The southwest side always seemed cold and gray, even in the August sunshine that greeted me. Accustomed to the soft bluegrass and southern dialect of rural Kentucky, I’d been less than pleased about relocating in midadolescence to this sprawling mass of concrete. It felt, in my depressed state, almost like death, something with which I’d already become familiar. My mother had died in front of our house when I was nine. No one knows who drove the speeding car that ran her down, only the driver himself, who stopped just long enough to peer over his shoulder before disappearing into the night. I’ve spent 47 years wondering who he was and how he’s lived with what he did.
Perhaps that’s why I was both afraid and intrigued when Barbara and Patricia Grimes, two sisters from my new neighborhood and parish, disappeared. The mystery hung in the air for months, oppressing Chicago long after their bodies were found in melting snow. Other newsworthy crimes and teenage deaths have brought the murders to my mind occasionally over the years. The same questions occur: Who would do this? How has he lived with what he did?
It was Friday, December 28, 1956. Dwight D. Eisenhower was about to begin his second term as president, round steak was 59 cents a pound, and Elizabeth Taylor was engaged to Mike Todd. Fifteen-year-old Barbara Grimes and her sister Patricia, three days shy of her 13th birthday, ate dinner at their home at 3634 S. Damen and headed for the Brighton Theater at 4223 S. Archer. They were devoted Elvis Presley fans and would be viewing his new movie, Love Me Tender, for the 11th time.
Their mother, Loretta Grimes, expected them home by 11:45 but sensed something wrong when they hadn’t returned at 11:30. At midnight she sent her daughter Theresa, 17, and her son Joey, 14, to the bus stop at 35th and Hoyne to watch for them. After three buses Theresa and Joey returned home.
A number of people reported seeing the girls. Dorothy Weinert, a school chum of Patricia’s, sat with them in the theater. CTA driver Joseph Smok thought they’d exited his bus at Archer and Western avenues at 11:05 PM. Jack Franklin, a northwest-side security guard, offered directions to two girls he later concluded were Barbara and Patricia. He’d passed them near Lawrence and Central Park avenues on the morning of December 29. Another classmate of Patricia’s, Catherine Borak, eating at Angelos’ restaurant at 3551 S. Archer, thought she saw the younger sister walk by at 6:30 PM Saturday with two girls she didn’t recognize.
On January 1 the girls were identified as CTA passengers by a Damen Avenue driver. During the following week several people in Englewood reported seeing them. George Pope, a night clerk at the Unity Hotel, 750 W. 61st St., claimed he refused them a room at 9 PM on January 2. Three Kresge employees believed the girls spent time near the record counter on January 3, listening to Elvis songs.
A series of ransom letters led Loretta Grimes, escorted by FBI agents, on a dawn train ride to Milwaukee on January 12. One of the letters instructed her to sit in a downtown Catholic church and put $1,000 beside her on the pew. It promised that Barbara Grimes would walk in and retrieve the money, deliver it at some nearby point, then return with Patricia. The letters were later found to have come from an institutionalized mental patient.
Wallace and Ann Tollstan, whose daughter Sandra was a classmate of Patricia’s, received two mysterious phone calls around midnight on January 14. The first call woke Mr. Tollstan, who hung up when no one spoke. Mrs. Tollstan answered a second call 15 minutes later and heard a voice ask, “Is that you, Sandra? Is Sandra there?” Before they could awaken Sandra, the caller hung up. Mrs. Tollstan was convinced that the voice, which she described as frightened and depressed, had been that of Patricia Grimes.
On January 15, switchboard operator Ann Dorigan received a bizarre phone call at the central police complaint room. A man declining to identify himself insisted that the girls were dead and could be found in Sante Fe Park, an unincorporated area in Lyons Township. This revelation, he said, came from a dream. Police traced the call to Green’s Liquor Market at 6108 S. Halsted and identified the caller as Walter Kranz, a 53-year-old steamfitter. He was questioned and released. A week later Barbara and Patricia Grimes were found dead in a ditch along German Church Road near the Du Page county line, less than a mile from Sante Fe Park. Princess Caroline of Monaco was born the same day, but it was easy to overlook the Tribune’s birth announcement opposite pictures of the smiling victims and weeping family members.
The pale, nude bodies looked at first like mannequins to 39-year-old Leonard Prescott, who was driving to Willow Springs to buy groceries. He’d spotted them at the bridge where German Church Road crossed Devil’s Creek. He drove home and returned with his wife Marie. She got out to take a closer look and he had to carry her back to the car.
Barbara Grimes lay on her left side, her legs drawn up slightly. Her head was covered by the body of her sister, who lay on her back with her head turned severely to the right. On the scene were Sheriff Joseph Lohman, Under-sheriff Thomas Brennan, and Harry Glos, an aggressive chief investigator for Coroner Walter McCarron. The three men surmised that the bodies had lain by the road for several days, hidden by the heavy snowfall of January 9 and preserved by temperatures that plummeted to zero the night of January 10. They made comparisons to the yet unsolved murders of three boys the year before.
The city had not recovered from the shock of that crime, which police would consider unsolved until 1995. On October 18, 1955, the bodies of John Schuessler, 13, his brother, Anton, 11, and 13-year-old Robert Peterson were found by Victor Livingston, a liquor salesman eating lunch in his car by the Robinson Woods Forest Preserve north of the city. The boys had not returned from a movie, and their naked bodies had been dumped into a ditch near a river, evidently tossed from a car. But the boys obviously had been beaten, and they’d died of strangulation. No such clarity existed now. There were three marks on Patricia’s chest that had been made by an ice pick or similar instrument, bruises on Barbara’s face, and rodent bites on both bodies. None of these injuries were serious enough to cause death. What actually killed them would have to be determined by modern technology. The bodies were moved to the Cook County Morgue to await autopsies, while the search for clothing and other evidence began, hindered by a new snowfall.
The scene at 3634 S. Damen was one of shock and anguish. Authorities had notified Loretta Grimes earlier in the day that two female bodies had been discovered. “You wouldn’t believe me,” she cried to the police, even before Joseph Grimes, her former husband, brought word from Devil’s Creek–“It was them.”
She’d harbored such fears all along, while the police hoped the sisters had simply headed to Nashville to see Elvis. This was a theory supported by a Minnesota woman, Pearl Neville of Saint Paul, who’d met two girls she thought were the Grimes sisters in a Nashville bus station and accompanied them to a state employment agency to apply for work. A clerk at the agency looked at photographs of the missing sisters, said she remembered them, and recalled that “Grimes” was the name they used.
At this point Elvis Presley himself stepped into the story, issuing an appeal to Barbara and Patricia: “If you are good Presley fans, you’ll go home and ease your mother’s worries.” But Loretta Grimes was certain her daughters were not the type to run away. “If whoever took my girls will just let them go,” she pleaded into a TV camera, the darkness of exhaustion encircling her eyes, “I’ll forgive them from the bottom of my heart.”
Her heart had been broken before, by divorce and by death. Her marriage to truck driver Joseph Grimes officially ended in 1951 after a long separation. An older daughter, Leona, died of illness in 1954. Now she feared the worst. “I’ve probably lost them both,” she cried to Sister Averil, Patricia’s seventh grade teacher, during a visit to the convent.
Years later, Sister Averil recalled the day after the bodies were found. “There wasn’t a sound in the classroom,” she said. “It was as though a pall was dropped over them.” But pandemonium reigned in the press. In the Sun-Times, for example, the banner headline “Missing Grimes Sisters / Are Found Slain in Gully; / See Triple-Killing Parallel” launched five pages of coverage. The other papers also stressed the similarities to the Schuessler-Peterson killings of 1955.
The first suspect in the case was Walter Kranz, held at the Englewood police station for observation, questioning, and lie detector tests regarding his “dream.” Handwriting experts were fairly certain that Kranz had written an extortion letter demanding that $5,000 be left in a locker in the LaSalle Street railroad station. But police never found enough evidence to seek an indictment.
Another suspect was a skid row drifter, Edward L. “Bennie” Bedwell, a Tennessee native sporting Elvis-style sideburns and ducktail. Bedwell reportedly had been seen with the Grimes sisters in a restaurant where he sometimes washed dishes in exchange for meals. Under questioning, Bedwell admitted his presence in the D & L restaurant at 1340 W. Madison with a male companion and two girls. But, at least in the beginning, he insisted that owners John and Minnie Duros and patron Rene Echols were mistaken in their identification of the girls.
The four of them had entered the restaurant at 5:30 AM on December 30, according to the three witnesses. They described the taller girl–whom they believed to be Patricia–as so sick or drunk that she was staggering. According to Minnie Duros, the two couples sat in a booth and listened awhile to Elvis Presley songs on the jukebox, then went outside. “The taller girl returned and sat in the booth, and put her head on the table,” she said. “They wanted her to get into a car, but she didn’t want to. The other girl and the two men came back later, and I told them to let the girl alone–she’s sick. But they all left anyway, and on their way out Barbara said they were sisters.”
The story seemed plausible for a number of reasons. One was the certainty of Echols and the Duroses. Another was Bedwell’s resemblance to Presley. The girls’ heights tallied, as did the fact they apparently were sisters. Sheriff Lohman quietly took Bedwell into custody pending completion of the autopsies.
But the three pathologists who conducted the autopsies were baffled. “The murderer in this case was diabolically clever,” said one of them, Dr. Jerry Kearns of Saint Elizabeth Hospital. “He used a method which we are unable to detect. Perhaps he is a person trained in chemistry and with a knowledge of unusual poisons.” Barbara and Patricia were buried on Monday, January 28, one month after they vanished, with the mystery of their deaths no closer to being solved than it was when the bodies were found.
Rosemarie Rancatore Eggers had been Barbara’s classmate, and while the sisters were missing she called Loretta Grimes to express her concern. Rosemarie couldn’t have dreamed what she was letting herself in for. “A squad of police, like ants, converged on my home,” she’d remember. “They flooded through the house, filled the backyard and alley–they seemed to be everywhere at once.” She was terrified when a policewoman came toward her out of nowhere and said, “Come with me, dear, if you have anything to tell me,” and ushered her into an unoccupied dining room. The police followed Rosemarie everywhere. They took her out of class and appeared at her home at night, despite her insistence that she’d shared a gym locker with Barbara at Kelly High School but otherwise barely knew her.
She was surprised when a priest from Saint Maurice Church called and asked her to serve as one of Barbara’s pallbearers. She’d later describe the funeral as a three-ring circus that nearly made her sick. “The press were the worst,” she recalled, “stepping all over headstones, plants, and flowers. It was awful.” After the newspapers published the pallbearers’ names and addresses their families were warned anonymously by telephone that they would never see their daughters again.
The wake began on a Friday and lasted all weekend. Hundreds of spectators descended on tiny Wollschlager Funeral Home to view the two closed caskets. “I walked out the convent door,” said Sister Averil, “and saw people lined up all the way to Archer Avenue.”
Once the bodies were found, the Grimes case dominated Chicago’s front pages for days on end. The Tribune invited readers to send in their personal theories of the crime, offering $50 for any they chose to publish. The Sun-Times accompanied Loretta Grimes on a shopping trip, then ran a photo of models wearing the sort of clothing the sisters had on when they disappeared. “Discovery of any of these items of clothing could provide an important lead for police,” the paper advised its readers.
Headlines changed with each edition. “Police Grill Bennie / As He Alters Story,” the banner in the city edition of the Sun-Times on January 27, gave way to “Bennie’s New Statement / Grimes Girls Ditched Me” in the three-star final. The next day’s Sun-Times was virtually a one-topic paper. The banner story, “Bennie Charged / As Girls’ Slayer,” filled two pages. The text of Bedwell’s confession plus various sidebars filled three more. There were three full pages of pictures. Kup’s Column decreed that “the police work on the grim Grimes case deserves the wholehearted applause of the entire community.” And yet another page offered profiles of the two mothers.
“Did you do it?” a jail guard overheard Ethel Bradberry ask her son Bennie Bedwell–according to the Sun-Times.
“Yes, mom,” Bedwell answered quietly.
“Well, I didn’t think a son of mine would,” said Bradberry.
Loretta Grimes was even more skeptical. She refused to believe that her daughters would ever have made the rounds of skid row flophouses and saloons with a couple of characters like Bedwell and the pal he called Frank. “He’s a liar!” she told a Sun-Times reporter. “I don’t know why he’s lying, but he’s a liar, liar, liar. Only God knows the truth.”
By the last edition that day, the Sun-Times banner had changed. “Frank” had been located in the House of Corrections and identified as a habitual drunk named William Willingham Jr. who’d picked up his nickname because, like Sinatra, he sang. According to the new headline, “Bennie’s Buddy / Denies Killing.”
Two days later a University of Illinois toxicologist threw Bedwell’s confession into far greater doubt by reporting that the Grimes sisters had died within five hours after they left their home for the movies–several days before the spree Bedwell had described. He based this conclusion on the contents of Barbara’s stomach–on food he found there that matched the girl’s last dinner at home, and on hot dogs and alcohol that he didn’t find despite Bedwell’s tale of what she and Patricia had consumed in his company. “The disclosures,” reported the Sun-Times, “caused Chicago police to revert to a theory that a teen-age gang killed Barbara and Patricia.”
This was not a good time to be an adolescent boy on the southwest side. “We were afraid to be outside,” recalled Marvin Ahern, a neighborhood teenager at the time. “The police would see us just walking down the street and pick us up for questioning.”
Teenagers Ed Lorden and Earl Zastro were driving down the street about 11:30 the night of the disappearance when they noticed two girls making their way east on 35th Street between Seeley and Damen. They were about two blocks from the Grimes home. “They were giggling and jumping out of doorways at each other,” recalled Zastro. Curious, the two boys drove around the block to get a better look. “Oh, yeah,” one said to the other, “it’s those two Grimes sisters.” Zastro mentioned the incident to a policeman questioning patrons in Angelos’ restaurant a few days later and nothing came of it–until police went back to the theory of teenage hooligans. “They kept taking me out of school. First they’d threaten me, trying to get me to confess; then they’d give me treats,” Zastro said of the police, who he believes were now desperate. “My dad sold dairy products, and the police accused me of hiding the girls in one of his freezers.”
Bennie Bedwell eventually made and recanted three confessions. He claimed that he and Frank picked up the girls and caroused with them for a week before knocking them unconscious on January 13, undressing them to remove fingerprints on their clothing, and laying them alongside German Church Road. He went so far as to reenact the crime for Lohman at the Devil’s Creek bridge. But at the three-day habeas corpus hearing that began January 31, Bedwell testified it was all a lie–he’d concocted the story because Lohman’s men had threatened, struck, and bribed him during questioning.
According to the Sun-Times, Bedwell told the court, “Captain Fleming pushed me against the wall, got his nose right up against my nose, and said, ‘You ain’t nothing but a —- —- bum.’
“I couldn’t make no answer to that.
“‘A good bum keeps himself clean,’ he told me, ‘and you’re filthy.’
“I told the captain that if I had the money for a good suit of clothes, I’d buy one, but I work in a bakery as a handyman and I ain’t got no money for clothes.
“Then Captain Fleming cooled down and was as nice as a father would be. He told me, ‘Now, if you’ll be nice, and tell the truth, I got a new suit of clothes hanging in my closet at home that I never wore. It’s too small for me. And if you’ll tell the truth, I’ll get you that suit of clothes and get you out of here tonight.’
“That was making me feel better, so I worked up a story out of my experiences with other girls–only I took the other girls out and put the Grimes girls in.”
Loretta Grimes welcomed Bedwell’s recantation. So lurid was the tale told by the confessed killer of her two daughters that discrediting it mattered more to her than convicting him. At the inquest in late January, Loretta Grimes demanded permission to ask 11 questions of her own. Here are two of them:
¥ “The illiterate, lying, Madison Street Bedwell says he was out drinking in dives, having as many as eight rounds of drinks at one time, and that the girls slept with him and took part frequently in sexual acts. What is there to prove this?”
¥ “Our girls looked like children and did not look fully mature and physically developed for their age. How could they be taken by saloon keepers as adults? Would a tavern keeper risk his license selling liquor to mere children?”
Loretta Grimes spotted Bedwell’s mother, Ethel Bradberry, in the hearing room and went to her side. Taking the weeping woman’s hands in hers, Grimes said softly, “I don’t think your boy did it. We want you to know how sorry we are.”
The state soon agreed with her. Bedwell’s confession was contradicted not merely by Bedwell and by the toxicologist who examined Barbara Grimes’s stomach but by records showing that during the hours of January 13 when he and Willingham supposedly had concluded their debauch with the Grimes girls and murdered them, he’d been working in Cicero. The case against Bedwell was left looking so frail that on February 6 he was freed on bond. His lawyer’s pink Cadillac whisked Bedwell to the Belden-Stratford Hotel to face reporters. Bedwell told them he was renouncing drink. His attorney, David Bradshaw, said a suit against Sheriff Lohman was being considered. He added that Bedwell had received dozens of inquiries concerning personal appearances.
On March 3 photographers found Bedwell cheerily eating birthday cake at his mother’s home. The next day, his 23rd birthday, charges against him were dropped. But as soon as Bedwell left the courtroom he was arrested on a fugitive warrant issued in Florida, where he’d been accused of assaulting a 13-year-old girl a year earlier.
The arrest was obviously prearranged, though it took Bedwell’s lawyer by surprise. It may be worth speculating whether Loretta Grimes was privately assured that Bedwell would face justice in Florida, thus protecting her family’s privacy in Chicago. If ugly truths were to be told, let them be told in a distant state.
Before the Grimes murders faded from the papers, stories strange and heartwarming would appear. The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, aided by the clergy and parishioners of Saint Maurice, raised more than $20,000, easily paying off the $7,800 mortgage on the Grimes home, with the balance going into a trust fund. Students at Kelly High gave Theresa Grimes a check for $503.83. A construction firm volunteered to totally remodel the home. As the president of Community Builders described Loretta Grimes’s new kitchen, she exclaimed to her oldest daughter, Shirley Wojcik, “Can you picture me in a kitchen like that!”
“You’ll be in heaven,” said Wojcik.
But all this largesse was more than some members of the community deemed appropriate. The parish priest at Saint Maurice soon felt obliged to address the issue. The unity of our neighborhood survived the murders, said Father George Schomburg. It survived the police and reporters who flooded our streets, and the so-called confession of Bennie Bedwell assailing the reputation of two of our children. Yet today it is threatened. “The malicious gossip and envy and talk which has gone through this community is scandalous.”
In late February a schoolmate of Barbara’s described by the press as a “chubby, doll-faced brunette” 15 years old announced that Barbara had been carrying two pictures of Bedwell in her wallet. “I had sworn by Barbara to keep her secret,” said the girl. Loretta Grimes responded that she’d been through her daughter’s wallet many times and the only pictures in it were of Elvis.
Two truckers came forward with information that led nowhere. Daniel Eshelman, a fuel truck driver from Brighton Park, said that late the night of December 28 he saw two girls resembling Barbara and Patricia get into a dark-colored car containing three men that had stopped in front of his truck at Archer and Western. Eshelman said he waited until after the girls were found to report the incident because he’d hoped to spot the car again himself. A second truck driver reported seeing two girls wearing clothing resembling that worn by Barbara and Patricia at 71st and Mannheim, less than three miles from the Devil’s Creek bridge. He’d noticed the girls late the night of December 29, but wasn’t aware of the murders until mid-February.
As authorities struggled with empty leads and futile interrogations they also quarreled with each other. A coroner’s jury finally ruled that the Grimes sisters froze to death the night they disappeared. But the coroner’s chief investigator, Harry Glos, publicly disagreed. He contended that a layer of ice around the bodies proved they were warm when they were left on German Church Road, and that only after January 7 was there enough snow to create that ice and hide the bodies. Coroner Walter McCarron’s response was to announce on television that Glos had been fired.
Time of death wasn’t the only issue Glos raised. “The puncture wounds in Patricia’s chest were never adequately explained or explored,” he said, convinced that the marks on the bodies were signs of violence before death. And he asserted that Barbara Grimes had been molested–something the pathologists had denied.
McCarron accused Glos of being “publicity mad” and said he lacked expertise in forensic science. Glos countered by stating, “He’s mad at me because I want to run for sheriff.” Police complained that Glos had undermined their investigation by revealing the molestation of the older girl, a secret they’d hoped to keep to use in questioning suspects. Sheriff Lohman, Glos’s only ally, deputized him to work on the case without pay. Each side accused the other of political grandstanding.
State senator Robert Graham of Chicago called for a legislative inquiry into both the Grimes and Schuessler-Peterson cases, charging that the police agencies involved were withholding information from each other and compromising the investigations. Senator Arthur Bidwill of River Forest countered that Chicago murders were none of the senate’s business. The American Civil Liberties Union accused Sheriff Lohman of violating Bedwell’s rights by holding him four days before charging him with a crime.
That August a six-man Florida jury deliberated all of 25 minutes before acquitting Bedwell of a charge of statutory rape. Bedwell testified that sex with the 13-year-old had been consensual and that she’d told him she was 18. Bedwell’s mother described herself as “the happiest woman in the country.” Florida authorities say Bedwell later was imprisoned on a weapons charge and released in 1986. Reportedly, he’s since died. Sheriff Lohman died in 1969, never doubting that it was Bedwell who murdered Barbara and Patricia Grimes.
An elderly man from Brighton Park who claims to have known police involved in the investigation spoke of a cover-up to protect the girls. “They hung around a bar on Archer Avenue,” he claimed, “where older guys would buy them drinks.” One of those guys, he said, was Bennie Bedwell. Harry Glos, who died in 1994, had announced that one girl was molested; but Richard Wessel Sr., who as an administrative assistant to Sheriff Lohman saw the autopsy slides, told me years later there was evidence that both sisters had been. He speculated that Coroner McCarron had religious reasons for stating otherwise.
Rosemary Chodor, a friend of older sister Theresa Grimes, is still angry at the gossip over Barbara and Patricia. “They were nice, ordinary little girls, poor and happy–we all were,” she insists. “Their mother had to work and she assigned them housework, like mopping the floors. Our idea of fun was to pour soapy water over them and slide around in our bare feet, giggling–silly, little-kid stuff, you know?” She remembers a childhood world simply too small and unsophisticated to take in the likes of Bennie Bedwell. “It was cold that night,” she recalls, convinced that someone in the neighborhood killed them. “They might have accepted a ride with someone they knew to get warm. Either that or someone forced them into a car.”
Carol Kube, who lived on Damen when the girls were little and still lives in the neighborhood, also remembers Barbara and Patricia as “normal kids.” To this day she resents the media for trafficking in stories that painted them as wayward.
Robert Lenkart, a teenager at the time, agrees with Chodor. “They might have gotten into a car with someone they knew–after all, we kids were trying to get to know the opposite sex and that’s frequently how we did it.” Lenkart didn’t live in the neighborhood but his girlfriend did, and he knew Barbara and Patricia slightly–“well enough to know they weren’t hanging around in bars. They were ordinary teen-agers, just like everyone else.”
The Grimes case faded from the news, but not from Chicago’s collective memory. It takes only a word to revive its sadness and mystery. Marjorie Glen, who grew up on the west side, was a baby in 1957 but still felt its impact: “I heard about that murder all my life,” she says. “It was my mother’s reason why we couldn’t go out after dark or stay out late. She scared us with it.” Linda Modrowski, who was eight at the time and lived southwest of the Grimeses’ neighborhood, remembers her grandmother cutting clippings from the newspapers. “That murder scared me and my sisters to death,” she recalls.
In the neighborhood itself, a close-knit enclave that has changed little over the years, shock can still come to the faces of longtime residents: “Oh, yes, I remember those girls,” comments one woman somberly. “I saw them over there the night they disappeared.” She points to the abandoned Brighton Theater. A current Damen Avenue resident who was ten years old and lived at 33rd and Archer in 1957 was forbidden by her mother to attend the Brighton after the crime. She remembers feeling sad and afraid when the bodies were found.
“I’ve never gotten over it,” says Carol Kube today. “It’s part of my identity–I’m the girl who lived on the block where the Grimes girls lived.” She often ran into Mrs. Grimes walking in the neighborhood long after she’d lost her daughters–“her head down, her shoulders bent, a broken lady,” Kube says, “but always thoughtful enough to smile and ask me how my mother was doing.”
Vern Zuehlke, who still lives across from the old Grimes home, was ten at the time. He became afraid to play outside or walk to school, and he believes that to this day he’s unduly wary of strangers. He remembers seeing Loretta Grimes standing watch in her living room window. “I sensed that anniversaries were the hardest for her,” he says, and recalls that on the 25th anniversary of the girls’ disappearance she came over to visit his mother and wept.
Some 50 feet east of the bridge on German Church Road, a narrow gravel drive once led to the house of a family with two small children. Soon after the bodies were discovered the family abandoned it. Furniture and toys littered the yard for years, and a 1955 Buick sat rusting in the driveway. Then someone set fire to the house, and the owner demolished what was left. The Buick eventually disappeared, possibly carried away piecemeal by vandals. But until recently the foundation remained, and one could see remnants of plumbing pipes and backyard hedges. Graffiti began to appear–a swastika, a pitchfork, the words “Wrath,” “Hitler,” and “Pink Floyd. Nobody’s home.”
What would have been the side yard was reclaimed by nature, except for two tires protruding from a pond covered with pale green algae. Now and then when the trees were bare and the visibility good, nearby residents observed a tall, gaunt man walking the grounds. They believed him to be the owner but were afraid to ask. Why he and his family apparently fled the house with only the clothes they were wearing remains as puzzling as the murders themselves. Police became accustomed to chasing off carloads of teens who’d driven onto the property to view the remains of the “murder house.”
Debbie Serpico, a suburban woman, and 12 of her friends took a Halloween tour of the grounds before the house burned. Walking up a path that branched off the driveway circling the house, the full moon lighting their way, they heard a car approaching. Its lights off, the car sped past them and around the house, then disappeared. Leaving hastily, the group ran into police who’d been called to chase them away. The cable barricading the driveway was intact and the cops had seen no car.
Richard Crowe, a local expert on supernatural phenomena, tells a story during his “ghost tour” about a car commonly heard on German Church Road. It supposedly stops at the bridge, its doors open and slam shut, and it speeds off into the night.
A few miles away, Marie Prescott still lives in a little house on a hill with her husband Leonard, who discovered the girls’ bodies. She remembers questioning by police who appeared at their door early each morning for months. “They went through our cabinets, almost as though they suspected my husband of something,” she says with a touch of resentment in her voice. She no longer speaks of the murders to her husband. “He’s getting on in years, you know, and it still upsets him.” People ask her, even today, if she and her husband are the ones who found those two little girls. For 40 years she’s thought of them each time she passes the bridge.
Walking around the southwest side today, I feel a strange melancholy. An Arby’s and a McDonald’s mark minor updates on Archer Avenue; gone and replaced by a video store is Angelos’. But the side streets, lined with modest homes interspersed with meticulously well-kept two- and three-flats, remain virtually unchanged. Dressed up with a new roof and front is the little house on Damen Avenue where Barbara and Patricia ate and slept and collected pictures of Elvis Presley. Around the corner is Saint Maurice Church, which I attended with the girls too briefly to meet them. It occurs to me, as I stand in its doorway, that I might have knelt next to Loretta Grimes as she prayed for their safe return. Across the street is the funeral home where I became a thoughtless spectator, standing in line with all the others and locking eyes briefly with a woman whose grief I couldn’t, at age 16, begin to appreciate. Her sad look of resignation remained imprinted in my memory as though caught by the snap of a camera.
Loretta Grimes died on December 8, 1989.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Patricia Grimes photo, Barbara Grimes photo, January 22, 1957 police photo, Edward “Dennis” Bedwell photo courtesy Chicago Sun-Times,.