When one town feared one man

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

In July 1982, police Sgt. John Brown stood before the Cape Girardeau Business and Professional Women's Club talking to members about how to keep themselves from being murdered.

Mildred Wallace, a 65-year-old member of the club, had been found shot to death in her home less than a month earlier, the fifth woman in the city in five years to become the victim of an unsolved homicide. So far the police had few leads and were saying they didn't know whether the murders were committed by the same person.

The murders created a state of fear in some quarters of the city, particularly among women and women living alone. In most of the cases, the killer appeared to have broken into the women's homes and waited for them to return.

Saint Francis Medical Center and the Cape Girardeau Police Department set up a system for women to call the medical center before leaving their location. If the women did not call back at the expected time of arrival at their destination, a police officer would be dispatched.

Women's clubs wrote the Southeast Missourian urging women to create a "buddy system" to check on friends and to report suspicious incidents. The Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department issued 70 new gun permits within weeks of Wallace's murder.

Some women avoided making eye contact with men while walking through the mall and had their husbands come outside and escort them to the door when they arrived home. The fact that some of the victims lived near each other intensified the fear that women were being stalked by a killer.

Paul Stehr was the mayor of Cape Girardeau from 1978 until 1981, when Howard Tooke was re-elected to the position. "The feeling in the council and the town was, 'How did this happen in Cape Girardeau?'," Stehr said. "We're a small town where everybody knows everybody. All of a sudden we had these catastrophes."

The council ultimately had faith in city manager W.G Lawley and in then-police chief Henry Gerecke to solve the crimes, Stehr said. "They just couldn't be solved."

Lawley, now retired and living in Burlington, Iowa, said he and Gerecke talked about the Parsh case often and felt the public had confidence in the police department's investigation. Eventually Lawley, who left the city in 1981, concluded that the killings must have been done by a serial killer. But, he said, "Serial killings were not that well known in that day."

Rumors about possible suspects circled the city for many years. Police made 83 contacts before tracking down a rumor that turned out to be beauty shop gossip. Anniversaries of the killings prompted new speculation. "The fact that we weren't developing any leads or solving them kept a cloud over the department and the city for quite awhile," says Ray Johnson, who succeeded Gerecke as police chief in 1982.

The fear began in August 1979 with the murders of Mary Parsh and her daughter Brenda. Brenda lived in Milwaukee and was in town for a high school reunion. "People in the neighborhood were warned about it and began arming themselves," said Gerecke, now retired and still living in Cape Girardeau.

Their deaths were followed three months later by the abduction and murder of Southeast Missouri State University student Sheila Cole. Cole was abducted from the Wal-Mart parking lot but lived directly across the street from the police department.

"The community was very disturbed," Gerecke said. Part of the anxiety was due to the absence of a motive.

Gerecke said evidence collected by the crime lab suggested the Parshes and Cole possibly were killed with the same weapon.

The level of apprehension in the community slowly dissipated in the ensuing years until widow Margie Call was killed in her home in January 1982. Fears became rampant with the murder of Wallace in June.

On July 5, 1983, the naked body of 27-year-old Deborah Manning was found on a county road near Chaffee. The Cape Girardeau woman had been stabbed to death. That crime remains unsolved.

People who knew Wallace were particularly shaken by her murder. "She was probably the last person in the world you would think that would happen to," said Mary Spell, a BPW club member who was on the staff of the Southeast Missourian at the time.

She recalled "a flurry of wanting to learn how to use a gun, who was selling them and who was giving classes.

"... I think everybody was nervous because they had no idea who did that," Spell said.

Mary Greaser was in the Zonta Club with Wallace and, like Wallace, lived alone. "It was really a terrifying thing because we knew her so well," Greaser said.

When driving home Greaser began paying attention to cars that were behind her for any amount of time. "Usually it was just somebody going that way," she said, "but I drove around to make sure they weren't following me." If she went out with a few other club members after a meeting, they would call each other to make sure the others got home all right. "We were leery of going home at night," she said.

Greaser already had secure locks on her doors, but if she was in the back of the house, she kept the front door locked, and if in the front of the house she kept the back door locked. "I still do," she said.

Wallace was the president of BPW. "I never heard her say anything bad about somebody," club member Marge Suedekum said. "It made me mad that somebody would do something like that to someone who was so good."

Johnson became the chief of police in Cape Girardeau three days after Margie Call was killed. "It was a gloomy situation," he said. "The community obviously had been shocked by this type of a homicide."

Police held public meetings and issued information urging residents to develop habits that would help preserve their safety. People can distance themselves from most killings by differentiating their own lifestyle from the victim's, Johnson said. "This was someone waiting for them to return home. Everyone can place themselves in that situation."

Johnson, who left in 1988 to become the police chief in Chesterfield, Mo., said police never gave up on solving the murders.

"I am sure we will find the killer," Sgt. Brown had told the businesswomen in 1982.

sblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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