’48 Hours’ episode on CBS reveals who expert thinks wrote mysterious Circleville letters

’48 Hours’ episode on CBS reveals who expert thinks wrote mysterious Circleville letters

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’48 Hours’ episode on CBS reveals who expert thinks wrote mysterious Circleville letters

The threatening letters started arriving in Circleville in 1976 or 1977. Then came the signs around town. The mystery has intrigued true-crime sleuths for decades. Could there be new answers now?

A teaser image from the episode of CBS's "48 Hours" that aired Wednesday night and featured a decades-long mystery of threatening letters sent to Circleville residents starting in the late 1970s.

The first threatening letter arrived in a school bus driver’s Circleville mailbox sometime in 1976 or 1977, the block handwriting distinct, the misspellings frequent, the words vile and ominous.

The writer said they knew the bus driver was having an affair with her school district’s superintendent. But it didn’t end there.

In that missive — and in hundreds of subsequent ones — the writer was graphic about intent. They wrote that the affair must end, that they had been watching the bus driver’s home, that they knew she had children. They alluded that it was time for her daughter to pay for the mother’s sins.

“I shall come out there and put a bullit (sic)” in the child’s head,” one letter read.

Over a period of time that stretched over nearly two decades, mail carriers delivered threatening letters and postcards — most postmarked from Columbus — to not only bus driver Mary Gillispie and her family, but to public officials, newspapers (including The Dispatch), various townspeople, and even a few people in places in some southern Ohio counties such as Gallia and Jackson.

Many of the posts were about that one alleged affair, but some were about other personal deeds and transgressions that the letter writer seemed to know about. For a time, people were turning in letters they received to the county sheriff’s office every day. Eventually, the mystery progressed to graphic and disturbing signs posted around town.

No one ever was charged for writing the letters that some reports say numbered in the hundreds and others say totaled more than 1,000. But in an episode of CBS’s “48 Hours” that aired locally on WBNS-TV (Channel 10) Wednesday night, correspondent Erin Moriarty — who grew up in Columbus — and podcaster Marie Mayhew dissected the case. Moriarty says forensic document and handwriting expert Beverley East thinks she finally has uncovered who wrote the letters.

  Dive into anything

And it turned out, after much was made about who might have written them, a handwriting expert concluded it was the man investigators suspected all along: Paul Freshour.

CBS’s Erin Moriarty: ‘Circleville is the last place out of anywhere to have a dark side’

Moriarty, who earned both her undergraduate and law degrees from Ohio State University and has been with CBS since 1986 and a correspondent on “48 Hours” since 1990, was still in Columbus back when this all began in the ’70s.

But she had never heard about the case until someone sent her a message on LinkedIn not all that long ago. She and her crew visited Circleville multiple times this year to investigate.

“I grew up reading Agatha Christie and she would always focus on the dark side of small towns. And Circleville is the last place out of anywhere to have this dark side. Yet this went on for so many years,” Moriarty said in an interview Tuesday. “Think about it. That letter writer could have been someone behind you at the grocery store, behind you every week. I just found that fascinating.”

But the intrigue didn’t stop inside the mailboxes.

Erin Moriarty:Columbus native takes a look at one of the biggest cases involving her hometown

Online extra: Read The Dispatch’s long-running cold-case series, “Killers Among Us.”

In March 1983, according to Dispatch archival coverage, a .25-caliber pistol was found inside a cardboard box near an “obscene sign that referenced Gillispie’s daughter” that was posted along her bus route. It was a booby-trap, investigators said at the time, meant to kill her.

  Mysterious Letter

Gillispie’s former brother-in-law, who lived in Grove City and filed for divorce from her sister in 1982, was eventually arrested. Freshour had a college education and a good-paying job as a quality control supervisor at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in Columbus.

Later, experts would opine, he exhibited none of the psychological characteristics of a would-be killer. Yet he was accused of rigging the trap along Gillispie’s route. A jury convicted him of attempted murder in October 1983, and a judge sentenced him to as many as 25 years in prison.

During the trial, Freshour was linked to what by then had been a seven-year letter campaign. He was never charged with being behind any of those letters, but the damage was done in the court of public opinion.

He spoke to Dispatch reporters more than once while incarcerated and after his release — he served 10 years — to say he wasn’t involved at all. He died of a heart attack at the age of 70 in 2012, still proclaiming his innocence until the end.

Martin Yant — a former journalist and Dispatch columnist who owns Ace Investigations, a private investigator firm in Columbus — has spent a lifetime studying wrongful convictions. He has been researching the Circleville letters for more than 30 years and was a part of the “48 Hours” documentary (along with former Dispatch crime reporter and author Robin Yocum).

Another Circleville mystery: A bombing in downtown Circleville in 1967 killed five and injured nearly 30. Why did it happen?

Was the Anheuser-Busch Brewery supervisor from Grove City responsible?

Yant met with Freshour over the years and has meticulously poured over what materials he could pry from local authorities’ hands.

So does he think Freshour wrote the letters? And does he believe Freshour set that booby-trap all those years ago?

  Gameplays: Mysterious fossil (iOS & Android)

“Well, I don’t believe he received a fair trial. I believe he was wrongly convicted. And I have a pretty strong suspicion that he may have been framed,” Yant said in a Tuesday interview.

“I’ve been investigating this case off and on for 30 years, and every time I think I have it figured out, something else comes up and then I have to go back and start all over again. It is just one heck of a mystery.”

You see, after Freshour went to prison — and prison officials confirmed to The Dispatch at that time that he was not allowed access to writing materials — the letters didn’t stop. They continued until 1994, in fact.

That’s when Yant was among those who worked with the popular television show “Unsolved Mysteries” when it featured the Circleville letters in an episode. It was only then, after that show aired, that the letters stopped. No one has reported receiving one since.

Many of the central characters in this real-life drama are dead now. Those left behind are in their 70s. Because of that, Yant thinks this might be the last chance to solve this mystery.

“Trying to prove anything, particularly after 40 years, I just don’t think anything is going to happen,” he said.

But at the end of Wednesday’s episode, the handwriting expert seemed to put the case to rest. Some “quirks” in the letters proved to her, she said, that Freshour was indeed the author.

“I would go into court and swear on the Bible on the evidence that I found,” East said in the show.

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