Tag Archive for Massachusetts

Murder in Three Acts

George Edgerly

George Edgerly has had more brushes with greatness than most career criminals. In 1960, with the help of F. Lee Bailey, Edgerly beat a murder rap and years later he was prosecuted by John Kerry for the 1975 rape of a Massachusetts prostitute.
 
F. Lee Bailey, of course, is perhaps one of America’s best known defense attorneys with clients like O.J. Simpson and Patty Hearst, among many others. John Kerry is the former senator from Massachusetts and 2004 Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States. Until the end of the Obama Administration in January 2017, he was the Secretary of State of the United States, which disproves the belief that there are no second acts in America.
 
Bailey and Kerry both pulled a victory out of what appeared to be sure defeat, and in each case their performances helped thrust them into the limelight and on to better things.
 
But this isn’t a story about Bailey or Kerry. It is the sordid tale of murder and mayhem which seemed to follow George Edgerly throughout his life.

Act I: The Murder of Elizabeth Edgerly

The story begins in December 1959, when Edgerly’s 25-year-old wife, Elizabeth disappeared after a confrontation with her husband, in Lowell, Mass., across the river from their home in Dracut. The couple had had a stormy relationship and Edgerly reportedly had a wicked temper. On more than one occasion, Elizabeth was seen with bruises and cuts that she blamed on her husband, and several witnesses testified at his 1960 murder trial that Edgerly and Elizabeth had been fighting the day she disappeared.
 
Elizabeth’s disappearance on December 27, 1959, was the climax of an escalating month-long fight between the husband and wife that began on Thanksgiving Day when several people heard Edgerly tell his wife, “I’ll kill you yet” when she asked him to go out and buy a loaf of bread. Edgerly was irked because his brother-in-law and his wife were sharing Thanksgiving dinner despite the fact that Edgerly was unemployed at the time.
 
Two weeks before Elizabeth vanished, Edgerly’s temper once again raised its head when Elizabeth, her brother, and another man were enjoying a few drinks at the Tremont Cafe. Edgerly appeared and tried to pull Elizabeth out of the booth. Elizabeth’s brother, Francis Hawkins, accompanied his sister out to Edgerly’s car and when Edgerly emerged from the tavern, he attempted to throttle Hawkins. The unidentified friend happened to have a handgun and Edgerly reportedly tried to grab it from him.
 
“He would have killed the three of us,” Hawkins said on the stand.
 
On December 27, Hawkins, Elizabeth, and Edgerly were drinking together at the Three Pines Restaurant in Middleton, where they ate dinner. The trio then headed to an Allenhurst restaurant where they continued to drink. Hawkins was upset that his wife had become pregnant by another man, and the trio was discussing his options. After about three hours of drinking, the group left and headed back toward Dracut. Both Hawkins and the barmaid said that Elizabeth was so intoxicated when she left the bar that she had to be physically helped to the car. Hawkins said she was unconscious when Edgerly dropped him off at around 11:15 p.m.
 
No one ever saw Elizabeth Edgerly alive again.
 
Hawkins and Edgerly met up again around 4:30 a.m., and Hawkins noted that his brother-in-law had changed clothes. Hawkins asked about his sister and Edgerly told him she had “taken off” at the corner of Pawtucket and School streets in Lowell.
 
“Betty won’t be home tonight,” Edgerly told his brother-in-law.
 
When Hawkins saw Edgerly in the early morning hours of December 28, he said Edgerly was holding his right hand inside his coat and kept it there until he went into a shed behind his home where he remained for three or four minutes.
 
Edgerly did not report his wife missing because, according to him, it wasn’t unusual for her to disappear for days at a time. After Elizabeth’s mother contacted police, Edgerly told them that he had stopped to aid a motorist stuck in the snow at the intersection of Pawtucket and School and when he returned she had vanished.
 
Edgerly became a suspect in his wife’s disappearance when he offered differing accounts of his actions after Elizabeth vanished and contradicted himself about what he was wearing that night.
 
However, without a body, no outward signs of foul play, and a woman who was known to spend days away from home, the police had no case against him.
 
Over the next several months Edgerly was repeatedly questioned by police and according to testimony at his murder trial, took more than 20 lie detector tests. It was not until April 11, 1960 that police were able to get the results they were seeking.
 
“Now we have what we want,” Lieutenant George Harnois of the District Attorney’s office told Edgerly after that final test. “I think you killed her.”
 
Edgerly was nonplussed.
 
“You have the right to your own opinion,” he replied.
 
Edgerly had been brought into headquarters for questioning that day because two young boys had found a dismembered female torso in a Dracut brook. The head, arms, and legs were missing, but police surmised that it belonged to Elzabeth.
 
The autopsy revealed that the woman had been slain just a couple of hours after she had eaten, and that the killer had taken great pains to hide the woman’s identity. The killer had used a hacksaw to dismember the corpse and then taken a knife to remove signs of a goiter.
 
A search of Edgerly’s shed revealed a package of 12 hacksaw blades with four missing. Police could not find a hacksaw and Edgerly, an automobile mechanic, said he had lost his about a year before.
 
Police also found evidence of bloody clothes in the trunk of Edgerly’s car, which he explained away as the result of an assault on his wife before Christmas, when she was absent for a few days.
 
About a week after the torso was found, a search of the area revealed the legs that belonged with the torso. Missing, however, was one foot that was malformed because of a previous injury.
 
Edgerly went on trial in February 1960, and Bailey joined the defense team about halfway through the 17-day affair.
 
“George was an interesting guy, pretty unflappable. He was screwing both his mother-in-law and his wife’s sisters. That was evidence in the trial,” Bailey told Jeffrey Toobin in a 2004 New Yorker article on John Kerry. “He was sitting in an iron cage in the middle of the courtroom, which is where defendants used to have to sit in those days.”
 
Bailey was called in to refute the polygraph testimony, and his masterful cross-examination and summing up were credited by many with helping Edgerly win an acquittal.
 
“This is a case of circumstantial evidence,” Bailey told jurors. “Nobody saw Edgerly murder his wife and no one so testified. Circumstantial evidence is like a chain and no chain is stronger than its weakest link.”
 
For their part, the prosecutors admitted that Hawkins was a convicted criminal who hated his brother-in-law, but that the jurors should not hold that against him. The state acknowledged that the case was circumstantial, but explained that this was to be expected.
 
“When a man intends to kill his wife, he does not invite the same people to the murder that he invited to the wedding,” prosecutor Frank Monarski told jurors.
 
After 10 hours, the jury decided that the state had not overcome the burden of proof and Edgerly was freed.

Act II: Motorgate

On February 1, 1974, a Beverly, Mass. resident spotted something washed up on the shore of the Danvers River. Investigating, he realized it was a corpse and police were summoned. What began as a routine murder investigation would quietly become a national scandal involving the country’s largest automobile manufacturer. Several people would go to jail for fraud and theft, and George Edgerly would end up on trial for murder once again.
 
The victim, Francis Smith, was a Boston resident who was employed as a district service representative for General Motors’s Chevrolet Division. Police quickly recreated his last day alive, finding that he had spent his workday at the automobile dealership owned by R. Gordon Butler in Lowell. The last known people to see him that day were a Butler Chevy service department employee, James Dolson, and his boss, George Edgerly. It was Smith’s job to monitor Butler’s warranty repair jobs. The large dealership was expected to perform about $30,000 in monthly warranty work, but Butler was doing nearly twice that.
 
While police in Middlesex County looked at the criminal side of things, auditors with General Motors began to examine the company’s warranty program for possible fraud. The company would eventually uncover hundreds of thousands of dollars in padded warranty repair bills and large-scale violations of the company’s ethics policy that forbids employees from accepting anything other than “nominal” gifts from dealerships. General Motors would maintain a tight lid on the extent of the problem, but after a 15-month internal investigation, about 36 employees in the company’s Northeast offices were summarily terminated for “violating company policies.”
 
About the same time that the employees were terminated, Butler, Edgerly, and the dealership’s general manager were indicted by a Boston grand jury for theft and fraud.
 
Under the direction of the that trio, repairmen for the dealership were submitting false claims to General Motors for warranty work. Customers would bring in their cars for simple repairs — which the mechanics would do — but GM was billed for extensive repair jobs like engine rebuilds and transmission work. GM not only paid for the repairs that were never done, but would also send replacement parts that were subsequently sold to other customers.
 
When the press got wind of the story in those post-Watergate years, the scandal was quickly dubbed “Motorgate.”
 
In 1976, Edgerly was sentenced to three to five years in prison. Butler and his general manager, Theodore Kemos, were given two years in prison and fined $2,500 each.
 
For Edgerly, however, the conviction in that case was small potatoes. A month after Smith’s body was found, Edgerly had been indicted for his murder.

Interlude: The Edgerly Rape Case

John Kerry was beginning his public service career as an assistant district attorney when he was tapped to serve as prosecutor in Edgerly’s 1977 rape case. It was not a very strong case against Edgerly, despite the witnesses to the assault.
 
The rape began on January 1, 1975 when Edgerly and three other men picked up the young woman, a prostitute, at a Merrimack Street bar in Lowell and drove the woman to a wooded area where they forced her to perform oral sex. She also claimed that Edgerly attempted to rape her, “but was unable to complete the act.” After the assault, the men drove their victim back to the bar.
 
“Kerry told me this Edgerly was a lucky guy. This could be a snakebit case. It was not a slam dunk,” one of Kerry’s co-workers told Toobin in the New Yorker article. “Nobody was going to try that case if you were looking just to put a notch in your belt.”
 
Edgerly held the upper hand in the case, Kerry acknowledged.
 
“It was an improbable kind of case,” Kerry told Toobin. “The victim was very suspect because of her life style and background. The bottom line was that she did not consent, the bottom line was that she had been raped.”
 
Raped or not, the victim had not helped her own case by trying to extort money from Edgerly to make the case go away. She admitted on the stand that she was willing to accept money from Edgerly, but said it was simply a ruse to get him to admit his guilt.
 
The other men in the car — each of whom admitted he had lied in previous statements to investigators — testified that Edgerly, 49, had sexually assaulted the woman and the jury convicted him of rape. For the first time in his life, Edgerly was given serious jail time: 18-to-30 years.

Act III: The Murder of Frank Smith

The break in the Smith murder case came long before investigators in the Motorgate fraud case wrapped up their probe — and before Edgerly faced off with John Kerry.
 
A few weeks after Smith’s body turned up in the marsh along the Danvers River, police were called to the local hospital where James Dolson — the Butler Chevy employee who spent the last day with Edgerly and Smith — was lying near death from a stab wound. He wanted to talk to authorities.
 
Dolson told police that he had witnessed Edgerly shoot Smith and dump his body in the Danvers River after a 12-hour booze fest. Over the course of their liquid lunch that stretched late into the night, Edgerly was reportedly waving a pistol around and at one point asked Smith “if he wanted to go for a ride.”
 
Dolson found his tongue after Edgerly lured him to a remote cabin and stabbed him. Another man, Jackie Shanahan, was also present that day and turned state’s evidence to avoid being charged himself.
 
Edgerly, already serving time for his role in Motorgate and for rape, was charged with assault against Dolson. At trial, he took the stand and said Shanahan stabbed Dolson because of some feud between the two men. Shanahan denied this, but Edgerly was acquitted.
 
In 1978, Edgerly went on trial for Smith’s murder. The evidence against him was once again circumstantial, but with Dolson’s admission of seeing Edgerly shoot Smith — a man he had reason to want dead — this time it was Edgerly who faced an uphill battle to establish his innocence.
 
At trial, the prosecution introduced witnesses who would testify that Edgerly asked them for a gun, saying there was someone “he wanted to frighten,” and Shanahan, who admitted getting the pistol for his friend.
 
Shanahan also testified that Edgerly wanted to get rid of Dolson “because he saw him kill someone.”
 
Edgerly took the stand in his own defense and blamed the killing on his old boss, Gordon Butler.
 
Butler, Edgerly claimed, was involved in drug smuggling. On one trip to Mexico, Edgerly found that Dolson was carrying two aerosol bottles filled with drugs for Butler. Edgerly told the jury that he dumped out the drugs in an airport bathroom.
 
Butler and his Motorgate co-conspirator, Ted Kemos, began pressuring Edgerly for the drugs, claiming that they were connected with the Boston Mob. Panicking, Edgerly told Kemos that Smith had taken the drugs.
 
It was the Mob that killed Smith, he said.
 
The jury did not believe him, and in 1978, Edgerly was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
 
Edgerly, now an extremely old man, is in custody at the Massachusetts Department of Corrections Shirley Institution.

Death Comes for the Headmaster

Elliott Speer

In 1934 the Mount Hermon Preparatory School for Boys in Northfield, Mass., was the last place anyone would expect a violent murder to occur. But sometimes the strangest crimes happen where no one expects them.
 
The school was founded by Dwight Moody, an American evangelist, as two separate institutions: Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies and Mount Hermon School for Boys in 1879 and 1881, respectively.
 
Moody was well known around the world for his commitment to serving the poor and less-fortunate of American inner cities.
 
According to the history of Northfield Mount Hermon school, Moody founded his institutions of learning because he “wanted to provide an education to young men and women who’d been denied that opportunity, usually due to financial hardship. In doing so, he hoped to create generations of committed Christians who would continue his evangelical efforts.”
 
By the time 35-year-old Rev. Dr. Elliott Speer took over as headmaster of the boys’ school, the institution had broadened its mission from serving society’s downtrodden to become a preparatory school for the well-heeled from across the country.
 
Speer came from a long line of religious elites, and had his own pedigree. His father was the Rev. Dr. Robert E. Speer, a renowned author of religious subjects and the head of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. The younger Speer was educated at Phillips Andover Academy and Princeton University. After his ordination he studied at the University of Edinburgh and at Columbia. He also taught school in England before returning in 1926 to Mount Hermon to serve as president of the Northfield schools. He left to conduct a study of the British educational system before returning to Mount Hermon in 1932 as headmaster.
 
Speer’s appointment as headmaster was not without controversy. At the time he was installed, the Presbyterian Church was involved in a struggle between two differing philosophies, one considered the “modernist” school and the other the “fundamentalist.”
 
Speer was a strong proponent of the more liberal modernist view and his reforms at the school prompted a bitter factional fight. Before he took over at the school, boys were subjected to a rigorous set of rules that, according to contemporary sources, made the place more of a monastery than a prep school. Speer introduced interscholastic athletics and the even more controversial practice of mixers involving the girls at school’s sister academy.
 
The battle between the liberals and fundamentalists at Mount Hermon came to a head when Speer invited the Presbyterian socialist and pacifist Norman Thomas to speak on campus. By late summer 1934 Speer was firmly in control of the policies at the school, but the church-wide controversy still raged.
 
It was September 15 and Speer was preparing to open another school year in less than a week when he retired to his study after dining with his wife, three children, and his father-in-law. Mrs. Speer’s mother had recently been in an accident and was recuperating in the Speer home, which was quietly situated in a secluded wood on the school’s 300-acre campus.
 
Speer was a man of rigid habits and he would spend several hours in his study after dinner reading various religious books and writing. As was his custom he was alone in the study, which was of the type one would expect for the literate headmaster of a Northeastern prep academy. The walls were lined with bookshelves and a large wooden desk dominated the room. A single window, behind the desk, allowed a view of a spacious lawn surrounded by old hardwood trees.
 
About 8:20 p.m. Speer was seated at the desk, apparently writing something, when he stood and turned toward the window. At that moment there was a single blast from a 12-gauge shotgun fired point-blank through the window. Five pellets of double-ought buckshot, each about 1/3-inch in diameter, caught Speer in his right arm and the right side of his chest.
 
Almost immediately after hearing the blast Mrs. Speer and her father rushed into the study. Speer had managed to stagger about 20 feet from behind the desk to the doorway where his wife found him.
 
“I don’t know what happened,” were Speer’s last words.
 
“Either the person outside the window with the gun purposely attracted Mr. Speer’s attention and thereby caused him to stand up,” wrote Massachusetts Associate Justice Timothy Hayes in a special inquest report. “Or he had turned his chair to the left and stood up to reach for a book which was located in the shelf above his head.”
 
Hayes conducted his closed inquest in December 1934.
 
Ballistics experts from the Massachusetts state police later recovered shell wadding beneath a large maple tree that stood beside the house. A low-hanging bough apparently provided an ideal hiding place for the killer, who fired up at Speer from a fairly sharp angle.
 
Police questioned members of the Speer household and were told by a maid that she heard “heavy, running footsteps” on the lawn immediately after the shooting. Another witness told authorities that she heard a car she saw parked in front of the school’s dining hall about 200 yards away from the Speer home speed away after the blast.
 
District Attorney Joseph T. Bartlett assumed command of the investigation and said he was convinced that someone familiar with the school was responsible for the crime.
 
“In the utter blackness which prevails on the campus at night, no stranger could have found his way to the house in its remote location and then escaped,” he said, alluding to the paths through the wooded campus formed a “virtual labyrinth.”
 
One of the earliest questions investigators struggled with was reminiscent of the famous “curious incident of the dog in the night time” of Sherlock Holmes.
 
The Speer family owned a pair of Newfoundland dogs, neither of which made any sound in the time leading up to the murder. Like the dog in “Silver Blaze,” the Speer dogs probably knew the killer, authorities surmised. However, a quick investigation eliminated this line of investigation. The elder dog, Andy, paid no attention to any of the investigators prowling though the home for the four days of the initial investigation while the younger, Amy, was a puppy locked in a kennel.
 
Investigators were also intrigued by the possibility that the killing was inspired by an English murder mystery book The Public School Murder that Speer owned. That book told the story of a school headmaster who was murdered by a rifle shot through his window.
 
Having abandoned the dogs as possible leads to a suspect, police began looking at anyone who might have wanted Speer dead. They theorized that Speer was killed by a disgruntled student or teacher, or a “religious fanatic” who objected to Speer’s liberal theology.
 
“Investigators assert there is the possibility that one of Dr. Speer’s opponents, maddened over the prospect of the opening of another term Monday under what he regarded as an unfit leader, might have goaded himself into the shooting,” reported The New York Times, referring to a theory espoused by Det. Lt. Albert Dacey of the state police.
 
For the next several months police followed hundreds of leads to nowhere and interviewed many of the 4,300 Mount Hermon alumni in New England. They tracked down an “incorrigible” former student who reportedly created a list of violent acts he wanted to accomplish — including killing Speer. That student, however, was in Virginia at the time of the murder.
 
By December, however, police had quickly eliminated all but one suspect — the school’s dean, Thomas E. Elder.
 
Elder and Speer had a contentious relationship from the day Speer was named headmaster for a number of reasons. Elder was one of the leaders of the school’s remaining fundamentalists and was reportedly upset that he was passed over for the headmaster’s job in favor of Speer. The dean was also known for having a quick temper and for holding a grudge.
 
During the investigation a number of circumstantial clues directed police toward Elder:

  • He was known to have once owned a shotgun of the type used to kill Dr. Speer, but denied this to police.
  • After Speer’s murder investigators saw that Elder had injured his right index finger — the one most likely used to pull a trigger — and friends told police that Elder’s shotgun “had a defective trigger guard.”
  • Elder placed a telephone call to Speer’s home shortly after the murder. Police surmised that he did this to ascertain whether his attack was successful.
  • Two letters, one supposedly written by Speer to Elder and the other in response, “are believed to be forged to simulate a firm friendship which actually did not exist between the pair.”
  • Speer reportedly lent The Public School Murder to Elder shortly before he died. However, in other reports, authorities simply said that Speer owned the book.

The most damning evidence of Elder’s guilt was the fact that he turned several clocks on the Mount Hermon campus ahead by 15 minutes as part of a scheme to establish an alibi.
 
The timepieces included the landmark clock on the tower of the school’s granite chapel, and, more importantly, the clock on the mantlepiece of Elder’s home.
 
On the night Speer died, Elder was entertaining a young man when the dean pointed to the clock on the mantle.
 
“It’s getting late,” Elder told his guest as he ushered him out. “I have to go someplace.”
 
Unfortunately for Elder, his guest was a shortwave radio enthusiast who, upon returning to his home, received a message and realized that Elder’s clock was wrong.
 
All of this evidence was presented to Justice Hayes during his inquest. Hayes closed the hearing at the request of the prosecution to prevent the suspect from “framing a defense” or “absconding if it became clear that he would be held for murder.”
 
Hayes, however, did not feel that the prosecution’s case was sufficient to warrant presentation to a grand jury, much less to a trial court. After hearing from more than 60 witnesses in a seven-day hearing, Hayes determined that Speer was killed by “a person unknown to this court.”
 
In his 2,500 word report Hayes did hint there was a plausible suspect, but explained that under Massachusetts law, a circumstantial case must meet a number of conditions that the case against Elder did not.
 
“It is essential that the circumstances taken as a whole should — to a moral certainty exclude every other hypothesis,” he wrote. “The proof required is proof beyond a reasonable doubt…it is not sufficient that the court find probable cause for holding an accused for the grand jury.”
 
Shortly after the Hayes report was released, Dean Thomas Elder retired from the school and moved to New Hampshire where he operated a poultry farm.
 
Six years after the Speer murder Elder was arrested for threatening a former Mt. Hermon school colleague with a shotgun. He was acquitted at trial.
 
Postscript
Perhaps the best summing up of the tragedy of Elliott Speer’s murder appeared shortly after the event in a letter to the editor of The New York Times from Jean C. Cochrane of Plainfield, N.J.

To the Editor:
The death of Dr. Elliott Speer has been a far greater tragedy than the papers have realized. They have centered on the sensational features of the crime, but have barely mentioned the irretrievable loss to the cause of education and character building.
Already he had become a brilliant leader, and thousands of young lives had become quickened by contact with his buoyant and unconquerable spirit. Now the careless shot of some idle ne’er-do-well has ended such a promising career…
It is a challenge to each of us to see that constructive character building influences, not salacious and crime movies (sic), are put around our citizens; but most of all it is a challenge to our privileged young people to take up the kind of work Elliott Speer was doing and with his joyous, unconquerable spirit go forward to make America a safe and decent place in which to live.