Most unsolved homicides at the Akron Police Department can be contained within a single 5-inch binder. One case occupies an entire shelf in the department's cold case closet.
Most unsolved homicides at the Akron Police Department can be contained within a single 5-inch binder.
One case occupies an entire shelf in the department's cold case closet.
The murders of North Hill teen sweethearts Ricky Beard and Mary Leonard have stumped detectives for 40 years.
“Thousands of investigative hours have been put into this case,” said Lt. Dave Whiddon, who heads the department’s Crimes Against Persons Unit. “Our goal is to get closure to these families.”
Ricky Beard, 19, and Mary Leonard, 17, went on a date to the Ascot Drive-in on Aug. 24, 1979, and vanished.
Six brutally long years later, their remains were found by a construction crew digging a utility trench through the Merriman Valley. The coroner determined Ricky had been shot; Mary had been shot, stabbed and beaten.
Several officers have pulled out the many binders of the Beard and Leonard case, trying to learn who did it, and why. They used every tool at their disposal, even going on a television show to ask psychics to weigh in on the mystery.
Many theories have been debated, though none seem to match all the evidence and witness statements, and none have the consensus of detectives and family members.
Still, three potential scenarios have risen to the top: the motorcycle gang, the angry homeowner and the serial killer.
Theory 1: The motorcycle gang
One of the earliest theories was that Ricky and Mary had been killed by a motorcycle gang.
Summit County Coroner William Cox was the first to publicly mention the idea, noting the teens’ injuries on the 10th anniversary of the case: “When you see that kind of overkill, you think of a motorcycle gang. They will shoot you multiple times and stab you multiple times.”
Motorcycle gangs were much more prevalent in Akron in the '70s and '80s and were known to be involved in drugs and violent crime.
Akron Detective John Bailey, one of the early investigators who is now retired, pointed to suspicions that Ricky may have been involved in drug activity because of marijuana cigarette butts found in his car’s ashtray. Bailey, however, noted that Mary had nothing like that in her background.
At the 20th anniversary in 1999, another group of officers took a fresh look at the case. Detective Edward Moriarty enlisted the help of Janet and Ed Mathews, brother and sister officers who had grown up in North Hill and whose father, the elder Ed Mathews, had worked on the case.
Their focus was the gang theory. Whiddon said there were allegations that Ricky may have been involved with property taken from a motorcycle gang or that the murders could have been related to drug transactions.
The officers interviewed and ruled out several people associated with motorcycle gangs during this time period, Whiddon said.
Janet Mathews, who has since retired, didn’t want to discuss any specifics of what she and her brother found.
“I cannot talk about details and won’t,” Mathews said in an email. “And I won’t speculate. The family has been given false hope by others.”
Mathews, however, discussed her theory in a 2006 episode of the TV show “Sensing Murder," in which two psychics examined evidence and toured crime-related sites.
Mathews speculated that Ricky and Mary went to the abandoned garage where Ricky’s car was found, perhaps expecting to party. The garage was on a farm off Portage Trail Extension near Northampton Road.
Mathews said she’d heard things about a local gang that dabbled in stealing motorcycles and dealing drugs and that perhaps some of its members hung out at this garage. She said the killers might have ambushed the teens, killed them for a reason related to a motorcycle or drugs and then dumped their bodies in a rural stretch of Riverview Road.
“Their association with an organized gang is more than likely what got them killed,” Mathews said on the show.
Theory 2: The angry homeowner
Officer Bob Swain couldn't have disagreed more, and he steered his investigation in a different direction.
Swain, who died in 2014, had a personal connection to the case. He guarded the teens' bones when they were discovered in 1985.
In 2006, he got the green light to try his hand at the case. For four years, he kept up his role in the department transporting prisoners during the day, and delved into the Beard and Leonard files on evenings and weekends on his own time.
Three jurisdictions were originally involved in the case, and files had been lost over time. Swain sought to re-create those files, re-interviewing early first responders and investigators. He even tracked down the foreman of the utility crew that found the bones.
Swain decided there was a better suspect with means, motive and opportunity — the man who lived next to where the remains were found.
The 60-year-old homeowner was a known alcoholic who had been discharged from the military for psychological problems and had a history of threats of violence against others. He died in 1994, never having been formally interviewed by police — even though he reportedly confessed to the murders.
The Beacon Journal/Ohio.com isn’t naming the man out of respect for his family, who declined to be interviewed.
Swain’s investigation turned up some disturbing information, which Swain shared with his supervisors and the Beard and Leonard families.
The utility crew foreman said the property owner became increasingly agitated as the workers got closer to where the remains were found, even threatening to shoot them if they didn’t stop digging.
When the crew found the remains, 30 feet from the man’s driveway and 100 yards from his house, the property owner reportedly walked down to the police and confessed to the murders.
There is no record of this confession. If it happened, any record of it disappeared.
Swain, though, believed it to be true, according to his investigative report. The property owner was known to Northampton officers because they were repeatedly called to his home when he fired his shotgun into the air to scare off kids trying to use his concealed drive as a lover’s lane.
Swain recalled that a Northampton officer told him in 1985 that the homeowner confessed but that his statement was disregarded because of his mental history and drunkenness.
Swain talked to the man’s brother, who confirmed that his brother confessed. He said he thought his brother was just on a drunken rant but later said it “was possible” his brother did this. He also said police couldn’t prove it.
“You got no DNA evidence, no prints, no evidence, so basically you got nothing,” the brother said to Swain.
“Yes, that’s right,” Swain responded. “We’ve got nothing.”
Swain’s theory was that the couple went to the long, concealed drive to make out and the homeowner confronted them. Perhaps Ricky mouthed off and the man felt threatened and shot him. As Mary tried to flee, he turned his weapon on her.
As for Mary’s other injuries, Swain speculated that Mary survived the initial gunshots — two were to her arm — and the homeowner realized this as he dragged their bodies 30 feet into the overgrowth. He might have pulled out a pocketknife to finish the job. He said Mary may have suffered her other injuries as she was dragged.
After that, the homeowner could have dumped Ricky’s car and walked to a nearby bar to get a ride home, Swain said in his report.
Like all the theories, Swain’s had holes in it. His scenario contradicted statements from Mary’s friends who told police the couple left the drive-in because Mary had a midnight curfew and a neighbor who said he heard the teens in the front yard giggling and talking — and saw Ricky’s car parked in the street. It also didn't explain the bullet hole in Ricky's windshield, which was shot by someone in the back seat.
In his report, Swain said he had a statement from a woman who saw the bullet hole in Ricky's windshield four days before the couple disappeared. Ricky's family, though, has insisted they would have noticed it, and believe it happened the night the teens were killed.
Theory 3: The serial killer
Swain also investigated a third theory — that serial killer Edward Wayne Edwards was responsible for the murders.
Edwards, a native of Akron, was arrested in 2009 for the murder of teen sweethearts in Wisconsin in 1980. By then, Edwards, 76, was sick and on oxygen.
Wisconsin detectives reached out to Akron police in April 2010 to say Edwards wanted to confess to an Akron case. This got Swain and Whiddon excited — they thought he meant Ricky and Mary’s case.
Instead, Edwards confessed to Summit County's other famous teen sweetheart murders: the 1977 shotgun slayings of 21-year-old William Lavaco and 18-year-old Judith Straub at Silver Creek Metro Park in Norton.
In June 2010, Edwards took a plea deal that allowed him to spend the rest of his life in an Ohio prison.
The day after his sentencing, Edwards called Swain to confess to a fifth murder: the death of Danny Boy Edwards in 1996. Edwards said he killed Danny - who moved in with Edwards and his wife the year before and took his last name - to cash in on an insurance policy.
That landed Edwards on Ohio’s death row. He died in April 2011, just months short of his execution date.
Before he died, though, Edwards insisted to Swain and Whiddon that he hadn’t killed Mary and Ricky.
“I know these kids’ families want closure, so why wouldn’t I give them that?” Edwards told them. “At this point, if I did it, why wouldn’t I confess?”
Whiddon and Swain believed him, especially because they confirmed Edwards was living in Florida when Ricky and Mary were killed.
“As I sit here today, I think he was being truthful,” Whiddon said in a recent interview.
But Edwards' daughter, April Balascio, who talked police into investigating her father for the Wisconsin murders, has said she thinks her father left a trail of bodies as he moved his wife and children around the country for decades.
Balascio declined to be interviewed for this series because she was under contract for another podcast that is airing now called The Clearing. The latest podcast of The Clearing focuses on the Beard and Leonard case. Balascio has reached out to Akron police and to the Beard and Leonard families to explore her suspicion.
In the early '70s, Edwards lived in North Hill, across the street from Mary Leonard's cousin.
Authorities have considered Balascio's father in at least two other cases of young couples murdered in parked cars, in Montana and Oregon cities where Edwards was living at the time.
The two couples her father was ultimately convicted of killing were both slain in August. Just like Ricky and Mary.
In The Clearing podcast, Balascio points out that her father was a charmer — and a pathological liar.
Reporters share thoughts
Learn more details about the theories, the suspects, and which scenarios are favored by the families and detectives, on Ohio Mysteries podcast "Elusive Justice Part 3: Theories." Available on any podcast app, or look for a direct link on Ohio.com.