Willy, I’m going to start today’s story off with a story, which I will be reading from http://www.snopes.com/horrors/madmen/babysitter.asp.
A young couple living in a large isolated house had gone out to a dinner party one evening and left the baby-sitter in charge of their two children. The children had been put to bed and the baby-sitter was watching the television when the phone rang. She answered but all she heard was a man laughing hysterically and then a voice saying, “I’m upstairs with the children, you’d better come up.” Thinking it was “one of those phone calls” or a practical joke she slammed down the receiver and turned the television sound up. A short time later the phone rang again and, as she picked it up, the unmistakable hysterical laughter came down the line and the voice once again said “I’m upstairs with the children, you’d better come up.”
Getting rather frightened she called the operator and was advised they would notify the police and, should he phone again, could she keep him talking in order to give them time to trace the call and have him arrested. Minutes after she replaced the receiver the phone rang again and, when the voice said, “I’m upstairs with the children, you’d better come up,” she tried to keep him talking. However, he must have guessed what she was trying to do and he put the phone down.
Only seconds later the phone rang again, this time it was the operator who said, “Get out of the house straight away, the man is on the extension.” The baby-sitter put down the phone and just then heard someone coming down the stairs. She fled from the house and ran straight into the arms of the police. They burst into the house and found a man brandishing a large butcher’s knife. He had entered the house through an upstairs window, murdered both the children and was just about to do the same to the poor baby-sitter.
Now that was a pretty well-known urban legend called The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs, which was the inspiration for several horror movies, such as When a Stranger Calls. In preparation for today’s episode, I rewatched a few scenes from the 1979 version of When a Stranger Calls, and I’ve got to say that that is a pretty spooky movie. I mean, the concept is pretty ridiculous, but it gets a little unnerving if you think about it too long.
The story of The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs was inspired by the true story of an unsolved murder that took place in the 1950s, and we’re going to talk about that true story during today’s episode. However, we’re going to find that this story, while awful, has been so sensationalized by urban legend and horror cinema that it is hardly recognizable anymore.
But beyond being the true story behind an urban legend, this case features police turf wars, racial profiling of potential suspects, shady investigative work, a very compelling suspect who gets off Scott free, and an ominous string of similar crimes in the area. And where could such horrible crimes and bumblingly terrible police work take place other than the state of Missouri?
Now, if we offended any of our Missourian listeners...then good. Both Willy and I were raised in Kansas, so we know how terrible Missouri can be. And let's not forget that Kansas and Missouri basically went to war because Missourians loved slavery so much that they snuck into Kansas so they could vote to make Kansas a slave state.
Anyway, we will be in Columbia, Missouri for today's mystery. In 1950 when this crime was committed, Columbia was a city of 31,000 people and home to the University of Missouri. 1950 was the first year the University allowed black students to attend, but the school's marching band still waved the confederate flag while playing Dixie at Mizzou football games. I don't point this out to slander the school, but to point out that racism was particularly problematic at the time and almost part of the culture in Columbia. I mean, it's still problematic in the state of Missouri today, what with the situations in Ferguson, Missouri and on the University of Missouri campus in recent years. Again, while I love to talk bad about Missouri, I'm bringing this up because racism is going to become a bit of a roadblock when it comes to the investigation of the crime I'm about to tell you about.
Janett Christman was thirteen years old in 1950, and was the daughter of Charles and Lula Mae Christman, the owners of Ernie’s Café & Steakhouse in Columbia. She had two sisters named Reta and Sheryl, who described her as a hardworking girl who lined up several part time jobs for herself to earn money, including babysitting gigs.
The night of March 18th, 1950 was an ugly one as far as weather goes. High winds, heavy rain and sleet, and temperatures in the mid-twenties made the evening almost cliché in its eeriness for the crime that occurred. In the midst of the weather, the local middle school had a party for its eighth grade students, but Janett chose not to attend because she would be babysitting for Ed and Anne Romack’s three-year-old son Greg. She was willing to skip the party because she wanted to make enough money to make the last payment on a burgundy suit she’d bought for Easter.
The Romacks were one of the two families Janett was allowed to babysit for, and they lived in a small, one-story house just a few hundred feet just outside of Columbia city limits at the time, although now the house would be inside of city limits. The area surrounded the house was undeveloped, making the house remote and isolated. Ed and Anne were planning to attend a bridge party with their friends at a restaurant in east Columbia, but before they left, Ed showed Janett how to use his shotgun and instructed her to turn on the very bright porch light if someone came to the front door.
Little Greg was already sleeping when Janett arrived so he wasn’t expected to give her any trouble, but Janett was instructed to leave the radio on for him while he slept. The Romacks left the house at around 7:50 that night, locking the door tight behind them.
Because of the nasty weather outside, March 18th was a slow night for police. At 10:35 pm that night, Officer Roy McCowen received a phone call from a girl who was screaming hysterically. Officer McCowen was only able to understand the words “come quick” before the phone call ended. Because the girl hadn’t been able to say who she was or where she was calling from, McCowen tried to trace the call. However the test board at the telephone company wasn’t staffed that late at night so the trace couldn’t be done, leaving the officer helpless to help the girl.
At the same time that Officer McCowen was receiving that frantic phone call, Anne Romack went to the phone at the restaurant and tried to call her house to see if Greg was managing to sleep through the storm. Anne received a busy signal, so she figured that someone from their party line was on the phone.
At 1:35 am, the Romacks returned home from the restaurant, which tells me that must have been one hell of a card game if they were gone for almost six hours. Before they entered the house, they noticed that the porch light was on and the front Venetian blinds were open. On their way inside, they found that the front door was unlocked, even though they specifically locking it on their way to the restaurant.
Inside the house, they came upon a horrible scene. Janett was lying on the shag-carpeted floor of the living room next to the piano, dead, with an electric iron cord wrapped around her neck and her skirt pushed up, suggesting that she had been raped. The Romacks rushed to their son’s bedroom and found young Greg still sleeping, and it appeared that he had slept through whatever had happened to Janett.
The Romacks immediately called the police. While they technically lived outside of city limits and jurisdiction in the investigation should have belonged to the county sheriff’s department, the first officer to respond was from the city police department. This would be the beginning of a turf war that would have a severe impact upon the authorities’ ability to solve the case.
Officers from the county sheriff’s department also arrived in short order to work the case alongside the city police. What they found at the scene was evidence of a terrific struggle that stretched from the living room, through a hallway, to the kitchen at the back of the house where the phone was. The walls and floors in this room were spattered with blood and smeared with bloody handprints.
A window looking into the living room from the side of the house was broken from the outside. When the police looked outside, they found a sawhorse set up outside the window, which they found had been broken by a garden hoe sitting on the lawn. When asked about it, the Romacks confirmed it belong to them, but that it had been put away in a utility closet when they left. This window was just above the family’s piano, but the Venetian blinds and most of the family pictures and various papers set atop the piano were relatively undisturbed, although city police did find that there was a brown smear on one of the papers, which could have been caused by a muddy boot.
Police also found that the family’s shotgun hadn’t been touched, and that the back door had been left wide open. Bloodhounds were called in to trace a trail out the back door, but the dogs were unable to trace the trail very far before they lost it.
It was determined that Janett had died of asphyxiation from the electric iron cord. The iron cord is interesting, because it wasn’t ripped off of the iron—it was cut. The iron it was cut from was in a sewing room down the hall, and the Romacks stated that it had to have been cut with a pair of scissors that was also in the sewing room.
Police also found out that Janett had indeed been raped, although they couldn’t determine whether she was raped before or after she was murdered. Janett had fingernail scratches on her face and other wounds on both sides of her head. There were also two puncture marks on her scalp which seemed to have been made by some sort of small metal instrument, such as a cork borer or a small round pipe.
Like I said earlier, both city and county police were in on the investigation, and both insisted on taking the lead. After investigating the scene of the crime, city police came to the conclusion that the killer had crawled in through the window. While the blinds and pictures on the piano were not greatly disturbed, that muddy smear on one of the papers convinced the city police that the attacker had indeed come through the window and escaped through the back door. They also believed that the killer had most likely been a stranger to Janett, an opportunist who forced entry into the house upon realizing that Janett was alone in the house.
However, the county police came to a different conclusion after their investigation of the crime scene. They found no evidence to suggest that anyone had crawled across the piano, as it had recently been waxed and yet it showed no marks on its surface. Contrarily, they believed that the attacker had come in through the front door and had been someone that Janett knew. The evidence for this? Well, the porch light had been left on, which is what Ed had told Janett to do if someone came to the door. Additionally, the front door was unlocked even though the Romacks specifically remembered locking it after them. The shotgun, which was right by the front door, had been untouched, which also suggested that she knew her attacker. Finally, the fact that the killer used an electric iron cord from a sewing room down the hall from the front door suggested that the attacker was familiar with the layout of the house, as well as someone who Janett would have felt comfortable letting into the house.
These two very different interpretations of the crime scene by the two agencies led them on two completely different investigations. The city police, believing that the killer was a stranger who had taken advantage of a girl found all alone, hauled in hundreds of potential suspects for interrogation, most of them being black men. These suspects were identified based upon tips called in by community members or by reports of “suspicious behavior” as observed by police, but these were vague and lame reasons to try and get black men to confess to the crime. We’ll see in a little bit that there was almost a precedent for this kind of thing in Columbia around this time.
The county police, who believed the attacker was someone Janett knew, began by interviewing the Romacks, and based upon their solid alibis, they were quickly ruled out as suspects in the case. Next, they asked the Romacks who would have known the layout of the house. The county police figured the killer must have known the layout of the house, because he had cut the iron cord from a room down a hallway using scissors from the same room, when there were far more accessible cords in the living room of the house. Based upon the information given by the Romacks, the county police’s investigation zeroed in on one main suspect.
But before we talk about that suspect, let’s take a break and tell our listeners about today’s sponsor.
I promised before the break that we would talk about the county police’s main suspect in the case, but before we do that, let’s go back in time a little bit.
The rape and murder of Janett Christman was not the first such instance in Columbia. In fact, in the four years leading up to Janett’s murder, there were multiple instances of voyeurs, rapes, and even another murder.
On February 5, 1946, twenty-year-old Mary Lou Jenkins was found dead in her home, strangled by a cord ripped from a lamp in the house. She was attacked late in the evening while she was alone in her house, and wasn’t found until the next day when her mother returned home after spending the night with an elderly couple who lived next door. Like Janett, Mary Lou had also been raped. However, unlike Janett, a suspect was arrested, convicted, and executed for the murder of Mary Lou Jenkins.
On February 23, 1946, just two and a half weeks after Mary Lou’s death, an intellectually disabled black man named Floyd Cochran was arrested for the rape and murder of Mary Lou. Earlier that day, he had killed his own wife and had attempted to kill himself. Cochran didn’t try to hide the fact that he had murdered his wife, because he confessed this openly. However, it’s still uncertain why he was arrested for Mary Lou’s death. The prosecuting attorney in the case stated that Cochran made statements suggesting he was guilty of murdering Mary Lou, but it was later determined that Cochran had made no such statements. However, he would be dead before any suspicion could be cast on his conviction, as Cochran was executed via gas chamber on September 26, 1947, just a year and a half after his arrest.
There are obvious similarities in the cases of Mary Lou Jenkins and Janett Christman, such as the age of the victim, the fact that they were alone in the house, the murder weapon, and the rape. Plus, Willy, Mary Lou was murdered just .42 miles away from where Janett would be murdered four years later. And then, the murky circumstances under which the Jenkins case was allegedly solves leaves open the possibility that Mary Lou’s killer was never actually caught, and was free to commit similar crimes in the future.
As I mentioned earlier, there were many reports of Peeping Toms in Columbia over the next few years, but there wouldn’t be another rape until 1949, when there would be three rapes within the span of a few weeks.
Sometime in late October of 1949, an unnamed 16-year-old girl was raped in her home by a man wearing a white sack on his head, with holes cut out for eyes.
A few weeks later on November 29th, 1949, 18-year-old Sally Johnson reported an attempted rape while she was alone in her parents’ house and sleeping on their couch. We ought to note that the house where this attempted rape occurred less than a block away from where the October rape occurred.
The very next day, on November 30, 1949, a man in a white hood and holding a gun approached a University of Missouri couple in their car. The attacker led them away from the car about a quarter-mile where he tied up the man and robbed him. Then he led the woman away and raped her.
People in Columbia believed that the three attacks in 1949 were linked, as two of the three attacks occurred in incredibly close proximity, and because of multiple reports of a man wearing a white sack on his head as a mask.
On December 4th, 1949, city police arrested a black man named Jake Bradford was arrested after being caught in the act of looking in somebody’s window. He was taken back to the station where, after ten hours of questioning, he admitted to both the October rape of the 16-year-old girl and the attempted rape of Sally Johnson.
But then, three and a half months after Bradford’s arrest, while he was still behind bars, Janett Christman was raped and murdered. The fact that the circumstances of Janett’s rape and murder were so similar to that of Mary Lou Jenkins cast considerable suspicion on the conviction and execution of Floyd Cochran, but Janett’s rape and murder also cast suspicion on the arrest of Jake Bradford to the two previous attacks. Most historians who have studied this case don’t believe that Jake Bradford had anything to do with the attacks. Instead, they think that city police focused in on him because they had caught him in the acting of voyeurism and probably also because he was a black man.
Now, you might try to point out that Jake Bradford admitted to two of the attacks, so he must have done it, right? Wrong. As crazy as it may seem, false confessions are really not all that uncommon, particularly when someone is intensely questioned by police. Remember, Jake Bradford was questioned for ten hours before he confessed, and I’m guessing that the only reason he confessed was that he figured they weren’t going to let up on him unless he did confess, even if he didn’t commit the crimes at all.
Bradford would later retract his confession, stating that police had used threats to evoke a confession from him. His attorney would also point out that Sally Johnson had never positively identified Bradford as her attacker, and even went so far as to say that she thought he was too small to have been the man who tried to rape her. Regardless, Bradford was still convicted of these crimes.
However, even though Jake Bradford probably didn’t commit the 1949 rapes, and even though he was in jail when Janett was murdered, the Columbia city police continued to believe that these crimes must have been committed by black men and kept barking up that tree. Meanwhile, the Boone County Sheriff’s Department was a little wiser in its investigation and, like I hinted at earlier, their investigation turned up a very compelling suspect.
If you’ll remember before the break, I explained how the county police talked to the Romacks about who would have known the house as well as the murderer seemed to have known it. The only name the Romacks could come up with was twenty-seven-year-old Robert Mueller.
Robert Mueller and Ed Romack had been friends since high school, and Mueller had reportedly been to the Romacks’ house several times. Mueller was a former Army Air Corps captain who had developed a distinguished military record in World War II, but was now working as a tailor. Because Mueller was a tailor and frequented the Romacks’ house, Ed stated that Mueller would have definitely known where their iron was, as well as the scissors used to cut the cord from the iron.
While Ed and Mueller were friends, Anne Romack was scared of Mueller. Allegedly, the day before the murder, Mueller had run his hand across Anne’s breasts while helping her hem a dress. She described him as a man who “doesn’t use his words” but who “uses his hands,” and cited multiple other instances of him touching her inappropriately.
To make Mueller look even creepier, Ed gave testimony that Mueller had once commented on his attraction to Janett’s well-developed figure, in particular her breasts and hips. Ed also stated that Mueller speculated that Janett was still a virgin, and would talk about his desire to have sex with a young virgin.
Now, you might be wondering how Robert Mueller even knew Janett Christman? Well, at the beginning of the story, I mentioned that Janett was only allowed to babysit for the Romacks and another family. Who was that other family? As luck would have it, it was none other than the Mueller family. In fact, on the morning of March 18th, Robert Mueller called Janett to see if she could babysit for his kids, as he was attending the same bridge party as the Romacks. Janett turned him down, explaining that she had already agreed to babysit for the Romacks.
But Willy, I know the question that you’re about to ask: If Robert Mueller was at the bridge party on the night of March 18th, how on earth could he have also been murdering Janett Christman at the Romacks’ house across town? Well, Willy, several guests at the party reported seeing Mueller leave the venue, only to return an hour or two later. When asked about this, Mueller stated that he had gone home because a doctor was visiting his sick child. The only problem with this story is that the doctor would tell police that he hadn’t been at the Mueller house that night at all.
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, in the days after the murder, Mueller exhibited some pretty strange behavior. At 9:00 the morning after the murder, before the news of it had been publicized, Mueller called the Romacks and offered to help clean up the bloody mess in the house. Later, he would discuss the crime with Ed Romack on multiple occasions, often offering his own theories as to what happened, such as that he didn’t believe that the killer had come through the window, but in fact had come through the door. Ed Romack even reported that Mueller went so far as to say, “I might have done it and forgotten it.”
Mueller was also apparently well-known for carrying around a mechanical pencil with a round metal end that police believed could have caused the two puncture wounds to Janett’s scalp. When the pencil was sent to the Highway Patrol crime lab, it was determined by the technicians there that the pencil generally had the same diameter as the wounds on Janett’s head.
And here’s one last interesting note on Robert Mueller: when questioned by police, he would admit to them that, ten years prior to the murder, he had been the chairman of the Senior Play Stage Set Committee at Hickman High School in Columbia. Now that, in and of itself, is not suspicious, but what is suspicious is one of the props it was his responsibility to make: masks made out white sacks with holes cut out for eyes, hauntingly similar to the mask allegedly worn by the 1949 rapist.
On May 4th, 1950, nearly two months after the murder, the county police believed they had probable cause to arrest Mueller and came up with a plot to make sure he had his mechanical pencil on his person when they did. They had Ed Romack invite Mueller to a card game with some friends, as Mueller typically kept score with his trusty mechanical pencil. Mueller was taken into custody by county police on his way to the game.
The county sheriff Powell met Mueller and the arresting deputy at the deputy’s farmhouse, where Mueller would be questioned all night, which is definitely not acceptable police work. The Powell would later state that they did this to avoid publicity, but it’s more likely that they did this to hide what they were doing from the city police.
The next day, Powell took Mueller to Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri, to take a polygraph test, which he passed. Mueller was then released by the county police in Columbia at 5:30 pm that day.
While the Boone County Police had a very good suspect in Robert Mueller, their handling of the investigation completely ruined the case they had against him. For one thing, they arrested him without a warrant, and then instead of taking him to the police station for questioning, they took him to the farmhouse of one of the officers and detained him there unlawfully.
In June of 1950, a grand jury was brought in to investigate the possibility of Mueller’s participation in the rape and murder of Janett Christman. Instead of indicting Mueller as expected, however, the grand jury merely scolded the city and county police for their poor handling of the case. Since then, there has been some suspicion that Mueller had some connections that helped him avoid any charges, but this has never been proven.
Soon after the grand jury gave its findings, Mueller moved away from Columbia. He joined the newly formed United States Air Force, which took him all the way to Tucson, Arizona. Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, the rapes and murders ended after Mueller left the state. He died in 2006, at the age of 83.
According to the Columbia City Police and the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, the rape and murder of Janett Christman has never been solved.
To be fair to Robert Mueller, all the evidence against him in this case is circumstantial and there really is no legitimate evidence to put him at the crime scene. It’s very possible that he was just a creepy pervert who happened to have left a bridge party for a few hours on the same night his usual babysitter was killed. So Willy, what do you think about old Mr. Mueller?
While I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and am a huge proponent of innocent until proven guilty, I think Robert Mueller killed Janett, and he’s probably guilty of at least a few of the other rapes that took place in Columbia around those times. There’s just way too much going against him to think that he’s somehow innocent of the crime. I only hope he didn’t commit any other rapes or murders after he left Missouri.
I do wonder if he ever watched one of the many movies based upon the urban legend that Janett’s murder spawned. What would it be like to sit through a horror movie and know that it was the crime you committed which inspired it?
The only participating character from today’s story who’s still living is Greg Romack, the toddler who slept through the rape and murder of Janett Christman. He now lives in Alaska, and in 2000 he broke his arm because a family of moose was blocking the bike trail he was riding on. That’s totally unrelated to today’s case, I just thought it was an interesting anecdote.