Mystery Readers Journal changed up its themes for 2016, but not before our True Crime columnist Cathy Pickens submitted her column. Rather than wait until we add Mid-Atlantic Mysteries to our line-up, I thought I'd post this great article.
Cathy Pickens’ mystery series started with the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic-award winning Southern Fried. She conducts popular workshops on developing the creative process and developed a program to teach jail inmates how to start their own businesses.
The Mid-Atlantic Does Murder
In the diverse and densely populated mid-Atlantic states, what’s a better illustration of their crime history than cases open to continuing speculation?
Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll
In 1979, when parents enrolled their children in Philadelphia Mainline’s Upper Merion High School, they didn’t expect the kind of education or the educators they got.
Bear-like Bill Bradfield, the English and Latin teacher, had a live-in teacher-girlfriend, plus other girlfriends (some married) for added entertainment.
The principal, Dr. Jay Smith, was an Army Reserve colonel with a rigid manner and subscriptions to swinger and porn magazines.
In a swirl of sexual experimentation and drama, free love became establishment at Upper Merion High School.
What created such a bubbling stew of sexual intrigue? A sign of the ‘70s? A confluence of personalities around a master manipulator?
It was all fun and games until someone ended up dead in a car trunk.
The body of English teacher Susan Reinert, wrapped in chains, was found in her car trunk in the parking lot of a Harrisburg grocery store. The story exploded over national news as the tangled facts slowly unwound: Reinert had divorced her husband, was having an affair with fellow teacher Bradfield, who was living with yet another teacher. Her young children—ages 10 and 11—were missing and, tragically, have never been found. Reinert had been beaten and later injected with a fatal dose of morphine.
Was Bill Bradfield a pied piper of perversion? Many who followed the case thought so.
Was principal Smith—the military man—a hired killer? Or a deranged man seeking vengeance on a quiet teacher for unnamed reasons? He had, after all, been convicted of robbing two Sears stores, disguised as an armored car guard.
Was Reinert killed for the $700,000 life insurance policy benefitting Bradfield? Did Smith, living out a macho fantasy, commit the murder or was his involvement just another Bradfield con job?
Two books (one written by Joseph Wambaugh), a TV movie, and a memoir written by principal Jay Smith rehashed the details, but the motives remain murky.
Did Wambaugh’s involvement skew the investigation and the trial results? An appellate court believed it might. Documents later found in the effects of a state trooper who investigated the case showed that Wambaugh had paid at least one officer more than a trooper’s annual salary for inside information on the investigation.
Smith’s attorney William Costopoulos got him off death row after six years, then got him out of prison. The court held the prosecution had withheld evidence possibly helpful to Smith and thereby created double jeopardy. Smith could never be retried.
Did Smith kill Reinert? He says no, in a self-published book detailing the holes he saw in the prosecution case. Smith died in 2009 at age 80.
Was Bradfield a gifted con artist who found the right pawns and victims all gathered in one place? Was he also a murderer? Or simply the orchestra leader? He was at Cape May with other teachers during that deadly holiday weekend. Did any of his companions conspire with him? Did he hire a murderous thug (with money he’d supposedly invested for Susan Reinert but which he’d kept)?
In 1998, Bradfield died in prison at age 64, fifteen years into his sentence. After weaving lots of wild stories about how Smith was going to kill Reinert and how he didn’t know she’d left him her insurance policy, Bradfield remained quiet about what really happened. Despite books and movies and loads of speculation, the facts remain a mystery—at surely one of the wildest high school English departments ever.
In 1904, decades before the classic hardboiled P.I. novel debuted, a murder mystery suited for a twisty crime novel unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia.
J. Samuel McCue, former mayor of Charlottesville and a successful lawyer, returned home from church one evening with his wife.
He’d started upstairs, then turned to get something he’d left downstairs. His wife Fannie continued past him up the stairs—where she met a masked man with a gun. In the dim light, he shot her, ran downstairs, and smashed out a large back window to escape.
Former mayor McCue had little faith in the police chief, so he sought help from Roanoke private investigator W. G. Baldwin. The PI surveyed the scene—the upstairs landing where she died, the shattered window, the torn spider web outside the window where the gunman had escaped.
As Baldwin examined the ground outside the window, he saw the glint of metal—a small ring with a broken screw attached, the lanyard ring from a gun.
While Baldwin searched, McCue was in his study packing his briefcase. Even in his grief, he couldn’t ignore clients who needed him. He also needed to stop by the bank, he told Baldwin, to get his will from the safe deposit box. His wife—and only heir—was now dead, so he needed to change his will. He was a lawyer, after all. Such details were his bread and butter.
PI Baldwin accompanied him on his walk to the bank, on his way to see the police chief.
The chief handed Baldwin the unusual bullets taken from Mrs. McCue’s body.
Back at McCue’s office, Baldwin asked him the delicate but obvious question: Do you have any enemies? You were first on the stairs. The bullets were meant for you.
McCue named two men with whom he’d had difficulties, including Reginald Evans, who’d accused McCue of seducing his wife while meeting with her about divorcing Evans.
As any devoted detective would, McCue followed the leads. Mrs. Evans was indeed a looker, but the Evanses had reconciled.
McCue then went to the telephone office to call a gun expert about the odd bullets and the lanyard ring. He chatted up Miss Virginia Bragg, the telephone operator, then continued to follow leads to their dead-ends.
Later, Miss Bragg called him at his hotel to report an unusual phone call former mayor McCue had placed. As she checked to make sure the call connected properly, she’d heard just enough: a woman telling McCue to “send the money now.”
Baldwin, suspecting blackmail, asked Miss Bragg to find out who and where McCue was calling.
He then visited his client and asked if he had any personal skeletons he needed to tell him about. McCue drew himself up in all his Victorian dignity: “Certainly not.”
Baldwin quickly cracked the case: thanks to the lead from Miss Bragg, Baldwin found that McCue had a beautiful woman stashed in a Washington hotel—none other than Hattie Evans.
Mr. Evans was an Englishman and owned an English Webley revolver. The bullets and the lanyard ring both came from a Webley revolver—an unusual weapon for anyone in that area to own. Evans said his revolver had disappeared from his desk.
Hattie Evans told Baldwin she’d given McCue her husband’s gun, afraid her husband might act on his jealous suspicions and do something foolish.
Baldwin searched his client’s house for the revolver. He found a dusty envelope in McCue’s desk: McCue’s Last Will and Testament. Going through jacket pockets in McCue’s closet, he found no gun but did get his fingers tangled up in fibers stuck on one jacket. He carefully folded the jacket and took it with him.
He asked the police chief what McCue was wearing the night of his wife’s murder. The chief described the jacket Baldwin had taken from the closet—the jacket with the sticky spider web on it. The killer had run through a spider web escaping through the garden window.
Why did McCue hire Baldwin to “solve” his wife’s murder? For the same narcissistic reason he walked with his PI to visit his safe deposit box. McCue didn’t go there to get his will—that was dusty and stuffed in a desk drawer at home. He didn’t get anything out. Instead, he put something in: he’d carried the Webley revolver with the broken lanyard ring down the street in his briefcase, his PI at his side.
The case accounts have some major discrepancies. The trial account by the publisher of Charlottesville’s The Daily Progress gives little mention of PI Baldwin but lots of speculation about discord in the McCue household and about his philandering. Mrs. McCue had been strangled and hit with a bat before being shot, so things were messier and not quite so well planned as the PI’s account suggests.
Was there a Webley revolver and a missing lanyard swivel? The weapon that shot Mrs. McCue was a long gun owned by McCue. Was there a spider web and an incriminating jacket? That seems a bit far-fetched, even for a detective novel.
The newspaperman’s account focused on the official version of the facts, as presented at trial. The PI’s point of view was the focus of crime authors Boswell and Thompson’s account. Any event has different perspectives.
Did hiring the PI help build the case? Or was the case being solved before he arrived from Roanoke? The professional competition between PIs and police doesn’t rage only on the pages of novels, it seems.
Regardless of how the case developed, the wealthy lawyer and former mayor was perhaps the most prominent person ever hanged for murder by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
We might think of the days of phone operators as decidedly low-tech, in the days when we can track cell tower pings. But even simple technology can solve a crime—even though it may never explain the mysteries of the human mind.
Costopoulos, William C. Principal Suspect: The True Story of Dr. Jay Smith and the Main Line Murders (1996).
Noe, Denise, “Two Sues and Bill,” www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/classics/mainline_murders/1.html.
Swartz-Nobel, Loretta. Engaged to Murder (1988).
Smith, Jay Charles. Joseph Wambaugh and the Jay Smith Case (2008).
Wambaugh, Joseph. Echoes in the Darkness (1987).
Boswell, Charles and Lewis Thompson. Advocates for Murder, “The Case of the Nosy Operator,” pp. 77-94 (1962).
Lindsay, James H. The McCue Murder: Complete Story of the Crime and the Famous Trial of the Ex-Mayor of Charlottesville (1938), accessed August 2016, http://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:5807065$11i.
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