Still Unraveling A Mystery

By Heath, Erin | American Journalism Review, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Still Unraveling A Mystery


Heath, Erin, American Journalism Review


Like any good mystery, the Sam Sheppard story, with all of its plot twists and gruesome details, still makes people wonder.

Still--after almost 46 years-curious individuals and crime junkies speculate about the guilt or innocence of the man who inspired the successful movie and television series "The Fugitive."

James Neff is one of them. And the author and former journalist is now trying his hand at cracking the notorious murder case.

In 1954, Marilyn Sheppard, the wife of prominent doctor Sam Sheppard, was found bludgeoned to death in the couple's Bay Village, Ohio, home. Sheppard was convicted of the crime but continued to proclaim his innocence. He said he woke up in his living room on the night of the murder and struggled with the real killer--a "bushy-haired" man--before being knocked unconscious.

Sheppard spent a decade in prison before the Supreme Court ordered a new trial, saying the original trial had been tainted by the "carnival atmosphere" of media publicity. The doctor was acquitted in 1966 with the help of fledgling lawyer F. Lee Bailey. Four years later, Sheppard died.

Neff was in high school when Sheppard was acquitted, and he's been fascinated by the case ever since. That's why the 46-year-old Cleveland native decided to revisit the story for his book, tentatively titled "Chasing the Fugitive," which is expected to come out next year.

"This case was a mystery," he says. "I thought, `Why not use all the skills and powers of an investigative journalist while using the new technology of forensic science?'"

Neff's research, which has taken more than 10 years to compile, includes independent DNA testing of possible suspects and one-on-one interviews with Richard Eberling, considered by attorneys for the Sheppard estate to be the main suspect in the crime. Eberling, a window washer for the Sheppard family at the time of the murder, died two years ago while serving time on another murder charge. …

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