James Badal's resonant voice, slow and precise, builds anticipation. His white hair, mutton-chop sideburns and thick moustache give him a villain's air, but he is actually a scholar of evil. He has written four books about murder.
Today, over black coffee at a cafe in Tremont, the English professor who relishes the macabre speaks the words every murder investigator longs for.
"I solved it," he says. His white moustache rises, and his severe face breaks into a grin.
For 18 years, Badal, 71, has researched the Torso Murders, the spree of decapitation killings that terrified Cleveland during the Great Depression. The torso murderer killed seven men and five or six women. He dismembered most of his victims, cutting them apart with a skill that suggested a knowledge of human anatomy. He was also known as the headhunter, because he always cut off the victims' heads, and as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run for his habit of leaving bodies in the deep creek valley that runs through Cleveland's East Side from about East 79th Street to the Cuyahoga River. The case tested Eliot Ness, the legendary Prohibition agent turned Cleveland safety director. His inability to catch the butcher drove him to draconian acts that belie his heroic reputation.
Eighty years later, the Torso Murders have become Cleveland's greatest true-crime legend, and the killer's identity is our greatest unsolved mystery.
Badal's 2001 book In the Wake of the Butcher proved the identity of the secret suspect Ness interrogated in 1938: a deranged doctor named Francis E. Sweeney. After writing Twilight of Innocence, about the 1951 disappearance of teenager Beverly Potts, Badal explored the Kingsbury Run case further in two sequels, Though Murder Has No Tongue and Hell's Wasteland.
Now Badal has published another revelation. His revised, expanded edition of Butcher includes new evidence that connects Sweeney to the story of Emil Fronek, a vagrant who claimed a Cleveland doctor tried to drug him in 1934 — right around the time the murders may have begun. Badal also believes he's identified the butcher's laboratory, the place where he disarticulated his victims.
Has Badal solved the murders? Solved is a relative term. He now knows what Ness knew about Sweeney in 1938 — which wasn't enough to take to court. But 80 years after Fronek's mysterious encounter, and after the possible first victim washed up on a Lake Erie beach, we revisit the case with Badal, run his theory by other authors who've written about the Torso Murders or about Cleveland crime, look at how the case tested Ness and re-examine the cast of characters: the investigators, the suspects and the victims.
CM: What's the evidence that all the Torso Murders were the work of the same man?
JB: Coroner Samuel Gerber insisted they were because of the precision of the dismemberment. Whoever did it knew where to cut. He knew the geography of the human body.
CM: What were the leading theories at the time about the killer?
JB: In summer 1936, the previous coroner, A.J. Pearse, called a "torso clinic." He invited all the lawmen on the case, including Eliot Ness, and anatomists from the Western Reserve Medical School and heads of psychiatric institutions. They decided the killer was perhaps a hunter or butcher or a medical intern. I sometimes wonder if the doctors couldn't bring themselves to admit that a doctor might be doing this.
CM: When did the idea of a doctor as the killer come up?
JB: There were all sorts of references in the news to a doctor being a suspect: a doctor who has fallen into disrepute, a doctor who was an alcoholic, a doctor who was a drug addict. Every doctor in the city about whom there was the slightest rumor of bizarre behavior came under a cloud of suspicion.
CM: Tell me about Eliot Ness' secret suspect.
JB: Eliot Ness told his quasi-biographer, Oscar Fraley, that he did have a suspect in the Torso Murders. He had picked him up, taken him somewhere, given him a lie detector test, which he failed. Since Ness had no evidence of any sort, he had to let him go.
When I started looking into this case in the mid-'90s, I had three questions. First, did that secret interrogation ever take place? Second, could that person be identified? Third, was that person truly the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run? In the first edition of Butcher, I was able to answer the first two questions.
CM: What had other people done before you to try to identify the secret suspect?
JB: Marilyn Bardsley, in the '70s, did identify the secret suspect as Francis Edward Sweeney. There was no proof of that, of course. In the 1970s, people who had worked on the case were still living. They all withheld the name from her, saying they'd promised Ness they'd never reveal it. She discovered the name on her own, and then one or two of the people involved confirmed it.
In the '70s, Eliot Ness' daughter-in-law donated his papers to the Western Reserve Historical Society. Among them were extraordinarily bizarre postcards sent to Ness in the 1950s. They were, for the most part, absolutely incoherent. There was a name on one card: "F.E. Sweeney, paranoidal nemesis."
CM: In your first edition, what key pieces of evidence proved Sweeney was Ness' secret suspect?
JB: The then-curator of the Cleveland Police Historical Society gave me a transcript of an interview with David Cowles, who had been the head of what we'd call CSI today, the scientific identification bureau. In 1983, Cowles was 86. He sat down with the curator of the museum and talked about his career. Of course the Kingsbury Run murders came up.
He said they did have a suspect in those murders. He wouldn't name any names. And then he verified that yes, they picked this guy up. They took him to a hotel room in the old Cleveland Hotel, now the Renaissance [Cleveland Hotel]. He was there anywhere from 10 days to two weeks — this was long before Miranda rules. Supposedly it took about three days to dry the guy out, he was so drunk.
Where did the lie detector come from? Ness pulled in a marker from his Chicago days. Leonard Keeler, the inventor of the modern-day polygraph, brought his machine to Cleveland in secret and administered the test. According to Cowles, Keeler turned to Ness and said, "That's your man. I might as well throw my machine out the window if I say anything different."
Cowles described the individual in such detail that there was no doubt it was Francis Sweeney. He said Ness had to be very careful, because a relative of his was a congressman. The man he was referring to was Martin L. Sweeney, the congressman from the 20th District. Francis Sweeney was his cousin.
Press play to listen to David Cowles' interview about Torso Murders suspect Francis E. Sweeney. Click here to download the interview.
CM: Tell the story of the vagrant, Emil Fronek.
JB: In November 1934, Fronek supposedly was walking up Broadway Avenue, looking for food. He said he found himself on the second floor of a doctor's office. The doctor said, "I'll give you a meal."
While Emil was shoveling the food down, he began to feel woozy and wondered if he'd been drugged. So he ran down the steps, onto Broadway and into Kingsbury Run, got into a boxcar, fell asleep and awoke three days later. He said he went back to Broadway and East 55th, but couldn't find the doctor.
He decided Cleveland was pretty dangerous, so he went to Chicago and got a job as a longshoreman. In August 1938, his story got back to Cleveland. Detective Peter Merylo was sent to Chicago to bring him back.
Two policemen drove Fronek up Broadway slowly. When he got to the area around East 50th and East 55th, he says, "It's here someplace." They walked up and down the street several times, but he couldn't find anything that looked like a doctor's office.
Ness interviewed him. Officially, they decide — this is what the papers report — that they didn't think it had anything to do with the butcher. They were convinced the butcher's laboratory was close to downtown.
CM: What new evidence have you presented in the second edition?
JB: That Sweeney's the guy? Let's start with a caveat. Unless we find a personal letter or personal diary, this is about as close as we're going to come.
A gentleman came to one of my torso talks with a photograph of six doctors, one of whom was his great-uncle, Edward Peterka. One of the others is Francis Sweeney. He said these doctors practiced together at the corner of Broadway and Pershing avenues.
He then sends me a photo of the building. It was not an office building. It was a house the Peterka family had lived in, and Dr. Peterka converted the bottom floor into a medical facility. The upstairs was kept as living quarters. It also showed a deli attached that extended much further out to Broadway than the house did. My assumption is, Fronek probably went around behind the deli, looking for discarded food. He never saw the front of the house. Somehow he blundered around to the back. And there was a set of stairs back there to the top floor.
Was the doctor Francis Sweeney? Yes, most likely. I'm assuming any one of those doctors could've had access to that upper floor, and his colleagues realized he was going through a rough patch. His wife had sued for divorce. If you want to hang out there, go ahead.
He could've very easily gone down to seedy bars closer to the center of town, struck up a relationship and said, "Hey, you want some good booze? Really good stuff? Maybe even drugs?" And then he would take them up these back steps, probably drug them the same way he tried to drug Emil Fronek.
That leaves the question, where did he commit murder and dismemberment?
In that same interview, Cowles said, across the street from the hospital — he meant St. Alexis — here was an undertaker who apparently had a contract with the city to take care of indigent and unclaimed bodies.
What Cowles said is very unclear, but he seems to be suggesting Sweeney enjoyed some kind of privilege at the funeral home, where he could go over and perhaps practice surgical technique on unclaimed bodies.
I found out that the Raus Funeral Home was next door to the Peterka-Sweeney offices. A concrete ramp in the back led down to the undertaking facilities. An undertaking facility would give you ample room to work. It would also explain where the blood went. The Rauses had a second facility on Mead Avenue, about spitting distance from the main funeral home, and it was set aside specifically for the unclaimed and indigent.
The doctor's office, St. Alexis, the funeral home and this other building are all around the area where the first bodies were found in September 1935, a short car ride away.
CM: What questions do you still wish you could answer?
JB: It makes sense that some early murders could've taken place in the manner I described. But certainly there had to come a time when Dr. Sweeney's colleagues realized, not that he's the torso killer, but that he's not playing with a full deck. So some of the later victims, I would like to know where and how.
CM: Peter Merylo was a lead detective in this case. What were his reactions to the ideas that a doctor did it and that Sweeney did it?
JB: He was very open to the notion that a doctor did it. Merylo was convinced that similar murders in New Castle, Pennsylvania, were the work of the same man, that the killer rode the rails between Cleveland, Youngstown and New Castle and mixed with the hobo population. In Hell's Wasteland, I argue that evidence seems to indicate they were not done by the same person.
In 1940, David Cowles says to Merylo, "Talk to F.E. Sweeney. He's staying with his sister. He's a good suspect." Merylo didn't know about the interrogation in '38 — it was a well-guarded secret. He tended to dismiss him. It struck him that he was out of shape, a big guy, but fat and soft, who would not have had the physical strength to ride the rails.
CM: Frank Dolezal was the only person arrested for any of the Torso Murders. Why do you think he didn't do it?
JB: The main problem is, where did he develop the surgical skill? In Though Murder Has No Tongue, I write about how none of his confessions held up. I showed the autopsy reports to forensic science experts. They stopped short of saying he was murdered in jail, but he certainly did not commit suicide the way the public was told he did.
CM: When did you reach the point where you thought, I finally solved it?
JB: I'm still not at that point, not 100 percent. I'm much more comfortable now saying I believe Sweeney was indeed the killer.
The famed Prohibition agent who raided Al Capone's breweries, Ness served as Cleveland safety director from 1935 to 1942. He sent crooked police to prison, busted labor racketeers and took on the Mayfield Road Mob, but he couldn't solve the Torso Murders.
The head of Cleveland's scientific identification bureau, Cowles took part in the dayslong 1938 interrogation of Francis E. Sweeney. A 1983 interview with Cowles by the Cleveland Police Historical Society proved key to identifying Sweeney as Ness' secret suspect.
The Cuyahoga County coroner from 1937 to 1986, Gerber linked the torso victims due to the skillful disarticulation of the bodies' joints. He argued that the killer was highly intelligent, with knowledge of anatomy — possibly a doctor.
The lead detective on the Torso Murders case, Merylo dressed as a hobo and went undercover in hopes of catching the killer. He believed the butcher rode the rails and killed several other victims in Pennsylvania. He doubted Sweeney was the torso killer, believing he wasn't the type to mix with train-hopping transients.
Dr. Francis E. Sweeney
A doctor diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1956, Sweeney was secretly interrogated about the Torso Murders in 1938. For years afterward, he sent cryptic, taunting postcards to Ness. He died in 1964.
Arrested by sheriff's deputies in July 1939, Dolezal confessed to killing Flo Polillo, but later recanted and claimed deputies had beaten him. He was found dead in jail in August 1939 in an apparent hanging. Coroner Gerber ruled the death a suicide, but Badal believes Dolezal may have been murdered.
Caught after leaving 19-year-old Margaret Francis Wilson's dismembered remains in Kingsbury Run in 1942, Johnson was convicted of murder. Witnesses claimed he knew victim Rose Wallace, but Johnson insisted he had not killed any torso victims. He was executed in 1944.
The three identified torso murder victims, Edward Andrassy, Flo Polillo and Rose Wallace, had at least one thing in common.
"They all hung around the seedier areas of downtown Cleveland," says James Badal. "There was a bar where all three of them drank at one time or another, a local hot spot for the down and out, if not destitute."
But their identities did not lead investigators to the killer. And with few clues to the other victims' identities, the vast majority remained anonymous.
"This led to the idea that the killer was probably trolling for victims in the shantytowns in Kingsbury Run and the Flats," Badal says. "These days, people are amazed that anyone could go missing so spectacularly. But this was the Depression. People hopped freight trains and were riding all over the country."
Victim No. 0
A woman in her 30s. On Sept. 5, 1934, her torso and legs were discovered on the lakeshore near Euclid Beach. Known as "No. 0" because police debated whether she was part of the Torso Murders cycle.
Edward Andrassy, 29
Found Sept. 23, 1935, in Kingsbury Run, with his head severed from his body. A former hospital orderly once charged with carrying a concealed weapon, Andrassy was identified through fingerprints.
Victim No. 2
A man, about 45. Found next to Andrassy in Kingsbury Run on Sept. 23, 1935. Also decapitated.
Flo Polillo, 42
Half of her torso, her upper legs and right arm and hand were found wrapped in newspaper inside two baskets on Jan. 26, 1936, in an alley near 2315 E. 20th St. Her left arm, upper torso and lower legs were found at 1419 Orange Ave. on Feb. 7. Identified through fingerprints, Polillo was a former waitress once arrested for prostitution.
The Tattooed Man, about 25
His head was found June 5, 1936, rolled up inside a pair of pants in Kingsbury Run. His body was found nearby the next day. Police hoped to identify him through his tattoos, including a butterfly and the comic strip character Jiggs, but could not. His death convinced investigators that the Torso Murders were linked.
Victim No. 5
A man in his late 30s. Found July 22, 1936, along Big Creek on Cleveland's West Side, with his head separated from his body.
Victim No. 6
A man in his late 20s. His torso and legs were found Aug. 10, 1936, in Kingsbury Run.
Victim No. 7
A woman, about 30. Part of her torso was found Feb. 23, 1937, at Lake Shore Boulevard and East 156th Street.
Rose Wallace, 40
Her dismembered skeleton was found June 6, 1937, under the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge. She was tentatively identified through dental records.
Victim No. 11
A woman in her mid-30s. Found dismembered Aug. 16, 1938, at East Ninth Street near the present-day Shoreway.
Victim No. 12
A man in his 30s. Bones found Aug. 16, 1938, near Victim No. 11, off East Ninth Street.
The torso murders case showed Eliot Ness' skills — and exposed his flaws.
The men look somber — some defeated, some defiant. As they stand before a judge, a news photographer captures their grim faces. Cleveland police have raided their shantytowns in the Flats and arrested them, and firemen have burned their shacks to the ground.
"Their homes destroyed on orders from Safety Director Eliot Ness, they were charged with being homeless," the caption reads. "They pleaded guilty."
The Torso Murders were the biggest case the famed investigator couldn't solve, but their significance in Ness' life story goes even deeper. For three years, as Ness worked on the case, the investigation tested him, laying bare his talents and his flaws.
James Badal says the torso case proves Ness' skill at operating discreetly. After his men secretly interrogated Francis E. Sweeney in 1938, Ness kept the doctor under frequent surveillance to protect the public. Investigators tailed him across downtown Cleveland. A week after the last victims were found, Sweeney checked into the Sandusky Soldiers and Sailors Home; Cleveland police had the home's staff tip them off whenever he left. For decades, everyone involved kept the suspect's identity confidential, even after Ness' 1957 death.
"He seems to have handled everything very adroitly," Badal says. "Imagine planning something this elaborate, this complicated, and keeping it all secret for this number of years."
But Ness, driven to catch the killer, cut corners and bent rules. He held Sweeney captive in a hotel for one to two weeks — a violation of civil liberties even in 1938. He hired off-the-books undercover investigators, including a marijuana dealer. The final murders in August 1938 drove Ness to more desperate acts. In a failed hunt for the butcher's laboratory, Ness sent his detectives out with fire inspectors for warrantless searches of every house in a 10-square-mile area north of Kingsbury Run.
Believing the butcher preyed on transients, Ness ordered the Flats shantytowns to be set ablaze and the men who lived there arrested. Ness meant to deprive the murderer of victims — and fingerprint the men in case the butcher killed them later. But in the Depression's ninth year, when one in five workers nationwide were unemployed, the callous destruction troubled Cleveland's conscience. The Cleveland Press blasted Ness for "misguided zeal" and compared the arrests to the city's worst civil-rights violation of the 1920s, the mass arrests of the city's Chinese population amid a gang war. Ness' reputation for heroic integrity gave him freedom to operate outside normal channels. But under intense pressure, even he decided that a righteous goal justified cruel means.
We asked four authors to react to James Badal's new material about Francis E. Sweeney, the torso murders suspect.
Marilyn Bardsley, the first researcher to claim Sweeney was Eliot Ness' secret suspect, is the author of articles about Ness and the murders on crimelibrary.com.
"There's no reason to doubt it. It melds with everything I had heard. I think it's a good example of how Sweeney probably got those people to come to wherever he was at that time — his office, home, wherever."
Doris O'Donnell, author of the 2006 memoir Front Page Girl, often reported on police and crime during her decades in Cleveland journalism. Her uncle, Cuyahoga County sheriff Martin L. O'Donnell, had Frank Dolezal arrested in 1939 for the murder of torso victim Flo Polillo.
"You can't tell me those undertakers didn't know there was a bloody little butcher shop going on! The way the town was covered by the police department, the chief gave those guys free range. They knew every bartender, they knew everything. [Badal's theory] may be new to him, but I don't think it [would've been] new to the neighborhood or councilman or anybody else who lived around there."
Steven Nickel is the author of the 1989 book Torso: The Story of Eliot Ness and the Search for a Psychopathic Killer.
"I thought it was pretty compelling. The connection with Fronek seems quite convincing. That certainly makes Sweeney a more viable suspect, a more mysterious figure.
"I've always held to the belief that the New Castle killings [Torso Murders in Pennsylvania] were the same guy. That would put Sweeney out of the picture. To think that there were two different killers using the same method of operation - dismemberment and decapitation — operating within 100 miles of each other, the odds are pretty astronomical against that."
John Stark Bellamy, author of several books about Cleveland crime and disaster, argued in his 1997 book The Maniac in the Bushes that the Torso Murders were the work of several killers.