Friday, September 26, 2014

The Real Life Chuckie

Near the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Otto and his wife moved into what is now known as "The Artist's House" in Key West, Florida. Mr. and Mrs. Otto were very wealthy and spent most of their time traveling and attending social activities around the world. A son, Thomas "Gene" Otto, was born, but shortly after his birth, the Otto's resumed their life of leisure and travel, leaving young Gene in the care of a Jamaican nanny and the upkeep and running of their home to various servants and hired hands. Held to rigid expectations and expecting strict obedience, staff turnover was unusually high and the Otto's soon earned a reputation for being difficult employers.

The Otto's were rarely home so it was natural that the nanny and Gene quickly formed a very close relationship as they spent their days and nights together playing games and taking walks. One day shortly before his 5th birthday, Mr. and Mrs. Otto returned from one of their trips and Mrs. Otto became incensed when she found some of Gene's toys scattered on the floor instead of neatly put away in his room. She immediately fired the nanny who, without employment, faced deportation back to Jamaica. That evening however, the nanny briefly returned to the house to give Gene a doll she had been making for him as a surprise. The elder Otto's allowed their son to have the doll, but the poor woman was then banished from the house and Gene never saw his beloved nanny again.

The doll was given Gene's real first name, Robert, and from the moment he laid eyes on him, Gene would never let the doll out of his sight. His mother bought Gene a sailor suit to wear just like the one the doll wore and with his new nanny, the boy and his doll would often be seen taking a stroll in the nearby park or following along behind his mother on one of her numerous shopping trips, both wearing the same neatly-pressed clothes. Robert went everywhere and did everything with Gene. Robert had his own chair at the main table during meals, he sat on the side of the tub when Gene took his baths and when it was bedtime, Robert was tucked in for the night snug beside Gene ready to share his dreams. 

At first, everything was cute and innocent, but then things turned troubling. Gene would often be heard playing joyfully in his toy room, but then all would be quiet for several seconds and a conversation could be heard starting with one side of the conversation being in Gene's boyish voice and the other side in a much different tone. Sometimes Gene's voice would sound agitated with the responding voice sounding very insistent. the servants often heard these conversations and informed Mrs. Otto about them. On several occasions, Mrs. Otto herself heard them and burst into the room only to find her son cowering in the corner and the doll on a chair or bed appearing to be glaring down at Gene.

Soon, the disturbing activities moved out of the playroom and into the rest of the house and it became very evident to everyone living there that something was very wrong with the doll and the odd hold it had on Gene. Even more disturbing were the inexplicable events that began - glassware thrown across the room to shatter against the far wall when no one was in the room, heavy pieces of furniture overturned, various clothing items cut up and strewn around the house, bedding in rooms which had not been used in months would be rumpled and pillows shredded with the feathers strewn around. Most troubling were some of Gene's favorite toys which began to be found mutilated and broken. And the eerie, unsettling giggling which would often be heard in the middle of the night seemingly coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. 

Of course, Gene was blamed for these events, but on every occasion, no matter what punishment was meted out, he protested his innocence, saying Robert did it. His parents didn't believe him, but several of the servants had known the former nanny who had been summarily dismissed and they informed Mr. and Mrs. Otto that she had been a practitioner of voodoo. They advised the doll be burned, but the Otto's paid no attention to such nonsense and the doll stayed. Servant turnover increased and soon, there were few who would come to work in the Otto household.

After several months of turmoil, an elderly great-aunt came for a visit. After a few days, she told Gene's parents they needed to get rid of that doll. Even though Gene became distraught, they packed Robert away in a tightly sealed box and placed it in the attic. The very next morning, the great-aunt was found dead in her bed, a look of fright frozen on her face. When the Otto's went to wake up Gene, they found Robert laying beside him in bed.

Over the following years, unexplained events continued to bedevil the Otto household. Eventually, the elder Otto's grew old and both passed away. Gene never left the family home and Robert continued to be by his side at all times. Having inherited the home and a large fortune upon his parent's death, Gene took up painting and showed a natural talent. His works were soon in much demand and served to only increase his wealth. 

Gene found it so hard to hire and keep household help that he eventually only had two servants who would come during the daylight hours to perform maintenance and clean the downstairs rooms and cook his meals. They refused to stay after sundown and they also refused to enter the "Turret Room" which used to be Gene's as a little boy, but was now where Gene painted and Robert stayed most of the time. 

Gene decided he needed a wife and spared no expense finding one. After a short courtship, he married a concert and jazz pianist named Ann. The marriage was in trouble from the start as Gene insisted that Robert go on their honeymoon with them. The doll continued to have a seat at the dinning room table and was with them every evening in the parlor before they went to bed. The new Mrs. Otto tried to understand her husband's odd obsession with the doll, chalking it up to the peculiarities of a talented artist, but what she found most perturbing was his insistence that Robert sit in a chair next to and facing the newlywed's bed when they retired for the night. Sadly, within a few months, Ann began exhibiting what Gene called "odd behavior" and he had her declared insane. She later died of undisclosed causes while residing in an institution.

Artist's House with view of the Turret Room
Gene never remarried and continued to live alone as rumors around town increased. Stories were told of people walking by the "Artist's house" and hearing from the Turret room strange giggling which would erupt into maniacal laughter. Frightened school children told of seeing Robert in a Turret room window looking down on them and sliding from one side of the window to the other as they passed by. Unexplained lights would often be seen in the darkened upstairs rooms when Gene would be seen downstairs. The two daytime servants told of walking into rooms and doors slamming shut and locking from the inside when no one else was in the room.

In 1972, Gene was found in the house dead, apparently of a heart attack or stroke, Robert on the floor by his side. Medical personnel removed the body, but left the doll where it was. The house was sealed and put up for sale. Robert was left alone in the house for several years until new owners acquired the property. Upon finding Robert sitting in a chair in the Turret Room, they discovered everything to be just as the room was when Gene was a boy - the furniture, the curtains and on shelves, the tolerated toys which Robert had not destroyed during Gene's youth. Along with the toys, they placed Robert in a box and relegated it to the attic.

The new owners were astounded and very confused when they found Robert in a chair in the parlor several days later. The next day they found him sitting at the table in the dining room. Over the next several weeks as they worked to restore the house to its former glory, they continued to find Robert in different rooms. They became very uncomfortable when they started hearing a child giggling in the middle of the night and even more so as the giggling devolved into a low, menacing growling sound. The last straw was when they woke up one morning to find Robert sitting at the foot of their bed seemingly glaring at them and holding a knife in his right hand. They moved out that same day and never came back.

The owners hired a crew to pack up everything and get the house ready to be put back on the market. They arranged for Robert to be given to the East Martello Museum in Key West. Robert seems to not be pleased about being on display. Visitors who do not know his story often report they found the sight of him to be unsettling. Others have reported the expression on the doll's face to have changed right before their eyes. "One minute he was smiling then the next instant he was frowning and mad." Others who have tried to take his photo are disappointed to find nothing but black frames instead of pictures. Digital cameras often will not work near him, but will resume working just fine once away from his sealed case. Museum staff repeat the refrain, "Robert did it" whenever something strange happens or a bump in the night is heard. Publicly they laugh at the notion of an evil or possessed doll, but in an effort to keep him happy they place peppermints beside his case and none of them wants to be the last to leave at night and turn off the lights alone.

Robert is still on display, encased in hardened glass and waiting to greet you at the museum. He seems to be waiting for a nice family to take him home, hopefully one with a small child who will love him and treat him as if he were a real boy. Waiting for you perhaps?

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Story Behind "The Town That Dreaded Sundown"

The Texarkana Post Office/Courthouse. The left half  is
 in Texas while the right is in Arkansas.
Texarkana is a nice, small city. With half of the town in the state of Texas and the other half in Arkansas, the road that divides the two halves is named State Line. Shoppers on one side of the street are in Arkansas and just a few feet away on the other side of the yellow line in the middle of the road the stores are in Texas. The Post Office/Courthouse Building sits astride the state line - Texas offices on one side of the building, Arkansas offices on the other. There are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy as well as several popular parks where families go for a picnic lunch or to play Little League baseball or simply to enjoy a lazy summer day in the shade of the many trees. 

One of those popular parks though, Spring Lake Park, has a sordid history. Many of the old timers still refuse to go into the park after dark. You see, back in the mid-1940's, it was the favorite hunting grounds of a serial killer. The murders shocked and terrorized the quiet, close-knit town. Doors and windows in homes that previously were never locked, were locked and checked several times after darkness fell. Men began carrying guns; women stopped walking alone when running errands and children were forbidden to play outside. As more innocent people turned up brutally killed and the murders went unsolved, neighbors and friends of many years began to suspect and turn on each other. In the mid-1970's, a horror movie, The Town That Dreaded Sundown was made about the crimes. The true horror is that the story was based on fact.

The entrance to Spring Lake Park
On the night of February 22, 1946, 24-year-old Jimmy Hollis and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Mary Jean Larey, went on a date, a date that started off as any number of dates taken by any normal young couple, but this particular date would end very differently. After dinner and a movie, Mary Jean accompanied Jimmy in his car to a dark, secluded spot in the park for a romantic interlude. Jimmy glanced at his watch and noted the time as 11:45. He had promised his father to have the car home by midnight, but the moon was full, Mary Jean was lovely, her sweet perfume filled the air and when he leaned in for a kiss, she didn't resist. Facing the wrath of his father's anger later was no match for the lure of Mary Jean now. Soon, only the sounds of heavy breathing could be heard in the car and the young couple were not aware of anything other than their passion.

When Mary Jean opened her eyes to look into Jimmy's, she saw a dark shape beside the car. When she gasped and pull away, Jimmy looked up and saw the figure of a man. Expecting to see the uniform of a policeman, he began to roll down the window and was startled to see not a policeman, but a man dressed in dark clothing with a hood over his head. In a muffled voice, the man said, "Get out of the car now!" and tapped on the partially opened window with a .32 caliber pistol he held in his hand. 

Fearing the man would shoot through the window if they didn't do as he demanded, they both exited out of the driver's side door. They offered to give him their money and the keys to the car, but the hooded man hit Jimmy in the head twice with the butt of the gun knocking him out. He then turned his attention to Mary Jean. In desperation, she ran, but the man quickly caught her and threw her to the ground. After slapping her several times, he began to rip off her clothes and, still holding the gun, began roughly fondling her. After several minutes but what seemed like hours and frightened beyond words, Mary Jean had resigned herself to her fate when she saw the dirty canvas that covered her attacker's head light up. The man groaned and shouted several coarse cuss words. At first confused, Mary Jean then realized it was a car coming down the road and its headlights had illuminated the scene. The hooded man stood up and after hitting her in the face with his fists several times, ran off into the darkness.

The approaching car, occupied by a kindly farmer and his wife who were coming home from a late movie, stopped to see what was going on. They managed to get Jimmy into the back seat and rushed the injured couple to the nearest hospital. Physically, Mary Jean only had bruises and scratches, but Jimmy's injuries from being hit in the head with the butt of the gun were more serious. Although he suffered from two skull fractures so severe that he had to spend days in the hospital, both he and Mary Jean lived to tell their story. At the time, they were not aware of how lucky they actually were.

When the police failed to find and arrest the attacker, the crime was written off by the residents as an anomaly, a sad byproduct of having a railroad going through town. The perpetrator must have been a transient and he had no doubt hopped a railway car and was long gone. No need to fear.

On March 24th, just one month later, a visitor to the park noticed a 1941 Oldsmobile parked partially hidden about 100 yards from the road in a grove of trees. Thinking it might be a stolen vehicle and he should investigate, the driver approached the car. He saw what he thought at first was a man asleep behind the wheel, but when he got close, he saw a body covered in blood. He ran, jumped in his car and made it to a store nearby where he called the police.

After rushing to the scene, police found not one, but two bodies in the car. The man sitting in the driver's seat was identified as being 29-year-old Richard Griffin who had recently received his discharge as a Navy SeaBee. Laying in the back seat was his girlfriend, Polly Ann More. Both had been shot in the head with a .32 pistol. Polly had been roughly sexually assaulted. Evidence indicated Richard had been shot outside of the car and Polly had been tied to a nearby tree with rope. Police theorized the attacker had incapacitated Richard and then tied Polly to the tree. He had made her watch as he beat and then fatally shot her boyfriend. For some reason, he drug Richard's body back to the car and placed it in the driver's seat. He then proceeded to assault Polly while she was still tied up. She eventually was killed and drug to the car where her body was placed in the back seat. Once again, the police were unable to find any clue that would lead them to a suspect. He seemed to have vanished into thin air.

The town now knew there was a sadistic killer among them. Papers across the state picked up on the news and began calling the case the "Texarkana Moonlight Murders. With the public clamoring for an arrest, the local police called in the vaunted Texas Rangers for help. Three weeks later on April 14th, with the Rangers in town performing their investigation, the killer struck again.

15-year-old Betty Booker was an exceptionally gifted saxophone player. To help with her family's income, she sometimes played in a band which performed at proms and other social events. The band was asked to play for a dance one night at the local VFW and since she was a straight-A student, it would be for good pay, and he had come to trust the band's adult leader, her father gave his permission for her to join her band-mates and then attend a slumber party at a friend's house. After the performance was over at about 1:00AM, a friend and former classmate of Betty, Paul Martin, offered to drive her to her friend's house for the slumber party and drop her off. Paul was a clean-cut, innocent-looking young man who had not partaken of any alcoholic beverages so the band leader said it was OK. After packing her sax in its case, the two said their goodbye's. It was the last time they would be seen alive.

The road going into the park where Paul's car
was found.
Several hours later, parents at the slumber party became worried that Betty had not yet arrived so they called her parents to see if maybe she had decided to go home instead. Soon, the police were notified that Betty was missing and a search was quickly begun. Paul's car was found abandoned on the side of the road just inside the entrance of Spring Lake Park, nowhere near where the slumber party took place. Paul's body was finally found over a mile away and Betty's was found almost 2 miles from the car. Both were riddled with bullets from a .32 cal revolver and Betty had been sexually assaulted. It was a mystery as to why Paul's car was found so far from the slumber party destination. The pair had not be linked romantically and both had reputations for being good kids so there was no reason for them to be at the park. Betty's saxophone was missing and police put out notices in the papers and to pawn shops to be on the lookout for it. The instrument, still in its case, was found 2 months later rotting in the muck around a small pond inside the park several hundred yards away from where the car was found. It had obviously been thrown there the night of the murders as it was half-submerged and rusted. Why it was taken and why it was thrown there so far away from the car and the bodies is unknown. The leader of the band Betty had played in felt so guilty that he had let her go with Paul rather than drive her himself that he disbanded the popular group. The Rhythmaires never played again.

The pond near where Betty's saxophone was found
is now cleaned and maintained.
After testing, it was determined all of the bullets from each of the murders was from the same gun. Once again, the perpetrator had disappeared and neither the police nor the Rangers found anything which would lead to the identity of the killer. The papers began calling him "The Phantom."

Texarkana became a town under siege. Gun shops sold out of shotguns and ammunition; hardware stores completely sold out of locks and latches. Homeowners began constructing burglar devices that would drop nails and tacks on the floor. Shotguns were rigged to fire with strings attached to doorknobs and triggers. Business' closed at sunset when the streets and sidewalks emptied. Groups of vigilantes, men armed with shotguns, patrolled all over town. Unfamiliar cars driving through town were stopped and the passengers made to identify themselves and give a good reason for being there. Older teenagers staged traps in the park - a boy and girl would park along a dark secluded roadway and pretend to make out while a pack of armed boys would be hidden in the trees waiting for The Phantom to make an appearance. The police had their hands full trying to disperse and send the armed groups home before some innocent person was shot. It was all to no avail - The Phantom seemed to be able to sniff out any traps and stayed away.

As to capturing The Phantom, the police were clueless and the Rangers embarrassed. In desperation, the FBI was called in. Over 300 people were detained and questioned - people caught roaming around in the dark, people considered "odd" by their neighbors, hermits, loners, and every person in town who had any kind of criminal record. Soon, the FBI was just as perplexed as the other lawmen. Newspapers around the country picked up the story and Texarkana came into public awareness for the wrong reason.

On May 3rd, with groups of armed men roaming around, police on high alert, the Texas Rangers and the FBI still in town in force, The Phantom struck again. 

Virgil and Katy Starks owned a farm 12 miles outside of Texarkana. About 9:00PM, Virgil retired to his easy chair in the living room, turned on the radio and began to read the newspaper. Katy finished cleaning the kitchen, went upstairs, changed into her nightgown and lay on the bed reading the Post magazine she had recently purchased. As Katy began to relax, she was startled by what sounded like two gunshots and breaking glass downstairs. She jumped out of bed, put on her slippers and rushed down to her husband's side. She saw glass blown into the room from a shattered window pane and then she saw her husband slumped over and covered with blood from two gunshots to the head. She immediately thought, "Phantom!" and rushed across the room to the phone to call the police. Her shaking finger managed to dial 0 on the rotary phone, but as a female voice answered, "Operator, how may I help you?" she felt a tremendous blow to her right jaw and the phone flew from her hand. The blast of a gun shot registered in her brain and she instinctively turned toward the sound only to feel another bullet smash through her left jaw. As if in slow motion, she fell to the floor and saw her shattered teeth flying through the air above her. When she hit the wooden floor, she swallowed a mouthful of blood. 

Incredibly, Katy remain conscious and fighting through the pain and shock, began crawling toward the kitchen away from the window where the shots were coming from. Bleeding profusely, she made it to the kitchen only to discover to her horror that the shooter, failing to gain entry through the locked front door, had ran around to the kitchen door in the back and was trying to get in. It too was locked and she could hear the monster on the other side cursing in frustration as he kicked and slammed his body into the door trying to break in. Struggling to not pass out, Katy found a determination borne of desperation to not be another of The Phantom's victims. She made it to her feet and ran to the front door. As she unlocked it and ran out, she heard the kitchen door finally give way. As she stumbled across the porch and into the front yard, she heard more curses as The Phantom found her to be gone.

She made it into the dark before the intruder saw her and made it to a neighbor's house down the road. After banging on the door, she passed out. Finding her on the porch in her bloody nightgown, the neighbors called police and then rushed her to the hospital. Katy was immediately taken into surgery and spent several weeks in the hospital in critical condition, but, physically anyway, she eventually recovered. She had terrible scars, but the physical scars were nothing compared to the emotional scars she suffered for the rest of her life.

Back at the Starks home, authorities entered to discover no one alive. Virgil's body was found laying on the floor in a pool of blood. Muddy footprints were found going from the smashed back door, through the kitchen, into the living room where the killer evidently had dabbed his palms in Virgil's blood, then up the stairs into the bedroom and back down again through the front door. The walls had been smeared with bloody hand prints. The monster had obviously been hunting for the whereabouts of Katy. Bloodhounds were brought in and they followed the scent out the front door, across the yard and into the woods where Katy had fled. They then doubled back for about 200 yards and disappeared where he evidently had gotten into his car and drove away.

The authorities were ecstatic because this time they had hand prints and shoe prints, plenty of them. However, in spite of the evidence and all of their efforts, The Phantom's identity remained unknown. There was no record of his prints to match, his shoe prints were non-remarkable, there were no witnesses and again the perpetrator seemed to have vanished into thin air without a trace.

As suddenly as the killings started, they stopped. Nobody was ever arrested. Nobody ever confessed. Nobody knows who The Phantom was, why he did what he did, why he stopped, if he fled Texarkana or stayed in town as a neighbor and friend to unsuspecting residents. The case is still open today and unsolved. But that's not exactly the end of the story.

Whispered rumors continue of faint female screams and cries coming from the woods in the park after dark; of cold spots suddenly walked into on a warm summer night's stroll through the park's remote roads and paths. The tree that poor Polly had been tied to still stands; the tree she had been tied to and forced to watch her lover's gruesome death, the tree she had been tied to and forced to suffer a humiliating sexual assault before being killed herself. And legend has it that if you lean against this tree, you will feel a constriction as if a rope is tying you to that tree. It might be Polly's spirit struggling to get loose. Or just maybe, poor Polly is looking for someone to take her place so she can finally be free from that night of horror.