Crime/Wrestling: Sam Sheppard – The Murderer Turned Wrestler

On the evening of July 3rd 1954 Sam Sheppard and his wife Marilyn Reese Sheppard were entertaining some guests they had over to their family home, as Marilyn escorted the guests out of the house Sam fell asleep on the family day bed and awoke to blood-curdlinging screams of his wife, he ran upstairs and came across ( as he described it )  a large white biped form standing over Marilyns lifeless body, suddenly he was knocked unconscious and woke to the figure at the bottom of the stairs, Sam chased the unknown assailant down towards the beach where they began to fight, this ended up with Sam once again finding himself unconscious. At 5:45 am he called his neighbourbor and said “My God, Spence, get over here quick. I think they’ve killed my Marilyn!”. Police arrive at the scene to fiand a injured and confused Sheppard, blood throughout the house and the body of Marilyn, bludgeoned to death with an unknown weapon. All arrows seemingly pointing to Sheppard.

The Sheppard trial began on October 18th 1954 and lasted for 9 weeks. The murder investigation and the trial were notable for the extensive publicity. Newspapers and other media in Ohio were accused of bias against Shepprd, and were criticized for immediate labelling him the only suspect. A federal judge later criticized the media, “If ever there was a trial by newspaper, this is a perfect example. And the most insidious example was the Cleveland Press. For some reason that newspaper took upon itself the role of accuser, judge, and jury.”

It appeared that the local media influenced the investigators. On July 21, 1954, the Cleveland Press ran a front-page editorial titled “Do It NoDrDr. Gerber” which called for a public inquest. Hours late. Dr Samuel Gerber, the coroner investigating the murder, announced that he would hold an inquest the next day. The Cleveland Press ran another front-page editorial titled “Why Isn’t Sam Sheppard in Jail?” on July 30 which was titled in later editions, “Quit Stalling and Bring Him In!” That night, Sheppard was arrested for a police interrogation.

Sheppard’s attorney, William Corrigan, argued that Sheppard had severe injuries and that these injuries were inflicted by the intruder. Corrigan based his argument on the report made by neurosurgeon Charles Elkins who examined Sheppard and found he had suffered a cervical concussion, nerve injury, many absent or weak reflexes (most notably on the left side of his body), and injury in the region of the second cervical vertebra in the back of the neck. Elkins stated that it was impossible to fake or simulate the missing reflex responses.

Tdefencense further argued the crime scene was extremely bloody, yet the only blood evidence appearing on Sheppard was a bloodstain on his trousers. Corrigan also argued two of Marilyn’s teeth had been broken and that the pieces had been pulled from her mouth, suggesting she had possibly bitten her assailant. He told the jury that Sheppard had no open wounds. Some observers have questioned the accuracy of claims that Marilyn Sheppard lost her teeth while biting her attacker, arguing that her missing teeth are more consistent with the severe beating she received to her face and skull. However a criminologist Paul L. Kirk later said that if the beating had broke Mrs Sheppard’s teeth, pieces would have been found inside her mouth, and her lips would have been severely damaged, which was not the case.

Sheppard described the intruder as “bushy-haired”, The defense called eighteen-character witnesses for Sheppard and two witnesses who said that they had seen a bushy-haired man near the Sheppard home on the day of the crime. But even with the character witnesses and the two witnesses for the bushy-haired individual after 4 days of deliberation, Sheppard was sentenced to life imprisonment on December 21st 1954.  Sheppard’s attorney spent 6 years making appeals but they were all rejected, it wasn’t until 1966 that the courts themselves entertained a retrial. Sheppard’s new attorney F. Lee Bailho took over from William Corrigan after his death in 1961.

Bailey argued that there wasn’t any evidence to support the fact that Sheppard himself committed the crime. When Coroner Samuel Gerber testified about a murder weapon which he described as a “surgical weapon”, Bailey led Gerber to admit that they never found a murder weapon and had nothing to tie Sheppard to the murder. Also, the blood splatter analyst at the crime scene judged that the crime was committed by someone left-handed, and Sheppard himself was right-handed, this proved critical to his acquittal later that year.

Soon after his release Sheppard found his way into the murky cocktail of professional wrestling, Sheppard’s friend and soon-to-be father-in-law, professional wrestler George Strickland, introduced him to wrestling and trained him for it. He debuted in August 1969 at the age of 45 as “Killer” Sam Sheppard, wrestling Wild Bill Scholl. Sheppard wrestled over 40 matches before his death in April 1970, including several of tag team bouts with Strickland as his partner. His notoriety made him a strong draw. During his career, Sheppard used his anatomical knowledge to develop a new submission hold, the “mandible claw”. It would be popularized by professional wrestler Mankind in 1996.

Sheppard passed away in 1970 due to alcoholism. He left behind a tale of intrigue, murder, and the American justice system. If you do anything today look up this incredible story. Or watch the fugitive. The tv series from 1963 and the film starring Harrison ford from 1993, are both loose retellings of a fascinating story.

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