Friday, December 28, 2012

The Two Lost Girls

The Haunting Mystery of the Grimes Sisters

On December 28, 1956, Patricia Grimes, 13, and Barbara Grimes, 15, left their home at 3624 South Damen Ave. and headed for the Brighton Theater, only a mile away. The girls were both avid fans of Elvis Presley and on that night were on their way to see his film Love Me Tender for the eleventh and final time. The girls were recognized in the popcorn line at 9:30 p.m. and then seen on an eastbound Archer Avenue bus at 11:00 p.m. After that, things became less certain, but this may have been the last time they were ever seen alive.

Barbara (Left) and Patricia (Right) Grimes

The two sisters were missing for the 25 days, before their naked and frozen bodies were found along German Church Road, just outside the small town of Willow Springs. The discovery of those two fragile corpses began a mystery that has remained unsolved for the 56 years.

In 2012, I wrote a full-length book about the Grimes Sisters called The Two Lost Girls. It’s a story that has stuck with me ever since I first heard it back in the 1980s. The story of what happened to the two sisters from Chicago’s Southwest Side changed the face of the city – and America – forever.

The first sign that something was wrong was felt by the girls’ mother, Loretta Grimes, on the night that they disappeared. She expected the sisters to be home by 11:45 p.m. but was already growing uneasy when they had not arrived 15 minutes prior to that. At midnight, she sent her daughter Theresa and her son, Joey, to the bus stop at 35th Street and Hoyne Avenue to watch for them. After three buses had stopped and had failed to discharge their sisters, Theresa and Joey returned home without them. They never saw the girls again, but strangely, others claimed to. Eerily, they were spotted all over the Chicagoland region and to this day, it remains a mystery as to whether or not any of the sightings were legitimate.

The Brighton Theater on Archer Avenue. The Grimes sisters attended the theater that night and then vanished while on their way home. 

The police theorized that the girls had run away, but Loretta Grimes refused to believe it. She was sure the girls had gone missing against their will but the authorities were not convinced. Regardless, it became the greatest missing persons hunt in Chicago police history. Even Elvis Presley, in a statement issued from Graceland, asked the girls to come home and ease their mother's worries. The plea went unanswered.

More strangeness would be reported before the bodies of the girls were found. A series of ransom letters, that were later discovered to have come from a mental patient, took Mrs. Grimes to Milwaukee on January 12. She was escorted by FBI agents and instructed to sit in a downtown Catholic church with $1,000 on the bench beside her. The letter promised that Barbara Grimes would walk in to retrieve the money and then leave to deliver it to the kidnapper. She and her sister would then be released. Needless to say, no one ever came and Mrs. Grimes was left sitting for hours to contemplate her daughters' fate. By that time, it's likely that the bodies of the two girls were already lying along German Church Road, covered with snow.

Loretta Grimes in a posed newspaper photograph, looking at one of the information flyers that were handed out in hopes of finding the missing girls. 

The search for the Grimes Sisters ended on January 22, 1957 when construction worker Leonard Prescott was driving south on German Church Road early one morning. He spotted what appeared to be two discarded clothing store mannequins lying next to a guardrail, a short distance from the road. A few feet away, the ground dropped off to Devil's Creek below. Unsure of what he had seen, Prescott nervously brought his wife to the spot, and then they drove to the local police station. His wife, Marie Prescott, was so upset by the sight of the bodies that she had to be carried back to their car.
Once investigators realized the "mannequins" were actually bodies, they soon discovered they were the Grimes Sisters. Barbara Grimes lay on her left side with her legs slightly drawn up toward her body. Her head was covered by the body of her sister, who had been thrown onto her back with her head turned sharply to the right. It looked as if they had been discarded there by someone so cold and heartless that he saw the girls as nothing more than refuse to be tossed away on a lonely roadside.

Detectives at the crime scene on German Church Road. This newspaper photograph shows the bodies of the two girls in the spot where they had been dumped along the road. 

The officials in charge, Cook County Sheriff Joseph D. Lohman and Harry Glos, an aggressive investigator for Coroner Walter E. McCarron, surmised that the bodies had been lying there for several days, perhaps as far back as January 9. This had been the date of the last heavy snowfall and the frigid temperatures that followed the storm had preserved the bodies to a state that resembled how they looked at the moment of death.
The bodies discovered along German Church Road sent the various police departments into action. A short time after they were found, more than 160 officers from Chicago, Cook County, the Forest Preserves and five south suburban police departments began combing the woods -- and tramping all over whatever evidence may have been there. Between the officers, the reporters, the medical examiners and everyone else, the investigation was already off to a bad start.

And the investigation became even more confusing in the days to come. The bodies were removed from the scene and were taken to the Cook County Morgue, where they would be stored until they thawed out and an autopsy became possible. Before they were removed, though, both police investigators and reporters commented on the condition of the corpses, noting bruises and marks that have still not been adequately explained to this day. According to a newspaper article, there were three "ugly" wounds in Patricia's abdomen and the left side of her face had been battered, resulting in a possibly broken nose. Barbara's face and head had also been bruised and there were punctures from an ice pick in her chest. Once the bodies were moved, investigators stayed on the scene to search for clothing and clues but nothing was found.

Once the autopsies were performed the following day, all hope that the examinations would provide new evidence or leads was quickly dashed. Despite the efforts of three experienced pathologists, they could not reach agreement on a time or cause of death. They stated that the girls had died from shock and exposure but were only able to reach this conclusion by eliminating other causes. And by also concluding that the girls had died on December 28, the night they had disappeared, they created more mysteries than they managed to solve. If the girls had died on the night they had gone missing, then how could the sightings that took place after that date be explained? And if the bodies had been exposed to the elements since that time, then why hadn't anyone else seen them?

Barbara and Patricia were buried on January 28, one month after they disappeared. Their mystery was no closer to being solved than it had been in December.

The residents of Chicagoland were stunned and the case of the murdered girls became an obsession. The local community organized a search for clues and volunteers passed out flyers looking for information.
Investigators questioned an unbelievable 300,000 persons, searching for information about the girls, and 2,000 of these people were seriously interrogated, which in those days could be brutal.

Eager to crack the floundering case, Cook County Sheriff Joseph Lohman arrested a skid-row dishwasher named Edward L. "Benny" Bedwell. The drifter, who sported Elvis-style sideburns and a ducktail haircut, had reportedly been seen with the Grimes sisters in a restaurant where he sometimes washed dishes in exchange for food. When he was initially questioned, Bedwell admitted that he had been in the D&L Restaurant on West Madison with two girls and an unnamed friend but he insisted that the owners of the place were mistaken about the girls being the Grimes sisters.

According to the owners, John and Minnie Duros, the group had entered the diner around 5:30 a.m. on the morning of December 30. They described the taller girl, who Minnie Duros said was wearing a coat with the name "Pat" embroidered on it, as being either so drunk or so sick that she was staggering as she walked. The couples sat in a booth for a while, listened to Elvis songs on the jukebox, and then went outside. One of the girls came back in, laid her head on the table, and seemed to be sick. The two men eventually managed to get her outside and all of them left together. One of the girls told Minnie Duros that they were sisters.

Lohman found the story plausible, thanks to the unshakable identification of the girls by Minnie Duros, their respective heights, the fact that one of them said they were sisters and finally, Bedwell's resemblance to Elvis. Lohman believed this might have been enough to get the girls to go along with him. And then of course, there was Bedwell's confession, which related a lurid and sexually explicit tale of drunken debauchery with the two young women. He made and recanted three confessions and even re-enacted the crime for investigators on January 27. 

Bennie Bedwell at a press conference in 1957

Everyone doubted the story but Lohman. He booked Bedwell on murder charges, but the drifter's testimony was both vague and contradictory. On January 31, he testified that he had confessed out of fear of Lohman's men, who had struck and threatened him while he was being questioned. Lohman denied that Bedwell had been beaten and told newspapers that the drifter had lied when he contradicted his confession and added that he considered him the prime suspect in the case. After the case unraveled even more, the drifter was released. Bedwell later spent time in prison on a weapons charge and died at some point after he was released in 1986.

The dismissal of charges against Bedwell in the Grimes case set off another round of bickering between police departments and various jurisdictions and the case became even more mired in red tape and inactivity. It got even worse when coroner's investigator Harry Glos publicly criticized the autopsy findings concerning the time and cause of death. He shocked the public by announcing that Barbara and Patricia could not have died on the night they disappeared. He said that an ice layer around the bodies proved that they were warm when they were left along German Church Road and that only after January 7 would there have been enough snow to create the ice and to hide the bodies.
Glos also raised the issues of the puncture wounds and bruises on the bodies, which had never been explained or explored. He was sure that the girls had been violently treated prior to death and also asserted that the older sister, Barbara, had been sexually molested before she was killed. The pathologists had denied this, but the Chicago Police crime lab reluctantly confirmed it. However, they were angry with Glos for releasing the information.

The coroner, Walter McCarron, promptly had Glos fired and many of the other investigators in the case accused him of being reckless and of political grandstanding. Only Sheriff Lohman, who later deputized Glos to work on the case without pay, remained on his side. He agreed that the girls had likely been beaten and tortured by a sexual predator who lured them into the kidnap car under a seemingly innocent pretense. Lohman remained convinced until his death in 1969 that the predator who had killed the girls had been Benny Bedwell.
Other theories maintain that the girls may have indeed encountered Bedwell, or another "older man," and rumors circulated that the reputation of the two girls had been polished to cover up some very questionable behavior on their parts. It was said that they sometimes hung around a bar on Archer Avenue where men would buy them drinks. One of the men may have been Benny Bedwell. Harry Glos, who died in 1994, released information that one of the girls had been sexually active, but later reports from those who have seen the autopsy slides say there is evidence that both of them may have been. It is believed that Coroner McCarron may not have released this because of religious reasons or to spare additional grief for the family.
 Today, veteran detectives believe that there was much more to the story that met the eye. The general consensus seems to be that Barbara and Patricia may have been abducted by a front man for a "white slavery" ring and taken to a remote location in the woods surrounding Willow Springs. They are convinced that the girls were strangled after refusing to become prostitutes. It's also possible that the girls may have been lured into an involvement in the prostitution ring by someone they knew, not realizing what would be required of them, and they were killed to keep them silent.

Others refused to even consider this, and were angered by the negative gossip about the two girls. Some remain angry about this even today, maintaining that Barbara and Patricia were nice, ordinary, happy girls and were tragically killed on a cold night because they made the mistake of accepting a ride from a stranger. They didn't hang around in bars, these old friends maintain, they were simply innocent teenage girls, just like everyone else at that time.

Perhaps those old acquaintances were right. There are few stories as tragic as the demise of the Grimes sisters and perhaps it provides some cold comfort for us to believe that their deaths were simply a terrible mistake or the actions of deviant killer. It can provide us that comfort of knowing that the girls were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and that such a thing could have happened to anyone.

But does believing this make us feel better ----- or worse?

Now, nearly six decades later, the mystery of who killed the Grimes sisters remains unsolved. As there is no statute of limitations for murder, the case officially remains open, but hope of any closure has dimmed over the years and the murderer's trail has gone tragically cold.

And this may not be the end of the story. Since the discovery of the Grimes sisters' bodies in January 1957, the police have received numerous reports about the isolated spot on German Church Road where they were found. Witnesses report hearing a car pulling up to the location with its motor running. They have also heard an automobile door creak open, followed by the sound of something being dumped alongside the road. The door slams shut and the car drives away. Reports claim people have heard these things -- and yet there is no car in sight.

There have also been reports of a 1950s black sedan that has been seen in the area, as well. After being sighted, it mysteriously vanishes. The car, and the residual sounds of the girl's bodies being dumped, still continues to be heard after nearly 60 years.

Is the place really haunted? I’ll leave that up to you to decide. But should you ever travel along German Church Road, I defy you to stop along that spot on the roadway where the bodies of Barbara and Patricia were found and I dare you to say that you are not moved by the tragedy that came to an end here. Without a doubt, I think you will agree, no matter how the area has changed over the years – this is still a dark and haunted place.

Read the full story of the Grimes Sisters Mystery in Troy’s e-book, THE TWO LOST GIRLS from his Hell Hath No Fury Series. It’s available as a Kindle Title by Clicking Here!

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