Sixty-one years ago, two sisters went out to the movies and never came home. Those two sisters were Barbara and Patricia Grimes, and their murder is still unsolved. They were only 12 and 15 at the time of their murders. It’s one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in Chicagoan history.
1956 was a very different time. Today we’re almost numb to stories of teenage girls disappearing and turning up dead. Serial killers are part of our pop culture. There are multiple popular television shows that center around the concept of serial killers and every week “Law and Order: SVU” features a story of a young woman being victimized. Crimes against women are part of our daily lives. But in 1956, a crime like the murders of Patricia and Barbara Grimes was virtually unheard of, and it rocked the entire community.
There were multiple suspects, but the investigation never uncovered any solid clues as to who took the girls’ lives so young. Their mother. Loretta Grimes, died without ever knowing who took her daughters from her.
Sixty-one years later, there aren’t really any more clues than there was at the time, but that hasn’t stopped former cop, Ray Johnson, from trying to solve the murder. He’s taken to the Internet to crowdsource information about the murder, in an attempt to finally make this cold case a closed case.
Here’s a recap of everything we know and everything Johnson has uncovered about the mysterious deaths of the Grimes sisters.
15 Elvis Presley was connected to the case
Patricia and Barbara were giant Elvis Presley fans. The night they disappeared they were headed out to see Elvis Presley’s new movie “Love Me Tender” in theaters. They loved it so much they had seen the movie more than ten times and they were going again.
When the case was first being investigated, detectives suggested that perhaps the girls had run away to visit Elvis Presley’s home in Nashville Tennessee. This theory was bolstered by the fact that witnesses had reported seeing the sister at the bus station, waiting for a bus to Nashville.
Operating under this theory, law enforcement reached out to “The King” himself. Elvis Presley actually made a public, televised statement begging the girls to go home, if they had, in fact, run away. He said, “If you are good Presley fans, you’ll go home and ease your mother’s worries.”
Unfortunately, by the time Elvis made his statement, the girls were already dead.
14 The girls died the day they were abducted
The forensic evidence taken from the bodies and the crime scene seems to indicate that the girls died mere hours after they had gone missing. The autopsy found food from their last meal in their stomachs, which means they died before they even had time to fully digest.
So, the girls were dead within hours of leaving the movie theater, where they were last seen by multiple witnesses. But no one quite knows what happened after they left the theater. Several people reported seeing the girls at many different locations after the movie. Local cops were never able to quite pin down the series of events after the movies, which made it even harder to guess what might have happened to the girls.
Whatever did happen, the evidence is pretty clear that the girls did not survive long after they left the movies. From there, it’s anyone’s guess.
13 At first everyone thought the sisters ran away
Barbara and Patricia went out to the movies on the night of December 28th 1956. They were supposed to be home by 11:45, but their mother, Loretta, had a bad feeling and got worried. She sent the girls’ brother and sister to the bus stop to meet Patricia and Barbara to ensure they made it home okay. But the girls never made it to the bus stop.
Loretta reported them missing immediately, but the cops were skeptical. They figured the girls, being teenagers, were out with secret boyfriends. When the girls didn’t come home the next day, the police were still unconcerned. The theory was that the girls had run away.
Loretta was convinced that her daughters would never run away. She said it wasn’t in their nature. On a more practical note, she pointed out that neither of the girls had packed a bag and they’d only asked for enough money to go to the movies. It didn’t seem like the plan for two girls planning to run away.
12 But the missing person’s investigation went on for almost a month
Though the girls died the same night they disappeared, their bodies were not found until almost a month later. For that whole month, the police operated as if the Grimes sisters were alive. They conducted one of the largest searches in Illinois history looking for the girls’ bodies. Unfortunately, it was the middle of the winter and it wasn’t easy to conduct the searches. In the middle of January, there was a warm up and the snow started to melt a little. Leonard Prescott was driving his truck to get groceries when he saw two figures on the side of the road. Initially, he thought they were mannequins. He went back to his house, picked up his wife, and brought her to the site. They discovered the bodies of Barbara and Patricia together and his wife was so overwhelmed she had to be carried back to the car.
For Loretta, it was her worst fear finally confirmed. She had never really believed her daughters were missing, but she couldn’t bear finding out they were dead.
11 The cause of death listed on the autopsy didn’t fit with murder
The bodies were taken in to the coroner’s office and the autopsy was performed. Because the bodies had been buried in the snow, they were surprisingly well preserved. To everyone’s shock, the medical examiners didn’t find any signs that the girls had been murdered. There was no blunt force trauma on either of the bodies. Neither were there any stab or bullet wounds or signs of strangulation. The coroner actually ruled the cause of death as “exposure to the elements.”
But the doctors who examined the bodies were convinced that the girls had been murdered rather than dying simply from exposure. The girls had no alcohol or drugs in their bodies, so it’s not like they passed out in a snowbank and froze to death. The doctors on the case surmised that the killer was “diabolically clever,” and that he was skilled enough to use a method of murder that was undetectable.
The autopsy did reveal that Barbara had engaged in sexual activity before her death, but it was impossible to discern whether this had been consensual or not.
10 The case was highly publicized
Today we’re used to the media frenzy that accompanies a high-profile murder case, especially the double murder of two young girls. But in 1956, murders like this were rarer. The media was all over the case. It dominated every newspaper. People even tangentially involved with the case were followed by reporters and harassed for information.
The media also took many liberties telling the stories. They portrayed the Grimes sisters as delinquents. During the investigation, they regularly printed accounts that the sisters had run away. After they found out the girls were dead, the media told salacious stories about their final hours, barely based in fact.
The press was also very disruptive at the funeral. There were multiple reporters present and they seemed to have no respect for the grieving. Many who were close to Grimes family recount being particularly resentful at the media for the way they handled the case.
9 Mrs. Grimes received multiple confessions via phone calls and letters
Because the case was so widely publicized, a lot of people spoke up, claiming to have information about the girls’ whereabouts before the murder or even details of the murder itself. Before the girls’ bodies were discovered, Mrs. Grimes received multiple ransom letters from people who claimed to have her daughters. She even responded to a few at the instruction of the FBI, but they all turned out to be hoaxes.
Mrs. Grimes also received several phone calls from people claiming to have seen her daughters after they left the movies. There were all sorts of stories, but the only ones that seemed consistent were that the girls were seen getting in to a car with a couple of men after the movies. There were even a few calls from people who claimed to know how the girls had died.
The police tried to track down the information from these letters and calls, but most of it appeared to be fabricated, perhaps by people looking to get in on the media frenzy.
8 But one call she received stood out
There was one caller, however, that Mrs. Grimes believed may have actually known what happened to her daughters. After the bodies were found, Mrs. Grimes received a call from a man who boasted that he had killed her daughters. The man gave details about the girls and the crimes that had not previously been published. At the time, there was no way to identify the caller and the police had no luck tracking him down.
About a year after the Grimes sisters were killed, a 15 year old girl named Bonnie Leigh Scott was murdered in another part of Illinois. After that murder occurred, Mrs. Grimes received another phone call, a phone call she said was from the same man who had bragged to her about killing her daughters. The man bragged about killing Scott and then bragged about killing the Grimes girls.
Mrs. Grimes said the man who’d bragged about killing her daughters had a very distinctive voice and that it was the same voice as the man who’d bragged to her about killing Scott.
7 There were multiple suspects, but not enough evidence to hold them
There were a few in the Grimes sister murders, but there was never enough evidence to prove that they committed the crimes. The first suspect was a man named Walter Kranz. Before the girls’ bodies were found, while they were still presumed missing, Kranz called the police station and said that the girls were dead and told the cops where to find them. He claimed that the information had come to him in a dream. Given the bizarre nature of the call, the police picked him up for questioning, especially since the girls had not yet been confirmed dead. Kranz was questioned, but he didn’t seem to have any other information, so he was released.
The next suspect was a skid row bum named Bennie Bedwell. Bedwell bore a striking resemblance to Elvis Presley, and it was suggested that he had lured the girls to a bar using that resemblance to entice them.
6 Someone confessed to the police but he was never convicted
Bennie Bedwell ended up weaving a complicated story that culminated in his confession to the murders. Witnesses reported seeing Bedwell with the Grimes sisters at a local restaurant he sometimes worked at two days after they disappeared. The waitresses at the restaurant said that Bedwell and a male friend of his came in to the restaurant early in the morning with two teenaged girls who fit the description of the Grimes sisters. They reported that one of the girls was so drunk she was staggering. The girls even said they were sisters, so everyone believed they were the Grimes sisters.
Bedwell concocted a story about how he and his friend had partied with the girls for days before finally knocking them out and leaving them naked in the snow. Throughout the investigation, Bedwell would make three different confessions about how the girls were killed.
Later, he recanted all three confessions, saying that he was mistreated by the police and he had confessed in order to stop their abuse. The forensic evidence didn’t support his story either, so Bedwell was eventually released and never convicted of the crimes.
5 A lot of mistakes were made during the investigations
As happens with so many murder cases, there were arguments over which police department had jurisdiction to investigate the crime. The departments were not sharing information early on in the investigation, which means crucial details could have been missed.
The coroners and forensic investigators were also less than cooperative with each other because there was a lot of debate over the cause of death. The bodies had been frozen for a long time and animals had picked at the corpses, so it was extremely difficult to perform a conclusive autopsy. A group of coroners eventually got together to rule the cause of death as exposure, but the lead coroner publicly disagreed and said as much to the press. He believed the girls had been beaten before their death and possibly molested, and he stated this to the press. He was publicly fired for disagreeing with the rest of the coroners.
Then there was the alleged police misconduct in the Bedwell interrogation. Bedwell claimed that officers had beaten him, threatened him, and even bribed him during their interrogation. When he recanted his confession, he insisted that he had only confessed to stop their misconduct.
All of these mistakes and conflicting stories further muddied and already muddy case.
4 There were other, similar murders
A year before the Grimes sisters were murdered, two brothers and their friend had been murdered just miles away. Just like the Grimes sisters, the boys had gone out to see a movie and had never returned home. Their bodies had also been stripped bare and dumped on the side of the road. However, the boys’ bodies had obviously been beaten, a stark difference from the bodies of the Grimes sisters that were barely marked.
Just a year after the Grimes sisters were murdered, Bonnie Leigh Scott was murdered. She was around the same age as the Grimes sisters and her body was eventually discovered naked. The cause of death in her case was also ambiguous, and like the Grimes sisters, she had non-fatal markings on her body that were odd but did not indicate cause of death.
Charles Melquist was eventually arrested and convicted of the murder of Scott, to which he confessed. Melquist said he smothered Scott. He was later found to have a list of girls names in his possession and though the Grimes sisters names were not on that list, names of girls in their neighborhood were.
3 A woman claims that she was with the sisters the night they were abducted
Ray Johnson, the retired cop who has been digging in to the Grimes murders for years now, claims to have spoken with a woman who was with the sisters the night they were killed. In fact, he says that she claimed she was abducted with the Grimes sisters, but says that she escaped before the girls were murdered. Johnson says this woman didn’t come forward when she was young because she was scared of retribution from her abductors and because she was scared to talk to the police.
The most interesting detail that this woman shared with Johnson was that the kidnapper had a very distinctive voice, which suggests it may be the same person who called Mrs. Grimes to brag about the murders. She was very specific about the fact that his voice was distinctive.
This woman has not come forward publicly, so it’s hard to know if her story or Johnson’s interpretation of her story bears any weight on the case.
2 Mrs. Grimes never gave up on the case
Neighbors said that Loretta Grimes was never the same after her daughters’ murders, but she never left the area. She stayed in the same neighborhood.
Mrs. Grimes dedicated the rest of her life to finding her daughters’ killer or killers. She was convinced that the police never interviewed a strong suspect. She never believed the story the Bedwell wove about meeting her daughters in a dive bar and partying with them for days. She even demanded permission to ask her own questions at the inquest that was gathered to question the interrogation of Bedwell. She picked apart the details of the confessions and demanded that the police look for other suspects, insisting that Bedwell’s story didn’t fit.
Her desire to find her daughters’ killer or killers was not motivated by a desire to see them punished. She believed God would handle the killer or killers. But she did want closure, so she begged the police to never stop working on the case.
1 And now Ray Johnson won’t either
Now, Ray Johnson is carrying the torch in Loretta Grimes’ honor. Johnson discovered the case while he was working on a book about historic crimes in the Chicago area. He was baffled that a case could stay unsolved for so long, so he started digging in to all the details. He gathered a lot of information himself, but not enough to get any further than the police had in the initial investigations.
When he hit a wall investigating the murders, he decided to crowdsource information. He says that he believes the murder is solvable; that all the details are out there somewhere, they just haven’t been put together in the right way. He believes that if everyone pools information, these details will come together in just the right way to solve the case.
Johnson put together a Facebook group for people who are interested in the murders. Members of this Facebook group gather details and hash them out together. A few details have come together, but no major breakthroughs have been made yet.
We may never know what happened to the Grimes sisters sixty-one years ago, but Ray Johnson is trying to make sure that is not the case.
Sources: Chicago Now, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, New York Daily News