On a cool, late spring day, I was walking alone on a city street heading to meet a gentleman who once worked as a police officer in Highland Heights in the 1980s. As I walked, I found myself talking out loud to Cheryll. “Okay Cheryll, help me to know what to ask. Help me to understand what I need to know.” This man, like so many of the other people to whom I have spoken, had very clear memories of his time working in that small Kentucky town and was willing to share those memories with me.
(And before I go any further I should tell you that throughout our conversation, this officer and I DID use the man on the porch’s name, but for this blog I will continue to insert “the man on the porch” when he is referenced in our conversation.)
After our introductions, the veteran officer and I talked a little about my late father-in-law. It was a nice way to begin the conversation as he gave Tom a few compliments and shared a couple memories of his encounters with him back in the days when they were both in law enforcement in Northern Kentucky. I smiled, feeling a much needed comfort as I began asking the questions flooding my thoughts. In addition to Cheryll, I was quite sure Tom was there with me too.
Before I could ask my first question, he posed one to me. “So what did Tom tell you about the case?”
“Nothing.” I responded with a slight laugh. “I never asked him specifically about it, but Micheal and his siblings have always said that Tom told them to steer clear of the man on the porch and now I’m curious as to what Tom knew then about him. Tom passed away before I had the opportunity to just come right out and ask him so now I’m on this mission to talk to as many people as I can who are connected to the case to see what we can figure out.”
He looked down and paused for a moment as if gathering his thoughts and then said, “Well if Tom’s family was living IN Highland Heights in the 1980s, he was probably aware of some of the man’s strange behaviors and knew that we were wary of him.”
“What was he doing that made you all wary of him?” I asked curiously.
“I can’t say that I was wary of this necessarily, but he would sit on his porch and watch not only the kids in the neighborhood, but everyone. He knew what cops drove by and when, and always had an awareness of who was coming and going.” He explained that he and other officers knew that it made people uncomfortable, but the man on the porch was allowed to sit on his porch and watch what was going on– that wasn’t illegal. “Sometimes we would stop at his house when he was outside and talk with him just asking how things were going, I guess just trying to maintain a rapport with him.”
Knowing he said that they were “wary” of the man on the porch, I asked again. “So what made you wary of him?”
“There were other things. He would follow school buses around, just driving behind them, sort of watching the kids get on the buses in the mornings sometimes.”
“That’s odd,” I said as I once again got a sort of creeped out feeling thinking about that.
“Oh it most definitely was odd. And we’d shoo him off and he would drive away and then in a few days he would do it again. He’d also drive through the school parking lot at random times throughout the day just sort of checking out what was going on and we’d get calls about it and have to run him off and tell him to get on with his business. It got to a point that I called other police departments in nearby cities to tell them to keep an eye on their elementary schools because I worried that if I ran him off from Highland Heights Elementary, then he’d just go to another school parking lot and do the same thing.”
I was nodding my head when he said, “That’s probably why Tom told his kids to stay away from him. We never knew when he was going to pop up and what he’d be doing.” This made absolute sense to me as I envisioned my father-in-law hearing these same stories and stressing to his kids to stay away from this man.
I had questions that I was eager to ask. “Do you think Tom knew that the man on the porch may have been suspected in Cheryll’s murder?”
“Honestly Beth, I don’t know. He may have, there was always talk about it, but more than anything during the 80s if they (the Rowland family) were living there in Highland Heights, he probably heard more about the stalking of the school buses and school drive-bys and that may have been what made Tom uneasy.”
“Did you ever talk to the man on the porch?” I felt a slight guilt come over me knowing that I was weirdly excited to hear his answer. I shouldn’t be excited about this, I thought to myself.
“Oh yeah. I talked to him often. I think he liked toying with me. He’d say he wasn’t doing anything wrong and that I should leave him alone. And other times he would show up at the police station right at the end of the shift knowing we were getting ready to head home and he’d say that he wanted to talk and I’d ask him what was going on and he’d just ramble on about whatever he was disgruntled about that day and sort of just take up my time.”
“Did you ever come right out and ask him about Cheryll’s murder?” I wanted to know.
And for the first time I actually heard, albeit secondhand, what the man on the porch had to say about the murder. “Yes, I did a few times and he’d say he had nothing to do with that, but sometimes I felt like he was nervous talking about it. He’d say that he’d be willing to take a lie detector test to prove it, but when I told him we’d set up a time to take it, he would say nevermind.”
“Do you know if he ever took a lie detector test?” I asked.
“If he did take one before the 1980s, I am not aware of that. He may have taken one after my time there, but I highly doubt it.”
“What do you make of him driving around looking at kids, and driving through the school parking lot, and following school buses? Was he just a weird guy or do you think he was maybe looking for another victim?”
“Again, I don’t know why he was doing those things, but I can tell you that that was my absolute worst fear. What if the day I didn’t catch him following the school bus was the day he decided to grab a kid? I had kids of my own at the time and I can say that I really worried about it.”
Even now almost 50 years after Cheryll’s murder and 40 years after the 1980s when these things were happening, I could feel his fear. For a moment, I wasn’t talking to just a seasoned police officer, but also to a dad. This man really worked hard at the time to deal with this “odd” resident who was living in a city still covered in a shadow of terror after the murder of one of their own.
“Do you think he killed Cheryll?” He seemed to reflect for a moment and then responded calmly.
“I can’t say if he did or not. There’s a part of me that thinks he probably did, but then again I can’t say that I know that to be true. He did an awful lot of things to make me and others suspicious of him, that I can tell you. The way he acted toward the kids and then taunting us…made me feel like he was a sociopath.”
As our conversation drew to a close, I shared with him that in addition to telling Cheryll’s story, we were also working to raise funds to purchase a headstone for her grave. He was left speechless momentarily.
“I had no idea she didn’t have a headstone. I guess I never really looked into where she was buried, but are you sure?” He seemed truly shocked to hear that Cheryll had no headstone.
“Yes, I’m sure. I have been to the cemetery a few times and have spoken with the people there just to check and re-check because I too couldn’t believe it at first.”
As this news seemed to sink in, I watched his eyes well with tears and he turned his head away from me, swallowing hard a couple of times. When he regained his composure he said that Cheryll’s murder case is one that he has never forgotten and that it still haunts him. “Will you let me know if you’re short on any funds for the cost of the headstone? I will see to it that the remainder is paid.”
I told him that I would. I thanked him for his time and told him I was grateful for his willingness to help raise funds for the headstone. Before we parted, he suggested that I talk to a few other cops who might be able to tell me more about their interactions with the man on the porch as well as discuss other suspects from that time. As I walked out into the brisk spring air, the wind was blowing past my face, I took a deep breath and reflected on what I had learned. First, the man on the porch was on the police radar even in the 1980s because of his “odd” behavior regarding children. Second, he outright denied killing Cheryll. Third, even after all this damning information about the man on the porch, there were indeed other suspects. And last, even now, Cheryll’s death still affects not just those who knew her, but also those who worked in and lived in the town where she lived. I walked alone to my car and found myself saying out loud, “See Cheryll, a lot of people still care about you. Thank you for helping me figure this out.” And with that, I knew what my next step had to be.