Documentary details Ohio cold case from 1973
EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio -- Thirty-seven years after a vicious triple homicide just blocks from the police station in this once-bustling river town, police are still trying to figure out who did it and how he got away.
A documentary airing on WQED has generated renewed interest in the 1973 beating deaths of elderly store owner Earl Tweed, a 22-year-old pregnant woman named Linda Morris and her 4-year-old daughter, Angela.
Police believe Mrs. Morris and her daughter were killed when they walked into Mr. Tweed's used-furniture store on a hot summer day and witnessed a robbery in progress.
"We're still getting tips," said Detective Donald Fickes. "I just got a tip this morning. A guy had a dream."
This cold case seems destined to remain cold, but the police say they won't give up.
The killings inside Mr. Tweed's ramshackle shop at 759 Dresden Ave. on July 30 stunned the city, destroyed one family, damaged another and, as the decades passed with no arrest, took on the status of an urban legend.
Inevitably in today's online age, the incident and its aftermath also have cropped up on websites devoted to ghost-hunting and the paranormal.
The detectives who worked the case are dead. But the homicide file, contained in two thick binders, is still consulted now and then, and just last year the department submitted blood samples from the scene to the FBI's nationwide Combined DNA Index System in the hopes of finding a match.
The police force is down to 18 from the 30 it had at the time of the killings, but everyone in uniform knows the story of what happened on Dresden.
"Sooner or later, every new officer here learns about the Tweed case," said Mike McVay, the police chief. "It's a case we would give anything to solve."
David Dunlap is hoping to help in that effort with his documentary, "759 Dresden."
An airline pilot in Florida who makes films on the side, Mr. Dunlap grew up in nearby Calcutta and had long been intrigued by the killings. He spent two years on the project with the help of his nephew, Shane Dunlap, a photographer for the Daily Record in York County, and Bo Bradshaw, a friend in Florida who served as editor.
The documentary aired Nov. 20 as part of WQED's "Filmmakers Corner," hosted by Minette Seate. The station has the rights to show it five more times, although the dates aren't set.
The film features archival footage and interviews with those who were close to the events, including Donna Ferguson, Mr. Tweed's daughter, and the late Lew Morris, husband of Linda Morris and father of Angela.
It also discusses some 20 additional unsolved murders in Columbiana County and a local group's efforts to solve them, but the Tweed case is the focus.
As a boy, David Dunlap traveled regularly with his mother to visit the library and to shop in East Liverpool, at the time a thriving pottery-making center of about 25,000 people, but the population has since dwindled to less than half that.
"I had always heard about the story," said Mr. Dunlap, 46, of Orlando. "East Liverpool is a small town. A murder of three people is a big deal there. I always thought it was sad that they couldn't solve this."
The bodies were discovered at 1 p.m. July 30 when Frances Dugan, a nurse visiting from Chicago, was shopping for antiques and stopped into National Furniture, the store run by the 75-year-old Mr. Tweed. She found Mrs. Morris and her daughter covered in blood on the floor amid a rat's nest of junk and old furniture, then ran outside and shouted across the street for someone to "Call the police, something terrible has happened!"
Mrs. Morris, who was four months pregnant, was dead at the scene, her body lying just outside Mr. Tweed's office. Angela, found next to her mother, died about an hour later at the hospital. Both had been beaten with a hammer. Mr. Tweed, whose body was found outside his office not far from that of Mrs. Morris, had been beaten with a hammer and stabbed 27 times with carpet shears.
The killings occurred around lunchtime. Police determined that the last person who saw Mr. Tweed alive was a man named Charles Inman, who did part-time work for Mr. Tweed and visited him that morning, leaving about 11:30 a.m.
Mrs. Morris had gone to see Mr. Tweed because she planned to rent a house from him. In addition to his used-furniture business, he owned eight or nine low-rent apartments in town. Mrs. Morris and her husband, a city street department employee who was working with a road crew nearby that day, had recently moved from the Poconos area of Pennsylvania to East Liverpool, where Linda had relatives, and were looking for a bigger place to live.
News accounts at the time indicated that Mr. Tweed may have been attacked as he prepared to eat lunch; police found slices of bread with bologna on a chair next to the cluttered roll-top desk in his office.
Officers searching the streets outside later found his empty wallet on some city steps leading up to West Ninth Avenue. In a nearby trash can, they found a bloody claw hammer and a pair of shears, believed to be the murder weapons.
Several witnesses reported a man running from the scene, but details are sketchy. One witness, a young boy, gave police enough of a description for a composite sketch of a red-haired man.
Police surmise that Mrs. Morris and her little girl were killed because they happened on the robbery and could identify the suspect. The victims were nearly helpless. Mr. Tweed, although described as somewhat stern and toughened by the Depression some 40 years earlier, probably couldn't have put up much of a fight at his age. Lew Morris described his wife as a friendly and old-fashioned "country girl," who stood 5 feet tall and weighed 110 pounds at the most.
Maybe the killer panicked. Maybe, some suggest, he was high on drugs. No one knows, but he ran away and disappeared into history.
Agents with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation helped police with their investigation, collecting some 40 pieces of evidence, including bloody fingerprints from a cabinet in the store that have repeatedly been submitted to the national Automated Fingerprint Identification System.
Police conducted hundreds of interviews in the weeks that followed. News accounts said detectives even flew to another city to interrogate someone. A reward was offered for information.
In the end, nothing came of those efforts.
In some ways, the case was handled differently than it would be today. For one thing, many people were allowed access to the crime scene, possibly compromising evidence. That was common in the 1970s; today, homicide scenes are usually sealed up tight until the forensics experts arrive.
Lew Morris, who died in August at age 63 in St. Marys, W.Va., says in the film that the East Liverpool police were "overwhelmed" by the case because they weren't accustomed to such mayhem. Another triple homicide would occur in the town six years later.
In looking back with the hindsight of the 27 years he later spent as a police officer in Michigan, Mr. Morris said he was puzzled as to why authorities never questioned him or other relatives in any detail.
Mrs. Ferguson, now 72 and living outside of Cambridge, Ohio, said police never questioned her, either.
Today's officers couldn't speak to the specifics of who was or was not interviewed, but Mr. Fickes said a review of the old file showed that police did hundreds of interviews of potential suspects and witnesses.
The case is somewhat unusual in that the killings happened on a busy summer afternoon, with many people on the streets or in their yards or on porches, and yet the killer escaped on foot.
"He would have had to have been covered with blood," said Dave Mumaw, a retired officer who helped with the case briefly and is now a court bailiff. "I've always felt that the person lived in that area and knew the area."
Some have speculated that the suspect was passing through or that the slayings could be the work of a serial killer. But another retired officer says in the documentary that an out-of-town robber would have been more likely to hold up the gas station down the street than to rob Mr. Tweed's shop, a nondescript storefront.
Mr. Tweed, however, was known to carry cash, usually at least $200.
Yet if the killer was a local, how is it that he has stayed hidden for so long? A murderer can disappear in Chicago or New York or even Pittsburgh, but it's more difficult to hide in a small town where everyone knows everyone. Mr. Mumaw said the secret could be "locked up in a family," but he thinks that by now someone would have said something.
His theory is that the killer is dead.
"I think that's entirely possible," Mrs. Ferguson agreed.
"I can't imagine somebody doing that kind of thing, that much violence, and then going on and living a completely normal life after that," she says in the film. "That kind of person is going to continue with that kind of behavior."
After the killings, she said she continued on as best she could. She loved her father and remembered him as a generous businessman who doted on her, helped people who needed it and always wore a flower in the buttonhole of his suit. His death was hard on her and her children, she said, but she still had her own family to raise. It was much worse for the Morris family, she said. They lost a child, an unborn baby, a young mother. Mr. Morris eventually remarried and had five children with his second wife, but some of Linda Morris' relatives never recovered.
Mrs. Ferguson said she's been reluctant to dwell on what happened. She'd like to see the crime solved, certainly. But she's kept some distance from a local group, Columbiana County Families of Homicide Victims, and the vigils they've held for murder victims.
"You have to pick up and move on with your life after something like this," she said. "Otherwise it takes over the rest of your life."
First Published January 3, 2011 12:00 am