|Nancy Eagleson Part 3|
‘Not many stones left unturned’
By Paulding County Progress Staff
Part 3 of a series
Originally published Aug. 16, 2000
The description read: A man 28-32 years old, 5’8” or 5’9”, 160-170 pounds, dark complexion, dark hair, wearing dark rimmed glasses and driving a large car, possibly a 1959 or 1960 blue or gray Chevrolet. That’s all that Paulding County Sheriff John Keeler had to go on as he began the painstaking investigation of who kidnapped 14-year-old Nancy Eagleson and later raped and murdered her with a .22-caliber gunshot to the head, in November 1960.
Eagleson and her 5-year-old sister, Sheryl, were walking home after attending the movies at a downtown Paulding theater and stopping by a downtown restaurant for a refreshment. Approximately 7:30 p.m., only one block from their home, the two girls were approached by a man who eventually forced the 14-year-old into his car while Sheryl ran for help. The 5-year-old made her way to the nearby home of John and Betty Larson and reported what happened.
At the scene, which took place on old Ohio 111 (now Flatrock Drive), Nancy’s purse was found. That left authorities to believe that a struggle took place between Nancy and her assailant.
Some seven hours after the abduction, the body of Nancy Eagleson was found in a wooded area approximately one mile south of Junction, only 100 feet from County Road 176. Her body was discovered by two raccoon hunters.
Upon finding the body, the sheriff’s department was now facing the monumental task of finding the rapist/killer – with no eyewitnesses except for a frightened 5-year-old child.
Combing through the area newspaper reports at the time, and the tremendous volume of notes and papers in the sheriff’s investigative file, reveals what appears to be an exhaustive probe into Nancy’s still-unsolved death.
An autopsy was conducted on the morning of Nov. 14 at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Fort Wayne, by Dr. G.L. Doster, Paulding County coroner. He set the time of her death at around 9 p.m., about an hour and a half after her abduction. The death certificate indicates that she died suddenly, from a single gunshot wound.
The autopsy report noted that “about the right wrist there are several marks which appear to be bloodstained fingerprints.”
Authorities believed that Nancy was killed at the site in the woods.
Immediately, Sheriff Keeler launched a search for the murderer. According to department records, the sheriff’s office logged more than 100 entries regarding calls received, and contacts and interviews made by officers. By the first week of December, nearly 200 entries had been logged.
The sheriff’s department received more than 50 tips by way of telephone calls or personal contact in the 10 days after Nancy’s body was discovered.
Today, Sheriff David Harrow points out that “it was only a one-and-a-half-man department: the sheriff, and a deputy either full-time or part-time.” One report mentions two deputies – Frank Shipman and Tom Rosselet. The local sheriff’s department was being assisted by George Kerwin, Toledo, who had 31 years’ investigative experience, plus investigators from the Ohio Highway Patrol in Findlay, and officers in Defiance and Van Wert.
One report of the time stated: “Sheriff Keeler headed a complete investigation of friends and associates of the slain girl. A deputy was dispatched out to talk to family regarding school activities and teachers. Cpl. J.R. Wolfe and George Kerwin, along with Sheriff Keeler, returned to the scene to scan the area more complete. People last talking to Nancy were interviewed and the path of the victim was covered.
“In the afternoon, the clothing was picked up and at 5:35 p.m. was delivered to Kenny Ramsdell of the Toledo Crime Lab of the Toledo Police Department. Further investigation carried through the rest of the night. Several subjects were cleared by polygraph tests given by George Kerwin. Several calls were received and the suggestions and leads were run out.”
Reports and logs, plus several letters, indicate numerous attempts by the public to provide leads on vehicles, sex offenders, suspicious activity and overheard conversations.
Nancy’s female classmates were questioned about men and boys who they were afraid of.
Officers conducted traffic counts at various locations – at the old Pelok gas station (at Jackson Street and Flatrock Drive), just south of the old hospital, and at the intersection near the crime scene. At least once, the cars’ descriptions and license plate numbers were recorded.
Officers carefully figured out how long it would have taken the two girls to walk from Johnson’s Restaurant to the pickup point – roughly 8 1/2 minutes.
Owners of area pawn shops and gun shops were contacted, in hopes of finding the .22-caliber gun involved.
Lists – several pages long and typed single-spaced – were compiled of names with makes and models of cars. Some lists were for 1959 Chevrolets, others for 1960 Chevrolets, and some were for license plates ending in a specific letter.
Other lists were made of everyone who was in the old hospital between Oct. 13 and Nov. 14 of that year; one noted owners of .22-caliber guns.
Officers checked hotel registers, especially in the Defiance area, apparently thinking that the culprit continued traveling north on Ohio 111 to that city. The authorities attempted to trace men who were staying in hotels around the night of the murder.
Little Sheryl Eagleson was placed under hypnosis several times in an attempt to obtain more details about the man she saw force her sister into a big, dark-colored car.
Neighbors around the abduction site and near the murder site were questioned several times, hoping they could recall something, anything unusual.
Records also show that about 46 men were given polygraph tests in connection with the case, nearly all by Kerwin. All the men were cleared.
The murder attracted national attention, including that of Chicago police officers who suspected that Nancy’s death and that of a 9-year-old Chicago school girl might be connected.
The bodies of both girls were left in woodlands and both were shot to death. A captain and chief of Chicago detectives and Sheriff Keeler discussed both unsolved cases. After further investigation, authorities dismissed the idea that the two murders were linked.
Allen County authorities in Fort Wayne checked out the Eagleson case to see if there was any connection with it and an unsolved assault in the Fort Wayne area that occurred a few days after Nancy’s death.
Letters from the sheriff’s office were written to police departments in Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, Wyoming, and New York when Sheriff Keeler heard of a similar case in their states.
One police officer remarked, “Every man who drives a car and lives within a 50-100 mile radius is a suspect, and those who have known sex records are being investigated thoroughly.”
Still, after all the questioning, inquiries and investigation – and a reward fund over $6,000 – authorities were coming up empty.
The trail grows cold
One month after the slaying, Sheriff Keeler told the Toledo Blade: “We only know two things for sure. It was a man, and he drove an automobile. We also know 30 men who didn’t do it because all of them check-out on the lie detector. The sheriff “also knows that 300 other people in the Paulding area do not know any more than he does about the slaying. He and the officers assisting him have talked to that many persons in the last month,” according to the Blade.
Sheriff Keeler was still seeking the identity of a car that was reported stopped at the Flat Rock bridge in Paulding to let another car cross at the time the two girls were crossing the bridge. He also was looking for the identity of a car seen at the abandoned Pelok gas station around the time of the abduction.
Apparently, no information was found about these cars.
Also, the murder weapon was never recovered.
The Blade, in the same article, questioned why anyone would withhold vital information if they had seen anything on the night of the murder? Sheriff Keeler responded: “This is such a nasty case people don’t want to be connected with it. Also, they are afraid of revenge if the murderer ever learned of it. You would be surprised how we have had to dig for information from people who should have come and told us what they knew.”
A mystery unsolved
The Eagleson murder case might have had a different outcome, if authorities would have had today’s sophisticated investigative techniques available.
“Back then, there was little reliance on scientific and lab testing,” said Sheriff Harrow. “It was word-of-mouth and eyewitnesses. Even fingerprinting comparison was minimal. Without physical evidence, or firearms comparison, (solving the case) was very difficult.”
“This case really worried John (Keeler) and he worked his tail off trying to solve it,” said Keith Baird, current chief deputy.
“Based on the standards of the time, this was one of the most thoroughly investigated cases. It also was one of the most heinous,” added Harrow. “John didn’t leave many stones unturned. ... He never stopped working on it.”
The last lead that the sheriff’s office received on the case was in the mid-1980s – an anonymous call concerning a .22-caliber rifle.
Harrow believes the killer wasn’t someone from the area. He said perpetrators of sex crimes such as rape or pedophilia usually continue until they get caught; no other cases occurred in this immediate area. Too, the abduction occurred on a state highway. Harrow’s opinion is that it was a man later convicted for violent sex crimes elsewhere in Ohio and sentenced to the state penitentiary. The man had been spotted in this area around the time of the murder, said Harrow.
Several suspects even mentioned today are included in the polygraph reports as being cleared. Harrow admits the result “depends on the examiner and the questions, how they are composed and presented.” He called polygraph “a very valid investigative tool” and, knowing that George Kerwin was the operator, “I’m 100 percent convinced of the results.”
Nearly everyone who had first-hand knowledge about the investigation is now dead. The pages of records, which fill three accordion files and two or three ring binders, don’t answer all the questions. Was more than one person involved? Was it coincidence that as the raccoon hunters found the body and walked to the road to call for help, a patrol officer drove by? Did the killer mistake Nancy – who was wearing high heels and her mother’s dress – for her mother, Bettie? Did Nancy know her assailant? What happened to the physical evidence – Nancy’s shoe, purse and her clothing?
Even today, a surprising number of local people have definite opinions about who was responsible for the death of a young teenage girl 40 years ago. Some blame workmen who were in the area. Others think it was an individual just passing through. Some swear that it was one or more local men still living here. Without any new leads or evidence or a confession, Nancy’s family may never know the truth.
Next: In Part 4 of this series, who was Nancy Eagleson? We look at the girl whose life was ended too abruptly.
‘I knew something was terribly wrong.’
A family learns that their daughter is missing
By Paulding County Progress Staff
Neighbor and baby-sitter Betty Larson recalls the following about Nov. 13, 1960: “I remember that night so well. Little Sheryl came running into our home, crying, ‘Someone took my sister.’ I took her in my arms, and her little body was trembling, because she was so frightened.”
Betty and husband John got into the car, and in the road they spotted Nancy’s purse. It was black. They headed into town, where the sheriff was contacted. The purse was given to the sheriff’s department. They in turn contacted Don Eagleson, Nancy’s father.
Bettie Eagleson remembers: “I arrived for work at Temple’s Drive-In a little bit early on that Sunday evening. As I sat drinking a cup of coffee, I thought about my two daughters, and wondered if people just take good kids for granted. About that time someone hollered, ‘It’s 4 o’clock.’
“My work dragged that night, as it usually did when we are not too busy. At about 8 p.m. I said, ‘Let’s quit for the night.’ We no sooner got the coffee urn shut off, when a car came in, driving pretty fast. My co-worker and I both said, ‘Oh no, we don’t have any coffee.’ We both knew we could not turn down a customer if at all possible. I went to the door, and to my surprise it was my husband, and the deputy sheriff. I was sent for a loop. What could have happened?
“Then I yelled, ‘What’s the matter?’ The deputy then asked me, ‘What color dress did your daughter have on this afternoon when she left for the show?’ I went into a panic and said, ‘Where’s Nancy and Sheryl?’ My husband Don just said, ‘Please just answer the questions.’ I knew something was terribly wrong. The two men didn’t know much more than I did. Nancy was missing. Maybe someone had taken her for a drive, and she would be coming back soon. No, I knew better; she never would have left her sister, and no teenager ever leaves her purse in the road.”
Approximately six hours later they found the body of Nancy Eagleson, a mother’s worst nightmare.
Betty Larson added, “For months later, I was always asking myself every time someone came to my door, ‘Was it you?’ I will never forget that day. As Roosevelt said, ‘This day will live in infamy.’”
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