Episode 4: Tears of a Star

The Mountain Mysteries

Episode 04

Tears of a Star

The Mountain Mystery of Muriel Baldridge.

The star city of Eastern Kentucky…that’s what they call it, Prestonsburg Kentucky. It’s in Floyd County and has around four-thousand people that call it home. As they say, a river runs through it. The Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy river as a matter of fact. Where’s there’s river’s, there’s bridges, and perhaps that’s one of the things that Prestonsburg is best known for, they say it’s one of the most unique bridges in the country. An arched rainbow bridge in the western part of town that is a storied part of this small town’s past. This little part of Appalachia is packed with things to keep you busy, things that a metropolitan area isn’t likely to offer. Small town shops ran by the sort of folks that will feed you if you let them, teacher’s that care not just about their work, but the kids that go to school their too. There’s hiking and biking, paddling, and fishing, then at night you could go to a concert at the Mountain Arts Center. Nearby Jenny Wiley lake offers great food at the May Lodge, in a comfortable and friendly setting. Town staples like Billy Ray’s restaurant offer the best in comfort food and it’s a place where the smiles are free, families get together and the meals are affordable.

Yes, something for almost everyone it seems. But that doesn’t mean that terrible, cruel things never happen. Not even the quaint little town that is snuggled by the Big Sandy is immune to tragedy, and murder. A murder that has gone unsolved for over 7 decades.

These are The Mountain Mysteries, and this…is tears of a Star, The Mountain Mystery of Muriel Baldridge.

Screams under the cover of the darkness of night, and no one came to help? It was June 27th, 1949 and the world was a different place then. Most people in the small mountain community of Prestonsburg Kentucky would go to bed for the night with their doors unlocked, their cars, if they had any were unlocked and the keys were readily accessible by nearly any of the neighbors that resided nearby. People trusted their fellow citizens and knew them, in many cases they either were like family or were.

This was a time long before crime stoppers, neighborhood watch organizations, 911 and all the other deterrents we have today. But it was a different time, television was still in its infancy and radio waves ruled the attention of most people. Names like Perry Como and Vaughn Monroe owned the music scene, radio serials and drama’s, as well as news kept most listeners engaged.

The summer night had been one of friends and fun for teen, who was walking back home from a carnival that was in town. It had been a busy and fun day for Muriel, who at 17 was the youngest to her parents, George and Bertha Baldridge. At this point her siblings were mostly grown and out of the house. She was popular at Prestonsburg High school and had a lot of friends and was on the cheer leading squad as well. It all began that day…well, like any other day would for most teen-agers in 1949 America. The day was going to be filled with friends and things to do. She dressed up, and her aunt was said to have given her a pearl necklace to wear, complimenting her outfit.

At some point in the daylight hours, they went to see a movie and afterword went to a carnival that came to the sleepy little town. It was later that night Muriel and her friends began the short walk home, wasn’t very far at all we’ve learned.

By all accounts, we’re told that her friends, Thelma Hollingworth, Sybil Mackenzie, and Gail Hamilton all offered to walk her home that night, but since it was so close, she insisted that she would be perfectly fine, as she had made this walk hundreds if not thousands of times to get home, it was a bit of a shortcut that she knew very well. That was the last time anyone saw Muriel alive that I could find, other than her murderer.

People have said that screams had been heard, but since there was a carnival going on in that direction, those who heard them tragically overlooked as kids having thrill rides, and no one ever went to look into it. Why?

Tom Calhoun was a city bus driver at work the morning of June 28th, 1949 when he drove across the West Prestonsburg Bridge and saw something, something that wasn’t supposed to be there, something out of place. He stopped at the nearby depot station and ran across the tracks trying to get the attention of others to call the police, had someone jumped from the bridge? Were they pushed or had they fallen? A bread truck driver, identified as Don Pitts was with his brother as they made the early morning rounds to David, Kentucky, a small outlying community not far at all from Prestonsburg, when he saw it too. Something, or someone laying in the bushes below the rainbow bridge that the small town had become so famous for having, and now…that bridge would always be associated with tragedy. Pitts also made his was towards what he thought was simply an object of some kind, only to discover, the body of a young girl. A young girl in a blue sun dress lying perfectly still in the grass, her hair was bloodied, her skin…pale. It looked as though she had severe head injuries. Once he realized this, Pitts began the climb back up the riverbank frantically calling out to anyone that could hear him for help. By the time the cops got there, some of the men from town descended and began to talk about who this could be? Who was this poor tragic girl that had lost her life? There would be no doubt, it was Muriel Baldridge, the loved and popular Prestonsburg High School teen cheerleader, who had died only two-hundred feet from where she had lived. From her family.

In a small town, news of any kind spreads like the waters flow, fast. It wasn’t long before the words of tragedy scattered through the town like dust in the wind. Many had left the scene to pass along information, and in some cases, misinformation. Then Floyd county sheriff Troy Sturgill came to the crime scene and tried to keep curious on lookers at bay while investigating a site that was shocking and gruesome. Floyd county coroner Brady Shepherd showed up and briefly examined Muriel’s body, then called for an ambulance to take her to the Carter-Callahan funeral home.

Muriel’s parents had not yet come out of the house, and Shepherd had the thought that it would probably be better for them to identify their daughter’s remains at the funeral home as opposed to at the crime scene surrounded by all the people looking at this. As the ambulance made its way across the bridge and onto the funeral home, it passed Sybil McKenzie, a friend of Muriel’s and also a cheerleader. Sybil had heard a young girl was found dead and she knew it was her friend. She rushed onto the porch of Muriel’s house and begged her father, George to tell her where Muriel was at…he stood there. In utter silence. A look of shock eventually took his former expressionless face. As the family began to go inside to try and comfort each other, two men who had been among the on lookers earlier, decided maybe it was best to have Muriel’s best friend identify the body, instead of her father. So, they call on Joan Hall. Joan was still asleep when she heard the men come to her door. Joan was just 15 years young at the time, when her mother came into her bedroom, and told her the shocking and tragic news, that her best friend had been murdered…and she had to identify the body.

A frightened Joan, went with the men to the funeral home, her body tensing as they entered the room where, on the morticians table, lay a body, covered by a white sheet sprinkled in blood stains. The sheet was pulled down, and Joan saw her friend, laying there quietly, without movement, and noticed her hair was matted and bloodied, her face was swollen, and then she looked down at her best friend’s hand, and saw the tiger ring, and dirt under her nails. Joan, shakingly looked over at Grady Shepherd and told him, that was indeed, Muriel’s body. Her best friend was gone.

During the autopsy, Shepherd discovered five different fractures to Muriel’s skull, any one of them alone could have caused death. He further said that they were most likely made by something like a tire tool or brick. Shepherd worked with detectives as they looked into the crime scene itself, they knew Muriel’ dress had been torn which pointed to a struggle, and it a fight. She didn’t go quietly. They concluded that whoever the scumbag was that killed her, tried to throw her into the river, dragging her some fifty feet through grass and dirt but didn’t have the strength to throw her in, the guess here was that by throwing her in the rapid waters of the Levisa fork of the Big Sandy, she’d be washed away and any evidence with her. A pool of blood was found at the concrete base of the bridge’s pier suggesting she had been initially attacked there and dragged. It seems that the last part of his attempts involved dragging Muriel through a small corn patch and there had been debris from the river wash onto the banks making it impossible for him to finish what he had begun. He left her body ten feet from the shoreline. It wasn’t far from Muriel’s body that an uprooted peach tree was found, with a string of pearls on it, those were assumed to be Muriel’s, as her aunt Mint, who was visiting from New Jersey, had given her the necklace to wear earlier the day before. An eight-inch lead pipe that appeared to be blood stained was found near Muriel’s body, but Shepherd said that lab tested were needed to make a determination as to whether it was the murder weapon. Shepherd did say however that he didn’t think that was the murder weapon, because her wounds were very clean and didn’t look as though they were made by a pipe, and in all likelihood, the killer tossed the murder weapon into the river.

The Floyd county attorney at that time, Woodrow Burchett, was described as captivating and had said that a terrific struggle had taken place and that it had started on the bridge and ended where she was found. According to Burchett, footsteps lead investigators up the hillside, and towards no specific home, and they lost the tracks in a gravel alley. The investigation so far had also revealed that the shoe size was an eight or nine, also, to the relief of the town, the sexual assault element had been eliminated. Burchett also said that there was no doubt that Muriel had met her death at the hands of an unknown assailant. This is uncommon given that according to the United States Justice Department, eighty percent of murder victims are killed by someone they know. Now, granted that report was released in 1993, and the year Muriel died was 1949, but human behavior being considered as a collective…I don’t see that changing in the span of forty-four years, then. Or even the seventy-one years from today’s times. But what are the odds that a complete stranger, just happened to be on an isolated bridge, at the time of night in which we think this happened, which was around ten forty pm in a small town like Prestonsburg, Kentucky and the murderer just happened upon this very pretty young girl, and thinks to himself, hey…I think I’m going to kill her? If this did happen that way, wouldn’t it be much more likely that rape was his intention? A rape that he didn’t succeed in. So, he gets pissed off, he’s drunk, and grabs either something he’s got with him, or a weapon of opportunity, and strikes her the five times fracturing her skull? For this to be a crime of opportunity feels like a bit of a reach, but it is possible. Let’s look at what happened. There were people that night that heard screams, and more than that, someone showed up to the door of a boot legger, twice, once before the crime, and apparently, once after. And it was very close to the bridge…very close.

That June had been hotter than average in eastern Kentucky with temperatures holding on in the low and mid-nineties. Seventeen-year-old Muriel Baldridge was enjoying summer vacation and was on her way home in Prestonsburg Kentucky, she was taking a short cut across the West Prestonsburg bridge, coming back from a carnival that was in town, she and three friends had what seems like a good Monday, as far as Monday’s go. They had taken in a movie, a softball game that evening and then spent less than an hour at the carnival according to one of her friends that was there with her, Thelma Hollingsworth. She said they met in front of the local drug store, and made their plans, and got to the carnival around 9pm. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened, a little teasing that was more flirting than anything. Seemed guys wanted to be seen with Muriel, she was extraordinarily beautiful, and even more so with the personality she had. She wanted her friends to come home with her and spend the night, have some watermelon and make a sleepover out of it. But there were chores that needed to be done by some of the others, so they had to get home. They had asked Muriel to walk back to town with them and catch a ride home. Muriel decided that she would take a shortcut across the West Prestonsburg bridge, a path she told her friends she had taken hundreds of times when she was viciously attacked and murdered. It was around 10:15 pm.

There were those, who had said they heard screams that night, the sound of terror broke the otherwise peaceful night air in the Star city, and it seems that the screams were heard by more than one person, but we’ll start with Mrs. Elbert Dotson, and Mrs. Maggie Dotson, who had the home closest to the bridge on the western side, Mrs. Dotson stated the screaming got her out of bed and she went to the back porch and turned on the light, and the screaming stopped. She said that she always heard noises around the bridge, so she simply went back to bed. Oh, but she wasn’t the only one that heard the shrieking.

Sue Goble, a fellow high school cheerleader and friend of Muriel’s was spending the night with Betty Lou Tackett at Betty’s mothers, Mrs. James Dotson, who lived across the aqueduct from Elbert Dotson’s home. Sue said she and Betty Lou had heard the screams and sat straight up in bed, and then…something odd. She stated that she heard, an older woman’s voice. She said it sounded like the words spoken were “hey, where are you going,” or “hey, where did you go?” Sue had said that she thought some girl was trying to cross the bridge and a man had tried to grab her, she said she thought that it was her grandmother, but couldn’t recognize the voice.

Bertha, Muriel’s mother was inconsolable during the police interview that she underwent, stating that she wasn’t concerned or worried when Muriel didn’t come home that evening, assuming that she had stayed over at one of her friends. Her father George didn’t feel as if it had been anyone of Muriel’s high school acquaintances, male or female alike, but that the son of a bitch that did kill her should hang from that very bridge that she was murdered at.

It was Thursday, June 30th, 1949, and time, the thing that stands still for no one, seems to have grinded to a stop. Shops closed, not some, but all of them, closed down in Prestonsburg. This was then, and perhaps remains to this day, one of the saddest days in the small town’s history. Mrs. May Martin, who was the owner of a beauty parlor in Prestonsburg took a great amount of care in preparing Muriel’s body at the Carter-Callahan funeral home. She cleaned Muriel’s hands and face before she was laid in her casket. Her service was at 2pm at the Irene Cole Memorial Baptist church, which stands today. L.D Benedict oversaw the services, that were attended by an estimated three-thousand people, at the time, Prestonsburg population was that of twenty-three hundred people. She was that well-loved, respected and treasured. Friends said they never saw her mad, but always smiling, kind and loving. She had a zest for life and a way with people that made them feel comfortable and valued. It’s no surprise that when the services began, emotions overflowed, as the town stood in a silent reverence, to its beautiful daughter that had been taken too soon. All business closed, and the towns sole flower shop, was vacant and without inventory, as it had all been taken to the church, it’s said that you couldn’t see the churches altar for the virtual wall of flowers, over seventy-five arrangements that tributed Muriel. Cars lined the streets that were vacant of people as they lined the procession to pay their respects. It took over thirty minutes for visitors to file by the white casket trimmed in gold, for those paying their respects to see Muriel. She was gowned in orchid and white, and on the casket set roses, and gladiolas. Members of the Prestonsburg High School football team carried her casket, and the remaining five members of the cheer leading squad were all in attendance. George and Bertha Baldridge sat in the front row surrounded by their remaining children. The reverend Benedict read from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is likened to ten virgins.” He stated the Muriel, was one of those virgins. After leaving the church, many were outside and the sounds of silence were only occasionally interrupted by people talking about whether or not this would ever be solved, and some wondered if the killer, had come to the service. Hundreds of cars made their way down First avenue and to a small cemetery on the outskirts of Floyd county, where Muriel was laid to rest.

The investigation was in full swing, but the leads came in slower and slower than molasses on a cold morning. The first of which who was picked up was a Richard Funk, who was in Catlettsburg about an hour north of Prestonsburg, a trucker named Oscar Miller who was from the Star City offered him a ride and became suspicious of Funk’s behavior, messed up clothes and muddy shoes. Add to that the fact Funk said he had been in Prestonsburg the day of the murder and sheriff Troy Sturgill had to talk to this guy. He told police he was in fact in town the day of Muriel’ murder but had left are two-thirty in the afternoon. Funk stayed in custody for several more days before being released. Several more were brought in, questioned, and released before this guy, his name was Junior Osborne. Sturgill described him as a rejected suitor of Muriel Baldridge, and many at the time were operating on the assumption that it had been a boyfriend that committed the murder, since she was very popular in teen circles and dated often, but no one in particular had caught her attention. She played the field as they call it today. Nothing wrong with that unless jealousy comes on to the field. That could create an issue. No matter who they questioned though, they couldn’t get a strong enough lead to pursue.

By now the FBI and the Kentucky State Police had come to the small town and boy did that stir the pot up.

Kentucky State Police detective Arch Thompson and Kentucky State Trooper J.E. Combs from the Pikeville detachment, post 9 as it’s known today, joined the murder investigation along with a special agent from the FBI, who said he was there to lend a hand if need be. Detective Thompson said he felt that while no motive had been established, he felt jealousy was behind the brutal murder of Muriel. He wasn’t alone in thinking that the motive wasn’t purely rape. With the KSP and FBI now in Prestonsburg, the gossip machine began spinning its whining little wheels, as it does, and before long the rumor mill was churning out that the suspect was and could have very well been on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. But many of the investigators quietly began to form a different opinion. This trail, that was used to drag Muriel to the riverbank, wasn’t well known, so investigators formed the opinion that it had to be someone who knew the area well enough to navigate it in the pitch of night. While trooper Combs continued to interview Muriel’s classmates, law enforcement was struggling with maintaining the crime scene. It seemed like this murder brought out every armchair detective in ear shot that would trample a crime scene quicker than you can say bubba loves trucks. Making matters worse, a Tuesday morning rainstorm further degraded the scene. Fortunately, Doctor Earl T Arnett, a Prestonsburg dentist was brought in to make a plaster of paris cast of the footprints that investigators felt certain belonged to the killer.

It was only seven days after the murder and the leads were running out. Sheriff Sturgill made a plea for any information and attached a five-hundred-dollar reward for information that would lead to the arrest and conviction of the murderer. Five hundred dollars in 1949 is about like fifty-five hundred today. Excitement spread as word that a truth serum was going to be used to illicit honesty from suspects. These interrogations took place inside the sheriff’s office, and included a quiet man named E.K. Dotson, who lived nearby the scene of the murder. His wife, Maggie, was one of the people who said she heard screams the night Muriel was killed.

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