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Most Wanted: The Murder of Mary Ellen Deener

On a November evening in 1965, two girls took a taxi from their home in Mansfield, Ohio to a laundry mat nearby their grandmother’s house. Brenda and Mary Ellen Deener were two of seven children born to Cassie Deener Jones. Mary Ellen was fourteen years old, the eldest daughter. She and little sister Brenda had brought the family’s clothing to the laundry mat to dry because their dryer was broken. The girls ran out of change, so Mary Ellen instructed Brenda to stay while she went to another laundry mat to get change. Brenda waited and waited, but Mary Ellen never came back. This is the story of Mary Ellen Deener and the man who killed her.

Mary Ellen Deener was born July 27th, 1951, Memphis, Tennessee. By 1965, Mary Ellen was a ninth grader in Mansfield, Ohio. She was known as a responsible young lady who loved to sing. Her sister described her as joyful and always singing. Her young life was cut short November 14th, 1965, when she was found brutally murdered nearby the laundry mat. Mary Ellen had been sexually assaulted, shot twice in the abdomen, and her skull was bashed in with a brick. It was a brutal and heinous crime that rocked the community to its core.

Lester Eubanks was born October 31st, 1943. My research did not reveal a ton about Lester Eubanks except he lived in Ohio near his father and several siblings. At some point, he had a biological son, but his relationship status is unclear. Prior to Mary Ellen’s murder, Lester Eubanks had been charged twice with sex offenses against young girls. In fact, at the time of the murder he was out on bond for a rape case.

Police were able to track the murder weapon to a local store and determined from sales records that it belonged to Lester Eubanks. Lester, who was twenty-two years old at the time, was brought in for questioning. He immediately made a confession. Lester said that he saw Mary Ellen walking that night and pulled her behind a house. He said their eyes locked in a brief moment before he pulled her skirt up and panties off. He began to forcibly rape the young teenager. Mary Ellen fought back and started screaming. Lester said when she screamed, he shot her twice in the abdomen and then ran.

According to Lester’s confession, he then went to his home to get ready to go out dancing. About forty-five minutes after shooting Mary Ellen, Lester returned to the scene. He heard Mary Ellen moaning, so he decided to grab a brick. Lester admitted to bashing her head with the brick to “put her out of her misery”. Lester showed no remorse and offered no apology. He was proud of what he had done. He told the story all over again in 1966 when he went on trial. Again, no remorse and no apology.

In May of 1966, Lester Eubanks was convicted of Mary Ellen’s murder and sentenced to death in Ohio. He was transported to death row to begin the wait. Death penalty cases are automatically appealed and historically slow from conviction to execution. Lester’s case is no exception. Between 1966 and 1971, Lester Eubanks received a stay of execution three different times. He continued to appeal his case and sentence, but it wasn’t until 1972 when the United States Supreme Court banned the death penalty that Lester finally left his solitary cell.



Following the 1972 decision, Lester Eubanks was given life without the possibility of parole following the ban on the death penalty. Lester was transferred to the general population where he began to use his charisma to gain the trust of prison officials. Other inmates that served with Lester described him as “manipulative and dangerous”. However, he quickly became part of an “honors group” of prisoners based upon his “model inmate” behavior. This program was meant to provide incentive for good prisoner behavior.

Somehow, beyond my comprehension, this group of model prisoners were given an enormous amount of trust. Lester Eubanks was so trusted that the man who in 1972 was on death row was allowed to go on prison fieldtrips by 1973. On December 7th, 1973, prison guards escorted a small group of “honors prisoners”, including Lester Eubanks, to a shopping center in Columbus, Ohio. The inmates were instructed to meet the guards back at a meeting place at a specific time. The inmates then each went Christmas shopping independently at the shopping center. There were no guards watching Lester Eubanks.

When the meeting time came, Lester Eubanks did not return. The shopping center was searched, and no sign of Lester Eubanks was found. He was simply allowed to walk away just eight years after he brutally raped and murdered a fourteen-year-old girl and less than a year since having his sentence commuted to life. It is relatively unclear how wide and thoroughly law enforcement searched for Lester, but he just disappeared.

Lester Eubanks remained free for nearly twenty years before authorities decided to take a second look. They learned in the 1990s that there was no warrant in the National Crime Information Center for Lester Eubanks for escape. Between 1973 and 1990, Lester could have been pulled over or arrested numerous times, but without a warrant he likely would not have been detained. One detective said, “It had been twenty years and it was like nobody was working the case that we were aware of. He was just out there on his own and nobody seemed concerned about it” (Margaritoff). US Marshals finally listed Lester on their Most Wanted list, leading to coverage by America’s Most Wanted in the 1990s.

After the show aired, several new leads came in. A woman came forward in California. She said that she was a pen pal to Lester while he was in prison in Ohio. She said that Lester had just showed up in California in January of 1974, just weeks after his escape. She said she had no idea he was planning to escape, but she admitted to keeping his secret once he arrived. Lester was a very talented artist who often won awards for his paintings at art shows during his time incarcerated. The woman showed police paintings allegedly done by Lester while living with her, which were consistent to his known works. The woman said they lived together for a while and showed authorities pictures of him from the 1970s after his escape. She eventually grew tired of Lester, who was living as Victor Young. She told him police had questioned her, after which he promptly left. She thought she knew a place he had worked however and offered that information to police. She hadn’t seen Lester in more than ten years.

When authorities went to the workplace given in the tip, they found the man in question had recently quit his job and vanished. It is believed Lester was working as Victor Young in Gardenia, California, but he remained one step ahead of authorities. “He’s very cunning; he’s not a dumb guy. He’s been avoiding the authorities for forty plus years” Detective Tim Connor said of Lester Eubanks (Margaritoff).

In 2005, thirty-two years after his escape, police visited his father, a reverend. He said that he would talk to them, but not about Lester. He indicated to authorities that he knew where Lester was and that he was alive. He made comments such as “people change” and “I pray for Lester everyday”. He did not cooperate with police, however, prompting them to get a warrant to tap his phone lines. Since he indicated he has contact with Lester, the warrant was granted, and the phones were tapped.

Lester’s father was heard saying he had talked to one of his children in Alabama. Police were able to determine that none of Lester’s siblings lived in Alabama, prompting a review of phone records. Several calls between a teen treatment center in Alabama and the Sr. Mr. Eubanks were noted. Police went to the center in Alabama only to learn they were too late. A man meeting Lester Eubanks age-enhanced photographs was working at the center as a janitor for an extended period, but he had quit his job and vanished shortly before authorities arrived.

It’s now been nearly fifty years since Lester’s escape. Lester Eubanks served eight years for a heinous crime but has been walking free since 1973. He has been tied to Michigan, California, Ohio, Alabama, and possibly Canada. The show was covered by Unsolved Mysteries in recent years, prompting renewed interest in this case. The US Marshals Office is offering a $50,000 reward for information about Lester Eubanks’s current whereabouts. He would be turning eighty this year, but authorities believe he is still alive. He is black male with black hair and brown eyes. He is left-handed with a large scar to his right upper arm. Any tips should be reported to the US Marshals Office: Lester Eubanks | U.S. Marshals Service (usmarshals.gov)



In 2019, the US Marshals had collected DNA from Lester Eubanks biological son. They hoped that utilizing the familial DNA evidence would lead authorities to identify Eubanks location through connections to other possible crimes and family members. However, utilization of familial DNA searching was not allowed under federal law. “The federal government has policy in place that they do not permit familial searches” Natalie Ram, University of Maryland law professor, explained. She said the goal of the policy to “avoid seeing innocent people coerced into providing DNA that could be held and used over time in future investigations” (Mosk & Hosenball, 2019). It is unclear if this DNA, willingly given by his biological son, was ever tested. Lester Eubanks remains a fugitive.


REFERENCES

Unsolved Mysteries (2020) Season 3 Episode 3 “Death Row Fugitive” available on Netflix

DNA holds promise in finding fugitive Lester Eubanks but FBI rules, privacy questions loom - ABC News (go.com)

Lester Eubanks, Who Killed Mary Ellen Deener, Could Be 'Hiding In Plain Sight' | Crime News (oxygen.com)

Mary Ellen Deener (1951-1965) - Find a Grave Memorial

Mary Ellen Deener’s Murder: How Did She Die? Who Killed Mary Ellen? (thecinemaholic.com)

Whitemire (2020) Reward now $50K for fugitive Eubanks. Akron Beakon Journal

How Lester Eubanks Has Remained A Fugitive For 50 Years (allthatsinteresting.com)

The Galion Inquirer (1965) Mansfielder bound to jury on murder charge. 15 Nov 1965

Associated Press. (1973). Murderer flees during shopping trip. Springfield News-Sun. 08 Dec 1973

How Lester Eubanks Escaped from Prison | Heavy.com

News-Journal (1966). Eubanks went back to girl after shooting, jury told. News-Journal 18 May 1966

Most Wanted Fugitive Escaped by Going Christmas Shopping - Coffee or Die Magazine

Lester Eubanks | U.S. Marshals Service (usmarshals.gov)

News-Journal (1966). Eubanks guilty of murder, faces chair. News-Journal. 25 May 1966

News-Journal (1966) Death row wait begins. News-Journal. 05 Jun 1966

DNA holds promise in finding fugitive Lester Eubanks but FBI rules, privacy questions loom - ABC News (go.com)

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