Last week’s case of missing Pennsylvania mom Lori Ann Auker ended with her ex-husband’s conviction for murder. This week, we travel (virtually) to southern Arizona. There we meet Charles Schmid. The press dubbed him “The Pied Piper of Tucson.” This cutesy moniker belies the fact that Schmid killed three teenaged girls and buried them in the Arizona desert.
Charles and Katharine Schmidt adopted the baby born on July 8, 1942 when he was only one day old. They gave him his adoptive father’s name, Charles Howard Schmid, Jr. The couple owned and ran a nursing home in Tucson, Arizona. As a boy, Charles often butted heads with his father (his adoptive parents eventually divorced).
Intelligent and courteous, young Charles was nevertheless no standout as a student. But he did excel as an athlete, He led his high school team to a state championship in Gymnastics in 1960. He quit the team in the middle of his senior year, though. Shortly after that, the school suspended him for stealing tools from the school’s shop. Charles never went back and never graduated.
Charles Schmid, Attractive Misfit
With no job and no prospects, Schmid moved into his own place on his mother’s property. She eve gave him an allowance of $300 a month (equivalent to almost $3,000 in 2022 dollars). With that steady income and no need to work, he spent his time cruising the main street of Tucson trying to pick up girls or throwing wild parties at his place.
Schmid was vain and narcissistic. He dyed his hair jet black and often wore makeup to make himself look more like his idol, Elvis Presley. He attempted to compensate for his short (5’3”) height by wearing oversized cowboy boots stuffed with newspapers, rags, and flattened beer cans. As he moved from his teens into his early twenties, people his own age saw him as a creep. But 14- to 18-year-old kids admired him. By now in his early twenties, he was still hanging out with a high school crowd.
Charles Schmid Commits His First Murder
On May 31, 1964, Schmid, his girlfriend, Mary French, and another friend, John Saunders were hanging out and drinking. Schmid suddenly announced, “I want to kill a girl tonight. I think I can get away with it.” He chose 15-year-old Alleen Rowe as his victim. Alleen lived with her divorced mother and knew Mary French. Mary convinced Alleen to go on a “double date” with her, Schmid, and Saunders. Instead, they drove to an isolated spot in the desert where Schmid raped the girl and then beat her to death with a rock. French stayed in the car listening to the radio while Schmid and Saunders buried the body.
Alleen’s mother, Norma Rowe, reported her daughter missing but police simply assumed she was a runaway and put little, if any effort into finding her.
Two More Murders
Charles Schmid had an inexplicable ability to attract women despite his lack of prospects and dissipated lifestyle. One of those was 17-year-old Gretchen Fritz, daughter of a prominent heart surgeon and Tucson community leader. Schmid had told her about killing Alleen Rowe and, when he wanted to break up with Gretchen, she threatened to turn him in. Schmid bided his time. A few days later, on August 16, 1965, he strangled Gretchen and her 13-year-old sister, Wendy and dumped their bodies in the desert.
Despite his prominence, Dr. James Fritz had no better luck with the police than Norma Rowe had. Gretchen Fritz had been a difficult child, and one of her teachers once described her as “a psychopathic liar.” Police told the Fritzes their daughters were runaways.
Never content to keep his mouth shut, Schmid couldn’t resist telling his loner friend, Richard “Richie” Bruns about the murders. He took Bruns to see the bodies and enlisted his help in performing a hasty burial.
The Undoing of Charles Schmid
Richie Bruns didn’t say anything to authorities at first. But he’d taken a liking to Darlene Kirk, one of Schmid’s former girlfriends. Convinced that Darlene was going to be Schmid’s next victim, Richie began to hang out at her house. Darlene’s family finally called police and had Bruns arrested. He was ordered to leave town for three months, which he did, going to live with his grandmother in Columbus, Ohio. One night, he broke down and told his grandmother the whole story of the Fritz sisters’ murders. She convinced him to contact authorities in Arizona.
With Bruns’ information in hand, authorities quickly arrested Charles Schmid. On February 15, 1966, he went on trial for the murders of the Fritz sisters. The defendant was well-dressed and looked reasonably clean cut. Richie Bruns was the state’s star witness. Schmid’s attorney, William Tinney, attempted to place blame for the killings on Bruns. It didn’t work. It took the jury just over two hours to come back with a guilty verdict and a penalty of death.
Schmid still had to face trial for Alleen Rowe’s murder. After a postponement and involvement of high-profile attorney F. Lee Bailey, the trial began on May 10, 1967. On the second day of trial, Bailey was a no-show (he claimed to be ill). Tinney convinced Schmid to accept a plea deal and plead guilty to second degree murder. After some more legal maneuvering, Judge Roylston sentenced Schmid to fifty years to life.
In 1971, Arizona temporarily abolished the death penalty, which got Schmid off death row. He still had that sentence of fifty years to life though, so he tried to escape. More than once. He finally succeeded on November 11, 1972 when he and triple murderer Raymond Hudgens escaped from the Arizona State Prison in Florence. For a time, the pair held four hostages at a ranch near Tempe, Arizona before they split up. They were recaptures shortly thereafter.
Ever the narcissist, Schmid strutted around the prison with an attitude of superiority. This caught up with him on March 10, 1975 when two inmates attacked him with homemade shanks. Severely wounded, Schmid did not respond to surgery and died on March 30. His mother chose to have him buried in the prison cemetery, fearing his headstone in a public cemetery would attract vandals.
Legal bills for Schmid’s trials left his mother, Katharine, and her second husband virtually destitute. They ended up living in near poverty in Coolidge, Arizona.
Despite at least half a dozen teenagers knowing about the murders of Alleen Rowe and the Fritz sisters, no one came forward until Richie Bruns’ grandmother convinced him to call Tucson authorities. Bruns remained conflicted about turning in his erstwhile friend. He titled his book about his experiences I, a Squealer.
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