Sixty-four years after Marylin Sheppard was bludgeoned to death in Bay Village, Ohio, a conspiracy to protect the killer may have finally been revealed… over breakfast at First Watch in Rocky River. Across from me is James Pugsley, 75, retired. He works at Ace Hardware down the street. But for many years he was an engineer at Reliance Electric, making decent money. His mother was friends with the Sheppard’s extended family. And he attended summer camp, on an island in Canada, with Marylin’s son, Sam Reese Sheppard. Pugsley thinks he knows something about the murder, and after years of silence, he’s ready to speak on the record.
“I can’t say it’s true,” he cautions. “But this man who told me, he wasn’t the type to lie.”
The man he’s talking about is Jim Russell. Russell was a Cleveland attorney and justice of the peace, as well as a famous HAM radio operator (call sign, W8BU). As a teen, Russell had listened in on radio traffic broadcast from the RMS Titanic. Later, he used to call up his brother from his house on Kelley’s Island using his radio and Pugsley would listen-in – kind of an absurd real-life Prairie Home Companion broadcast.
In his waning years, Russell lived at Normandy Manor, an assisted-living facility in Rocky River. Pugsley visited him there sometimes and Russell would reminisce. One day, not long before he died, in 1997, the subject of Marylin’s murder came up. And according to Pugsley, Russell had a confession to make – he had important information about the case that he’d never shared with police.
“He said, in the early morning hours of July 4th, 1954, he got up and went down to the Rocky River Yacht Club to go fishing out on the lake. That’s when he sees Sam Sheppard and his brother. They were walking to the boats and Sam was carrying a shopping bag. Russell said hello to them and went on his way.”
Later, news of Marylin’s death circulated in the local papers. Sometime during the night of July 3rd, Marylin had been murdered in the bedroom. Sam claimed he had slept downstairs and was awakened by his wife’s cries. He told police he’d gone upstairs and encountered a man who knocked him unconscious. When he awoke a short time later he chased the killer down to the beach where they fought but again the killer overpowered him.
Pugsley said his friend always knew this story was a lie – Russell said he’d seen Sam and his brother at the yacht club before anyone called the police that morning. “He felt that Sam was the one who’d done it, killed Marylin, and they were heading out onto the lake to get rid of the murder weapon.”
So why didn’t Russell go to the police?
“Jim said it the case was a media circus and he didn’t want to be involved in it,” says Pugsley. “He figured they were going to get Sam anyhow.”
And they did. Sheppard was convicted for Marylin’s murder in 1955. However, the case was overturned on appeal and he was set free ten years later. Technically, the murder remains an open case, unsolved.
Pugsley says he’s coming forward with the story, now, because his son thought it was worth sharing and because a county prosecutor who knew about the claim, said he could.
“I believe him,” he says. “He had no reason to lie.”
For more information on the Sheppard case, watch my latest episode of Lake Erie’s Coldest Cases on IDGo.
Editor’s note: There’s no way around the fact that the above story is hearsay. It’s a twice-told tale by a man who is dead about another man who died years ago. As a journalist and storyteller, I am fascinated by the way historical events merge into legend over time. But it’s important to remember that this story is not yet so old and some relatives of the Sheppards, including Sam Reese Sheppard, are still alive and this event still shapes their lives, today. There is still testing that could be done by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. Hopefully, one day we will have definitive, scientific evidence that can give this case some much-needed closure.