Biographies & Memoirs


Murder on the Towpath

Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.

—Adolf Hitler

HENRY WIGGINS JR. thought he heard “a whole lot of hollerin’” coming from the canal.1 An employee of University Esso Service Station at Pennsylvania Avenue and 21st Street in Georgetown, Wiggins had been dispatched to pick up Bill Branch, the mechanic at the employer’s other Esso Service Station at the north end of Key Bridge. Together, they were to service a stalled Nash Rambler sedan abandoned somewhere in the 4300 block on the north side of Canal Road. They had just arrived and Wiggins was taking out his toolbox when he heard screams coming from the canal. At first, he explained to police, he didn’t pay too much attention: “…you know, that area down there—it could have been some kids playing, or a bunch of winos fighting.” But then, he said, both he and Branch had thought they heard a woman screaming. The screams lasted for twenty seconds or more, they estimated, with the woman pleading, “Help me! … Help me! … Somebody help me!”2 A gunshot rang out from the same direction as the shouting.

Henry Wiggins was a heavy-set, twenty-four-year-old black man who had served in the Army in a Military Police unit in Korea, and he was still fast on his feet. On hearing the shot, he had dashed across Canal Road toward a stone wall at the edge of the embankment overlooking the canal. Seconds before he got there, he heard a second shot. When he peered over the wall and down across the canal, Wiggins saw a man, “a Negro male,” standing over a woman who lay motionless and curled on her side. Minutes later, Wiggins would give the police a description of the man, recorded on the department’s Police Form PD-251. The “Negro male” was listed as having a “medium build, 5 feet 8 inches to 5 feet 10 inches, 185 pounds.”3 Also listed were the clothes Wiggins said the man was wearing: a dark plaid golf cap; a light, beige-colored, waist-length zippered jacket; dark trousers; and dark shoes.4 Police would later measure the distance from where Wiggins stood at the wall to the murder scene to be 128.6 feet. It was close enough to make out specific details, certainly close enough to see that the woman was white, that the man standing over her was black, and that he stood with his hands down at his sides. “He was facing toward me but his head was bent down. He was looking at the body lying on the ground. Then, he looked up toward the wall where I was standing. He saw me. I was looking right at him,” Wiggins recalled.5

Wiggins ducked behind the wall, but when he peeked back over it, he saw that the man held some kind of a dark object in his right hand. From the considerable distance of 128.6 feet, he couldn’t say with certainty what the object was, but given the gunshots he had just heard, he assumed that it was a gun. “He just shoved something in his jacket pocket, looked at me a couple of seconds … turned away from the victim and walked [author’s emphasis] down over the embankment there,” he said. Wiggins couldn’t say which way the man went after he disappeared over the embankment.6

But nowhere in Wiggins’s initial description to police, or in his testimony nine months later at the trial, did he ever mention seeing any stains, blood or anything else, on the fully zipped light-colored beige jacket the man had been wearing. Indeed, the “Negro male” and his clothes, which Wiggins had described, appeared to be neatly in place; nothing was disheveled.

Racing back across Canal Road to the tow truck, Wiggins yelled to his assistant, Bill Branch, “A guy just shot a lady over there!” He hopped into the truck, started the ignition, made a U-turn, and sped back to the Key Bridge Esso Station, six-tenths of a mile away. Once there, he told station manager Joe Cameron what he had just seen. “It wasn’t any long conversation,” Wiggins said. “I just told him what happened.” Wiggins immediately phoned the Seventh Precinct of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department. Before he had finished talking with the dispatcher, a police cruiser, already responding to the radio alert about the incident, pulled into the Esso station, sirens wailing. The alert had been broadcast at 12:26 P.M.

Wiggins climbed into the back seat of the cruiser, which took off in the direction of the Foundry Underpass, a distance of about four-tenths of a mile, to access the C & O Canal towpath. Reaching the Foundry’s arched stone tunnel, which was as narrow as its roadway was rutted, “we dismounted from the police car,” Wiggins recalled. “We ran down the tracks, the railroad tracks, down towards the scene and up the embankment to the [murder] scene.”7 Together, police officers Robert Decker and James Scouloukas approached the fallen woman with Wiggins. Blood saturated her blonde hair and soaked her sweater and gloves. There was a bullet wound near her left eye, and blood covered her face. Her body would still have been warm. A pair of smashed sunglasses lay near her feet. The scuffed ground indicated that there had been a struggle, and parallel tracks in the dirt from the towpath to the embankment indicated that the woman had been dragged to the spot where she lay. Surmising that the killer might still be in the vicinity, police officer Scouloukas returned with Wiggins to the cruiser to broadcast the description of the man Wiggins had seen.8

Meanwhile, police officers Roderick Sylvis and Frank Bignotti, who were on patrol in Scout 72, had also responded to the broadcast alarm. They pulled up on Canal Road, directly across from the murder scene, and climbed out of their cruiser. At that point, Decker motioned to them to drive to Fletcher’s Boat House, which was just over a mile and a half to the west, in order to block off one of the canal’s four marked entrances. Arriving at the boathouse area, Sylvis and Bignotti drove through the tight underpass tunnel below the canal and parked facing the canal from the south. From that vantage point, they would be able to see anyone leaving the towpath to access Canal Road, and they would have a full view of the canal itself, particularly the point where visitors could use an old, leaky skiff attached to a rope and pulley to pull themselves across the seventy-foot canal.

“We sat in the cruiser about four or five minutes and observed no one walking out from the towpath,” Sylvis recalled. The two officers then settled on a new strategy. “We decided that it would be best if my partner went through the woods and myself proceeding along the towpath.”9

As the officers began to position themselves, they saw a young white couple, thirtyish, walking westward on the railroad tracks, just below and parallel to the towpath. The two officers approached the couple for questioning. “I asked if they had seen anyone going out of the area before I got there,” Sylvis said. “But they hadn’t seen anybody, or heard any gunshots, screams, or any disturbance.” After several minutes, the two officers made their way east in the hope that they might yet encounter the assailant. Perhaps, acting in haste, they let the couple go without requesting identification or contact information. It was an oversight, a lapse of protocol that would remain a cloud over the case for decades to come.10 At that point, Bignotti entered the woods adjacent to the railroad tracks and Sylvis took the towpath, walking east toward the murder scene.

Officer Sylvis continued on the towpath “for about a mile” in the direction of the murder scene, slowly and vigilantly scouring the area for other people. After a while, a man poked his head out of some woods to the right and ahead of where Sylvis was walking. “He was looking up toward me by the railroad tracks at the edge of the woods about 150 feet away,” Sylvis recalled. “Just his head is all I saw for a second.” Sylvis saw the man only long enough to discern that he was a “Negro male.”11 Slowly, and with caution, the young officer approached the area where he had seen the man. The tangle of underbrush, vines, tree roots, and rocks that covered the embankment made it difficult to penetrate. Sylvis saw no one. Nothing disturbed the stillness of the woods but the breeze that rustled the fallen leaves. Hoping that his partner, Bignotti, was in the woods to his right, Sylvis yelled for him a number of times. “I was thinking maybe he could get behind the individual I’d seen, but Bignotti was not answering my call,” said Sylvis. Coming out of the underbrush on the tracks, he finally spotted Bignotti crossing the tracks and caught up with him. But Bignotti had seen no one during his search of the woods. He had seen no evidence of the “Negro male” that his partner had see.12

In the meantime, Henry Wiggins was beginning to lose patience. More than a half hour had passed since he and Officer Scouloukas had called in the report. Police cruisers had converged on the scene. Sergeant Pasquale D’Ambrosio of the Seventh Precinct Criminal Investigations Division arrived to escort Wiggins back to the towpath and to secure the scene. It was Wiggins’s opinion that D’Ambrosio was the only officer doing anything proactive, not just standing around the dead woman’s body, talking.13

The Homicide Squad arrived a few minutes before 1:00 P.M., just after the arrival of Chief Detective Art Weber, a twenty-three-year veteran of the police force, and three men wearing trench raincoats. “The description I got was for a Negro male wearing a dark hat and a light-colored jacket,” Weber recalled. “I remember from the lookout—one of my ways of doing this—I had a picture in my mind of a stocky individual.” He later confirmed that based on the description of the man sought by the police, he expected the man to be between “five feet eight or ten inches” tall.14

Twenty-nine-year-old detective Bernie Crooke was the youngest member of the Homicide Squad and had been on the job for only eighteen months. Even so, he had already seen a number of murdered women, “but none who looked beautiful when dead,” he recalled years later upon first seeing the dead Mary Meyer. “She even looked beautiful with a bullet in her head.”15 Crooke surveyed the scene and detected what appeared to be drag marks. He also found a blue button with two frayed threads in the grass by a birch tree at the edge of the embankment, twenty-two feet from the body. Blood on the tree suggested that the victim might have grasped it from a sitting or a kneeling position. Detective Crooke joined Detective Weber, who was questioning Henry Wiggins at a spot approximately thirty feet from the body.

Wiggins explained that he had arrived at the 4300 block of Canal Road at approximately 12:20 P.M. to service a stalled Nash Rambler sedan. Laying out the sequence of events—the woman’s screams, the sound of one gunshot and then a second—Wiggins told Crooke and Weber that he had ducked behind the stone wall because he didn’t want the man he’d seen standing over the victim to see him. As he later testified, “I thought that would frighten him and cause him to act more quickly. But he’s not afraid. He doesn’t appear worried he’s been caught in the act. He saw me and I guess he was excited, but he wasn’t hasty or anything. He went over the embankment down into the woods. He took his time, but he was moving.”16 Weber then ordered police officers to search both sides of the canal and to sweep the woods all the way to the Potomac River. But if the Wiggins time chronology was correct, approximately forty-five minutes had elapsed since the murder. The assailant would have had plenty of time to flee the scene.

In Police Cruiser 203, Detective John Warner and his partner Henry Schultheis of the Third Precinct were waiting at a red light at Twenty-First Street and K Streets when they heard the initial broadcast at 12:26 P.M. Warner recalled that the broadcast description was for a Negro male in his forties, approximately five feet ten inches tall, wearing a light jacket and a dark hat, and armed with a gun.17 In response to the bulletin, Warner and Schultheis turned right onto K Street and drove down the Key Bridge underpass to the woods’ edge, where the towpath began. From there, they could look down on the set of railroad tracks that ran parallel to both the canal and the towpath. They saw no one. They waited in their cruiser until approximately 12:40 P.M., whereupon Warner decided he would walk westward on the railroad bed toward Fletcher’s Boat House, while Schultheis would “cover the area to the left of the railroad tracks to the [Potomac] river bank.”18

Taking intermittent detours to search the woods between the railroad tracks and the high embankment to the towpath, Henry Warner soon discovered that some of the underbrush was so thick he couldn’t get through it. After walking approximately half a mile, he came upon a five-foot-tall concrete culvert, large enough to conceal a man inside. Peering into it, he saw only water. He continued to explore the nearby underbrush, and looked under the tunnel where the spillway flowed into the Potomac. He found no one.

But as Warner walked back to the railroad bed and continued westward, he saw a young black man walking on the tracks. He was short, and he was soaking wet. “That indicated to me he’d either worked up a lot of perspiration from running, or else he had just come out of the river,” Warner recalled.19 The man was wearing a yellow sweatshirt over a white T-shirt, navy-blue corduroy trousers that were torn six inches below the left pocket, and black wingtip shoes. The zipper fly on his pants was unzipped. He shivered as Detective Warner approached him to ask his name. “Ray Crump Jr.” he said, wide-eyed and diffident. Water dripped from the wallet Crump took from his pocket before he handed over his driver’s license. Warner looked at the name and photograph to confirm his identity. According to his driver’s license, Crump was 5 feet 3½ inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. Warner had to have observed that he didn’t fit the description given in the police broadcast alert. He asked Crump if he had heard gunshots. Crump said he hadn’t.

“How did you get so wet?” Warner asked. Crump said he’d been fishing off some rocks upriver. He’d gone to sleep and fallen in the water.

“Where’s your fishing equipment?” Warner asked.

“It went into the river, too.” Crump said.

“Your rod and everything?”

“Yes, sir.” said Crump.20

Crump had an abrasion over his right eye. A fresh scrape on his right hand was bleeding. He told Warner that he had cut his hand on a rock as he fell into the river, before attempting to climb out.

Warner then asked Crump to show him where he’d been fishing. “I would help him see if I could retrieve his fishing gear for him,” Warner later said. Motioning in a westerly direction from where the two were presently standing, Crump indicated that he had been fishing “around a bend over there.” He and Warner then walked a little more than a tenth of a mile along the railroad bed toward the area where Crump said he had been fishing earlier that day. Voices and commotion then drew Detective Warner’s attention to the fifty-foot embankment to his right. Sergeant D’Ambrosio, standing at the edge of the towpath, descended the embankment to join Warner and Crump. D’Ambrosio viewed Crump’s slight stature and wet, disheveled appearance, and noticed his open fly.

Detective Bernie Crooke and Henry Wiggins were standing at the top of the embankment adjacent to the towpath when they heard D’Ambrosio shouting, “We got him! We got him!” As Wiggins looked down the embankment, he told the young detective that Crump looked like the man he’d seen. That was a good-enough identification for Crooke to confront the suspect. He identified himself as a detective assigned to the Homicide Squad and placed an incredulous Ray Crump under arrest.

“What did I do?” Crump asked. Detective Crooke warned him that he didn’t have to talk or make a statement, but that if he did, it could be used against him at a trial. Even so, Crump seemed eager to talk. He had left his house in Southeast Washington that morning, he told the detective, with a fishing rod and some chicken innards as bait, and he had taken the bus to Wisconsin Avenue and M Street. He’d walked down the towpath and through the woods to the river to go fishing. Crooke wanted to know what Crump was wearing when he left home—had he been wearing a jacket and a cap? Crump told the detective that he had been wearing what he had on, and nothing else.

Detective Crooke then asked Ray why his fly was unzipped. Crump hesitated, looked down at his trousers, and replied that Crooke had caused it to unzip when he grabbed his belt. Crooke took offense at Crump’s reply. He was standing in front of the suspect and hadn’t touched him. Crump appeared to Crooke to be disoriented as he patted him down, and Crooke thought he smelled alcohol on his breath. Handcuffed, Ray Crump was led up the embankment to the towpath and past Chief Detective Art Weber. Like Detective Warner, Chief Detective Weber would later admit, under cross-examination at trial, that the man they had taken into custody that day didn’t match the description that had gone out on the police radio bulletin. In spite of this, Weber instructed Crooke to take Crump to Homicide and book him for murder.

Ray Crump was put under arrest at approximately 1:15 P.M., and he waited quietly in handcuffs at the murder scene for almost a full hour before being taken downtown to Homicide for booking. He still didn’t appear to understand what was happening, or what was about to occur. With a suspect now in custody, Sergeant Pasquale D’Ambrosio walked down to the Potomac riverfront where Ray Crump said he had been fishing. There were no rocks or fishing gear in sight. Homicide Detective Ronald Banta, who was overseeing a search for a jacket, a cap, and a murder weapon, joined D’Ambrosio. Meanwhile, someone who was never identified had already radioed River Patrolman police officer Frederick Byers of the Harbor Precinct “at about one o’clock or a little after” to instruct him to look for a “light-colored” jacket in connection with the shooting on the C & O Canal.21 In response, Byers slowly navigated his police patrol boat through the Georgetown channel of the Potomac River. Close to 45 minutes later, three hundred yards upstream from Three Sisters Island—an outcrop of rocks covered with sparse vegetation—Byers observed a jacket floating in the water two feet from the shoreline. He maneuvered his boat as close as he could to the jacket and used a boathook to fish it out of the river. Returning downstream, he handed the jacket over to Detective Banta, who delivered it to Detective Crooke at Homicide about an hour later.22 Inspecting the jacket, Crooke removed a sodden pack of Pall Mall cigarettes from the right-hand pocket.

Deputy Coroner Dr. Linwood L. Rayford arrived at the murder scene by 2:00 P.M. and pronounced the unknown victim dead at 2:05.23 Dr. Rayford observed that rigor mortis had not yet set in, which meant that she couldn’t have been dead for more than two hours. He also noted that the dead woman had been shot twice—once in the left temple anterior to her ear and once in the back. A tear in her corduroy slacks revealed an abraded knee, suggesting that the woman had been dragged or had crawled through brush. There were superficial lacerations and abrasions on her forehead, left knee, and ankle, indicating that she had fought her assailant.24 Dr. Rayford ordered the body removed to the morgue by a D.C. Fire Department ambulance that had been parked at the Foundry Underpass. Police informed the coroner that a suspect, identified by an eyewitness, was now in custody.

Before going downtown to police headquarters, Henry Wiggins returned with Detective Edwin Coppage and U.S. Park Police detective Charles Stebbins to the exact spot from which he had seen the man standing over the dead woman. Wiggins noticed something peculiar: The stalled Nash Rambler that he and Bill Branch had been called to fix that morning was gone. The work order to service “a broken down car” on Canal Road had originated at the Key Bridge Esso Station. A trip ticket should have existed, but station manager Joe Cameron wasn’t able to produce any record of the service call for the Nash Rambler. There was no sales slip, no receipt of payment, no indication that repairs had even been attempted. The vehicle’s owner and registration were unknown. “I don’t know the disposition of the vehicle because I didn’t finish servicing the vehicle,” Wiggins later said. “It was a stalled vehicle, but I don’t even know that.” His partner, Bill Branch, hadn’t repaired the car, either, he later said. In the swirl of commotion that surrounded the murder scene, the Nash Rambler had disappeared.25

Ray Crump Jr. was sticking to his story. During the drive to police headquarters, he kept asking Crooke, “What did I do?” Each time, Crooke replied, “You tell me what you did.” Crump would say only that he had been drinking. He had been fishing from some rocks and had fallen into the river. He was still shivering in his wet clothes, and Crooke suggested that he might be more comfortable if he took off his wet sweatshirt. In a white T-shirt that clung to his narrow chest, Crump appeared frail and childlike, much younger than his twenty-five years. A press photographer was waiting for the arrival of the black man suspected of murdering a white woman on the towpath. Crump bowed his head to avert the glare of flashbulbs as the photographer captured his arrival at police homicide headquarters.

Detective Crooke led Crump to a windowless interrogation room. Just a few months earlier, on June 22, 1964, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren had ruled in a 5-4 decision that a suspect had the right to have an attorney present during questioning. The ruling emanated from Escobedo v. Illinois and became known as the Escobedo Rule. Crooke was well aware of the ruling but chose not to inform Crump of his right to an attorney. The Miranda decision, which would have required Crooke to notify Crump, prior to questioning, of his right to an attorney, would not be decided for another two years.

“I think he’s the guilty person,” Bernie Crooke would later explain by way of justification for ignoring Crump’s rights. “Not for any piece of evidence against him, but because of that other sense you develop about witnesses and defendants. You sort of know.”26Crooke may have had an additional motivation to prove his suspect’s guilt. One year earlier, a judge ruled in a defendant’s favor arguing that the confession that Crooke had extracted from him was no good. “The judge said [Crooke] practiced very sophisticated methods of psychological brutality,” a colleague said of the case. “Bernie couldn’t even spell the words he used. And here he was, just a poor cop, trying to make a living.”27 Crooke apparently didn’t want to suffer the humiliation of losing again.

Detective Crooke ordered Crump to put on the jacket that had just been fished out of the Potomac. It was a perfect fit. “It looks like you got a stacked deck,” Crump said, close to tears. Crooke patted him on the back, and Crump began to cry.28 Crooke felt certain that he was on the verge of extracting a confession when a lieutenant burst into the room, in complete contravention of the prohibition against interrupting an investigation, and he demanded to know when Crooke was going to set up the lineup. The young detective became furious. He ordered the officer out of the room and followed him.

“You’ve got all these goddamn detectives here, why can’t they set it up?” Crooke wanted to know.

By the time Crooke returned to the interrogation room, Crump appeared to have pulled himself together. He had stopped crying and was staring at his shoes. Crooke decided to leave him to set up the lineup. Part of the preparation would involve instructing Henry Wiggins, his only eyewitness, what to do.

“He told me to go right up to [Crump], put my hands on him, and say, ‘This is the guy. That’s him,’ so there’s no doubt in my mind, no ‘ifs’ or anything,” Wiggins recalled years later.29

Ray Crump was easy to pick out in the lineup. “The lineup isn’t that close as far as the other guys being Crump’s type, so he really sticks out,” Wiggins recalled. Crump didn’t react when Wiggins identified him. “He didn’t act concerned, like he isn’t bothered about anything. He looks like he knows what to do: just keep your mouth shut and don’t say anything,” Wiggins later said.30

What Henry Wiggins didn’t remember that day was that he and twenty-five-year-old Ray Crump Jr. had been classmates, first at Briggs Elementary in Washington, then in junior high school, from which they had graduated in 1954. Neither school at the time was integrated, but Wiggins had gone on to Western High School and had graduated. Crump had given up on school after junior high. A friend of Wiggins’s had reminded him that he knew Crump after Wiggins had identified him.31

Wiggins gave a formal statement about what he had observed that day, and Crooke showed him the windbreaker that had been found near the shoreline of the Potomac. “That looks like the jacket,” Wiggins said, referring to the one worn by the man he had seen standing over the dead woman on the towpath.

Henry Wiggins was “satisfied” that he’d made law enforcement’s case against Ray Crump. Even so, he knew that rumors had already begun to cloud the facts. “One of the detectives was saying they found Crump knee-deep in water in a shallow part of the river in a little inlet,” Wiggins said. According to this version of events, Crump had said that “he was trying to retrieve his fishing rod,” said Wiggins. Another version had it that Crump was in the water to wash the victim’s blood off, while still another held that Crump was apprehended while he hid behind some rocks in the woods that bordered the river.32

Most of the speculation, however, centered on the identity of the beautiful dead woman. Who was she? And what was she doing on the towpath? Some parts of the canal, such as the concrete abutment and first arch supports of Key Bridge, had acquired unsavory reputations as havens for vagrants, truants, and dealers who supplied the affluent of Georgetown with recreational drugs. Henry Wiggins overheard one officer speculate that the murdered woman might have flirted with her killer. Wiggins didn’t buy it. “She wasn’t any bum or some old drunk like you’d expect down there,” he said. “This woman you could tell was a lady.”33

Detective Crooke gave Wiggins his card and told him not to talk to the press or anybody else about the case. Wiggins, who had once fancied himself cop material, apparently enjoyed his status at the center of this murder investigation; in fact, he had hoped to become a police officer in Washington, D.C., after his discharge from the Army. He had done some coursework—“in psychology, search and seizure, all that stuff”—and had passed the written exam, even dieted to meet the weight requirements, but “they still wouldn’t take me,” he said. He suspected that the color of his skin had something to do with his rejection.34 In those days, the D.C. Metropolitan Police force was largely white. In any event, even though he hadn’t passed muster as a potential police officer, Wiggins—a black man pointing the finger at another black man—seemed to be the ideal witness.

That afternoon, Ray Crump had been fingerprinted, photographed, weighed, and measured, but he wasn’t tested for gunpowder burns or residue, which would have indicated whether he had recently fired a handgun. “His hands had been in water,” Chief Detective Art Weber explained later at Crump’s trial. “That would have washed away any nitrates that were present. The paraffin test wasn’t what it’s supposed to be. The FBI doesn’t think much of it either, so we don’t use it.”35 Lacking forensic evidence that would have linked Crump to the crime, police resorted to using his height and weight to help make their case. According to the intake documents, at the time of his arrest, Crump stood 5 feet 5½ inches and weighed 145 pounds—two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than his driver’s license indicated.36 It was never clarified whether Crump had on his shoes with their 2-inch platform heels when he was measured, or whether he had been wearing wet clothes when he was weighed. Still, he was significantly smaller than the original description of the wanted man listed on Police Form PD-251: 5 feet 8 inches to 5 feet 10 inches tall and 185 pounds.

The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia had been alerted to Ray Crump’s arrival. Legal Aid public defenders typically represented indigent clients at preliminary criminal hearings, at coroner’s inquests, and at mental health hearings. “We were right there on the fourth floor of the courthouse, room 4830,” said George Peter Lamb, a former defense attorney. “Our offices would be notified if someone was being brought in. It wouldn’t be too long after the arrest. D.C. had the most restrictive laws on preliminary hearings of any federal court in the United States. Police were required to bring an arrested person before a magistrate as soon as it was feasible. To dillydally and hold a suspect in jail and interrogate the hell out of him was one sure way to result in the suppression of all evidence.”37

Lamb was one of five new lawyers brought into the office by Edward “Ted” O’Neill, the sharp-tongued, indefatigable public defender. Lamb had been working in the Public Defender’s Office of the Legal Aid Society for just one month when he met Ray Crump. A graduate of American University’s Washington College of Law, Lamb had accepted a cut in pay to take the job, with an annual salary of just $6,900. It wasn’t much, he later joked, for “a dyslectic with ulcers, married with two kids.”38 But he was fired up about the work. “What made it an incredibly exciting time to be a criminal lawyer was that the Warren Court was in full swing,” he recalled in 1990. “Decisions were coming down that were upsetting long-established procedures that had been used as evidence in American courts for centuries.” Lamb considered himself part of the revolution that was taking place in criminal law to balance the inherently unequal contest between the individual and the state.

As a public defender, Lamb reserved particular admiration for Judge David Bazelon of the U.S. Court of Appeals. “He was the bane of the conservatives,” Lamb recalled. “He’d invite all these young lawyers into his chambers and tell us how to be better, and he would talk about what the responsibility of a public defender was: Whatever could be done for the richest of the rich, it was our job to do for the poorest of the poor. We spared no effort in that respect, and that was pretty thrilling, and really very exciting.”39 That afternoon, Lamb had hurried to the basement stockade to interview the new prisoner and to discern whether he met the criteria for a court-appointed lawyer.

He did. At the time of his arrest, Ray Crump had only $1.50 in his pocket. He didn’t have a bank account. He didn’t own real estate, an automobile, or any other valuable property, nor did his wife, Helena, his parents, or any other person who might have been able to assist in paying the costs of his defense. Lamb conducted a background check on his new client and found that he was married with five children. He had been twice arrested for disorderly behavior and he had served sixty days for shoplifting.

Years later, Lamb recalled how scared Crump had been. “He had to know when he was arrested that he would be charged with first-degree murder. You can be sure that during the time he went through the booking procedure at Homicide, the police were beating him up trying to get a confession out of him—not physically, because that was pretty much a thing of the past in this town.” Crump was crying, Lamb said. He repeatedly told Lamb that he didn’t know what had gone on at the canal, that he hadn’t killed anybody, and that the police had arrested the wrong man.40

Lamb explained to Crump the first step: In a first-floor hearing room, the police would try to establish before a magistrate that there was enough evidence to hold him for a grand jury. Crump would either be charged or released. What Lamb didn’t tell his client was that with U.S. Commissioner Sam Wertleb presiding—a “curmudgeon,” in Lamb’s opinion—the chances were slim that Crump would be let go. “It wasn’t possible to get a fair hearing from him,” Lamb said. “Wertleb almost always accepted the word of a police officer against that of a defendant, especially a black defendant.”41 Wertleb did inform Crump, however, of his right to counsel and to a preliminary hearing, but he declined to schedule the hearing. “I don’t know why I’m here,” Crump blurted out. “I was down there fishing and lost my rod. I almost got shot myself.”42

Crump was held without bail. “The way to get around granting bail was to say Crump was a danger to the community by reason of what he’s been charged with,” Lamb recalled. “So denial of bail was purely on the basis of the heinousness of the crime. When, in fact, the only evidence the government had at this point was whatever Detective Bernie Crooke said it was.”

With bail denied, “you’ve got to move quick to try to prevent the government from bringing an original indictment,” Lamb said. “We went straight to the Court of Appeals on the bail issue and denial of a preliminary hearing the next morning with Ted [O’Neill] and I leading the charge. Already there was some strong heat coming down on this case from somewhere—we didn’t know where. That’s why we were in court so damn fast, to try to set up a preliminary hearing. The reason you wanted a prelim, it was the only chance you had to cross-examine witnesses and find out what the police had for evidence. So you freeze the case in a timeline so that it never gets any better, unless the police find something new. And all they had was Crump being in the vicinity of the murder. He was just somebody who’d been identified as being there.”43

Shackled and under heavy guard, Crump was taken by federal marshals to the D.C. jail and placed in isolation. Crump changed into prison denims but kept his shoes. The guard urged him to confess, saying that if he did, he would get the help he was entitled to, possibly even a deal with the prosecutor, but Crump remained confused. “What was going on down in that place?” he wanted to know. The officers who arrested him hadn’t told him anything. When he had been escorted in handcuffs past the bloodied body of the dead woman on the towpath, Crump had asked Detective Crooke, “You think I did that?” Crooke hadn’t answered.

Meanwhile, something weighed heavily on the freshly minted public defender, George Peter Lamb. Though new to his job, he was savvy enough to know that it was highly unusual for Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Smith to be representing the government at Ray Crump’s hearing. “That was unheard of to send a senior man to one of these things,” Lamb said. “Usually, a very inexperienced criminal assistant would be there just to observe the proceedings. So right away, we knew there was some ‘Mickey Mouse’ stuff going on.”44

Donald Smith’s presence signaled that somewhere within the corridors of the U.S. Department of Justice an alarm had sounded. But why? Surely not because of Ray Crump, who wouldn’t have merited such high-level attention. It had to be the murder itself—and the murder victim. Given the crime’s location—right in the heart of Washington’s elite Georgetown enclave—was it that the dead woman was one of them, a person of consequence in her Georgetown milieu? But the police had not yet determined her identity.

Detective Bernard Crooke, on arriving at the D.C. morgue, was immediately granted access to an autopsy room where Randolph M. Worrell, the morgue technician, had already logged in the body of a white female, name and address unknown. Worrell had taken a sample of blood that would be delivered for classification to the FBI the following day. He had prepared the body for examination by removing her clothes in the presence of Deputy Coroner Dr. Linwood L. Rayford.

The autopsy officially began at 3:45 P.M. For Dr. Rayford, a tall, light-skinned black man with a military bearing and a handsome face, medicine had been a second career choice. As a student at Marquette University during World War II, Rayford had tried to enlist. “I wanted to be the first black Marine in the history of the Corps,” he recalled. “But they wouldn’t take me. I got turned down on account of my color.”45 Now a surgeon, Rayford had performed more than four hundred autopsies on gunshot victims, but none had been as disturbing as this one. “Things were not at all like they were supposed to be,” he would say years later. The woman was five feet six inches tall and weighed 127 pounds. She was a beautiful corpse. Dr. Rayford had lifted the woman’s arms and rotated them across her torso to determine the degree of muscular rigor. The limbs were relatively supple. He touched her thigh, stomach, and chest; the pale, almost translucent skin was cool, which told him that she had been dead only a few hours. Her blue-green eyes bore an expression that revealed that death had come as a complete surprise.46

The woman had been shot twice: once in the head and once in the back. Both entry wounds were a quarter of an inch in diameter and bore dark halos typical of powder burns. “The gun was fired from close range,” Rayford would later testify. “It wouldn’t be possible to produce these smoke deposits on a person’s skin at anything but contact or near contact firing.”47 The FBI later confirmed this.

The victim’s head wound was located an “inch and a half anterior to the left ear.” The first bullet had entered the left side of the skull, “traversed into the right temporal lobe, fractured it, and ricocheted back where the slug was found in the right side of the brain,” where Rayford recovered it. The second entry wound “was located over the right shoulder blade, about six inches from the midline.” The bullet had passed through the shoulder blade “into the chest cavity perforating the right lung and the aorta, the largest vessel from the heart.” The trajectory “had been angled from right to left and slightly downward.”48

The woman likely survived the first shot to her head, but Rayford said that such a wound’s attendant hemorrhaging and brain lacerations would probably have rendered her unconscious. Blood from the head wound would likely have splattered the assailant. In contrast, the second wound would have produced more internal than external bleeding because of its position under the shoulder blade.49

The second gunshot had been fired with particular precision: The bullet pierced the right lung and severed the aorta. Death would have been instantaneous. That bothered Rayford. The degree of expertise suggested the work of a professional. He had seen some messy gangland-style slayings, but nothing like the neat accuracy of the wounds inflicted on this victim. “Whoever assaulted this woman,” Rayford said years later, “intended to kill her.”50

Crooke took possession of the two bullets and the victim’s clothing. He would deliver them to the FBI Crime Lab for testing the next day, but first he inspected the clothes for some kind of mark that might identify the victim. He found one. On the silk lining next to the fraying Mark Cross label inside one of the blood-soaked gloves, the name “Meyer” had been written in blue ink.

By telephone from the morgue, Crooke instructed the desk officer at the Seventh Precinct at Volta Place in Georgetown to call all the Meyers in the Washington telephone directory. The dead woman could well be visiting from another city, he remembered thinking, but it was more likely that she was a local resident on an afternoon stroll not far from her home.51

Crooke left the morgue and drove to Southeast Washington to retrace the bus route that Ray Crump said he had taken that morning, supposedly to go fishing on the Potomac. Anacostia was another Washington, a world apart from Georgetown. It was a crime-ridden ghetto of dilapidated houses where the majority of residents were black. Crooke knocked on the door of 2109 Stanton Terrace, S.E., and was invited into a tidy, spare living room by Helena Crump, a slender young woman who held the youngest of her five children, a baby, in her arms. Her eyes instantly reflected fear and anger, and with good reason. To the black community, the police represented both a threat and indifference. Crime festered in poor neighborhoods like Anacostia, mainly because law enforcement officials allowed it to do so.

Helena Crump had learned about her husband’s arrest from a neighbor who had heard it on the radio. Ray Crump had been working as a day laborer at the Brown Construction Company’s building site at Southeast Hospital. Construction was the best-paid job that an unskilled worker could get. It was better than hustling trash or the other menial work available to uneducated black men. The work was seasonal, and strenuous: unloading heavy bags of cement, mixing mortar, and pushing loaded wheelbarrows. It was backbreaking work for someone as slight as Crump. He had recently told his coworker Robert Woolright that he didn’t think he’d be able to keep it up.

Woolright had driven to Crump’s house to give him a ride to work on the morning of the murder. “Most of the time off and on, I pick him up whenever we was on a job together,” Woolright had recalled.52 He parked in front of Crump’s house at 7:25 A.M. and waited for him to come out. Instead, his wife came out. She had been arguing with her husband, who’d said he was too tired to go to work that day and was “tired of hearing all that shit” about money. Helena handed Woolright a set of keys to the work shed at the construction site and returned to the house. Woolright drove away. A half-hour later, Crump announced that he was going out. Helena didn’t know where he was going, but, she told Detective Crooke, he wasn’t going fishing. She opened a closet door to show Crooke a fishing rod and tackle box packed in the corner. She also identified the damp Windbreaker that Crooke had brought with him in an evidence bag. It had been a Father’s Day present from her and the children the preceding June.53

Ray Crump also smoked Pall Mall cigarettes, “the same as I do,” said Elsie Perkins, Crump’s neighbor. “I open mine from the bottom; he opens his from the top. That’s how we can tell the difference in our cigarettes,” she told Crooke, who had knocked on her door after leaving Helena Crump. Good-humored and garrulous, Perkins told Crooke that she was close with the Crumps and that she and Helena Crump maintained an informal security system. “It’s just habit. She watched who came in my house and who went out. And I would look out to see who was coming out or coming in her house.” That’s how she happened to see Ray Jr. leaving his house around eight in the morning. “I just wanted to see who was coming out of the house.”54

Crump got as far as the tree at the end of the sidewalk, then turned around, Perkins said. “That’s how I happened to see the front of him, when he walked back to the house for something.” Crump had been wearing a yellow sweatshirt, a half-zipped beige jacket, dark trousers, and dark shoes, she said. “He had on a white T-shirt because you could see it from the neck of his sweat shirt. And he had on a kind of plaid cap with a bill over it.” When the Crumps’ door closed again, Perkins had looked out “to see whether or not that was him coming out or his wife.” She had watched Ray Jr. until he got halfway down to the bend that led over to Stanton Road. Crump wasn’t carrying any fishing gear, although on previous occasions she had seen him with a fishing pole, “and he’d carry a dark little box with his fishing tools.”55

Might Crump have been carrying a gun with him when he left the house? Perkins didn’t think so. “I didn’t see his pockets bulge like he was carrying a weapon,” she told Crooke. She had never seen Ray Jr. with a gun in his possession, or known him to have one. Nor had anyone else in Crump’s family or the community.56

A motive for the murder was proving elusive. Had Ray Crump gone to Georgetown intending to commit a robbery? An emerging version of events went like this: Crump accosted a well-dressed white woman walking along on the C & O Canal towpath. When she resisted, he panicked and shot her in the head without killing her. Still conscious, she had broken free and made it to the other side of the towpath at the top of the embankment, where Crump grabbed her, dragged her some twenty-five feet back to the edge of the canal, and pressed a gun to her back, this time issuing a fatal shot.

But had it been Crump that Henry Wiggins had seen standing over the dead woman, or was it someone dressed like him? The police maintained that it was Crump, who, they alleged, had fled the murder scene by descending the embankment to the Potomac, where he disposed of the murder weapon, as well as the hat and the jacket on the basis of which Wiggins had identified him. Because of their quick response in getting to the scene and cutting off all of the park’s exits, the police believed they had trapped the assailant—who they now believed was Crump. The police claimed that Crump had tried to swim away since the river had been the only means of escape, but that the river’s dangerous current had stopped him. Several people had, indeed, drowned there over the years. So, the police speculated that Crump had taken to the woods, trying to avoid capture. Discovering the exit at Fletcher’s Boat House blocked by police, then momentarily being spotted by police officer Roderick Sylvis, he had made his way back eastward toward Key Bridge, where he was finally encountered by Detective Warner.

Police suspicions were bolstered by the fact that Crump had lied about going fishing. And he had lied about what he was wearing on the morning of the murder. The circumstantial evidence, the police believe, was mounting against him. What they didn’t know was that Ray Crump couldn’t swim. In fact, he was terrified of being in water over his head.

But what wasn’t clear was how a panicked mugger, in the wake of a botched holdup, could have killed a woman with the cool dispatch of a professional assassin. According to Henry Wiggins, it had been a quick kill: Two shots were fired, the second of which came about eight to ten seconds after the first. Yet Wiggins had not witnessed the murder; he had only heard the shots and observed a man standing over the victim in the aftermath. And he had watched that man walk calmly away from the scene. The viciousness of the attack and the calm of the assailant were hard to square with the demeanor of the frightened, meek Raymond Crump Jr. By the end of the day, the murder weapon had not been recovered; and in its absence, the police had only Henry Wiggins’s inconclusive account to link Crump to the murder.

October 12, 1964, had finally unfolded into an Indian summer gem with a temperature that rose into the low sixties. By the time the late afternoon sun had begun to set, every Meyer in the Washington telephone directory, save one, had been contacted. The one remaining Meyer lived in a modest two-story house, 1523 Thirty-Fourth Street, N.W., in Georgetown. Homicide Detective Sergeant Sam Wallace located number 1523, wedged into a narrow lot amid a cluster of houses. There were no lights on when he pulled up out front at about 5:30 P.M. A locked car was parked in the driveway. A hand-lettered sign at the door advertised “Free Kittens. Ring bell or call.”

Neighbors identified the house as belonging to Mary Pinchot Meyer. They also disclosed that Mary’s sister, Tony, and her husband, Ben Bradlee, lived around the corner at 3321 N Street, N.W. The block was familiar territory to the Seventh Precinct police because they had assisted the Secret Service in protecting President-elect John F. Kennedy until he moved from the neighborhood into the White House in 1960. Ben Bradlee had been close to the senator from Massachusetts, who lived in a red brick, three-story townhouse several doors down from his own.

Detective Wallace knocked on Bradlee’s door and identified himself. Increasingly certain by process of elimination that the victim was Bradlee’s sister-in-law, Wallace asked him if he would come identify the woman murdered earlier that day on the C & O Canal towpath. “Sometime after six o’clock in the evening,” according to Bradlee, he identified Mary Meyer “with a bullet hole in her head” at the D.C. morgue. He would repeat the process for Deputy Coroner Rayford the following morning in the presence of his friend and pharmacist, Harry Dalinsky.57

The Evening Star ran a front-page, one-column story that evening: “Woman Shot Dead on Canal Tow Path.” The article identified neither Mary Meyer nor the lead murder suspect, Ray Crump Jr. The article did note, however, that “police found a white jacket, possibly worn by the slayer, on the bank of the canal some distance from the scene about an hour later.”58 In fact, the jacket had been found along the Potomac River shoreline, not the canal. The inaccuracy aside, it wasn’t known how or from whom the press acquired the detail about the jacket. Its inclusion in the article, however, seemed to support the emerging narrative that had Crump ditching his jacket before trying to flee the scene by swimming away from it.

By the following morning, Tuesday, October 13, the national print and television media had latched onto the story. In Washington, both the Evening Star and the Washington Post ran front-page stories that featured photographs of Mary Pinchot Meyer and Ray Crump, the latter shown in handcuffs at police headquarters. Shock waves reverberated throughout the tiny Georgetown enclave in which Mary had been so vivid a presence. With Bradlee’s confirmation of her identity, the newspapers informed their readers that Meyer was the niece of former two-term Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot, as well as “a Georgetown artist with a hundred thousand friends.”59 Her ex-husband, Cord Meyer, was identified either as “an author and government employee” or “presently employed by the Federal Government.”60 Neither paper mentioned his real work as a high-level operative within the CIA’s Directorate of Plans, though in Mary’s obituary in the New York Times the following day, Cord was said to be employed in New York by the Central Intelligence Agency.61

With no murder weapon found, Chief Detective Art Weber returned to the towpath to direct a search that would become unprecedented in its scope and manpower. Weber led forty Metropolitan Police officers, assisted by members of the U.S. Park Police, on a foot-by-foot search of the towpath area. Park Service police also closed a canal lock upstream from the murder scene. As the waters receded, two U.S. Navy scuba divers entered the canal. Six more Navy divers entered the Potomac River adjacent to the shoreline where Crump’s jacket had been found the day before. Harbor police probed the river with grappling hooks and dragged the bottom with magnets in an area near the site of Crump’s capture. They found a brimmed golf cap at the water’s edge in the area where Crump had said he’d been fishing. The FBI Crime Lab would later link a single hair found on the cap to Crump. Detective Weber was buoyed by the find and felt certain that Ray Crump must have also disposed of the gun in that vicinity.

The searches ended at dusk and resumed the following morning, “when we returned with more men,” Weber recalled. “We had mine detectors sweep over and around the forest in the woods.” But two days of intense searching still did not produce the.38-caliber pistol that had ended the life of Mary Meyer. Nevertheless, Weber remained confident: “If the gun’s here, we’ll find it.”62 In fact, the gun would never be found.

In the absence of a murder weapon and with the attempted robbery theory seeming less likely, the police next considered sexual assault as the motive. Hadn’t Ray Crump’s zipper been undone when he was apprehended? But forensic evidence didn’t support this theory, either. Four days after the murder, on October 16, 1964, the FBI Crime Laboratory delivered its forensic report to Chief Robert V. Murray at the Metropolitan Police Department (see appendix 1). This report, illegally withheld from Crump’s defense attorneys for nearly nine months, was finally produced for the defense at the time of the trial in July 1965. Had it been available subsequent to October 16, when it was first delivered to police, Ray Crump Jr. would likely have been released for lack of evidence.

The FBI Crime Lab report documented that (1) there was no evidence that any “recently discharged firearm had been placed into one of these [Crump’s alleged jacket] pockets”; (2) “no semen was identified on the clothing of the victim [Mary Meyer] and suspect [Ray Crump]”; (3) “no fibers were found on the suspect’s [Crump’s] clothing that could be associated with victim’s [Mary Meyer’s] clothing”; (4) “no Negroid hairs were found in the debris removed from specimens Q5 through Q9 [clothes Mary Meyer was wearing]. No Caucasian hairs were found in the debris removed from specimens Q12, Q13, and Q14 [Crump’s beige jacket recovered after the murder, his yellow sweatshirt, and his T-shirt]”; and, finally, (5) “the examination of specimens Q13 and Q14 [Crump’s yellow sweat shirt, and T-shirt] disclosed no indication of the presence of blood on these specimens.” There had been two small “faint red smears” on the back of Crump’s alleged jacket, which the FBI Crime Lab report had analyzed as having “a wax like appearance when viewed microscopically” and therefore concluded they were not blood stains, but possible “lipstick smears.”63

In fact, the police had no real evidence against Ray Crump at all, other than his being in the vicinity of the crime. There was no blood, hair, semen, saliva, urine, or fibers from Ray Crump’s clothing—no forensic evidence whatsoever—that linked Crump to Mary Meyer or the murder scene. Given the quantity of blood found at the scene and on the victim, it seemed unlikely that Crump—had he administered the gunshots that killed her—would have escaped without a single drop of her blood on his skin or clothing. It also seemed unlikely that Ray Crump, shorter than Mary Meyer and weighing not much more than she, would have been able to drag her twenty-five feet across the towpath in the midst of an intense struggle.

If not robbery or sexual assault, what had been the motive behind the murder of Mary Meyer? Why, in possession of only limited circumstantial evidence against Crump, had D.C. law enforcement officials not looked for other suspects? To be sure, Crump had denied wearing the Windbreaker and golf cap, and he had lied about going fishing the morning of the murder—both of which had severely damaged his credibility. But without a murder weapon and any forensic evidence linking him to the crime, police lacked sufficient evidence to hold him. Nonetheless, despite this evidentiary void, it seemed as if Crump’s fate was being quickly sealed.

The morning after the murder—October 13—the case against Ray Crump received an unexpected boost. While Detective Crooke was delivering evidence to the FBI Crime Lab, a U.S. Army lieutenant named William L. Mitchell arrived at police headquarters. Introducing himself to Captain George R. Donahue of the Homicide Squad, Mitchell said that he had read about the woman’s murder that morning and believed that he had passed her while running on the towpath the day before. Stationed nearby at the Pentagon, Mitchell explained, he ran on the towpath most days at lunchtime. According to police, Mitchell “described in detail the clothes worn by Mrs. Meyer.” He said she was crossing the narrow wooden footbridge, walking west “away from Key Bridge,” when he had come to a complete stop to allow her to cross before him. About two hundred yards later, he said, he passed “a Negro male” wearing a dark cap and a light-colored Windbreaker jacket with dark trousers and dark shoes. The clothing description was almost identical to that given by Henry Wiggins in his recollection of the man he had seen standing over the dead body at the murder scene, noted the Evening Star two days after the murder.64

“Today’s surprise witness impressed homicide detectives with the detail of his description of both Mrs. Meyer’s apparel and that of the man he saw following her,” said a reporter for the Washington Daily News.65 In the public mind, the gallows for Ray Crump was already being prepared.

Mitchell’s account, however, left a few details unexplained, and the police didn’t seem to want to consider them. If Mitchell’s timing was correct, could he really have run the distance to Key Bridge without hearing gunshots? And if Ray Crump had been “two hundred yards” behind Mary only a few minutes before the crime was committed more than a tenth of a mile away, after Mitchell passed him, he would have had to run with the strongest of intention to subdue Mary by the time Henry Wiggins claimed to have seen him standing over the body.

However foreboding, Mitchell’s intrusion into the landscape boded ill for the poor, black day laborer Ray Crump. His account was enough to convict Crump in the minds of police, the public, and the media. The archetypical racial subtext of a downtrodden black man sexually assaulting an aristocratic white woman had immediately ignited the subliminal racial bigotry of Washington’s elite corridors of power. The Army lieutenant, Mitchell, presented himself as a model citizen: He was a military officer, serving his country at the Pentagon. He was also white, and like it or not, his statement—and credibility—carried more weight than that of a black tow truck driver named Henry Wiggins Jr., though it further legitimized Wiggins’s account as well. With no other leads, and certainly no other suspects, Mitchell’s and Wiggins’s statements taken together were enough to support a murder charge against Ray Crump, regardless of the dearth of real evidence.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!