1954 was shaping up to be just like any other year for the Cleveland Browns.
Fresh off the heels of losing to the Detroit Lions in the 1953 NFL Championship game, the Browns were looking to get back on top in 1954.
The loss to the Lions marked the third such defeat in as many years for the Browns.
It is not hard to guess that some of the Cleveland players were wondering if their 1950 championship was the last they would win as teammates.
During the summer of 1954, Browns quarterback Otto Graham was looking forward to getting back to the field and bringing the city of Cleveland another title.
Some of the original Browns players had retired, were retiring, or were shipped off to other organizations.
He hoped he could muster at least one more championship before he, too, would hang up his cleats.
Before the ‘54 season began though, Graham was with his wife, Beverly, at their home near Cleveland.
At 6:45 P.M. on the evening of July 3, the Graham’s hosted At Home with the Grahams, their popular 15 minute television show that aired three nights a week on WXEL.
Not long after the show ended, they attended a dinner party at the home of one of their neighbors, prominent Bay View Hospital doctor Sam Sheppard and his wife, Marilyn.
During the party, Graham was having so much fun he split the seat of his pants.
He quickly returned home to change and then returned to the Sheppard’s some time after.
By the early morning hours of July 4, the party guests had gone home and Marilyn Sheppard went to bed.
Her husband Sam was too tuckered to make it upstairs and fell asleep on the sofa.
When dawn broke the next day, the lives of the Sheppards’ and the Grahams’ would change immeasurably.
On July 4, 1954, American neurosurgeon Dr. Sam Sheppard's wife, Marilyn, is murdered. He was exonerated in 1966 after 10 years in prison, having been convicted of the murder. The case was controversial from the beginning, with extensive and prolonged nationwide media coverage. pic.twitter.com/eEk0TghrUt
— MMJYBBJWIdols (@MMJYBBJWIdols) July 4, 2020
Murder in Bay Village
Despite the late night, Graham was up early the morning of July 4.
He hopped in his car and went in search of a newspaper.
As he drove down the street, Graham saw several police cars outside the Sheppard home.
He pulled up to one of the officers and asked what happened.
The officer’s response shocked Graham.
Marilyn Sheppard had been beaten to death during the night.
Graham then pulled over and walked to the Sheppard house.
He asked the officers near the front door if he could go in.
Since he was the great Otto Graham, the officers let in the quarterback without a second thought.
After making his way upstairs, Graham was horrified by what he saw.
“If you had stood there with a brush and splattered a can of red paint at the walls, you would have some idea of what the room looked like,” Graham later said in his book OttoMatic. “Only the outline on the bed where Marilyn’s body had lain and the spot of wall sheltered by her killer were bloodless.”
— Roger Jefferys (@RogerJefferys) April 7, 2015
The events of the murder soon found their way to the media.
Apparently, according to Sam Sheppard, at one point during the night, he heard his wife call out his name.
He ran up the stairs and into their bedroom where he saw a white “form” standing near the bed where Marilyn was laying.
Sheppard lunged at the form and wrestled with the intruder to the floor.
Only moments later, Sheppard was hit on the back of the head and lost consciousness.
When he came to, he went to Marilyn and took her pulse.
Finding none, he went to their son, Chip’s, room and found the boy fast asleep.
Dr. Sheppard then made his way downstairs where he saw the same white form running for the back door and outside toward the shoreline of Lake Erie.
Sheppard caught up to and wrestled with the “bushy haired” form on the beach near their home.
Once again, he was knocked unconscious.
“I felt myself twisting or choking, and this terminated by consciousness,” Dr. Sheppard said at the time.
When he woke up, Sheppard found himself without his shirt or watch and soaking wet.
He scrambled to the house and called the mayor of Bay Village, Spencer Houk.
“My God, Spence, get over here quick,” Sam exclaimed, “I think they have killed Marilyn.”
At approximately 6:00 A.M., Bay Village police officer Fred Drenkhan arrived at the scene and witnessed the following:
“Marilyn’s body was lying face up in her bed, with her face turned toward the door. Her pajama top was pulled up, baring her breasts. Her pajama bottom had been removed from one leg, leaving her pubis exposed. Her legs had been pulled beneath the wooden bar and the foot of her bed. Marilyn’s face was all but unrecognizable. Over twenty curved gashes cut deeply into her face and scalp. Blood outlined her body, staining the cover and pillow. On the walls and closet doors were dozens of spots of blood. An autopsy would later determine her time of death at “about 4:30 A.M.” The autopsy also showed Marilyn to have been pregnant with a four-month-old male fetus.”
Officer Drenkhan then inspected the rest of the Sheppard home.
He found what appeared to be evidence of a robbery (or, perhaps, a staged robbery).
Dr. Sheppard’s black medical bag was found spilled on the floor of a hallway.
A pair of trophies belonging to the Sheppards’ were scratched and broken on the floor.
Officer Drenkhan also noticed Dr. Sheppard’s desk drawer open with its contents moved about but nothing missing.
— Rachelle Smith (@rachology216) December 17, 2015
It was around this time that Graham showed up.
His recollection of the scene was relayed to The Saturday Evening Post.
“Oh my God. It looks like someone stood in the middle of the room with a great big can of red paint and a brush and flicked it all around. This wasn’t a couple of blows. Oh no. Whoever did it, they had to be out of their mind.”
Suspicions of Foul Play
Almost immediately, Dr. Sheppard’s account of that evening’s events came under suspicion.
Cuyahoga County coroner Sam Gerber reviewed the scene around 8:00 a.m. with an investigator.
Gerber listened to Officer Drenkhan’s report and quickly surmised that Sheppard was being less than truthful.
The drawers of Sheppard’s desk looked neatly pulled out and the contents slightly moved.
The family dog, Koko, had not barked during the night (let alone barked at any attacker).
Plus, there was no forced entry into the home.
By the time Gerber drove to Bay View Hospital to interview Sheppard, he had already pinned the murder on the young doctor.
Gerber took all of ten minutes to interview Sheppard and collected the doctor’s clothes.
Later on that day, Gerber was overheard telling a detective, “It’s obvious that the doctor did it.”
Two other detectives interviewed the doctor and came away with the same story.
Although, one of the detectives was not buying what Sheppard was selling.
“I don’t know about my partner, but I think you killed your wife,” said detective Robert Schottke.
However, Sheppard insisted, “I loved Marilyn.”
By the end of the day, Sheppard was visited by two other distinguished guests.
One was famed Cleveland defense attorney Bill Corrigan and the other was Graham.
Not long after this visit, Graham would find himself further embroiled in the case.
Graham becomes a Suspect
While keeping one eye on their prime suspect, detectives continued with the investigation.
Although they were relatively certain Dr. Sheppard murdered his wife, they still had to look for potential suspects.
Admittedly, it would take some effort to track down a mysterious “form” with “bushy hair.”
Reviewing Dr. Sheppard’s recollection of the night, detectives pondered the fact that there actually was a bushy haired neighbor that lived close to the Sheppards’.
He had also been at the Sheppards’ late into the night of the murder.
It didn’t help that Graham had asked to see the murder scene only a few hours after it had happened.
It also didn’t help that Graham had gone to see Dr. Sheppard at Bay View Hospital while the doctor was being interviewed.
Cleveland’s most famous quarterback was friendly with the Sheppards’.
Was it feasible that he had something to do with Marilyn Sheppard’s murder?
In an effort to check all the boxes, Graham was summoned by investigators to be interviewed.
How far back we going? I got a few classics:
George Steinbrenner and the Cleveland Pipers
Otto Graham being a suspect in the Marilyn Sheppard murder (https://t.co/rwoigpsT2v)
Slim Caldwell getting hit by lightning while pitching at League Park (AND FINISHING THE GAME!)
— Vince Guerrieri (@vinceguerrieri) February 17, 2020
Both Graham and his wife gave their account of the evening.
They also mentioned that, while they were friends with the Sheppards’, they did not know much about their relationship.
Furthermore, they had no inkling of any trouble in their marriage.
The investigators then asked about the truth to the gossip that Beverly Graham had been spotted riding in Dr. Sheppard’s new Jaguar automobile.
Mrs. Graham had also been seen dancing with Dr. Sheppard at the club where the Sheppards’ were members.
The Grahams’ easily dismissed both rumors when they elaborated that, yes, Beverly had been in Dr. Sheppard’s car with him.
However, Otto and Marilyn had been in the vehicle directly behind the two.
Also, Otto Graham had been at the same club watching Dr. Sheppard and Beverly dance while he took a breather.
“There is no truth to it at all,” Graham told the Plain Dealer after talking to the police. “Beverly was never out alone with Dr. Sam at all.”
It did not take long, but Graham was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.
“As far as I’m concerned, Sheppard did it. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Graham said many decades later.
Sheppard found Guilty
After heaps of speculation that included those believing Sheppard was innocent, the case finally went to trial on October 18, 1954.
In a scene that resembled current high profile murder cases, the media and celebrities descended on the Cleveland courtroom.
One of the celebrities was famed columnist and star of the television quiz show “What’s My Line?” Dorothy Kilgallen. Kilgallen wrote of the impending trial:
“The fact that at this stage it is equally possible for the rational mind to find him innocent or guilty is what may make the Sheppard trial a celebrated cause to rank with….the classic puzzle of Lizzie Borden.”
As the trial wore on, it was clear that the prosecution was presenting little more than circumstantial evidence.
The primary thrust of their case was that Dr. Sheppard had been unhappy in his marriage and that he was seeing another woman.
However, there was scant evidence of Sheppard’s involvement in the crime.
Therefore, the outcome would be mostly determined by how the jury viewed the doctor.
The staff at The Cleveland Press, Louis B. Seltzer's paper, gather in the newsroom, anxiously awaiting a verdict in the 1954 Sam Sheppard murder case.
Photo Credit: Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library. pic.twitter.com/eowkPS8lDY
— Bill Lucey (@wplucey) October 21, 2019
Finally, on December 18, the jury reached their verdict.
Dr. Sheppard was, “not guilty of murder in the first degree, but guilty of murder in the second degree.”
According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Sheppard then, “threw one last, terrible look back at the jury that had branded him a brutal murderer. His eyes burned an angry scowl. Up to now he had only turned a prayerful or interested face toward the jurors.”
The paper then added: “Not since Charles A. Lindbergh have so many people been so interested in a single news story.”
Sheppard Gets a Second Lease on Life
For the record, Graham and the Browns returned to the pinnacle after the 1954 season when they soundly defeated the Lions 56-10 in the NFL Championship game.
Meanwhile, Dr. Sheppard was whisked away to prison where he would spend the next ten years.
In mid-July of 1964, Federal District Judge Carl Weinman overturned Sheppard’s conviction.
In his assessment of the trial, Judge Weinman called the media circus and subsequent guilty verdict, “a mockery of justice.”
However, not long after, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Sheppard’s conviction, although the court allowed him to remain free on bail pending his appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
At his second trial in 1966, secured by defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Sheppard not guilty.
The verdict led to Bailey’s ascension as the criminal defense attorney in numerous high profile cases.
Some of those cases included the Boston Strangler, Patty Hurst, and O.J. Simpson trials.
#OnThisDay 1966 – Dr Sam Sheppard freed by a jury after 9 years in jail. Dr Sheppard was an American neurosurgeon and was exonerated, having been convicted of the 1954 murder of his wife. The case was controversial from the beginning, with extensive media coverage. pic.twitter.com/4jTNO51C5X
— Motor Source (@Motor_Source) November 16, 2020
The Sam Sheppard murder case was popular in the court of public opinion and remained so for decades.
The case and trial loosely inspired the television series (and later movie) “The Fugitive.”
— Top Documentaries (@topdocumentarys) May 31, 2016
After being cleared of any wrongdoing, Sheppard became a pro wrestler under the cringe worthy name “The Killer Sheppard.”
Unfortunately, no one else has ever been charged for the murder of Marilyn Sheppard.
One suspect, a former window washer named Richard Eberling who had worked at the Sheppards’ home, was briefly implicated.
A ring belonging to Marilyn had been found in Eberling’s possession.
However, he was convicted in the 1980s of murdering another woman and died in prison.
He won no titles, but Dr. Sam Sheppard – exonerated after 10 years in prison for murder and the inspiration for “The Fugitive” TV series – wrestled briefly for @nwa in The Sheik’s Detroit promotion. He used the mandible claw & may have been billed once as (cough) Killer Sheppard. pic.twitter.com/ncPrPBfQ2q
— NWA GOLD (@NWAGOLD_) November 25, 2020
Dr. Sheppard became a heavy drinker in the years following his release from prison.
That drinking led to liver failure and his death at age 46 on April 6, 1970.
Sheppard’s son tried in vain to clear his father’s name even after his death.
He was unsuccessful in his attempt, though he has not given up hope that his father’s legacy will someday change.
“My dad was innocent,” Sam Reese Sheppard said in 2002. “If the state of Ohio and Cuyahoga County don’t have the guts to stand up and admit they made a mistake, that doesn’t change the fact.”