In 1964, Charles Schmid of Tucson, Arizona, was dating 17-year-old Mary Rae French when he told her that he was itching to kill someone and suggested that she help him. Mary didn’t object, and they set about putting a plan into operation.
Schmid, 23, was known to his friends as “Smitty” and was once a champion gymnast in the state. From where and when this desire to kill came was never explained. Whether Smitty had some kind of “hold” over Mary, a la Paul Bernardo and Carla Holmoka, or whether Mary was more an accomplice in the mode of Myra Hindley was also sadly unexplored. To look at either of them, neither Smitty nor Mary look like thrill killers, but then, who does?
It was toward the end of May 1964 that Smitty suggested to Mary that she lure 15-year-old Alleen Rowe from her home late at night on the pretext of participating in a double-date. According to Mary’s later testimony in court, Alleen was one of three girls who had been targeted by the couple.
“Smitty said he wanted to kill someone, a girl, and see if he could get away with it,” she testified. “He wanted me to keep trying to get Alleen to go out and he wanted to kill someone and do it that night.”
Alleen was willing to go out with Mary, Smitty, and 19-year-old John Saunders on the double date, but she told Mary that they would have to wait until 11 p.m. so that she could sneak out without her mother’s knowledge. Alleen’s mother later told police she had concerns for her daughter’s safety because Alleen had told her about a teenage “sex club” that had been formed.
“Alleen was trying to avoid this bunch of creeps,” Norma Rowe told authorities after her daughter vanished. “She once told me, ‘The club’s the thing; you’ve got to belong to be in.’”
There was never any indication of any teenage sex club. Whether it was a figment of Norma’s imagination, or that Alleen had used the “club” as an excuse for some behavior is anyone’s guess.
Regardless, Alleen did go out with John, Smitty, and Mary on May 31, 1964 after her mother left for her night job. Before picking up Alleen, Smitty took a shovel from Saunders’s house and put it in the trunk of his car. Then they drove around until 11 p.m. when they pulled into an alley near Alleen’s house and waited. Mary went and got Alleen, who was wearing a bathing suit and had her hair in curlers, according to court records.
From Alleen’s house the quartet drove into the desert and walked down to a wash. The four young people sat for a few moments when Smitty asked Mary to go back to the car and get a radio.
As Mary was walking away, she heard Alleen scream. After a few moments an “excited” Smitty approached.
“We killed her,” he told Mary. The announcement was followed by a passionate kiss. Smitty took the shovel from the car and led Mary back to the wash where John Saunders was waiting.
Mary’s testimony at Smitty’s trial for Alleen Rowe’s murder describes what happened.
Q: Did you see Alleen Rowe when you got down into the wash?
Q: Where was she?
A: She was lying on the ground.
Q: Speak up, Miss French. Describe her appearance.
A: She was lying on her back and had blood all over her face.
Q: Was she moving at all, Miss French?
Q: Could you determine if she was breathing at all?
Q: Could you hear anything out of Miss Rowe?
All three took turns with the shovel and dug a grave for Alleen Rowe. After putting her body in it, they gathered up her curlers and buried them, as well.
Shortly after Alleen’s disappearance, Norma Rowe gave police the names of some of the people she thought were in the “sex club.” Smitty was one of them, and was interviewed several times by police. He was considered a suspect, but there was not enough evidence to do anything.
“We discussed the Rowe girl’s disappearance many, many times,” said Tucson police officer John Breglia. “We had plenty of allegations, but no proof.”
By early 1965, Mary had moved to Texas with her family and Smitty was dating 17-year-old Gretchen Fritz. Their relationship had been intense at the beginning, but as the anniversary of Alleen’s murder neared, Smitty began to chafe under the constant attention of Gretchen. According to him, she “pestered” him with “incessant” phone calls and numerous demands. Smitty decided that he wanted out of the relationship.
There was one problem: Gretchen apparently knew that he had slain Allene thanks to a bit of indiscriminate pillow talk.
Smitty tried various schemes to end the relationship. Once he paid a friend to meet Gretchen and set her up to be “discovered” cheating on him. Another time he had another friend try to threaten her with a gun. He also asked that friend to throw acid in her face.
He told others that he was powerless to stop Gretchen’s insistent demands because she had stolen a diary that contained an account of how he had killed a young boy, cut off his hands, and buried him. Smitty had kept a diary, and Gretchen did take it, but the murder described within it was not some fictitious killing of a boy, but that of the slaying of Alleen Rowe.
By the summer of 1965 Smitty’s feelings of persecution by Gretchen had reached the breaking point and he spoke openly with friends about killing her: “twisting her pretty little neck” was how one described it. Gretchen and Smitty argued almost daily about the diary and he increased his efforts to get it back.
Finally, he realized there was only one way to solve his problem. In August 1965 he began spreading the word that soon Gretchen was going to move east to live with an aunt.
On August 16, 1965, Smitty held a party at his house when Gretchen called and demanded that he come over to see her. He told a friend that she threatened to go to her father with her knowledge of Smitty’s crimes.
“I’m going to get that bitch if it’s the last thing I do,” Smitty said as he stormed out of the house carrying an old briefcase.
That same night, Gretchen and her 13-year-old sister, Wendy received permission from their parents, a heart surgeon and his wife, to attend a drive-in movie.
Smitty returned to his home around 1 a.m. August 17 as the party was winding down. Just a few guests remained and one girl who saw him would later remark that Schmid was covered with dust and sweaty, and appeared scared “like something was wrong with him.” Later that day, Schmid told a friend that he had been in a fight with Gretchen, and that she had run away.
Schmid couldn’t keep his mouth closed, however. A week after Gretchen and Wendy disappeared, he took a friend, Richard Bruns, to (what was then) a remote section of Pontatoc Road and showed him the bodies of Gretchen and Wendy. Gretchen was lying at the bottom of a slope, and Wendy was lying in a shallow hole partially covered with dirt. The bodies were already significantly decomposed and partially skeletonized.
Beneath Wendy’s skull was an electrical cord that police eventually traced to Smitty’s electric guitar.
About the same time Smitty and Bruns were at the murder scene, police located Gretchen’s Pontiac LeMans, dirty and splattered with mud inside and out, at the parking lot of the Tropicana Hotel in Tucson.
By late autumn 1965, Bruns had moved to Columbus, Ohio because of “disciplinary problems.” In the same time, Schmid met a 15-year-old girl on a blind date and married her shortly after.
In November, Bruns picked up the phone and called Tucson police, giving them the break they needed to close the three murders.
“He was turned in by his best friend,” Smitty’s mother, Katherine, told the press.
While Schmid sat mum in jail, Tucson authorities arrested Mary French and John Saunders, who were more willing to talk. Both eventually police to the wash where the sisters’ bones were recovered.
At the time, however, no one was able to located the grave of Alleen Rowe.
Mary pleaded guilty to being an accessory and received a 4-to-6 year term. Saunders pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
At trial in February 1966, Charles Schmid was convicted of murdering Gretchen and Wendy and sentenced to death. He took the sentence with little emotion.
“Well, that’s the way it goes,” he said.
A month later, Schmid pleaded guilty to murder in connection with Alleen’s slaying. With his help, police were able to locate her clothes and a single bone.
When the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily ended capital punishment, Schmid’s death sentence was converted to life in prison.
He reappeared briefly in the news in 1972 when he escaped from prison, but was recaptured within days.
In 1975, Schmid was murdered by two other inmates when he backed out of an escape plan. Authorities theorized that Schmid did not want to jeopardize an upcoming furlough.