(Note: This blog post is a continuation of the previous blog entry #56. The Day Cheryll Disappeared).
Having talked about the day Cheryll disappeared and the desperate searching that ensued, I wanted to learn what I could about the Spegal family’s thoughts on what had happened to Cheryll and possibly more importantly, who they suspected of committing the crime. I felt that knot in my stomach and was careful to be delicate with my questions so that I didn’t come across as just being nosy or flat-out insensitive. I asked about the immediate aftermath of learning of Cheryll’s death and the sentiment within the family.
Mike explained briefly. “Of course we were sad, but back then we didn’t talk about feelings. I don’t recall anyone asking us how we were feeling and there was no therapy or counseling for us. We worked through it on our own. The adults were careful not to show emotion around us.” The brothers went on to recount how they struggled through the years, finding ways to cope with the loss, having made some poor choices along the way. They spoke of failed relationships, alcoholism, risky behaviors, and how hard they’ve had to work to come through it all. They didn’t say it outright, but it was clear that they really have only had each other to depend on consistently through it all, both having endured the same traumatic loss.
I finally asked, “What did you think? Did you two suspect someone or have an idea of who might have done this?”
“I don’t think us kids had any clue,” Mike answered. “There wasn’t anyone that we knew or felt was an obvious killer.”
“So there wasn’t a time when a little alarm bell went off or someone said something that made you uneasy? Like an indication maybe from a neighbor or an acquaintance that they may have been involved in the murder?” I asked, wondering if there could be a buried memory from years ago that could help us.
“Not that I can recall,” Mike answered as Mark shook his head “no”, agreeing with his brother.
Changing course a little, I decided to ask about what their dad had said, thought, or done in an effort to find Cheryll’s murderer. Who did Billy Joe think was the guilty party, the killer waiting in the shadows who emerged from the fog, snatching his daughter off of the street that morning?
“What did your dad say during that time Cheryll was missing and then discovered to have been killed? What did he think?”
Mike’s answer was swift and direct. “What the adults thought? We wouldn’t know. You have to realize, the Old Man never talked about Cheryll’s death with us, even when we were older.”
“Never?” Bridget and I questioned simultaneously, both a little stunned.
“Never. He never discussed it,” Mike replied, matter-of-factly. “I always understood it as it was conversation for the adults and they didn’t want us kids to hear what was being discussed. I took it as the Old Man’s way of protecting us.”
“But even as you got older though, your dad never shared names with you or spoke about what he thought happened or who might have been involved?” Bridget asked the brothers, as I concentrated intently on their faces, glancing back and forth between the two, waiting for the answer I’d been wondering about for years.
“No, he never discussed it with us. I think I heard a story once that the Old Man was heading to a bar to confront a man who he heard was involved, but the state police stopped him before he could get to the guy. But that’s all I ever heard.” And here I froze for just a second, caught in a momentary vacuum. I had always imagined, and now realized, that I’d also secretly hoped that the Spegal family had a suspect in mind–the name of the person they always felt had killed their sister– the boogeyman who had plucked their sister off of the street that day so long ago. And like water raining down on a sidewalk of childhood chalk drawings, I saw that hope washing away before my own eyes. They have no idea who did it, I thought, deflated. Mark spoke, pulling me out of that vacuum.
“As we got older and talked to the state police ourselves, maybe in about 1993, we were told that they knew who did it, but didn’t have the evidence to prove it. We heard that several times, but that’s all we were ever told.”
Bridget nodded. “We heard the same thing. And we’ve talked to the various cops who worked on Cheryll’s case and depending on who we talked to, the answer to who they thought did it, varied. One cop is adamant that the man on the porch did it. We sat down with another retired cop who swears that it was ________ (the car thief), who lived on Rose Avenue.” Both Mike and Mark nodded, saying that those were names that they’d heard and even considered themselves.
Deciding to get the discussion going about the suspects, I started with the first one we investigated. “What about the man on the porch?”
Mike responded, “I remember him sitting over there on his porch and sometimes in his car, but I never got the sense that he was up to anything else. I never saw him on our street, talking to the kids, or anything like that.”
“Me either,” Mark interjected. “I never saw him talking to Cheryll.”
“Do you think if he would have offered her a ride that Cheryll would have gone with him?” I questioned.
“I don’t think she would have accepted a ride from someone she didn’t know, like the porch man. But can I say 100% she wouldn’t have done that? No. Maybe she would have, I don’t know, but I don’t think so,” Mike answered honestly.
Mark interrupted, disagreeing slightly. “If the person was nice enough or said the right thing, I think she might have gotten in a car. I don’t want to think that she did, but she may have.” I sat quietly for a moment then explained a little bit more about the milkman– how he had driven by Rose Avenue in the mornings and the circumstances of finding Cheryll in the creek. They agreed it was odd, but still couldn’t imagine their sister willingly climbing up in a milk truck for a ride to school, though they remembered their own milk delivery driver and how friendly he was with the families on the street. “If this milkman was as nice as the one we had on our street, I could see Cheryll being lured by that, though I don’t know where he would have seen her and how he could have gotten her in his truck.” The brothers repeated how dark and foggy it was that morning and how there were no street lights at the top of Rose Avenue, questioning how anyone would have been able to have seen her up there in order to take her, also noting that the milk truck would have been heading north on the highway and the bus stop gathering spot was on the opposite side of the highway.
They also reiterated that they felt like Cheryll would have returned home to ask their dad for a ride to school before she would have willingly accepted a ride from a stranger.
I pressed on. “What about friends of the family? Or relatives of your dad’s or Shirley’s (their step-mom)? Were there any males hanging around with your dad that may have interacted with Cheryll?”
Mike let out a slight laugh, which caused me to smile without even knowing why he had chuckled. “That is an easy answer– no, and that’s because the Old Man didn’t have friends. He didn’t have buddies over to the house ever.” Mark too smiled and laughed while agreeing with his older brother.
Then came the most difficult question of all. I knew I had to ask it and was a little nervous to do it, but I did, knowing it was important. “Did you ever suspect your dad, Shirley, or anyone else in your family as being involved in killing your sister?”
“No, we’ve never thought that anyone in our family was responsible. It was just not anything I ever felt or witnessed that would have led me to think that anyone in the family did it,” Mike answered. Mark’s face was markedly serious, but he seemed to quietly agree with his brother. I could tell that though they weren’t offended that I had asked that question, it was still difficult having to answer. I asked about Shirley’s brothers and Mike and Mark seemed to remember them fondly, explaining that they were hoodlums who would crash on the couch from time to time, but that they showed little interest in Cheryll or them–rarely interacting with them– because they were into petty thefts and trespassing, but did not ever display any behaviors showing they were capable of murder.
“So what about Shirley?” I asked. “We’ve heard stories about how she was mean to Cheryll. I know you say you didn’t suspect her being involved, but can you shed more light on her?”
“I always thought that she married my dad because he was older and had a job and some money. She wasn’t much older than me,” Mike said with a grin and slight eye roll. “She didn’t know how to be a mother and she knew it and we knew it. I gave her a hard time sometimes, but she never raised a hand to us. She was a drunk who liked to stay up late and party. I don’t think we saw her out of bed before 11:00 most days. She may have been mean at times, but really she just had no idea how to handle us three.”
Not sure where to go from there, I sat back in my chair and let out a deep breath. After a moment, Bridget asked the next question. “Is there anyone you felt strongly about? Or now, reflecting back on feel like is someone who should be looked at?”
Mike spoke. “I had sometimes wondered about ______ (the car thief) because he lived on the street and because he may have recognized Cheryll and she may have accepted a ride from him because she may have recognized him, but I can’t say that I feel strongly that he did it.”
“Did he act strangely toward you afterward or ever say or do anything menacing that would have made you suspect him further?” I asked.
“No. I don’t recall ever talking to him or seeing Cheryll talking to him or him hanging around the kids,” Mike responded.
And then, in a sort of bomb-dropping moment, Mark took a turn answering Bridget’s question. “You know I talked to the police detective about a month ago and he gave me the name of a man he thinks could have done it. And you haven’t mentioned this guy at all.”
“Wait, you’ve talked to the current detective?” I asked, confusedly, exchanging a look of disbelief and slight excitement with Bridget.
“Yeah, he’d been calling, so I finally called him back and he asked me what I knew about this guy.”
And with that, the man’s name, his connection to the Spegal family, memories of him being in Highland Heights in 1971, his history of crimes against children, and tales of a possible confession, came spilling out. Bridget and I were breathless when Mike looked at me and said emphatically, “Please write about him in the blog. I want to see if anyone will come forward with what they know.“
Mark added with a tone of urgency, “This is a good lead. And if it’s possible that this man killed my sister, it’s time to get the information out there.”
It IS time. Bridget and I assured Mike and Mark that day that we would research him thoroughly and that I would write about him. And oh, will I ever.