On another beautiful spring day, while parked in my car waiting for my children to exit their school building for the day, my cell phone rang and a number I did not recognize appeared on the screen. On that day, I felt compelled to answer it. On the other end of the phone was a relative of Cheryll’s biological mother, calling to talk about Cheryll’s story. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to someone who knew the other side of Cheryll’s family. I quickly thought of Cheryll, grabbed my notebook and pen, and prepared to scribble down as much information I could as we talked.
From that conversation I learned more about Cheryll’s mom. After suspicions of infidelity on the part of Billy Joe surfaced, Cheryll’s mom left the home and eventually moved to Virginia. There was some confusion about her day to appear in Kentucky court regarding custody of the children, and she missed the court appearance. Therefore, the judge awarded custody to Billy Joe. It was explained to me that because Cheryll’s mom had little money and in the 1960s the courts oftentimes sided with the father, she felt defeated–unable to afford an attorney, transportation back and forth from Virginia to Kentucky, and the means to actually pay for three kids on her own. She therefore did not contest the ruling and Billy Joe retained custody, allowing the children to stay with their dad who had been consistently in their lives since she left town. Cheryll’s mother was devastated when her daughter was found murdered and the family recalls being told that not only would Cheryll be buried next to her brother who had died of SIDS in 1959, but that she would also have a headstone with an angel on it. Sadly, we now know that neither one of these requests was honored. As a further erasure of her mother from her life, Cheryll’s mom’s name is not even mentioned in Cheryll’s obituary. Having outlived Cheryll by 15 years, her mother died in 1986 at the age of 48 after suffering a brain aneurysm. She is buried in Virginia, next to her second husband.
I am conflicted about Cheryll’s mom. I want to blame her for some of what happened to Cheryll. Girls need their moms. Cheryll was left behind in a household of males with a less than warm stepmother, obviously missing her mother figure and lacking that important relationship. And in addition, I am sure Cheryll was suffering inside with some serious abandonment issues and questioning why her mom left her. Kids at that age are good at blaming themselves for choices adults make when in reality they are not at fault. Whatever had happened in her marriage to Billy Joe, Cheryll’s mom felt that it was best to leave the relationship and the family. Maybe like her extended family, she trusted her ex-husband with the care of their children, knowing she was not capable of raising them herself. Without being able to talk to her myself, I am trying to reserve judgment on a woman who, in the end, lost so much. SHE missed out on all the joys of being a mother and had to live with whatever guilt she felt internally about Cheryll’s death.
We know that Cheryll was the last child to be born from the union of her dad, Billy Joe, and her biological mother. Her birth was in 1961. Her younger brother, Darren, was born in 1969. So somewhere between Cheryll and Darren’s births, Billy Joe and his first wife divorced, and he met and married his second wife, Shirley. We know they were living in Highland Heights in 1971 when Cheryll was murdered. Not long after that, they moved out of Highland Heights. I have found divorce records for Billy Joe and Shirley from 1974. I am not sure how much Darren interacted with Mickey and Mark, but the extended Spegal family does recall all three boys being together a couple of times at family reunions, so they must have maintained some contact over the years. Bridget and I have done a lot of research to try and find Shirley but we are mostly met with dead ends. I cannot say for certain whether she is living or has passed away, but I am hoping that someday I have an opportunity to talk to her or her family to hear her perspective of that terrible time.
I’ve discussed why Bridget and I have essentially eliminated Billy Joe and the brothers as suspects, but the question remains about Shirley being involved in the murder. Here is where total speculation comes in. If Cheryll was alive and had been seen the morning of her birthday and went home for some reason, could she have been killed then? What if an argument between stepmother and stepdaughter occurred? One question I have is if Shirley did something to hurt Cheryll, would Billy Joe help cover it up for her? Did they together choose to place Cheryll on New Hope Road and fashion a stack on rocks on her as a sort of crude grave marker? Or, would it have been possible that Shirley hurt Cheryll and she had an accomplice (maybe like a brother) who helped her cover it up and Billy Joe never even knew his wife was involved? At this point, unfortunately, we just don’t know quite enough to rule any scenario involving Shirley in or out. But the scenarios above are truly hypothetical and as far as I know have never been considered to be actual theories formed by authorities as to what happened to Cheryll.
My research shows that Shirley and Billy Joe married around 1969 when Darren was born. Billy Joe would have been 35-years-old while Shirley was aged 22. She was 13 years younger than Billy Joe and 9 years older than Mickey–closer in age to her step-children than to her husband. I’m sure being a full-time, single parent was difficult for a working father. Billy Joe may have seen Shirley not only as a wife, but also as a necessary full-time caregiver for all four of his children. I try to imagine becoming a mother four times over. A first time mom to a newborn baby is challenging for any mother. But to become a mom caring for a new baby and then also caring for three other children full-time, had to be difficult. Furthermore, the Spegal children dealing with their own issues of abandonment by their mother and preteen attitudes on top of that, surely created a whole lot of opportunities for tension and discord in the household. If Shirley was not involved in Cheryll’s murder, I could see how the whole situation possibly took a toll on her, eventually leading to a divorce. It was probably just too much to handle. To be fair in my dishing out of compassion, I try to empathize with Shirley just like I did with Cheryll’s mom. As a 22-year-old, she was dealing with a lot and may have been perceived to be a “wicked” stepmother to the kids because unfortunately, she just wasn’t equipped to be a good stepmother at that point.
In 1988, I was 10-years-old. I remember the year well. I was in fifth grade. My teacher that year was challenging, but I remember feeling older in the way we were being taught. I was a year in to taking piano lessons and loving it. I was a proud Girl Scout with an outstanding troop leader. The Bengals went to the Super Bowl that year and I was the only kid who didn’t have Bengals gear to wear to school. But the very best part of the tenth year of my life was being a junior bridesmaid in my aunt’s wedding. The whole experience seemed so magical to me. I can remember receiving a small gift at the rehearsal dinner and opening the little box to find a lovely pearl necklace inside to wear with my fancy dress. Oh and THAT dress. How I loved wearing the blush-colored, floor-length, lace dress. As an adult now reflecting back, I truly value how that whole experience made me feel so very special. I meant so much to my aunt that she asked ME to be in her wedding. For a girl of 10 years, this was truly a gift.
In a special anecdote, my youngest cousin, the daughter of the afore mentioned aunt, is now getting married. She has asked my 10-year-old daughter to sing at her wedding, so yet another girl will get to experience the magical feeling of being a part of someone’s special day. As a mother, I am grateful for this gift to my daughter. And as an absolute seal of divine design, this special wedding will be occurring later this year on…..wait for it….October 19th—the birthdays of Cheryll and Tom.
One night my phone buzzed and I looked down to see a message from Bridget. The message was brief. “I’m getting information that Cheryll was a flower girl in a wedding.”
I quickly responded. “What? Whose wedding? I doubt it.” I am sort of ashamed that that was my initial response, but with so much grief in her life, I found it hard to believe that Cheryll would have had the opportunity to experience this type of special occurrence.
“I’m not sure.” Bridget texted back answering my question and then like usual, I got to work, adding this to my list of things to investigate.
And then one evening at home while digging through old newspapers on my laptop, I found it. There, on my computer screen, was a brief article from 1968, announcing the wedding of Cheryll’s aunt, and, after a brief moment, these words came into focus– Cheryl Spegal was flower girl. As I read the words before me, I got a sudden rush of energy through my body and I exclaimed happily, “Oh my gosh” as I picked up my phone to text Bridget. She was right. The story she’d been told was true. 14 days before her 7th birthday, Cheryll had been a flower girl in a wedding. I wish I could adequately explain how I felt in that moment. The 10-year-old junior bridesmaid in me was so giddy just like I imagined young Cheryll would have been to be in her aunt’s wedding. And the mom inside of me was so grateful to her aunt for having given her that special opportunity. Finally. Finally. Proof that Cheryll had been apart of at least one joyous occasion as a child. If Cheryll or her aunt had been standing in front of me, I would have hugged them both.