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From Cleveland Magazine, July 1974
Colleen Strickland Sheppard, the 20-year-old third wife of Sam Sheppard, had diagnosed her husband's three-day bout with death as the flu.
"Sam didn't say much those last days," Colleen recalls with pain four years later. "He shook a lot, just shook constantly. He couldn't even hold a glass of water."
Colleen, the daughter of Sheppard's professional wrestling partner, sits in the living room of a Columbus area townhouse with her husband of two years, a 29-yearold interior decorator whom she considers her first and only spouse. The townhouse is less than three miles from the grey stucco home of her parents, where she and Sheppard lived during the six months of their marriage. Where Sheppard, lying delirious on the dining room floor, died.
"I really didn't think he was that sick," she recalls. "I thought he had the flu and tried to stay away from him because I didn't want to get it.
"I remember the night before he died, I brought up our little ocelot and I said, 'SarnT And Sam rolled over. I told the ocelot to say 'hi.' He acted real glad to see the cat. He really liked the cat. Then he sat up on the couch. The couch was rolled out to make a bed in the living room. And he sat up and said 'hi' to Orbie and he seemed real pleased and, in fact, I thought he looked like he was getting well.
"But as the night progressed he got worse and worse. He tried to get up during the middle of the night and he fell into the wall in the kitchen. He was delirious, he couldn't walk.
"You know how your life flashes in front of your face when you're dying. This must have been what was happening. Sam was completely escaped from reality. He didn't know you were there. He was in his own little world and he was carrying on a conversation with someone else. And that's probably a good way to die because I don't think he was in any pain. He was in a time 15 years ago. He said he didn't want to go back to prison. He would be talking to someone that was in prison with him. Just like he was in prison that very night.
"Mom and I tried to pull him back into the living room and we couldn't get him any farther than the dining room-he was just limp.
We laid him down on the floor and put a pillow under his head and threw a blanket on him. He was just limp.
"We were going to call a doctor and he refused, absolutely refused that we should call a doctor. He says, 'It's no good. Don't call a doctor.' He says, 'I don't want to be kept alive.' He must have known that that was going to be it. And not to waste the money.
"He always said, 'It's just a matter of time. Just a few months.' A month before he died he said, 'I've almost got it down to the day. I've got just about a month left.' When he kept saying he was dying, we didn't believe him. We figured he wanted to get attention or something because he loved attention. Not the press kind of attention.
"Finally we called the emergency squad. Sam was laying there on the floor, gushing blood. The guys came in. The guys came in and they were trying to revive him. Then one guy said, 'He's dead.' I was speechless. I was outraged. I wanted to call him a liar. And the guy asked who Sam was and I told him. He said, 'Oh God!' The guy felt really bad."
The time was 8:37 a.m., April 6, 1970. Six years after having been released from the nearby Ohio Penitentiary, Dr. Samuel Holmes Sheppard, 46, finally escaped the prison that was his past.
Gahanna, Ohio (pop. 12,400) seems an unlikely sanctuary for a man fleeing a controversial, spotlighted past. Hemmed in by Columbus on the west and by sterile subdivisions with names like Gahanna Green and Hunter's Ridge on the east, this quiet bedroom suburb retains a decided smalltown flavor. Safe, solidly middle-class, insular.
The townsfolk, open and helpful and not at all leery of talking to strangers, strike you as the kind who make it their business to keep abreast of their neighbors' business. They still talk about a petty mobster who, a few years back, moved into their community of small frame homes and scattered brick-and-concrete shopping plazas.
They don't appear to hold much truck with nonsense of any sort, either. "Ohio's Herb Capital," signs at Gahanna's boundaries proclaim, but, as one unimpressed citizen observed, that distinction is due mainly to "a bunch of influential ladies who go around growing weeds and giving lectures." In short, Gahanna does not appear to be the sort of communitu in which a notable figure could easily lose himself. But that's exactly what happened to Sam Sheppard.
In December 1968, Sheppard moved to Gahanna from Bay Village, where he had lived since the 1966 trial that acquitted him of the charge of murdering his first wife, Marilyn. Entangled in two malpractice suits involving patient deaths which occurred during his brief association with the Youngstown Osteopathic Hospital and embroiled in a divorce action with his second wife, Ariane, Sheppard was fleeing Cleveland and all it represented, says George Strickland, his father-in-law and professional wrestling partner.
"Sam was a haunted man," adds Benjamin Clark, a Gahanna lawyer who was co-counsel with F. Lee Bailey in the 1964 hearing that granted Sheppard his freedom from the penitentiary. "That's why he came here. He could have gone to Boston, but Bailey wouldn't have paid any attention to him. I did. I helped set up his practice. Besides, he had friends from prison who were living in the Columbus area."
Sheppard's arrival elicited little overt response from the community. "He was a conversation piece all right," says one Gahannan, "but we figured he had paid his dues. Live and let live." In an amazing display of journalistic restraint, The Tri-Community News ("The Only Newspaper Printed In Gahanna") published only a wel coming editorial and two brief stories about the ex-convict-"Report Doctor Sam Living in Gahanna" (Dec. 26, 1968) and "Dr. Sheppard Sets Up Shop in Gahanna. in Building With Mayor and Attorney" (Jan. 30, 1969). The News then fell silent. Today it is difficult to find anyone in Gahanna who knows the details of Sheppard's nine- or 10-month stay there.It is known that the osteopath and former neurosurgeon hung out a general practice shingle at 130
Mill Street in a garishly painted building housing offices, furnished apartments and a lounge. Gahannans today recall hearing stories of patients lined up outside, waiting to see Dr. Sam. In fact, however, Sheppard's practice never took root, even though he prided himself, according to George Strickland, on being "one of the few remaining physicians who made house calls--day or nightin even the bad parts of town where the taxicab drivers won't go.
Sheppard saw about 30 patients a week, collected fees from fewer, Colleen's mother, Betty, his volunteer secretary, testified at his divorce hearing in October 1969. "If someone didn't pay, Sam wouldn't go after them," Colleen says. Sheppard's patients were mainly curiosity seekers, mostly women. Lacking a reliable income (Betty Strickland claimed he never made more than $350 a month), Sheppard lived gratis with new-found friends, an elderly couple named Green and later with a woman named Sharon, before his third marriage.
Sheppard's two-room second-floor office was located across the street from the Mifflin Township Fire Department. The firemen, who like to sit at twilight in front of the station house, recall seeing him drive down Mill Street toward his office nearly every weekday in the late afternoon, cruising in "a big Caddie" past Mama Nebb's Beer Wine and Pizza, Slane's Gun Shop and the Gahanna Christian Fellowship Meeting Hall. Sheppard, who would always wave, usually was accompanied by two German shepherds (one of which he had dubbed Sam). They stayed chained to a fence outside until Sheppard left work around 9 p.m. Occasionally he would stop by the Executive Lounge downstairs, the firemen remember, but he never lingered. (None of them recall ever seeing him drunk or incoherent, in direct contrast to claims by Ariane Tebbenjohanns Sheppard and others that Sheppard, immediately upon his release from prison, turned to liquor and pills.) Once, one of the firemen, a patient receiving treatment for bursitis, invited Sheppard to join in the perpetual game of blackjack at the station. Sheppard declined. "Where I come from," he said, referring to the penitentiary where he had spent 10 years, "we only play for matches."
From time to time Sheppard would call on the fire department for emergency help. On one occasion, he requested an emergency squad be sent to the home of one of his patients. The patient, a town drunk, had got loaded with booze and medication and Sheppard was afraid he might die. "As it was, we didn't find anything," fireman Jack Selvey recalls. "The guy had stumbled off to a bar. We spent a lot of time wandering around the grounds looking for this guy passed out somewhere. Even when we got ready to leave, Sheppard told us, 'You go ahead. I just want to stay here and look around some more.' Our impression was Sam really enjoyed being out of prison, really enjoyed just being outdoors."
Sheppard's joy in his freedom certainly was not feigned, but his attempts to build a general practice on the ruins of a brilliant career as a neurosurgeon may have been. "Sam hated being a general practitioner," Colleen says. "He was unhappy. He just was capable of a lot more. I don't think he ever thought he would practice surgery again. I don't think he ever though he had a chance.
One early summer night in 1969, Sheppard walked into a Columbus beauty shop where petite, platinum-haired Colleen Strickland worked as a hairdresser. He had been taken there by Colleen's blonde friend, Sharon, with whom he was living. Colleen, who didn't need to be troduced to the tall, still youthful looking man in order to recognize him ("his reputation preceded him"), excitedly called her father: "Dad, guess who's in the shop ... Dr. Sheppard!" Strickland, then and now a professional wrestler and trainer, rushed over. In 1945, as a student at Ohio State University, he had met Sheppard at a college track meet. They had corresponded about their mutual interest wrestling then lost touch, and Strickland was eager to renew the acquaintanceship.
During the course of their conversation that night, Sheppard, who had wrestled in high school, college and in prison, expressed a desire to turn professional. Strickland offered to become his trainer, believing that "Sam had as much potential as any of the boys I've run across, even considering the age at which he started in the pros." A body-beautiful type begin with, Sheppard immediately stepped up to five days a week his intermittent exercise program: running, weight-lifting, calisthenics. He stopped eating sweets and steaks, which he loved (the thing Sheppard had wanted upon
release from prison was a thick steak and some orange juice) and lived instead on green salads, fish and poultry. He even took vitamins.
The rest of the world did not take professional wrestling as seriously as Sam Sheppard. On July 30, 1969, when he held a press conference in Columbus to announce his new career plans, The Cleveland Press ran a story beginning, "High on anybody's you've-got-to-be-kidding list is the no-joke announcement that Dr. Sam Sheppard will make his debut as a professional wrestler." It was a typical reaction to Sheppard's desire to become involved in an endeavor most people consider a sham.
Sheppard ignored the taunters. "If I can't practice surgery," he once told Strickland, "there's nothing I'd rather do than wrestle." And wrestle he did with a vengeance. His first match in early August was followed by some 200 others, crammed into eight months of lengthy American tours and one-night stands (including an appearance before 4,000 in the Cleveland Arena in October 1969). Sheppard only lost once and was considering offers to tour Japan and Europe when he died, says Strickland, who wrestled as Sheppard's partner in all tag-team matches. Perhaps Sheppard drove himself so mercilessly because of his more than passing commitment to the cause to which he donated all his wrestling earnings: cancer research. (Sheppard's father had died of cancer.) Or maybe he simply loved as Strickland puts it, "the freedom of the highway."
Less enthralled with the footloose life of a professional wrestler was Colleen Strickland, who remembers with distaste entering two new schools a year as her father followed pro wrestling money and action around the country. Nevertheless, after Sheppard quarrelled with Sharon in the fall of 1969 and moved, at her father's suggestion, into the Strickland home, Colleen began accompanying the wrestling partners on their tours. It soon became apparent, according to George Strickland, that "there was a strong bond of affection growing between Colleen and Sam. I was quite pleased and happy when they got married." (It's interesting to note that, superficially at least, Colleen resembles Ariane Sheppard, Sam's second wife. Both of them love cats and big earrings; both enjoy dancing and rock music while Sam enjoyed neither; both are blondes. Sheppard, Ariane claims, never stopped loving her nor she, him, for that matter and would call her to say so even after divorce proceedings were initiated.)
"Ours wasn't a normal courtship," Colleen says. "Maybe that's why I don't remember much about it. It was all just kind of ... blah. There wasn't much in common. He always had his nose in a medical journal.
"We didn't go out a whole heck of a lot. I couldn't take him to the places I was used to going because we were all 18, 19 and 20, and he would have stuck out like a sore thumb. He liked to listen to Nat King Cole and Johnny Cash and I couldn't hack it. And he couldn't hack Jimi Hendrix.
"But he was nice. He was real nice. He was always buying me little things. Anything little stuffed animals. And I thought it was so cute."
Colleen, sitting in the presence of her second husband, struggles to explain why she married Sheppard, a man twice her age whom she feels she never really came to know. ("Everything I know about Sam," she says, "I could tell you in 30 seconds.") Their marriage now seems like a dream to her. If she had it to do all over again, she insists, she would not have married him.
"I was just too young," Colleen says. "I really shouldn't have got married."
Her husband, a thin man with a drooping mustache, interrupts, "I think the thing was that she got married because he was famous . . .""You think so?" Colleen asks.
Well, I mean you were what?18 years old . ."I was 20 . .
"You had to be impressionable. He was a big name. . ."
"I don't think so. I felt sorry I felt real, real sorry for him. He couldn't go down the street at least not when I knew him without losing his way. He was like a little kid. He really was. You'd have to talk to him like he was a little kid. He was real forgiving. Like, you could cuss him out one minute and hurt his feelings real bad and the next minute you'd say, 'Ooooh, I'm sorry.' 'OK.'
"He was like a little puppy dog."
On October 21, 1969, while on tour in Los Angeles, Colleen and Sam eloped, flying to Chihuahua, Mexico, to be married by what Colleen believes was the Mexican equivalent of a justice of the peace. "I really don't know if we flew there on purpose to get married or if we were just going to take a trip there," Colleen says. "It just happened. Because there, you know, you don't need a blood test. There you can just walk across the street and do it. In and out in one day. The ceremony was real quick too and in Spanish. For all I know we might have got divorced that day."
On October 24, Sheppard held a press conference in an L.A. stadium to answer questions about his wrestling career. Colleen, hiding in the uppermost bleachers ("I just hate publicity and I get all paranoid when I see my name in the paper because I feel like everyone is staring at me"), was urged down to the stage by reporters.
"Tell 'em we're going to get married," Sheppard coaxed.
"I'm, uh . . . I'm still thinking about it," Colleen said.
Only upon their return in early November to the safety of the Strickland home did Colleen permit Sheppard to publicly announce their marriage.
The Strickland home, Sheppard once told his young wife, was the first real one he had had since July 4, 1954, the day Marilyn was murdered. "Sam wasn't one to party around a lot," George Strickland remembers. "He was content to do the home bit." It does appear the entire family worked diligently to construct a wall of tranquility around Sheppard, whom they pitied for his troubles. Betty Strickland, now divorced, undertook without pay the secretarial duties of Sheppard's general practice, which, after he had moved in with the family in the fall, he conducted out of her living room. George Strickland, who says he considered Sheppard a friend and protege, cooked up steaming pots of chili for him, and the Stricklands' son played basketball with him at a front-yard hoop. Colleen (who quit her job shortly before that Christmas because customers some of whom were friends had harassed her, some calling her a whore) intercepted crank mail and phone calls from reporters asking shot-in-the-dark questions about the stability of their marriage.
But the Stricklands could not shield Sheppard from all unpleasantness. Dr. Sam was continually pestered by ex-cons who would drop by the Strickland house or call in the middle of the night, begging for drugs. Sheppard refused to fuel their needs out of his medical supplies, but declined to turn them out of his home. "Sam liked to have a lot of people around him," Colleen explains. "He had friends from all walks of life. He was a soft-spoken man. I never saw him raise his voice. He liked to talk he could talk about almost anything."Except his past.
Colleen remembers that her husband said very little about Marilyn and would discuss his life in prison only if asked. Colleen never asked. Although he talked about his son, Chip, whom he saw occasionally and said he desperately missed, he never mentioned his two brothers nor visited them. Sheppard apparently broke his silence only to rage at the treatment he had received by the news media during the first trial. "Now Sam once said in an interview that he was not bitter about anything," Colleen says, "but he was. He was real bitter. Every so often he would, like, blow up and be pretty verbal. He attributed the outcome of the first trial to the press. And he was just outraged by the way they had handled the thing. But he was mainly bitter because he couldn't practice surgery. He wanted to be a surgeon and he couldn't do it."
The end to Sheppard's private anguish came unexpectedly. In March 1970, complaining of fatigue, Sheppard stopped wrestling and cut back his training program. "When Sam stopped running as much as he did," George Strickland says, "that should have told me something. I thought he was just going through a dormant period in which athletes normally taper off their activity." But on April 3, 1970, Sheppard fell fatally ill. The morning of April 6, he died. Strickland, in Nashville on tour, heard the news of his son-in-law's death on the radio. "I was lying in bed half-asleep," he recalls. "I half-heard the announcer say so-and-so died today and that he had spent 10 years in prison. I said to myself, 'That sure sounds like Sam."' Listening to the next newscast, he found out it was and rushed home to join his grief-stricken daughter and wife, fulfilling, he says, a prophecy made to him four months previously by a woman wrestler that he would make an unexpected trip home in April under tragic circumstances.
Sheppard left behind an estate of $5,000 (mainly in accounts receivable), over $11,000 in back taxes and a raging controversy over the cause of his death not to mention the circumstances of his first wife's death.
An autopsy performed by the Franklin County coroner reported Sheppard died of natural causes, more specifically: liver failure associated with early cirrhosis. The autopsy, however, found no traces of alcohol or barbituates in Sheppard's blood, brain or liver. Although the coroner adamantly refused to interpret his findings, newsmen nationwide proclaimed the dead man an alcoholic and pill addict, often citing a remark allegedly made to the coroner by Betty Strickland that Sheppard was a heavy drinker. Colleen, however, was quoted as saying that Sheppard was merely a social drinker; she now says she "would stake her life that the reporter misquoted Mother. Sam could take it or leave it." And today George Strickland says simply, "We like to think we contributed to making has last days happy ones." The family now says they believe Sheppard died of cancer contracted from his participation in a cancer cell injection experiment at the penitentiary. They say Sheppard himself believed he had the disease. The autopsy does not confirm that claim.
The Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Columbus, with its all-electrical chapel mausoleum, bills itself as "Central Ohio's Finest Luxury for Less." The 100-acre cemetery is divided into several fancy-titled "gardens." In the Garden of the Good Shepherd, Sam Sheppard was buried on April 8.
The funeral of the man who had inadvertently captured and held world attention for more than 15 years was private, attended only by his wife and in-laws, Ariane Sheppard, Dr. Richard Sheppard and his wife and children, and F. Lee Bailey. Sam (Chip) Sheppard, Jr. was not present, nor was Dr. Stephen Sheppard, who was in England at the time. Although Sheppard, Colleen says, was not a religious man, the eulogy was delivered by a Bay Village pastor, a long-time friend of the deceased.
"There were a lot of reporters around and everything," Colleen recalls. "We didn't let them inside after the eulogy started. A few Hell's Angels were there not Hell's Angels, but motorcycle club members. The Road Saints, I think. They were patients of Sam and these people just worshiped him. He never pressured them to pay.
"And they were out in the parking lot and the police were giving them bullshit. If I had known that, I would have gone out myself and said, 'They can stay and you policemen can go.'
"The motorcyclists came at the end of the line they followed the procession at the end of the line.
He had a very, very long procession. Lights after lights after lights were held up. You know, so all the people could go through."
"Sure I remember Dr. Sheppard's funeral," says Vivian Ryan, an executive of the cemetery, as we walk toward his gravesite, flanked by two plots purchased by George and Betty Strickland.
"It was a cold gray day. There were only about eight or nine cars and, of course, all those motorcycle people hippies. The burial service was very quiet, very dignified. Everybody was very composed, except for those motorcycle hippies who were riding their bikes all over the cemetery on the graves, trying to find a place to park. ...
"There it is," Mrs. Ryan says, pointing to a simple bronze marker on which sits a vase of dirt-stained white plastic flowers. The marker reads: "Dr. Samuel H. Sheppard, 1929-1970." Inscribed on one side are the letters V.Q.P. They stand for Vincit Qui Patitur: "He who endures, conquers."Sam's motto.