At 5:07 am on Friday, August 9th, 1963 patrolman Jack Leach was traveling northwest down Japonica Drive in one of the two patrol cars owned by the Greenhills Police department. As he turned left at the corner of Jennings Road and Illona Drive his headlights swept across Alphonse Udry’s side yard and he saw what he described as a “peculiar-looking mound.” He stopped his car, grabbed his flashlight, walked through the dew-covered lawn and found the body of 15 year-old Patricia Ann Rebholz.
Leach had been with the department for four years but had never encountered anything even remotely like this before. His first instinct was to radio for backup and within minutes—13 minutes to be exact—patrolman Randolph Morgan arrived. Morgan began circling the body taking photographs. Patty was lying on her side next to the wire fence at the property line—her moccasins doubled over her heels, her disheveled skirt pulled up around her waist and her handbag still dangling from her shoulder. Her hair, face and blouse were covered in blood. The grass beneath her was saturated with it. Next to her head was a two-foot section of fence post which Leach noted was covered in dark stains, hair and “particles of what I believe to be flesh.”
As Morgan’s flashbulbs lit up the pre-dawn darkness, police from neighboring departments arrived and fanned out into the yard, securing the crime scene. Dr. Roemer, the local physician, was summoned and confirmed what the assembled officers already knew—Patty was dead. Later, while the volunteer life squad was loading her body onto a stretcher, someone— it’s unclear exactly who—alerted 15 year-old Michael Wehrung, Patty’s boyfriend of four months who lived just across the street. Only half-awake, Michael looked out his front door which had a direct view of the activity in the yard, turned to his sister Cheryl and asked “Is she dead?” He then went back to sleep on the sectional sofa in his living room.
Why the police had taken all night to find Patty was one of the first of many questions about the case. Why Michael responded the way he did that morning was another. Its now been more than a half century since Patty’s murder and for her friends and classmates—indeed, for the entire community of Greenhills—there are still more questions than answers.
Michael first met Patty when they began attending middle school together. At the time, however, he was apparently busy with other girls. He first began dating at the age of 13 and by his count had already gone steady twice by the time he was 15. Meanwhile Patty was becoming a petite blue-eyed blonde who had no problem attracting the attention of boys. “She changed so much over the next two years you wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “In the ninth grade she looked real tough.” Patty had something of a crush on Michael and pursued him throughout their freshman year at Greenhills High School. They first went out in May 1963.
To everyone who knew her Patty was sweet, outgoing and disarmingly friendly. “Girls rarely spoke to me. I was shy and self conscious, but Patty always said hello like we were pals,” said classmate Craig Smith. “She had a smile, even for the smallest children,” her father told a reporter. It was this easy manner and magnetic personality that made her one of the most popular underclassmen in school. She was a conscientious student and was active in the school band and chorus. She had been a cheerleader since middle school and was on the reserve squad as a freshman, where she cheered at Michael’s football games. “Perfect in every way,” her older brother Mel Jr. said, “she made me look bad.”
Stocky, crew-cut Michael came from a decidedly more blue-collar family and was a little rougher around the edges, but to his friends and neighbors he was a real-life combination of James Dean and Wally Cleaver. “He was the brother I never had,” said neighbor Dee Hinton, “everybody in the neighborhood loved him.” Michael liked girls, sports and cards, but had little interest in school. He played on the freshman football team but due to his poor grades he was ineligible for the JV team that coming fall. “Sports lazy,” his sister called him.
Initially Michael was somewhat ambivalent about Patty. When they first started dating he continued to go out with his sister’s friend Lois Schuehler, knowing full well that Patty would be hurt if she ever found out. That June he went out with Jackie Haggart, but, as Lois told investigators, “it was just for kicks to see what he could get.” He eventually settled on Patty and that summer he gave her the onyx ring he had received from his grandmother as a confirmation gift years earlier. It was official—they were now going steady.
Patty, however, didn’t act like a girl going steady and seldom wore Michael’s ring. Her neighbor and friend Terry Hutchinson recounted a story where Patty took off the ring and placed it on the radio. Michael saw it and put it in his pocket. “Where’s my ring?” he asked Patty. “It’s on the radio,” she said. “No, it’s in my pocket, Patty.” He gave her the ring back and she dutifully slipped it on. The incident flustered Patty but as far as Michael was concerned if she wanted his ring she had to wear it all of the time. As Lois said “he just didn’t care if she was mad or not, or if her feelings got hurt.”
Lois wasn’t the only one to notice how Michael treated Patty. Michael’s best friend Ray St. Clair said “He was a mean boyfriend. Whenever Mike took Pat out he tried to belittle her and would usually embarrass her in front of other kids.” The couple began bickering about small, petty things and Michael, more often than not, reduced Patty to tears, dismissing her reaction as just being a “baby.” Their most serious disagreements were with the weekly teen dances. Patty loved going to the dances and seldom missed one. Michael, who claimed he couldn’t dance and didn’t especially care for the kids who went, didn’t like her going with her friends and flirting with other boys.
After one of the dances in July Patty went with 16 year-old Tom Stonefield to the Parkmoor Restaurant, a drive-in complete with roller-skating carhops, and they kissed in the back seat of the car. The next morning she called Michael and tearfully confessed her indiscretion while he silently listened. “Say something,” she begged. After a long pause he told her “there’s nothing to say.” She offered him his ring back but he refused. Patty’s best friend Beth Upton said they made up and later appeared “lovey-dovey,” but Patty’s cousin Candy Blaum said that Michael was so angry over the incident that he hit her. This was the last straw for Patty. By the end of the summer she had had enough of Michael and it was now no secret among her friends that she was interested in Tom, who had asked her to go steady with him that night in the car. She confided in her friend and teammate Diane Fisher that she was going to break up with Michael the next time she saw him.
Thursday, August 8th, 1963—the last day of Patty’s life—began as typical busy summer day. Patty arrived at cheerleading practice at 10:30 am. Afterward she walked to the drug store at the shopping center, met her father, Mel Rebholz, and went home for lunch. That afternoon her older brother Mel Jr., who had his own car and spent much of his last summer before college ferrying Patty and her friends around, drove her to a friend’s house where Patty admired her friend’s new puppy. That evening, around 7:30 pm, Mel Sr. dropped her off at Beth’s house on his way to a school board meeting.
Sometime shortly after 7:00 pm Michael left his house and drove to the stables on Winton Road to pick up his sister Cheryl who, along with Ray (her boyfriend), was riding Ray’s horse. Cheryl, who had a driver’s license, then drove them to their grandfather’s tavern in Corryville to pick up a keg of beer for their family rec room. They arrived back home around 8:30 pm and Michael invited his friends over for a ping-pong tournament in the basement. Around the time Michael was beginning his tournament Patty, Beth and several of their friends arrived at the dance.
The dances, sponsored by the local American Legion post, were advertised as a teen record hop where a “local record spinner will be on hand to play the latest hits.” They were held every Wednesday from 8–11 pm during the summer at the Legion Hall on Winton Road. The idea, said post commander Ray Reames, was to “fill a void in other activities during the summer months.” The turnout that night—on a Thursday that week instead of Wednesday—was larger than usual. Margaret Boyle, who was collecting the 50-cent admission at the door, counted more than 100 kids, including plenty from outside Greenhills she didn’t recognize. It was even rumored that some boys from the West End were there. “A rougher crowd,” said sophomore Bob Hatfield. Nevertheless, Patty, as always, was having a good time with her friends. Although no one recalled Patty dancing with any of the boys that night she also didn’t want any of them to know she was going steady; Michael’s ring wasn’t on her finger but was in the bottom of her purse. She also didn’t want her mother to know she was smoking and gave her pack of cigarettes to a friend for safekeeping.
Around 9:20 pm Patty called Michael from the pay phone at the Legion Hall and asked to come over. Cheryl took the call because Michael was too busy in the basement drinking beer from a Dixie Cup and finishing his ping-pong game. “I had three more points to go as we were tied,” he said. Patty told Beth that she was disappointed that she couldn’t speak directly with Michael but left the dance for his house after the call. She didn’t tell Beth why she was going to Michael’s this late, but the only time she had ever done this before was to discuss a problem and apparently tonight would be no different; she intended to break up with Michael in person. Several of Patty’s friends and at least one adult chaperone saw her leaving the dance alone around 9:30 pm.
After she left the Legion Hall Patty walked a short distance down Winton and turned left onto Ingram Road. She then walked down the hill on Ingram and at the bottom turned left onto Jennings, a short 300-foot street which ended at the intersection of Japonica and Illona, one house away from Michael’s. In all it was a half-mile walk that shouldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes.
Several people later reported seeing Patty on her way to Michael’s. Gordon Massey, age 30, was driving to work and told police that he saw Patty walking alone and swinging her purse at the top of Ingram above Ireland Road. Barbara Ankrom told investigators that she saw Patty walking by herself on Ingram near her house between Ireland and Imbler.
The moon was nearly full that night, but once Patty turned onto Jennings the only thing she could make out in the darkness was the distant gaslight in Michael’s front yard. It was likely the last thing she ever saw.
Around 9:35 pm 15 year-old Craig Smith, who was filling in that evening for his friend as a clean-up boy at a doctors office in the shopping center, followed the same path down Ingram that Patty had taken only minutes earlier. He told the police that he saw two people in Alphonse Udry’s side yard—one lying down and another kneeling. By this time it was too dark for him to recognize either of the figures. He thought he had interrupted some kids making out and continued to walk to his home a block away. At the corner he said he was cut off by Ray’s car as it turned onto Jennings. The group in the car recognized him and waved.
61-year old Harry Eckstein and his wife were driving down Japonica and as he turned his car onto Jennings he saw two people in the Udry’s side yard: one straddling another on the ground as if in a “conquering position.” He thought something was amiss and slowed his car but after noticing Craig casually walking by, he assumed it was just some kids playing and continued to drive to his home on Ingram. He was certain the one on top was wearing a light-colored shirt and dark pants but told the police that “If I had any idea that the person lying on the ground was a girl I would have quickly investigated because I am positive the one on the top was a boy and that picture just don’t go together.” He estimated the time to be around 9:45 pm.
Around 9:50 pm Ray, Cheryl and Michael’s friends from the ping-pong game, Steve Tillett and Dale Boyd, left the Wehrung house in Ray’s red Chevy Nova to pick up hamburgers from Henrys in Finneytown, a 4.5 mile drive south on Winton. Cheryl even picked up an extra hamburger for Patty. Michael stayed home waiting for Patty. When Cheryl and Ray returned around 10:45 pm Michael was in the living room watching television with his mother. Patty had never shown up. Assuming her brother had picked her up after the dance everyone went downstairs to play cards. Ray later told police that is was then he first noticed Michael wiping off blood from a cut on his wrist.
Mel Jr., however, hadn’t picked up his sister. He was patiently waiting at the shopping center for her. It wasn’t like Patty to be late and when she didn’t show by midnight he drove home in a panic to wake his father. Patty’s parents began desperately calling her friends for any information. Mrs. Rebholz called Michael and he told her that she was supposed to come over but didn’t. “[she] then started crying,” he said. Mel Jr. soon showed up and enlisted Michael and Ray to help him search for Patty. They traced the path from the Legion Hall, via the crosswalks between houses, to Michael’s house. It was precisely the route that Patty didn’t take that night. After the 20-minute search Michael begged off, claiming that his mother wanted him home. “Mike didn’t seem too concerned,” Mel Jr. later said, “He was very quiet.” Mel Jr. reported their findings to officer Leach and, after he spoke with Mr. Rebholz, a county-wide all points bulletin was broadcast at 2:30 am, August 9th (Female, White, 15, 5'4" 115#, Blond hair and blue eyes. Last seen…). Mel Jr. continued to canvass the streets most of the night searching in vain for his sister.
Leach, who had spent much of the night coordinating the missing persons report, finally resumed his regular patrol and found Patty in the Udry’s yard in the hour before dawn. She was only 25 feet away from where Craig Smith and Harry Eckstein had seen the figures the night before. Mel Sr., after a sleepless night, was notified by a county detective and soon arrived at the scene. The police, hoping to spare him the sight of his daughter’s bludgeoned body, tried to have him identify her from the contents of her handbag (54 cents in a red coin purse, several pieces of costume jewelry including Michael’s ring, various scraps of paper and a bottle of Hidol). When he couldn’t they pulled back the wool blanket covering her body. 15 year-old Carolyn Udry, who was in bed just 50 feet away, said she was awakened by King, her German Shepard, looked out her bedroom window at the commotion and saw Mel Sr. beating on the hood of a police cruiser shouting “No, no, no!” By daybreak the quiet corner lot had become an active crime scene. By that afternoon it was overrun by newspaper reporters, TV crews and curious onlookers.
Mel Sr. drove home to break the news to his family. “He walked in the house, probably about six in the morning, and said she was dead,” Mel Jr. recalled, “At that point we just went crazy.”
In March 1963 the city celebrated its 25th anniversary where 18 year-old Sandy Tillett was crowned Miss Greenhills. It was just six months after the Cuban Missile Crisis and six months before the JFK assassination. By then the city had become the picture postcard of white, privileged, middle-class suburbia; a close-knit, insular bedroom community of 5000 where everyone knew their neighbor and their neighbor’s business. It was seen as a safe place to raise a family and a refuge from the crime of urban Cincinnati. The five-man police department spent most of their time writing traffic tickets and issuing dog-at-large citations. That summer they were investigating a rash of bicycle thefts from the community swimming pool and the burglary of a vending machine truck. There had never been a murder in Greenhills before and Patty’s death was simply unprecedented. It caught both the police and local officials completely unprepared, and as county prosecutor Ray Shannon later said, in way over their heads.
Many in Greenhills woke up to the news on the radio and the story of Patty’s death spread rapidly. “Everybody was just really shaken up by it. It was just out of the blue,” recalled Illona neighbor Bob Harrod. The crime shocked not only the residents of Greenhills but all of Cincinnati.
By Friday afternoon the police department was deluged with more rumors and tips than it could possibly handle: Patty was killed because she was pregnant or involved with drugs, Patty was killed by Michael’s father or officer Leach in a jealous fit, or Patty was killed by a mysterious handyman or a secretive neighbor. There were so many calls that eventually the mayor and a secretary from the local school board were pressed into service to help take and transcribe them all. “Were not geared for this sort of thing.” said chief John Baldwin, “We can’t keep up with the paper work.”
To quell the growing swirl of rumors and calm some of the fears, special investigator Donald Roney, from the Hamilton County prosecutors office, told a reporter over the weekend that “It was an unfortunate murder, not a madman’s,” and the community shouldn’t worry because Patty wasn’t the victim of a “maniac” or a “sexual deviant.”
In fact by this time Roney was quite sure he knew who killed Patty.
Assistant county prosecutor Donald Roney began his career in the prosecutors office on New Year’s Day in 1950. After his efforts in uncovering welfare fraud he became their chief investigator, working on nearly every major case over the next decade including several capital cases. Roney, a staunch Republican with political aspirations, had, even for that time, a particularly unnuanced, black-and-white view of crime and the criminal element. “It does little good to catch the offender then try to cure him. The crime has been committed,” he said in a 1960 newspaper article, “The 98% of law abiders have a right to expect that the other 2% will be kept in check.” His zeal for justice, however, occasionally caused problems: In 1956 he acted as the “bad cop” during the questioning of the meter reader Robert Lyons in the high-profile murder case of the socialite Audrey Pugh. He lied about fingerprints lifted from the scene and told Lyons that he “was a cinch for the electric chair.” After a marathon 13-hour interrogation Lyons finally caved in and signed a lengthy confession. Lyons later recanted and his lawyer, the legendary Foss Hopkins, won him an acquittal at trial, largely because of Roney’s improper questioning. Later, in 1965, Roney abruptly resigned from the prosecutors office after they began investigating his role in the financial misconduct of the Ringgold Building and Loan Co. In a suprising reversal he, along with fellow assistant prosecutor Burton Singer, became defense lawyers and within a week were representing their first client, Posteal Lackey, the infamous Cincinnati Strangler.
On the day after Patty’s murder, however, criminal defense work was likely the furthest thing from Roney’s mind. The seasoned investigator sat across a desk from Michael at the Greenhills Police station, turned on the Audograph Soundwriter, asked Michael to hold the microphone close and began the interview:
“Did you leave the house between 9:30 and 10 pm?”
“Oh, yes I forgot to tell you. I decided to—you know—to walk over down Jennings and see if I could see anything of her coming… so I cut across [the] Udry’s grass… so I walked over there and looked both ways and I didn’t see anything and I whistled, and you know, I didn’t hear anything so I figured her brother picked her up so I went back home.”
It was an offhand remark, but Michael had placed himself at the time and scene of the crime. Roney zereod in: pressing him on his whereabouts that night, the fresh cut on his wrist, his unusual change of clothing and his relationship with Patty:
“How many arguments did you have in the course of the four months?”
“What do you mean by arguments? You mean small things?”
“I guess about 50 of ’em.”
“In other words the two of you weren’t too compatible. You didn’t really see eye-to-eye… Why go steady with someone you argue with?”
“We didn’t argue. Just small things.“
By the end of the questioning Michael was clearly shaken:
“At this time awhile ago you said you had on your striped zippered shirt, Levis and a pair of shoes. How did the shirt get down to the hamper with the Levis upstairs?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“Mike, we’re in a very serious position here.”
“I know we are. You have me so confused I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Roney and the prosecutors office began feeding details of the investigation to the media, and despite the fact that Michael was only 15 years old, jaded beat reporters had no problem publishing his name, photograph and even address in the papers. For the next several weeks he was the morning headline in the Enquirer, the afternoon headline in the Post and the lead story on Al Schottelkotte’s Evening News. It was the biggest story in Cincinnati that summer and for Michael and his family there was no escape from the glare of the media.
Teenage girls from all over Cincinnati came to Patty’s visitation that Monday evening to pay their respects. Funeral director Clifford Hodopp said it was the largest crowd of mourners in all his years of operation. Some 200 people attended her funeral the next morning but everyone’s attention was focused on Michael. An Enquirer reporter wrote “not once during [her] brief last rites did a sign of emotion touch his handsome face. And Mike’s flowers were there. A dozen red roses, standing on a little table near the casket.”
Several hours after the funeral Michael was escorted to the Norwood Police Station, which had an available polygraph machine, and questioned for nearly six hours by Roney and Norwood Police captain Harry Schelie. Roney later told reporters that the results “were not disappointing.” The next day, as a crowd of some 100 curious onlookers gathered at the station, Michael was again interrogated under polygraph. This time for more than nine hours.
During a break in the questioning Schelie (acting as the “good cop”) and Michael were sitting around smoking cigarettes and talking about football. Michael said he wasn’t sure, but he thought he remembered kneeling next to Patty in the moonlight and could feel Craig Smith’s eyes “burning” into his. He thought that there was the possibility that he killed Patty, but it wasn’t his “real self,” because “the real me would never strike a girl.” He couldn’t help think, however, that his “other self” could have done it. He also said that he didn’t have to go over to the Udry’s yard that morning because in his mind he already knew who was on the stretcher. Whether this constituted a confession or were just the ramblings of a rattled, confused teenager remained to be seen, but afterward county prosecutor Raymond Shannon made no mention of it, saying only that Michael was “attempting deception.”
Michael was questioned by Roney in yet another session the next day at the Greenhills Police station. There is no record of all the the time he spent in interrogation, but all of it was done without the presence of a parent or a lawyer and several years before any Miranda rights.
That Wednesday the forensics tests came back. The blood spots on Michaels pants were found to be type B—Patty’s blood type. Although there were no recoverable fingerprints on the log, the hair and bloodstains were both Patty’s. The case against Michael was quickly mounting: he couldn’t verify his whereabouts, he gave several different accounts of how he got the cut on his wrist, he couldn’t explain how Patty’s blood got on his pants and he never did produce the shirt he was wearing that night (and despite an extensive search, including the sewer system around his house, it was never recovered. One rumor was that his mother disposed of it on a trip to Indian Lake that weekend). “I know bloodstains don’t lie. I know the lie detector doesn’t lie. I know I don’t lie. I don’t understand it,” he told reporters.
The non-stop media scrutiny and the relentless questioning of Michael eventually pushed the Wehrung family to the breaking point. “I don’t like this grilling. I don’t want the interrogations to go on endlessly.” said his father Art. “I’m tired of coorperating,” said his mother Dawn, “the press are taking pictures making Michael look like a criminal.” Roney said that during questioning every consideration was being shown for his well being but others following the case disagreed. The local chapter of the ACLU sent a letter to the prosecutor expressing the “strongest possible exception to the procedures of Mr. Shannon’s office” and considered it “abusive and harmful to grill a 15-year old child over four consecutive days.” Furthermore, they wrote “If the crime remains unsolved the ruin of a young man’s reputation it cannot then be mended by the tardy recognition of those in charge.” There was an almost overnight change in public sentiment and the backlash from the media caught Roney off-gaurd. He soon found himself defending charges that he was abusing Michael. A new investigator, former Cincinnati Police lieutenant Ernest Taylor, began working on the case and when asked if Roney had been removed from the investigation Shannon said “He’s just been spelled off, he needed a rest.” Nevertheless Roney never questioned Michael again.
The next week—the second week after Patty’s murder—the press began reporting that the case was “stymied.” Shannon responded that the investigation was continuing and entering a phase of “routine police work.” But behind the scenes the case wasn’t stymied at all. The small group of investigators were diligently preparing their evidence. “It consumed us,” said Shannon. They even began considering binding Michael over to the court’s general division and charging him as an adult. Among those paying attention to these developments was juvenile court judge Benjamin Schwartz.
Schwartz, who spent nearly 30 years on the bench, was never one to shy away from controversy. He once suggested that juvenile drivers licenses should be issued only after the consideration and consent of his court. His screed against the Beatles after their 1964 Cincinnati Gardens appearance is now a part of the band’s history. To his detractors he was seen as too lenient. To his defenders “Benjy,” as he was known, was seen as a progressive child-rights activist who believed in rehabilitation and used his authority in innovative ways. “This is not a court of injunctions and damages and corporate suits,” he said in a 1971 profile, “This is a court devoted to human beings.” He had given permission for Michael’s initial polygraph questioning and soon began to worry that Roney was plying the 15 year-old with false information in order to extract a confession (like he had done with Lyons seven years earlier). Schwartz eventually became convinced that Roney’s “intense interrogation and lie detector tests would be illegal and contrary to law.” Three weeks after the murder he decided to intervene.
On September 1st Schwartz held a highly unusual Sunday court session where Michaels’s parents petitioned to make him a dependent of the court, citing the tremendous strain he was under. “We have complete confidence in our son,” they told reporters, “but under the existing circumstances we feel we are acting in his best interest and the best interest of all concerned.” In the middle of the night, under a shroud of secrecy, Michael was sent to 2020 Auburn, the juvenile detention center. Schwartz’s only public comment was that “further proceedings will be in accordance with the confidentiality required of a juvenile court.” Two weeks later Michael was sent to a private military academy in North Carolina to began his sophomore year. Two years later, in an act of either bravado or innocence, he returned, against the mayor’s wishes, to Greenhills High School to finish his senior year.
The decision stunned the police. As a ward of the court investigators were prohibited from discussing Michael’s case with the media. They couldn’t even question him. Schwartz, for reasons that will never be known, had simply stopped the investigation dead in its tracks.
By this time the Rebholz’s had become certain of Michael’s guilt and Schwartz’s actions left the family bewildered. “After we put two and two together and started thinking about exactly what had happened, there was no doubt in our mind who had done it,” Mel, Jr. said. “We were never given any explanation why he wasn’t charged at the time, and basically it was kept pretty much a secret where he went. [Schwartz] really obstructed justice by doing something like that. I can’t explain or understand why he made that kind of decision. But we’ve all had to live with it.”
The murder devastated both families. Art Wehrung died suddenly of pneumonia in early October, just two months after Patty’s death. He was only 41. His doctor told the press that his death “was not in the least mysterious,” but many wondered if the stress of his son’s investigation hadn’t taken its toll. The Rebholz’s were devout Christian Scientists and could never reconcile their daughter’s death with their beliefs. “They basically lost their religion,” Mel Jr. said. “It was the saddest thing to see. Neither one ever fully recovered from that night.”
Parents never had a reason to worry about their children's safety before—the city didn't even have a teen curfew—but after the murder that all changed. “My mom and the other moms wouldn’t let us out after dark and never in woods,” Richard Kuhlman said. There was even talk of moving trick-or-treat to the afternoon that October. It was the day “people realized there’s evil out in the world,” said Mel Jr. “Nothing was ever the same after that morning. It took away my innocence and I never felt young or safe again,” said Carolyn Udry. The murder had subtly, but permanently changed the community.
Patty’s friends and classmates went on to graduate from high school. They went to college and began careers. They fought in Vietnam. They married, divorced and remarried. They had children then grandchildren. In the years, then decades that followed, however, they never forgot about Patty; she was the topic when they met at the local post office or the grocery store or the class reunion. The death of their pretty, popular friend was tragic, but never bringing Patty’s killer to justice—never having closure—was the thing that stuck with them all those years. Even today her friend’s thoughts on Patty and the guilt or innocence of Michael still run surprisingly deep.
After judge Schwartz declared Michael off-limits in 1963 the prosecutor returned the case to the Greenhills Police. The typewritten reports, the crime scene photographs and the blood-stained clothing all sat languishing in cardboard bankers boxes in a property cage with a broken lock in the station’s damp basement. Larry Zettler, who graduated from Greenhills High School in 1961 recalled his family sending him newspaper clippings of the murder with their letters while he was in Vietnam. One of the first things he did when he returned to the community as a patrolman in 1972 was to look at the case files. To him Patty’s murder was personal; he knew many of the kids involved back in 1963 and had seen the lingering effect it had on the community. “I don’t know why it wasn’t solved. I felt there was sufficient evidence even then,” he said, but the department never had the time, money or personnel to continue the investigation. Once the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation began offering free DNA testing to local police departments Zettler knew it was finally time to reopen the case. In 1999 he asked the prosecutor to review the files.
Hamilton County Republican party chairman Mike Allen had just been appointed as county prosecutor and, like his predecessor, saw the position as a stepping-stone to a state office (“Governor,” said his wife unhesitatingly when asked). He agreed to look at Patty’s case hoping, at least in part, that the successful prosecution of one of the oldest unsolved murders in the county would bring him statewide, perhaps even national attention. He assigned a lawyer and two investigators to the case and they spent months poring over the files, soon focusing on Michael as the only likely suspect. They had a service transcribe his recorded statements, hoping they contained a confession. They re-interviewed witnesses who were still alive and sent letters to Patty’s former classmates. They even sent a letter to the North Carolina academy where Michael was a student, asking for any information. Most importantly they sent the physical evidence out for DNA testing.
By this time Michael was aware of the prosecutors intentions and tried to retain council but most local defense lawyers thought he had no chance against Allen and modern DNA analysis. They suggested that he strike a deal but Michael was adamant— he was innocent and would not accept any kind of plea bargain. During the 1999 Christmas holidays he ended up hiring Earle Maiman, a lawyer from Thompson, Hine and Flory, the firm that represented Ray St. Clair Roofing, where Michael had worked for his childhood best friend for the last 16 years. Maiman was an accomplished civil litigator but had no previous criminal defense experience. Nevertheless, he turned out to be a surprisingly effective advocate.
On May 2nd, 2000 a grand jury indicted Michael on second-degree murder charges and the case was assigned to the Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Patrick Dinkelacker. Maiman argued that it was unconstitutional to charge Michael as an adult because he was a juvenile at the time of the murder but Dinkelacker invoked a relatively new state law that allowed for the adult prosecution of crimes unadjucated as a juvenile. Maiman appealed Dinklacker’s ruling all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court but in a 5–2 decision they upheld the lower court. After 37 years, Michael Wehrung, now a 54-year old father of two and grandfather of four, would finally be tried for the murder of Patty Rebholz. Had he been convicted as a juvenile in 1963 he would have been remanded to the state until he was 21, now he was facing the possibility of life in prison.
Allen was clear that he didn’t like how the case was originally handled, especially the actions of judge Schwartz. “He ordered the investigators to shut down. They had no choice,” said Allen. “Obviously, in the year 2000, I’m not bound by that.” Many, however, saw his prosecution as a personal vendetta. “I know what revenge is, but what would justice be now?” asked Richard Kuhlman. It was “an attempt to rewrite history,” wrote David Wells in the Enquirer. Allen countered that there is no statute of limitations on murder for a reason. “The person who stole her life so many years ago has been able to proceed with his life, raising a family of his own and spending precious time with his loved ones. Patty never got that chance.”
On the Monday after Thanksgiving in 2001 the State v. Michael Wehrung began in judge Dinkelacker’s third-floor courtroom. Addressing the jury, Allen and assistant prosecutor Mark Piepmeyer laid out their theory that on the night of Thursday, August 8th, 1963, Michael left his house, walked across the street and cut through the Udry’s side yard where he waited for Patty to show up after leaving the dance. When she finally arrived he whistled and lured her into the yard. After she asked to break up with him he went into a rage and bludgeoned her to death. Jealousy, suggested Allen, was the motive. The price she paid for trying to switch boyfriends was her life.
Michael couldn’t have killed Patty, countered Maiman. He was in his living room watching TV with his mother at the time and there has never been any physical evidence to suggest otherwise. His so-called “other-self” confession was nothing more than “psychobabble”—the words of a naive and foolish teenage boy. “If he had [actually] confessed they would have arrested him. They never did,” Maiman told the jury. “Justice needs proof of guilt and the prosecution hasn’t had it in 40 years. He was innocent in 1963, ladies and gentleman, and he’s innocent today.”
Former coroner Frank Cleveland, testifying via video, presented a much more detailed picture of the murder than was originally published in the papers. According to his autopsy Patty, sometime between 9:30–10:15 pm, was punched in the face hard enough to break a tooth then choked into unconsciousness. She was then dragged by her heels some 25 feet to the fence where she was bludgeoned with the fence post so violently that it broke her ribs and drove her head into the ground, shattering her skull. She never even had the chance to defend herself. “Truth is you weren’t even there when the body was turned over to the coroner,” countered Maiman. But by then the jurors weren’t paying too much attention to his cross examination—the graphic crime scene and autopsy photos left them visibly shaken.
Allen and Piepmeyer next turned their attention to the timeline of that night. They contended that the case hinged on an 8–10 minute period between 9:30–10 pm where no one could verify Michael’s whereabouts. In a videotaped deposition Craig Smith, now an art professor in Denver, recalled walking down Jennings and seeing the two people in the Udry’s side yard then the car full of teenagers at the corner leaving Michael’s house. He later wrote that the scene was both indelible and indistinct. Steve Tillett, testifying via videotape from Florida, was with Michael that night and later went with Cheryl and Ray to get hamburgers. He said he saw Craig Smith at the corner of Jennings. When asked if he had seen Michael as they left he said no, but Maiman produced one of his 1963 police statements where he stated that he saw Michael in the house through the picture window as he was getting into the car. “Would you agree that what you said back in 1963 is probably more accurate than what you’re remembering today?” Maiman asked.
This point was critical: If Tillett had seen Michael in the house then saw Smith at the corner, who had just walked past the the two figures he saw in the yard, then Michael could have not been in the yard at the time. He could not have been the murderer. Allen, however, suggested that Tillett’s timeline was open to interpretation.
The DNA evidence which Allen had brought up in opening statements was never presented. Years of storage in a damp basement and a flood at one point had so severely deteriorated the clothing that Joan Burke, a serologist from the coroner’s office, testified that there was no recoverable blood, either Michael’s or Patty’s, left on his pants and only Patty’s blood and DNA left on her blouse. Allen had established motive and opportunity, but without any physical evidence his case was arguably weakened. He needed to introduce Michael’s confession—the “other self” statement. He needed to introduce the Waldeck notes.
Sergeant Chris Waldeck of the North College Hill police was on loan to the Greenhills police for the 1963 investigation. He began compiling a series of undated, hand-written notes that not only included the “other self” statement but other details of the investigation that painted Michael and his family in the worse possible light (“Subject was drunk the night before and was asked to leave a drive-in theater. Subject may have set fire to barns. Mother changed story.”). The notes, however, weren’t part of the case file; they were discovered by Waldeck’s daughter in her basement long after he had died. Maiman argued that they amounted to nothing more than hearsay—“dead cops tales”—and judge Dinkelacker agreed, ruling most of the notes inadmissible. It was another setback for Allen’s case, but he had one last card left to play.
The state’s final witness was retired TV reporter Tom Schell, who due to poor health was deposed in California a year before the trial began. While reporting the story in 1963 he had befriended the Wehrungs and became a constant presence in their home, even playing ping-pong and shooting hoops with Michael. “He was always around the neighborhood,” recalled Carolyn Udry. At one point Michael’s father asked Schell to talk to his son about his possible involvement in the murder. “He won’t talk to me. He won’t talk to his mother. He’s not going to tell his sister. He won’t talk to the cops. He likes you and if he’s going to tell anybody, he’ll tell you. Can you please do anything you can to get it out of him?” Schell then went downstairs and asked Michael about that night. Michael told him that he walked across the street and waited for Patty to show up. “Did you hit her?” Schell asked. “I slapped her.” said Michael. “At that point I realized I was into this a heck of a lot deeper than I ought to be,” said Schell. He immediately notified the police and recalled that Michael told officer Waldeck he didn’t remember killing Patty but “It might have been another self.”
The prosecution called nearly 20 witnesses but in the end their case was almost entirely circumstantial; middle-age men and women trying to remember the specific events of a night nearly four decades ago.
Maiman’s defense was short and straightforward. Michael’s sister Cheryl, now Cheryl St. Clair, testified that the original investigators had questioned Michael for hours on end. She said that officer Leach “told me over and over that Mike had killed Patty and he’d buried the memory and I had to help him.” She even said that Leach had asked her to take Michael on a drive through Winton Woods, rile him up and see if she could get him to confess. “What the police and media did [in 1963] was way out of control,” said Maiman, “They conspired to ruin his life.”
Maiman then presented his theory that there were other possible suspects the police never investigated. Barry Hatfield, then an 11 year-old boy out playing hide-and-seek, testified that he saw a strange boy follow Patty down Ingram. “He wore taps on his shoes, had slick-backed hair and wore Buddy Holly glasses with chrome earpieces,” he said. “He never made eye contact with me and he seemed to be focused only on her.” Maiman argued that he could have been the killer but Piepmeyer said it was simply the fevered imagination of young boy. Bonnie Davis, now Bonnie Armstrong, testified that she was walking down Ingram that night and 16 year-old Robert Goodballet snuck up on her, frightening her so much she ran home. Maiman suggested this was another possible suspect. “He’s goofy, I agree,” countered Peipmeyer, “But he’s a nice guy. He wouldn’t harm a mouse.”
Michael never took the stand in his own defense. Maiman hoped the lack of physical evidence and the alternate suspect testimony would be enough plant reasonable doubt into the minds of the jurors.
“Who had the means and the opportunity and the motive? The same person who had her blood on his pants and an unexplained cut on his wrist,” Piepmeier said during closing arguments. “I know how you can get a cut on your wrist where he had one,” and in a final dramatic flourish he took the murder weapon—the fence post—and started pounding it on the floor. He showed the jury exactly how it could have cut Michael’s wrist on that night in August 1963.
After seven days of testimony the case was turned over to the jury—seven women and five men—most in their 20s and 30s. In his instructions Dinkelacker said they had to follow 1963 sentencing guidelines; they could find Michael guilty or innocent of second-degree murder, but they couldn’t consider any lesser charge. It was either 20 years to life or nothing. The jury deliberated for 14 hours over two days, asking only to rehear the timeline testimony of Craig Smith and Steve Tillett. Initially they were split but they all eventually agreed that too much time had passed and there was simply too much reasonable doubt.
On the afternoon of December 6th, 2001 they returned their verdict. Michael Wehrung was not guilty of second degree murder.
With the word “not” the Wehrung family erupted in a celebration of relief. After the verdict many of the jurors were openly weeping. “I feel for both families, but the evidence wasn’t there,” said one juror. “The sadness of it all was crushing,” said another. “Obviously, the ones who were crying were struggling with their decision,” a disappointed Allen told reporters.
Mel Jr., who had flown up from his home in Florida to finally seek justice for his sister, slumped in his chair after hearing the verdict. “We knew with a jury trial it could go either way,” he said. “But there is a higher court than Hamilton County. We truly believe that and we wouldn’t have made it this far if we didn’t.”
I was born a year after Patty’s murder and spent my childhood growing up just two blocks away from the corner of Jennings and Illona. I followed her final route down Ingram every day for years; it was on my way home from grade school or the candy counter at Gil’s Variety Store. I walked past that corner lot hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. I don’t remember who first told me about the pretty cheerleader who was killed there—maybe it was my older brother or one of his friends—but as far back as I can recall I knew about Patty. To me and my friends she became a ghost story that was part of the fabric of our childhoods.
Its now 2016, more than a half century since the murder and nearly 30 years since I lived in Greenhills, and on unseasonably warm February day I’m sitting in the booking room at the Greenhills Police station looking at the case files. “You know,” Chief Ferdelman told me, “some here think that Patty still haunts our basement.” But then I began listening to a scratchy, sometimes unintelligible digital transcription of a confused and scared 15 year-old boy trying to answer Roney’s questions (perhaps even in the same room where they were originally asked) and as I looked out the only window in the room I could see the sidewalk on Winton that Patty would have walked down after leaving the Legion Hall that August night. In that moment I realized Patty’s story was never a ghost story at all.
It now seems unlikely that there will ever be an answer to what happened in that yard that night and in another decade or two there will be few left to even ask the questions: All of the original investigators are long since dead, Mel Jr. died of cancer several years after the trial, Michael is now a retired widower and Patty’s friends and classmates are all now at Social Security age. But, of course, Patty will never age. She’s forever frozen in time and space. She’s forever the 15 year-old cheerleader in that dew-covered lawn at the corner of Jennings and Ilona.
28 Jun 2016 ‧ Unclassified