Minute Mystery

The Unsolved Mystery of the Circleville Writer |Minute Mystery Episode 3|

I think handwritten letters received in the mail are generally perceived as kind of romantic, right? But what about receiving handwritten letters that have no return address, are not signed, and say things like: “I’ve been observing your house and know you have children. This is no joke.”

This was the un-romantic reality for Mary Gillispie; a wife, mother, and school bus driver for the small town of Circleville, Ohio. And it wasn’t just one letter, oh no my friends. It was so much worse than that…

Buckle up for Episode 4 of Minute Mysteries!

*Dramatic music*

Okay, so. Circleville, Ohio, is a small town 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Columbus, Ohio. It’s just like a lot of the other small towns you’d see scattered across the American country side; the kind of place where people don’t lock their doors and everyone knows everyone (and everyone’s business).

Residents of Circleville began receiving these anonymous letters filled with their private details in 1976, causing many in the small town to constantly look over their shoulders and second guess their actions in fear that they were being watched.

First letter to Mary | Quora

“Massie” was Gordon Massie, the Superintendent of Schools in Circleville. And the letter followed through with what it said, others had been notified. Mary and Gordon quickly became the talk of the town, and like a lot of small towns, gossip spread like wildfire. And while the rumours of the affair spread, fear spread with it. Who was going to receive a letter next? What was it going to say about them? What was the writer going to say about them to others in the town?

Tons of other people were receiving their own letters of very personal details about their lives and their secrets. Many of the letters threatened the recipients with acts of violence, or that the writer would and could very easily destroy their life or career –they wrote to many about the relationships they knew that had gone bad, various affairs, and corruption within the town.

Circleville no longer felt like the place you could leave your doors unlocked, and someone knew far too much about too many people.

After Mary got her first letter and found out that the writer had done just as they’d said and told other people in the town about her alleged affair, she and Gordon denied all the accusations. She was married with children, and so was Gordon.

Mary hid her letter from her husband, Ron, and tried to make sure that the venomous words around town didn’t reach his ears. Which, in my opinion, it’s always better to be honest with your partner. Because you know he’s bound to hear about ti from somewhere.

Less than a week after her first letter had arrived, she received a second letter that was much like the first. Still, Mary hid this letter from Ron and acted as if everything was normal, and continued trying to squash the rumours flying around town.

Two weeks later, she received a third, more threatening letter: “Gillespie, you’ve had two weeks and done nothing. Admit the truth and inform the school board. If not, I will broadcast it on CBs, posters, signs and billboards until the truth comes out.”

Mary hid this letter along with the others and kept on as if everything was normal, until Ron, rightfully upset, came to her with a letter of his own.

This one was written in a different handwriting style, with very square block letters, nothing like the tall stretched one’s that wrote Mary’s letters. Ron’s letter read: “We must inform you that your wife is having an affair with Mr Massie. She has chased him until he caught her. Eliminate them both before they eliminate you. Remember, we know where you work and know your red and white truck. No one can help you. Think of your children and their future! Call the school board and report the truth after you finish your investigation. Notify the school board immediately. Again, your life is in danger.”

Mary tried to talk him down, and showed him the three letters she had received. When he asked her why she hadn’t told him about them she said she hid them because they weren’t true and she didn’t want to upset him –that she thought they would just stop. But they didn’t stop, and things got so much worse.

A few of the letters were signed with a “W”, which got Mary thinking that the mysterious writer could possibly be William Massie, Gordon Massie’s son.

At a loss, Mary and Ron confided in three of their closest friends: Ron’s sister Karen, her husband Paul Freshour, and Paul’s sister.

The five of them got together to brainstorm on what they could do to get this person to leave them alone. Mary remembered seeing a movie where the characters wrote letters to their suspect of a crime to try and scare them into coming forward if they thought they’d been figured out.

Paul, Ron’s brother in law wrote about 3 to 5 letters to William saying they knew it was him.

Maybe its coincidence, maybe it’s not, but the letters did stop for a while. About a month later though, the letters began appearing in people’s mailboxes again.

On August 19, 1977, roughly nine months after Mary had received her first letter, Ron was home with their kids. At this point, poor Ron had been receiving unrelenting letters detailing his wife’s supposed affair, threatening his life, telling him his truck was being watched and that he was being followed. Then the phone rang.

After a brief and angry conversation, Ron slammed the phone down, grabbed his .25 calibre pistol, said goodbye to his kids and stormed out of the house. The hunch is that the writer had called to harass him and that Ron recognized the voice and was going to confront them.

We’ll never know who was on the other end of the line though, or what they said, because Ron never made it past the end of his street. Just like the writer had told Mary that they would be informing people of her alleged affair, the writer fulfilled their promise to Ron.

His truck was found crashed into a tree, and Ron was dead. Emergency services were called to the scene and investigators found that a single round had been fired from his gun. What did he shoot at in the short distance from his house to the tree? Were his truck and his movements really being watched like the writer said? Was someone hiding outside, waiting for him?

Pickaway County Sheriff, Dwight Radcliff originally believed Ron’s death was a result of foul play, but the coroner’s report found Ron’s blood alcohol content to be .16, one and a half times the legal driving limit in Ohio.  Sheriff Radcliff then changed his statement to that Ron’s death was accidental after his suspect (*singular* may I add) passed a polygraph test.

This really shocked Ron’s family, because according to everyone, Ron rarely drank, and they’d never known him to drink to get drunk. His kids stated that when he said goodbye after receiving the phone call he wasn’t drunk, and that he hadn’t been drinking anything.

When investigators looked into Ron’s gun and tested it, it was found that the gun had been fired that night. No bullet holes were found in the truck, and no bullet was ever found or recovered from the scene. The truck was sent to the wrecker’s just days later, kind of suspicious to get the truck crushed so quickly in my opinion…

Newspaper clipping about Ron’s death | factinate.com

Ron’s death is extremely tragic. Whether the phone call was from the writer or not, in my opinion his death was caused by the letters, and no justice has been brought for him or his children. In my research on this case no one talks about how much the children must have suffered, having their mother and her alleged affair be the talk of the town, letters to their mom and dad threatening them all, and then their dad dead in a very suspicious way that doesn’t add up because of it all.

Shortly after Ron’s death, Circleville residents began receiving letters saying that Sheriff Radcliff was carrying out a cover-up and I mean it does kind of sound like it, right? At the scene he’s like “this stinks of foul play” and then he’s like “all clear here just an accident folks!” That doesn’t sit right with me.

You’d think that now the letters would have stopped –that Ron’s death was enough to say “hey, this has gone too far.” But oh contraire my good friends, they got worse still. For years Mary still received hateful letters; and while thousands of people in the town were receiving them, it was clear that Mary was a target and that more attention was being put on her.

Over the span of six years between 1977 when Ron passed away and 1983, it’s said that Mary received about 39 letters. During this time though the writer began to escalate beyond letters and started putting up signs around town threatening that Mary and Gordon Massie would lose their jobs, as well as threatening Mary’s children, with one sign written about her twelve year old daughter saying that they would “put a bullet in her head.”

At this point, six years after Ron’s death, Gordon Massie had divorced his wife. Gordon and Mary came out and told everyone that they were in a relationship but insisted that it only started after Gordon’s divorce, and had never been an affair. They hoped that acknowledging that they were in a relationship would satisfy the anonymous writer, but they were sadly mistaken. This only seemed to make the writer angrier, and they demanded that Mary and Gordon end the relationship.

In February of 1983, the writer had begun putting signs up along Mary’s bus route. During her route she saw a sign that accused her young daughter of being in a relationship with Gordon Massie herself. This made Mary so mad she pulled the bus over and ripped the sign down. That’s when she noticed a length of twine attached to the sign. The other end went to a box that was mounted on a post hidden in some bushes behind the sign. She removed it from the post and took it into the bus to examine. When she lifted the lid she was floored: in the box were two pieces of Styrofoam with a pistol propped up between them, the twine tied to the trigger. It sank in that if she had pulled the sign down in a certain way, she would have been shot.

She took the trap into the police station. The serial number had been poorly filed and they were still able to lift it off the gun. Shockingly, the gun was registered to Mary’s brother-in-law, Paul Freshour, who had just separated from Ron’s sister Karen and won full custody of their children and ownership of their home.

When questioned, Paul couldn’t believe it. He said that he kept the gun in the garage but noticed it had been missing for quite some time, and didn’t think to report it missing because he didn’t always keep it in the same spot and he never used it.

On February 25th, 1983, Sheriff Radcliff asked Paul if he would come to the station and help answer some questions about the letters. Paul, wanting to do anything he could to help, and thinking this might lead to answers in Ron’s death, agreed.

At the station, Sheriff Radcliff gave Paul several of the letters received from the anonymous writer and asked him to copy them the best he could –the words and the font. The Sheriff then asked Paul to write as he read several letters to him, and to write as best he could in that same sort of block letter style as the original letters.

This is not how you would perform a handwriting analysis test to rule someone out, you don’t ask them to copy the writing the best they can… that made no sense. But Paul obliged because he thought he was helping the investigation… not feeding in to Sheriff Radcliff’s theory, which he had not been honest with Paul about.

After this Paul took Sheriff Radcliff to his house to show him the various places he used to keep his gun before it went missing. And he said that he hadn’t really paid too much attention when it went missing because he never used it and it was always begin moved around to different places out of the way.

Sheriff Radcliff took Paul to the courthouse where he called on the prosecutor. Sheriff Radcliff told the prosecutor that Paul’s handwriting matched that of the letters, and matched the handwriting found on the sign trap intended to shoot Mary, and that he was under arrest for attempted murder.

On October 24, 1983, Paul went to trail for the attempted murder of his sister-in-law Mary Gillispie. He wasn’t being charged as being the Circleville writer, but the letters played a big role in his trial. 39 letters addressed to Mary were being used as evidence against him in trial, and if Paul was to take the stand and speak as a witness to defend himself, somehow 1000 letters from Circleville residents would be admissible to use as evidence against him.

Even though he couldn’t take the stand to defend himself, Paul had hope for his innocence during the trial.

When Sheriff Radcliff was asked about his methods for the handwriting tests, he admitted that he had Paul copy the letters and writing style as closely as he could. Martin Yant, an investigative journalist commented on the writing tests, saying: “That is not the proper way to test to see if someone has a certain writing style, because if they’re copying from a letter, they’re going to try to emulate the style. And the experts said that the testing was improper. So they didn’t really say that these letters were written by Paul Freshour. They said that they could have been.”

And when questioned, Sheriff Radcliff also confessed that none of the materials that had been used to construct the sign with the trap to shoot Mary were found at Paul’s house, and there was no ammunition found at the house either.

During the trial, Mary was questioned about if she ever suspected that Paul was the one writing the letters. She said she hadn’t, until after his and Karen’s divorce, when Karen said she had her suspicions about him.

Even with the lack of evidence, Paul’s solid alibi for the morning the trap was found, and the admittance of the flaws with the handwriting tests, the jury found Paul guilty of attempted murder and he was sentenced to 7-25 years in prison.

I find it kind of silly how with Paul behind bars, even with the really poor evidence that really proved nothing, people expected everything to go back to normal, which I think at this point we can all assume that it didn’t –and we’re right.

It was a big oops for law enforcement when, even with Paul behind bars, Circleville residents were still receiving the same threatening letters about too many private details of their lives. Nobody knew how Paul could still be sending these letters from prison and still know so many details of people’s private lives and their movements.

After many complaints, Paul was moved to solitary confinement where they took all his reading and writing material and left him in a cell with nothing. All of his incoming and outgoing mail was inspected so there would be no way for him to send any more letters. Except, big shocker, the letters STILL didn’t stop.

They were still post marked Columbus Ohio, even though Paul was in the Lima(lime-ah) Correctional Institution almost 160 kilometres (100 miles) Northwest of Columbus. The Lima Correctional Institution closed in 2004, but a smaller prison on the grounds, the Allen Correctional Institution, is still there.

Paul was moved in and out of solitary confinement about two or three times while various investigations were carried out as to how he could be sending the letters from prison, until it was finally accepted that he couldn’t be the one writing them and the Warden wrote to Karen saying that there was really no way for Paul to be writing and sending these letters from prison.

Snippet of a letter from Warden Arthur Tate Jr to Karen | Unsolved Mysteries

After serving seven years in prison, Paul was eligible for parole. He was a model prisoner, and the board loved him, but rejected the parole because there were still so many letters being sent to Circleville residents and people in the surrounding area, and that people still believed he was the one writing the letters. He voluntarily took three polygraph tests, and passed all three, but was still denied parole.

Paul was crushed, and two days after his parole hearing he received an anonymous letter, post marked from Columbus saying: “Freshour: Now when are you going to believe you aren’t going to get out of there? I told you 2 years ago. When we set ’em up, they stay set up. Don’t you listen at all? No one wants you out. No one. The joke is on you. Ha. Ha. Tell no one of this letter. I saw the paper. Great news. Great. The sheriff loved it. Ha. Ha. Do you believe it now? Do you?”

Letter to Paul Freshour | Quora

Tessa Unwin, the spokesperson for the Pickaway State Prison System made a public statement that it would be almost impossible to smuggle the letters from the prison. They had removed all writing material from Paul, and “they keep a real close eye on him and his visitors. I don’t see any way humanly possible for him to sneak out something.”

In the May of 1994, Paul was eligible for another parole hearing. After 10 years behind bars, and after some really good statements from prison staff that helped enforce the doubt that Paul could be sending any of the letters that were still turning up in Circleville mailboxes postmarked from Columbus, he was granted parole.

Incidentally, the letters also stopped in 1994.

After Paul’s release he got right to work. He compiled a 176 page PDF of the trial. He had all the press coverage, his accounts, the trial transcripts, and any other supporting documents he could find. He sent this to the FBI, asking for their help in solving his brother-in-law Ron’s murder, and for them to look into the corruption in the Pickaway County Sheriff’s office that wrongly took ten and a half years of his life.

Investigative Journalist Martin Yant uncovered evidence in Sheriff Radcliff’s file on the case that was never shared in court. That: “Mary Gillispie told the sheriff one of the other bus drivers told her that she had been driving that same road about 20 minutes before Mary Gillispie found that booby trap at exactly that site. And when she went by that very same intersection, there was a yellow El Camino parked there. A large man with sandy hair was standing there. When he saw her come, he turned around and acted like he was going to the bathroom or something, but seemed also to be avoiding any kind of identification. The description of the individual does not fit Paul Freshour at all, and Paul had a very solid alibi for this time. There was no attempt at all to follow up on that lead. And if they had, as I say, they would have found that another possible suspect in this case had a brother who had a yellow El Camino.” Who’s brother had a yellow El Camino you ask? That would be Karen, Paul’s ex-wife.

Do you remember when I mentioned that Paul and Karen had divorced? Ya, in 1983 Paul and Karen were in the middle of a really messy divorce after Paul caught Karen having an affair. Paul won custody of their two kids and their house. With nowhere to go, Karen moved into a trailer on Mary’s property.

After she moved into the trailer, she began telling Mary that she knew Paul was the Circleville writer.  Apparently Mary told Sheriff Radcliff, and shortly after, Sheriff Radcliff arrested Paul for the attempted murder of Mary.

With Paul in jail, Karen got her house back, full custody of their two children, plus Paul’s pension to boot.

Martin Yant wrote about Karen to the parole board in 1993 to help Paul with his parole hearing. In his letter, he wrote that “In my 22 years as a journalist and investigator, I don’t think I ever met an individual so consumed with such irrational hatred for another and a willingness to say anything –no matter how provably false- to defame him.” And Yant also pointed out in his letter that there was a statement in Sheriff Radcliff’s file that was not used in court, the one about the yellow El Camino just like Karen’s brother’s and man being at the exact spot the sign with the hidden gun was found only twenty minutes later.

{Hi, hello, this is Sabrina in editing! I was just reading through everything before I hit “post” and it only just hit me now that Karen’s brother owned a yellow El Camino. Karen was Ron’s sister, so this means that Ron’s brother owned a yellow El Camino? Does this somehow mean that Ron’s own brother and sister were involved in his death?? I wish you could see my face right now as I’m realizing that Karen’s brother is also Ron’s brother. Obviously I shouldn’t be shocked that Karen’s brother is Ron’s brother but in everything I’ve read it’s always made it seem so detached from Ron, and the thought that Ron’s own family set the trap to try to kill his wife -that shocks me. I haven’t seen anywhere that the El Camino is in fact confirmed to be Karen and Ron’s brother’s, or if the description of the man seen standing with the car matches the brother but still. Anyways enjoy the rest of the story}

Out of all the theories I’ve read online, I agree most with that the Circleville Writer was actually the Circleville Writers. I don’t believe that one person could possibly have all that dirt on all those people and have enough time to be sending SO many letters and know the movements of so many different people in and around the Circleville area while finding the time to mail them from Columbus.

Although, Columbus is only about 40 kilometers away from Circleville –like a 30 minute drive.  Maybe, if the writer(s) even had time to have a normal job, maybe they worked in Columbus. Circleville could be a bedroom community?  Maybe this person lived in Circleville and worked in Columbus giving them a perfectly discrete place to mail all their letters.

Or maybe they just drove to Columbus to mail the letters, because come on. If you lived in a small town and were sending thousands of letters over 18 years, the post office worker would know. There would be no way to deny that it was you if you were bringing that volume of letters into your local post office!

So, multiple writers huh? Who could they be?

Well, lots of people suspect that it’s the hateful and spiteful Karen. After all she did get caught cheating on Paul and lost everything in the divorce, but gained it all back and then some after Paul went to jail.

William Massie, the son of Gordon Massie, is suspected to be another. People speculate that if Gordon and Mary were having an affair that William would have quite a motive to try to shut it down.

The third suspected writer is a man named David Longberry. He was one of Mary’s coworkers, and apparently he’d made quite a few advances towards her, but she kept turning him down because she’s married, right? People believe that David found out she was having an affair with Massie and got really pissed that she kept using her husband to reject him, so he started the letters.

Maybe somehow William and David bonded over their anger towards Mary and Gordon, and maybe Karen was looking for a good way to “get rid” of Paul and the three of the concocted the Circleville Writer together.

Some people even theorize that Mary was in on it and listened to the kids on her bus talk about the drama going on at home and that’s how the writer knew so much about so many different people.

Paul unfortunately passed away in 2012, and his 176 page document that he sent to the FBI never did get any justice for Ron’s suspicious death, and never did clear his name in the whole debacle.

Either way, we still don’t know who wrote the letters. We still don’t know what happened to Ron between getting into his truck after that suspicious phone call and his death at the end of his street.

Circleville residents that had lived through the 18 years of the Circleville Letters still feel uneasy when they reach into the mailboxes, and I’m sure that they’re still looking over the shoulder every once and a while, wondering if someone is watching.

Thanks for taking your time to listen to the tragic and bizarre story of the Circleville Letters, Ron Gillispie, and all of the innocent people affected by these harassing letters.

There’s not really any evidence to go on, and that’s what makes this a Minute Mystery.

Sources: unsolved.com | unsolvedmysteries.fandom.com | darkhistories.com | factinate.com | reddit.com

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