The Sheppard Murder case spawned the American “Trial of The Century” before OJ. A physician is suspected of murdering his wife in a quiet, affluent 1950s Midwestern bedroom community.
Did Sam Sheppard kill Marilyn Sheppard? That is the topic of this week’s edition of Unpleasant Dreams.
Cassandra Harold is your host. EM Hilker is our principal writer and researcher with additional writing by Cassandra Harold. Jim Harold is our Executive Producer.
Unpleasant Dreams is a production of Jim Harold Media.
A copy of EM Hilker’s original article can be found HERE
As Samuel Holmes Sheppard, D.O., would later tell the story, he had dozed off on a daybed in his living room, wrapped in his corduroy jacket against the night’s chill, on July 3, 1954. He had had a very difficult day at work, but it had ended well enough with a casual dinner and drinks with their good friends the Aherns. Afterwards, they had lounged and watched a film on TV. 7 year old Chip had been put to bed, and that’s when Sam fell asleep. Their other house guest, a Dr. Lester Hoversten, was staying with another friend on this particular night, and all was peaceful.
Sam woke up to an empty, dark first floor, and the sound of his wife, Marilyn, screaming for help. He ran upstairs to help her, and was accosted by a bushy-haired figure dressed in white. Sam was knocked unconscious. Some time later, Sam regained consciousness and, catching sight of the invader downstairs, pursued him to the beach behind their Cleveland, Ohio home where a struggle ensued; the assailant got the better of him and either hit him on the head again or choked him into back into unconsciousness (his story would differ on this point between the tellings). When he awoke again, he was on the beach, face down in the sand alongside the water, and alone. He blindly stumbled back home, and after an unsuccessful attempt to help his wife, called their good friends and neighbours the Houks for help. It was, by this point, 5:40 am. The Houks, upon arriving, would call the police and Sam’s older brother, Richard, for help at 6 o’clock. Richard was there by 6:15, and their third brother, Steve, arrived shortly thereafter.
Upstairs lay the bloodied and battered body of Marilyn Reese Sheppard, far past the point of help. She had suffered, among other wounds, 27 blows to the head with a blunt instrument. As if by miracle, Chip lay innocently sleeping in his own bed. He had slept through the entire thing.
It had been a difficult marriage for Marilyn. She was very young when she met Sam, and the two were immediately smitten with one another. They attended the same high school, Marilyn a year ahead of Sam. They were both smart, athletic, and attractive young people. Sam was class president for three of the four years he attended high school, and Marilyn was an honour student. They were, as they say, the perfect couple and seemed very much in love.
Things became difficult fairly quickly. During college Sam flip-flopped on his feelings for Marilyn, suggesting that they marry but giving another young woman his fraternity pin. Though Sam and Marilyn reconciled soon after, this was the beginning of a pattern that would last their entire relationship.
After college, Sam attended the Los Angeles Osteopathic School of Physicians and Surgeons where his older brothers had gone before him. He was once again away from home and missing Marilyn. This time they really did marry, in a small ceremony in Hollywood, California on February 21, 1945.
Sam’s adultery began almost immediately after their marriage. He had befriended several other well-to-do men, also adulterers, who encouraged him in his perfidy, and it became something of a lifestyle for Sam. In the midst of this, Sam’s father announced to the couple that it was time for them to begin having children. And, because this was the 1940s, and he was the patriarch of the family, they did. Marilyn and Sam conceived their son, Samuel “Chip” Reese Sheppard, within weeks.
The pregnancy was hard on Marilyn. Her own mother had died in childbirth when she was only 7 years old. Marilyn’s own childbirth, though difficult, was successful, and she delivered a healthy baby boy. Sam continued his very public affairs as Marilyn struggled with her fears of becoming pregnant again and the challenge of caring for an infant.
And Sam’s affairs were indeed very public; Marilyn was well aware. His longest-running lover, Susan Hayes, wrote him passionate letters that she sent to his office after the scandal surrounding their affair drove her to move to California. Both in Ohio and California, Sue attended parties and weddings on Sam’s arm. In time, Marilyn intercepted these letters. In addition to uncovering the affair itself, Marilyn became aware of Sam’s claim that he wanted to divorce her but his father wouldn’t allow it.
There were periods of separation because of this; arguments, and blame — much of it being thrust on Marilyn by Sam’s family. Marilyn seemed to genuinely love Sam, and she was very unhappy.
Sam’s affair with Sue wasn’t his only well-documented public affair. He met Julie Lossman when he bought an expensive car from her husband, Robert. Shortly thereafter she became his patient, and Sam and Julie were often seen together in public. Julie and Sam were conspicuous enough that on a visit between the two families, Julie’s husband slapped her when the adulterous pair disappeared and returned hours later looking decidedly rumpled.
By the time of Marilyn’s murder, she and Sam were sleeping in separate beds. Nevertheless, Marilyn had become pregnant again and they announced their second pregnancy publicly at a get-together hosted by Sam’s brother. Tensions were higher than usual that week in the home: Hoversten, their house guest and one of those well-heeled philandering friends of Sam’s, liked to bait Marilyn by bringing up Sam’s affairs in front of her. Sam had lost a patient that day. And further, though Sam would later report being elated at his wife’s pregnancy, Dr. Robert Bailey, a colleague, would recall congratulating Sam on the pregnancy and Sam’s wry reply of, “That’s what happens when you don’t use a condom.”
Sam Sheppard was the first and primary suspect when authorities arrived at the scene. From the beginning, the investigators felt things didn’t add up. Sam, who had fallen asleep wearing his brown corduroy jacket, had it folded neatly on the daybed, clean and dry. Certainly a bizarre fact given the tight timeline. According to his own account, Sam woke to Marilyn’s screams but hadn’t gone up to investigate them. The Sheppards’ dog Koko didn’t bark at the alleged intruder, suggesting that she knew whoever was in the house.
Officer Drenken, first on the scene, inspected the beach where Sam claimed to have had a struggle with the perpetrator shortly before, but there were no signs of a struggle. Nor were there any signs of forced entry into the house. Marilyn’s pajama top was pulled above her breasts, her bottoms pulled down around her ankles, but not torn; but there was no sign of bruising or the wounds you might expect from a rape. Detective Robert Schottke, on his inspection of the home immediately after the murder, noted how organized and staged it looked: there were a few items cast around the room, some drawers were open and looked as though they had been rifled through. Sam’s medical bag was dumped on the floor, and there were neatly stacked drawers in one of the rooms. Nothing of any real value was missing from the home. The only stolen items appeared to be the watch and class ring that Sheppard habitually wore and the key chain he kept in his pants pocket. Sam retained his billfold. Burglarized homes were never neatly organized like this. Sam, at this point, was shirtless and dressed in khaki pants.
As the investigation progressed, things became even more improbable. The time of death is calculated by the contents of the stomach, condition of the eyes and the skin, blood pooling (lividity), and rigor mortis. Using these criteria Dr. Gerber, county coroner, calculated Marilyn’s time of death to be 3 – 4 am, though Sam didn’t call for help until 5:40 am. The only items reported stolen were recovered on the property in one of Sheppard’s own bags. The watch was waterlogged and had stopped at 4:15, and Sam was very insistent, without having been asked, that it had stopped during a golf game in the rain. There was blood splatter on the watch, and investigators felt strongly that it must have been in the room while Marilyn was being bludgeoned. And then there were Sam’s clothes; he claimed he didn’t know what happened to his t-shirt, implying either that he somehow lost it or that it was taken by the killer. Detectives found it odd that a murderer would have caused so little damage to Sam after the ferocity of the attack on Marillyn, and would have taken time to undress an unconscious Sam Sheppard. The original crime, the passionate crime, was the attack on Marilyn and the excessive 27 blows to her head. The choice of Sam’s t-shirt as a trophy would have been an odd one under the circumstances. His pants, also, seemed off. They were too clean. The killer, fresh from the kill, should have been covered with blood. Some of that should have transferred onto Sam during their two battles. There should have been smears of blood on him from his attempts to help her. And yet, his pants were marked only with bloodstains on the knees.
The behavior of the Sheppard family also caught the attention of investigators. Upon arrival, Spencer Houk called both the police and Sam’s eldest brother, Richard. Richard’s wife, in turn, called the third brother, Steve. Steve arrived only 12 minutes later, neatly dressed and well-groomed, as if he were prepared and expecting this call. He escorted Sam to Bayview Hospital (which was owned by the Sheppard family) in his own vehicle, rather than the ambulance waiting at the scene. The paperwork shows that Steve attended personally to Sam, unsupervised, and recorded that Sam had a broken neck with related bruising, blood in his mouth, and a facial contusion. The X-rays taken that day, which had been left unattended, indicated that Sam suffered from a chip fracture to one of his vertebrae and calcification between two others. A separate set of X-rays, ordered by Dr. Gerber later that week, did not show either injury.
The overzealous media had been a problem from the beginning. In his adult life Samuel Reese Sheppard, who had long since grown out of the nickname “Chip”, would talk about how most of his memories surrounding his mother’s murder were being hounded by the media as a small child who had just effectively been orphaned. It would appear years later as if the media was directing the investigation. The Cleveland Press ran front page articles and editorials with headlines like “Do It Now, Dr. Gerber” (July 21st, 1954) shortly before Dr. Gerber called a public inquest into the tragedy, and “Quit Stalling and Bring Him In” (July 30, 1954) shortly before Sam’s arrest. Virtually everyone who had any claim about Sam Sheppard, real or imagined, had their stories broadcast across Ohio.
The trial, which would later be denounced as a media circus and a carnival, was no better. Judge Edward J. Blythin (Bly-TH-in) presided over an unsequestered jury, several of whom admitted to hearing the broadcasts and reading the newspapers and yet were not dismissed. Blythin reportedly told journalist Dorothy Kilgallen (KILL-GALLON) in the early days of the trial, in confidence, that Sam was clearly “guilty as hell.” With prosecution presenting Sam’s affairs as his motive, which Sam had initially denied, and the facts as the inspectors saw them, Sam was declared guilty of second degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison.
Sheppard’s time in jail began with additional tragedy for him. In addition to facing the prospect of spending the remainder of his life behind bars, he lost both of his parents that first January. Sam’s mother, despondent at the approaching death of her husband and conviction of her youngest son, took her own life. His father died of cancer only weeks later. Sam’s lawyer, William Corrigan, would spend the remainder of his life appealing Sam’s case. Despite this dark beginning, in time he found reasons to be optimistic, both in the relationship he developed with an affluent German woman named Ariane Tebbenjohans, to whom he proposed while in jail, and a new lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, who secured his release on the grounds that the media influenced the jury in the case, and thus Sam’s trial could not be considered fair. Sam, now considered neither innocent nor guilty, was released from jail in 1964. Within days of release, he married Ariane.
Sam’s second trial began late in 1966. The judge in the case, Francis Talty, did sequester the jury, but also disallowed any mention of Sam’s repeated infidelities. With no motive for the crime and a defense the jury found more compelling, Sam was declared not guilty and was released.
Sam only lived another 4 years after he was declared innocent. He had descended into alcoholism, and was reportedly drinking 1.5 L of hard liquor a day by the end. His medical career ended in tragedy as two of his patients died due to nicked or cut arteries during surgery. This is not thought to have been intentional on his part; his hands shook, and he often worked inebriated. Ariane and Sam divorced, and she claimed that he was menacing her and had threatened her life; her repeated fearful calls to the police during this period are a matter of record. Sam found love and married again 6 months before his death, and pursued a moderately successful wrestling career as “Killer” Sam Sheppard.
After his death, the world thought they’d heard the last legal questioning of Sam Sheppard’s guilt or innocence…and, oh were they wrong…
Next week, we will return to the Sam Sheppard case for the thrilling conclusion on Unpleasant Dreams
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