25 years later, Margaret Smith's murder is still in many ways a mystery
Sunday, July 10, 2005
Four green rubber totes are stacked along a back wall in the basement of the Cape Girardeau police station, each labeled with the identification number 128755 and the words "SMITH, MARGARET HOMICIDE."
On either side are similar totes with the names of other victims written in black permanent marker. Mary Parsh. Mildred Wallace. Margie Call.
Between 1979 and 1982, four elderly women were killed in Cape Girardeau. Three of the cases remain unsolved. The fourth is Smith's, a case that ended in a conviction but 25 years later remains a mystery in many ways.
Questions about motive, about the murder weapon, about the time of death and the whereabouts of the suspect at the time of the killing remain unanswered even a quarter-century after the evidence was stuffed into storage.
July 1980. Jimmy Carter was on his way out of the White House. Paul McCartney was at the top of the charts, singing about the pains of growing up.
You want a better kind of future ... one that everyone can share ... You're not alone, we all could use it.
Andy Abbott took a job at the Capaha Park swimming pool, secretly making big plans with a friend to travel the country after they'd saved up enough money.
The 16-year-old spent most of his time at the pool that summer, filling in as a lifeguard and teaching swimming lessons. As then-Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Limbaugh would later say at trial, the image of his summer job at the pool painted him an all-American boy.
His past painted a different picture.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when life went bad for Brian Andrew Abbott.
Glenda Abbott once speculated to psychiatrists that her youngest son suffered brain damage through the use of forceps at birth.
In later years, those same psychiatrists labeled Abbott despondent and depressed, describing him as "someone who has been beset by failures and has failed over a long period of time to measure up to the expectations of others."
He was also diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities, including a below-normal intelligence.
Whatever the cause, his problems escalated in grade school. He failed first grade. He went home sick from school on a near-daily basis, complaining of abdominal pain and headaches.
His parents and siblings kept locks on everything in the home to prevent him from stealing. His relationship with his father, especially, was strained. In seventh grade, his behavior problems led to his being kicked out of school.
Cape Girardeau juvenile authorities first met Abbott in 1973.
Neighbors on Bertling Street complained that the 10-year-old vandalized their mailboxes and stole their mail. Later, neighbors reported instances of sexual perversion and voyeurism involving Abbott. Margaret Smith was one of them. In a 1978 entry in her diary, she describes seeing the youth, then 14, outside her bedroom window.
Several years have passed since the lids last came off these particular rubber totes.
The smell that escapes is a Southeast Missouri attic in mid-summer. Claustrophobic, musty.
A white T-shirt tops a pile of clothing in the first box. It looks small -- the size a child would wear. Not a size a murderer could fit into.
The front of the shirt is covered in light brown stains. Could be blood. Maybe just dirt. The detective going through the boxes doesn't know; he wasn't around when the clothing was packed away over two decades ago.
A small maroon book is tucked beneath more wrinkled clothing in another rubber tote.
"Daily Reminder 1980" is inscribed in gold lettering on the front; a small sticker declares the diary "State's Exhibit 1-5."
The cursive details of Margaret Smith's life are scrawled upon the aging pages. Her thoughts on the Cuban missile crisis. Her plans to attend the university's summer graduation ceremony. Beginning Jan. 1, notations about her day-to-day activities on every page. Until July 11, 1980.
That page and the 190 following it are blank -- a life story cut short on a hot July night.
The last time neighbors saw Margaret Smith alive, she was watering plants in her yard around 7 p.m. on July 10.
The next morning, Smith's maroon and white Cutlass Supreme was no longer under her carport. It was parked in Scott City with Andy Abbott asleep inside.
The story of how the car came to be in Abbott's possession follows a fairly smooth road at first but eventually forks into two versions, both cobbled with whispered speculation and circumstantial evidence.
By all accounts, Abbott spent most of July 10 working at the swimming pool. He left Capaha Park with a 15-year-old named Mark Ikerman around 9 p.m. that Thursday, calling his parents from a pay phone to say he planned to go to a friend's house for a while.
Jerry Abbott told his son to be home by 10:30 p.m., but the curfew came and went. It wasn't the first time. The father and son had argued many times over Andy Abbott's refusal to obey rules. Jerry Abbott had already warned his son that he would have to live on his own if he couldn't obey curfew.
The night of July 10 was the last straw. Jerry Abbott boxed up some of his son's clothing, left it on the back porch and locked the door.
Abbott and Ikerman began walking toward their neighboring homes around 11:30 p.m. that night. At the same time, Vera Ikerman, Mark's mother, drove around looking for her son. She picked both boys up on West End Boulevard and dropped Abbott off at the intersection of West End Boulevard and Bertling Street.
To the right of the intersection, 10 houses down, was Abbott's home at 1216 Bertling St. To the left, eight houses up a hill, was Smith's house.
Vera Ikerman did not see which way Abbott turned, but at some point he collected his belongings from his parents' house and started walking.
And that's where the story splits.
The two thick videotapes packed in the green evidence boxes look like they belong in a museum for antiquated recording equipment.
The detective going through the box doubts the police station has a VCR that would play them. Like most of the forensic technology used in the Smith case, they're obsolete.
Time has not, however, faded the photographs taken of the crime scene; they're still as sharp and glossy as the day they were taken.
As American photographer Diane Arbus once said, a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.
The prints taken by a Cape Girardeau Police Department evidence technician 25 years ago capture the crime scene but leave a thousand questions unanswered about the murder.
There are photos of the outside of the home, the pink gladiolas along the front walk and the small tear in the screen of the back door that police believe was used to gain entry into the house.
The interior photos are a testament to the person who lived there.
Identification tags from various geographers' conferences -- remnants of her days as a geography professor at Southeast Missouri State University -- are tacked up on a bulletin board. James Michener and Virginia Wolfe occupy book shelves in the bedroom. The toilet seat, rug, shower curtain and even the soap in the bathroom are the same coordinated shade of 1970s olive green.
A closer look reveals disturbing elements in each of the images. Blood splatters on the bathroom walls. A dark stain on the living room carpet. A footprint on the side of the bathtub.
Chief evidence technician David Warren was told to treat the situation as a worst-case scenario.
A neighbor finally reported Smith missing on the morning of July 16. Warren was among the first at her house, arriving around 9 a.m.
One of his first jobs was photographing the inside of the home.
The image of a 1980 calendar, tacked up in the living room with a smear of blood on the July page, caught by the snap of a shutter and the flash of a bulb.
The outline of a small foot, made visible for the photo by fingerprint powder, pressed against the side of a bathtub as its owner presumably fought to keep the bathroom door shut, captured on film for posterity.
The half-empty glass of water sitting on a folding tray in the living room, with dark stains on the brown carpet below.
When he stepped into the home on the morning of July 16, 1980, Warren immediately noticed two things: drag marks in the living room carpet and the temperature.
Despite the heat, the air conditioner in the home was not on. All of the lights were off. A half-eaten bowl of spoiled pork and beans sat out. The flowered sheets in Smith's bedroom were disarrayed. There were signs of sexual activity.
Warren found blood in every room of the house but one, though not substantial amounts. Seminal fluid was collected from a woman's white bootie sock.
Later that morning, police located Smith's Cutlass Supreme at Capaha Park.
Andy Abbott was taken into custody shortly after. Some 60 people reported being in the car with Andy or seeing him drive it in the six days following Smith's disappearance.
During that time, an 18-year-old named Randy Todd spent most of his time with Abbott and was seen driving the car by himself a few times. Todd was also hauled into the police station but later released.
Then-police chief Henry Gerecke announced to the media that afternoon that bloodstained newspapers were discovered in the trunk of the car.
Police believed they had their killer. But there was a problem. Abbott wasn't talking. They had no murder weapon and, most importantly, no Margaret Smith. The case reached a standstill.
The search for 73-year-old Margaret Smith's body covered miles in rural Cape Girardeau and surrounding counties and took up hundreds of man-hours at the police station.
A report of a body floating down the Mississippi River proved false. A pond in Shawnee Park was also dragged but to no avail.
The only trace of the retired professor that police found was blood splattered in her home and the trunk of her car.
The investigation went on, though by late August 1980 police had discontinued the search for her body.
Members of the community, especially those who lived near Smith on Bertling Street, grew restless for justice. Abbott's probation was revoked for driving without a license, but charges of murder and auto theft could not be filed without Smith's body.
As the Southeast Missourian reported in an Aug. 31, 1980 story: "At this point, there are no witnesses. There are no motives. And there is no body. Therefore, the case remains open."
By Feb. 23, 1981, Abbott had been locked up for 222 days.
First in the Cape Girardeau city jail. Then the Cape Girardeau County Juvenile Detention Center. Then the Boonville State Training School.
He spent his 17th birthday in Boonville.
Then, on that chilly day in February, a Larron Laboratory worker looking for aluminum cans on his lunch break took a walk down Highway 177 and stumbled upon a more precious metal.
Coming Monday: Part II, The Trial of Brian Andrew Abbott.
335-6611, extension 128