…Micheal slowed the truck a little on one stretch on that highway road and he brought my attention to a house on the other side of the street. Quietly he said, “Hey, do you see that man right there?”
It was summer and the driver’s side window was down and I leaned across the seat slightly, squinting my eyes to see the man being pointed out to me. “Yes, I see him. Who is he?” I peered out the window to see an older, overweight, gray and bushy-haired man sitting with his legs spread and arms crossed in a chair on the front porch of a modest craftsman style cottage house.
“I don’t know his name, but growing up my dad always told us to stay away from that man and if he ever drove by us in his truck, not to talk to him.”
“Really? Why?” Again, I had questions.
“I don’t know. Something about an unsolved murder of a girl and that guy being a strange dude.” I looked the man over for another moment or two as he gazed back at us and we continued to slowly roll on by.
That moment in my boyfriend’s truck stirred up so many questions inside of me. Who was the murdered girl? What was her name? What was her story? What happened to her? Why didn’t I ever hear about her case? I’ve found answers to many of these questions, but the one that remains–the one that haunts everyone– is, who killed Cheryll? When Micheal pointed the man on the porch out to me that day, I couldn’t help but see him so many times after that when I’d drive by. But what I could not have ever predicted was the amount of time I would spend learning as much as I could about the aging man. When I started this investigation, I wondered to myself, what if the man on the porch was the town scapegoat–the easy target–the man who sat on his porch watching kids who people felt was odd and therefore became easy to point the finger at? What if the man on the porch had no connection to Cheryll at all? What if all these years people had been suspecting and talking in quiet whispers about a man who was innocent of the crime and the real murderer was right under their noses? And with those thoughts in mind, I set out to answer, who is the man on the porch?
I will be frank here. I am not going to name the man on the porch in this blog. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law and it would not be prudent of me to publicly defame someone. I will tell you that it took me a little while to discover his name, however. It seems that many people in the town of Highland Heights were familiar with the man on the porch, either seeing him sitting there, knowing him from the street, seeing him around town, hearing stories about him, but no one could readily tell me his name. This was sort of amusing to me. People had done their fair share of speculating about him but no one even knew him–couldn’t even tell me his name. Maybe it’s odd to me because we are currently living in a time where one can learn someone’s name and everything about them with a few clicks on a phone or a computer. It amazed me that people would say, “Oh yeah, I know who you’re talking about. The man who’d always sit on his porch. Oh well no, I don’t know his name, but he was a strange guy.” But one day, finally, I received a message and there in print, it appeared.
A person reached out to me, asking a few questions about the man on the porch. I answered and we messaged back and forth. I finally shared that even with my research and conversations with people, “I still don’t know his name,” I wrote.
The two word response I received back sent a surge through my body. “I do.”
And with that, we discussed the man on the porch a little more and his name was finally sent to me. Have you ever had a dream where you’re desperately trying to read words printed on a paper but your eyes can’t focus on it? I have this dream from time to time, and in it I am always frantically trying to focus on the words but can’t see what they say, and I wake up really frustrated. That day, reading his name, was like that bad dream finally had come to an end. Looking down and seeing a name in print and being to laser focus in on it was such a gratifying feeling and it gave me the much needed fuel to keep learning as much as I could about him. The first thing Bridget and I did, was to find property records confirming that he did live in the house pointed out to me by my then-boyfriend/now-husband all those years ago. It’s the same house and same porch that others confirmed the man on the porch lived in 1971 and for years after. We were all talking about the same man and he was living in that house in 1971 and now I knew his name.
Throughout my investigation I have been able to speak with childhood friends of Cheryll’s who are now grown adults, as well as some adults who lived on Rose Avenue in 1971. I’m continuously amazed at how vivid these people’s memories are. Maybe it’s because it was such a traumatic time that important details are seared into their minds.
“Did you ever see the man on the porch on your street?” I asked former residents of Rose Avenue.
“No, never. He never came down our street.” This was the collective response.
“Do you recall ever talking to the man on porch? Out on the street? At the bus stop? Across the street by his house?” I asked.
“No. We never saw him outside of his vehicle or off of his porch.” How could the man on the porch have possibly interacted with Cheryll if he never even talked to anyone or left his porch?
A thought came to mind so I asked it or perhaps Cheryll compelled me to ask. “What do you mean about outside of his vehicle?” And then a curious detail emerged. One adult living on Rose Avenue recalled that many mornings when leaving for work, the man on the porch would be sitting in his vehicle at the top of Rose Avenue. It was annoying because he would park, as they recalled, the wrong way on the street. Meaning, the car would be parked facing down the street on the side of the street where vehicles should be facing heading out of the street.
“What was he doing in there?” I asked, thinking that 6:00-6:30 in the morning was an especially early time to be sitting around in one’s car.
“I don’t know. I didn’t look. Just sitting there and kind of watching what was going on. It was odd, but he wasn’t bothering anybody.”
My first instinct was to think of how strange and uncomfortable this made me. If a grown man was sitting in his vehicle early in the morning on my street and just watching people leaving for the day, especially if it was close to where the kids would congregate to wait for the bus, I now would march right up to his car window, knock on it, and ask him what he was doing there. And if his answer wasn’t a really good one, I would probably tell him to move along off of our street. But, this is 2019 where people are hyper-aware of their surroundings and more inclined to speak up. In 1971, people minded their business and were less apt to confront someone who wasn’t doing anything noticeably wrong.
When talking to a childhood friend of Cheryll’s, I asked her the same questions about the man on the porch–did he ever talk to her or appear out of his vehicle on Rose Avenue in the mornings when they were waiting for the bus?
Her response was, “No, he just sat at the top of the street in his brown Ford.” I felt my heart stop for a moment.
“What kind of car was it? Do you remember?” I asked.
“A brown Ford Galaxie, late 60s model, 4 door, with a strip down the side and a big trunk.” Holy cow. She knew and remembered the make and model of the car as well as specific details of it, and I came to discover that it was like the one Moira had described.
I pressed her again. “Did he ever say anything to any of you or just sit there and watch?”
“He just sat and stared, especially at me at times.” This same friend went on to describe how on the morning of October 19, 1971, Cheryll came to her house around 5:50 a.m. to walk to the bus stop together, but because she and her sister weren’t ready yet, Cheryll said, “I’ll just head up and wait.” As far as this friend knows, Cheryll began her walk up the street to wait for the bus. When this friend arrived later, around 6:00 a.m., Cheryll was not there. But she heard a rustling in the bushes which spooked her so badly that she ran across the street to another bus stop because she didn’t want to wait alone at the end of Rose Avenue. It is her belief that at that moment, whoever grabbed Cheryll already had her behind the hedges at that point or was getting into position to snatch his prey which could have possibly been her if she hadn’t screamed and took off running. Curiously, she recalls that the man on the porch and his brown Ford were not parked at the end of the street that morning.
This account makes sense. If Cheryll decided to walk alone because her friends weren’t ready, the predator could have taken advantage of the opportunity and grabbed Cheryll. What this doesn’t answer however, is this pivotal question– why did Cheryll’s dad say Cheryll was running late and that he saw her leave at 6:25 a.m.? Did she go home and leave again, only to be snatched as she hurried back up the street? And furthermore, if it was the man on the porch waiting that morning, did he and Cheryll plan to meet up on her birthday? Could he have been someone calling himself “uncle” who would be taking her to see her grandma? Was it a spur of the moment decision for her to go with him? Or, did he grab the girl walking alone, making her the victim of his murderous desire? We may never know the answer to these questions. At this point, Bridget and I discussed that though it was weird that he’d sit and watch the kids in his car just like he’d do from his porch, there was nothing tying him to the crime. It’s not illegal to sit in your car and watch people by day and sit on your porch and watch people by night. Was there more to this man than we knew? Soon that question would be answered, more than we ever expected it to be.