Marvin Gaye: Murder of a Popular Soul Singer

Marvin Gaye was once known as the “Prince of Motown.” For almost a quarter-century, his music entertained millions, evolving as the times changed. Then, his career and life ended abruptly.

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. was born on April 2, 1939, in Washington, D.C. His father was a preacher in the Hebrew Pentecostal Church. A strict disciplinarian, he enforced his moral code on his four children (two boys and two girls) and stepson with physical brutality. For a man of the cloth, the senior Gay embraced an odd moral code, as he was a hard-drinking cross-dresser. It seemed everyone in their D.C. neighborhood knew about the cross-dressing, which subjected young Marvin to bullying at school.

As Marvin entered his teenage years, his relationship with his father worsened, who often kicked him out of the house. In 1956, when he was seventeen, Marvin dropped out of high school and joined the United States Air Force. Military service didn’t suit him, mainly because his superiors gave him, like many of his peers, only menial tasks. He received a “General Discharge” in 1957.

Marvin Gaye in 1966 (Public Domain)
Marvin Gaye in 1966 (Public Domain)

Gaye began working in music after his brief stint in the Air Force, adding the ‘e’ to the end of his family name. It took several years, but he began to find success in 1962 as co-writer of “Beechwood 4-5789,” a hit for the Marvelettes. He recorded several successful duets with Tammy Terrell and sang the National Anthem during Game 4 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. He had his first number-one hit in 1968 with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

The Murder of Marvin Gaye

Success had a dark side for Marvin Gaye. Like many others before and after, he had trouble dealing with the fame he sought and developed a drug habit. He managed to get sober while sojourning in Europe as a tax exile. But he returned to the United States in 1983 for what would be his final concert tour. Under the stress of touring, he returned to abusing cocaine as a coping mechanism. When the tour ended in August 1983, Gaye moved into his parents’ home to nurse his mother, who had undergone kidney surgery.

Marvin Gaye in 1973 (Billboard)
Marvin Gaye in 1973 (Billboard)

By March 1984, Gaye and his father clashed constantly. Everything boiled over on Sunday, April 1. Marvin Sr. began berating his wife, Alberta, because he was upset about a missing insurance policy. Gaye intervened, ordering his father out of his mother’s room. When that didn’t work, he physically attacked his father. Alberta separated the two men, and Gaye returned to his room.

Minutes later, however, Marvin Sr. entered Gaye’s bedroom with a .38-caliber pistol, pointed it at Gaye, and shot him twice, one bullet piercing his right lung, heart, diaphragm, liver, stomach, and left kidney. Hearing the shots and screams, Gaye’s brother, Frankie, who lived in a guest house on the property, ran to the house and carefully walked the hallway to his brother’s bedroom. He held Gaye as he rapidly bled to death. Frankie said Marvin made a disturbing statement in a voice barely above a whisper. “I got what I wanted…I couldn’t do it myself, so I had him do it…it’s good, I ran my race, there’s no more left in me.”

Marvin Gaye's death certificate (State of California)
Marvin Gaye’s death certificate (State of California)

Epilogue

On September 20, 1984, Marvin Gay, Sr. pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Judge Ronald M. George agreed to the plea bargain based on the injuries Marvin Sr. sustained in the altercation and the levels of cocaine and PCP in Gaye’s system revealed by the autopsy. On November 2, Judge Gordon Ringer sentenced Marvin Gay, Sr., to a six-year suspended sentence and five years of probation. He died on October 10, 1998, at age 84.

Marvin Gay, Sr., in court (The Palms Weekend)
Marvin Gay, Sr., in court (The Palms Weekend)

You can read more about the life of Marvin Gaye in Divided Soul: The Life Of Marvin Gaye by David Ritz and Mercy, Mercy Me by Michael Eric Dyson.

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Jean Shrader: Victim in a Weird Murder Case

This week, I present the unusual case of the murder of Jean Shrader. The case is remarkable not for the murder but for its legal resolution.

The Murder of Jean Shrader

On the night of October 22, 1981, a man saw an unusual sight in a downtown Columbus, Ohio, parking garage. He watched in horror as another man dragged a woman’s body from her car into a fifth-floor stairwell. By the time police arrived, the man had disappeared, and they found the body of 25-year-old Jean Shrader in the stairwell.

An autopsy revealed that Jean Shrader had been strangled with a thin rope or perhaps a wire.

Jean Shrader (Columbus Dispatch)
Jean Shrader (Columbus Dispatch)

Jean’s husband, John J. Shrader, came under suspicion almost immediately. He had slender red marks on his hands that investigators—and Jean’s parents, Dale and Carol Wolford— believed he received while murdering his wife. Despite suspicions, authorities never obtained enough evidence to charge him with murder.

In 1983, John Shrader sued Equitable Life Assurance Society for more than $100,000 in insurance benefits. Jean’s parents countersued, claiming he shouldn’t collect the money because he was the killer. Thus, the stage was set for what the press called Shrader’s “civil murder trial.”

The “Civil Murder Trial” for the Death of Jean Shrader

John Shrader’s job was cleaning airplanes. He claimed he got the suspicious marks when he burned himself on an electrical cord while buffing a plane. He even had a witness who had seen the injuries the day before the murder.

Shrader’s case came apart like a cheap suit when his witness recanted and said Shrader had offered him $50,000 to testify. Shrader clammed up and refused to answer any more questions, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The court ruled for Jean’s parents, determining that John Shrader had “unlawfully terminated the life of his wife.”

Epilogue

The Franklin County, Ohio, prosecutor’s office said after the ruling that there wasn’t enough evidence to indict Mr. Shrader.

In May 1985, John Shrader was convicted of perjury and bribery and sentenced to six years in prison.

Robin Yokum, a former police reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, includes a chapter on the Shrader case in his book, Dead Before Deadline.

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Ma Barker: Expert Criminal or Feeble Old Woman?

This week’s blog post concerns one of my favorite subjects: the Public Enemies era of the early to mid-1930s. You may have heard of my subject before. Her name was Arizona Donnie Clark Barker. She went by Kate, but history remembers her as the infamous Ma Barker. She had a reputation as a bandit queen who masterminded her sons’ numerous criminal activities. J. Edgar Hoover referred to her as “the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade.” But was that the real Ma Barker?

Ma Barker in the Early Years

Ma Barker was born in Ash Grove, Missouri, on October 8, 1873. Ash Grove is in southwestern Missouri, about sixty miles from Joplin and close to Missouri’s borders with Arkansas and Oklahoma. A rumor claimed she saw Jesse James and his gang ride through town as a girl, and this experience sparked a thirst for adventure.

Probably the best-known photo of Ma Barker
Probably the best-known photo of Ma Barker

Whether the bit about Jesse James was fact or legend, “Arrie” Clark didn’t have much adventure in her life. At least not at first. In 1892, she married a tenant farmer named George Barker, a man the FBI described as “shiftless.” Together they had four sons. Neither George nor Arrie paid much attention to their sons’ educations, and all four were, according to the FBI, “more or less illiterate.” But as her boys turned to crime, Arrie would do everything she could to get them off, regardless of what they’d done.

Ma Barker points to an outdoor Christmas tree. Apparently, this was a "thing" in the Ozarks at the time.
Ma Barker points to an outdoor Christmas tree. Apparently, this was a “thing” in the Ozarks at the time.

By 1931, George was gone. Either he left, or Arrie threw him out. It’s not clear which. Arrie herself was living in dire poverty in a dirt-floor shack. By this time, she’d taken up with a jobless man named Arthur “Old Man” Dunlop. But in 1931, things improved, in a manner of speaking, when her son Fred got out of jail and formed the Barker-Karpis gang with prison friend Alvin Karpis. (Side note: the gang took Dunlop for the proverbial “one-way ride” when they thought, incorrectly, that he had ratted them out to police in St. Paul, Minnesota.)

Ma Barker with Arthu "Old Man" Dunlop
Ma Barker with Arthu “Old Man” Dunlop

Ma Barker and the Outlaw Life

Arthur Barker, nicknamed “Dock” and recently released from prison, joined his brother and Karpis in 1932. At first, they robbed banks, but after moving to the infamously corrupt city of St. Paul, Minnesota, they committed two high-profile kidnappings for ransom. In the first, they snatched brewery president William Hamm and got his family to pay a $100,000 ransom. For their encore, they kidnapped banker Edward Bremer and successfully obtained $200,000.

The Bremer caper proved to be the gang’s undoing. FBI agents identified one of Dock’s fingerprints on a gas can the kidnappers left behind near Portage, Wisconsin. A year later, Karpis was the only gang member still free, and he didn’t remain free for long.

Life for the Barker-Karpis gang was one of constant movement. As law enforcement closed in, the gang had to find a new hideout, frequently with little or no warning. Ma Barker, now going by “Kate” instead of “Arrie,” moved along with her sons, Karpis, and their girlfriends. Kate was never too keen on any of the boys’ girlfriends, which sometimes led to considerable tension.

The house in Ocklawaha, Florida where FBI agents killed Freddy and "Ma" Barker. The arrow points to the bedroom where the bodies were found.
The house in Ocklawaha, Florida where FBI agents killed Freddy and “Ma” Barker. The arrow points to the bedroom where the bodies were found.

The End for Fred and Ma Barker

In January 1935, the FBI arrested Dock in Chicago. Searching his apartment, they found a map indicating the gang was lying low in a house near Ocklawaha, Florida. In the early morning hours of January 16, agents surrounded the house. Unknown to the G-Men, only Fred and his mother were inside. When agents demanded the gang’s surrender, Fred opened fire. The FBI returned fire, and guns blazed away for hours.

When gunfire from the house finally stopped, the FBI ordered a local handyman to enter the dwelling wearing a bulletproof vest. The handyman, Willie Woodbury, reported that no one was alive in the house. Fred’s body was riddled with bullets, but only one bullet appeared to have killed Kate. A machine gun lay between the two bodies.

The Legend of Ma Barker as a Criminal Mastermind

Horrified that his agents had killed an elderly woman with their indiscriminate gunfire, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover cranked the Bureau’s publicity machine into high gear. This was the genesis of the utterly bogus myth that Ma Barker had run a “crime school” for her sons when they were boys and planned their robberies. Hoover himself piled on with his fabrication about Ma Barker’s criminal brain.

Hoover’s claim was pure fiction. Bank robber Harvey Bailey, who knew the Barkers, wrote in his autobiography that Kate “couldn’t plan breakfast.” Alvin Karpis, the actual gang leader, described her as having a fondness for “hillbilly” music, jigsaw puzzles, and the radio show Amos ’n’ Andy. He further maintained:

The most ridiculous story in the annals of crime is that Ma Barker was the mastermind behind the Karpis-Barker gang…. She wasn’t a leader of criminals or even a criminal herself. There is not one police photograph of her or set of fingerprints taken while she was alive…she knew we were criminals, but her participation in our careers was limited to one function: when we traveled together, we moved as a mother and her sons. What could look more innocent?

A good story often subsumes the truth. So it was with Ma Barker. The FBI’s mythmaking set the stage. In films, a machine-gun-toting Lurene Tuttle in Ma Barker’s Killer Brood and a cigar-chomping, wisecracking Shelly Winters in Bloody Mama have continued to do Hoover’s work for him.

Epilogue

Dock Barker and Alvin Karpis wound up in Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. On January 13, 1939, Barker attempted to escape under the cover of a foggy night along with inmates Dale Stamphill, Henri Young, William “Ty” Martin, and Rufus McCain. Guards spotted them and opened fire, fatally wounding Barker.

Karpis fared better. Paroled in 1969, he was deported to his native Canada. He moved to Spain in 1973 and died there on August 26, 1979.

Bryan Burrough’s excellent book Public Enemies is an entertaining look at Ma Barker, the Barker-Karpis Gang, and their criminal contemporaries.

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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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