History Day; Crammed, Frantic Schedule; No Time for Blog

If you follow me regularly, you will have noticed that I have not published a crime-related blog post for the past two Sundays. The primary reason is that I was involved in judging Chicago Metro History Day and Northern Illinois History Day. So, what is History Day? I thought you’d never ask.

History Day Contests

History Day is a contest for middle and high school students that encourages them to learn the techniques of professional historians. Students from all over the country and other nations participate. Grades 6, 7, and 8 compete in the Junior Division, while high school students are in the Senior Division.

Students have several options for the type of project they create. They can write a historical paper, create a website, construct a display board, produce a documentary video, or act in a performance. Regardless of the type of project, each must demonstrate historical research and make a “so what?” argument.

The logo for National History Day. The NHD organization oversees all History Day contests.
The logo for National History Day. The NHD organization oversees all History Day contests.

National History Day, the parent organization overseeing the contests chooses a theme each year that students must incorporate into their projects. Participants first compete within their school and the best projects in each category advance to a regional contest. From the regional competitions, entries advance to the state affiliates. The best projects at the state contests advance to the national competition held each year on the University of Maryland campus in College Park, Maryland.

This is my eleventh year judging History Day contests. While the quality of the projects may vary, the enthusiasm of the student historians does not. So, pardon me for taking a couple of weeks off from crime blogging to contribute to this worthwhile endeavor. True crime will be back next week.

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Helle Crafts: Beautiful Victim of a Strange Murder

Last week, we saw how Charles Stuart shot and killed his wife and invented a carjacking to cover his tracks. This week’s case, also in the northeast, involves an unusual attempt to hide a murder. In 1986, her airline pilot husband killed flight attendant Helle Crafts. He then took some truly bizarre stops to hide his crime. It was also the first Connecticut case where the state obtained a murder conviction without a body.

Helle Crafts

Helle Crafts was born Helle Lorck Nielsen in Charlottenlund Denmark in 1947. She married Richard Crafts, a pilot for Eastern Airlines in 1979. They lived in Newtown, Connecticut. Richard continued to fly for Eastern and Helle was a flight attendant for Pan Am.

Danish flight attendant Helle Crafts
Danish flight attendant Helle Crafts

By 1986, the couple had three children and a troubled marriage. Learning that Richard had had several affairs, Helle consulted a divorce attorney. She also hired private investigator Keith Mayo to get evidence of Richard’s infidelity.

Helle and Richard Crafts in happier times
Helle and Richard Crafts in happier times

Helle Crafts Disappears

On November 16, 1986, Helle worked a long flight from Frankfurt, West Germany (East and West Germany did not reunify until 1990). Friends dropped her off at the home she shared with Richard in Connecticut. They never saw her again.

Helle Crafts
Helle Crafts

Richard Crafts gave different versions of where his wife was. He told her friends she was in Denmark visiting her mother. At other times he said she was traveling in the Canary Islands with a friend. Then there were the times he said he simply didn’t know where she was. Helle’s friends weren’t buying it. They knew Richard had a volatile temper. And Helle told some of them, “If something happens to me, don’t think it was an accident.”

Richard and Helle Crafts with their three children (Forensic Files)

Where is Helle Crafts?

Private investigator Keith Mayo became convinced that Richard Crafts had something to do with Helle’s disappearance. But Crafts had been a volunteer constable in Newtown and was also a part-time officer in neighboring Sudbury. Therefore, the police were reluctant to investigate him for murder. Local authorities turned the case over to the Connecticut State Police on December 26.

Police escort Richard Crafts to a bond hearing in Danbury, Connecticut on January 20, 1987. The court refused to lower his $750,000 bond (AP Photo)
Police escort Richard Crafts to a bond hearing in Danbury, Connecticut on January 20, 1987. The court refused to lower his $750,000 bond (AP Photo)

While Richard vacationed with his children in Florida, troopers searched his Newtown home. They found blood stains on the side of a mattress and missing sections of carpet. Credit card records showed that about the time Helle went missing, Crafts had purchased bed sheets and a comforter. He had also bought a chainsaw and rented a woodchipper. Police later found the chainsaw in nearby Lake Zoar. On the saw, investigators found hair and blood that matched Helle’s DNA. Though someone had filed off the serial number, investigators were able to recover enough of it to be readable. It was the same saw Crafts purchased.

After police searched the Crafts home, a snowplow driver reported something he had seen on the night of November 18. He said he’d seen a rental truck with a woodchipper attached parked near Lake Zoar. He led detectives to the site. There they found human tissue, two teeth, a tooth crown, a fingernail covered in pink nail polish, and a toenail. They also found 2,660 bleached blonde human hairs.

Prosecuting Richard Crafts

To present a case for homicide, there must be proof of death. Normally, identification of the dead body serves this purpose. But in this case, there was no body. However, a forensic dentist was able to match the tooth crown found near Lake Zoar to Helle Crafts’ dental records. With that evidence, the Connecticut State Medical Examiner’s office issued a death certificate and Richard Crafts went to trial.

Richard Crafts addresses the jury at his murder trial
Richard Crafts addresses the jury at his murder trial

The trial began in May 1988 in New London. The defense won a change of venue because of extensive pretrial publicity. That trial ended in July with a hung jury. A solitary juror held out for acquittal before walking out of deliberations and refusing to return. A second trial in Norwalk ended in a guilty verdict on November 21, 1989. It was almost exactly three years since Helle’s murder.

Richard Crafts received a sentence of 50 years in prison on January 8, 1990. He was released after serving only 32 years. This was because the law—since changed—gave prisoners credit for good behavior and having a prison job. He was released to the custody of a Bridgeport, Connecticut transitional house for homeless veterans.

Richard in later years
Richard Crafts in later years

What Happened to Helle Crafts?

The Crafts apparently fought after Helle arrived home from Frankfurt. Evidence suggests Richard killed Helle by striking her with a blunt object at least twice. He then placed her body in the large freezer he bought. Later, he removed the frozen body, then used the chainsaw to cut it in to manageable pieces. Afterwards, he used the woodchipper to destroy the body. However, the snowplow driver directed police to the site where he used the chipper. Forensic science did the rest.

In prison, Richard Crafts’ fellow convicts called him “Mister Chips.”

The Cohen brothers move, Fargo, includes a scene where a woodchipper is used to get rid of a body.

You can read more about this case in The Woodchipper Murder by Arthur Herzog. Also, the inaugural episode of Forensic Files featured the Helle Crafts case.

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John Jourbet: The Truth About a Loathsome Serial Killer

After last week’s Olympic Park bombing case, this week we look at Nebraska serial killer John Jourbet. Over fifteen months in 1982-1983, Jourbet killed a young boy in Portland, Maine and two in the Omaha, Nebraska area..

John Jourbet

John Jourbet clearly had a troubled childhood. He entered the world in Lawrence, Massachusetts on July 2, 1963. His parents divorced soon after his birth, and his mother did not allow Jourbet to see his father. In 1971, Jourbet and his mother moved out of the family home into a run-down apartment. Jourbet’s mother was very controlling, and by this time, he had begun to hate her as a result.

John Jourbet mugshot after his 1984 arrest.
John Jourbet mugshot after his 1984 arrest.

His schoolmates considered young John something of an outcast. He joined the Cub Scouts trying to find a way to “belong.” But it was also at this time when he began to have disturbing fantasies about murdering strangers on the street.

When Jourbet was 13, he stabbed a girl with a pencil and felt stimulated when she cried in pain. The next day, he sliced another girl with a razor blade as he biked past. In yet another incident, he beat and nearly strangled a boy. Unfortunately, he was never caught for any of these attacks.

John Jourbet Begins Killing

It was Sunday, August 22, 1982. Richard “Ricky” Stetson, 11, went jogging on the 3.5-mile Black Cove Trail near Portland, Maine. His parents notified police when Ricky had not returned home by dark. The next day, a motorist on I-295 discovered the boy’s body. Police arrested a suspect, but the forensic evidence did not match him. However, the suspected stayed in jail for nearly a year and a half before authorities released him.

Ricky Stetson, the first boy Jourbet killed
Ricky Stetson, the first boy Jourbet killed

Over a year later, on Sunday, September 18, 1983, 13-year-old Danny Joe Eberle went missing while on his newspaper route. Danny lived in the Omaha suburb of Bellevue, Nebraska and had a route for the Omaha World-Herald. He had only delivered 3 of the 70 papers on his route.

Danny Eberle
Danny Eberle

Danny’s brother also had a route for the World-Herald. He hadn’t seen Danny that Sunday but did remember a white man in a tan car following him on previous days.

Danny’s bicycle and undelivered papers turned up at the address of his fourth customer, but there was no sign of Danny. Sadly, his body was found three days later, about 4 miles from where he left his bicycle. His hands and feet were tied, and surgical tape covered his mouth. The rope used to tie Danny was quite unusual and didn’t match samples in the FBI’s database.

Another young boy disappeared from nearby Papillion, Nebraska three months later, on December 2. Christopher Walden was 12 years old. His body was found two days later, stabbed and nearly decapitated. Although there were similarities to Danny Eberle’s murder, there were differences as well.

Christopher Walden, the last Jourbet murder victim
Christopher Walden, the last Jourbet murder victim

Arrest and Trial

January 11, 1984 was a Wednesday. A preschool teacher noticed a young man driving around in the area of the murders. She thought he looked suspicious, so she wrote down is license number. When the driver saw her doing this, he stopped and threatened her before driving off. The car wasn’t tan, but it turned out to be a rental. The renter was John Jourbet, a radar technician from Offutt Air Force Base, which is in the Omaha area. His own car, a tan Chevrolet Nova, was in the shop.

When police and FBI agents searched Jourbet’s room, they discovered rope matching the rope used to bind Danny Eberle. It has been specially made for the U.S. military in South Korea.

Pioneering FBI profiler Robert K. Ressler worked up a profile for the case. The profile matched Jourbet in every respect. Ressler presented the case to a class at the FBI academy in Quantico, Virginia. There a policeman from Maine noted similarities to the case of the Stetson boy. Jourbet had been living with his mother in Portland at the time of that murder. Ressler and Maine authorities hypothesized that Jourbet joined the military to get away from the Stetson killing.

John Jourbet prison photo taken shortly before his execution in 1996
John Jourbet prison photo taken shortly before his execution in 1996

Jourbet confessed to the Nebraska murders on January 12, 1984. Charged with the murders, he initially pled not guilty but changed his plea to guilty. A three-judge panel sentenced him to death. He also received a life sentence in Maine for the Ricky Stetson murder (Maine doesn’t have the death penalty).

Epilogue

After exhausting his appeals, John Jourbet died in the Nebraska electric chair on July 17, 1996.

A book on the case by Mark Pettit and Marcelo Galvao, A Need to Kill, appeared in 2013.

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Nancy Titterton: Horsehair Makes an Important Clue to Murder

Sometimes the tiniest clue can solve a crime. Such was the case with the rape and murder of writer Nancy Titterton in 1936. In the 1930s, many of today’s forensic tools and techniques were decades in the future. Even so, forensic science was a valuable crime-fighting weapon.

Nancy Titterton, Aspiring Writer

Nancy Titterton was a budding writer (some of her stories had appeared in magazines). She married Lewis Titterton, an executive at the National Broadcasting Company, in 1929. They lived at 22 Beekman Place, then and now a fashionable area of Manhattan near the East River. The year 1936 saw Nancy working on her first novel.

Newspaper photograph of Nancy Titterton
Newspaper photograph of Nancy Titterton

On April 10, 1936, two furniture repairmen delivering a repaired sofa, found the door of the Titterton apartment open. Inside, they found Nancy dead in the bathtub. She had been raped and strangled with her own pajamas, which were still tied around her neck.

Not surprisingly, police looked at the two furniture shop men, Theodore Kruger and John Fiorenza, with suspicion. Kruger owned the shop and Fiorenza was an assistant.

The love seat sofa the Tittertons had repaired
The love seat sofa the Tittertons had repaired

Two Clues

Detectives led by Assistant Chief Inspector Lyons had only two significant clues to work with. One was a light-colored horsehair found on Nancy’s bedspread. The horsehair matched the stuffing of the sofa (furniture then often had horsehair stuffing). This heightened their suspicions against Fiorenza (Kruger’s alibi apparently satisfied investigators).

The Tittertons lived at 22 Beekman Place, Manhattan
Nancy Titterton lived with her husband at 22 Beekman Place, Manhattan

The second clue was a 13-inch length of course string. Marks on her wrists indicated that killer had used string or cord to bind Nancy’s hands during his attack. He took the cord with him, but he overlooked this small segment. Detectives found it under Nancy’s body.

Newspaper photograph of the cord detectives found under Nancy Titterton's body, leading to the capture of her killer
Newspaper photograph of the cord detectives found under Nancy Titterton’s body, leading to the capture of her killer

One other possible clue turned out to be a dead end. A smear of green paint on Nancy’s bed sheets was the shade painters were using throughout the building. However, of the four painters assigned to the job, only one had been at work the day of the murder. Building tenants were able to confirm the fourth painter’s whereabouts at the time in question.

An Obsession with Nancy Titterton

Lyons and his team began the process of finding the origin the string left at the murder scene. They eventually traced it to the Hanover Cordage Company of York, Pennsylvania. Hanover’s records disclosed that the company had sold a roll of that exact cord to Kruger’s upholstery shop.

Detectives George Swander (left) and James Hayden (right) take suspect John Fiorenza (center) from Nancy Titterton's apartment
Detectives George Swander (left) and James Hayden (right) take suspect John Fiorenza (center) from Nancy Titterton’s apartment

Upon further investigation, detectives learned that John Fiorenza had a criminal record. It included four arrests for theft and a two-year stretch in prison, where a prison psychologist diagnosed him as delusional. They hauled Fiorenza in for questioning.

Lewis Titterton (center) outside the courtroom at Fiorenza's trial.
Lewis Titterton (center) outside the courtroom at Fiorenza’s trial.

For five hours, Fiorenza denied killing Nancy Titterton before he finally broke down and confessed. He claimed he developed an infatuation with the woman when he picked up the sofa for repair on April 9. Early the next morning, he went to the Titterton apartment where he gagged Nancy and tied her hands. He then stripped her and dragged her into the bathroom where he raped her and strangled her with her own pajamas. Then he went to work, later returning with Kruger and the sofa to “discover” the body.

Epilogue

Fiorenza claimed he was insane at the time of the killing. That defense didn’t cut much ice with the jury, who convicted him of first-degree murder. He paid for this brutal murder with his life in Sing Sing’s electric chair on January 22, 1937.

In 2015, author Robert Grey Reynolds, Jr. published a book about the case, The Bathtub Murder of Crime Club Founder Nancy Evans Titterton: Good Friday April 10, 1936.

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