The small town of Circleville, Ohio appears like another small American town on the face of things, but in its history is one one of the most compelling true crime mysteries out there. In the late 1970s, residents of the town began receiving strange letters from a mysterious individual. Like a low-tech Gossip Girl, this malignant pen pal seemed to know an awful lot about many of the town’s 14,000 residents, including some of their darkest secrets.
Not long after the letters started, their small-town gossiping took a murderous turn. So began a campaign of psychological torment which lasted almost two decades, and left a trail of ruined lives in its wake.
But who was the mysterious individual dubbed the Circleville Letter Writer? That’s the question we’ll be trying to answer today. We’ll be diving into a tangled web of revenge plots, unexplained death, police cover-ups and more.
Local legend has it that the very first Circleville Letters appeared out of nowhere one morning in late 1976. Several of the town’s 14,000 residents found in their mailbox a handwritten envelope, postmarked from the city of Columbus, about 25 miles north. There was no return address on the back.
Inside were handwritten letters, filled with private details about their lives. The writer dealt out accusations and threats, making the recipients feel terrified in their own homes…
On March 3rd, 1977, it was the turn of school superintendent Gordon Massie. When he traveled to work at Westfield High School, a letter was waiting in his inbox. The script on the front of the range envelope was blocky, written in all caps. The message inside made him break out in a cold sweat.
On the surface, Massie had an ideal suburban life. He was successful at work, with a loving wife and teenage son at home. However, the contents of the letter seemed to suggest he wasn’t quite the wholesome family man he appeared to be.
“Dear sir, According to my GF you have asked her to go out many times. And have asked the other female bus drivers too. […] This must stop at once for the good of the school and families if they are not stopped I will be forced to write to the school board and I would hate to do that. To prey on another mans girl is untouchable. […] I suggest you find yourself a Pimple faced whore and start up with her and leave my girls alone.“
In the writer’s trademark broken syntax, the letter accused Massie of infidelity — abusing his position to chase female bus drivers behind his wife’s back. More letters would arrive over the coming weeks, with growing intensity. In some, the writer even threatened to cut Massie’s breaks and slash his tires, if he couldn’t keep it in his pants.
But alas, the superintendent failed to heed the warning. He failed to secure himself a “pimple-faced whore”, and the sender decided to out him to his employer…
School Board Letters
Not that Massie was given much time to prove he was a changed man. In fact, he had less than 24 hours. The day after the first letter, another one arrived at Westfield High, this time addressed to the school board. The rambling, four-page document accused Massie of sexual harassment, and urged the board to get rid of him.
The scans of this one are a little sketchy, so some of the document is illegible. But if the writer is to be believed, Massie “picks on the weaker ones constantly”. It ends with an ominous warning: “I sure hope he does not upset my girl for his sake”. Another letter arrived at the school later that day, claiming that the writer was keeping tabs on Massie’s illicit sex life daily. Every detail, down to the exact drivers he flirted with each day.
Of course, the school board wasn’t about to fire a senior official over some unproven accusations from a jealous boyfriend. So the writer tried a new tactic. On March 18th, the school’s vice principal received a letter, claiming the writer would soon send evidence of an unethical affair. This time, he singled out one female bus driver as another main target of their hatred.
“I want to protect your school, it has a good reputation. You should keep it like that. I shall send you proof about driver number 62917. She has a child in school there now, I shall prove this shortly. I expect him then to be discharged. You’ll see that I am telling the truth.”
Driver Number 62917
The writer hadn’t just pulled that ID number out of thin air. Somehow he knew enough about the school’s systems to identify Mary Gillispie according to her driver number. The married mother of two was about to find herself the focal point of the writer’s twisted kind games.
While the school was being bombarded with warnings about their superintendent’s reckless libido, Mary herself was saving up a pile of unwelcome letters. In them, the anonymous sender said he knew all about Mary’s affair, and demanded that she end it. They started out by implying that the writer was actively stalking her and her family:
“I know where you live. I’ve been observing your house, and know you have children. This isn’t a joke, please take it serious.”
That’s just a standard creepy DM in this day and age, but when someone sends it directly to your family home, it carries a little more weight. But despite the apparent danger, Mary kept the letters to herself. It was all the more maddening because she denied she was even having an affair at the time.
How could she finish an affair that wasn’t happening!? So she just kept quiet, and hoped the problem would just go away.But it didn’t; the letters came more and more frequently, their content grew increasingly vicious:
“I know everything. Call the Sheriff he can’t watch you forever RT 3 Circleville Ohio 62917 Bus Number 474-7301 I shall keep ringing. Again this is no joke either.”
The writer knew where she lived, what bus she worked on, even the names of her children. She must have felt a pang of terror whenever one of her kids was a few minutes late — or whenever she heard a strange noise downstairs in the night. Nowhere was safe.
But still she continued to ignore the letters. So the Circleville Letter Writer decided on a new approach…
Ron Gillispie’s Letter
At the beginning of April, another letter arrived at the Gillispie household. This time, it was addressed to Ron Gillispie, Mary’s husband. The writer informed Ron about his wife’s infidelity, and warned that if he didn’t do something about it, his life would be in danger. That’s a double kick to the teeth: ‘By the way, you’re a cuckold. PS, I’m going to murder you for it.’ Hardly seems fair.
When Ron asked Mary what was going on, she denied the affair. She admitted that some madman had been obsessively accusing her for several weeks now, but insisted it was all some deluded fantasy. Together they agreed to dig heir heads deeper into the sand, in the hopes that it was just some bored prankster. Two weeks later, on April 14th, another special delivery appeared for Ron:
“Gillispie: you have had two weeks and done nothing: You are a pig defender: You are also a pig: Make her admit the truth and inform the school board: If not, I will broadcast it on CB: posters: signs: billboards: until the truth comes out: Only pigs ride motorcycles: Good hunting in your red and white truck on your way to work: […] I followed him for weeks, since last summer, and have seen her meet him several times: […] You will see this is no joke.”
That’s just the abridged version — the full thing comes off as even more frantic and rambling. Things were heating up, and this latest letter proved that the writer didn’t just know their address: the lunatic had actually visited in person. How else would he know the kind of truck Ron drove?
On the back of the letter this time, was a return address: 550 Ridgewood, Circleville OH. No the writer hadn’t slipped up and revealed himself. This was actually the address of the superintendent of shagging, Gordon Massie.
Just another little mind game to mess with Ron and Mary.
Reading Between the Lines
The evidence at this point was pretty thin on the ground. All we really know is that the letter writer is based in or around Circleville, and that he or she makes a habit of spying on their neighbors. Perhaps a closer look a the letters themselves will give a bit more to go on.
The first thing I notice is that, even though the syntax is choppy and error-filled, the spelling itself is actually pretty sound. Finally, a practical use for my English degree. Some have taken the broken-sounding flow to mean the writer isn’t a native English speaker, but I don’t agree: if that were the case I would expect a fair few more spelling errors.
The few which are in there, seem a bit forced to me. For example, the person actually wrote “you have had to weeks” rather than “two”. Other errors like writing “ScHool” with mixed upper and lower case make me think these errors are a contrived attempt to make the writer seem less intelligent than they actually are. Like someone writing a birthday card from a baby.
For that reason, I’d have to say that the letters weren’t written by someone uneducated or struggling with English — quite the opposite. I’d say their attempts to actively morph the writing, and their apparently decent grasp on spelling, means it was probably someone quite well educated.
Then consider the fact that, in the second letter to Ron, it seems like the only punctuation mark the writer knows is the colon — he uses it about 100 times, in place of everything. However, in the previous letters to Massie and the school, that habit is totally absent. Just a hunch, but I reckon the mangled grammar is one big red herring.
The font itself is further proof the writer took pains to obscure their identity. All of the letters are written in glorious CAPSLOCK, but there are some notable changes between the early and later ones. In the first letters addressed to the school, the sender has much rounder, conventional handwriting. However, in later letters, they use a kind of blocky scrawl: kind of like the numbers on a digital clock or calculator. The characters also become crude and scratchy, as if the writer has started holding the pen in a fist grip, to obscure their natural handwriting.
Then there’s the more concrete evidence attached to the letters. All of them were postmarked from Columbus, about a 30 minute drive north. For the letters to come in with such frequency, you have to assume the writer is someone with plenty of free time on their hands. Alternatively, they might have a job in Columbus, allowing them to drop the mail off there every day without arousing suspicion.
Then content itself clearly suggests that this person holds a personal stake in Mary and Gordon’s alleged affair. For one, the writer claims to be the partner of one of the female bus drivers, meaning they’re likely male. Curiously, the writer doesn’t just talk about one woman, they make repeated reference to their “girls”, plural. Either this is another attempt to muddy the waters, or they have some sort of delusions of possession/care over several of the women.
In any case, it seems as if ending Massie’s career is their main goal. The writer believes that he’s some sort of sex-crazed maniac, bent on ruining the lives of the female bus drivers. His particular affection for Mary just so happened to make her a prime target too. But there’s one thing we need to know: was the affair real?
Mary denied it for a long time, and the town sheriff even official repeated her version of events to the press. However, she later came out and admitted she and Gordon Massie were having an affair, it just started after the letters began. That sounds like some very strange decision making.
An anonymous maniac starts threatening your life for an affair you’re not even having, and your genius plan is to start said affair? I suppose if you’re already doing the time, you might as well enjoy the crime. But I don’t buy it — it seems like Mary just wanted to keep pleading innocence as long as possible, and only came clean after the terrible fate that befell her husband Ron…
Returning to the Gillispie house in 1977, the couple called a crisis meeting with their nearest and dearest to plan their next move. They invited round Ron’s sister Karen Freshour and her husband Paul. Together they drafted up a mental list of suspects, based on the information revealed in the letters.
Chief among them was a man who had made a pass at Mary the year before, a fellow bus driver named David Longberry. The two had been friendly with each other in the past, but their relationship soured after Mary refused to let it become anything more than that. Perhaps the Circleville Letter Writer was him, venting his frustration at the woman who spurned him, and the handsome boss that his female colleagues fawned over.
That would certainly make sense. Especially because it explains why the writer is so closely invested in the romantic lives of the drivers, and how he refers to multiple women as “my girls”. Perhaps he saw himself as holding some sort of fatherly, protective role over the female drivers. It would also be fairly easy for him to gather personal information about Mary and Massie.
Certain that Longberry was the culprit, the family cooked up a plan to scare him off. They found out his address, and sent him some unpleasant letters of his own. They warned him that they knew he was behind the harassment, and they’d be going to the police if he didn’t stop.
Over the next few days, Mary and Ron checked the mailbox with bated breath, hoping that the scrawled envelopes wouldn’t appear. Days went by with no new letters. The nightmare was over… for now…
After a couple of weeks of respite, Mary and Ron started to believe that the unpleasant episode was well and truly behind them. But one afternoon, driving home from work, Ron spotted something horrific: a sign by the side of the road, in that same scrawled handwriting.
It accused Gordon Massie of having sex with the Gilllespies’ 12-year-old daughter, Tracy. He stopped his car to haul the obscene sign out of the ground, but over the following weeks, more and more sprung up around town. The majority of them, planted along Mary’s bus routes.
They popped far faster than the couple tore them down, and soon the scandalous story spun by the Circleville Letter Writer spread around town like wildfire. The stress of all those horrible accusations put an immense strain on Ron in particular. As his brother-in-law Paul Freshour explained:
“Ron was devastated and distraught, he didn’t get much sleep during that period of time in his life. He was frantic, and would drive around an hour or two in the morning before his shift began looking for any obscene posted signs. […] Ron worked very hard to figure out what it was really all about, and to have the problem solved.”
These miserable morning chores continued every day throughout the whole of summer. Until one day, Ron took his chance to end the torment, once and for all…
A Dark Night in Circleville
On Friday, August 19th, Mary Gillispie and her sister-in-law were on their way to Florida for a girls’ getaway, far away from the stresses of Circleville. That evening, alone in the house with his daughter Tracy, Ron received a phone call. Tracy overheard him shouting down the line, frustrated with whoever was calling.
After hanging up the receiver at around 10pm, Ron grabbed his H&R .22 caliber revolver, and kissed his daughter goodbye. He was off to confront the letter writer. He hopped in his truck, and tore off down the street. Ron pulled out onto the dark countryside road, Five Points Pike, about ten minutes after leaving the house.
Fifteen minutes later, the wreck of his 1971 Ford was found, crumpled into a tree at the end of that road. Pictures show the driver’s side cabin roof bent inwards, and the left side door all but disintegrated. Ron wasn’t wearing seabed during the crash, so he was thrown partially through the window. He died upon impact with the tree trunk.
Had he accidentally crashed on the way to the meeting, or was this the meeting’s crispy conclusion? Intriguingly, police discovered that Ron had likely fired his handgun sometime during the car ride. However, no bullet hole nor casing could be found anywhere. Had he been chasing after the letter writer? Perhaps the stalker had called to say that he was watching the house, then Ron spotted him through the window, and gave chase.
That’s roughly what his family believed. They were adamant that foul play was somehow involved, whether Ron was run off the road, or simply crashed while giving chase. But there was one more detail which suggested otherwise: the coroner found that Ron’s blood alcohol level was 0.16 — well over the legal driving limit for Ohio.
His family maintain that the blood alcohol readings were impossible, because Ron wasn’t a big drinker. But to be honest, if your wife’s affair was the talk of the town, and a maniac was threatening you and your kids because of it, there’s a solid chance you’d be stashing a few secret bottles of vodka around the house before long.
The more likely scenario is that Ron drove off in a rage. Perhaps the call really was the writer, or just a prankster, calling to mock Ron after hearing the gossip that had saturated the town. Whatever the case, he set out for revenge, fired his gun out the window in anger, then careered right through the T-junction and into the tree. It was all just a tragic accident, brought on by stress and whisky.
Unless that’s exactly what they want us to believe…
The Conspiracy Theory
Who are “they”. Well, I’m not entirely sure who, or why for that matter. In fact, it doesn’t seem like anybody could offer any particularly convincing explanations for the allegations of a police cover-up. Nonetheless, Ron’s family considered it a very likely possibility. Paul Freshour once recalled:
“The sheriff agreed with me that there was foul play. And then, when I contacted him again, he’d changed his attitude completely.”
The police ended up ruling the whole thing an accident. They apparently did have a suspect at first, who was never named, but that person managed to pass a polygraph test. We can only assume this was the bus driver Longberry. Without any physical evidence at the scene to suggest otherwise, I’d have to say this case sounds pretty closed as well.
All we’re really going on is the fact that his family never knew Ron as a drinker. I reckon otherwise, especially since some have speculated that he knew the affair was real, and that the man sleeping with his missus was flying down to Florida to meet her that weekend! If my wife was going away to hook up with her boyfriend, leaving me to deal with their psychotic stalker for the weekend, first thing I’d do is get absolutely hammered.
The sheriff’s U-turn can easily be explained by the fact that Paul seems like a bit of a nuisance. I see this come up time and time again in dozens of cases: random civilians isn’t instantly made into an honorary deputy, so starts crying conspiracy. And Paul wasn’t the only one.
In fact, Circleville’s resident rumormonger sided with him. Shortly after the accident, dozens of people around town started receiving letters, which claimed that Sheriff Radcliffe was orchestrating a cover up.
But hold on, aren’t you the one that’s supposed to have killed him? Why are you demanding an investigation!? Actually, the writer claimed that Mary Gillispie and Superintendent Massie were to blame, and the sheriff was covering for them. They also asserted this wasn’t the first time he had done this.
Many of the letters accused the sheriff of corruption in his handling of a prior case against the county coroner Ray Carroll. The coroner was accused of sexually abusing children, but was yet to face any charges related to the allegations…
The Booby Trap
If you thought the letters would stop with Ron’s death, then you severely underestimate the obsessiveness of the Circleville Writer. Mary kept receiving letters filled with vulgar insults and violent threats for years.
Fast forward to 1983, and things were about to take another deadly turn. On the snowy morning of February 7th Mary was driving along her route with a busload of teenagers, when she spotted a sign by the side of the road, by the edge of a farmer’s field. Just like signs her late husband spent weeks pulling down, it accused Gordon Massie of being a paedophile, and abusing Mary’s daughter. She received a postcard the previous December warning this would start again if she never admitted her infidelity, but to see it happen again, so close to where Ron died, was enraging.
Mary stopped the bus, and hauled the sign from its post. When she did, she found that there was a a strange box fixed behind it, connected with string. She carried the sign and box back on board the bus, and found that the latter was sealed shut with glue. After finishing her shift, she took the stuff home with her, and managed to force the box open with a tool.
Inside was a handgun, propped up with styrofoam. The other side of the string around the trigger. This Wil-E Coyote contraption was clearly meant to blast Mary when she pulled down the sign. Judging from the crime scene photos taken that night, it looks like the box was mounted at roughly chest/head height. She was just one false move away from a violent death.
Mary took the gun to the police, who discovered that the serial number was still visible, despite a shoddy attempt at filing it off. The registered owner was probably the person you’d least expect…
An Unexpected Culprit
The handgun in the box was registered to none other than Paul Freshour, Mary’s own brother-in-law. Had he been the one pulling the strings all this time? It certainly appeared so, but why? A bit of background might help us understand.
Paul married into the family through Ron Gillispie’s sister, Karen. However, their marriage had been on the rocks for years, and the two separated months before the booby trapped sign incident. Mary told the police that she wasn’t particularly close with Paul, and that her deceased husband was friendly with him but not much more. All in all he seemed like a minor, un-noteworthy character in the whole thing. Hardly a prime suspect.
But a few of the pieces add up quite nicely with what we know so far. At the time of today’s case, Paul worked as a quality control inspector at the Anheuser-Busch plant in Columbus. He would easily be able to send the letters on his way to and from work.
His previous job was as a prison guard at Ohio State Penitentiary. Back in 1968, he and eight other guards were taken hostage during a riot, and subjected to a horrific 30-hour ordeal. Before the National Guard managed to storm the prison, the hostage takers were threatening to decapitate them, or burn Paul and his colleagues alive. Even he admitted that this took a hefty psychological toll on him for years after.
Enough to turn him into a killer though? We’ll need a bit more proof before we go that far…
When the police went to question Paul, he admitted that the gun was his, but said it had been stolen long ago. He had procured it from a coworker called Wesley Wells, for the low low price of $35. That’s equivalent to around a hundred bucks today.
And according to company records, Paul had taken a day off work when the trap was placed, although he had a solid alibi for most of the day. After establishing Paul’s timeline, Sheriff Radcliff had him perform a handwriting test on February 25th. The way he did it was… unconventional.
Instead of having Paul write some random nonsense and cross referencing it with the letters, the sheriff handed him photocopies and told Paul to copy them as best he could. It’s a bit like asking a suspect to hold the murder weapon, then dusting it for prints right after — you’re kind of begging the question.
Of course, when Paul was finished, his writing was a dead match! Because that’s literally what he was just told to produce. Despite widespread criticism, Sheriff Radcliff was able to use this as the basis for an arrest.
Paul was officially charged with the attempted murder of Mary Gillispie…
Paul prepared for the case by checking himself into Southwest Mental Health Center, planning to plead insanity, but eventually dropped the idea. Instead, he simply pleaded not guilty. When the case went to trial, the prosecution provided further proof that Paul was the poisonous pen pal they’d been looking for.
They had handwriting experts testify that samples from his employee records at Anheuser-Busch were a match for 494 of the documents (we don’t have an exact figure for how many were sent by then, but this probably accounts for the majority). On top of that, the jury listened to a treasure trove of circumstantial evidence pointing towards him.
Despite having a solid alibi for that day, Paul never. Bothered taking the stand to defend himself. His defense case came off weak, and he was eventually convicted to a maximum of 25 years behind bars…
For me, there are just too many unanswered questions to be satisfied with this conclusion. If Paul really were behind the letters, I can’t see why he would then go on to murder Mary. And we already know that the letter writer is clever — clever enough to pepper their letters with red herrings. What if the gun itself were another one?
I mean, if Paul was savvy enough to file away the serial number, surely he wouldn’t have done such a half-assed job of it. Maybe I’m giving him too much credit, but a partially filed away serial number looks like an attempt to frame him, while making it look more legitimate.
This idea is backed up by a key piece of witness testimony, which was curiously absent from the court proceedings. Twenty minutes before Mary almost had her head blown off, another bus driver spotted a strange man lingering around the spot where the trap was laid.
Tall and skinny, he looked absolutely nothing like Paul (who is best described as a real-life Super Mario). The man stood next to a yellow Camino, parked by the roadside, and pretended to urinate on a fencepost as the bus passed by. If this was the person that actually planted the sign, then the State of Ohio had just sent an innocent man to prison.
Which would explain what came next…
The Letters Continue
With the Circleville Letter Writer safely behind bars, you’d think that his campaign of terror would come to and end. However, that wasn’t the case. In fact, quite the opposite happened: over the mid-to-late eighties, Southern Ohio was bombarded with piles upon piles of letters from its mystery correspondent.
Even stranger: the letters were all still postmarked from Columbus, while Paul was incarcerated in Lima. The prison authorities put him on a mail ban, to stop the flow of letters, but this did absolutely nothing. Still the envelopes turned up at newspapers, schools, homes, and public offices around the area. Not even locking Paul up in solitary confinement could stop them.
Eventually the prison warden himself ruled that it was physically impossible for Paul to be behind it. Whoever was to blame was very busy indeed — over 1000 new letters were reported across the state, with some even containing arsenic in the envelopes. Not quite as hardcore as anthrax, but you make do with what you can get, I suppose.
They targeted well over a hundred people in this campaign of threats and intimidation, from school teachers to city officials. Many of these new letters took aim at political corruption in the state, focussing heavily upon public prosecutor Roger Kline — the man who sent Paul to prison. The letters alleged that, earlier in his career, Kline got a school teacher pregnant, then had her murdered to cover it up. The writer threatened to dig the remains of the deceased child as proof.
Again they poured scorn upon the coroner Ray Carroll for the child abuse allegations, which turned out to be correct. Carroll did get found out in 1993. Perhaps the writer was correct about Sheriff Radcliff’s corruption (or incompetence) all along.
All of this surely proves once and for all that Paul wasn’t the one behind the crimes. However, the authorities saw things differently. Paul came up for parole in 1990, but his case was turned down, due to the ongoing campaign of hate mail around the county. Hate mail that he was literally incapable of sending, but who cares about a little detail like that.
To rub salt in the wound, the Letter Writer even sent a message directly to Paul in prison, taunting him for missing out on his shot at freedom: “Now when are you going to believe you aren’t getting out of there? I told you two years ago: When we set ‘em up, they stay set up. Don’t you listen at all?”
It would be another four years before Paul was finally released on parole. In the interim, he desperately sought help from the FBI, begging them to take on the case and clear his name. From behind bars, he typed up a 164-page report on the events of 1976-1983, laying the blame at the door of Sheriff Dwight Radcliff,
This mammoth report is actually where we got much of our details from today, but we do have to take it with a pinch of salt. The main thesis is that, at the time of Ron Gillispie’s death, Sheriff Radcliff was gearing up for a shot at becoming president of the National Sheriffs’ Association. Keeping a lid on the town’s anonymous super-villain problem would probably help his chances.
Among Paul’s other requests, he also asks that the FBI look into some of the other claims made by the Circleville Letter Writer, including the murder allegations against the county prosecutor Kline (who by then was serving as a high-ranking judge). But that whole side plot seems pretty half-baked, to be honest. For one, nobody has managed to confirm that a murder even happened.
From what I gather, the judge did get a woman pregnant (the family confirmed it) but details of any wrongful deaths are hard to come by. Either it was a fantasy cooked up by the writer, or a real death totally unconnected to Kline. At any rate, why the hell does Paul care so much?
All of his ramblings about conspiracies in Circletown didn’t sound too convincing to the Bureau either; they never took Paul up on his offer. So he remained in prison until eventually being paroled in 1994. He started a blog, and made regular public appearances to plead his innocence, but no further progress was ever made.
The same year he walked free, the letters gradually dried up. By the early 2000s, the Circleville Writer had long since hung up his pen, and was never heard from again…
Suspects Round Up
That about wraps up our coverage of the major events in the Circleville Letters case, but there are so many questions left unanswered. With all these jigsaw pieces, journalists and online sleuths have managed to piece together some pretty compelling theories (and a host of absolute nonsense too). If we got through our suspects one by one, maybe we can get a better picture of the possibilities…
First up, the main man himself: poor poor Paul. The very fact that the letters continued while he was in prison means that he definitely wasn’t responsible for all of them. But does that excuse him from the ones sent before his arrest?
We certainly can’t trust the handwriting test, that’s for sure. And Paul insisted that all of the other “expert opinions” were either fabricated or forced by the sheriff, to make the conviction run smoothly.
Then there’s the fact that Paul received his own letters from the sender. Perhaps he had accomplices then, who increased their output in order to absolve him of guilt. I have a simpler explanation though, which boils down to basic (ugly) human psychology.
What if, after the story became a media sensation in 1983, the Circleville Letters turned into something of a fad? This was the pre-internet days; people all over Ohio may have relished the rare chance to anonymously abuse each other under the guise of the mystery menace. I mean, just look at the horrible shit people are willing to do with online anonymity these days.
I think this idea stands whether or not Paul was guilty. Even if their original writer was still out there, it’s likely a fair few copycats joined them in the mid 80s. But still, I believe there is a chance he could have been responsible for the original letters. Partly because of the report he sent to the FBI.
This doesn’t often get much airtime in discussions of the case, but it’s a really crucial document. And something about it really doesn’t sit right with me. For one, Paul seems determined to heap scorn on Mary for continuing the affair despite the threats. He even writes “What kind of mother was she!?”.
He also seems extremely preoccupied with having the feds investigate all the corruption claims in the letters. If the goal was just to show he wasn’t guilty, why waste time throwing his weight behind these wild claims? In fact, if you boil the entire report down to the main points, it has basically the same agenda as the letters themselves…
Let’s put a pin in that one for now, and revisit a minor character from our first act: bus driver David Longberry. He was the very first suspect in the case, and his motives and biography aligned quite perfectly with the very first few letters.
As far as we can tell, he was absolved of any wrongdoing by the sheriff, however that doesn’t mean he was a good guy. In 1999, David Longberry went on he run after raping an 11-year-old girl. If he was willing to do something that heinous then I wouldn’t put a bit of nasty hate mail past him.
We have to ask though, why would he have started placing the signs after Ron wrote a letter directly to him? The letters stopped after that, implying it was Longberry. So surely the risk of planting signs would be to high, after he was already found out.
If we jump back to Paul for a second, you’ll remember that he was present at the family meeting when Longberry was named as the suspect. If Paul really were — for some reason — manipulating his loved ones, he could have strategically stopped writing the letters to further incriminate Longberry.
We’ll never know for sure, but the fact remains that Longberry is probably the most likely suspect for the original letters, whether or not it was him that planted the signs.
Whatever happened in those early days, before the death of Ron, it’s in the second half that things start to get really juicy. As I mentioned before, Karen and Paul Freshour separated shortly before the booby trap incident in 1983. She was caught cheating on him, and the divorce proceeding ended up pretty messy.
Karen alleged that Paul was physically abusive, but the judge sided with him, and granted him custody of the children. Karen then went to live in a trailer on Mary Gillispie’s property, robbed of everything dear to her. Some believe that her resentment turned into a strong desire for revenge.
It’s often alleged that she had one of her acquaintances plant Paul’s gun in the box, leading to his arrest. After all, when Paul went to prison, she regained full custody of her children. She was the one with most to gain from his downfall.
But would she really have risked Mary’s life for revenge? Maybe. Although some believe that the two might have colluded on the plot while staying together. That in turn leads on to some interesting speculation. If Mary was involved in the disposal of Paul, could she possibly have been involved in her own husband’s death?
All of these overlapping suspicions are getting pretty out of hand, so let’s turn to a proper professional, for a bit of clarity…
Martin Yant’s Master Theory
Journalist Martin Yant is an Ohio native, and one of the main authorities on this case. He now heads up his own private investigation firm. During his journalism career, he was deeply involved with the Innocence Project, and contributed to overturning 23 wrongful convictions. He strongly believes that Paul should have been his 24th.
In fact, he was so convinced of Paul’s innocence, he even wrote a letter supporting his second parole hearing. It was Yant that uncovered the reports of the yellow Camino parked where the booby trap was found. A bit of digging revealed that Karen Freshour’s brother owned such a car. What’s more, the man by the roadside also matched a description of her lover. This is how I like my conspiracy theories: with some paper meat attached.
Add to this the fact that Karen visited Paul’s sister several months before, while the divorce proceedings were underway. She asked to borrow Paul’s typewriter, which he had loaned out for his sister to work on her book. She found it odd that Karen, who had never used the device before, came looking for it that day.
Around the same time, some of the Circleville letters arrived typed, rather than handwritten. Was this an attempt to incriminate Paul by using his own machine? Certainly sounds like a Karen thing to do. Yant described her as
“A very, very angry, manipulative woman who was still planting negative stories about Paul in the early 1990s.”
So if angry divorcee Karen was responsible for the second episode of the story, how about the first? She didn’t exactly have a motive to name and shame her sister-in-law. To explain this, Yant states that there were probably at least two Circleville Letter Writers throughout the years.
Jumping back in chronological order, we have David Longberry. Yant agrees that he was probably to blame for the original harassment campaign. It’s not clear at which point Karen or another culprit took over the duties, but safe to say Longberry was most likely the one who started the whole thing, as revenge for the superintendent stealing his love interest.
Out of all the theories, it ties things together the best, but there’s one thing missing: why would Karen keep writing the letters after successfully framing Paul? Well, by this point it might have been entirely out of her hands.
The story now belonged to the public, and it’s very possible that the carpet bombing campaign of vicious letters which followed Paul’s conviction were the work of multiple copycats. These early prototypes of internet trolls helped propel the case to a new level of strangeness, and cemented its place as one of the most baffling true crime mysteries out there…
Whatever really happened back in Circleville all those years ago, we’ll likely never know the full truth. The story has faded into legend, and many of those involved are now dead and gone. Paul Freshour passed away in 2012, never knowing who cost him a decade of his life (unless it was actually all him, of course).
It’s the sort of case that’s difficult to get a strong hold on — there’s always some little detail that slips through your fingers, no matter how hard you try to explain it. What we can say for sure, is that there probably were multiple Circleville Writers over the years, whether two or two-hundred.
So what do you think? Do you agree with me that Paul’s FBI dossier sounds a little too much like the work of the Circleville Writer? Or do you think that the guy was framed by his spiteful ex-wife? Or maybe you’re an absolute madlad, who believes a conspiracy of evil public officials was behind the whole thing.
At this point, I’m honestly willing to consider anything.
1. In 1994, the TV show Unsolved Mysteries was preparing to cover this case, and received their very own postcard from the Circleville Writer. It read: “Forget Circleville Ohio: Do nothing to hurt Sheriff Radcliff: If you come to Ohio you El Sickos will pay.” I’ve been checking my mail all day and haven’t received a damn thing. What, Casual Criminalist not good enough for you?
2. If you want to take a look at Paul’s dossier for yourself, his blog is still active at: https://circlevilleletters.wordpress.com/ It goes into his conspiracy theory in great detail, with court documents, polygraph results, and news articles backing him up. Depending on your opinion on him, it’ll either read as load of wild nonsense, or the desperate plea of an innocent man.