[This story originally aired on August 25, 2021. It was updated on August 6, 2022.]
For nearly two decades, an anonymous letter writer terrorized the town of Circleville, Ohio, by sending threatening letters that exposed alleged secrets about neighbors and friends. The mystery has long intrigued TV shows, podcasters and now “48 Hours” in the quest to finally unmask the writer.
MARIE MAYHEW [“Whatever Remains” podcast]: Something pretty disturbing happened in Circleville, starting small and flourishing over decades. … Residents … began to receive letters that accused the citizens of being involved in some pretty terrible things — embezzlement, domestic violence, affairs, and even murder.
Marie Mayhew: The Circleville letter writer … knew everything about everyone … and knew everyone’s secrets.
Robin Yocum: They were vicious and … ugly. Someone with severe psychological problems, I would hazard to guess.
The threatening, anonymous letters kept coming — hundreds of them. Most were postmarked from Columbus, Ohio, about 30 miles north, which is where “48 Hours” correspondent Erin Moriarty grew up and was living in March 1977 — when small town Circleville began to feel under siege. When just a walk to the mailbox could trigger terror, especially for one woman who lived there, a school bus driver by the name of Mary Gillispie.
Marie Mayhew: Mary Gillispie goes out to her mailbox. She receives a letter. … She opens it. It’s an anonymous letter … distinct handwriting, and it’s telling her to end the affair … with the superintendent of the school there, Gordon Massie:
ERIN MORIARTY [reading a letter]: “Mrs. Gillispie, stay away from Massie. I’ve been observing your house and I know you have children.”
ROBIN YOCUM [reading a letter] It’s your daughters turn to pay for what you’ve done. … I shall come out there and put a bullet in that little girl’s head.”
Robin Yocum: These letters were being sent to newspapers, elected officials, private citizens.
Marie Mayhew: And they’re all saying the same thing, that basically Gordon Massie, the superintendent … he needs to be exposed. He needs to be fired.
Marie Mayhew: Her husband, Ron Gillispie, begins to receive them as well.
MARIE MAYHEW [reading a letter]: “Mr. Gillispie, your wife is seeing Gordon Massie. … You should catch them together and kill them both. … He doesn’t deserve to live.”
Janet Cassady: Well, he got letters saying that if he didn’t do something about this affair, his life would be in danger.
MARIE MAYHEW [reading a letter]: “We know what kind of car you drive … We know where your kids go to school …”
MARIE MAYHEW [podcast]: By August of 1977, everything changes when Ron Gillispie gets a call late one night. Enraged, he picks up a gun, gets in his truck … and drives off.
Martin Yant: And told the … daughter that he … was going to confront the letter writer.
Martin Yant: He was traveling at a high speed … lost control of the truck … went off the road, hit a tree … and was killed.
Martin Yant: The letter writer had made threats to … Ron Gillispie that …. he could end up dead. And then he ended up dead.
MARIE MAYHEW [podcast]: Was Ron Gillispie’s death an accident or was he murdered?
Pam Stanton: Murdered.
Erin Moriarty: This case has really left its mark.
Pam Stanton: Yeah, it has destroyed a lot of people.
June Whitehead: I think there was a big cover-up.
Martin Yant: Turned out to be quite a mystery.
Four decades later, the debate over the writer’s identity continues. Could a forensic document expert have the answer?
Erin Moriarty: Do you think you know who wrote those anonymous letters?
Beverley East | Forensic document expert: Yes, I do.
A MYSTERY BEGINS
Circleville, Ohio, has the look and feel of a quaint Midwestern town.
Martin Yant: In many ways it’s sort of an all-American town. … Still has a pretty rural character to it. … And some families have been there for decades.
Its major attraction, says journalist Martin Yant, is the annual Pumpkin Show.
Janet Cassady: Well, it was a good place to live. … fairly peaceful ’til all this stuff started [laughs].
Janet Cassady is talking about that barrage of anonymous poison pen letters that began arriving in mailboxes all over Circleville in 1977.
MARIE MAYHEW [reading from podcast]: “Small towns have big secrets buried deep under those freshly mowed lawns …”
It caught the attention of Marie Mayhew, who researched the story for her podcast “Whatever Remains.”
MARIE MAYHEW [reading from podcast]: “This anonymous author was hell-bent to expose every ugly little secret in Circleville.”
At first, the writer seemed fixated on the married school district superintendent and his rumored relationship with the school bus driver.
Marie Mayhew: Gordon Massie … was a well-thought-of man in Circleville.
Marie Mayhew: Mary Gillispie was a wife and a mother … they were accusing her of adultery.
Erin Moriarty: You’ve got the superintendent possibly having an affair with a school bus driver? Wasn’t that kind of the talk of town?
June Whitehead: Yeah, it was, definitely.
June Whitehead grew up in Pickaway County with her sister Janet.
Janet Cassady [referencing a yearbook photo of Mary]: Have you seen Mary’s picture? … She was Miss Jackson.
Erin Moriarty: She looks really attractive there.
Janet Cassady: She was.
Mary married her high school sweetheart Ron Gillispie.
Janet Cassady: And you wouldn’t find a better person than Ronnie Gillispie.
The couple had two children and settled in Circleville.
Erin Moriarty: I mean, this had to be very awkward … for Mary Gillispie, her children … for Gordon Massie, for his wife, for his son …
Marie Mayhew: It must have been awful … I mean it was just sort of this all-invasive poison. … there was nobody that was off limits to this letter writer.
And it wasn’t just a campaign of letters. There were phone calls and offensive signs that began appearing along Mary’s bus route.
Marie Mayhew: Ron would have to go out and … he would have to find and pick up all the signage about his wife and kids around Circleville.
Determined to stop the writer, the Gillispies brought their letters to the sheriff’s office.
Marie Mayhew: There was an ongoing investigation. … They were tapping phones. They were watching houses. … They tried to work with the USPS to … check the mail.
But the letters continued, and small-town Circleville was consumed with speculation. Was the writer male or female? Did the writer live in town?
Then in August 1977, Mary left her husband and children at home and drove to Florida with her sister-in-law.
Marie Mayhew: Ron had told her he knew who the letter writer was and he was going to take care of this problem while they were in Florida.
They were en route when they learned Ron had crashed his truck into a tree after getting that mysterious phone call. The coroner ruled his death an accident, but Ron’s brother-in-law, Paul Freshour, believed he’d been murdered.
Martin Yant: Although a number of people told me that he was not a heavy drinker, he had almost twice the legal limit of alcohol in his blood.
Also suspicious, under Ron’s body, police found a .22 caliber revolver.
Martin Yant: The gun had been fired once. So, then the question was, was he shooting at the letter writer? … The sheriff didn’t give that any credence at all.
But Paul Freshour kept pushing the Pickaway County sheriff to take a closer look. Pam Stanton was close to the Freshours.
Pam Stanton: He wanted the truth about Ron’s death. He wanted to know who was writing the letters too.
The attacks on Mary Gillispie and Gordon Massie didn’t stop. Now, letters were also being sent to local businesses, government offices, schools and people who lived in the area.
Martin Yant: This person was, at that point, pretty unbound, not afraid to say anything. … And it scared a lot of people … you know, is he coming after me or is she coming after me?
Mary had always denied having an affair with Massie, but after Ron’s death, she says, they began seeing each other. That’s when the threats against her became even more vicious.
ROBIN YOCUM [reading a letter]: “Everyone knows what you have done. If you don’t believe us, just make them mad and find out for yourself.”
Robin Yocum writes mysteries, but back in the early 1980’s he was a crime reporter for The Columbus Dispatch.
Robin Yocum: There were obscenities and threats … to do harm to Mrs. Gillispie’s daughter.
ROBIN YOCUM [reading a letter]: “It’s your daughters turn to pay for what you’ve done …
On February 7, 1983, at 3:30 p.m., Mary Gillispie was driving her empty school bus, heading to pick up kids.
She was about to turn left on Five Points Pike, when she looked over and saw a handmade sign on a fence. It talked about her 13-year-old daughter and it was obscene. She pulled the bus over. But when she tried to pull the sign off the fe nce, she realized it was rigged with twine and a box. She says she took that box home; she then opened it and got a shocking surprise.
Marie Mayhew: It was a gun, and it was ready to go off.
When Mary brought the box to the sheriff’s office, investigators quickly realized it was a booby trap. Yocum was in the newsroom when word got out.
Robin Yocum: And I remember the excitement … From a newspaper perspective, it’s a great story — a woman who had been the target of all these letters finds a booby trap with a .25 caliber handgun rigged to it. … All reporters would want to cover that story.
Especially if there was a dramatic twist.
EVIDENCE AND THEORIES
MARIE MAYHEW [reading from podcast]: “There’s small town intrigue, a seemingly omnipresent unknown villain extracting revenge on the people of Circleville by uncovering their secrets, a mysterious death, an elaborate attempted murder …”
To this day, there’s a fierce debate about who that villain is — or was. So, we’ll take you back through the evidence and theories and you can decide.
Erin Moriarty: This sounds like something out of an Agatha Christie novel, doesn’t it?
Marie Mayhew: It does. … there’s a cast of characters … the letters would keep coming. … And then … the inevitable attempted murder. But it is very much an Agatha Christie feel to it.
And just like one of Christie’s mysteries, the gun found in the booby trap provided the first clue. Firearm examiners at BCI — Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation — were able to restore the partially filed off serial number.
Martin Yant: And when they traced the gun, it came to a co-worker of Paul’s … And he said, “yeah, I sold that to Paul Freshour.”
On the surface, says Martin Yant, it was shocking because Paul Freshour and his wife, Karen Sue, had been close to Mary Gillispie and her late husband Ron — Karen Sue’s brother.
Martin Yant: It was kind of an extended family that seemed to socialize together.
But by 1983, when sheriff’s investigators went to talk to Karen Sue, the Freshour’s were in the midst of a contentious divorce.
Martin Yant: Karen Sue gave them quite an earful.
She told investigators Paul had become infuriated with Mary.
MARIE MAYHEW [reading from podcast]: “Karen said Paul had thought the world of Ron and Mary before Ron died. But after his death Paul hated Mary — hated her over the ‘Massie deal’.”
And then Karen Sue told them that her estranged husband was behind Circleville’s anonymous letters.
Martin Yant: She had found one letter torn up in a commode. And she had found a couple of other letters hidden in the house.
When investigators went to see Paul Freshour, Marie Mayhew says, he was very cooperative.
Erin Moriarty: Did he demand to have a lawyer?
Marie Mayhew: No. … he answered all of their questions.
And readily admitted the gun belonged to him.
Martin Yant: Well, they ask him … how the gun ended up in the booby trap. … and he said, “I don’t know.”
Freshour told investigators his gun had been stolen weeks earlier and allowed them to search his house and his car. He even gave them samples of his handwriting.
Marie Mayhew: It definitely does seem like he has absolutely nothing to hide at that point.
He denied being the letter writer and said he had nothing to do with the booby trap. But he failed a polygraph. So, Paul Freshour was arrested for the attempted murder of Mary Gillispie.
Erin Moriarty: Were you surprised when he was charged with attempted murder?
Pam Stanton: Yes. Yes. Yeah, I was.
This was the man Pam Stanton called “Uncle Paul,” and says their families were so close she thought of him as a second father.
Pam Stanton: I mean, was he worried … His life was on the line, his freedom … Yeah, he was scared. Anybody would be.
Freshour was never charged with sending any of the threatening, harassing letters. But, in Circleville, there was an assumption that the letter writer was finally behind bars.
On October 24, 1983, Paul Freshour went on trial at the Pickaway County Courthouse in Circleville.
Robin Yocum: It was a big deal.
Robin Yocum didn’t cover the trial, but he followed all the news coverage.
Robin Yocum: You know, he was the mastermind behind this alleged booby trap. … but almost everything focused on the letters.
First up was the intended victim: Mary Gillispie. She testified about finding the booby trap and then, over the defense objections, she was asked about the anonymous letters she had received.
Erin Moriarty: How damaging was that to Paul Freshour at his trial?
Marie Mayhew: That was very, very damaging.
The defense argued there was no direct threat to Mary’s life and the letters, so they weren’t relevant to the case but the judge allowed in 39 of them.
It was a break for the prosecution, which claimed the writing on the booby trap shared similarities to those letters.
Marie Mayhew: The letter and the writing that was on the 2×4 … was the same block handwriting, sort of the same cadence and the same message as the anonymous letter writer.
The state brought in the BCI handwriting analyst who compared the writing on the booby trap to the letters sent to Mary and then to samples of Paul Freshour’s handwriting.
Martin Yant: They had handwriting analyses that indicated that the letters could have been written by Paul Freshour.
And a second expert — originally a defense witness — agreed.
Erin Moriarty: I mean, that’s pretty damaging, isn’t it, when a witness hired by the defense ends up testifying for the prosecution?
Marie Mayhew: I can only imagine it was something you’d want to avoid [laughs].
It was far more difficult for the prosecution to prove Freshour made the booby trap.
Erin Moriarty: Was Paul Freshour’s fingerprints found on the gun or the box that held the gun?
Martin Yant: No. … and they didn’t have a whole lot of evidence about the booby trap other than he admitted that was his gun.
There was circumstantial evidence. Freshour had taken the day off from work the same day the booby trap was found. And that box that held the gun — an industrial sized chalk box — was easily found at Anheuser Busch where Paul worked.
Martin Yant: They had his gun and the booby trap, and they had the chalk box … So, they thought they had plenty of evidence.
But no one saw Freshour near the booby trap.
Martin Yant: He had a pretty good alibi for most of the day.
Paul Freshour didn’t take the stand, but multiple defense witnesses testified to seeing him at home. He was having work done on his house. The reason, he said, he took that day off.
Robin Yocum: As the trial progressed … I’m thinking a lot of this stuff just doesn’t add up. You know, where are the fingerprints? … Where’s the physical evidence?
But it was enough evidence for the jurors. They found Paul Freshour guilty of attempted murder.
Erin Moriarty How did you hear the verdict? [Pan Stanton cries] Even after all this time, it’s still hard, isn’t it?
Pam Stanton [crying]: I got home, and everybody was just a basket case. They were crying. Everybody was upset.
He received the maximum sentence: 7 to 25 years in prison.
Erin Moriarty: When Paul Freshour was convicted, did everybody in town breathe a sigh of relief? The letter writer is caught. It’s over.
Robin Yocum: I think that’s a fair assessment. … they’ve linked him to the letters, they linked him to the booby trap. We’re going to get this guy out of our community, get him in prison … Everything will kind of go back to normal, except it didn’t because the letters never stopped.
Robin Yocum: Paul was living a pretty good life. … had never had any problems with the law … basically, he lost everything. … lost his home, lost his job, went to prison.
It was inconceivable to Paul Freshour’s family and friends that the man they so admired could be convicted of attempted murder.
Pam Stanton: It’s just preposterous. … there’s no way.
Janet Cassady: He wasn’t dumb enough to put his own gun in a booby trap [laughs]. Anybody could have gotten that gun.
Even today, former investigative journalists Martin Yant and Robin Yocum question whether Freshour’s verdict was fair.
Robin Yocum: Can I tell you I’m 100% sure that he didn’t do it? No, I can’t. … But I can tell you … had I been sitting on that jury I would have never sent a guy to prison based on that flimsy evidence.
Martin Yant: The more I got involved in the case and … the more I saw, there were just too many question marks.
At trial, the prosecution had branded Paul Freshour the Circleville letter writer. But once he was locked up, how did menacing anonymous letters keep coming?
Robin Yocum: I’m not talking about one or two letters … there were hundreds of letters that went out after he was in prison.
The Pickaway County sheriff couldn’t say how Freshour was able to write and send those letters, but he was certain Paul was responsible. The prison warden disagreed.
Martin Yant: His warden insisted that would be impossible. They kept him in isolation. They did not allow him to have pens or paper.
Robin Yocum: He was strip searched … All his incoming and outgoing mail w as inspected. … There is absolutely, positively no way Paul Freshour was writing those letters and smuggling them out from prison. No way.
After Yocum and Yant wrote articles about Paul Freshour, they also received letters. And, inexplicably, so did Paul Freshour while behind bars.
Martin Yant: The letter writer bragged about setting him up. … He said, “when we set him up, we set him up good.”
Erin Moriarty: And who did Paul think had set him up?
Martin Yant: Karen Sue.
Erin Moriarty: His ex-wife.
Martin Yant: His ex-wife.
Paul Freshour’s lawyer raised that very possibility during his closing argument: “Who hated Paul enough to try to get him into trouble … if you read the divorce decree, who stands to profit financially, if Paul is convicted goes to prison.”
Pam Stanton says, during that divorce battle, Karen Sue lost her home, custody of their daughters, and was living in a trailer on Mary Gillispie’s property.
Pam Stanton: If Uncle Paul was out of the picture, she got it all.
And Karen Sue was one of the first to link Paul to the anonymous letters. Remember, she told investigators she found some at their home, including that one in the commode.
MARIE MAYHEW [podcast]: Karen tried to piece it back together when Paul was not at home and said she could make the name of Gillispie out on the letter.
Erin Moriarty: Could she show them these letters?
Martin Yant: No. … she didn’t keep the letters.
Erin Moriarty: Does that make sense?
Martin Yant: Not to me … why wouldn’t she run off right away to the sheriff’s office and say, look, this is from my husband. He’s the letter writer. … she didn’t do any of that until after the booby trap was found.
Erin Moriarty: Do you believe that Paul Freshour did set up the booby trap and tried to kill Mary Gillispie?
Martin Yant: No, I don’t. I think somebody stole his gun to set him up, and it worked.
In the early 1990s, when Martin Yant began investigating Freshour’s case, he discovered evidence in police reports of an alternate suspect.
Martin Yant: There was another bus driver … who saw what I think is very significant. …. It was something that never came up at trial and it points in a whole different direction.
Investigators never followed up, but Yant did. The female bus driver told him that 20 minutes before Mary found the booby trap, she had driven by the same spot.
Martin Yant: She said … she saw a man standing beside an … El Camino … But the man turned away from her and acted like he was going to the bathroom … So, she didn’t get a good look at him.
The description didn’t seem to match Paul Freshour.
Martin Yant: She said he was a large man with sandy hair. And Paul was not large, and he had very dark hair.
Erin Moriarty: And wasn’t Karen Sue at that point dating a man who was large with sandy hair?
Martin Yant: Yes.
And what about the El Camino?
Martin Yant: There’s no evidence that any inquiries were made about who might have an El Camino.
Erin Moriarty: Didn’t in fact … Karen Sue’s brother have an El Camino?
Martin Yant: That’s what I’ve been told.
But Marie Mayhew believes trying to connect the booby trap to Karen Sue is tenuous at best.
Marie Mayhew: There’s someone who looked like the man she was dating driving a car that looked like it could have been her brother’s…. none of that points back to Karen Sue.
Marie Mayhew: I don’t believe that she framed her husband for this or was responsible for it.
Ten years after Paul Freshour went to prison, the intrigue surrounding the case caught the attention of the television series “Unsolved Mysteries.” But in December 1993, before filming even began, the show received a postcard with an ominous threat.
MARTIN YANT: [reading postcard] “Forget Circleville, Ohio. … If you come to Ohio, you el sickos will pay. The Circleville writer.”
It didn’t deter the show from going to Circleville. Even Paul Freshour, who had just been released on parole, agreed to talk.
PAUL FRESHOUR [“Unsolved Mysteries” interview]: I’d really like to see someone really look at this case, on the letters. Reopen the letter part of it and get in and find out who wrote the letters.
Pam Stanton says Karen Sue was not happy “Unsolved Mysteries” was in town, or that Stanton agreed to be interviewed.
Pam Stanton: I got a phone call and her telling me it would be in my best interest not to go.
Karen Sue didn’t participate in the program, but according to Stanton, she kept track of everyone who did.
Pam Stanton: She sat in a car on the other side of the intersection and took pictures of everybody going in and out for the interviews.
If true, Marie Mayhew says that doesn’t prove anything. What’s more, Karen Sue has never been considered a suspect by police.
Marie Mayhew: I think she’s a very convenient villain.
“48 Hours” reached out to her, but she did not respond to our requests for an interview.
Martin Yant: There are so many twists and turns in this case … all-of-a-sudden something … will surface and makes you rethink what you were thinking.
Martin Yant is right. And there’s another twist to come.
A NEW TWIST IN THE CASE
It took nearly 20 years, but in 1994 the Circleville letters abruptly stopped when Paul Freshour was released from prison.
Erin Moriarty: Did people when he got out still think he was the letter writer?
Pam Stanton: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Martin Yant: He was very hurt. And he was hurt with what it did to his family.
A very uncivil war had been raging for years between Paul Freshour and his ex-wife, Karen Sue. Even their two daughters were divided over their dad. And caught in the middle was their son, Mark.
Pam Stanton: He was so loyal to his mom. … But he loved his dad, too. But with Sue … you were going to be her son or his son.
Pam Stanton says Mark chose his mom, and never once visited his father in prison.
Pam Stanton: He wouldn’t tell me why. He just said he couldn’t.
It was Paul Freshour’s gun discovered in the booby trap that helped land him behind bars.
According to Martin Yant, Freshour strongly suspected that the thief was his own son.
Martin Yant: He did tell some people that the gun had been stolen. And I did interview one man that said he specifically told him that he thought it was Mark, the son.
Erin Moriarty: And this was before there was any talk of a booby trap?
Martin Yant: Before the booby trap.
Freshour kept his suspicions about his son to himself, says Yant.
Martin Yant: Family loyalty meant more to him, even though his son had totally rejected him.
Erin Moriarty: Why didn’t he … point the finger at his son?
Pam Stanton: Paul … get his son in trouble? No, Uncle Paul would’ve never done that.
Erin Moriarty: But he knew he could go to prison.
Pam Stanton: No, I don’t care. … Uncle Paul would have died before he had seen Mark go to jail.
Pam Stanton: All this destroyed Mark. … The divorce, the letters … it all destroyed him in a way that can never be fixed.
Just before sunrise on September 11, 2002, in Portsmouth, Ohio, a man’s body was found floating in the Scioto River. It was 39-year-old Mark Freshour. He had shot himself. His mother, Karen Sue, later told police her son had suffered for years from depression.
Pam Stanton: And I firmly believe when Mark took his life, he could not deal with the guilt any longer.
If Paul Freshour actually had nothing to do with the booby trap, is it also possible he had nothing to do with the letters?
Robin Yocum: As he told me …”I didn’t write the letters. … I didn’t do this.”
Martin Yant: Even after he got out of prison, he approached the FBI and asked them to … investigate the case.
The FBI never responded, says Yant. But nearly three decades later, one of its former star profilers agreed to examine the Circleville letters for “48 Hours.” Mary Ellen O’Toole has explored some of the darkest criminal minds from the Green River Killer to the Unabomber.
Mary Ellen O’Toole: Whoever the writer is, they’re flying under the radar screen …coming across as very normal … and people would not suspect them.
Who was the Circleville writer? Or were there multiple writers? O’Toole believes one solitary author churned out every letter.
Mary Ellen O’Toole: When you have one person and one person only … that person can take the secret to the grave.
Erin Moriarty: Do you think it’s male or female? Can you tell?
Mary Ellen O’Toole: All right [laughs]. I knew that would be one of your first questions. … When it comes to the letter writer, gender is very difficult to discern.
That’s because the writer was clever, consistently deceptive, and manipulative, says O’Toole.
Mary Ellen O’Toole: You see the manipulation continue throughout these letters.
She went all the way back to the writer’s first letters in 1977, hunting for hints about gender and found some.
Mary Ellen O’Toole: The letter writer kept referring to, “I’m the boyfriend of a woman.” … They wanted to make you believe, “I’m not a woman, I’m a man.”
Mary Ellen O’Toole: And seeing … how they were trying to hide who they were makes me think there could be a … good possibility, it’s a female.
Altogether, O’Toole inspected 98 letters, finding the word choices and the grammar revealing.
Erin Moriarty: How educated is this writer? Can you tell?
Mary Ellen O’Toole: I would say this is not a highly educated person. … because of the quality of the sentences and how they were put together.
Significant, says O’Toole, considering that Paul Freshour had a job as a manager at Anheuser Busch and a master’s degree. She says there were other identifying clues from the anonymous writer.
Mary Ellen O’Toole: As you read these letters, you can see the letter writer is really havin’ a good time.
Erin Moriarty: What does that say about that person?
Mary Ellen O’Toole: The letter writer is pretty callous. … This person … would have to know, “I’m hurting people and that’s OK with me.”
A sign the writer might have been suffering from a personality disorder, says O’Toole, meaning that he or she knew the difference between right and wrong, but simply chose “wrong.”
Mary Ellen O’Toole: So, that would suggest to me that in their regular everyday life, they sought ways to be a bully … to be intimidating.
If that’s the case, Pam Stanton says that does not sound like her Uncle Paul.
Erin Moriarty Did he have like a dark side to him or anything?
Pam Stanton: Never. Uncle Paul was never bitter, never angry.
Erin Moriarty: Do you think the letter writer was Paul Freshour?
Mary Ellen O’Toole: Right now, I have my doubts.
Mary Ellen O’Toole: Sitting here today, I’d say I can’t rule him out. But I’m … looking at other reasons that tell me … it might in fact be somebody different.
And O’Toole does not believe the secretive writer would risk exposure by setting a booby trap in a public place.
Mary Ellen O’Toole: That suggests to me that may have been done by somebody else who took advantage of the situation.
The mystery seemed to only deepen. But one expert is convinced she does know the identity of the Circleville writer.
Beverley East: 100% sure.
THE LETTER WRITER REVEALED?
When the 1980 Robert Redford prison drama “Brubaker” needed extras in the Columbus area, Paul Freshour channeled experience as a former prison guard to play one on the big screen. Little did he know he’d eventually serve a decade for attempted murder. And although never charged with terrorizing Circleville with the letters, he had to live with people believing he was the writer. But not sisters, Janet Cassady and June Whitehead.
Erin Moriarty: What is one thing that you really want to see corrected?
June Whitehead: I don’t think Paul’s guilty. I think he served those 10 years in prison, and I don’t think he was guilty of the attempted murder. And I don’t really think he was the letter writer.
And with former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole believing the writer could be someone other than Paul Freshour, it calls into question the testimony of those two handwriting experts at his trial linking him to the letters. So, “48 Hours” turned to forensic document expert Beverley East, looking for her independent analysis.
Beverley East: I don’t wanna hear the story ’cause … the documents tell me the story.
That story, says East, begins by identifying distinct writing patterns in Paul Freshour’s known writing. In this case, letters he wrote to a friend.
Beverley East: The “G” in Grimer is a very unusual G. Looks like a six, a number 6.
Erin Moriarty: And that’s unusual?
Beverley East: That’s very unusual.
She then studied a selection of 49 of the anonymous letters — spanning from when they first started in 1977 through the 1990s — and found that unusual “G” shaped like a number 6 in several of the Circleville letters, including one sent while Paul Freshour was in prison.
Beverley East: So Gillispie, Gillispie, gettin’, Gillispie, and Gordon, you’ve got that number 6.
East says numbers can tell a story of their own, pointing to this zip code written by Paul … there’s an ambiguous number “3” that might also be a “2.”
Beverley East: Numbers don’t lie. Numbers don’t lie.
Beverley East: It’s like he’s not sure if it’s 4-2-1-1 2 or 4-3-1-1-3. …In the anonymous letters on the zip code …I found the same mistake.
While East admits there are writing patterns in the anonymous letters that don’t look like Paul Freshour’s, after showing “48 Hours” almost 100 examples of his distinct quirks that she was able to identify, she is convinced one person was responsible.
Beverley East: I would go into court and swear on the Bible on the evidence that I found.
Erin Moriarty: And when you say you’d swear on the Bible, what would you say?
Beverley East: I would say one person wrote all of these. And the one person is this person.
Erin Moriarty: Paul Freshour.
Beverley East: Paul Freshour.
Erin Moriarty: And if you saw that a document examiner today thought, in fact, he did write those letters, would that change your mind?
Pam Stanton: No.
And there is a historical basis for skepticism.
Erin Moriarty: You know that some document examiners have been wrong in the past.
Beverley East: I cannot … speak for others … there are always gonna be times where people are inaccurate. And it’s not because the science is not accurate. It’s because … that particular examiner has not done due diligence to arrive at the opinion that they should do.
Beverley East: You can’t be wrong [laughs]. You — ’cause … somebody’s life and livelihood is at the end of your opinion. So, I am not wrong.
While studying the thousands of pages of the case file, Marie Mayhew made a discovery that supports East’s findings. Investigators had found Paul Freshour’s fingerprints on about a dozen letters postmarked while he was incarcerated.
Marie Mayhew: Those fingerprints are there and they’re his.
Erin Moriarty: Do you think that Paul Freshour is the Circleville letter writer?
Marie Mayhew: Yes, I honestly do.
Former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole says she cannot explain those letters. But she also cannot ignore that during Freshour’s decade in prison, the phantom writer mailed hundreds of letters.
Mary Ellen O’Toole: If a crime continues on and you have someone … in custody for a long period of time … you have to say, “Somebody else is sending these letters. … they’re not happening by magic. Somebody else is writing the letters.”
Erin Moriarty: If in fact Paul Freshour was the letter writer, is it possible that he mass-produced letters, went to prison, and then had somebody else send them while he was in?
Mary Ellen O’Toole: Anything is possible. … That would have to be investigated and ruled out.
Paul Freshour died June 28, 2012, at age 70, still fighting to prove his innocence. Instead, what’s left behind is an unfinished portrait. Was Paul Freshour the successful, loving family man he appeared to be? Or was he a cruel, even dangerous, criminal mastermind?
Whatever your conclusion, Paul Freshour predicted — when interviewed by writer Robin Yocum 36 years ago — that his notoriety as the Circleville letter writer would long outlive him.
ROBIN YOCUM [Reading]: “When I’m dead and in my grave, people are going to believe I’m sending those letters.” Unfortunately, Paul died. … and we’ll never know. We’ll never know.
No one has ever been charged with writing the Circleville letters, but the Pickaway County Sheriff’s office says the case is closed.
Produced by Lisa Freed and Richard Fetzer. Mead Stone is the producer-editor. David Dow and Tamara Weitzman are the development producers. Jud Johnston, Ken Blum and Diana Modica are the editors. Lourdes Aguiar is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.
Correspondent, “48 Hours”