by John Stark Bellamy II
Peak of notoriety: 1954-2000
There’s no Cleveland murder more overrated than the Sam Sheppard case. It wasn’t really a very complex killing, merely an example of what the FBI terms a “staged domestic homicide,” complete with the requisite toxic marriage and burglary-gone-awry fakery. Sheppard, a whiny, weasely, not-too-bright and rather sleazy philanderer, sabotaged his own defense with stupid lies, a selective memory and a manner that screamed “guilty!” to even some of his best friends. He should have pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, which might have earned him the 10 years in prison he eventually spent.
But Sheppard decided to fight, prompting Cleveland Press Editor Louis B. Seltzer, with myopic populist zeal, to make a martyr of him. With Seltzer orchestrating a Roman carnival of prejudicial publicity, Sam didn’t get a fair investigation, a fair inquest or a fair trial. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t guilty of a rather pedestrian murder.
True, Sheppard’s second jury in 1966 found him not guilty, but much of the evidence used in his 1954 conviction was kept from the jurors. Long before Sam Reese Sheppard, Sam’s son, took the state to trial in 2000 on a wrongful imprisonment claim, most Clevelanders had become sick of the Sheppard trials. Let’s hope the verdict in that last trial — an emphatic rejection of the Sheppard innocence myth and its final wrinkle, the Eberling ploy — has brought closure to an unremarkable domestic murder of elimination.
John Stark Bellamy II is the author of six books about Cleveland crime and disaster, including “They Died Crawling.”
The Line: Would seem a sure contender, but have we all had too much of Dr. Sam?
The popular ’60s TV show “The Fugitive” and its spinoff 1993 movie starring Harrison Ford are not based on Dr. Sam Sheppard. The similarities are striking — a prominent physician, maintaining his innocence in the grisly murder of his wife, is convicted despite fingering an unidentified intruder by a lone physical characteristic. But TV’s dastardly One-Armed Man has nothing to do with Sheppard’s Bushy-Haired Intruder. Or so “Fugitive” creator Roy Huggins maintained until his 2002 death. Huggins instead cited influences from do-gooding Western drifter “Shane” to the epic convict pursuit in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misarables.”
Murderer, murder suspect
by Erick Trickey
Peak of notoriety: 1959-2000
Richard Eberling, Sam and Marilyn Sheppard’s window-washer, first surfaced as a suspect in Marilyn’s murder in 1959, when he confessed to burglarizing his clients’ homes — and also told police he’d cut himself and bled in the Sheppard home days before the murder, then stolen Marilyn’s rings from her in-laws’ house after her death.
Despite his theft conviction, Eberling rose in Cleveland society, befriending Mayor Ralph Perk’s wife, Lucille, and redecorating City Hall. Then, in 1989, he was convicted of murdering his elderly confidant Ethel May Durkin and forging her will to steal her assets. Durkin’s sister Myrtle Fray, who had disliked Eberling and told her sister so, had also been murdered, mysteriously, in 1962.
A former friend claimed Eberling bragged that he’d killed Marilyn, but Eberling denied it to others.
When the Sheppards’ son sued the state for wrongfully imprisoning his father, he hired DNA experts who testified that some blood at the home wasn’t Sam’s or Marilyn’s, but quite possibly Eberling’s. Prosecutors at the 2000 trial disputed the Eberling theory and blood results, and the jury ruled for the state.
Eberling, who died in 1998, is still the top suspect for those who believe Sam’s story of fighting an intruder. He was, at least, creepy and depraved enough to have killed Marilyn Sheppard.
The Line: Dark horse with impressive staying power.
Bogeys the 16th hole
Peak of notoriety: 1968
Pierino “Pete” DiGravio, the stylishly successful loan shark known as the “Mayor of Little Italy,” made the mistake of bad-mouthing his Mob rivals to a Cleveland Press reporter, stating: “We need the Mafia like we need cancer.” A few days later, while setting up his golf shot at the 16th hole of the Orchard Hills Country Club in Chesterland, a rifleman hiding in the bushes shot DiGravio. His murder has never been solved, nor has the mysterious death of his son William five years later in a Florida boat blast.
The Line: The mystery gives this one legs, but it falls short of Cleveland Mob infamy.
Peak of notoriety: 1924
Martha Wise, the “Merry Widow” poisoner of Medina County, deliberately poisoned more than a dozen of her family members in 1924, killing three of them, admittedly all for the admirable motive of liking to attend funerals.
The Line: Truly morbid, but little more than a macabre footnote.
The Cleveland stop on Dickens’ book tour didn’t go well. On the boat from Sandusky, the famed English author was incensed by a column in The Plain Dealer arguing for war with England. At the dock, Clevelanders crowded to the boat’s portholes and watched Dickens wash up. Offended, Dickens refused to greet his fans and the mayor.
The Line: Not going far. No one hates the English anymore.
Trades Rocky Colavito
April 17, 1960
You know the story: Trade away a rifle-armed slugger with movie-star looks and a cool nickname for … essentially nothing. Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuenn was just one of a rash of bad trades that former Tribe general manager “Trader Frank” Lane enacted in more than 40 years in baseball. The Colavito one, however, started the fabled Curse that, 46 seasons later, has yet to be reversed.
The Line: As long as we’re still cursed, so is he.
The Cuyahoga River Fire
by Nicky Barna, as told to Peter Jedick
June 22, 1969
After an oil slick caught fire on the Cuyahoga River between the Lorain-Carnegie and Innerbelt bridges in 1969, the whole country laughed at Cleveland, then passed the Clean Water Act. Lt. Nicky Barna, 80, who retired from the Cleveland Fire Department in 1983, recalls fighting the fire.
I was working on Rescue Squad One the day of the Cuyahoga River fire. We ran out of Fire Station 28, which is on the east end of the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge — that’s where the Fire Museum is now. We went down the hill with Engine 28, which also ran out of our station.
I don’t remember it as that big of a fire, just an oil slick on the east side of the river. The only reason it was a problem was that it was under a railroad trestle. But we got there quick and put it out before it did much damage.
One thing that sticks out in my mind is that it was hot enough to pick up a big sheet of tin metal lying on the bank and toss it up in the air.
I always thought the whole thing was highly exaggerated by the newspapers. Cleveland was a laughingstock back then. The story went national and it just gave them more fodder to knock us. It was just an oil slick, but they made it sound like the whole river was on fire.
The river was filthy. Later on I worked on the fireboat, and companies along the river would call us to break up the big oil slicks filled with lumber and railroad ties.
I was the pilot, and we’d work three or four hours breaking up the slicks. We would hit them with our two big deck guns. But if the wind or current was against us, it was a waste of time.
They would just re-form a few hours later. The river was so dirty it wouldn’t even freeze in the winter.
Jedick, a free-lance writer and lieutenant with the Cleveland Fire Department, was working on the Norfolk and Western Railroad on June 23, 1969. His foreman told him they’d have to repair a trestle “because the river caught on fire and damaged it.” Jedick thought he was kidding.
The Line: Nothing says notorious like commemorative beach party. The Burning River Festival, held on Whiskey Island Aug. 12, shows the river fire remains a cornerstone of our peculiar self-image.
The famous photo often identified as the 1969 river fire is of a much larger 1952 river blaze.
The notorious June 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River was not as terrible as its legend. By the time newspaper photographers reached the scene, firefighters had already extinguished the blaze. When Time described the fire to a national audience that August, it ran an archival photo of a much worse fire on the Cuyahoga from 1952. Since then, that photo has been often misidentified as the 1969 blaze.
“Compared to the 1952 inferno, the 1969 fire was nothing special, a freak accident that merited little local concern, but sparked national attention because of increased environmental consciousness throughout the country,” wrote Jonathan Adler, an environmental law professor at Case, in his 2002 paper “Fables of the Cuyahoga.”
The fire made it seem that Cleveland had abandoned its river, but it actually happened just as the city was trying to improve the Cuyahoga, with little federal or state help. City leaders had formed a task force to fight oil pollution in the river in early 1969, and in Nov 1968, city voters had approved a $100 million bond issue for river and lake cleanup.
“Fast Eddie” Watkins
Peak of notoriety: 1970s-1980
With a pirate heart, a comic eye for hypocrisy, and more charm than Butch and Sundance wrapped together, Eddie Owens Watkins made his living robbing banks, mostly in Cleveland. A product of the Depression, he robbed three-dozen banks while still in his teens. A lifetime cycle of prison, escape, parole and more bank robbery ensued.
In 1975, Fast Eddie walked into a Society National Bank branch in Cleveland to prove wrong a newspaper article that claimed new bank security procedures were so good, not even he could beat them. The article was right. A quick-fingered teller signaled the alarm. Claiming to have a bomb, Fast Eddie held police off for 21 hours and regaled hostages with tales of prison horrors, actually garnering sympathy. While awaiting trial in a Cleveland jail, he befriended judges, cops and reporters. Sentenced to an Atlanta prison, he used his gift for garnering trust to stage a 1980 prison break and one last run at the banks.
Watkins was driving toward Cleveland when police spotted him on I-71. The ensuing chase ended on a Medina County highway, where Fast Eddie tried to take himself hostage — pointing a gun at his own head. Police shot at him 14 times, but only lightly wounded him. He lived the next 15 years in high-security prisons.
In the mid-’90s, with help from law enforcement and the media, Fast Eddie gained his final release from prison the same way he robbed the banks, with a wink and a smile. — Dave “Coondog” O’Karma
The Line: The charismatic criminal you can’t help but love, Fast Eddie could go far.
“Big Jim” Dickerson
Lying lottery commissioner
Peak of notoriety: 1970s
The 450-pound Dickerson started his political career with Mayor Ralph Perk, working his way up to chief of staff and then lottery commissioner. His ill-fated run for mayor revealed he had fabricated most of his past: heroic war feats, college degrees, personal wealth and amorous conquests. Then, “irregularities” in the Ohio Lottery ended with six guilty pleas to perjury. Big Jim moved to Florida, where he was eventually imprisoned for stealing money he was given to invest.
The Line: A politician as crooked as our river, Big Jim is still a small fish.
Short Vincent (aka Vincent Ave NE)
Street of Sin
Peak of notoriety: 1930s-1960s
Short Vincent packed celebrity and carnality into one block. Here were its highlights in 1954:
A posh 1,000-room hotel that served presidents, industrial giants and celebrities. Many slipped out the back door onto Vincent for thrills.
Frequented by the Mob, other criminals and lawyers. Included a restaurant owned by notorious mobster Angelo Lonardo.
A brewery turned into a sports bar by Morris “Mushy” Wexler, who also ran a sports-betting wire service for Ohio bookies.
A steak- and chop-house that served athletes and other celebrities.
The best-known burlesque house in Cleveland, where famed striptease artists Tempest Storm and Blaze Starr appeared.
The Line: A golden age of notoriety that has all the key ingredients in one short block.
Fred “Ahmed” Evans
Glenville shootout shooter
July 23-28, 1968
A bizarre fez-wearing astrologer and leader of a black nationalist group, Fred “Ahmed” Evans decided it’d be a great idea to use money from Mayor Carl Stokes’ Cleveland Now community fund to stockpile weapons. When police tried to tow a car near his group’s house on June 23, 1968, a bloody shootout erupted. Three officers, three suspects and a bystander were slain, and Glenville residents rioted, scarring Cleveland and wounding Stokes’ efforts to unite the city. Evans surrendered the second day of the riot and died in prison in 1978.
The Line: As notorious as anyone from the past 40 years, but we’d rather think about harmless bad reputations than the riot’s sting.
Morning radio personality
Peak of Notoriety: 1979
Car-dealer crude with the passion of a Southern Baptist preacher, Gary D. Gilbert was Cleveland radio’s top-rated disc jockey of the ’70s, ruling the airwaves with wit and rudeness. But a Dec. 17, 1979, fist to the face put Gary Dee’s then-wife, “The Morning Exchange” host Liz Richards, in the hospital and Gary in the papers.
The Line: A morning radio gladiator, but Dee’s high-profile domestic blowout hurts his legacy.
Whitesnake video hottie, Chuck Finley’s ex-wife
Peak of notoriety: April 1, 2002
Ill-tempered actresses are best left alone. Especially when the peak of her career is writhing on a car in Whitesnake music videos. Indians hurler Chuck Finley learned that the hard way when his wife, Tawny Kitaen, used a high-heeled shoe to attack him, destroying his image among Tribe fans with a single swing. (He went 4-11 in 2002 before being traded.) Kitaen was charged with spousal abuse and battery. Finley filed for divorce.
The Line: Hitters beat up Finley, too. No chance for the Hall of Fame.
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