There is a curious subset of homicide called “trunk murder” that never fails to fascinate some of us who follow this sort of thing: The murderer commits the crime and for some reason thinks the best way to dispose of a body is to put it into a suitcase or traveler’s trunk and deposits the proof of the corpus delicti in the left luggage room.
Sometimes the body is left intact, but frequently investigators are presented only with portions of the body and are left to wonder where the rest of their victim may be stored. The method has fallen upon disfavor among killers these days as unattended luggage often attracts the unwanted interest of police quite quickly. Back when people traveled by train, however, trunk murders were relatively common.
In April 1954 Philadelphia joined Paris, Los Angeles, Brighton, England, and who knows how many other cities where bodies in the baggage have been discovered when the decomposing body parts of a man were found in boxes wrapped in several rain coats and stuffed into a green-and-black, brass-trimmed footlocker. The trunk was found at the Sharon Hill trolley station on Chester Pike and Brainerd Boulevard outside of Philadelphia.
The footlocker was first noticed at the stop around 7 a.m. on April 27, 1954, by trolley operator Benjamin Bowers. About 90 minutes later another operator called his dispatcher to report the unusual abandoned luggage and police were summoned.
Unfortunately, according to the Chester (PA) Times, “the message became garbled in transmission and the police looked for a truck instead of a trunk.”
At 3:45 p.m., a patrolman who was just wrapping up school traffic duty was dispatched to pick up the trunk, which was brought back to police HQ. At first the police were willing to let some civilians lead the investigation, the Times reports:
At police headquarters, Sharon Avenue and Spring Street, two youths helped carry the foot locker inside…The youths tried to open the trunk with hairpins, but this and other attempts failed. A locksmith, Lewis Santa, was called and he opened the foot locker after trying three skeleton keys.
Once it was opened, Sgt. William Malloy took charge of the trunk and and made the gruesome discovery.
“I felt a bundle and it seemed soft and fleshy,” he said, adding that once investigators detected the odor of decaying flesh, the trunk was moved to a cell where body parts of a 160- 165-pound white man who had been dead for some time were revealed.
The murderer had been prepared for the job. The two packages — the first contained the torso, and the other held the head, arms and hands — were wrapped in 5 plastic raincoats from which the killer had removed any tags. They were sealed shut with transparent tape and were held inside a cardboard box. The killer treated the inside of the raincoats with camphor flakes and powdered lime, investigators said, which would promote decomposition while reducing the stench somewhat.
The body, from slightly above the hips downward, was missing.
The autopsy revealed that the corpse, which at the time was believed to be that of a 60-year-old man, had been burned before it was dismembered; the right arm was particularly damaged, the report shows. The victim’s internal organs had been removed, “the lower jaw was destroyed and most hair had been eaten away by the lime,” the unusually graphic, above-the-flag article in the Times states.
“A few gray and black hairs were left on the head and several red hairs on the chest,” the anonymous reporter continues. “The dismemberment was described by (Delaware County Coroner Joseph) Tercha as “not that of an amateur.”
The article quotes Earle H. Allen, chief of detectives, as saying murder was “a definite possibility.” Allen was speaking tongue-in-cheek, but a quick survey of funeral parlors and the area hospitals to ensure that all other corpses could be accounted for was still necessary.
At first it looked like Allen would have his work cut out for him as the initial autopsy disclosed no bullet or stab wounds in the upper torso or skull and nothing indicating blunt force trauma.
“At this stage of our investigation we cannot determine how he met his death,” Allen told the press.
Not surprising, the autopsy was a particularly gruesome affair. Medical examiner Dr. John Turner III said the victim was about 60 years old, 5-feet-7, between 160 and 170 pounds.
“All parts of the body had been burned,” he said. “The head and fingertips were so badly charred that they were almost unidentifiable.”
Turner eventually located a bullet wound caused by a .38-caliber pistol and assigned that as the cause of death. His autopsy made it clear that the victim was dead before the dismemberment began.
While some detectives were trying to identify the victim, others were tracking down the source of the brown carton which contained the body parts and the trunk, which appeared to be new. Other flatfoots canvassed the trolley line talking to anyone who rode that route, hoping for a break.
That break came the next day when an unidentified commuter told police he had seen a “studious-looking man with an alpine hat accompanied by a uniformed man” carrying a trunk at the trolley station. Cops posted the description in every taxi garage in the city and environs and soon veteran Yellow Cab driver Nanis Gaither came forward and said he picked up a fare in Philadelphia who matched the description. Gaither said the fare stopped at the man’s house in Sharon Hill where they loaded up the trunk. Gaither said he dropped the man at the trolley stop.
Gaither remembered the man quite clearly, not only because of the hat, but because his cab was third in line at the stand when the man walked up. The man passed over the first two cabs and asked Gaither to drive him to his home. When Gaither asked why the man did not pick one of the first cabs, he replied that he was “allergic to radios” and did not want to ride in a cab that was equipped with a two-way radio.
Meanwhile, evidence from the crime scene confirmed Gaither’s story: Police had discovered that a name and address matching the one where Gaither picked up the trunk were written on the cardboard box containing the victim’s head.
The house was identified as belonging to Francis X. Ballem, 28, a mechanic in an industrial plant. Ballem, while not known to police, was notorious in his neighborhood for his odd behavior. He had a fondness for alpine hats (the one you see on Germanic stereotype characters) and for quoting Shakespeare. He was not known to be violent, and was considered quite intelligent.
Police rushed to Ballem’s house and assuming they were dealing with a deranged killer, kicked in a window and entered that way. Although the house was described as cluttered and flithy, it was clear Ballem was trying to clean up signs of the crime. Trash was burning in the fireplace, and someone had tried to wash the blood from the living room floor. Ballem, however, was nowhere to be found.
When he heard the police bust in the window, Ballem had grabbed the suitcase containing the victim’s legs and abdomen and fled to the attic. When the searchers got to the attic, Ballem stood up with his hands raised, dressed only in his undershorts.
Sadly, no one today will be shocked in the same way the folks in the 1950s were when they found out about Ballem’s arsenal: “In the house were found five revolvers, a shotgun, a rifle, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, two black Halloween masks, a bullet-proof vest that comes in sections, and two modern-type gas masks. A safe deposit box yielded another two pistols and other articles,” wrote CTimes reporter Mitch Rosenfeld.
Now that they had their suspect in custody, the police were free to focus on learning the identity of the dead man. Ballem was little help in that regard except that he was able to describe him as “a man between 35 and 40 years old, with ruddy complexion, brown hair and employing good English.”
Again luck was on the side of the police when a missing persons report was filed by the restaurant where World War II veteran John Dopirak was working as a dishwasher. Dopirak was a strange (his family said he was “addicted to dying his hair”) but harmless man who had flown bombing missions over Germany during the war and returned to Philadelphia where he was born and raised bearing a Purple Heart. His family said John, 35, was a “happy-go-lucky wanderer” who just never settled down. Following the war he worked occasionally as a merchant seaman, but it appeared from his police record that Dopirak had trouble with alcohol. He had a pair of convictions for disorderly conduct and public drunkeness.
Once police showed him a photograph of Dopirak, Ballem responded, “Oh, yes, that’s the man; I’ll never forget that smile.”
Dopirak’s brothers identified him from a scar on his forearm.
Ballem confessed to the crime almost immediately upon his arrest.
He had been living alone in the house for the past several years after his parents died and his wife left him, he said. According to his wife, who would later testify at Ballem’s trial, he became enraged when she informed him she was pregnant and told her he never wanted children. This, combined with his eccentric behavior, ended the marriage, but the divorce had not been finalized.
After Ballem’s wife left him he lived with his elderly parents until they died, leaving him the house, some other property in Philadelphia and $20,000 in liquid assets (in current dollars that’s almost $200k). The fact that Ballem’s parents died within months of each other piqued investigators’ interest at first, but their deaths were not suspicious.
Ballem told police he met John Dopirak at a bar and that they shared several drinks together. After a long drinking bout where they bar-hopped around the city, the men decided to take a trip to New York City. Ballem said they went to his home so he could get clothes for the trip. Ballem said he never intended to go to New York, but that going back to his home was a ruse for him to get Dopirak alone so he could rob him.
“I started going through his brown coat which was on the chair in the living room, for the purpose of finding his wallet which he had given me the impression was full of money,” Ballem told police. “I was very drunk but I knew what I was doing with reference to robbing this man of his money.”
Just at that time Dopirak walked into the room, and said: “I am going to kill you, you thieving…”
Ballem said he saw Dopirak going through his late mother’s jewelry and then pick up a gun from an open drawer, so he also picked up a gun and confronted Dopirak.
“Well, you asked for it,” Ballem said, pointing the pistol at Dopirak and pulling the trigger. He went over to check on the condition of his victim. “I listened for a heartbeat and didn’t hear it. I didn’t want to hear it.”
Most likely there was a failed sexual overture by one of the men. Any number of scenarios that begin with misunderstanding and end in murder come to mind. Regardless of his motivation, Ballem began the awful task of corpse disposal. He fixed himself another drink and then dragged Dopirak’s body to the basement where he removed all of the clothes, burning them in the incinerator.
Still drinking, Ballem, who was described by doctors as having a high IQ, did research in how to get rid of a murder victim.
He purchased lye and placed it on the hands and over the face, but it did not destroy the features. He then applied a blow torch, attempting to cut the body apart that way. After several hours he decided the torch was not working successfully and he went upstairs and got drunk all over again. After he sobered up, he cut up the body with a saw. He tried unsuccessfully to burn the cut up portions of the body, piece by piece, in the furnace. Then he flushed the ashes down the drain in his basement.
He then bought plastic raincoats and wrapped therein other portions of the body, some of which he placed in the trunk. Other parts he placed in a suitcase which he hid on the third floor of his home. He took other parts of the body, with the raincoats wrapped around them, and rolled them into a creek known as Naylor’s Run, Upper Darby, which was four or five blocks from his home. Ballem then cleaned and re-loaded his gun so if it was found no one would know it had been recently fired.
Naturally, following his confession, Ballem was packed off to a psychiatric hospital for a plethora of tests. It took almost a year — during which Ballem had a tumor removed from his breast — for the shrinks to concur that Ballem was ready and able to assist in his defense.
Not surprisingly, Ballem’s defense was one of insanity, while the Commonwealth was going for the death penalty. Over the course of a one-month trial, witnesses testified to his mental state, and although there was obvious mental illness present, Ballem was not criminally insane. The jury convicted him of murder and he was sentenced to death.
The sentence was later commuted to imprisonment for life, which for Ballem ended in 1971.