The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer
ON THE MORNING of July 4, 1954, Mrs. Marilyn Reese Sheppard, a pretty Bay Village housewife, was found bludgeoned to death in her bedroom.
For mystery, for suspense, for painstaking putting together of fragmentary clews by the most scientific methods, the Sheppard murder, which was to become one of the country's most famous in modern times, had within it all of the elements of the classic criminal case.
It had one other element, which set it apart from most murder cases of this type. That was the deliberate effort to prevent the law enforcement authorities from finding the killer. The case became both a murder and, in a very real sense, a roadblock against the law.
At the time Marilyn Reese Sheppard was brutally
killed, only two other persons were present in the quiet lakefront home, settled among big trees a comfortable distance away from the roadway. One of these was Dr. Samuel H. Sheppard, her husband, a young, handsome, athletic osteopath, and, the other, the Sheppards' sleeping son Chip, aged six.
Bay Village is a tightly knit community to the west of Cleveland. It is composed largely of young people who either have their own businesses, are fairly well established in the professions, or have a competence. It is a community of beautiful homes, peaceful and quiet, but socially vivacious. Families visit back and forth in the easy, relaxed, and buoyant way common to newly created small communities with a youthful flavor. They are very loyal to one another when any form of trouble occurs.
The family of Dr. Sam Sheppard owned a large osteopathic hospital in the village. His father and brothers operated it, with Sam Sheppard, of course, also on the staff.
It was to the Sheppard family's hospital that Dr. Sam was taken by his family immediately after the murder of his wife was reported. The reason given for hospitalizing him was that an intruder -- a bushy-haired man, as Dr. Sam described him -- had injured his neck in the struggle the Doctor reported had taken place in the house. Thus, the Sheppard family surrounded Dr. Sam.
The investigating authorities were blocked off. The Mayor of Bay Village was J. Spencer Houk, who owned the local butcher shop and was a close friend of Dr.
Sam. They visited back and forth; they went on vacations together; they owned a boat together. Mayor Houk rejected the advice of Coroner Sam Gerber and the Cleveland Homicide Squad that Dr. Sam should be arrested.
Dr. Sam was fenced in by his family, his friends, and the public authorities in Bay Village. The protective wall had been put up quickly. It was almost impossible to penetrate it, and then only at the will of those who controlled the encirclement -- and on their terms. The purpose seemed obvious -- to hold the wall secure around Dr. Sam until public interest subsided, and the investigating authorities turned their attention elsewhere.
The newspapers began to lose interest -- except one. The Press kept the Sheppard murder case in top position on Page One. It kept steadily prying into the case, asking questions, trying to break through the wall around Dr. Sam.
On July 15, eleven days after Marilyn Reese Sheppard's badly beaten body had been found in the bedroom of their home, I addressed a list of eleven questions to Dr. Sam and his lawyers -- one of whom was a prominent criminal lawyer hired by the Sheppard family the very morning Marilyn's body had been found.
Dr. Sam's reply was published on July 17. The answers were noninformative and inconclusive. The situation was just as tight, just as completely roadblocked, just as walled in as before.
On July 20, with the investigation lagging, with the
Coroner still fended off by the family and Bay Village friends and officials, The Press published on Page One an editorial. It took the upper quarter of the page, and the eight-column heading said: "Somebody Is Getting Away With Murder."
It was a calculated risk -- a hazard of the kind which I believed a newspaper sometimes in the interest of law and order and the community's ultimate safety must take. I was convinced that a conspiracy existed to defeat the ends of justice, and that it would affect adversely the whole law-enforcement machinery of the County if it were permitted to succeed. It could establish a precedent that would destroy even-handed administration of justice.
Because I did not want anyone else on The Press staff to take the risk, I wrote the editorial myself. It may not have been a good editorial, but it was a hard-hitting editorial. It was intended to be. It read in part:
The evening this editorial was published in The Press on Page One, the Bay Village City Council met and voted to take the investigation away from their own police force and hand it over to the Cleveland Police Department's Homicide Squad.
The next day, also on Page One, The Press published an editorial headed: "Why No Inquest? Do It Now, Dr. Gerber."
A few hours after this editorial appeared on Page One of The Cleveland Press, Coroner Gerber ordered an inquest.
At the inquest, Dr. Sam insisted his married life had been a happy one. He denied an "affair" with a former Bay Village Hospital technician now living in California. The Press flew a reporter to Los Angeles with the police. The technician was brought back to Cleveland. She admitted her affair with Dr. Sam, and related talks she had with Dr. Sam about a possible marriage.
The wall still surrounded Dr. Sam. He had gone back to the family-operated hospital.
On July 30, The Cleveland Press published, again spread across the top of its first page, another editorial. This one was headed: "Quit Stalling -- Bring Him In." Once more I wrote it myself. It was my neck I was sticking out.
That night Dr. Sam was arrested on a murder charge and taken to Police Headquarters.
The rest of the Sam Sheppard case is familiar. He was indicted by the Grand Jury, tried in a courtroom crowded with newspaper, radio, and television representatives from all over America, convicted of second degree murder, and sentenced to the Ohio Penitentiary, where he is now a prisoner.
The Cleveland Press was both applauded and criticized. It was criticized on the ground that The Press inflamed public opinion by its persistent and vigorous pounding away at the case. It was criticized by some who expressed the belief that the Sheppard case had been "tried" in the newspapers before it reached the courtroom.
The question confronting The Press, as a newspaper properly concerned about the whole structure of law enforcement in the community, was --
Shall we permit a protective wall to shield a solution to this murder, by saying and doing nothing, or --
Shall we move in with all of our editorial artillery in an effort to bring the wall down, and make it possible for law enforcement authorities to act in their normal and accustomed way?
There were risks both ways. One represented a risk to the community. The other was a risk to The Press. We chose the risk to ourselves.
As Editor of The Press I would do the same thing over again under the same circumstances.
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