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The Unsolved Mystery of The Circleville Writer

Circleville, Ohio is a small town 25 miles south of Columbus. It's a town that you would drive through rather than to, but in 1975 sinister letters started to arrive to people in the town that would carry on for years. The letters contained hate and vulgarity toward the reader, and in some cases, personal information that only the the recipient would know about. In every case the letters were written in a distinctive block writing style, possibly used to cover up the writers true handwriting.

 A letter from the Circleville Writer

A letter from the Circleville Writer

Even though many of the towns inhabitants were targeted, one person who was targeted for some severe treatment was school bus driver Mary Gillespie. The letter that she first received informed her that the writer was aware that she was having an affair with the superintendent of schools Gordon Massie, and warned her to break it off. The letter also carried a more ominous threat to Mary.

“I know where you live. I’ve been observing your house and know you have children. This is no joke. Please take it serious.”

There was no signature on the letter or return address on the envelope, but there was a postmark from Columbus, Ohio—but no way to find out who had sent it to her. A week later Mary received another letter in the same vein

"Stay away from him noon as well as night. Too many think this is a joke. We'll see in time"

May decided to keep the letters to herself, and this worked until her husband Ron received a letter from the same person. This letter warned him that if he did not do something to stop the affair his life was in danger.

Word of the rumoured affair spread throughout the small town, perhaps as the mysterious writer knew it would. Ron received another letter with a more clear threat a few weeks later.

“Gillespie, you have had 2 weeks and done nothing. Make her admit the truth and inform the school board. If not, I will broadcast it on CB's, posters, signs, and billboards, until the truth comes out.”

Ron and Mary decided to tell Ron's sister, her husband Paul Freshour, and Paul’s sister about the letters and the threats that were being directed at them. Mary apparently had an idea who could be sending the letters.

“We thought we’d scare the guy. We sent him four or five letters only. There was no violence in them or anything, just that we knew who he was and what he was doing, and we sent him the letters.” — Paul Freshour, Ron Gillespie's brother-in-law

The collective plan worked for a while and the letters stopped coming. The Gillespie's went about their normal lives, until 19th August 1977 when Ron received a phone call. Mary never found out what was said on the call, but it seemed to confirm in Ron's mind the identity of the letter writer. He told his family he was going to confront the writer, grabbed his gun and headed to his pickup. This would be the last time Ron was seen alive. At an intersection near to where they lived, Ron's truck hit a tree and he was killed.

 Ron Gillespie’s truck struck a tree an an intersection. Although he didn’t drink, the postmortem showed he was 1.5 times over the legal limit.

Ron Gillespie’s truck struck a tree an an intersection. Although he didn’t drink, the postmortem showed he was 1.5 times over the legal limit.

The police investigated the crash and found that his gun had been fired once, but could not explain how or when this had happened. The crash was initially ruled an accident, but strange facts emerged afterwards. At the postmortem, it was reported the Ron's blood-alcohol level was 1.5 the legal limit, which shocked many people as Ron was actually teetotal. The sheriff was reported to have said that there was more to the crash than met the eye, but vehemently denied he said this at a later date. The writer began getting in contact with with the townsfolk again, begging for a more thorough investigation into Ron's death. This led people to believe that maybe the writer wanted credit for his role in the crash.

The letters began again and along with Mary and her family, senior officials were also targeted. The vulgar tone  of the notes and the constant threats became too much for Mary and she admitted to having an affair with Gordon Massie, but claimed it only started after she received the letters. The hope that this would spare her more torment at the hands of the writer were dashed while at work in 1983.

Mary was driving her school bus she noticed a sign at the side of the road that threatened her daughter.  Disgusted at this, Mary exited the bus and tore the sign down, but to her shock there was a box behind the sign with string attached to it.

 Mary was lucky that the booby trapped sign malfunctioned.

Mary was lucky that the booby trapped sign malfunctioned.

When she took the box onto her bus she was horrified to find a gun inside. The trap was designed to go off when she pulled the sign down, but hadn't worked correctly, sparing Mary injury and possibly her life. She took the gun to the police who noticed the the serial number had been crudely filed down.  The gun was sent to the crime lab where they were able to read the serial number.  It shocked Mary and the police when the owner of the gun was identified as Paul Freshour, her brother-in-law who had just split up with Ron's sister.

 The gun belonged to Paul Freshour

The gun belonged to Paul Freshour

Paul denied that he had any involvement with the trap and said: "I admitted the gun was mine, but I hadn’t seen it for a long time. I had no reason to check up on it or anything, and I don’t know when it had come up missing. I really don’t know what happened to it, and I told them that and that’s the truth. And that’s how it was.” 

On February 25th 1983, the Sheriff Dwight Radcliffe asked Paul if he would take a handwriting test to prove he didn't write the letters, to which Paul agreed. Paul recalled: “He would give me an actual letter and ask me maybe to do the envelope part just as near as I could to the envelope. And then, on some, he would take the actual letter out and have me to do them as near as I could on the letters. And I did them because I knew I wasn’t responsible for the letters.”

 Paul Freshour was charged with the attempted murder of his sister-in-law Mary Gillespie

Paul Freshour was charged with the attempted murder of his sister-in-law Mary Gillespie

Afterwards, the sheriff took Paul to his garage and was shown where Paul had kept his gun. They both returned to the courthouse where Paul was placed under arrest for attempted murder and placed on $50,000 bail.

On October 24th 1983, the trial started and even though he was not charged with writing the threatening letters, they were used as key evidence against him. Although handwriting tests are only accurate 57% of the time, handwriting expert Stephen Green took the stand and testified: "It is in my opinion that the handwriting on the envelopes, documents and and postcards were printed by the same person, it been the known handwriting or hand printing of Paul Freshour." 

This evidence has been disputed, since if you ask someone to copy a letter, they will try to emulate the handwriting style of the author. Other experts confirmed that the test was undertaken in the incorrect manner and the conclusion should have been it could have been Paul Freshour's handwriting, not that it was his handwriting.

Paul's boss was called to the stand and testified that Paul had not gone into work the day the booby trap was found, and even though Paul had a solid alibi for his whereabouts that day, he decided not to take to the stand in his own defense. Mary Gillespie testified that she believed Paul was the letter writer, and in fact his wife had visited Mary and expressed the same concerns.

The trial lasted for about a week and after only a few hours deliberation the jury returned a guilty verdict. Paul was convicted of the attempted murder of Mary Gillespie and sentenced to 7-25 years in prison. Speaking about the case years later, Paul expressed at the shock he received when he heard the verdict: “I can’t blame the jury, because the jury didn’t hear all the evidence. But I just couldn’t believe it. I was really in shock.” 

With Paul incarcerated, the people of Circleville believed the letters would stop; however, they continued to be received causing uproar in the community.  People demanded to know how Paul could be sending these letters whilst in prison, leading to Sheriff Radcliffe complaining to the warden of the prison and Paul being placed in solitary confinement. Even this did not stop the letters being received all over Central Ohio with the Columbus postmark on them, even though Paul was imprisoned over the state line in Lima. Three full scale investigations were conducted into the letters and each time Paul Freshour was sent to isolation, but the letters were still being sent. This led the warden to admit in a letter to Paul's wife that he did not believe that Paul was responsible.

After serving seven years in prison and being described as "a model prisoner" by staff, Paul Freshour was eligible for parole. However, this was rejected by the parole board due to the volume of letters that people were still receiving. A few days after the hearing Paul received a letter himself from the Circleville Writer..

“Now when are you going to believe you aren’t going to get out of there? I told you 2 years ago. When we set ’em up, they stay set up. Don’t you listen at all?” 

In May 1984, Paul Freshour was granted parole after serving 10 years in prison, and he still maintains his innocence. He also feels that Roy's death should be looked into again.

"I’d like to see someone really look at this case on the letters, reopen the letter part of it and get in and find out who wrote the letters. I’d also like to see someone look into my former brother-in-law’s death. Look, that’s not my family anymore. That’s my past. I’m not even going to look back at it. I’ve got a new family and a new future. But I would still like to see someone look at that accident real close and the letters," Paul said. 

The TV show Unsolved Mysteries even bore the wrath of the Circle Writer when they announced the case was going to be part of one of their upcoming shows. They received a letter which said:


"Forget Circleville Ohio: Do Nothing to Hurt Sheriff Radcliff: If You Come to Ohio You El Sickos Will Pay: The Circleville Writer.

After these events Martin Yant, a journalist, reviewed the Sheriff's file and came across a piece of evidence that was not mentioned in the trial. Yant reported: 

“Mary Gillispie told the sheriff one of the other bus drivers told her that she had been driving that same road about 20 minutes before Mary Gillispie found that booby trap at exactly that site. And when she went by that very same intersection, there was a yellow El Camino parked there. A large man with sandy hair was standing there. When he saw her come, he turned around and acted like he was going to the bathroom or something, but seemed also to be avoiding any kind of identification. The description of the individual does not fit Paul Freshour at all, and Paul had a very solid alibi for this time. There was no attempt at all to follow up on that lead.  And if they had, as I say, they would have found that another possible suspect in this case had a brother who had a yellow El Camino."

 Evidence that could have spared Paul Freshour was omitted from the trial.

Evidence that could have spared Paul Freshour was omitted from the trial.

The Circleville Letters finally stopped but nobody knows who the mysterious writer actually was. The police force still maintain that Paul Freshour was the Circleville Writer, but he maintained until his death in 2012 that he was innocent.

Do you think the police had the right man, or do you believe something more sinister was going on? Let me know in the comments, or sound off on social media.

Story courtesy of Jan Siery, originally published on Survival of the Dad.