One of Chicago’s Greatest Unsolved Vanishings
February 17, 1977 --- The disappearance of candy heiress Helen Voorhees Brach is a Chicago story that remains without an ending. But amidst uncovered plots, alleged conspiracies and solid convictions in the case, it still remains a mystery as to what became of the unfortunate widow after she checked out of the Mayo clinic in February 1977. She seemingly vanished into thin air while on her way home to suburban Glenview – never to be seen again. Over the years, the Brach disappearance has turned into something more than just a missing person’s case. It has become a complicated murder mystery and horse swindle that involved some of the darkest characters in Chicago criminal history during the mid-twentieth century.
Helen Vorhees Brach
Helen Voorhees was born in the Appalachian hills of southern Ohio and raised under modest circumstances. The red-haired beauty was already divorced by age twenty-one, blaming herself for the failure of her marriage to a philandering playboy. But Helen refused to give up, going to work in a pottery factory before setting out for Miami in hopes of making it rich or marrying a millionaire – which she did in 1950 when she met fifty-four-year-old Frank V. Brach, the candy king of Chicago. Helen was earning a living collecting tips as a hatcheck girl at Miami’s Indian Creek Country Club. Helen had no trouble bewitching Brach, whose marriage to wife, June, was already on shaken ground. Within a few months, he was actively courting Helen while divorce lawyers were wrangling over the details of a settlement back in Chicago. They were soon married and began their married life together at Brach’s wooded seven-acre estate in Glenview.
After the death of his brother, Edwin Brach, control of the candy company went to Frank, but by then he was getting older and losing his passion for the business. He divested himself of his interests in the company in order to stay home and shower Helen with expensive gifts like a lavender Rolls-Royce convertible, a coral-colored Cadillac sedan and a white-over-pink Lincoln Continental. Then, on January 29, 1970, Frank passed away, leaving Helen with the house, the cars and about $30 million in assets.
With Frank gone, Helen was effectively cut off from the world. The Brachs had not been part of the Chicago social scene after they were married and Helen had few local friends. She remained in the rambling house with only her houseman, Jack Matlick, who had been working for Frank since 1959, and her sad memories of her late husband for company. Helen’s interests in those years were closely tied to the cause of animal welfare. She established the Helen Brach Foundation and donated vast sums of money to animal rights causes. Helen showered her love on a collection of stray cats, horses and two poodles.
She seemed more interested in animals than men, so for the next three years she remained devoted to her causes and Frank’s memory, until, by chance, her Florida landlord introduced her to a handsome, middle-aged con man named Richard Bailey, owner of Bailey’s Stables and Country Club Stables. Their first meeting occurred at the Morton House, a once famous Morton Grove restaurant located at the edge of the Cook County Forest Preserve at Lehigh and Lincoln. Until the time it closed, the restaurant was a favorite lunch destination for two-martini-lunch businessmen, their secretaries and men like Bailey, a professional gigolo who made a fortune seducing rich widows. Later, federal prosecutors would estimate that Bailey had swindled between twenty and one hundred wealthy North Shore women with promises of romance before implementing various schemes to get them to purchase overvalued horses. When he had taken them for as much money as possible, he broke off the relationship, leaving many of them broken and destitute. Helen Brach was simply the next target on Bailey’s list.
Prison photo of Richard Bailey, once a debonair ladies' man who swindled rich widows out of money, investing their fortunes in worthless show horses.
We will never know what Helen saw in Bailey. Women found him to be sensitive and caring, but Helen could not have been so blind or naïve to think that Bailey was out to steal her heart and not her substantial bank account. Perhaps at this point in her life, she was beyond caring and appreciated whatever flattering attention was paid to her after years of being a widow. She was sixty-two years old by this time and Bailey was a dashing forty-four.
In 1974, Helen confided to Bailey that she was interested in investing in a few good racehorses. Accordingly, Bailey arranged, through his brother, Paul J. Bailey, the sale of three horses – each of them ready for the glue factory. Helen paid $95,000 for the horses, which cost Bailey only $17,500. In addition, Helen was also convinced to buy a group of breeding horses too.
On New Year’s Eve 1976, just six weeks before she vanished into thin air, Helen and Bailey celebrated at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York before Helen departed for her vacation home on Tappan Lake in Scio, Ohio, where she caught up with old friends. It was around this time that Bailey arranged an extensive horse showing for Helen, hoping to get her to part with another $150,000 for more worthless horses. But this time, Helen was suspicious. She hired an appraiser, who recommended that she invest nothing more in the first three horses that she got from Bailey, let alone in new additions to her stable. Furious at Bailey for his scheme, Helen screamed at Bailey and his men, threatening to go to the State’s Attorney. She confided this plan to a friend, who promised to introduce her to prosecutors who would be willing to investigate the matter.
After that date, things become much more mysterious.
We do know that Helen left a checkup at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota on February 17, 1977. Her doctors had pronounced her fit and in good health. At a local boutique, Helen charged $41 for cosmetics before proceeding to the airport to fly back to Chicago. Though registered for the flight, she apparently never boarded the plane.
Houseman and chauffer Jack Matlick, however, told investigators that he had picked Helen up from O’Hare Airport on Thursday and had taken her back to her house, where she remained alone all weekend, except for a brief meeting with a man that he had never seen before. Matlick insisted that he was with Helen after the meeting, from the time she packed her bags until the time he dropped her off at O’Hare on Monday morning. According to Matlick, she was on her way to Florida to handle the details of a condominium purchase that she’d recently made. But no one other than Matlick had so much as talked to Helen over the course of the weekend, which was highly unusual. Helen spent hours on the telephone with friend in Florida and Ohio, but none of the dozen or so calls taken by Matlick that weekend were given to Helen. Those who asked were told that she would call them back when she felt up to it.
Matlick waited two weeks to report Helen missing and when he did, he story was filled with inconsistencies. Helen was a late riser and she would not have gone to the airport at 6:50 a.m., as Matlick claimed. Glenview, Illinois Police Chief William Bartlett checked and discovered there was no 9:00 a.m. flight to Florida, as Matlick had claimed. In addition, it was customary for Helen to ask her Ft. Lauderdale friend, Douglas Stevens, to pick her up at the airport, but he didn’t even know she was coming.
Matlick had always carefully guarded Helen’s privacy and despite rumors that he would inherit $50,000 upon her death, there was no immediate evidence to corroborate this story. At this stage of the investigation, the police focused their efforts on Matlick, who cashed three allegedly forged checks after Helen’s disappearance and continued to live on a Schaumburg farm owned by Helen until the estate accountant, Everett H. Moore, intervened and fired him. Helen’s brother, Charles Voorhees, personally believed that Matlick was innocent of any wrongdoing, however. Matlick flatly asserted his innocence but remained a suspect, even though he had not been formally charged of any crime.
Days and weeks dragged by with no new leads. Without a body – or even any solid clues – the case was going nowhere. Then, strangely, one year after Helen disappeared, a cryptic message was spray-painted on the sidewalk near Helen’s Glenview home. It read: “Richard Bailey knows where Mrs. Brach’s body is! Stop him!” Bailey was questioned, but released. In May 1984, the case was cold and Helen Brach was declared legally dead by a probate judge.
Three years later, in 1987, a Mississippi convict named Maurice Ferguson told an interesting tale to local investigators. He claimed that millionaire horseman Silas Jayne hired him to remove the remains of Helen Brach from a Morton Grove gravesite and transport them to Minneapolis. Jayne was a ruthless horse dealer who used worthless animals to carry out frauds on wealthy residents of the far North Side. Jayne was in prison at the time of Helen’s disappearance, but he had been partnered with Richard Bailey -- which turned out to be only one of the possible links that connected Jayne’s operation to the crime. Unfortunately, when Ferguson was escorted to Minnesota by the Illinois State Police to help locate the grave, he failed to find it after hours of searching.
Horseman and criminal Silas Jayne
Two years later, the Helen Brach case was back in the newspapers. In July 1989, federal prosecutors in Chicago returned a twenty-nine count indictment charging Bailey with conspiring, soliciting and causing Helen’s death. Prosecutors argued that he and several others in the horse business would hoodwink wealthy women into paying inflated prices for show horses. There were also charges that Bailey and twenty-two others bilked insurance carriers into paying off policies on overvalued horses that were destroyed by unscrupulous owners. No one was ever actually charged with carrying out Helen’s murder, but U.S. Attorney James R. Burns outlined a likely scenario. Prosecutors verified that that shortly before she disappeared, Helen realized that she had been swindled by Bailey. She was about to blow the whistle on his operation, bringing attention to dozens of questionable transactions over the years. Bailey then allegedly plotted her death.
Believing that the case against him was weak, Bailey avoided trial by pleading guilty to racketeering charges, mail fraud, money laundering and unlawful money transactions. He begged for mercy from the court and counted on the judge to give him a break, claiming that he had an inferiority complex from a debilitating physical condition that caused his reckless behavior. Bailey’s gamble failed miserably. With the preponderance of evidence pointing toward the existence of a murder conspiracy, U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur sentenced Bailey to a mandatory term of life imprisonment. The verdict was affirmed on appeal.
Bailey had received a justly deserved punishment, but the mystery of Helen Brach still remained largely unexplained. Then in 2005, former Chicago horseman Joe Plemmons, who had been set to testify against Bailey, confessed to the authorities that he had shot the candy heiress. In Plemmons’ version of events, he received a call one night from Kenneth Hansen – who worked for Silas Jayne and was later convicted of the murders of the Schuessler-Peterson boys in the 1950s – and was told to come to his stable in Tinley Park. After Plemmons arrived, a Cadillac pulled into the riding ring and the trunk was opened to reveal Helen Brach’s battered body. Hansen’s brother, Curt, a reputed mob hit man at the time, order Plemmons to shoot Helen or be killed himself, Plemmons claimed. He shot her twice before they took her body to a steel mill.
Prison photo of Kenneth Hansen.. while implicated in the Helen Brach kidnapping, the investigation would reveal that he was also involved in a long-unsolved triple murder.
Although some officials at the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives believed that Plemmons’ story solved the case, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office declined to bring charges on his confession alone.
The ruby ring that Plemmons claimed was taken from Helen Brach. Although some insist that it was not hers, it remains with some of Helen's former belongings at the Glenview police station.
Plemmons told authorities that when he lifted Brach’s body, a ruby ring fell off her hand. He said that he pocketed the ring and, in 2005, handed it over to authorities. ATF agents believed the ring to be proof that Plemmons was telling the truth. Officials, however, were unable to prove through DNA or through Helen’s surviving friends or relatives that the ring was actually hers. Edward Donovan, Jr., a Chicago attorney who used to represent Helen’s brother on inheritance issues after his sister’s disappearance and long considered Matlick the prime suspect, dismissed the ring. “I don’t think the ring has anything at all to do with it,” he said. The ring is still in storage at the Glenview Police Department near some of Helen’s other possession, including her former luggage.
As for Plemmons, he currently lives in Florida and is on disability. During a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, Plemmons declined to talk about the ring or his confession. He said that he had been diagnosed with cancer and had to have parts of his mouth and jaw removed. If this is true – and he really shot Helen Brach – then perhaps karma has finally caught up with him.
Richard Bailey remains in a federal prison and Jack Matlick, who always denied involvement in the disappearance and was never charged, died in 2011. Curt Hansen died in 1993 and his brother, Kenneth, died in 2007. It had been the disappearance of Helen Brach that revealed Kenneth Hansen’s role in the 1955 murders of fourteen-year-old Robert Peterson, thirteen-year-old John Schuessler and his eleven-year-old brother, Anton Schuessler.
Anton Schuessler with his sons, John (left) and Anton (right) in 1955, the same year that the boys and Robert Peterson were killed.
The murders went unsolved for almost forty years. Then, during the Brach investigation, investigators came across people who Hansen in the boys’ slayings. In the summer of 1994, sensing the investigation was closing in on him, Hansen attempted to leave town, only to be arrested on an arson charge in a 1972 fire at a suburban Chicago stable and charged later the same day with killing the boys. During Hansen’s trial, prosecutors contended that the three boys were hitchhiking when they were picked up by Mr. Hansen, who took them to the stable (owned by Silas Jayne) where he worked. They said he sexually abused at least one of them and strangled them all. Hansen was convicted in 1995, but the Illinois Appellate Court overturned the conviction five years later after determining that the jury should not have heard evidence that Hansen had cruised the streets, picking up boys for sex. Hansen went on trial again in 2002 and, after deliberating a little more than two hours, a jury found him guilty again. Hansen was sentenced to 200 to 300 years in prison. He died behind bars five years later.
To this day, the location of Helen Brach’s body remains unknown, forever entangling this case in mystery. But, if nothing else, the conviction of Kenneth Hansen resulted from the search for her missing corpse, meaning that a little good came out of something terrible in the end.