Is there anything creepier than knowing that you’re being watched by someone – a stranger – and being stalked by them without knowing who they are, why they’re doing it, or what they want? Most stalking cases involve one – and sometimes a few – victims. But have you ever heard of a whole town being stalked and terrorized?
Back in the 1970s, in the small rural town of Circleville, Ohio, a strange and anonymous source wrote and sent out a series of unmarked letters. These weren’t love letters; they were hate letters (for lack of better words). These letters were dripping with hate, scorn, and a heck of a lot of secret information.
A Town in Panic
No, this is not the plot of some horror flick – this is the strange but true story of Circleville and the letters that terrorized its residents. It seemed as though the letters were meant to create panic and terror, and they sure did.
The letters led to the imprisonment of a (possibly) innocent man, a (likely) murder, and a whole town gripped in fear. People were forced to wait for the next anonymous letter to show up, not knowing who was sending them. There were so many questions – some answered, some not – and one of them is why Circleville?
Welcome to Circleville, Ohio
Circleville, Ohio, is a quaint little town of about 14,000 people, located 25 miles from Columbus along the Scioto River. It’s one of those eventless (dare I say boring?) rural towns that typically doesn’t generate much news or excitement.
In other words, it’s a drive-by (or fly-over) town. Circleville is home to Ohio Christian University, manufacturing companies, and a water tower that’s been painted like a pumpkin. And then 1976 rolled around, and the town was spun into a dark and twisted game. Suddenly, the residents of the town started getting letters from an unknown phantom sender.
Who Was Sending These Vulgar Messages?
The letters were written in plain block letters and didn’t have any return address or signature. The creepiest part of it was that these letters held secret, intimate information about the recipients’ lives. They involved threats of violence and were usually filled with profanity and hatred; they were vulgar and included sexual imagery.
It was unprecedented and confusing – no one had any idea who was sending them and why. Who was this anonymous sender, and what did he or she have against these people? How did they know such personal information, and what was the endgame?
The Threatening Letter to Mary Gillispie
It can be said that most of the letters seemed to be empty threats intended to terrorize the residents of Circleville. But this wasn’t always the case. The first batch of letters was sent to a kind school bus driver in the Westfall School District named Mary Gillispie.
Mary was an ordinary working woman who lived in the ordinary town and, under ordinary circumstances, blended into the crowd. She was the least likely person to be considered anyone’s enemy. The letter she received was postmarked from Columbus, Ohio.
They Knew Her Secret
The phantom sender explained in the letter that they knew Mary’s secret – that she was having an affair with the superintendent of the local school, named Gordon Massie. Not only that – they warned her to stop, too. Even more chilling was the fact that this mysterious writer claimed to know where she lived.
They also knew that Mary had kids and claimed that they regularly watched Mary and her family at the house. The sender told Mary in clear language that the letter was not a prank and should take it seriously.
Thrust Into a State of Fear
Other than the postmark from Columbus, there was no information about who wrote it – no signature, no return address, zip. Mary was shaken and didn’t know what to do. Unfortunately, that was only the first in a string of similarly malicious letters.
She kept the letters, filed them away, and mostly kept to herself. After all, the letters exposed her secret. More so, she knew she was being watched and feared for her safety. Paranoid kept an eye on her surroundings and constantly wondered if anyone she saw was her stalker.
Her Husband Finds Out
Mary kept getting these untraceable letters, and it might have remained a random twisted game if the phantom sender didn’t direct a letter to Mary’s husband, Ron Gillispie. Ron’s letter was also postmarked from Columbus and had no return address or signature.
His letter, however, commanded him to put a stop to his wife’s secret love affair, or else his life would be in imminent danger. Mary denied that any affair was going on behind Ron’s back – that she had no idea what the letters were all about.
A Clean Reputation, Ruined
Of course, word spreads fast, especially in a small and uneventful town like Circleville. Gossip got around, and people started learning of this alleged affair, tainting the bus driver’s clean reputation in her small-town community.
The Gillispies ultimately decided to reveal the harassment to their family. They told Karen and her husband Paul Freshour, who worked at a local Anheuser-Busch plant. Paul was once a prison guard who survived a terrifying 30-hour ordeal as a hostage in August 1968 when inmates took over the Ohio State Penitentiary.
Could It Be Another Bus Driver?
When they spoke with Karen and Paul about the letters, Mary said she had one suspect in mind: David Longberry. David happened to be another bus driver who had made a pass at her. Mary thought that maybe David was feeling rejected and wanted to taunt her.
The two couples decided that Paul would write a letter to David to tell him that they knew what he was doing and needed to stop immediately. For a while, it seemed like this mysterious sender was only trying to scare the residents and spread gossip… at first…
Fess Up, or Else
The Gillispies did their best to put the letters behind them and move on – to keep the secret under wraps and ignore it all. But then, one particularly frightening letter made its way to the Gillispie’s mailbox.
It read: “Gillispie, you have had two weeks and done nothing. Admit the truth and inform the school board. If not, I will broadcast it on CBS, posters, signs, and billboards until the truth comes out.”
Interestingly enough, the letters stopped shortly after.
The Mysterious Phone Call
For a while there, it seemed like the mystery was solved, or at least over. But you can probably tell that there’s more to the story. And you would be right. On August 19, 1977, when Mary and Ron were starting to think the bizarre incident had passed, Ron got a mysterious phone call.
It’s not clear who placed the call or what was said to Ron, but it’s assumed that the caller was the letter writer. And whatever they said to Ron sent him into a rage.
He Stormed Out for the Last Time
What Ron did next was as extreme as the hostility in the letters. He grabbed his gun, told the kids he was heading out and stormed out the front door. He then drove off in his pickup truck. Not long after and not far from his home, the truck crashed into a tree at an intersection, killing Ron.
The circumstances were strange; authorities found that his gun had been fired one single time at some point between the house and the crash site.
Was Foul Play Involved?
It isn’t clear when and where and who or what he was shooting at. And if it went off accidentally, it isn’t clear how. The police reportedly had no explanation for it. However, the authorities did rule out the possibility of foul play and quickly deemed the crash an accident.
Pickaway County Sheriff Dwight Radcliff didn’t locate any bullet casing on the scene. It was discovered that Ron’s blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit at the time of the crash. Radcliff concluded that he had driven himself into a tree by accident.
Little to No Explanation
The sheriff then declared that the one murder suspect who had been apprehended was ultimately cleared. All of this came with little to no explanation. But Mary, her family, and everyone who knew them found it very suspicious, as Ron hardly ever drank.
For some reason, the sheriff originally reported that there had been foul play involved. He then suddenly changed his stance. Radcliff reported to the family that one unnamed person of interest was questioned, yet he managed to pass the polygraph test.
Was It a Cover-Up?
Then, other residents of Circleville started getting phantom letters from someone who didn’t seem to want Ron’s death to be written off as an accident. Other residents – even city officials – were being targeted.
These letters were now claiming that the police were orchestrating a cover-up. The so-called cover-up regarded Mary and Gordon (the school superintendent) as responsible for killing Ron. Mary was still getting letters, despite her husband’s death. She continued to be threatened over her affair. Eventually, she broke down and confessed…
Mary Comes Clean
Mary finally fessed up to her affair, but strangely, she claimed that it started after the very first letter had arrived. Ron’s death, however, wasn’t the only change in Mary’s life at the time. Paul and Karen were divorcing, and Mary let her sister-in-law Karen move into a trailer on her property.
Even after her confession and the assumption that it would put an end to it all, the letters kept coming. She and her family continued to be taunted. Believe it or not, this went on for years.
From Nasty Letters to Dangerous Signs
It was all very strange, but things got even more bizarre – and lethal – on February 7, 1983. The phantom sender decided to take the game from malicious letters to a different kind of harassment. Mary, who could keep her job as a bus driver despite her secret going public, noticed something one day.
On the afternoon of February 7, after Mary dropped off one group of kids, she headed to pick up another group at Monroe Elementary School.
A Message for Her Daughter
That’s when she spotted the sign, which had been placed along her bus route. The sign stood at the intersection of Scioto-Darby Road and Five Points Pike. Mary parked the bus, got out, and walked up to the handwritten sign. It had an obscene remark about her daughter, Traci.
Their 12-year-old daughter had been the subject of threats multiple times via these signs. Reportedly, Ron would drive around town early in the morning to locate and tear the signs down before Traci could see them.
She Tore Down the Sign and Took the Box
Since Mary had been harassed for years, she immediately knew it was the work of the same phantom sender. Both terrified and enraged, Mary stopped the bus and tore the sign down.
Mary then noticed a box behind the sign with a string coming out of it. The string was attached to yet another post. Naturally, Mary took the entire box onto the bus and planned to open it after her shift. That evening, when she opened the box to inspect it, she gasped when she saw what was inside.
A Deadly Booby Trap
Inside the box was a .25 caliber handgun. It was essentially a makeshift contraption with a booby trap that was intended to shoot the woman. Luckily for Mary, the contraption failed, and the gun never went off.
Soon enough, Mary would learn that the person had been harassing her for years intended for her to rip down the sign-in anger so that the gun could go off. Thankfully, that wasn’t what happened. Of course, Mary called the police, and they inspected the box and its contents.
Serial Number Leads to the Gun’s Owner
The inspection of the pistol revealed that someone tried to file off the gun’s serial number. They did a sloppy job, though, leaving enough of the number to lead to a positive identification of the weapon’s owner.
As it turns out, the gun owner happened to be the last person Mary ever suspected of being the writer. The gun belonged to Paul Freshour. Both Mary and the police were stumped. Why Paul? It made no sense and came right out of the left field.
All Signs Point to Paul
When confronted, Paul claimed that the gun went missing a long time ago and that he had no idea what had happened to it. He denied any involvement in the booby trap. Nonetheless, he was forced to take a handwriting test, in which he had to copy the writing on the mysterious envelopes and letters.
Yes, this was a questionable method, and no, it’s not the proper way to perform a handwriting test. Still, the sheriff deemed the handwriting to be Paul’s. That and the pistol was registered under his name.
His Alibi Was Worth Nothing
Paul Freshour was arrested and accused of the attempted murder of Mary Gillispie. He was, however, released on a $50,000 bond, after which he voluntarily checked himself into the Mental Health Center at Riverside Hospital.
He reportedly wanted to be examined, perhaps to get a plea of not guilty due to insanity. The plea was later dropped, though. A co-worker at his work, named Wesley Wells, testified that Paul had bought the gun from him for $35. Also, personnel records revealed that Paul took a day off from work on February 7 – the day of the booby trap.
Over 1,000 Letters
There were also handwriting samples from Paul’s employment file that were, according to handwriting experts, a match for a total of 391 of the letters and 103 postcards that had been sent to the Gillispies and other residents of the town.
Over 1,000 letters were sent across Southern Ohio in general, many of them calling out political corruption. Some of the letters even contained arsenic. Paul admitted to purchasing the gun but claimed that he didn’t know what had happened to it.
A Guilty Verdict
Paul also said that Sheriff Radcliff asked him to copy the samples of the letters, which is why they resulted in a match. In the end, Paul was indicted by a grand jury in March 1983, and the trial was set for October 1983.
It lasted only one week. All the jury needed was two-and-a-half hours to return their verdict of guilty for the attempted murder using a firearm. He was never formally charged with writing the letters, despite 39 of them being admitted into evidence.
Placed Behind Bars
Judge William Ammer sentenced Paul to seven to 25 years in prison, with three years for controlling a firearm. Reportedly, Paul provided an alibi for the day of the booby trap incident. But since the trap was pre-made and pre-mediated, it didn’t mean much.
For his part, Paul stood by his claim of innocence to the very end. The public, however, was already convinced. Naturally, you would think that once behind bars, the letters and threats would come to an end. But they didn’t…
But the Letters Kept Coming
Strangely enough, the Circleville mystery didn’t end there. Once Paul was behind bars, the letters continued and even increased in intensity. At this point, they were reaching hundreds of people in the region.
As the authorities believed that he was still writing the letters, they placed him in solitary confinement, assuming he would stop. Still, the letters continued to be sent to many people, taunting them from the postmarked Columbus, as usual. It was odd beyond belief, especially considering that Paul was not in prison in Columbus.
Maybe It Wasn’t Paul After All
In the face of all the continuing letters, the postmarks from Columbus, and an in-depth investigation and full observation of Paul, the prison warden finally decided that he couldn’t possibly have been responsible for the letters.
It became more and more plausible that an innocent man was in prison. Yet the authorities would never want to admit making a mistake, so they clung to the idea that Paul was somehow responsible. His parole hearing was even denied, despite him being an upstanding prisoner.
After Ten Years in Prison
In the aftermath of his rejection for parole, Paul got a menacing letter from the phantom sender. One section had a message for Paul: “Now when are you going to believe you aren’t going to get out of there? I told you two years ago. When we set ’em up, they stay set up. Don’t you listen at all?”
In the end, Paul was finally released on parole in May 1994 after suffering ten years in prison. To this day, he insists that he was always innocent and that the real culprit is out there.
One Possible Theory
If Paul was indeed guilty, his motivation for writing the cruel letters remains puzzling. One theory holds that he wanted to demonstrate loyalty to his wife, whose brother may have known about Mary’s affair.
But this probably wasn’t the case as the Freshour marriage was strained. Their divorce filings included allegations by Karen that Paul had been physically abusive and violent in temper. Who knows? Maybe Karen, spiteful over a divorce that left Paul with custody of their kids, wanted to frame him.
Finding New Evidence
Is the phantom sender still out there? Some evidence, dug up by independent researchers, suggests that Paul just might be right. Journalist Martin Yant, for one, has spent years researching the case of the Circleville letters.
Yant says he found new evidence in the sheriff’s archived files that, for some reason, were never put forward in court. Yant explained that in the files was a report that Mary had given the sheriff. Mary told the sheriff something about the day of the booby trap incident.
Who Was the Man With the El Camino?
One of the other bus drivers told Mary that she was driving down the same road about 20 minutes before Mary found the booby trap. When the woman drove by that very same intersection, she noticed a yellow El Camino parked there.
Next to the car stood a large man with “sandy hair.” When he saw the bus approaching, he suspiciously turned around and acted as though he was taking a leak when he was more likely trying not to be noticed.
The Lead That Fell Through the Cracks
The description of this man does not fit Paul Freshour at all, not to mention that Paul had an alibi for the time of the booby trap incident. The thing is, there was no attempt at all to follow up on this very crucial lead.
If the authorities had looked into it, they could very well have found another possible suspect. As it turns out, another suspect in the Circleville case indeed had a brother who owned a yellow El Camino…
“You El Sickos Will Pay”
Not long after Paul was released from prison, the letters slowly died down and eventually stopped completely. They were already in a lull during the days leading up to Paul’s release. But just as the letters stopped, an odd message was sent to the TV series Unsolved Mysteries.
The TV show aired an episode covering the Circleville letters case on November 11, 1994. The letter was sent to the network’s offices which simply read: “Forget Circleville, Ohio. If you come to Ohio, you el sickos will pay.”
The Circleville Writer
The mystery letter was signed “The Circleville Writer.” As frustrating as it may be, the phantom sender’s identity is still unknown, and Paul Freshour passed away in 2012 with no closure to his unjust imprisonment.
In 2021, CBS’s 48 Hours asked a former FBI profiler named Mary Ellen O’Toole and forensic document expert Beverley East to go back and examine the letters of the closed case. According to O’Toole, Paul likely wasn’t the culprit, just based on her impression of him.
Revisiting the Evidence
For O’Toole, the characteristics of a controlling and vindictive letter writer were traits that Paul’s relatives insisted didn’t fit him. East pointed to the letter G in the writing, which looked like the number 6 in many letters – matching Paul’s handwriting.
That alone was a possibly incriminating detail. Unlike O’Toole, East believes that it was Paul who wrote the letters. The episode of 48 Hours also identified his fingerprints on several letters sent while he was serving time in prison.
The Case Remains Closed
“If a crime continues and you have someone in custody for a long period of time, you have to say, “Somebody else is sending these letters. They’re not happening by magic. Somebody else is writing the letters,” O’Toole said.
Still, as far as the police are concerned, the Circleville Letters Case remains closed. In 1978, there was an article published in The Dayton Daily News that commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Ohio State Penitentiary riots. In the article, Paul Freshour was interviewed.
He Had Nightmares
Paul was asked if he endured any long-term emotional damage from his 30 hours held hostage. He said he didn’t, but he did say that people often asked if he turned into an alcoholic or saw a shrink. “I still have nightmares every once in a while,” Paul said in that interview.
“I dream about what might have been and what was. But considering it all, I feel I am lucky that I am as well-adjusted as I am, considering how close I came to death.” Chilling? A bit.
A Nation Still Wondering
Decades later, with Paul now gone, people are still fascinated by the case. Marie Mayhew is the host of a podcast called Whatever Remains, where she discusses the Circleville letters. She told 48 Hours that there’s one piece of evidence connecting Paul to the booby trap.
Mayhew said, “I think the gun is probably, to me, in the entire scope of the investigation, the strongest evidence.” And she may be right. As for forensic expert, she’s “100 percent sure” it was Paul. What do you think?