The Wrong Man: The Final Verdict on the Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case

The Wrong Man: The Final Verdict on the Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case

by James Neff

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This Edgar Award finalist—one of Ann Rule’s top five true-crime picks—is a “gripping” definitive account of the Dr. Sam Sheppard murder case (The New York Times Book Review).

“My God . . . I think they’ve killed Marilyn!” 
At 5:40 a.m. on July 4, 1954, the mayor of Bay Village, a small suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, received a frantic phone call from his neighbor Dr. Sam Sheppard. The news was too terrible to comprehend: Marilyn, Sam’s lovely wife, was dead, her face and torso beaten beyond recognition by an unknown assailant who had knocked Sam unconscious and escaped just before dawn. In the adjacent bedroom, Chip, the Sheppards’ seven-year-old son, had slept through the entire ordeal.
Almost immediately, the police began to suspect Sam Sheppard. The local press rushed to cast judgment on the handsome, prosperous doctor. After a misguided investigation, Sheppard was arrested and charged with murder. Sentenced to life in prison, he served for nearly a decade before he was acquitted in a retrial. Until his death, he maintained his innocence.
Culled from DNA evidence, testimony that was never heard in court, prison diaries, and interviews with the Sheppard family and other key players, The Wrong Man makes a convincing case for Sheppard’s innocence and reveals the identity of the real killer.
This ebook contains ten photographs not included in previous editions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504006798
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 04/07/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 456
Sales rank: 305,673
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

James Neff is a prizewinning investigative journalist and editor. He is the author of five books, including The Wrong Man: The Final Verdict on the Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case and Unfinished Murder: The Capture of a Serial Rapist, both of which were Edgar Award finalists; Mobbed Up: Jackie Presser’s High-Wire Life in the Teamsters, the Mafia, and the FBI, which was adapted into the HBO movie Teamster Boss: The Jackie Presser Story; and Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy Versus Jimmy Hoffa. Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Neff was a reporter and columnist at the Plain Dealer; a writer and editor at the Seattle Times, where he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and is currently deputy managing editor for investigations at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Read an Excerpt

The Wrong Man

The Final Verdict on the Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case

By James Neff


Copyright © 2001 James Neff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-0679-8



Early Saturday morning, July 3, 1954, Dr. Sam Sheppard pulled his Lincoln into the parking lot of Bay View Hospital, housed in a huge, Georgian-style mansion built on the bluffs of Lake Erie. His family had bought the place several years earlier and had converted it into a 110-bed hospital. Dr. Stephen Sheppard, the middle Sheppard brother, pulled his car in just behind him. They talked for a few minutes about how they were going to celebrate the holiday weekend.

It promised to be a beautiful day, with low humidity, a slight breeze off the lake. Steve planned to go sailing on his Raven-class racing sloop. Sam reminded him that he and Marilyn were having a cookout the next day for about twenty couples, the hospital interns and their dates. After a quick cup of coffee in the hospital cafeteria, the brothers split up and headed into separate operating rooms. It was shortly before 7 A.M. Even on a holiday weekend, the Sheppards tried to squeeze in half a day of surgery. Bay View, an osteopathic teaching hospital, had all the business it could handle.

A little while later, less than a mile away, Marilyn Sheppard arose at the lakefront home where she and Dr. Sam lived. Her day was going to be just as busy as her husband's. She was still angry with Sam because he had volunteered to hold the intern party without first checking with her. This was not her idea of how to spend a family holiday. Sam would be out on their boat, water-skiing with the guests, leaving Marilyn, an expert skier, "getting the groceries and entertaining a lot of dull dry people who can't ski."

She had to clean and shop and spruce up the yard and the boathouse while keeping an eye on their seven-year-old son, Sam, whom they called Chip. Also, she was four months pregnant, more tired and uncomfortable than usual. If Sam had just asked her first, she would have agreed to host the party without complaint because she truly wanted to be what her older sisters-in-law referred to as "a good doctor's wife"—an attractive, cheerful helpmate who could run the household like a quartermaster, manage the children, and make life easy for her ambitious, hardworking husband. She knew that Sam was obliged to the interns at Bay View, which relied in part on their low-paid labor for its success. In return, these doctors in training received invaluable education from senior doctors, such as Sam's father, Dr. Richard A. Sheppard, a highly regarded diagnostician who took referrals from all over Ohio.

Even worse than getting stuck with the intern party, Marilyn had an unwanted houseguest to deal with—Sam's old friend from medical school, Dr. Lester Hoversten. Acting on his own, Sam had agreed to let Hoversten live with them a few days while he interviewed for a job at Bay View. Marilyn thought he was a pig. A couple of years earlier he had made a crude pass at her and she'd shut him down fast, not worrying about hurting his feelings. Just being around him put her on edge. He left his room a mess and was an inconsiderate guest overall. She refused to make his bed or even go near that bedroom.

Hoversten thought of himself as a playboy, and made sexual passes at any woman who strayed within his gaze. Even though he was fourteen years older than Sam, they had gone through medical school together and had served as surgical residents at Los Angeles County General Hospital. The experience explained their friendship, the foxhole bonding of young doctors as they endured grueling hours at little pay under the intellectual hazing of senior surgeons, who themselves were famously condescending toward women. Hoversten was recently divorced and had been asked to leave his position at a Dayton hospital. He had written Sam asking for help. "I'm so depressed I wish my life were over. I'm too busy for much leisure time and I do so little surgery I'm bored with the drudgery of it all."

Sam had invited him to Cleveland, but Hoversten wrote that he was reluctant to stay with them. "Your beloved wife's attitude of the past still fills me with an aversion to staying at your house much as I enjoy your son and wife." But Sam insisted that he come and have a good time.

At Sam's suggestion, Hoversten had agreed to get up early that Saturday and assist him in surgery, a good way to check out Bay View's operation. But when Saturday morning came, Hoversten slept in. He didn't get up until 10 A.M., leaving him home alone with Marilyn. In the afternoon, he left for an overnight stay with a friend.

That night, the Sheppards and friends from the neighborhood, Don and Nancy Ahern, had plans for a casual dinner together. Although the intern party was the next day, Marilyn had volunteered to cook, and even baked a blueberry pie, Sam's favorite. Don and Nancy insisted on providing cocktails at their home first.

In the past year, the two couples had become close friends. Nancy and Marilyn bowled together on the Bay Village ladies' afternoon bowling league while their children were in school, and the two couples were active in the Junior Club, a Bay Village ballroom-dance club for younger couples.

That evening, Don Ahern mixed martinis for the men and whiskey sours for the women. The children played outside. It was about a quarter to seven, the start of the holiday-weekend ritual—drinks at one house, dinner at another, the kids staying up late, since it was summer. Sam dressed in a white T-shirt and brown corduroys. Marilyn wore short white shorts and a blouse, and beaded moccasins. She was attractive, with wide hazel eyes and thick, shoulder-length brown hair. Athletic, tanned, and slim, she could pass for a teenager.

Sam was comfortable enough with Don to tell him about the hardship of his day. A specialist in orthopedic surgery and neurosurgery, Sam also oversaw the emergency-room operations. Today had been an emergency-room surgeon's nightmare. A boy had been struck by a truck and rushed to Bay View. His heart had stopped. Sam, on emergency-call rotation, opened the child's chest and massaged the heart, a method to restart it in the days before defibrillators. The tiny heart kicked to life, then stopped. Sam massaged it until his fingers gave out, and another doctor took over. It was no use. The boy was dead. The father was terribly upset, lashing out at Sam for not saving his boy's life. Sam had nothing to say except that he had tried his best, he felt terrible, and was sorry.

They each had two drinks, and at about 8:20 Marilyn left the Aherns' to start dinner. Sam drove to Bay View to check the X rays of a boy who had been brought into the emergency room with a broken thigh, and returned quickly. Meanwhile, Don and Nancy brought their two children, ages seven and ten, over to the Sheppards' home on Lake Road. While Marilyn and Nancy put the final touches on dinner, Sam took the kids into the basement, showed them his punching bag, and let them pound away, stopping them at times to give pointers on how to throw a proper punch.

The children ate in the kitchen, while the parents enjoyed dinner out on the screened porch that faced Lake Erie; they watched the sun drop over the water, its last rays splintering into fiery reds and purples. Dinner was cottage ham, rye bread, green beans, and blueberry pie with ice cream. Marilyn, as usual, ate well.

They finished at about ten-thirty. Nancy cleared the dirty dishes and shut the living room door to the screened porch. She remembered later that she had locked the door. Don took their two children home, tucked them in, and came back. This was Bay Village in the early 1950s, suburban and safe, and many parents felt comfortable leaving sleeping children home alone for a few hours.

Don listened to the Indians baseball game on the radio in the living room—the team was in first place in the American League and would go on to win the pennant. Chip came out in his pajamas, holding a balsa-wood airplane. It was broken. Sam brought glue in from the garage and fixed the toy, telling Chip that he was doing this after bedtime as a special favor, because Chip had been a man about the broken plane, not whining but calmly asking for help. Marilyn took Chip back upstairs and tied on his chin brace, a sling that pulled in his jaw. Sam felt his son's chin protruded too far, which might cause problems later with his bite.

The two couples settled in the living room and found the movie Strange Holiday on one of two channels. Watching television was still a new thing to do in 1954. Marilyn sat on Sam's lap, and Nancy, envious, called over to Don, "I need attention, too."

After a while, Sam moved to a narrow living room couch, more like a short daybed, near one of the stairways to the second floor. He stretched out and drifted in and out of sleep in the darkened living room. He was wearing a corduroy sports coat because it had gotten chilly.

With the dishes done and Chip asleep, Marilyn finally had time to relax with some adults. But Sam was asleep. "C'mon, Sam, it's going to improve," she said. He lifted his head, watched the movie for a few minutes, then fell back asleep.

About midnight, Marilyn fell asleep in her chair and the Aherns tried to slip out quietly. Marilyn woke up anyway and walked her friends to the kitchen door, which led to the driveway and Lake Road. They passed Sam on the daybed, sleeping soundly.

"Jump in bed before you get over being sleepy," Nancy told Marilyn.

It was 12:30 A.M. Later, Nancy told the police that she could not remember locking the kitchen door. And, no, she could not remember if Marilyn had locked it, either.



At 5:40 A.M. on July 4, 1954, the mayor of Bay Village was awakened by a telephone call. It was his neighbor Sam Sheppard, shouting, "My God, Spen, get over here quick! I think they've killed Marilyn!"


"Oh, my God, get over here quick!"

Spencer Houk jumped up and got dressed, waking his wife, Esther. She hated to get up early, but she knew something terrible had happened. She pulled on a dress and shoes. They lived only two houses away from Sam and Marilyn, but Spen, a butcher, had a bad knee, so they got in their car and drove to the Sheppards' house. They didn't stop to call the police or grab a weapon.

Sam and Spencer had become fairly good friends in the past year, even though they appeared at first glance to have little in common. Sam was a decade younger, just shy of thirty, and physically vigorous—he was always water-skiing and playing pickup basketball with the neighborhood boys. With his bad knee, exacerbated by long days on his feet cutting and selling meat to his Bay Village customers, Spen had to sit on the sidelines—except when they went fishing. Spen could outfish him any day; Sam didn't have the patience to fish for Lake Erie perch or walleye when he could be flying across the lake on skis at thirty miles an hour. Together they had bought a thirteen-foot aluminum boat and clamped on two powerful outboard engines. Sam liked to race sports cars in amateur road rallies; now he had another grown-up toy to satisfy his need for speed.

The Houks found the Sheppards' kitchen door unlocked. It faced Lake Road, a two-lane highway along the lake. Just inside the hallway and to the right was the den. Sam was leaning back on a red leather swivel chair, holding his neck.

"Sam, Sam, what happened?" the mayor wanted to know.

Sam was bare-chested, his pants soaked, and moaning softly, his surgeon's fingers laced like a sling at the base of his skull.

"Pull yourself together, Sam!" Spen ordered. "What happened?"

He mumbled that he was asleep on the couch in the living room, heard Marilyn cry "Sam!" and ran up the stairs to help, and then "somebody clobbered me."

Esther had gone right upstairs. In the northwest bedroom were twin beds. The far bed was empty, its quilt and covers neatly turned down, as if waiting for someone to quietly slide underneath. A spray of blood flecked the covers and the pillow.

A few feet away, on the bed closer to the door, Marilyn's body lay faceup. Her legs hung over the foot of the bed, bent at the knees, her feet dangling a few inches above the rug. It was an odd position. Her legs were under a wooden bar that ran from post to post across the foot of the bed. It looked as if someone had pulled her legs under the bar, pinning her like a giant specimen. Her body was outlined by blood, a huge crimson aura. Her face was turned slightly toward the door, as if she had been expecting someone to walk in, and coated with stringy, clotting blood. She was unrecognizable. About two dozen deep, ugly crescent-shaped gashes marked her face, forehead, and scalp.

Her three-button pajama top was pushed up to her neck, baring her breasts. A blanket draped her middle. Underneath, her flimsy pajama bottoms had been removed from one leg and were bunched below the knee of her other leg, exposing her pubis.

Esther Houk steeled herself and checked Marilyn for a pulse. Nothing. She ran back downstairs and yelled to her husband, "Call the police, call the ambulance, call everybody!"

Esther poured a glass of whiskey in a kitchen glass and carried it to Sam. "You need this."

"No, no," he said. "I can't think, I've got to think." Then he asked about Chip—was he okay?

Esther went upstairs to check. The boy's bedroom door was open. He was sleeping, curled on his right side. From the distance, sirens wailed, grew louder and louder, then abruptly shut down.

At 5:57 A.M. Bay Village policeman Fred Drenkhan took a radio call that help was needed at 28924 Lake Road, the home of Dr. Sam Sheppard, a friend. Within a few minutes, he was inside the house. On the hallway floor he saw a black leather medical valise opened wide, standing on end, its vials and prescription pads spilled out on the wood floor.

Drenkhan found Sam in his den. On the shelves behind him were two shotguns, two small air rifles, Sam's beloved record player, and a row of medical textbooks. Two trophies lay on the floor, broken: one of Sam's treasured high school track trophies and Marilyn's bowling trophy.

Drenkhan wanted to know what had happened, and Sam gave him more details. He woke up, heard his wife shout his name, then ran upstairs. On the way up, he saw a large form wearing a white top in their summer bedroom. When he reached the top of the stairs or just inside the bedroom, he was struck from behind and knocked out. After he came to, he heard a noise downstairs, ran down, saw something in the dark—a large, dark figure, probably a man—outlined against the living room windows facing the lake. He chased him out of the house, thundered down the long flight of wooden steps, caught the figure on the sand, grappled with him, and was knocked out once again. When he woke up, he was facedown at the water's edge, his lower half in the water, his head toward the bluff. Dawn was breaking.

Fred Drenkhan, twenty-six, with only three years of police experience, didn't know what to think. It was a puzzling story, but if Sam had been knocked out twice, he would be disoriented and perhaps give an odd account. Mostly Drenkhan enforced traffic laws in a suburb that was essentially a long, narrow strip of beachfront and nice homes, bisected by a two-lane highway, Lake Road, that connected Cleveland and Toledo. His part-time partner this weekend had never even received training, just pulled on a blue uniform a year earlier and became one of the city's cops. Drenkhan had investigated break-ins, but never a homicide.

As the first policeman on the scene of what would rapidly metamorphose into a world-famous murder case, Drenkhan would soon find his life turned upside down.

At 6:10 A.M. Dr. Richard N. Sheppard, the oldest brother, arrived at Sam and Marilyn's house. He lived nearby in Bay Village and had been called by Houk. He stopped to check on Sam, but Drenkhan told him to forget about Sam and to see Marilyn upstairs. She was probably dead.

Richard ran upstairs. He had seen his share of broken bodies and split skulls at car crashes and in emergency rooms, but the sight of his sister-in-law shocked him. This was not an accident but deliberate brutality, blow after blow. He tried to find a pulse. Her body was slightly warm to the touch. He wondered who the hell could do such a thing.

Esther Houk volunteered to take Chip to her house, to shield him from such horror, but Richard said no, he would take him home. He felt that the boy should be with family. He asked Esther to put together a bag of the boy's clothes. In Chip's room, Richard fumbled with the chin brace, trying to slide it off, ignoring the ties. Esther thought Richard was so frazzled that he would hurt Chip, so she reached in and untied the ties. Even with all this commotion, the boy still slept. Like his father, he was a sound sleeper, difficult to waken.

When Richard returned downstairs, he saw Sam stretched out on his back on the floor of the den, trying to immobilize his neck. Richard hunched down close and said, "Sam, she's gone," and he wailed, "No, no, no!"


Excerpted from The Wrong Man by James Neff. Copyright © 2001 James Neff. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Cover Page
  • Dedication
  • Epigraph
  • Part One
    • 1. Eve of Destruction
    • 2. Independence Day
    • 3. Gathering Storm
    • 4. Doc
    • 5. Marilyn and Sam
    • 6. Noisy Newsboy
    • 7. The Other Woman
    • 8. Mary Cowan
    • 9. Meddling
    • 10. Do It Now
    • 11. Inquest
    • 12. Following a Trail
    • 13. Arrest
    • 14. Third Degree
    • 15. Grand Jury
    • 16. Pretrial
    • 17. Prosecution
    • 18. The Defense
  • Part Two
    • 19. The Science of Murder
    • 20. The Walls
    • 21. Dead Girl’s Stones
    • 22. Unloading
    • 23. Polygraph
    • 24. F. Lee Bailey
    • 25. Ariane
    • 26. Mockery of Justice
    • 27. Shangri-la
    • 28. A Decision
    • 29. Retrial of the Century
    • 30. The Verdict
    • 31. Demise
    • 32. Dick and Obie
    • 33. Revenge
  • Part Three
    • 34. The Pursuit
    • 35. Twisted Strands
    • 36. Local Politics
    • 37. Opening
    • 38. Experts
    • 39. Smoking Gun
    • 40. Finale
  • Epilogue
  • Image Gallery
  • Notes
  • Index
  • Acknowledgments
  • About the Author
  • Copyright Page

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