Starting in 1976, the small town of Circleville, Ohio was rocked, gripped with fear, and confused when an unknown individual began mailing threatening letters to town residents.
Though many residents received these letters, the brunt of the mystery fell onto Mary and Ron Gillispie, who received various letters threatening to expose Mary's alleged affair. All of the potential suspects would eventually tie to Mary.
After some creepy billboards, a sign booby trapped with a gun, a suspicious death and a 10-year-prison sentence, there is still some controversy about who the Circleville Letter Writer was, though the suspect list has been narrowed.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE BEGINS
Life was pretty normal for the residents of Circleville in 1976. Like everyone, they went to work, mowed the lawn, lived like the average person. And like the average person, they had secrets and skeletons in the closet, but nothing worth writing home about.
And that was life. Until residents began opening their mailbox, and, intermixed with bills and junk mail was an envelope. And inside of the envelope was a weird, handwritten letter including details of the person's life that nobody outside of the 4 walls of their home should have known.
The letters were postmarked from Columbus, were anonymous, and contained no return address. Many of them threatened harm, either physical, or reputational harm through the destruction of careers or personal lives and relationships. Some included sexual and graphic drawings. And what concerned everyone the most: many of the accusations were correct. Someone knew what was going on in their lives. Hundreds, maybe thousands, were contacted by the letter writer.
And though learning about these letters would certainly be interesting, there is not much information about them... because the story focuses primarily around one Mary Gillispie, who bore the brunt of the letter writer's rage, and who was the glue holding together those who would eventually be accused of involvement.
In the summer of 1977, Mary Gillispie, a bus driver, opened a letter from an unknown person accusing her of having an affair with the superintendent of the district she worked for. The writer said he would keep an eye on her home, and demanded she end the affair, as he knew she had a husband and children. (To be fair, I do not know it is a he. But I will say, at this point in the story, this definitely sounds like something a man would do and I won't apologize for that.)
Mary was, rightfully, horrified. She tried to keep the letter from her husband, but before long, he received an anonymous letter as well, informing him of his wife's alleged affair. But this time, the threat wasn't about exploding a figurative bomb in their personal lives: the writer said that if her husband, Ron, didn't inform the school board of the affair, he would be killed.
Ron confronted Mary, but she denied the affair. However, they didn't know what to do, or if the letters were even worth taking seriously. They didn't want false rumors to spread through town, so ultimately, they decided not to do anything. 2 weeks passed, and it seemed like they made the right choice.
But he wasn't done. The next letter they received demanded Mary end her affair, or he would go public about it himself. He would share the information on the TV, radio, and even put billboards up to spread the news. ("Hello, billboard salesman? Yes, I'd like to erect a billboard that says these 2 people are having an affair. What? No, I don't know them at all".)
At this point, Mary and Ron decided it was time to bring the information beyond the 2 of them. To the police? No, Ron went to his sister, Karen. Mary told her sister-in-law and his husband that she believed another bus driver was behind the letters, as he had once come onto Mary and she rejected his advances. They decided that Karen's husband, Paul, would write to this coworker, tell him they knew it was him, and demand he stop. And again, several weeks passed with no letters, and they believed the ordeal was all over.
But they were wrong again. Weeks after the sent the letter that they thought ended the correspondence, signs started to appear all over town claiming that the superintendent was having a sexual relationship with the Gillipsies' 12-year-old daughter. The family was terrified, and Ron started waking up in the morning to remove the signs before his daughter saw them.
On August 19, 1977, the phone rang. The threats were moving off of the written page. A voice on the other end of the line told Ron he knew what his truck looked like and where he lived. This was the last straw. He thought he recognized the voice on the other line. He grabbed his gun, kissed his daughter behind, and took off, angrily, in his truck.
Only a few minutes later after Ron's mad dash to the door, his truck was found crashed at the end of the street. 35-year-old Ron Gillispie was found, dead, behind the steering wheel.
The sheriff on the scene noticed a shot had been fired before the accident, but found no evidence to suggest that anyone had been shot at or near the site. Blood tests revealed a .16 BAC, twice over the legal limit. Though the sheriff initially believed foul play was likely involved, he changed his mind when the toxicology came back. His death was ruled as a drunk driving accident.
But the Gillispie family wasn't convinced. Ron wasn't a drinker. And of course, the recent stress would drive anyone to handle stress in ways they typically wouldn't, but they knew Ron, and this just wasn't him. The sheriff listened to their concerns, and said he had grilled a suspect about the death, but he was dismissed upon passing a polygraph test. His truck was disposed of in a junkyard, and thus, couldn't be studied thoroughly.
After Ron died, the letters continued... this time to other residents in the town. The letters accused the sheriff, Dwight Radcliffe, or covering up the true nature of Ron's death, and of mishandling the investigation. They also revealed that the coroner had been accused of sexual abuse by various children.
In the aftermath, Karen and Paul separated after Paul found out he was being cheated on. He filed for divorce and gained custody of their children. Karen moved into a trailer in her sister-in-law's backyard.
SO, I'M SORRY... WTF IS HAPPENING?
Though Mary vehemently denied her affair with the school superintendent while her husband was alive, she admitted after he died that the affair had actually happened... but get this... after she began receiving the letters. What? I mean, can you imagine? You're a married woman, having 0 affairs. Someone writes you a letter accusing you of having an affair, and threatening to tell your husband. Instead of being afraid, and mad of being wrongfully accused, you think: man, he's wrong right now, but what an excellent idea! I will start sleeping with my superintendent. Oh, he's threatening to kill my husband over this brand new affair that wasn't happening before and now is? Psh. Yeah, likely story, Mary. I'm going to go with a fat "that didn't happen" on this one. I have to imagine she was having the affair before.
The harassment against Mary didn't end with her husband's death. Signs continued to be put up along her school bus route. In 1983, 6 years after her husband's death, she had enough. She jumped off of the bus to grab one of the signs. But the sign was a part of a booby trap, designed to fire when the sign was pulled off. Luckily, it didn't work. (Did all of the signs have guns behind them? Or did he just get super lucky that she decided to go after this one?)
She turned the scene over to police, who examined the gun. It belonged to... drumroll please... Paul! Mary's ex-brother-in-law. While Karen was living on Mary's property, she told Mary she thought Paul could have been the mastermind behind the whole scheme.
Paul was brought into the police station where he was asked to write a few words to try and copy the handwriting in the letters. Paul was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of Mary Gillispie, but not for any of the other letters.
A handwriting expert testified that his handwriting matched those in the letters. Paul's boss testified that he wasn't at work on the day in question, but he had a solid alibi. But it didn't matter. Paul was sentenced to 7-25 years for attempted murders. Finally, the letters and psychological torture of Circleville residents, looking over their shoulder to ensure no one was following them, learning about their lives, would stop.
BUT IT DIDN'T
The prison bars locked. Paul Freshour was behind bars. But the relief in Circleville was short-lived. The letters started up again, at a higher rate than before, more disturbing and bizarre.
The new letters included allegations against Roger Kline, the prosecutor in Paul's case. Letters promised to dig up the grave of a baby and mail the bones to the police if they didn't look into his involvement in the murder of a pregnant schoolteacher. The letter alleged that he had impregnated her and then killed her to cover it up.
The prison was completely mystified. They were doing everything to make sure he wasn't writing weirdo letters in bulk and mailing them to random people. He was ultimately put in solitary confinement, providing him no pen or paper, but the letters didn't stop. They made a startling conclusion: the letters weren't coming from him.
Paul himself even received a letter. It was laughing at him, telling him he'd stay behind bars and that nobody wanted him out. Though Paul was a model prisoner, he was denied parole when eligible because the letters hadn't stop. The prison had concluded they weren't coming from him, and the letters were postmarked Columbus, but he stayed locked up for a crime he maybe half-committed.
Even when a witness came forward, claiming they had seen a yellow El Camino parked at the intersection of the fated booby trap 20 minutes before Mary came by, Paul remained behind bars. The police did nothing to follow up on the tip.
Paul was finally paroled in 1994, after spending 10 years in jail for the crime. He maintained his innocence the entire time, and all the way through his death in 2012. The letters stopped in 1994, when he was released from jails.
Roger Kline, the prosecutor who put Paul behind bars, was ultimately investigated on the allegations of the murder of the pregnant teacher. Though some sources say that the allegations were true, none were credible or corroborated.
But the allegations against the coroner, Ray Carroll, were correct. He had been accused of abusing several children. In December 1993, he was charged with 12 counts, including gross immorality, sex crimes, corruption of a minor, pornography, obscenity, and indecent exposure.
The bus driver who had come onto Mary, whom Paul had wrote a letter to, accusing him of being the letter writer, raped an 11-year-old girl in 1999 and then went on the run. So, not actually really involved, but still gross.
SO, WHO DID IT?
According to Paul, not Paul. He started a website, laying out a case for his innocence. However, he tries to list out "FACTS" in his favor, and most of them start with "I believe", so not actually confirmed case facts.
One theory brings the other bus driver, who I suppose I will name at this point, David Longberry, back into the equation. He, according to the theory, was pissed when Mary rebuffed his advances, but then started hooking up with the superintendent. He wrote the first letter to Mary, angered about the affair.
When Ron heard the phone call, he knew it was Longberry. He chugged come alcohol for a bit of liquid courage and took off like a madman. His accident was just that... an accident. He wasn't a drinker, his parents said. And even though the circumstances were fishy, Longberry couldn't have made the results show up as drunk. (Now, if you want to go way deep, sure, the results could have been fudged, but it doesn't seem like there's any evidence, or even suspicion, of this.) He drove off, extremely drunk and enraged, and not used to being in such a state of mind, he crashed. The missing bullet is a bit strange, but it could have been fired in a drunken rage earlier on in his short drive.
So Ron's dead, Longberry is essentially caught... so what happens next? Karen. The theory claims that Karen began putting signs up around town, and eventually, the booby trap (who else would have access to Paul's gun?) to frame Paul. Into the 1990s, she continued planting negative stories about Paul, so it would make sense that a recent divorcee who lost the house and kids who was living in a backyard trailer would be bitter. The El Camino can tie to her, as well, as the man spotted looked like her current boyfriend, and she had a relative with the same car.
While Paul sat behind bars for a crime he didn't commit, Karen continued his sinister legacy, making it look like he was responsible. It doesn't quite explain how she knew so many things about people, however, I guess if you make enough insane allegations, one will eventually stick?
But personally, I'm not sold, and neither are the police or many qualified r/unresolvedmysteries Reddit users. I think Paul was the guy. And though I don't believe he was writing the letters from prison, I imagine that somebody else close to him was in order to make it look like he wasn't the right guy. The letters did stop as soon as he got out, so perhaps they served their purpose.
And look, just to pull a Circleville Letter Writer and throw shit on the wall and see if it sticks, isn't Mary like, a little suspicious? First of all, admitting to an affair, but after the letters started? "Oh, they're already accusing us, might as well go for it?" Nope, not for me. It seems convenient to me whenever a spouse dies during the other spouse's affair, so I'm already a bit skeptical. But then, there's signs and such around the town for six years and the one day she decides she's had it and wants to remove it... there's a booby trap with a gun? I just don't buy it. She had to have set it up herself... right? Or for 6 years did he just follow her around, placing loaded guns behind signs, hoping she'd eventually pull one down? Not buying it!
The only person in this screw up group I can confidently rule out is Ron. I think Ron found out his wife was having an affair, saw his family get terrorized, saw his adolescent daughter's name slandered through town, thought he knew who was behind it all, and accidentally killed himself in a drunken rage. He was the one true victim of this insanity.
David Longberry? He raped an 11-year-old so I will provide him no sympathy, and I do find it plausible he wrote the first few letters... but I also can't imagine a stranger keeping the letter legacy alive. When David stopped, Mary's life ruined and Ron's life ended, was Paul/Karen/Mary just like... huh, that was a pretty cool idea. I'll continue this initiative? Doubtful. He's trash, but I don't think he's the right trash.
Paul? I would like to think he did it, but what motive did he have? Karen was Ron's sister, so at least it would make sense to try to expose Mary for having an affair on her brother. (Of note, Karen was also having an affair.) But Paul just generally seems like a weirdo and overall very suspicious. But is that because Karen wanted him to seem that way?
Karen? I think she was involved. Whether she started it or not, I think she wrote some of the letters. She seems like a bitter, manipulative woman... 2 adjectives I'd use to describe someone who would write sinister letters to innocent townspeople for years and years for the fun of it.
Mary? I don't think she wrote the letters, but I certainly don't think she's innocent. Something fishy is going on with Mary, and I don't believe for one single second that she wasn't at least involved in knowingly framing someone.
All this to say, I don't know who it was, or why it happened. This is such a bizarre case and 43 years later, I think all we will have is speculation. But I will say... it is a fun case to speculate on.