Police perspectives

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Henry Gerecke remembers

Henry Gerecke was the police chief in Cape Girardeau when women began being murdered in the city during the late 1970s.

Gerecke retired in September 1981 agonizing over his inability to solve the crimes.

He had a 35-year career as a military policeman and the Criminal Investigation Department in the U.S. Army before becoming police chief here in 1974. Fifty-eight-year-old Mary Parsh and her 27-year-old daughter, Brenda, were murdered in August 1977, just three months before the body of Cape Girardeau college student Sheila Cole was found across the Mississippi River at a rest stop on Illinois Route 3.

Gerecke brought in investigators from St. Louis to help with the Parsh murders. The investigators were helpful, but the autopsies did not offer much evidence. The bodies were in the house over a hot August weekend before they were found, and they had started to decompose.

Brenda's boyfriend and brother-in-law both were automatically considered suspects at first, but were cleared. Police went through Brenda's correspondence searching for clues. Gerecke said they considered just as likely the possibility that Mary Parsh was the intended victim.

"I lost a lot of sleep over these crimes," he said. "I would get up at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning because I can't sleep. I was blaming myself.

The lack of progress in the Parsh investigation ultimately frustrated the veteran police officer. "You have the knowledge and training and they're not working for you," he said. "You wonder why not."

One reason is that law enforcement didn't yet have the technological ability to solve crimes with DNA evidence.

Though Cole was abducted in Missouri, the Alexander County Sheriff's Department and the Illinois State Police investigated her murder. Gerecke said the FBI also became involved because the crime crossed state borders. A truck driver who said he had seen Cole in another car agreed to be hypnotized in the hope he could remember the car's license number.

The Parsh murders and Cole's killing shared at least one characteristic, he said: the lack of a motive.

The Cole investigation didn't get far either. "I was absolutely stumped," Gerecke said.

Gerecke said solving the murders should bring the community some sense of peace. The Parsh murders have haunted him through the quarter century of his retirement. "A couple of weeks ago I got the file out and read it again," he said.

Ray Jonshon remembers

Margie Call was murdered in her home at the beginning of 1982, three days after Ray Johnson became the chief of police in Cape Girardeau. Mildred Wallace was killed in her home the following June. Both women lived alone.

Homicides typically have a high clearance rate because they are committed by someone the victim knew. "This had every indication of stranger-on-stranger homicide with little to go on," Johnson said.

In the cases of Call and Wallace, the killer appeared to have entered through bathroom windows and waited for the women to return home. ""That can send shock waves through the community," Johnson said.

Though the two murders had dissimilarities, Johnson said most of the police investigators thought they were committed by the same person. "We were hoping it was. The last thing we wanted was to think two persons in the community were capable of this."

The FBI sent a psychological profiler to town to evaluate the killer. The profiler concurred to a degree that the same person had committed the crimes.

Police thought the killer must have had information about victims living alone and that he knew some of their behavior patterns. Johnson said they saw enough similarities to think the 1977 murders of Mary and Brenda Parsh and Sheila Cole had been committed by the same person who killed Call and Wallace. "But it was almost wishful thinking on our part," he said.

It is not uncommon for a serial killer to stop killing for a while and then begin again, Johnson said. Sometimes the killer has been sent to jail on another charge or moves from the area. Sometimes this kind of criminal loses the urge to do what they've been doing when they reach a certain age, said Johnson.

He left in 1988 to take his current job as police chief in Chesterfield, Mo. "Nothing is more frustrating to a police officer or a department than to have something this tragic occur and to know it's upsetting to the community and not be able to solve it and put their fears to rest," Johnson said.

The confessions should help the community, he said. "Even though a tremendous amount of time has passed, this is going to serve as closure, that the person has finally been apprehended. This has always eaten away in the back of my mind. I feel a sense of closure myself."

-- Sam Blackwell

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