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Murder in Bay Village: The Marilyn Sheppard Story

Updated: Feb 14, 2023


In 1954, Bay Village, Ohio physician Dr. Samuel Sheppard was a prominent member in the Cleveland, Ohio suburb, where he resided with his wife Marilyn and son Sam “Chip” Sheppard. Dr. Sheppard and his wife were high school sweethearts. After Marilyn was found dead in her bed on July 4th, 1954, this picture-perfect family would find themselves under the microscope of public perception. This high-profile case remains highly debated to this day, nearly seventy years later. This is the story of Marilyn Sheppard.

Samuel Holmes Sheppard was born December 29th, 1923. He was the son of a physician, Dr. Richard Sheppard of Cleveland. Throughout high school, Sam was the All-American boy who played sports, was class president, and made exceptional grades. Sam was offered several athletic scholarships but chose to follow in the footsteps of his father and two older brothers, becoming a physician. He attended Hanover College in Indiana followed by Los Angeles Osteopathic School of Physicians and Surgeons, which is now known as the University of California Irvine. He completed his internship and residency in neurosurgery at Los Angeles County General Hospital. All along, he had Marilyn by his side.

Marilyn Reese Sheppard was born Marilyn Reese in Cleveland, Ohio. Her mother died when she was a small child and Marilyn was raised by her father, Thomas Reese. She was the girlfriend of Sam Sheppard. She followed him to California, where the two were married on February 21st, 1945. A few years after the wedding, the newlyweds moved back to Cleveland where Sam joined his father’s practice. The couple welcome son Samuel Reese Sheppard around 1947. The couple settled in Bay Village, Ohio, an upscale community near Cleveland and along the shore of Lake Erie.

On the night of July 3rd, 1954, Sam and Marilyn had guests over. The couples had dinner before settling in the living room of Dr. & Mrs. Sheppard to watch the movie Strange Holiday. Sam grew tired during the movie and went to lay down on a daybed where he fell fast asleep. Marilyn continued to entertain their guests and finally said goodnight to them before retiring to the couple’s bedroom. Seven-year-old Samuel Reese Sheppard, known as Chip, was asleep in his bedroom. According to Sam, he was awoken by screams from Marilyn upstairs. He rushed up the stairs, only to be hit in the head and fall unconscious.



According to Sam Sheppard, he came to on the floor just as a person was running down the stairs. Dr. Sheppard said he ran after the intruder, a man he described as “bushy haired”. He followed the man down to the beach where there was a struggle and Dr. Sheppard said he was knocked unconscious again. At 5:40 am that morning, a neighbor who was also the Bay Village mayor received a frantic phone call from Sam. He said someone had killed his wife.

Upon arrival, first responders found Sam shirtless with water-soaked pants. He also had a bloodstain on his knee. Upstairs in the Sheppard home, Marilyn was lying dead in a pool of her own blood. The coroner pronounced her dead at the scene. When detectives arrived at the scene, the coroner had already removed Marilyn’s body and Dr. Sheppard was at the hospital for his own injuries.

The autopsy of Marilyn Sheppard revealed multiple blows to the head that included comminuted fractures of the skull and separation of the frontal suture, bilateral subdural hematomas, diffuse subarachnoid hemorrhage, contusions to the brain, multiple lacerations of the forehead and scalp, fractures of multiple teeth, and a fracture of the nose. Additionally, Marilyn’s lungs showed that she had aspirated her own blood. She was also four months pregnant with a son. Marilyn suffered a violent and heinous death.

At the hospital, Dr. Sam Sheppard was being treated for multiple injuries he sustained during the incident. These included a fractured neck, concussion, and weakness and nerve damage to the left side of his body. Despite his injuries, Dr. Sheppard was cooperative and gave a statement immediately to police. He explained that he was in and out of consciousness after being hit by the attacker. He remembered checking his wife’s pulse, realizing she was gone. He said that he chased the suspect to the beach, where he was knocked out again. When he awoke again, he said his watch and class ring were missing.

The items that Dr. Sheppard reported missing were found in a canvas bag in a shrubbery behind the couple’s house. That wasn’t the only thing that made police suspicious. There were drawers and Dr. Sheppard’s medical bag that seemed to have been rummaged through, but nothing was missing. Police also found it suspicious that the family dog had not been noticed barking by neighbors and that Chip had not awoken during the struggle. Sam Sheppard was immediately the prime suspect.

The police investigation was not as thorough as one would hope. For one thing, the body of Marilyn Sheppard was removed from the home before detectives even arrived. The coroner, Dr. Samuel Gerber, had a long-standing feud with the Sheppard family and their medical practice. A month before the murder, he said he was “going to get them someday” (Crime Traveller). At the crime scene, Marilyn’s gown was pulled up exposing her breasts and her genitals, however the coroner did not feel this was a sexual homicide. As such, he failed to take anal and oral swabs during the autopsy. Additionally, neighbors and members of the press were given access to the unsecured crime scene.

The media played a huge role in this case. The Cleveland Press, in particular, played a role in the outcome of this case. Almost immediately, media coverage accused Dr. Samuel Sheppard of murdering his wife. While still investigating the crime, the newspaper published an article accusing Dr. Sheppard of the crime. On July 21st, 1954, the paper’s headline read “Do It Now, Dr. Gerber” (Wikipedia). This referred to a coroner’s inquest. This was scheduled the day after the newspaper article was published. On July 30th, the headline read “Quit Stalling and Bring Him In” (Wikipedia). That night, Sam Sheppard was arrested for his wife’s murder.


Before trial, detectives learned of a lie told by Dr. Sam Sheppard. They learned that the Sheppard marriage was not as picture perfect as it seemed from the outside. Dr. Sheppard had engaged in numerous affairs, which friends stated his wife was aware of and resentful for. Marilyn would smoke cigarettes, frustrating her husband. At time, Dr. Sheppard would drink excessively, something he is suspected of doing the night of the murder. Police theorized he had been drunk, tried to have sexual relations with his wife, and ended up murdering her after she rejected him. Then they found Susan Hayes, a young laboratory technician that Dr. Sheppard was having an affair with. She said that Dr. Sheppard wanted a divorce from Marilyn, but that Marilyn would not agree to a divorce. Prosecutors believed they had their man.

At trial, just months after Marilyn’s murder, corner Samuel Gerber testified that he did not believe the murder was sexually motivated but rage motivated. He testified to the horrific wounds to Marilyn’s body as well as confirming her pregnancy. Detectives stated that there was only one fingerprint at the scene, and it was consistent with Dr. Samuel Sheppard. The fingerprint was found on Marilyn’s headboard. Inside the bedroom of the couple were two twin beds, just like something out of a 1950’s sitcom. Finally, Dr. Gerber stated that he believed an impression on a pillowcase demonstrated that the murder weapon was some sort of surgical instrument. The finger was pointed at surgeon Sam Sheppard.



The defense team included a neurosurgeon who examined Sam Sheppard after the murder. He attested to the neck fracture sustained by Sam as well as severe concussion. He explained that these injuries were the cause of Sam’s gap in memories and vague descriptions of the assailant. The defense further argued that the crime scene was extremely bloody, yet Dr. Sheppard had no blood on him other than the stain on the knee of his pants. On rebuttal, the prosecution suggested that the t-shirt Dr. Sheppard had been wearing had disappeared and they believed he had washed off in the lake and thrown the bloody t-shirt away. The defense also stated that Marilyn had broken teeth, suggesting she bit her attacker. Yet, Dr. Sheppard did not sustain any bite wounds.

On December 21st, 1954, the jury in the Sam Sheppard murder trial deliberated for just four hours before finding Dr. Sheppard not guilty of first-degree murder, but guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. He is sent to an Ohio penitentiary while his legal team pursued an appeal. Upon his conviction, Sam’s mother, Ethel Sheppard committed suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Eleven days later, Dr. Richard Sheppard, Sam’s father, died of a bleeding gastric ulcer and stomach cancer (Wikipedia). In 1963, Thomas Reese, Marilyn’s father, died of suicide. To say this crime and conviction tore this family apart is a massive understatement.

Journalist Dorothy Kilgallen was present in the court room throughout the first trial. She had been somewhat of a celebrity, so the judge asked to meet her during the trial. The judge made comments to Dorothy that included, “He’s guilty. It’s an open and shut case”, proving he was not impartial. She did not report this until after the conviction. She further wrote that the trial was a miscarriage of justice, and while the verdict may or may not have been correct, the State of Ohio failed to prove their case. Several appeals in the 1950s and 1960s were denied.

Dr. Paul Kirk, a forensic pathologist, was hired by the defense to look into the case. He agreed to examine the evidence but vowed to be impartial. Dr. Kirk examined the crime scene at the Sheppard home, sealed since the original investigation. Dr. Kirk was one of the first to use blood splatter analysis. He found that the blood splatter evidence demonstrated that Marilyn was hit repeatedly by an object, causing small blood droplets to cast off the weapon. The murderer would have been covered in blood and left-handed. Dr. Sheppard was right-handed.

A larger blood stain on the stairs, previously attributed to a dripping murder weapon, was determined to be Type O, but further testing proved it was not Marilyn’s. Dr. Sheppard’s blood type was A. There had been at least one other person bleeding in the Sheppard home that night. DNA evidence was not available in the 1960s, but this forensic evidence provided reasonable doubt as to Dr. Sheppard’s guilt. Despite this new evidence, Sam’s appeal was denied again.

In 1963, the television show The Fugitive, about a doctor who is wrongly accused of killing his wife hit television. In the show, the doctor goes on the run to find his wife’s true killer. The show was insanely popular, bringing the Marilyn Sheppard case back to the media. Sam’s previous defense attorney had passed away, but the media coverage interested attorney F. Lee Bailey, an up-and-coming defense attorney. He took the case, filing an appeal based upon the enormous media coverage during the trial, the judge’s prejudicial comments, and the forensic evidence discovered by Dr. Kirk. In 1964, after ten years in prison, the United States district court vacated the conviction of Dr. Samuel Sheppard.

The State of Ohio was not prepared to let Dr. Sheppard enjoy his new freedom, however, and refiled charges of murder. In the meantime, Dr. Sheppard gave interviews in which he explained that he was angry as the ordeal had taken ten years of his life and the lives of his parents and father-in-law. Three days after Dr. Sheppard was released pending his new trial, he married Ariane Tebbenjohanns, a German divorcee he had been pen pals with during his incarceration.

Dr. Sheppard’s second trial began in 1966. This time, the jury was sequestered to shield them from the media attention. When Dr. Sam Gerber testified about the murder weapon being a surgical instrument, F. Lee Bailey asked him to identify the specific instrument. Dr. Gerber could not, discrediting his testimony as he admitted they did not find a murder weapon. This time, Susan Hayes, Dr. Sheppard’s mistress, was not permitted to testify. Dr. Kirk also testified about the forensic evidence, proving there was blood in the house that belonged to neither Marilyn nor Sam. The blood on Sam’s pants was proven not to be Marilyn’s. Dr. Samuel Sheppard was acquitted on all charges.

After his acquittal, Dr. Sheppard attempted to resume his medical and surgical practice. However, multiple patients sued for malpractice and his medical license was revoked. Dr. Sheppard had begun to drink heavily. His life was spiraling, something his brothers contributed to being wrongly convicted of the murder of Marilyn. His marriage to Ariane ended in divorce in 1969. Sam then married Colleen Strickland. Colleen’s father was Sam’s wrestling trainer. Sam became a professional wrestler by the name of “Killer Sam Sheppard”. He was drinking heavily, as much as two fifths of liquor per day. On April 6th, 1970, Sam Sheppard died in his home at age forty-six of liver failure and Wernicke encephalopathy. Dr. Samuel Sheppard drank himself to death.

The case did not die with Dr. Sheppard, however. A journalist learned that a man named Richard Eberling had been sent to prison for murdering an elderly woman in her home. Eberling had previously worked for the Sheppard family as a window washer. In fact, police had arrested him for unrelated charges after the murder and found two of Marilyn’s rings in his possession. He admitted to “cutting himself” accidently in the Sheppard house, information he offered without prompting by authorities. It is believed that the detectives had tunnel vison and discounted this information at the time. They released him.

Richard Eberling was born in Ohio and lived a rough life. He had never had a real family and fantasized about living in a family. Eberling admitted to being attracted to Sheppard, commenting on both what a good mother she was and how tight her shorts were. Eberling passed a polygraph test, however, leading authorities to believe he was not involved in Marilyn’s murder.

In 1984, Ethel May Durkin died in her home in Lakewood, Ohio. She had no immediate family and was cared for by Richard Eberling and another caregiver. The wealthy elderly woman’s estate was placed under the guardianship of Richard Eberling. Under suspicion, the body of Ethel was exhumed and found to have injuries not matching those reported at the time of her death. Eberling and another man were both sentenced to life for the murder of Ethel May Durkin. This prompted further investigation into the 1962 murder of Ethel’s sister, Myrtle Fray, and the 1970 death of her other sister, Sarah Farrow. All three woman had been under Eberling’s care at the time of their deaths. Myrtle Fray was found with her nightgown pulled up and had been savagely beaten in the face. The crime was remarkably similar to the murder of Marilyn Sheppard. Eberling was sent to prison to serve a life sentence.

The journalist who connected Eberling met with him several times. She described him as creepy. She said one time he interrupted a conversation to ask her, “Why do women fight when they are being raped” (True Crime Central). This prompted the exhumation of Marilyn and DNA testing to be performed between 1997 and 1999, forty-five years after the murder. The DNA testing proved that the vaginal swab from the autopsy contained sperm that did not belong to Dr. Samuel Sheppard. A blood stains on the wall of the bedroom and the stairs were tested and concluded that neither Dr. Sam Sheppard nor Marilyn could be the source of the blood stains. While the testing could not prove Eberling was the source, it could not exclude him like it could Dr. Sheppard. According to Wikipedia, the analysis was 90% confident that the blood and sperm were from Richard Eberling, but this is not conclusive enough for a legal case. Richard Eberling had type A blood, however, and earlier testing had suggested that the source of blood was Type O. Eberling was never charged with the murder of Marilyn Sheppard and died in prison in 1998. Multiple friends and cellmates claim Eberling confessed to Marilyn’s murder.

A civil trial for wrongful imprisonment was brought to court by Samuel Reese Sheppard, the son of the couple in 2000. Given this new evidence, Chip wanted to prove his father’s innocence once and for all. The jury heard ten weeks-worth of testimony from seventy-six witnesses. The State of Ohio continued to state that Dr. Samuel Sheppard was guilty of murder. They argued the DNA evidence was not reliable as it was not stored properly for the fifty years since the crime. It was kept in a safe at Dr. Sam Gerber’s home. The state showed x-rays that were taken after the crime and stated they did not show a broken neck. They also reminded the jury that the type O blood at the scene could not have been Eberling’s as he was type A. The defense of Dr. Sheppard countered with their own expert who stated that the wounds suffered by Dr. Samuel Sheppard could not have been faked. The jury decided that the evidence did not prove Dr. Sheppard’s innocence, meaning Chip had lost his case.

Many rumors and theories about the murder of Marilyn Sheppard have been publicized. One theory is that Marilyn had told friends that Dr. Sheppard was sterile after being around radiation from x-rays for years. They concluded that Marilyn had her own affair, becoming pregnant. The theory that Dr. Sheppard killed his wife for being unfaithful and carrying another man’s child was voiced, but DNA testing proved Dr. Sheppard was the father of Marilyn’s unborn baby. Many residents of Ohio have strong opinions about this case. Some believe that Richard Eberling was the murderer while still insist that Dr. Samuel Sheppard was guilty of murder. What do you think?

References

Simonich, M. (1997). Evidence points to window-washer. Pittsburgh-Post Gazette. 30 Mar 1997

Affleck, J. (1999). Marilyn Sheppard’s body reinterred after testing. Northwest Herald. 7 Oct. 1999

Ewinger, J. (2015). Sheppard murder back in spotlight. Springfield-News Sun. 4 Dec 2015

Kilgallen, D. (1954). Marilyn Sheppard was so beautiful, gentle looking under scarlet gashes. Fort Worth Star- Telegram. 5 Nov 1954

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