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11 Investigates: Missteps plague hunt for 14-year-old's killer

Tips pour in during 1960 murder investigation, but loss of evidence stymies progress.

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

When Nancy Eagleson was abducted on the night of Nov. 13, 1960, it was an unusual, and shocking, experience for the city of slightly more than 2,200 residents.

Prior to the killing, residents would sleep with their doors unlocked, children would play in the streets or woods long after dark. Neighbors knew neighbors through talking in yards or over coffee. And then those residents knew most of the other people in town through school connections or church. There had not been a murder in more than six years when Sheriff John Keeler’s office received a call from John Larson that 14-year-old Nancy had been taken and that her sister, Sheryl, witnessed the entire event.

11 Investigates has reviewed extensive police records and talked to family, friends and members of law enforcement to piece together the early days of the investigation.

Deputies Frank Shipman and Tom Rosselet were dispatched to the Larson home to talk to Sheryl. Other members of the police, sheriff’s office, and Ohio State Highway Patrol immediately fanned out on the county roads to search for the large blue-black car, with fins running along the sides. A sketch of the suspect was put together, based on a description provided by 5-year-old Sheryl.

A report came in of a man with a criminal record being involved in an accident near Van Wert. Officers began combing the roads near Van Wert and began working their way north.

At 2:30 a.m., a member of the highway patrol was canvassing the area northeast of Paulding, in Auglaize Township. As he turned down a desolate road, two men came out of the woods with their guns drawn.

Seeing that the lights were coming from a trooper’s car, Joseph Aufrance and Kenny Nelson lowered their weapons and reported that their dogs had found a dead girl in the woods off Township Road No. 176 while they were hunting for raccoons. The men normally wouldn’t have been out that late, but hunting was forbidden before midnight on Sunday. The men said they headed for the woods shortly after the clock turned to Monday morning.

Sheriff Keeler, an Eagleson family friend, arrived at the scene and identified the girl as Nancy. She was well known in his office for working on his recent election campaign. Within hours, the scene was flooded with officers, on-lookers, and members of the media.

The family was called to the sheriff’s department. As Sheryl sat on her father’s lap, they were told that Nancy’s body had been found. Her father jumped up, screaming. Officer’s restrained him as he collapsed in grief.

At the recovery site and the autopsy later that day, numerous items of evidence were taken: a necklace, scarf, dress coat, dress, undergarments, high-heeled shoes, a purse, hair from a tree, bullet fragments, semen, fingernail clippings, and evidence from a bloody fingerprint on Nancy’s arm.

Police records show that at least some of the evidence was taken to the Toledo crime lab. At some point between the time of the murder and 15 to 20 years ago, the original evidence disappeared. No one knows where it went or how it disappeared, but many believe modern technology would have cracked the case with what was collected.

Early days of investigation

In the hours and days after the murder, tips began to come in from all over. In such a small town, rumors exploded and many of the males became suspects.

At one point, an investigator told a local newspaper, "Every man who drives and lives within a 50 to 100-mile radius is a suspect."

One promising tip given to police was a report from prominent businessman Frank Lienard. He told investigators that a man knocked on the door of his Antwerp home at 1:30 a.m., an hour before Nancy was recovered. Lienard said the man was acting funny and wanted to know how to get to Kendallville, Ind. He was described as being about 5 feet, 7 inches and 155 pounds, with dark, graying hair. He was wearing glasses, mirroring a composite sketch. It is a direct route from where Nancy was discovered to Lienard’s home in Antwerp. Anyone headed to Indiana would likely take that route.

During the early days, investigators gave numerous people polygraphs and publicly cleared them, a practice that would be unlikely to happen today. One of the men cleared was Virgil Johnson, who owned Johnson’s Restaurant, the last public location where Nancy and Sheryl were seen. Within days of the murder, Johnson was locked up for his own safety.

A report came in from Club 111, a local tavern, of a man who was acting strangely. He was from out of town and “made sure his car was locked” before entering the bar.

Indiana police called to say that a 13-year-old girl had been raped on Nov. 10 and they were looking for a man driving a station wagon.

The most promising tip came in from Illinois, where Gloria Kowalowycz, 9, disappeared on Saturday, Nov. 12, the day before Nancy was killed. She was abducted and killed with two gunshots to the head. Another Chicago girl was then abducted but she escaped. Headlines hinted strongly at a connection between those cases and Nancy's, but Sheriff Keeler later reported that the Chicago suspect had been picked up and was in jail at the time of the Paulding murder.

A 17-year-old described at the time as a former mental patient was found with what was thought to be blood on his clothing. It was a false alarm.

Days after the crime, a Michigan man pulled up to the scene and asked investigators for directions back to Michigan. Then he excitedly mentioned, "Hey, is this where that girl was killed? He was investigated and cleared.

Rumors, but no progress in the case

Rumors exploded around town -- about the killer and the killing. Multiple media reports said Nancy's throat was slashed, another said she was found on a spiked wooden frame. In fact, she was found among leaves, with only a small pool of blood beneath her head.

Suspects were interviewed and cleared, several were given polygraphs.

In December, Keeler declared: "There are two things we know: The suspect is a man and he drove an automobile. We also know there are 30 men who didn't do it."

Years later, it was discovered that a man who was tried for the killing of two different women in the mid-1960s – Mark Hodges – was seen drinking in a nearby bar around the time Nancy disappeared. He was cleared in both murder cases, but he later spent years in prison on sexually oriented offenses. Two law enforcement sources told 11 Investigates that Sheriff Keeler interviewed him and was convinced he was their man, but no evidence could ever be linked to him. None of the tips panned out, and no one has ever been charged in the case.

Over the years, the Nancy Eagleson police file has grown to close to 1,000 pages. Several people have been held for questioning. No one has ever been charged.

Coming Thursday: A Paulding judge puts the case back in the spotlight and an 11 Investigates interview provides new evidence for investigators.

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