What I came to learn about the man, Jon, a possible suspect in Cheryll’s murder, was just in little bits that I was able to piece together from Cheryll’s brothers and the detective. To review, Jon owned a business in Highland Heights in 1971 when Cheryll disappeared. He was known to associate with members of the car theft ring that was operating in and around Highland Heights during that time. Jon was known to be an imposing figure and was not known for being a man that many people liked. Jon also plead guilty to some sex crimes against children and I’d learned that he had told some of those victims that he had killed Cheryll and would do the same to them. For his crimes, he only received probation.
When I met with Cheryll’s brothers, they were adamant that Jon had never been to their house, that their dad was not “friends” with Jon, and that they kids had never been around him. Cheryll’s oldest brother remembered Jon from his business, but was clear that they kids were not around him or ever in his establishment. I feel pretty clear where Cheryll’s brothers stand on their memories of Jon. They asked that I look into him more, but were perplexed as to how he could have encountered Cheryll or why he would have killed her.
Leaving New Hope Road with Erin and Bridget that summer day when we visited it, I was doing a lot of talking with Cheryll. I had no idea who Jon’s victims were and I knew that it would not only be impossible for me to find out, but that digging into that information was not something I was interested in doing. It just felt wrong to me. So I asked Cheryll to help me figure out my next steps. Was this something I needed to continue to pursue? Were there clues yet to be discovered? Please show me, Cheryll. What do I do now?
Within a day of our visit to New Hope Road, I received a notification on the Gone in the Fog Facebook group. The alert was that there was a new follower of the blog, and not long after I found myself exchanging messages with this new follower who was also one of Jon’s victims. Yes, after I decided not to seek out his victims, one of them found me. For this blog, I will call her Mary. From the very beginning, Mary was clear: “Just know, I think he did it.” Mary explained that Jon had been molesting her for years and during that time he would talk about a girl named Cheryll and indicated that he was “teaching her things” as well. To make sure I was understanding her, I asked Mary to clarify, and she explained that she had heard about Cheryll long before Cheryll was killed. “He didn’t tell me he killed Cheryll until later.” From there, she went on to share what Jon had told her. “…he told me he did it when I was a child. He was very descriptive of what he did to her and told me the same thing would happen to me if I told what he had been doing to me. And he was definitely the type to brag.”
I told Mary that I was unclear as to how Cheryll would have known or encountered Jon. Mary explained, “I was given the impression that he was good friends of the family. He knew her dad. Jon told me he was supposed to take Cheryll shopping for her birthday the day she was taken and I feel like he said something about picking her up before or from school.” Reading this, my curiosity was piqued. Could this explain why something happened to Cheryll on her birthday? I questioned how he would have known Cheryll would oversleep that day or would have known she’d be out alone that morning. Mary’s response was a literal kick to my stomach in that it turned the narrative of the morning of Cheryll’s tenth birthday on its head. “He would tell me when he had seen Cheryll those times prior to her death and the only way he could have had access to that girl is if someone was giving it to him.” My heart stopped– and then it sank. I realized what Mary was implying. Could Billy Joe have given Jon access to Cheryll prior to her death? Did he make an arrangement for Cheryll to go somewhere with Jon on her birthday? Mary repeated again: “He told me he was picking her up to take her shopping for her birthday that morning.” The words spoken to me prior by people who remembered Cheryll rang in my ears: “Cheryll said she wouldn’t be at school on her birthday.” “Cheryll said her uncle was taking her somewhere for her birthday.” Oh my god, oh my god….was Jon the “uncle” Cheryll supposedly spoke of? Did she know she would be missing school that day and maybe her brothers didn’t know this? What is happening? Thoughts were flooding my mind so quickly that I felt like I was drowning in the wave of questions coming over me.
Mary apologized as she explained more about her recollection of Jon’s description of Cheryll’s murder, hoping the details wouldn’t be upsetting to me. I assured her I could handle it. “He said it was very secluded and I remember something about a bridge or some kind of overhead that he said he could see from the creek bed…. He left her facedown in a creek bed after he stabbed her.” Mary said that she doesn’t know the type of weapon used and that she never asked details, but would listen in terror as Jon shared pieces of the story with her over the years. “He made sure to tell me that little girls who threaten to tell end up dead in a creek bed.” Upon reading these words, I felt a chill to my bones.
Mary was able to share a few other bits of information about Jon with me. She recalled that he had some connections to biker gang members. Mary figures Jon worked third shift for some time because he was around her at times during the day time hours. And Mary shared that when she finally told a trusted adult what Jon had been doing to her in 1977, she also told police all that Jon had told her about Cheryll. I shared with Mary that the detective mentioned that Jon took and passed a polygraph test and she said she wasn’t surprised to hear that because he was the type to be able to beat a lie detector test. And after 1977, Mary shared, “the very first time anyone has reached out to me was last year when the detective called.” I felt a sense of pride inside knowing that she was most likely speaking of the cold case detective who has been actively working Cheryll’s case; the same detective who had spoken with Cheryll’s brothers too; the same detective who opened up the file because of the “renewed interest” in Cheryll’s story. Small steps, but we’re getting somewhere, I thought to myself.
When I pressed Mary to see if she recalled any more details or any other specific information Jon may have told her about Cheryll or her murder, Mary was direct with her response: “He didn’t share real specific details with me. He was more about how he made her pay for the betrayal of threatening to tell.”
And now here we are, readers. What do we make of what Mary recounted? One large question looms overhead and it sits like a knot in my stomach– a nasty hunk of indigestible food that I need to so badly purge– would a person say that they killed a 10-year-old girl if he hadn’t in fact committed the crime? Some of you will say, no one does that unless they’re guilty. Some of you will say, yes maybe if they were trying to scare their victims into complying with their unspeakable demands. I believe what Mary has told me. I don’t think it’s fiction that she’s telling. She is very clear in her recollection. But the question that I have churning in my head and deep in my gut is whether what Jon said he did with and to Cheryll is actually true or just some kind of sick, fake confession of sorts that he as a child molester used to scare his young victims.
Knowing there was a man out there who said he killed Cheryll doesn’t seem insignificant especially with the little clues I feel Cheryll has sent about Jon along the way. But, is Jon actually Cheryll’s killer? Did Billy Joe know more about who his daughter was with that day than he ever shared with police or his sons? And why would Billy Joe have even given Jon access to Cheryll in the first place? Did Cheryll know Jon without her brothers being aware?
These questions keep me awake at night as we keep pushing to learn the truth.