James Richardson: Big Fail in Old Murder Case

Last week’s case was an unsolved murder over a century old, the 1911 death of Dr. Helene Knabe. This week we look at a case “solved” by sending the wrong man to prison. James Richardson served 21 years in a Florida prison for murdering his children, but he didn’t do it.

James Richardson and the Deaths of His Children

Annie Mae and James Richardson were African American migrant farm workers. In October 1967, the Richardsons and their seven children, all under ten, lived in Arcadia, Florida. Two of the children were from Annie Mae’s previous marriage. James was the father of the other five.

James Joseph Richardson (Palm Beach Post)
James Joseph Richardson (Palm Beach Post)

On October 24, Annie Mae prepared a meal of beans, rice, and grits for the children’s lunch the next day. The following morning, James and Annie Mae left to pick oranges in groves sixteen miles away. They entrusted the care of their younger children (the oldest four were in school) to a neighbor, Bessie Reece.

At lunchtime, the four oldest Richardson children returned home for lunch. They and their younger siblings ate the meal Annie Mae had prepared. Back at school, their teachers noticed all four exhibiting strange symptoms. The school’s principal immediately took them to a hospital. One of the teachers checked on the remaining three children, discovered they were sick, too, and rushed them to a hospital. It was no use. Six of the children died before authorities could summon the Richardsons from the orange groves. Three-year-old Dianne succumbed the next day.

Annie Mae and James Richarson view the bodies of their seven children in October 1967 (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
Annie Mae and James Richarson view the bodies of their seven children in October 1967 (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

James Richardson, Murderer?

Investigators soon discovered the pesticide parathion in the food Annie Mae prepared for the children’s lunch. Sure enough, they found a two-pound sack of parathion in a shed behind the apartment building where the Richardsons lived. It surprised no one when a grand jury indicted James Richardson for murder on November 2.

During Richardson’s trial, the state contended that Richardson killed his children for insurance money. Prosecutor John Treadwell introduced evidence that Richardson met with insurance salesman George Purvis to discuss life insurance for the children before the murders. That much was true. What Treadwell didn’t say, though, was that Purvis initiated the meeting. Nor did he say that Richardson hadn’t bought any insurance because he couldn’t afford the premiums.

Judge Gordon Hayes listens as Bessie Reece testifies during a coroner's inquest into the deaths of the seven Richardson children (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
Judge Gordon Hayes listens as Bessie Reece testifies during a coroner’s inquest into the deaths of the seven Richardson children (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Other testimony from former cellmates claimed Richardson had confessed the murders to them. DeSoto County Sheriff Frank Cline provided additional sensational testimony when he claimed Richardson had poisoned six other children in another county. Although unsubstantiated, the defense apparently let this accusation pass unchallenged.

The outcome of the trial was never in doubt. On May 31, 1968, jurors took only thirty minutes to return with a guilty verdict and a recommended sentence of death in Florida’s electric chair.

An early prison photo of James Richardson (Florida State Prison)
An early prison photo of James Richardson (Florida State Prison)

James Richardson Exonerated

For nearly five years, James Richardson sat on Florida’s Death Row. Then, in 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty, as it was then implemented, was unconstitutional. Like other death row inmates, the State of Florida resentenced him to life in prison. In Richardson’s case, he had an opportunity for parole starting in 1993.

Over time, the case against James Richardson began to unravel. Investigators overlooked possible clues in their zeal to convict him. For example, at the time of the murders, Bessie Reece was on parole for the poisoning death of her ex-husband. Prosecutors went to great lengths to keep this fact away from the jury.

Another hole in the case against Richardson appeared when the last surviving jailhouse snitch who testified at the trial recanted. He revealed he’d been offered a lighter sentence for his testimony.

Lawyers for Richardson continued to uncover additional evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. On April 25, 1989, their efforts paid off when DeSoto County Circuit Court Judge Clifton Kelly dismissed Richardson’s conviction and released him to the custody of his attorneys.

Who Killed the Richardson Children?

Authorities never charged anyone else with the deaths of Betty, Alice, Susie, Dorreen, Vanessa, James Jr., and Dianne Richardson. The question remains, who killed them?

The most likely suspect is the woman who fed the children the poisoned lunch, Bessie Reece. As noted above, Reece was convicted of murdering her second ex-husband with poison. She was also a suspect in the death of her first ex-husband. Furthermore, In 1988 and living in a nursing home, Reece allegedly confessed to the murders multiple times. At the time, though, she suffered from the effects of Alzheimer’s, and no one took her confessions seriously.

The graves of the seven Richardson children (Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
The graves of the seven Richardson children (Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Epilogue

Richardson’s life after prison held many challenges. He suffered from numerous heart ailments, for which he blamed poor-quality prison food and stress. He and Annie Mae had remained married all the while he was incarcerated but eventually divorced.

In 2014, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law that bypassed the roadblock that had denied Richardson compensation up to then. In 2016, he began receiving payments totaling $50,000 for each year he was wrongfully imprisoned.

Bessie Reece died from Alzheimer’s in a Florida nursing home in 1992. She never faced charges in the deaths of the Richardson children.

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Helene Knabe: Pioneering Doctor and Murder Victim

A busy schedule caused me to miss posting a blog last week and to be late this week. However, here we are with a new crime. In my previous blog, I presented the murders of four young workers at a Speedway, Indiana, Burger Chef restaurant in 1978. This week’s case is also from Indianapolis, the 1911 murder of Dr. Helene Knabe.

Helene Knabe

Helene Knabe was born December 22, 1875, in the German state of Prussia, in an area now part of Poland. She dreamed of becoming a doctor, but higher education wasn’t an option for women in nineteenth-century Germany. When she learned that medical schools in Indiana admitted women, she made plans to immigrate and arrived in 1896.

Helene Elise Hermine Knabe (findagrave.com)
Helene Elise Hermine Knabe (findagrave.com)

At first, Helene worked as a seamstress to earn money for her medical schooling. She also had to polish her English skills to a level where she could succeed in her studies. She entered the Medical College of Indiana in 1900 and graduated in 1904 as one of the two women students.

Almost immediately after graduation, Dr. Knabe was appointed Assistant Deputy health officer in Indiana, the first woman in that position. She assumed the role of acting superintendent after becoming an expert in rabies prevention. Upon learning that her male coworkers earned more, she resigned and opened a private practice.

Dr. Helene Elise Hermine Knabe (findagrave.com)
Dr. Helene Elise Hermine Knabe (findagrave.com)

Dr. Knabe’s Career Flourishes

In her practice, Dr. Knabe taught sex education, focusing on reaching out to immigrant women. She also educated the local community on the symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases. Another achievement was her appointment as medical director and associate professor of physiology and hygiene at the Normal College of the National American Gymnastics Union.

In 1905, Dr. Knabe met Dr. William B. Craig, the Dean of Students at Indiana Veterinary College. Dr. Craig recommended Helene for the Chair of Hematology and Parasitology at IVC, a position she assumed in 1909.

Dr. William B. Craig (Indianapolis News)
Dr. William B. Craig (Indianapolis News)

The two doctors maintained a friendship and may have been engaged to be married. Dr. Craig later disputed this, but some of Dr. Knabe’s friends said otherwise.

The Murder of Dr. Helene Knabe

Monday morning, October 23, 1911, Dr. Knabe’s laboratory assistant entered her room in the Delaware Flats apartment complex. She found Dr. Knabe lying on her bed with her throat slit and her nightgown rolled up around her shoulders.

Helene Knabe's bedroom. Her body had just been moved when this photo was taken on October 24, 1911 (Indianapolis News)
Helene Knabe’s bedroom. Her body had just been moved when this photo was taken on October 24, 1911 (Indianapolis News)

The Indianapolis police launched an investigation that can only be described as slipshod. At the outset the janitor, Jefferson Haynes, removed the garbage can before the police police could inspect its contents. Haynes was later a suspect, but investigators soon cleared him.

Police first declared the death to be a suicide, despite the absence of a weapon and the presence of a bloody fingerprint (Helene’s hands had no blood on them). Fingerprinting wasn’t firmly established in 1911, but the police didn’t try to match the bloody print. However, coroner Dr. Charles O. Durham was adamant when he declared the death a homicide.

Curiosity seekers gather outside the Delaware Flats apartment complex (Indianapolis News)
Curiosity seekers gather outside the Delaware Flats apartment complex (Indianapolis News)

Trial and…Nothing

Almost fifteen months after her death, a grand jury indicted Dr. Craig for Dr. Knabe’s murder. They also indicted Alonzo M. Ragsdale, an undertaker, as an accessory. Ragsdale was a business associate of Dr. Knabe and the unscrupulous executor of her estate.

Alonzo M. Ragsdale, undertaker and executor of Helene Knabe's estate (Indianapolis News)
Alonzo M. Ragsdale, undertaker and executor of Helene Knabe’s estate (Indianapolis News)

Dr. Craig’s defense employed the disgusting but timeworn technique of attacking the victim. They maintained that Dr. Knabe was an aggressive and masculine woman, dog-whistle language hinting that she was a lesbian. There is no evidence that this was the case, even if it had been relevant.

Dr. Knabe was treated as a villain, not a victim. The media and some of her peers chastised her for being assertive in her career and pursuing her dreams. Society couldn’t understand a woman wanting to work in a sometimes unpleasant and coarse field. Because she was a 35-year-old woman who worked as a physician and lived in a small apartment—rather than a grand home with a husband and children—her critics judged Dr. Knabe unhappy. Due to Alonzo Ragsdale, her unscrupulous estate executor, the public believed she was an unsuccessful pauper physician.

The truth was that Dr. Knabe had several sources of income and brought in over $150 ($4,766 in 2023) each month. Far from being poor, she sent most of her disposable income to an uncle who could no longer work.

The case against Dr. Craig collapsed under the assault from the defense. It didn’t help that Craig’s housekeeper, who was to be a witness against him, refused to come to the courthouse. Judge Alonzo Blair directed the jury to return a not-guilty verdict. Because there was now nothing to be an accessory to, the state dropped the charges against Ragsdale.

Epilogue

The murder of Dr. Helene Knabe remains unsolved over a century after her death.

Dr. Helene Knabe is buried in Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery, a resting place she shares with former President Benjamin Harrison, poet James Whitcomb Riley, and Depression-era gangster John Dillinger.

Dr. Knabe's grave in the Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana (findagrave.com)
Dr. Knabe’s grave in the Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana (findagrave.com)

You can read more about Dr. Knabe and her death in the 2016 book, She Sleeps Well: The Extraordinary Life and Murder of Dr. Helene Elise Hermine Knabe by Nicole R. Kobrowski.

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Burger Chef Killer Makes for a Big Panic

In my last blog, we met George Joseph Smith. Smith graduated from marrying women to steal their money to killing them for insurance payouts, the “Brides in the Bath” case. This week’s crime is a tragic robbery turned kidnapping that ended in murder. In 1978, thieves abducted and killed four young workers from an Indianapolis-area Burger Chef.

Burger Chef Employees Disappear

In the late 1950s through the 1960s, Burger Chef was a popular hamburger franchise second only to McDonald’s. But as it entered the 1970s, the chain was in decline after a sale to General Foods. Many Burger Chef restaurants still operated through the decade, including one at 5725 Crawfordsville Road in Speedway, Indiana, about a mile from the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The Burger Chef restaurant at 5725 Crawfordsville Road, Speedway, Indiana (Indianapolis Star)
The Burger Chef restaurant at 5725 Crawfordsville Road, Speedway, Indiana (Indianapolis Star)

Just after midnight on Friday, November 17, 1978, Brian Kring, a Burger Chef employee, dropped by the restaurant. It was after closing time, but he planned to visit his coworkers and see if they needed help cleaning up. But the restaurant was empty. Moreover, the safe was open, and the back door stood ajar. Two empty currency bags and an empty roll of adhesive tape lay near the safe. Cash register drawers were on the floor with nothing in them, and $100 of rolled coins ($463 in 2023) remained in the safe.

There was no sign of the missing employees: assistant manager Jayne Friedt, 20; Daniel Davis, 16; Mark Flemmonds, 16; and Ruth Ellen Shelton, 18. Three of the four were still in high school.

Newspaper article identifying the four murdered Burger Chef employees (Indianapolis Star)
Newspaper article identifying the four murdered Burger Chef employees (Indianapolis Star)

Police first investigated the crime as petty theft. They assumed the four young employees had absconded with the $581 ($2,666 in 2023) from the safe and went partying. Even though the women left their jackets and purses in the restaurant, there was no sign of a struggle. After a cursory examination of the scene, police allowed restaurant staff to finish cleaning and reopen Saturday morning. This proved to be an enormous mistake, as it obliterated any potential evidence.

A police car outside the Speedway restaurant (Indianapolis Star)
A police car outside the Speedway restaurant (Indianapolis Star)

Murders Discovered

None of the four missing employees showed up Saturday. Furthermore, Jayne Friedt’s 1974 Chevrolet Vega was found abandoned about a mile south of the Burger Chef. Now it appeared that the four had been abducted after the restaurant closed. Officials now regretted allowing the restaurant to reopen without processing it as a crime scene.

On Sunday, November 19, hikers found the bodies of all four missing employees in a wooded area of Johnson County, 20 miles from Speedway. Davis and Shelton had been shot with a .38 caliber firearm, Friedt had been stabbed, and Flemmonds bludgeoned. All four still wore their Burger Chef uniforms.

Investigators search for evidence in the fields near where the bodies were found (Indianapolis Star)

Investigators uncovered a 16-year-old eyewitness who saw two suspicious men in a car outside the Burger Chef just before closing. Both men were Caucasian and in their thirties. One man had a beard; the other was clean-shaven with light-colored hair. Despite this witness, police could not identify a suspect they could charge in the case.

A Confession to the Burger Chef Murders

Six years after the murders, a man named Donald Ray Forrester contacted detectives. Forrester was incarcerated in the Pendleton Correctional Facility but scheduled to be transferred to a notoriously violent state prison. He said he would confess his part in the Burger Chef murders to prevent the transfer.

Newspaper article announcing Forrester's entry into the case (Indianapolis Star)
Newspaper article announcing Forrester’s entry into the case (Indianapolis Star)

Forrester confessed to shooting Davis and Shelton. He led police to the crime scene in the woods and described the location and position of the bodies. He also knew that the handle broke off the knife used to stab Friedt, which was not widely publicized.

According to Forrester, Friedt’s brother James owed money on a drug deal, so he and three other associates had gone to the restaurant to threaten her. But when Flemmonds intervened to protect Friedt, a fight broke out. Flemmonds fell and hit his head on the bumper of a car. Believing he was dead or dying, Forrester and his accomplices decided to abduct and kill all the employees. They wanted no witnesses to their crime.

As promising as this lead sounded, it went nowhere. After someone within the Marion County sheriff’s office leaked details of Forrester’s cooperation, he recanted his confession and claimed it was coerced.

Epilogue

Despite thousands of hours of investigative work and a $25,000 reward offered by Burger Chef, no one was ever prosecuted for the four murders. The case officially remains unsolved.

Donald Ray Forrester died in prison from cancer in 2006 at age 55. Authorities were never able to charge him with the murders.

Julie Young published a book about the case, The Burger Chef Murders in Indiana, in 2021.

On September 5, 2002, Investigation Discovery a documentary about the case, Murders at the Burger Joint.

Memorial bench for the four murdered youths in Speedway's Leonard Park (HezOnIt500/Wikimedia Commons)
Memorial bench for the four murdered youths in Speedway’s Leonard Park (HezOnIt500/Wikimedia Commons)

In the summer of 2018, family and friends of the victims solicited funds to plant four red oak to honor the victims. The response was overwhelming. There was enough extra money to install a marble bench dedicated to the four. The memorial is in Speedway’s Leonard Park.

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Mad Butcher: Strange Killer Makes Panic for Cleveland

Last week’s concerned Arnold Rothstein, the gambler who supposedly “fixed” the 1919 World Series. This week, we tackle the story of the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.

The Mad Butcher

During the 1930s, America reeled from the effects of the Great Depression. Industrial cities like Cleveland, Ohio, suffered the worst. Adding to the economic misery, a serial killer terrorized the city during this time. The newspapers dubbed him “The Torso Slayer,” “The Headhunter,” “The Phantom Killer,” or “The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.” Between 1934 and 1938, police believe he murdered, mutilated, and dismembered at least twelve people, possibly as many as twenty.

Cleveland police search for human remains in September 1931
Cleveland police search for human remains in September 1936

The first body appeared on September 5, 1934. A beachcomber walking along Lake Erie’s Euclid Beach found a rotting piece of human flesh. It was the lower half of a female torso. After this grisly find, people reported seeing other body parts floating in the water. The woman was never identified.

A year later, two boys playing catch found the headless bodies of two men. The older, never identified, had been killed at least five days before the other. Police were able to identify the younger man through his fingerprints. His name was Edward Andrassy, 29, a bisexual ex-convict. Retraction of the neck muscles on both victims indicated the decapitation occurred while they were still alive.

Edward Andrassy, the Mad Butcher's first know victim
Edward Andrassy, the Mad Butcher’s first know victim

Over the next four years, ten more mutilated bodies turned up around Cleveland. Most of the victims were poor and homeless men who lived on the streets or in shantytowns along Kingsbury Run—an area of downtown Cleveland. Not all of them were male; the victims included two women. Investigators identified two victims through fingerprints and made a tentative identification of a third through dental records. The rest remained unidentified.

Florence Genevieve Sawdy Polillia, another victim of the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run
Florence Genevieve Sawdy Polillia, another victim of the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run

Most of the victims had been decapitated or dismembered. This led to speculation that the murderer had some medical knowledge or experience in butchering animals. A few victims showed signs they’d been tortured before they died. This suggests that their killer may have had mental illness or sociopathic tendencies.

Who Was the Mad Butcher?

On July 5, 1939, police arrested Frank Dolezal, a Slovak immigrant, for the murder of the third victim, Florence Polillo. Dolezal, born in 1895, lived with Polillo at one time and had connections to the other two identified victims. He confessed to killing Polillo and Andrassy after a marathon interrogation. He soon recanted, however, accusing detectives of using third-degree tactics.

On August 24, Dolezal supposedly hanged himself in his cell. He had four broken ribs and numerous bruises on his body. Modern students of the Mad Butcher case do not regard Dolezal as a viable suspect.

Francis E. Sweeney came under suspicion. Sweeney was a World War I veteran, a doctor, and a severe alcoholic. In 1938, Eliot Ness, of “Untouchables” fame and by then Cleveland’s Safety Director, bundled him off to a downtown hotel. After Sweeney dried out, Ness subjected him to a week-long interrogation that left Ness convinced he had his man. Ness’s questioning was extra-legal, and if anyone kept records, they don’t survive today.

Dr. Francis Edward Sweeney. Eliot Ness believed he was the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run
Dr. Francis Edward Sweeney. Eliot Ness believed he was the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run

After his ordeal, Sweeney committed himself to a mental institution. He died in a Dayton, Ohio, veteran’s hospital on July 9, 1964.

Most of the Mad Butcher’s victims were of the lower classes, homeless, or down on their luck. Eliot Ness believed that he could solve the Mad Butcher problem, if not the case, by removing the pool of potential victims. Ness decided the way to do this was to eradicate the Hoovervilles along Kingsbury Run. On August 18, 1938, Eliot Ness took the drastic and bizarre step of burning the shacks in the Kingsbury Run vicinity. Newspapers blasted Ness for this, and it hurt when he ran for mayor of Cleveland in 1947.

Ness drew harsh condemnation after a midnight raid left dozens of shantytown dwellings in flames. (The Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University)
Ness drew harsh condemnation after a midnight raid left dozens of shantytown dwellings in flames. (The Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University)

Epilogue

The Mad Butcher case is one of Cleveland’s most enduring mysteries. The last body turned up in August 1938, coinciding with Sweeney’s self-commitment. Does that mean he was the Mad Butcher? Maybe, but not necessarily. There is no evidence pointing to him as the killer. The true identity of the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run remains unknown.

There are several books on the Cleveland torso murders. They include The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, Torso, In the Wake of the Butcher, and American Demon.

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