by Nancy MacMillan, February 06, 2021
It was July 5, 1954. The Cleveland Press banner headline shouted, “DOCTOR’S WIFE MURDERED IN BAY VILLAGE.” Below a large picture of Marilyn Sheppard stared back at me.
“The wife of handsome, thirty year old neurosurgeon, Sam Sheppard, was found brutally murdered in the bedroom of their home in Bay Village, Ohio on the shore of Lake Erie. Sam Sheppard denied any involvement in the murder and described his own battle with the killer, which he described as bushy-haired.”
The investigation was laced with intrigue and corruption. Appalling, yet compelling. What was true? Who was lying? And why?
As a teenager, I remember seeing the headlines and reading all the gory details. Everyone was talking about it. Each had their own opinion. Still their extensive case lacked evidence. The trial was grueling. Personally, I never thought he did it.
“The trial of Sam Sheppard opened on October 18, 1954. On December 21st, after deliberating for 4 days, the jury found him guilty of 2nd degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.”
Now how did I enter into this real life murder mystery?
In early 1963, my first husband and I moved into a 12 unit, 2-story condo complex on Rocky River Drive overlooking the “Valley.” Our first baby was on the way and we needed more room. Upon signing the lease, I contracted to be the complex manager, collecting rents each month for a reduced rate.
It was a fun place to live. Mostly young couples with children. All the backyards joined as one, except where the driveway lead back to the garages next to our unit.
Our son, Scott, was born in March. The first grandchild on both sides was like winning the lottery. The miracle of a new born still amazes me. On November 22nd, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was ironing when I saw the news. Shocked into tears, I grabbed my baby from his playpen and ran to my neighbors, where we both sat crying in front of the TV.
In 1964 one of our units, two doors down, was for rent. The owner advised it had been leased to Ariane Tebbeenjohanns, a German divorcee from an aristocratic family. (Two years later, I learned she had corresponded with Sam Sheppard during his 10 years in prison).
Ariane hired designers to completely redo her rental unit with 3” light purple shag carpet, crystal door knobs and chandeliers, etc. Heavy purple tie-back drapes with white shirrs underneath. Light purple velvet couch and white side chairs. Lush and expensive. She was always friendly, her accent captivating as we chatted. Yet I was never invited to see the upstairs. I remember in the winter she would shovel the walk in her long mink coat.
Life went on … until the knock at my front door in August 1964. The man on the porch said he was a reporter and needed to use my phone. (No cellphones yet). I let him in and eavesdropped as he called his office, asking when Sam Sheppard was due to arrive. Then other reporters asked to use my phone as well. In the end, I had 10 reporters sitting in my living room comparing notes, drinking coffee, all waiting for Sam Sheppard to arrive.
“William Corrigan, Sheppard’s defense attorney spent 6 years making appeals. All were rejected. He died July 30, 1961. F. Lee Bailey took over as chief counsel with a writ of habeas corpus being granted on July 15, 1964. The State of Ohio was ordered to release Sheppard on bond.”
“Three days after his 1964 release, Sam Sheppard married Ariane Tebbeenjohann. The two had been engaged since January 1963.”
This rare murder mystery has endured more than half a century. The infamous trial pushed young attorney, F. Lee Bailey, to the forefront, bringing him the notoriety of celebrity status. (The Boston Strangler, then the O.J. Simpson case 40 yrs later).
Someone hollered in the door, “They’re pulling up now.” Like running with the bulls, they rushed the door. Outside a car was letting them off at the curb. The front yard was filled with reporters and photographers. Ariane, Sam and F. Lee Bailey sat on a white iron lawn bench, answering questions. I took a photo, but couldn’t hear what was being said. I knew it would be on the news.
Sam and Ariane were quiet neighbors. Grocery shopping took them out during the day. Sam was without a driver’s license, so he would drive the car from the garage (outside my kitchen window) to the front yard, where Ariane waited to slip behind the wheel. Upon returning home, Sam would drive the car back into the garage. On warm afternoons, I’d watch Sam washing his car in the driveway. He was a good-looking guy, his body was muscular and tan. He looked content doing something normal again. Chip, Sam’s son would visit regularly. He and his dad would sit in the car talking outside of my dining room window.
In August 1964 we had our 2nd son, Michael. A healthy, beautiful gift from God. Time stands still for no one.
I don’t remember when Sam and Ariane moved out. My life was busy with babies and friends. My research showed they moved into their own home in Bay Village. (They divorced October 7, 1969.)
In April 1966, we purchased a two story home in Rocky River. I was pregnant again. Our beautiful baby girl, Tiffany, was born in August. That following Easter, my husband was transferred to California. I did not want to leave my new home, my friends or my family. I told him the only way I would go was if he found a house with a pool. Which he did! So away we flew on May 29th, my brother’s birthday. Tiffy was only 9 months old.
Life in California was new and exciting. One day my husband came home bursting at the seams. He had seen an ad, “Sam Sheppard was wrestling at the Olympic Auditorium (capacity 10,500) on Oct. 21, 1969.” Without a second thought, he decided to pay a visit. Sam was pleased to see him. While chatting like old friends, Sam gave him 4 front row tickets to the match. Why not? With no idea what to expect, I called Sandy, my best friend across the street. Originally from Cleveland, she followed the story like I had. Sandy and her husband were excited to join us.
My first and last wrestling match was an odd experience. We sat in the front row facing the “ropes.” It was hot and smoky, filled with loud, boisterous fans trying to outshout each other. Sam was a celebrity. The first match was little people. The hardest part was their sweat. Each time someone was slammed to the mat, it sprayed our way. Totally unpleasant.
My husband went back to the locker room during intermission to let Sam know we had arrived. He returned with an invitation to a “late supper” at the home of his manager and partner, George Strickland.
It was a tag team match, Sam and his manager against two other wrestlers. Not a sport I appreciate, though I have a nephew who loved it. To me, it appeared painful and demeaning in the struggle to win. Was it part theatrics? Maybe so.
We were the only guests. It was a comfortable house in the hills. We met George’s wife, Betty, and daughter, Colleen, a pretty, 20 year old blond. I offered to help in the kitchen, while the rest talked quietly. Here was my first encounter with an avocado. Betty asked my help with the salad, handing me an avocado. Embarrassed, I had to ask, “How do I fix this? I never had avocados growing up in Ohio.” Our simple supper together was pleasant, somber conversation, nothing heavy. I asked Sam to sign his book, “Endure and Conquer (1966),” which he did with pride. It was here we learned of his engagement to Colleen. Surprise! They were flying to Mexico to be married. Shortly after, we congratulated the couple and said our farewells. It was an evening to remember.
“The remainder of Sam’s life was sad. No matter what he tried, it failed.” Colleen said in an interview, “He was haunted.” Sam died April 6, 1970 (age 46) in Columbus, Ohio of liver failure. For years, Chip, Sam’s son tried to solve his mother’s murder case and prove his dad’s innocence to no avail.
This Cold Case has inspired literature, film and television over five decades. The famous television series “The Fugitive” and the 1993 film of the same name were loosely based on Sheppard’s story.
Sheppard’s son, Sam Reese Sheppard, and the family’s estate filed suit against Ohio for wrongful imprisonment. During the final proceedings in Sept. 1997, Sam Sheppard’s body was exhumed. After testing, the body was cremated and the ashes inurned in the same mausoleum crypt as Marilyn.
Sam Reese Sheppard hopes ongoing investigations of the case by authors and others offer hope that someday his father’s name will be cleared. “My dad was innocent,” he said. “If the state of Ohio and Cuyahoga County don’t have the guts to stand up and admit they made a mistake, that doesn’t change the fact.”
(Ed. Note: Nancy MacMillan is a writer and former Rocky River and Westlake resident who resides in California. She recently submitted this memoir and some of her own photos).