Phil Trexler

Who killed Marion Brubaker? For five decades, it’s been an elusive mystery.

Marion was a studious 12-year-old, a preacher’s daughter, riding her bike home in Portage Lakes at the end of summer in 1962 when she was violently attacked in a patch of woods near South Main Street and Killian Road in Coventry Township.

The images of that afternoon remain startling: Her bike dumped in thick brush, four library books, her shattered eyeglasses and her pocketbook strewn about. Several feet away lay the girl’s lifeless, partially nude body, her face covered with her checkered shorts and panties.

Her body was still warm when a 15-year-old neighborhood boy rushed into his home.

“I think there’s a dead girl up in the woods,” the frantic Erwine Middle School ninth-grader told his father.

For the next several unrelenting hours — and more in the days that followed — that teenage boy, with a torn shirt, open zipper and unexplained scratches, rose to the ranks of No. 1 murder suspect. That status remains unchanged today.

In the hours after reporting the body, the teen’s answers to detectives and his performance on a lie detector test only raised suspicions.

“It was hoped that during questioning ... that they might get the kid to kick in, or else let something slip that would pin him,” a Beacon Journal reporter wrote in a memo that August week.

“Otherwise, [assistant prosecutor George] Pappas and [Sheriff Robert] Campbell agree that the kid is their boy, no question about it. But [right now] Pappas says, ‘We’d never be able to convict him in court.’?”

The teen was never charged with the girl’s strangulation. In fact, for the next 50 years, the case has remained open with only sporadic cold-case reviews by Summit County sheriff’s detectives.

Suspect revisited

One such review has been quietly ongoing since 2012, and it still focuses on the boy who reported finding Marion’s body five decades ago.

He is now 67, married and living a law-abiding life. Attempts by the Beacon Journal to reach him for comment were unsuccessful. A woman who answered the door at their home said he was not available.

Last week, however, detectives visited his South Akron home and questioned him about the slaying. Summit County Sheriff’s Detective Larry Brown and his partner, Detective Joe Storad, would not comment at length about the ongoing investigation.

But last month, Brown swore out an affidavit in court that allowed the exhumation of Marion’s body at Hillside Memorial Park. The remains were taken to the Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office so that a DNA sample and fingernail clippings could be extracted. The material is now being examined by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification.

“We’re definitely doing everything we can,” Brown said. “It was a brutal homicide. I know it’s been 50 years, but I’m hopeful something is still there.”

Marion Brubaker’s parents have died. She has several relatives living in California, including a sister who did not respond to a recent email.

Details of the slaying were laid out in several Beacon Journal stories, clipped by the newspaper’s librarians and filed in envelopes, just like every other story of the era.

But in the Brubaker case, the 1962 files include unpublished typewritten memos written by the newspaper’s reporters and editors in the days after the killing. They are held in Beacon Journal files and marked “Confidential For Staff Only.” The documents reveal unpublished insights into the crime.

The teen suspect lived on South Main Street directly across the street from a patch of woods that still borders Killian Road. He consistently denied any involvement in Marion’s death and he endured — all alone — hours of questioning from rugged law enforcement officers eager to solve the shockingly vicious attack.

Attack in woods

Investigators theorize that Marion left the Portage Lakes Public Library on Manchester Road shortly after 3 p.m., stopped at the Scott’s store in Coventry Plaza to buy a greeting card and continued her ride toward her home on Killian Road. She rode her bike from Portage Lakes Drive onto South Main Street and into the woods, taking a secluded, well-worn short cut between 3:15 and 3:30 p.m.

Once she rode about 900 feet inside the woods, detectives say she was attacked. Hair and blood marked the spot of attack. Her body was then dragged, face down, about 40 feet through a thicket. She was then turned onto her back and was left nude from the waist down. Her blouse and bra were pushed up toward her shoulder.

Tests failed to show she was raped, but detectives always believe a sexual assault was the killer’s motivation.

Her shoes and socks were left neatly next to her body. Her red-checked shorts were ripped, and her panties were turned inside out. Both were used to cover her open eyes.

“Cops agree on one hunch: that murderer threw the clothing over her face out of some feeling of guilt … perhaps so he would not have to look at her open eyes, perhaps thinking it was decent to cover the face when he left,” a Beacon Journal reporter typed in an internal memo to editors.

Her bicycle was moved away from the path as well and left under an apple tree. The four library books and the bike appeared to be wiped clean of fingerprints.

Interestingly, the reporter’s memo from the days after the slaying mention Marion’s fingernails.

“It is hard to tell if Marion left any marks on her attacker,” he wrote. “She had quite short nails, either from clipping or biting, and scrapings sent to Cleveland came back negative.”

Brown said he is unaware of any previous forensic tests performed on the girl’s nails.

Teen reports discovery

The teenage boy was bored that day and told police he passed the time going into the woods about 3:30 p.m. He said he happened upon Marion’s bike, but didn’t notice her body. He then walked toward a field where a man was plowing on a tractor shortly after 4. The man later told police it appeared the youth was wiping his brow with a handkerchief.

On the way back inside the woods, the boy said he then saw Marion’s body and rushed home. The boy’s father called deputies at 4:30 p.m. Deputies had the teen lead them to the body. It was still warm.

“It’s hard to put anyone else in there but him,” Campbell is quoted in one memo written by a reporter who asked the sheriff about the teen’s involvement in the slaying.

The reporter appears to agree, noting the boy’s changing stories, especially when it came to whether he had ever seen Marion before. They theorized at the time that he fled from the attack after hearing a passing sheriff’s siren and then concocted his story of finding the body when he was seen by the man on the tractor.

“Theory? Sure, but interesting and quite logical,” the reporter noted. “[The teen] still appears to be as good a suspect as they have, largely because he told a wavering story.”

One day after the slaying, reporter Tom Haney wrote a note to editors telling them to brace for the arrest of the teen suspect.

“Indications were he would be charged with delinquency, to wit: first degree murder, before the night is out,” he wrote.

The arrest never came as assistant prosecutor Pappas never felt the evidence was sufficient.

A week later, with no one charged, the reporter lamented a lack of communication.

“Chief [Deputy Paul] Wein is friendly but not much help and the sheriff isn’t paying any attention to our repeated attempts to reach him.”

Insights from reporter

The reporter’s memos sometimes speak to the discord between Sheriff Campbell, several high-ranking Akron police officials and Pappas, the prosecutor assigned to help investigate the case.

“APD thinks [deputies] did a shoddy job at crime scene. No ropes, no coroner, no FBI lab,” a reporter wrote in a Sept. 4, 1962 office memo.

The memos show a growing discord between deputies — not accustomed to high-profile murder cases — and Akron’s detectives, who appear anxious to take over the case. Specifically, as noted by reporter Lacy McCrary, Akron police Capt. John Traub complained that Campbell at one point had the boy removed from the station during a polygraph exam, thus destroying his chance for a confession.

“I had no idea I’d be rushed,” Traub told McCrary in 1963.

Detective Brown’s affidavit filed last month says the boy failed three polygraphs. Reports in 1962 mentioned just one test that was inconclusive.

While Campbell believed the teen who found the body was guilty, Pappas later changed his mind and felt the investigation should have been broader.

“My dad was angry at Campbell until the day he died,” Akron defense attorney George C. Pappas recalled last week.

Another Akron police detective agreed that the boy was innocent. Indeed, his clothing and shoes showed no blood.

“None of the physical evidence connected him to it,” Sgt. Jack Carlton said a year after the slaying.

The teen was never charged with the slaying. Instead, a little more than year later, a vagrant was arrested and confessed. Headlines and police screamed that the man knew details only the killer would know. Those details, however, were in fact already reported in the media. The man was later committed to a mental institution.

A year after the killing, Campbell still had Marion’s bicycle in his office as he grappled with the frustration of the unsolved killing. Today, the bike remains in the sheriff’s office evidence room.

“It’s one of the toughest cases this area has ever had. I live with it daily,” Campbell once told a reporter. “We hope that some day it will be cleared up.”

Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or ptrexler@thebeaconjournal.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PhilTrexler Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or ptrexler@thebeaconjournal.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PhilTrexler.