Cheryll Spegal was born in 1961. The number one song on the radio was “Hit the Road Jack” by Ray Charles. “Mister Ed” debuted on television that October, around the time of Cheryll’s birth. “West Side Story” and “The Parent Trap” were showing in the movie theatre. And President John F. Kennedy was gearing up to send a man to the moon for the first time. Michael J. Fox, Barack Obama, George Clooney, and Wayne Gretzky were all born the same year as Cheryll.
It was an eventful time during the ten years that Cheryll was here on earth. The Beatles arrived in the U.S. when Cheryll was a year old. President Kennedy was assassinated when she was two. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law when she was three. The Vietnam War began when Cheryll was four. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated when she was seven. The United States sent men to the moon when she was eight. And also in 1969 when Cheryll was eight-years-old, Charles Manson and his followers killed nine people in California. His crimes thrust the idea of serial killing into the spotlight for the first time in the mainstream media and created a horrific segue into a decade that bore some of the worst killers in American history.
The most notorious serial killers in America began their killing sprees well after Cheryll was already dead and buried. (The dates of their serial murders appears next to their names): John Wayne Gacy (1972-1978), Ted Bundy (1974-1978), The Zodiac (late 1960s-1974), and Ottis Toole (1974-1981). The latest serial killer to finally be identified through the use of DNA is the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo (1974-1986), who until recently had not been identified. In researching these men, I noticed two things they have in common. One, they were all born in the 1940s and two, they started their killing sprees in the 1970s. Interestingly, the man on the porch was also born in the 1940s and IF he killed Cheryll that murder was also committed in the 1970s. (Granted, I cannot say that he is the murderer or that he is a serial killer, but I found it interesting that the dates aligned). What was it about that generation that seemed to produce such murderous monsters?
The story of Adam Walsh has always been one that bothered me. The idea of a mother becoming separated briefly from her child in a crowded store only for him to be abducted and murdered by Ottis Toole, a murderer who preyed on young children, scared the crap out of me as a child and scares the hell out of me now as parent. Cheryll had already been abducted and killed before Adam Walsh was even born. He was kidnapped and murdered ten years after Cheryll was. I think about poor John Walsh on television pleading for the return of his son and how Cheryll’s parents never had that opportunity. But then I think of the grim statistic that in 49% of non-family abductions, the child is already deceased within the first hour they were abducted and 76% of the time, the child is killed within the first three hours. So even if the Spegals had been given the opportunity to be on the news that evening, Cheryll’s fate would probably have already been carried out. Something else that did not exist during Cheryll’s time on earth was research about people who commit child abduction murderers and the psychological profile of people who do.
In 2015, the magazine Psychology Today published an article by Dr. Raj Persaud and Dr. Helina Hakkanen-Nyholm titled, “Who Murders Children? Psychology Profiles Child Killers.” They reviewed research of homicides of children and shared the findings. Interestingly, children between the ages of five and twelve are generally the people who are the least likely to be murdered in the United States. It’s considered to be the safest age to be alive. If a child younger than five-years-old is killed, there is a strong likelihood that the murder was committed by a member of the family. However, “if a child older than five years goes missing and is feared dead, it is highly likely the perpetrator is someone outside of the family.” For this age group, the murderer is most often a male and is usually an acquaintance or a stranger to the family. But abduction murders in the U.S. account for less than one-half of one-percent of all murders committed in our country each year. Unfortunately for Cheryll, she would be one of these rare murder victims.
The United States Department of Justice, in conjunction with the Attorney General of Washington State, released an in-depth report in 2006 called “CASE MANAGEMENT for Missing Children Homicide Investigation.” I’m not one who generally enjoys reading research, but the findings they outlined were extremely fascinating. Cheryll’s abduction and murder occurred years before murders like hers were tracked to be used for research purposes but amazingly, Cheryll’s case seems to be a textbook case for what is called an abduction murder. Their findings state that “the typical child abduction murder victim was a white (74.5%) female (74%), approximately 11 years old. They were predominantly from a middle class (35.2%), or ‘blue collar’ family (35.8%), living in an urban (29.3%) or suburban (35.2%) neighborhood, in a single-family residence (71.1%).” Reading these facts jumped off the page immediately– Cheryll was, in fact, all of those things.
Regarding the type of people who commit child abduction murders, “the great majority of killers (65.8%) were young adult men between the ages of 18 and 30 years old. The race of the killers in this sample was predominantly white (69.8%). 98.5% of child abduction killers were males.” Furthermore, the study went on to examine the killer’s marital status. “83.0% of the killers had no intimate attachments or bonds with another person at the time of the abduction and subsequent murder.” The living arrangements of the killer can also be a big clue. “….only 17.1% of the killers lived alone, while 74.8% lived with someone. It is perhaps a little unusual that 33.2% of them lived with their parents.” Regarding the killer’s employment status research shows that “approximately half (48.3%), of child abduction murderers were unemployed at the time of the murder; and if they were employed, they worked in unskilled or semi-skilled labor occupations.” In reading all of these statistics, I can’t help but think of how the man on the porch falls into many of these descriptors. Recently we have learned that he was employed at a factory in Cincinnati and there is some debate about whether he was actually clocked in one the day of the murder or if he had someone clock in for him instead.
The data about the killer’s lifestyle is something to be considered. And when we look at the man on the porch as a suspect or any other individuals who might emerge, the information below is something to consider. (I put a check mark by the ones that we know are true, an X by the ones we know are not true, and a question mark by the ones we are not certain about).
- “20.1% of the killers were on probation or parole for another offense at the time they committed the child abduction murder. X
- Many of them (30.2%) were described as ‘strange’ by others who knew them. ☑
- A number of them abused alcohol (24.6%) ☑,
- used and abused drugs (22.1%) ? or
- were sexually promiscuous (15.5%) ?,
- a large percent of the murderers had a substantial history of prior crimes against children (46.0%).” ? (Though we do know of unsettling behavior toward children after the crime.) ☑
There is so much more research and so many more light bulb moments that I had when reading it all that speaks volumes about the perpetrator and the crime. I’ll cover that more in the next blog post…..because again, I feel like Cheryll’s story is a textbook case, if only police had known this information back in 1971.
I stood at Cheryll’s grave and placed on it an inexpensive flower arrangement I had purchased when I was at Wal-Mart that morning. I knew it wasn’t much, but seeing even the cheap flowers adorn the head of her grave, made it so much prettier against the green grass. Usually I stand at her grave and think for a bit while the sounds of birds, geese, and expressway traffic are heard in the distance. This day, a chorus of weed eaters welcomed me as the grounds crew happened to be cutting the grass while I visited. And eventually as I stood there, staring at her grave, pleased at the sight of the flowers I had placed there, the groundskeepers began to retreat, carefully walking past me toward the next section to continue their work. One young man hung behind and called out to me, “Those flowers look nice.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said in response, appreciative of his compliment, but also slightly embarrassed by the cheap nature of the flowers there.
“We will do our best to take care not to knock them down with our weed eaters the next time we’re out here. I try hard to avoid them.”
“It’s okay. I know it’s not easy to do. I just wanted to bring something out here today.”
“Can I suggest getting a more permanent vase?” he said. “Those are much more substantial and I think they look nice with flowers in them. You can change them out depending on the season too.” I sort of chuckled a little on the inside. This kid couldn’t have been more than 20-years-old and I thought it was cute how he was giving me suggestions about vases and flowers. I was also thinking, “Can’t you see that there isn’t even a headstone here?” but I didn’t.
Instead, I replied with a smile, “You’re right. That would look very nice.”
The young groundskeeper turned to leave and said, “Anyway, it’s nice to see someone back here. This section doesn’t get many visitors. Have a good day.” With that, he began walking away, returning to his work in the next section of the cemetery.
“You too,” I called out in response. Then I turned toward Cheryll’s grave and said playfully out loud as if I were talking to a child, “Well Cheryll, he doesn’t even know the amount of visitors you’ll be getting here soon.” And as I stood there one last moment, a red cardinal flew by, resting on the branch of a tree in the distance. I felt compelled to walk two plots over to Billy Joe’s grave and as I knelt down, with the cardinal perched on the tree nearby, I dusted the fresh grass trimmings from his grave, whispering, “I’m trying.” That day I was feeling sympathy for a man whose daughter was gone in the fog on the morning of her birthday 47 years ago.
- Dr. R. Persaud, Dr. H. Hakkanen-Nyholm. “Who Murders Children? Psychology Profiles Child Killers. How forensic psychology profiles the suspect.” Psychology Today. 4 September 2015. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/slightly-blighty/201509/who-murders-children-psychology-profiles-child-killers>
- K. Brown, R. Keppel, J. Weis, M. Skeen. CASE MANAGEMENT for Missing Children Homicide. Rob McKenna Attorney General for Washington & U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. 2006. <http://www.pollyklaas.org/media/press-releases/wa-abduction-homicide-study.pdf>