November 2, 1971– This was the day that the Spegal family learned that a girl’s body had been found in rural Pendleton County and that they should prepare themselves for the worst. November 2, 1971 was important for another reason– it was Cheryll’s brother Mark’s 11th birthday. Yes, another birthday is tangled in this story. You see, for 14 days every year, October 19-November 1, Cheryll and Mark were both the same age. In 1971, the same 14 days that Cheryll was missing would have been the special 14 days she and her brother would have both been ten years old. But Cheryll was robbed of the chance to turn ten while time went on ticking and Mark turned 11. Imagine finding out on your birthday that your younger sister and closest friend was not going to be coming home because someone had savagely ended her life. I think of her young, emotionally devastated brother. How does a boy that age even process and cope with this? In an interview in the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper in 1993, Mark Spegal recounted, “‘Her body was found on my birthday…. I lost my best friend. It’s screwed up my life.'” The article also stated that the brothers didn’t receive counseling after her death and no one really ever spoke to them about how they were feeling. How does Mark go on celebrating his birthday every year? I am sure it has been forever hallmarked as the day his world came crashing down– the day he lost his little sister, his best friend, and his innocence. I feel that same horrible knot in my stomach when I think about Mark as a boy being handed a birthday present on his 11th birthday, which meant nothing to him after finding out his sister would never be coming home. It’s just so heart-breaking.
The transport and autopsy of Cheryll took a couple of days. And Thursday, November 4, Billy Joe Spegal was asked to report to the Hamilton County Morgue to identify his daughter. Cheryll had never been to a dentist so her teeth could not be compared against dental records. Her fingerprints were taken from items in the Spegal home but because she had laid in the elements for two weeks, she had no viable skin on her fingers to compare prints to. Billy Joe tried to identify her, but couldn’t be absolutely certain, so more specific slides were prepared for him showing her facial profile, teeth patterns, and other characteristics, and it was then that he confirmed the body to be that of his daughter. For further confirmation, a print was able to be made of Cheryll’s foot and compared with the footprints taken at the hospital in 1961 when Cheryll was born. They matched. By Friday, November 5, 1971 the papers reported that Cheryll was definitely the girl found in the culvert in Pendleton County and that she had without a doubt suffered a brutal death.
Both Highland Heights and Pendleton County knew they had a murder on their hands. And this wasn’t any murder, but a horrific, senseless, and vicious murder of a child. As the Spegal family prepared for a funeral, the police began a new phase of the investigation. There was a child killer walking free and time was of the essence.
The Police Officer
If a cardinal should appear, a loved one came to bring you cheer. A memory, a smile, a tear, a visitor from Heaven is near. Have you heard this poem or a variation of it before? Some people say that a cardinal represents the spirit of a loved one who has passed. We have a painting in our home of a tree with a cardinal sitting in it. My husband bought it because it made him think of his dad. Where we live, we see cardinals flying about and we always think of Tom. Might this be a way for him to say hello and keep an eye on his family? Maybe, maybe not. Either way we enjoy seeing the birds from time to time and smile as we think of him.
It was an extremely cold day the day we buried my father-in-law in Fort Mitchell’s Highland Cemetery. The ground was frozen. The weather was so bad that day that some interstates were closed. Of course we still held his funeral and mourned together, and when we went to the gravesite that day, we froze our butts off and I couldn’t help but think of my father-in-law sort of laughing at us from the other side. Almost like he pulled one last prank on us. He was silly that way. I make it a point to visit his grave a few times a year. Tom is buried close to his brother who died years before he did, as well as near his parents. I can always find his grave because there is a tree toward the bottom of a small incline and as you follow a path from the tree up the slight hill, his headstone comes into view. It’s a standard rectangular-shaped black stone, level with the ground, with his name carved in at the top and the dates etched in white. An oval photo of his police badge adorns the center of the headstone as well. The stone is like him—simple, but strong. Just above his grave and slightly to the left, where the hill crests, is a big, full tree, and in the spring when I was visiting, its leaves were a rich green and it was peppered with small blooms of flowers.
“I’m here, Tom.” I quietly talked to him that day as I gently wiped some grass clippings off of his headstone. As I continued to talk, I crouched down and pulled away pieces of grass that were encroaching over the edges of his headstone like a mother softly brushing hair from their child’s face. “So I’m thinking about working on solving a murder. Crazy, right? But I think you know which one I’m talking about. If you can give me any help, you know I’d appreciate it.” It was a sort of prayer, conversation, and plea for help all in one. I knew I might be needing his help. I wanted his help. He was the person to ask because after all, he and Cheryll shared a birthday. He was aware of her case because he worked in her town after her murder. He and his family had lived in Highland Heights. Once a cop, always a cop, right? Might he be willing to help investigate this case from the other side? If the mortals living on the earth didn’t have all the tools to solve this case, then maybe the angels watching over this earth could intercede. And that spring day of my visit, as the leaves danced on that freshly blooming tree, I had no idea that I would soon discover Tom and Cheryll shared another eerie connection—I did not yet know just how close they were to each other—in proximity….and on the other side.