It’s been nearly seven decades since the gruesome murder of Marilyn Sheppard in her Bay Village home on Lake Road. Questions still linger, such as: Who was the bushy-haired intruder?
While he can’t answer those questions, Dominic Donnellan will be walking away with a piece of Northeast Ohio’s bloody past. Paying more than $1,000, Donnellan was the high bidder in the Bay Village Historical Society auction that featured the fireplace mantelpiece from the home of Dr. Sam Sheppard, who was accused, convicted and later acquitted of the brutal murder.
“It feels amazing that I won this. I love that I’m keeping the history alive in the community,” said Donnellan, who declined to disclose his winning bid amount. “I find the local history here fascinating and I wanted to be able to keep it near the city.”
The lakefront Sheppard home is long gone: It was torn down in 1993. But the mantelpiece was saved and will now be used as a fireplace mantel in Donnellan’s Rocky River house near the Cleveland Yacht Club.
While people collected and sold bricks from the Sheppard home’s foundation, not much inside the house was saved except for the mantelpiece. The historical society acquired it through a donation from the current homeowner, who held onto it for 20 years.
The auction was announced two weeks ago on Secret Bay Village, the city’s community page on Facebook, so that only locals would know about it.
“We thought this would have more impact locally than anywhere else,” said Eric Eakin, the historical society’s treasurer.
Over the course of two weeks, 12 people bid on the mantelpiece. The money raised will go to the Rose Hill Museum’s operational costs, Eakin said.
The historical society holds several pieces of memorabilia related to the Sheppard case, but none as significant as the mantelpiece. They include an expansive collection of newspapers from the now-defunct Cleveland Press that followed the murder and its investigation for years. People across the nation still visit the city because of the murder, Eakin said.
“The historical society sees a number of visitors every year who are looking for information about Sheppard and his wife,” he said. “This is still a significant part of Bay Village’s history and that won’t ever change.”
On July 4, 1954, Marilyn Sheppard was found bludgeoned to death in her bedroom. When interviewed by the police, Sheppard recalled his wife calling for him from their bedroom upstairs and rushing to her. When he arrived, he saw a white, bushy-haired man standing next to his wife’s twin bed and after a short fight, he was hit in the back of the neck and lost consciousness. After a short investigation, police quickly concluded Sheppard was the culprit.
The case generated national interest and was followed closely by The Plain Dealer and The Cleveland Press. Editor Louis B. Seltzer led the coverage in The Press, which published a vast number of stories and editorials criticizing how the investigation was handled.
During the trial Susan Hayes, a nurse working in California, admitted to having an affair with Sheppard, a shocking revelation that prosecutors said was his motive for killing his wife.
Sheppard was found guilty of second-degree murder on Dec. 21, 1954, and sentenced to life in prison. In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he did not get a fair trial due to the “carnival atmosphere” that surrounded the first trial, then considered “the trial of the century.” Sheppard’s second trial helped launch the career of F. Lee Bailey, who represented former NFL running back O.J. Simpson, acquitted in October 1995 of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman.
In 1997, Sheppard’s son, Sam Reese Sheppard, and family friend Alan Davis sued Cuyahoga County for wrongful imprisonment. During the trial, new evidence was produced, including a lamp that they believed was the murder weapon. After an eight-week trial in 2000, the civil jury sided with the county, still convinced that Sheppard murdered his wife.
The criminal case was so big that it inspired a television show and a movie. Debuting in 1963, “The Fugitive” starred actor David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, who was convicted of murdering his wife, but escaped enroute to death row and spent four seasons trying to track down her murderer, a one-armed man. The Aug. 29, 1967, series finale, when Kimble caught the one armed man, was the most-watched TV episode for a decade. In 1993, the series was turned into a movie starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones.
“This case had all the makings of a real mystery blockbuster,” Eakin said. “There was a handsome doctor, a beautiful wife and a secret affair. It made sense why everyone was so interested in it.”
Eakin is happy that a little bit of its history can be preserved.
“This is a conversation starter,” he said. “I believe this will be the last piece of Sam Sheppard memorabilia ever made available to the public and I’m glad someone will be able to have it.”
Contact this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 440-871-5797.