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Wearing her first pair of heels, she never made it home. Why there’s new life in a 60-year cold case

The living witness is tormented by her inability to save her 14-year-old sister.

PAULDING, Ohio — Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series on the unsolved death of Nancy Eagleson. Also read part two and part three.

The temperature climbed to 61 degrees on Nov. 13, 1960, in Paulding more than 10 degrees warmer than the daily average.

The sun occasionally peeked through the clouds. Winter was coming to northwest Ohio, but not on this day.

It was a good day for walking, and that is how Nancy and Sheryl Eagleson spent most of their day. Missing their ride home from church, Nancy commented to a friend that “the 13th must be my unlucky day.” But she said it kiddingly. The day before, her mother, Bettie, had finally relented and allowed the 14-year-old girl to buy her first pair of “clacky-clack” shoes. They weren’t the full heels like her mother would wear, but the heels were high enough for Nancy to feel as though the boys would notice she was growing up. Missing her ride gave Nancy the chance to show them off on the walk home.

Their mother could see the girls through the kitchen window as they walked down Flatrock Drive, hands clasped, arms swinging as they laughed and sang. Nancy was a second mom to 5-year-old Sheryl, and if you saw Nancy, Sheryl wasn’t usually far behind.

Even though it was a Sunday, it was a work night for Nancy and Sheryl’s parents. After dinner, their father, Donald, would drop their mother off at the drive-in before heading to the Paulding bowling alley for his part-time job. The girls were headed to the town square, less than a mile away, to see a double feature at the theater. “David and Bathsheba,” starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward, was showing in limited release and a night at the movies would be a good way to pass the time while their mom and dad were working.

Sheryl fidgeted and slept through most of the movies, but looked forward to the promised stop at the town’s soda shop – Johnson’s Restaurant – after the show. They were planning to meet up with a group of Nancy’s friends before stopping by the bowling alley to visit their father.

By the time they made it to the bowling alley, Nancy was learning the downside of wearing heels. Her feet were hurting, and she asked her father if he could take a break and run them home. He said he would if they waited a while longer. But it was already getting late, and Nancy didn’t want to wait.

A dark road

Just before 7:30 p.m., Nancy took Sheryl’s hand and headed toward home. Walking down East Jackson, the girls used the town’s iron bridge to cross Flatrock Creek. Cutting through the lot of a closed gas station, Nancy and Sheryl turned off Jackson onto Flatrock Drive. They were seven to eight houses away from their home when Sheryl looked over her shoulder and noticed a large, black car creeping along behind them. The sun had set more than two hours earlier, so the car’s headlights illuminated their path.

She warned her sister, who gripped her hand a little tighter but didn’t walk any faster. The car pulled alongside them and the driver rolled down his window and asked if they needed a ride home. Nancy told him thanks, but no thanks. They were almost home, she said. A few houses later, the driver again pulled up and asked if they needed that ride.

Nancy again shook her head no, but the car darted in front of them. The driver threw open his door and grabbed Nancy. He struggled with her, reaching into his pocket while trying to control her with his free arm. He was able to pull open a back door on the four-door vehicle. As he put the girl into the back seat, Sheryl jumped onto his back. She smelled a strong odor, maybe alcohol, but maybe something else. The attacker was well dressed, wearing a suit, fedora and thick, black glasses. As he shook her off and threw her to the ground, Sheryl noted that the man seemed to be a little older than her 39-year-old father.

Dazed, Sheryl looked up from the ground and could see her sister in the back seat. Her head was lying back on the top of the seat. She was motionless. Sheryl picked herself up and ran to the home of John and Betty Larson -- neighbors, but also babysitters for the girls over the years.

As she looked back, the car roared away, headed north on Flatrock Drive, also known as Route 111.

Early the next morning, Sheryl’s big sister would be found in woods - now known as Nancy’s Woods - about seven miles from where she was abducted. An autopsy later that day would indicate she was raped and died from a .22-caliber bullet passing through her brain.

62 years of memories

Sheryl Garza is now in her mid-60s, but you would not guess that when meeting her. She looks much younger. Not surprisingly, though, there is a sadness in her eyes, haunted by 62 years of bad dreams.

“I started having nightmares and would chase my sister down the road, asking her who killed her, because I knew she was the only one who could tell me.”

In the days after the murder, police pleaded with her to try to remember more details about the killer. They hypnotized her. They offered her a pony. The more they pleaded, the harder it became to remember. Others told her that she couldn’t be expected to remember. She was only 5 years old, after all. It’s an excuse that “at least 1 million people told me.” No one wants to know the answer more than her, and no one is more tormented by her inability to provide it.

“It doesn’t matter how many people tell me that it’s OK that I don’t remember, it doesn’t change the fact that I couldn’t save her, that I couldn’t give more,” she said, wiping away a tear with a tissue clutched in her hand.

The description she gave police was good enough to allow for a composite sketch. The killer was a middle-aged man with slightly-graying dark hair, glasses and he was wearing a fedora. Police told her the smell she remembered was likely alcohol, but it could also be a mixture of alcohol on his breath and chloroform on a rag that he may have pulled from his pocket. She doesn’t believe she knew the man, but she can’t be sure.

“I went back and looked at yearbooks from the time, and everyone looked old -- they’d have those crewcuts and dark glasses. I mean, everyone looked old,” she said. “This man, or boy, was dressed in a suit, like he just came from church. He had that fedora. Was it something he always wore or that he put on to look older, I just don’t know.”

Fear persists

In the weeks after the murder, the family moved in with Sheryl’s grandmother, not too far from the family’s home. Sheryl would overhear people whispering, wondering if the family was concerned the killer would come back for the surviving witness.

“I remember laying there and being scared to death and I would call out for my mom to come and sit with me until I fell asleep. And that was fine until I would wake up in the middle of night and realize I was alone, and I would be scared again,” she said. “I thought for sure that he might come back and get me, and I thought, you know my mom and dad couldn't protect her. They're not going to be able to save me.”

At one point, she was alone in the kitchen when the back door flew open.

“I screamed so loud, and my mom come running up to get me. She thought that I cut myself. But she saw the door open and immediately grabbed me off the chair and went to the other room to call my dad and my grandfather,” she said. “They got the police, and they came over and they found a knife or screwdriver on the back porch.”

When the family later returned to its Flatrock Drive home, Sheryl picked up the phone to call her grandmother. The phone did not work. Her dad investigated, she said, and found that the phone lines had been cut. He immediately scooped her up and ran from the house.

Sheryl said the incident was reported to police, but that report does not exist. 11 Investigates has looked into the murder since September. Sheryl is not the only person to tell us that a report disappeared.

Coming Wednesday: Police cast wide net in early days of investigation, but missteps plague search for killer of 14-year-old girl.

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