Throughout this yearlong journey of learning all that I could about Cheryll, I’ve noticed that whenever I choose a day to meet someone involved in her case or when I travel to a location important to the story, the weather outside is beautiful. Perhaps it’s by design. So on the day that I had the pleasure of being able to talk to a really lovely and helpful extended family member of Billy Joe Spegal, it was of course, a beautiful, sunny, spring day. I was so excited as I drove to the meeting and just kept asking Cheryll over and over again to guide me and to help me know what to ask and what to say. When I was introduced to her family member, I felt that slight surge of electricity again– it was the closest I’d ever been to someone related to Cheryll– and it felt like she was sitting there with us too.
One of the most helpful parts of my conversation, was learning so much more about Billy Joe’s backstory. Billy Joe was the only child born to his parents who divorced when he was young. Though Billy Joe’s dad eventually remarried, he never had any other children– Billy Joe was his only son and Cheryll was his only granddaughter. And while Billy Joe’s dad continued to live in Gardnersville, Kentucky, Billy Joe moved to Ohio where he lived with his mother. His home in Ohio was a far distance from Gardnersville, so because he only occasionally visited with his father, the extended family wasn’t as close to Billy Joe as they were with other relatives. In later years, they remember seeing Billy Joe and his kids at a couple of family reunions, but did not know them well.
It was explained to me that the Spegal family was not a wealthy one, but they were a tight-knit, country, farming family who took care of each other. They didn’t necessarily have the means to travel far outside of Pendleton County, especially in 1971 when the roads in and out of the county were even less developed than they are now. Not many family members made the trip to Covington for Cheryll’s funeral because it was a far distance for them to travel and because they just weren’t that close to Billy Joe anymore. If Cheryll’s family had been living in Pendleton County at the time, the whole Spegal clan would have rallied and not only sought justice for Cheryll but would have made sure she had a headstone after she was buried. When I asked about why Cheryll didn’t have a headstone, the answer I received made sense– they had no money. Whatever money Billy Joe did have was used to pay for the funeral services and burial. Could they have purchased a headstone for her later? Yes, but as time went on it just sadly never happened.
I learned that Cheryll’s grandpa was understandably angry about Cheryll’s murder. Someone had killed his only granddaughter. But the subject was not something that was brought up around him. Such tragic matters were just not spoken about and the family feared they would further hurt or anger Cheryll’s grandpa by inquiring further. It feels cold to me, but I understand it. Emotional subjects were not ones that I recall my own grandparents openly discussing either. Granted, no one in my family has been murdered, but subjects such as grief, loss, and anger are ones not brought up at family gatherings or in causal conversation especially by the elders of the family. You learned to get a stiff upper lip, bury those emotions, and move on.
I also asked if anyone in the family ever had any idea who had killed Cheryll. The Spegal family heard it was a man from up by where Cheryll lived, but no one knew who it was that the police were suspecting. Some in the family worried that if Billy Joe or his dad knew who had done it, they would seek vengeance on their own and that was another reason to avoid the subject. I understood this as well– the innate instinct of a parent wanting to go after your child’s murderer and the desire of the family to prevent that from happening. The more I thought about that paradox, the bigger the knot in my stomach grew. What a tough position for the extended Spegal family to be in.
Some time after Cheryll was killed, Billy Joe moved his family back up to Ohio. The extended Spegal family saw this as a good idea. The memories of Rose Avenue were too tough and the knowledge that Cheryll’s killer was possibly living in close proximity to them was more than they could bare. Furthermore, they had become frustrated with the lack of action in Cheryll’s case. Billy Joe Spegal died of cancer at the age of 53. He was buried as close to Cheryll as possible– just two plots over from his only daughter who went to her grave 17 years before him. The extended family saw the three Spegal sons at a couple of family reunions through the years, but as they grew and started their own families and eventually went on to bury their dad and their grandpa Spegal, venturing down to Pendleton County to visit with their dad’s extended family became less frequent until it ended all together.
My continued prayer to Cheryll is for her to guide me to meet the people I need to in order to tell her story, and that day, having met a member of the Spegal family, hearing the family dynamic explained to me, my understanding of Billy Joe had come more into focus. As I drove home from that meeting on that beautiful spring day, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. Physically, I could feel my butt in the seat, my hands on the wheel, and my eyes on the road as I drove home. Emotionally, I felt like I was floating outside of my body, all the while finding myself thinking, “He didn’t do it. Billy Joe didn’t do it.” I can’t explain it. I just felt it. And if my instinct was correct, then who did do it?
One warm summer evening as the sun began to set behind a hillside of trees, I sat poolside on a lounge chair, watching my kids swim in a friend’s pool. The chatter of my husband and a couple of his friends was background noise, as I found myself mulling the investigation over in my head. Cheryll was in my thoughts, sometimes more than I even wanted. My husband and his friends eventually noticed that my mind was somewhere else and inquired as to what I was thinking, knowing the answer would be something about Cheryll’s case. I began to sort of ramble on about the case and how I was still conflicted about whether Cheryll’s immediate family was involved or not. One of my husband’s friends–also a cop–started asking questions of me, almost like the police investigator was questioning the amateur. We went back and forth about Cheryll’s dad and her stepmom, and I answered questions he posed to me, then he asked something that I wasn’t expecting.
“What about her brothers?” He asked me plainly.
“What?” I asked confused, feeling like I had been slapped back into reality. “What about them?”
“Look around at who else was in the house,” he said. “What do you know about them?”
“I guess I don’t know much,” I responded.
“Well, get to work, kid,” he said. And I did. What do I do when I get a new piece of information or a new idea? I text Bridget. So as the men folk continued on in a new conversation, I settled back in to my lounge chair, sending Bridget a message.
“Omg, Bridget,” I wrote to my investigative partner, preparing to tell her we needed to get to work researching Cheryll’s brothers.
Her response to me was immediate. “Omg, Beth. You’re going to shit,” she wrote. I stared at the screen of my phone. I remember looking up at my three kids happily swimming in the pool and looking back down again, trying to figure out what she meant.
“Okay, go ahead,” I replied still confused, and then waited anxiously as the texting bubbles rhythmically appeared across the phone screen, indicating Bridget was responding.
Her message appeared. “I’m at the Reds game and I just met someone who knows Cheryll’s brother.” My heart stopped. How crazy, weird is that? I read and re-read the words on my phone in disbelief. I had a hundred questions and I couldn’t respond to her fast enough.
“Bridget, this is so weird,” is all I could reply.
“Why? What were you going to tell me?” Bridget asked.
“I am sitting poolside and one of Micheal’s friends just suggested that I find out more about Cheryll’s brothers.”
“I just got the chills when I read that,” Bridget responded. You and me both, I thought. At the very moment Bridget was conversing with someone about the case and discovering this acquaintance knew Cheryll’s brother, I was sitting and talking to a friend who suggested I take a look at Cheryll’s brothers. This is NOT a coincidence, I thought. I got the message, Cheryll. And a new part of our investigation began that evening.