Not all crimes are created equal. Strange to say, some murders fade away into obscurity while others lodge in the collective memory of a community.
Sometimes it's the element of mystery in an unsolved crime that makes it linger. Other times it's the titillation caused by coverage of the event. On some occasions, a tragedy touches on people's deepest fears, becoming mythic, folkloric.
Rarely, one event unites all these things. The murder of Linda Marie Kohlmeier near Gambier, on Oct. 30, 1966, was one such case.
It has haunted Knox County ever since.
Writer Dylan McCament grew up hearing about the story in the county seat, Mount Vernon. Working at the Mount Vernon News in 2006 while in his mid-20s, McCament heard about the rediscovery of the original evidence from what had been known over the years as the “go-go girl murder” amid a one-line mention in a news roundup by News reporter Nick Worner.
This evidence came to light when the old Knox County Jail building on Chestnut Street in Mount Vernon was torn down after a new, larger facility was built on Coshocton Avenue. The original files from the Kohlmeier case had been lost, but newspaper reports of the time say that the evidence from the murder case were discovered in the old jail's attic storage.
Intrigued, McCament lobbied to do a retrospective article on top of his regular workload covering city government and breaking news. His series of articles in the Mount Vernon News helped bring the story back into the public light just as new DNA technology could be applied to the rediscovered evidence.
McCament wrote a sober, thoughtful article that avoided the lurid edge displayed by much of the earliest coverage of the case. The 1966 Mount Vernon News had itself led the way, headlining Hal Clawson's front page report “Pretty Go-Go Girl, 19, Found Slain.” Wire news reports that quickly flashed across the country seized upon the description of Kohlmeier as a pretty go-go girl. It was soon discovered that the victim was a small-town girl who had just graduated a year and a half earlier from Fairless High School in Navarre, a village in southwestern Stark County, outside of Canton.
The Akron Beacon Journal teetered on flat-out yellow journalism in an article by staff writer Larry Fields headlined “Death Got Last Dance.” Fields was neither tasteful nor sensitive to the young woman's surviving family and friends. “It ended early last Sunday, the short, snappy life of Linda Marie Kohlmeier,” he wrote. “Her 19-year-old body, the shapely meal ticket which twisted her out of a sheltered Stark County girlhood to this violent finale, was covered only with the morning wetness and her brief Go-Go Dancer's costume.”
This was the sort of coverage that disturbed McCament and which he wanted to counter.
“What difference does it make how pretty she was?” McCament said when I recently interviewed him for this retrospective. “At first glance, she's kind of portrayed as a sort of scarlet woman of ill repute. That's just not the case. She was mixed up in something and got taken advantage of.”
A country girl moves on
Lawnfield Street meanders down from Chestnut Ridge in rural Stark County, passing the Hidden Valley Pullet Farm on its graveled, pockmarked way to the village of Beach City. At the farmhouse across from the intersection with Ebersole Road, Linda Marie Kohlmeier grew up, the oldest of what was to become 13 children, though she died before meeting her youngest siblings.
Searches of area newspaper archives show that Linda was active in the community as a girl. As early as 1960, she appears in a notice about a meeting of the What-Knot 4H Club in Wilmot, where she gave a demonstration on the correct way to hem a towel. By 1961, she was taking lessons and playing the accordion in the band at Roselyn's Music Studio in Dover.
Later reports from 1963 and 1964 list Kohlmeier as winning “superior” ratings in state music contests, though her instrument isn't identified. In 1964, she even entered the Junior Miss Pageant. By all accounts, she seemed to have an idyllic childhood.
According to Fields' article, Linda's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Kohlmeier, were at a loss to understand how they lost their daughter. They were interviewed in the hospital where Mrs. Kohlmeier had just given birth to a son two days before her oldest daughter's death. The father is quoted as saying that Linda was “a good daughter, religious.” The mother said that her daughter always did well in school. “There was no dancing then,” Mrs. Kohlmeier said. “She said she always wanted to work for a newspaper.”
To that end, Linda Kohlmeier served on the staff of her Fairless High School newspaper, the Falcon Review. After graduating in 1965, the young woman demonstrated a desire to be independent and moved out of her parents' rambling farmhouse and applied for a job with the newspaper in Massillon. Having no luck with that application, she worked briefly at a radio station, then moved to Canton to work as a secretary.
Somewhere during this stretch, late 1965 or early 1966, Linda tried go-go dancing, a fad that had emerged in the 1960s as part of the rock-and-roll counterculture. Starting in New York City in the early 1960s, go-go-dancing, featuring scantily-clad female dancers, had spread around the country.
The famous Los Angeles club the Whiskey a Go Go created the innovation (and practical security measure to ward off drunken men unwilling to keep their hands to themselves) of having the go-go girls dance in cages suspended from the ceiling, out of reach. This, too, rocketed across the country, even making it to Mount Vernon, according to a Nov. 3, 1966, article in the Kenyon Collegian.
It's important to note that despite the lurid lather of the media coverage of Linda Kohlmeier's death, there is no evidence that she ever went any further into the seamy world of the American counterculture than working as a cage dancer. “Go-go girl” became synonymous in the 1970's with “stripper” and even became regarded at times as a euphemism for prostitute.
No one has ever offered any evidence that Linda Kohlmeier was that far into the “scene.”
But what the young woman did discover was that go-go-dancing was fun and easy, and it brought her both attention and money. When an offer belatedly came through to work at the Massillon newspaper as a society columnist in March of 1966, Linda accepted what she had once envisioned as her dream job.
According to the Akron Beacon Journal article, Kohlmeier quickly became disillusioned with the routine of journalism. A mere month after starting the newspaper job, she quit to devote herself full time to dancing.
An easy way to get money
According to an unnamed friend of Kohlmeier's interviewed by Larry Fields in 1966, Linda and her friend began to dance throughout the area, including at a private club in Canton, a “hangout for minor Mafia types, bookies, shylocks.” Soon the girls were making up to $25 a night.
“We both liked money,” the anonymous friend was quoted as saying. “Dancing was an easy way to get it.”
It was at this time that Linda cut her reddish-brown hair short in the fashion of the day, died it black, and began wearing a blonde wig while dancing in skimpy costumes she made herself. Soon, they expanded their territory and began dancing all over the state of Ohio, even on occasion in Kentucky.
Unable to dance in Columbus because of age and wage restrictions, the young women elected to move to Mount Vernon, where the friend had a significant other, and where steady work and income were to be found at Steve's Bar and Grill, located at 201 Columbus Road.
“Hell, she must hadda lots of friends,” said bar owner Steve Anton in a later interview with the Kenyon Collegian, where the reporter represented the man's Italian accent in dialect. “She come down outta da cage and she talk to every one at da bar.”
“I heard about that whole scene from a relative who used to frequent the neighborhood,” Dylan McCament said, likening the once-busy and bar-studded road to a larger city's red-light district. “It was literally the wrong side of the tracks.”
But it was also the neighborhood where several factories were located, at the time employing thousands of workers, some of whom enjoyed frequenting Steve's place and tipping the go-go-dancers handsomely.
In the summer of 1966, Linda Kohlmeier and her anonymous dancer friend were renting a house on New Gambier Road outside of Mount Vernon. The friend told Akron Beacon Journal reporter Larry Fields that Linda used the house as a base of operations, sometimes not coming home at night, and at times disappearing for days on end as she traveled to other cities to dance. She also cut off any contact with her family at this point.
In September, the Kohlmeiers contacted the Stark County Sheriff's Department with concerns about their daughter and were told they could file a missing person report in 30 days if they had not heard from her. On Oct. 1, Robert Kohlmeier filed the report. The parents had no idea that their daughter was living only an hour's drive away.
In late October, something happened which has been the source of a great deal of speculation in this case. Kohlmeier was reported to have mentioned to a number of her friends that she was “in trouble.” She refused to elaborate on the meaning of this statement, however, and it has fueled much speculation.
Some have wondered if that meant she was being threatened by someone, being stalked, having money difficulties, and so forth. The simple fact is at this late date, we do not know what she meant and probably never will. We have no way of knowing if the “trouble” was directly tied to what happened next.
A brutal crime
Saturday, Oct. 29, Linda Kohlmeier danced, as usual, at Steve's Bar and Grill on Columbus Road. According to bar owner Steve Anton, she finished for the night and left the bar at 2:24 am, putting on a short, white coat to cover her brief dancing outfit. Anton said that she stated her intent to go to a nearby Halloween party. Witnesses there reported that the young woman did not stay for longer than a half hour at the party, and left alone, driving off toward the house on New Gambier Road.
Shortly after 6 a.m. on the following morning, dairy hauler Carroll Ackerman turned east onto New Gambier Road from Ohio 308. According to his 2006 interview with Dylan McCament in the Mount Vernon News, in the dim light, Ackerman saw a figure aside the road. He could see that it had the form of a human body.
Thinking it was a mannequin deployed as a Halloween prank, Ackerman drove past it to pick up milk at a nearby farm. Returning up the road in the growing daylight, Ackerman realized that it was no mannequin. It was a human female curled up in a somewhat fetal position, and he could see indications that she had been hit on the right side of her head. He rushed to the nearest farmhouse to call the sheriff's office.
Knox County Sheriff Ralph Peairs arrived within 15 minutes, soon followed by other officials, including prosecutor Charles Ayers and coroner James McLarnan. McLarnan ruled that Kohlmeier's death was a homicide and that she had probably been killed where she was found, judging by the pooling of blood around her head.
The coroner said that three fingers on her left hand and one on her right were broken, suggesting that she had put up a tremendous fight against her attacker. She was still wearing her dancing outfit and white coat; her blonde wig had been knocked aside as her body was dumped.
Two miles west of the murder scene, the car Linda had been driving the night before was found parked at the rental house. The car was licensed to Kohlmeier's long-time boyfriend James Fuchs of Massillon, but he was at the time on the other side of the planet, serving with the Marines in Vietnam.
The house was owned by Bill Israel, whose ex-wife Virginia was a friend of Linda Kohlmeier's, according to the 2006 interview Dylan McCament did with Israel for the Mount Vernon News.
Israel said that something had been bothering Kohlmeier in the weeks preceding her death. As with other friends, Linda wouldn't say what the trouble was. But it was very real.
“She'd want me to stand in the doorway until she got into her car,” Israel said.
The night Kohlmeier was murdered, Israel and his ex-wife were not home, having gone to Newark to spend the night with friends. When the young dancer arrived home, there would have been no one there to stand guard. It would appear that Kohlmeier's killer had either been waiting for her, or else had followed her home from Mount Vernon, abducted her in her driveway, then headed east on New Gambier Road, crossing Ohio 308, then stopped his vehicle approximately a quarter of a mile down that more desolate section of road and attacked her.
Some initial media reports indicated that Coroner McLarnan ruled that Kohlmeier had not been sexually assaulted. This certainly fueled speculation about someone attacking her for other criminal reasons, perhaps even in the manner of a “hit.” But it would seem that this ruling only referred to the lack of penetrative rape. Semen was in fact found on Kohlmeier's clothing, something that would prove very important 40 years after the crime was committed.
Sheriff Peairs began an exhaustive investigation, one that he never officially closed for the remainder of his career. Friends were interviewed, go-go-dancing establishments throughout Ohio and into Kentucky were investigated. At times Peairs claimed to have a chief suspect, but said that he lacked sufficient evidence to make an arrest.
Peairs ended up retiring without solving the case.
The case drifted into limbo, briefly making a stir again in 1969 when it was featured in Startling Detective magazine, which essentially took Larry Fields' lurid report from the Akron Beacon Journal and exaggerated it even further. Linda Kohlmeier was portrayed as a good girl gone bad, one who received the fateful punishment due to anyone who goes against the flow of wholesome, small-town life.
That was the state Dylan McCament found things in when crime scene evidence was rediscovered in 2006. He said that he worked closely with then-Knox County Sheriff David Barber, Mount Vernon News editor Cheryl Splain, and other staffers at the paper to revisit the original story without sensationalizing it, restating the facts without moralizing or victim-blaming.
With the help of restoration work on Kohlmeier's old file photo by News video journalist George Breithaupt, McCament was able to present the real Linda Kohlmeier to the world: a young woman who may have gotten in over her head in a dangerous scene, but who received a far worse fate than any act she ever committed.
“Whatever else she did,” McCament said, “she didn't deserve that.”
New technology reopens cold case
At the same time McCament was clearing up some truths about Linda Kohlmeier, the Knox County Sheriff's Department swung into action. Sheriff David Barber and chief investigator Detective Sergeant Robert Durbin submitted semen samples collected from Linda Kohlmeier's underwear for DNA testing, a technology that was not available to investigators in 1966.
The resulting samples were then compared to the FBI's national CODIS database of known sexual offenders. A match was found.
Sheriff Barber announced the match had been made in a press conference on Sept. 14, 2006, but initially declined to identify the suspect, who was deceased and thus could not be officially charged. Barber said that had the suspect been alive, the case would have immediately gone to the Knox County grand jury. After almost four weeks of pressure from the media, Barber named the perpetrator: Ulysses Hale, Jr.
Hale died in Michigan in 1997. In and out of jail a number of times on different charges, he had lived in the Detroit area since at least 1967. But sheriff's department investigators proved that Hale had lived in Mount Vernon for a period of time, including at the time of the murder.
Not only did Hale live and work in Mount Vernon, he worked at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass plant just down the street from Steve's Bar and Grill.
Born in 1939, Hale was issued a social security card in Michigan in 1954. According to Sheriff Barber, Hale spent some time in a Michigan state hospital in 1959, then was charged with assault, attempted rape, and robbery in 1963. Barber said that Hale forced his victim off the road with his car, pulled her into his car and struck her several times in the face. The victim managed to escape and Hale was sent back to the state hospital.
Records show that Hale bought a 32-caliber handgun in Newark, Ohio, in the fall of 1966. By that time, he was working in Mount Vernon at the PPG plant. It isn't known exactly how soon Hale left Mount Vernon after Linda Kohlmeier's murder, but on Jan. 21, 1967, he was arrested in Garden City, Michigan, for sexually assaulting a young woman. On March 1, 1967, he was convicted for assault with intent to rob while armed. Hale was sentenced to 12 to 20 years in prison.
In fact, Hale served less than eight years. On Aug. 29, 1976, he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and sentenced to three to five years' imprisonment. After release, he was arrested again on May 7, 1983, in Wayne, Michigan, for criminal sexual conduct involving a vehicle. After conviction by a jury, Hale remained behind bars until he was paroled on Sept. 1, 1997. Less than three months later, he died, aged 58, having never answered for the crime of abducting, sexually assaulting, and brutally bludgeoning Linda Kohlmeier to death.
Sheriff Barber personally presented Dylan McCament with a copy of Hale's mug shot as a memento of his work on the case, one which McCament today identifies as the story that sticks with him the most of anything he's ever covered.
So many unanswered questions
In December of 2006, McCament had the opportunity to interview Linda's brother Robert, then living in Alva, Florida, about the family's reaction to the announcement of the DNA findings.
“For my parents, it does open some old wounds for them, but at the same time it does bring closure to the family,” Robert said.
But he added that there were still things that nagged the family.
“There are so many unanswered questions. Do we want to believe it when we are talking to the detectives? Of course we do.”
But he said that while he believed Hale was the killer, some of his family members harbored doubts, pointing out that Hale could have had sex with her, then someone else could have committed the murder.
He said the family was thankful to the Knox County Sheriff's Department for not giving up on the case after so many years. He added that the family learned more about the case from the stories published in 2006 than they had in all the years since the murder.
“I can tell you as time goes, we think about her every day and she's missed tremendously,” Robert said. “...It's devastating back then; it's devastating to hear about it again. It's a huge hardship for the family day to day. But you move on.”
In the end, McCament is proud to have played a small part in the history of the case and was grateful for the chance to balance out some of the sensationalism and wild speculation that have accompanied the case over the years.
“I hope if anything,” McCament said, pausing to reflect, “it gives her memory a little bit of dignity.”
In preparation for this column, I visited Linda Kohlmeier's grave in the Calvary Cemetery in Massillon, in the St. Anne section. St. Anne was the patron saint of unmarried women and a protector from storms. Linda's flat headstone was completely flooded with water and covered with ice. But she's not forgotten. Someone had brought poinsettias at Christmas and placed them on her grave.
(Author's Note: I worked with Dylan McCament at the Mount Vernon News from 2007-2010, where he shared with me his 2006 coverage of the Kohlmeier murder case. I decided to interview him for this retrospective of the case. While Dylan and I are friends, that doesn't change the fact that he played a small but significant role in the history of this case as lead reporter during the closing phase of the investigation. That makes it history that needs to be recorded. I admire the responsible tone of his reporting and wish to honor it for the quality work that it was.)