a distinctly '90s stamp. It focuses on Eberling, an abandoned child farmed out to nine foster homes by the time he was 10--theorizing that he was obsessed with an intact, loving family in which the only son was showered with attention and another child was on the way. And in this latest incarnation of the case, the investigation comes wrapped in a book tour and a civil lawsuit that could lead to a multimillion-dollar award.

In the original installment, how people felt about Dr. Sam's way of life became bound up in their beliefs about what he did or didn't do on the night his 31-year-old wife was slain. Dr. Sam was 30, a prominent osteopathic surgeon in this town of 7,000 people. He socialized with the mayor and members of the Cleveland Browns. He owned a Jaguar, was a pioneer of water-skiing and conducted extramarital affairs--a spicy mix for staid 1954.

Just after the murder, Dr. Sam denied having lovers, but when one of them granted interviews, he backpedaled. Rumors about Marilyn swirled as well.

"Dr. Sam was crucified. Such hypocrisy," said Terry Gilbert, a Cleveland attorney who represents the son. "Everyone was doing it in Bay Village. It was like Peyton Place."

Dr. Sam told this tale: He'd been sleeping on a daybed on the first floor when he heard screams in the middle of the night. As he ran upstairs to check on his wife, who was four months' pregnant, he was struck from behind. He recounted a later struggle on the beach with an unfamiliar "bushy-haired man."

Sam Reese Sheppard, then 7, slept through the whole thing.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the osteopath's conviction on the basis that his trial was unfair because of the overwhelming negative press. Dr. Sam was freed in 1964 and retried in 1966, defended by F. Lee Bailey. He was acquitted.

Still, the country was split. Sheppard turned to alcohol for solace and essayed a brief pro wrestling career. He died in 1970, at age 46.

Last year, Northeastern University Press published "Mockery of Justice," by New York writer Cynthia L. Cooper and the younger Sheppard. The book singled out the window washer.

Eberling, 66, is bitter about the public finger-pointing. He wrote letters to the son to tell him what he'd heard about the murder. He granted interviews to Cooper. Neither ever asked him if he did it.

"All of a sudden," said Eberling's lawyer, David Doughten, "this book comes out and he's the prime suspect.'

Sam Reese Sheppard acknowledges the irony. He remembers how his life and his family's were crushed by the spotlight's glare. "I have felt it every day, the unresolved trauma, the grief," he said.

"I don't want to accuse anybody through the media," he said, adding: "I think we have a case against this man. If it comes to taking this to [criminal] court, he will lose."

He believes that the story behind his mother's death is not that of a swinger's marriage breaking down, but of a young boy, Eberling, deprived of the support and affection every child needs. "He wanted," the Sheppards' son concludes, "a family."

Carmen Marino is tempted to agree. Marino is chief assistant prosecutor for Cuyahoga County, and for years he bought into the office lore that Sam Sheppard was the only possible guilty party.

He even read the entire file in 1976 to prepare for an unrelated high-profile trial. "I was convinced at that time it was an open-and-shut case," Marino said. "I was convinced Sam Sheppard did it."

But last September, he read another file, this one compiled by Cooper and AMSEC, a Virginia detective agency. It changed his way of thinking.

Now he says Sam Sheppard is a natural suspect, but Eberling is a better one.

There are indications, he said, that the coroner's office, which led the probe, decided not to follow trails that might lead to anyone other than the victim's husband. Minds were already made up.

"It's a real murder mystery," Marino said. "It should have been investigated as one."

"My personal opinion," he said, "I don't believe Sam Sheppard killed his wife."

In 1954, such thoughts were seldom voiced. The bloody crime scene bespoke a brutal struggle; the 35 blows, the lowered pajama bottoms and raised top seemed symptoms of a fit of passion.

Sheppard's pants were soaked with lake water; his T-shirt had disappeared. He did not call police first, but phoned his friend and neighbor, Mayor Spen Houk.

To the now-defunct Cleveland Press, there was only one conclusion. The paper carried front-page editorials with such headlines as "Why Don't Police Quiz Top Suspect?" and "Why Isn't Sam Sheppard in Jail?"

The county coroner, Sam Gerber, held an inquest at a public school, making possible a rare live broadcast of witness testimony and cross-examination. Reporters from around the country converged on the trial and were given virtually the run of the courtroom. Walter Winchell, the New York gossip columnist, weighed in on his radio show with tidbits about Dr. Sam's philandering.

Dr. Sam, said his son, was afraid he'd be lynched in the county jail. Weeks after he was sentenced to life in prison, the defendant's mother shot and killed herself. His father died days later of a hemorrhaging gastric ulcer.

In 1963, Marilyn Sheppard's father committed suicide as well.

Meanwhile, Eberling had been picked up in 1959 for pilfering goods from another customer, Dr. Sam's brother: Dr. Richard. From a box marked "Marilyn Reese Sheppard personal property," he'd extracted a diamond ring, which he'd wrapped in tissue and hid away from his other loot.

Eberling told officers that he'd washed windows at Dr. Sam's house just before the July 4 weekend, had cut his finger on a kitchen window and bled in various parts of the house.

The police wondered why Eberling volunteered the tidbit: Was it true, or was he establishing an explanation for the presence of his blood? No one had tested the evidence. The county prosecutor and the coroner were reluctant to push further. A state polygraph exam arranged by Bay Village police was inconclusive.

None of this would become public for more than three decades, until Sam Reese Sheppard sued for police reports and documents in the case. In 1990, a former Eberling employee told Cooper that he--not Eberling--had worked at the Sheppards' before the holiday. And he had not been hurt.

Eberling's name and address were jotted in the handwritten notes of Leo Spellacy, the prosecutor at Dr. Sam's second trial. But apparently, he never testified.

The second jury returned a verdict of not guilty. "We were so surprised," said Spellacy, now an appellate judge. He folded his hands, chuckled, shook his head. "He did it," Spellacy said.

A grand jury later looked into the possibility that Houk or his wife, Esther, may have been the culprits. The Bay Village mayor obviously had been enamored of Marilyn Sheppard: Had there been an affair? Was his wife jealous? No indictments were handed down.

Sam Sheppard was free, but plenty of people would continue to judge him. He got a job in a small hospital, but was sued twice for malpractice and dropped by insurers, according to his son's book.

He took to drink. Lt. Jim Tompkins of the Bay Village police recalls the famous doctor standing outside a local bakery at 3 a.m., explaining that he liked to smell the bread. Sheppard's second wife called police several times, Tompkins said, "because of disturbance. I don't think he ever hurt her, but she did become concerned."

After Sheppard's death, a niece tried to look into the murder. Some family members still blamed one or both of the Houks. Some suspected Les Hoversten, a friend of Dr. Sam's from osteopathy school who'd been a house guest. He died in 1987.

Living in Massachusetts in 1988, Sam Reese Sheppard retrieved from storage the snowflake-pattern quilt on which his mother had died. A year later, he tried to rinse out the blood, but the stains would not come out. It was his turn to try to find out what happened.

He returned to Cleveland to speak against the death penalty. As it happened, he heard that Eberling had recently been convicted of the murder of Ethel May Durkin, for whom he had acted as caretaker.

Eberling said he'd been alone at the house with Durkin in 1984 when she fell down the steps. She later died of those injuries. But after a witness said Eberling had forged Durkin's will, in which she left him more than $700,000, her body was exhumed. Evidence was found that she'd been struck. Eberling and his longtime companion, Oscar Henderson, were arrested.

Durkin's sister previously had been beaten to death. That killing was never solved.

In 1990, Sam Reese Sheppard visited the former window washer in prison.

"It wasn't easy," the younger Sheppard said last week. "This man was very disturbed. I thought there was a very strong possibility that he was the one."

In Cooper's talks with Eberling, he changed details of his story time and again. He blamed the Houks, declaring that Spen indeed had been sexually intimate--but with Dr. Sam. Sheppards and Houks alike had trouble believing that of two reputed Lotharios, each married three times.

Marino was intrigued enough to visit Eberling in September. He stalked out in frustration. "This guy," he said, "is slick."

Doughten, the attorney, concedes that much. "Mr. Eberling does have a checkered past." But, Doughten said, Eberling is simply an easy target, a victim of circumstance. "If Richard had been an Eagle Scout the rest of his life, they never would have touched him."

The prosecutor's office file on the Sheppard case is missing. The county prosecutor at the time may have removed it when he left the job, but he now suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

When Dr. Sam's personal property was returned to him after his acquittal, evidence from the first trial was mixed in. For 40 years, the bloodied wood chip has been in the family's possession.

The coroner's office also has fabric samples from the scene.

And so, in the course of Sam Reese Sheppard's civil action, Common Pleas Judge Ronald Suster ordered Eberling to give up blood for testing.

Doughten advised his client to comply. "If you don't, people will always think you did it," he remembered saying.

Results are a week or two away. And then arguments in the Sheppard matter will continue, as they have for the last 42 years.

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