The Circleville Letter Mystery

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SYNOPSIS

This week is a tireless effort to unravel the most tightly wound bundle of gossip, hearsay and bizarre facts that make up the Circleville Letter Mystery. A series of thousands of letters, spanning almost three decades that lead to at least one strange death, a shifty court trial and incarceration and accusations of deep conspiracy. Oh and a booby trap.

MAPS

LINKS

Unsolved Mysteries Wiki – Unsolved Mysteries Wiki writeup on the episode that covered the case.

A176 Page write-up from paul Freshours perspective – The document that Paul Freshour put together and sent to the FBI after his release from prison.

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SCRIPT

The Circleville Letters

“I know where you live. I’ve been observing your house and know you have children. This is no joke. Please take it serious.”

So read the first letter received by Mary Gillespie, a resident of Circleville, Ohio, in December of 1976. Communication from this anonymous letter writer continued for decades and reached out to over a thousand recipients. Disturbing, threatening letters that documented private matters of residents including illicit affairs, sordid relationships and corruption swarmed through the town as events surrounding them grew ever more dramatic and the stakes grew higher. In this episode, we take a look at a strange and unsolved case that has become known today as ‘the Circleville Letters’.

This is Dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.

Circleville, Ohio 1976

Circleville, Ohio was a small town described over and again as the sort of place no one locked their doors. You’d be forgiven for dismissing this cliched phrase, though seeing as how the Circleville Pumpkin show is an annual event which still sits as one of its top attractions, it’s likely that this description is a lot closer to the reality than one might think. The town itself lies 25 miles south of Columbus and has a population of 13,000. From the outside, there would be little cause to doubt that it wasn’t anything other than a cosy little town as it first appeared. In the late 1970’s however, life was to be turned upside down for a considerable number of its residents and instead of the safety of home, Circleville would represent the setting of a tangled web of hearsay and gossip, with residents suffering accusations of corruption and calculated murder. One of the locals, Mary Gillespie, a bus driver for a local town school, became acutely aware of such a reality, when, in December of 1976, she received an anonymous letter, written in tall, stretched block capitals that read:

“Stay away from Massie. Don’t lie when questioned about knowing him. I know where you live. I’ve been observing your house and know you have children. This is no joke. Please take it serious. Everyone concerned has been notified and everything will be over soon.”

The ominous tone and threats in the letter were referring to an alleged affair between Mary Gillespie and Gordon Massie, the superintendent of a local school. As promised, the letter writer had indeed been contacting others too. Many others.

Throughout the next two weeks, residents right across Circleville received letters that claimed to know intimate private details about the recipient’s lives. The letters were postmarked from Columbus, were anonymous and contained no return address. In many cases, they threatened harm, either physical or through the destruction of careers and personal lives. Some contained graphic drawings and worryingly for most, many of the letters were hitting the mark in their accusations. Someone in the town knew an awful lot about other people’s business and they weren’t pleased at all. In total, thousands of people had been or were in the firing line to be contacted by the unknown writer. Life in Circleville had turned very sour indeed.

The Mysterious Death of Ron Gillespie

After Mary received her letter, she and the superintendent, Gordon Massie, denied the accusations of the affair and she attempted to keep both the letter and subject matter hidden from her husband Ron Gillespie. Less than a week later, she received one more similar communication but made little effort to appease the writer by meeting his demands that she come clean on the affair. Two weeks after the first letter arrived however, she received a further, third letter. This time the stakes for admitting her alleged infidelity had risen. This letter was written in the same handwriting as the first and read:

“Gillespie, you’ve had two weeks and done nothing. Admit the truth and inform the school board. If not, I will broadcast it on CBs, posters, signs and billboards until the truth comes out.”

Not quite content with simply threatening to smear Mary’s name across town, the writer then also wrote to her husband Ron, outing the extra-marital relationship, and told him to put an end to the affair or else his life would be in danger. The letter to Ron read:

We must inform you that your wife is having an affair with Mr Massie. She has chased him until he caught her. Eliminate them both before they eliminate you. Remember, we know where you work and know your red and white truck. No one can help you. Think of your children and their future! Call the school board and report the truth after you finish your investigation. Notify the school board immediately. Again, your life is in danger.”

A sharp escalation from the veiled threats and psychological fear the mysterious and seemingly zealous writer had utilised until now. The writer had also switched to an even less traceable handwriting style, one of squared off capital letters were thickly drawn and evenly spaced, a series of blocks on a page.

At a loss for what to do next, Mary and Ron enlisted the help of their close family. Ron’s sister Karen, her husband Paul Freshour and Pauls sister. After knocking heads together, the group came up with a suspect. A few of the letters were signed with the letter “W” and they surmised from this that the writer was in fact, one Bill, or William, Massie, Gordons own son. Certainly, he had a motive to protect his mother and his family. After the meeting, Paul wrote a series of 3 or 4 letters to William, asking him to stop writing the threatening letters and whether or not it was a coincidence, the letters stopped for a period, though several weeks later, they started coming again, just as abruptly as they had seemed to have stopped.

In August of 1977, now 9 months on from the initial outbreak of mail, Ron was at home looking after his children when he received a mysterious phone call. In recent weeks, Ron had been receiving continued letters, threatening his life and informing him that his pick up truck was being watched and his movements followed. This harassment now seemed to extend to a phone call. Ron slammed down the phone receiver, grabbed his gun, a small .25 calibre pistol and stormed out of the house.

It appeared that Ron had decided on that evening to confront the letter writer, perhaps it was the phone call that took it a step too far, or perhaps he recognised the voice on the other end of the call. None of these details will ever be known, as unfortunately, Ron only made it to the end of his street, where he lost control of his Truck and slammed into a large tree, killing him in the process.

The Pickaway County Sheriff, Dwight Radcliff headed an investigation into Ron’s death and whilst he first suspected foul play, he later changed his mind and ruled it as an accident for reasons unknown to anyone but those on the investigation. This fact might not seem overly outlandish until the Coroner discovered during Ron’s autopsy that his blood alcohol level was .16, almost two times the legal driving limit. His family were not impressed with this finding and vehemently stated that when he had left the house on that fateful evening, Ron was not drunk. As it happened, Ron was, according to his family and close friends, only an occasional drinker who rarely, if ever, drank himself into a state anywhere near to a level of outright drunkenness.

One other curious finding during the investigation was that of the state of Ron’s gun. Forensics on the weapon found that it had been fired, discharging a single bullet. No bullet holes were found inside the vehicle however and no bullet was ever recovered from the wreckage, which, also rather curiously, had been sent to a crushers and disposed of only days after the accident.

With the death of Ron Gillespie, one might think that the letters would have ceased, or slowed down, however, this was not to be the case. Over the coming years, Mary continued to receive the mysterious mailings, which eventually escalated to posters and signs spreading around town, almost all focused entirely on her alleged affair and several threatened not only her and Massie’s job stability but the life of Mary’s children too. Referring to Marys 12-year-old daughter, one spoke of how the writer would “put a bullet in her head”. Between 1977 and 1983, mary received around 39 letters in total. Whilst Mary had been marked as a focal point for the writer, she was not the only recipient and in the same period letters to the residents of Circleville totalled into the thousands, enough to fill a storeroom in the Pickaway County police station.

After six years of this focused harassment and the death of her husband, Mary Gillespie and Gordon Massie finally came clean about an affair that had been happening between the two, though they stated adamantly that the relationship had begun in 1979, only after the letters had made their accusations and only after Ron’s death and Massies own divorce. This apparently was still not enough to appease the writer, who carried on his tirade regardless, calling for the end of the relationship at once.

ACME Traps and an Arrest

In February of 1983, the letter writers attacks on Mary Gillespie had intensified to a new level. They had now begun to place signs along the roadsides of Circleville.  Whilst on her bus route and seeing a sign that accused her daughter of an illicit relationship with Gordon Massie, Mary had had enough. She pulled her bus over by the sign, stormed out of the bus and approached the sign to rip it down. As she was about to do so, however, she noticed something curious, a length of twine hung from a crudely made box that the poster was attached to. She removed the entire structure from the roadside and bought it back on to the bus. As she pried open the lid, splitting the glue that held it all together, she found inside two large blocks of styrofoam holding a pistol in place, the twine attached to the trigger. This crudely built trap was designed to fire at anyone who tore down the sign.

At first, Mary could not believe what it was that she was looking at, she testified in court later that she thought the gun was perhaps a starter pistol rather than a live firearm. Curiously, however, rather than immediately report the incident to law enforcement, she took the device home. After several hours, she finally drove it to the station and upon investigation and the recovery of a poorly filed serial number, the police found that it belonged to Paul Freshour, her recently deceased husband Ron’s brother in Law.

On February the 25th, 1983, Sheriff Radcliff invited Paul Freshour to accompany him to the station to answer some questions concerning the Circleville letters. He was asked to copy the handwriting as best he could and then had content from several letters dictated to him, and was asked to write the content down. Following this peculiar form of handwriting analysis, Paul Freshour took the Sheriff to his home to show him where he normally kept his gun in the garage. Naturally, his gun was missing, as it was currently in the care of the police. Freshour claimed it to have been stolen, however, Radcliff decided otherwise and arrested him for the attempted murder of Mary Gillespie.

Trial

On October 24th, 1983, Freshours trial begun amongst much media attention. Freshour pleaded not guilty and was denied the opportunity to take the stand as a witness in his defence by his own lawyer, as despite the accusation and trial being concerned only with the charge of attempted murder, 39 letters were used against him as evidence that had been addressed directly to Mary. If Paul took the stand, it was deemed that over 1000 letters and postcards would become admissible to the court, involving hundreds of residents. Both Paul and his Lawyer knew full well the hatred that the letters inspired in the town and presumed that with the letters pinned on to the trial in such a way, any case Paul could possibly make for his innocence would be utterly in vain. In the run-up to the trial, there had already been several news reports in local newspapers insinuating that Freshour was guilty of writing the letters and stories even circulated that stated he had admitted having penned the letters, a fact which was simply not true.

Throughout the trial, several key facts were presented that gave Paul Freshour a glimmer of hope. Under questioning concerning the writing of the letters, Sheriff Radcliff admitted that they had asked Paul to copy the letters and told him exactly how they wanted him to write, which is a peculiar way to obtain a sample of handwriting indeed.

“I showed him block forms,” He said “how or what we wanted him to write”

Sheriff Radcliff also confirmed that no items, materials or tools that were used in the construction of the booby trap attached to the sign were found at his house, nor in his garage. Neither did they find any ammunition for the gun that was found inside the booby trap.

Further, there were witness reports of a man hanging around the roadside, right next to the position of the booby trap just twenty minutes before Mary made her discovery. The man was said to be standing next to an Orange Chevrolet El Camino a car Freshour did not own and the description of the man did not match his appearance. Curiously, it was later brought up that the original statements claimed the El Camino to be yellow, however, somewhere along the line, this was inexplicably changed to Orange at the trial.

Freshour also supplied an alibi for the entire day that the booby trap was found by Mary Gillespie.

Despite these facts building a relatively strong defence, at the end of the very public proceedings, Paul Freshour was found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to 7-25 years in jail.

With Paul now behind bars, Circleville could breathe easily. Or so many thought. Any hope was quickly dashed as the letters seemed to continue, only it wasn’t only residents of Circleville that begun receiving mail from the mysterious writer. Whilst in jail, Paul himself received a letter postmarked from Columbus, Ohio and written in the now overly familiar squared off block capital letters.

An Impossible Letter

Paul Freshour was serving his time in the Lima Correctional Institution, almost 100 miles Northwest of Columbus when he received a letter that reflected the style of the earlier letters that had plagued Circleville for so long. The bold block capitals remained, taunting Paul from the page. Prior to his incarceration, many in Circleville had believed he was guilty of penning the letters. Indeed the Sheriff and the local media had been making no bones about pinning the guilt of the Circleville Writer on to Freshour. That first letter, however, was simply the first of many that he would go on to receive during his time spent in jail, all of which taunted Paul in his current situation. An excerpt of one was quite clear and read:

“Shame how things work out. But better you than me. The sheriff says you did it. But we know better, don’t we?”

Worse perhaps, for law enforcement in Circleville and in all probability, for the residents themselves, the letters continued to find their way to mailboxes of residents throughout Circleville. Some assumed Freshour was smuggling them out of prison and the Sheriff, in his attempts to alleviate the local fears hastily had Paul placed into solitary. Still, the letters came. One local paper reported on the letters sent whilst Paul was incarcerated and placed the number in the hundreds. Throughout, Sheriff Radcliff maintained the police had done their duty, despite evidence mounting to the contrary.

“I think we got the right man”, he said. “I know what Freshour wants. He’s trying to say, “Look, I’m in prison, but the letters have never stopped”.

This was a bold attempt to soothe the fears around Circleville, especially as no method or theory as to how the letters might have been coming out of the prison was offered. Tessa Unwin, the spokesman for Pickaway state prison system stated publicly herself that it would be almost impossible to smuggle the letters from the prison.

“They keep a real close eye on him and his visitors. I don’t see any way humanly possible for him to sneak out something.” She said.

Despite the headaches, the letters were causing Sheriff Radcliff. They were bolstering Freshours likelihood of an early release. In 1988 he applied for parole but his appeal was denied. In an act of desperation he submitted himself voluntarily for three separate polygraph tests, all of which he passed, though after his next appeal in 1993, he was once again denied early parole. Finally in 1994, after ten and a half years behind bars and statements from prison wardens were made that cast strong doubt in his ability to send letters from his position in jail, his appeal was granted and he was released.

And throughout all of this, still, the letters continued.

Conspiracy

After his incarceration ended, Paul Freshour put together a 176 page PDF in which he documents his side of events, annotating press coverage, trial transcripts and various official documentation maintaining his own innocence in both the letter writing and the formation of the booby trap. Much of the document also focused on several conspiracies that mounted to a mountain of corruption being carried out by those at the top of law enforcement within Circleville.

The cover letter for his documentation and sent to the FBI started off strongly, pulling few punches:

“Dear FBI, I am asking that you get involved in my former Brother-in-law’s murder, because I believe it was a murder and covered up by the Sheriff of Pickaway County, here in the State of Ohio.”

“I was sent to Prison because a series of obscene and threatening letters had the county in panic. I did 10 and a half years and the letters continued undisturbed and uninterrupted just as always.”

Freshour then goes on to make several claims, all of which he thinks had strong evidence, including that he had offered to pay a reward for information on the letter writer, but Sheriff Massie had disallowed it, that many of the letters contained arsenic and a conspiracy perpetrated by Sheriff Massie himself in order to protect his reputation and advance his career.

“I believe that the obscene, threatening and dangerous letters were concealed because they would interfere with Sheriff Radcliff becoming the National Sheriffs association’s President.” He wrote. “See the date of the letters and the date of his involvement with the National Sheriff’s Association. The crime rate in Pickaway County at the time would have eliminated him from this appointment.”

In fact, this was just the start of the corruption according to Freshour and he goes on to accuse the Sheriff of mismanagement of funds as well as fudging crime figures over a number of years.

He then goes on to claim that one of the prosecutors in his trial was also trying to cover up their own, rather large and ugly mess. He claimed that Important details concerning the case, specifically, those that involved a local school teacher, Vicki Koch, herself a victim of an unsolved murder to this day, were being buried and kept out of the public eye, and even goes as far as to outright accuse him of murder, giving the motive of an illicit pregnancy between herself and the prosecutor, that if uncovered by the letters would have gone on to destroy his legal career. Dramatically, according to Freshour, one of the letters threatened to dig up the bones of a baby from the cemetery and mail them out across the county if outside investigations didn’t get involved with the murder case and claimed that the Sheriff had tried to cover this up, though a TV station had interviewed the parents of the baby who had received the letter.

The level of corruption that Freshour accuses the local law enforcement of ran incredibly deep and essentially boiled down to his arrest, trial and incarceration having been carried out as a way to further the careers of the powers that be and to show the Sheriff as a local hero for solving the case, despite the fact that letters carried on whilst he was in jail. Freshour even accuses the Sheriff of propagating the rumours that it was Freshour writing the letters from jail before his trial. These accusations maintain that the covered up information was intentional to stop this truth from coming out on a grand scale.

David Longberry & The Bitter Ex

As if the spider’s web was not wound tightly enough around the case of the Circleville Letters, enter Journalist and Private Investigator Martin Yant. Yant investigated the Circleville Letters case in 1993 for an article he was writing for ‘Columbus Alive’. Piecing together both contemporary statements made by him as well as a communication with him in early 2017 with a user from the Unsolved Mysteries online message boards, Yant tells an interesting tale of two parts with two quite different letter writers.

In the first, Yant claims that the original letter writer was a man by the name of David Longberry who worked at the local school and had something of an infatuation for Mary, however after she rebuffed his advances, Yant theorises that Longberry embarked on the rather epic journey of writing thousands of letters over many years in a jealous rage, justified to himself as a way to “get back” at Mary.

The second half of Yant’s conclusions concern Freshour and his divorce to his ex-wife, Ron Gillespie’s sister, Karen Sorrick in 1983. In the months prior to his arrest for attempted murder, Paul Freshour was wading through a rather messy divorce. Things were not looking good for Karen who had been caught by Paul having an affair. She had lost everything in the divorce settlement, including her home and custody of their two children. After their divorce, she moved into a trailer on Mary Gillespie’s land and during her time there, she told Mary that Paul was the Circleville Writer, Mary promptly relayed this accusation to Sheriff Radcliff and less than two weeks later, Paul was arrested. After his incarceration, Karen received everything she had lost from the settlement; the house, custody of the children and even Pauls pension.

Writing to the parole board in 1993 in support of Freshours release from prison, Yant wrote of Karen:

“In my 22 years as a journalist and investigator, I don’t think I ever met an individual so consumed with such irrational hatred for another and a willingness to say anything – no matter how provably false – to defame him.”

He then goes on to drop quite the heavy bombshell that related back to the mysterious colour shifting Chevrolet El Camino from Freshour’s trial:

“As I related in Columbus Alive, this report placed a man unlike Paul Freshour in appearance at the scene of his alleged crime shortly before it occurred. Although I didn’t say it in the article, the colour and model of the vehicle the man appeared to be driving matched the description of one owned by a brother of Karen Sue Sorrick.”

(In)Conclusions

Before attempting to make any sort of conclusions, we are perhaps in need of a recap.

Here, we have a story of an anonymous letter writer, who amongst other things, was hell-bent on outing an affair between Mary Gillespie a school bus driver and Gordon Massie, the school’s superintendent.

At least one, but possibly two unsolved deaths in both Mary’s husband, Ron Gillespie and later a school teacher Vicki Koch.

A bitter divorce that heavily implies the framing of Paul Freshour, landing him in prison for over ten years.

Claims of deep and winding corruption entrenched in the Pickaway County legal system.

And throughout it all, over 20 years of disturbing letters that totalled into the thousands.

If we accept Yant’s story of events and run with the two writer theory, we can answer the mystery of the Circleville Writer, however with his suspect, David Longberry, there is motive for Mary and Ron’s letters, but what of the hundreds and thousands of other letters written to hundreds of other residents? Whilst true that many letters seemed to concern the school system, what motive would he have had to accuse, threaten and harass so many various people for all manner of activities, most of which had zero to do with him?

Whether or not the claims made by Paul Freshour regarding the corruption were true or not remains unresolved. He clearly went to some degree of effort to write the lengthy document and surely had a degree of confidence in his claims, as he sent it to the FBI requesting they take investigative action. He also maintained a website that hosted much of the documentation right up until his death in 2012. For the sake of a conclusion, we can set this aside for now, without an official investigation, it is highly likely none of the truths behind these claims will be known, whether they support Paul’s story or not.

However, even by treating the case in such a blase manner as this, we are still left with pondering the motives of many, what exactly was the relationship between Mary and Sheriff Radcliff? And right at the top, what of the mystery of Ron’s death? Why did the Sheriff so readily change his mind from foul play to accidental? What of the Alcohol found in his system, despite his family arguing against him being drunk at the time he left the house? And what of the mysterious bullet, fired from his gun?

The Circleville Letters is a mystery that runs incredibly deep and twists and turns at every possible corner. Was David Longberry really the original writer? In the late 90s, Longberry went on the run after raping an 11-year-old girl and was found having hung himself several years later. During the time he was on the run, there were rumours that the letters continued. In fact, there have been sporadic reports of letters being received right up until 2003. The sheer span of time and volume of letters is a mind-bending mystery in itself.

15 years on with no letters reported it seems as though the plague of the Circleville Letters might finally be behind the town, allowing it to return to its cosy days of annual Pumpkin shows. For longtime residents who oversaw the entire timeline of events, however, is there a nagging in the back of their minds that wonders if the town will ever be free? As they approach their mailboxes to pick up the days post, do they feel a twinge when they see a Columbus postmark and let out a quiet sigh of relief when there is no sign of the familiar heavy yellow paper with their address written in thick, squared off Block capitals…

“I know where you live….”