EVANSVILLE, Ind. — A newspaper article at the time called the July 5, 1971 murder of Sterling Brewery worker Paul Roedel “the biggest crime puzzle in Evansville” in almost two years.
Just days after that pronouncement it looked as if the puzzle was solved when newspapers reported that a young man had been arrested. Within weeks, however, the suspect would be freed and the puzzle of Roedel’s brutal slaying would remain unsolved.
Detectives at the Evansville Police Department are dusting off the files, talking with Roedel’s family and taking a second look at the nearly 45-year-old case in hopes of generating some new leads.
“This case is worth looking at again, for sure,” said Lt. Paul Kirby.
EPD Detective Tony Mayhew, who has investigated other cold cases, said evidence collected in the case had been preserved. While possible, he said it was unlikely to yield viable DNA evidence. He said investigating cold cases that reach as far back as Roedel’s slaying require going back over reports, statements, evidence, even returning to the crime scene if possible.
“In 1971, crime scene forensics was different,” he said. “I don’t expect to find any forensic evidence but there is somebody out there who will read this story and remember something.”
While time might make it easier for people to talk about the case with police, Mayhew said it doesn’t erase the pain families feel, nor does it satisfy their need for closure.
“Whether it is 5 years or 40 years, this far down the road families still hurt,” he said.
The fatal attack occurred about 1:20 a.m., just moments after Roedel and his wife returned to their First Avenue home from a July 4th bierstube on Main Street, according to newspaper accounts.
Roedel was found lying on his back in a first floor hallway, his shirt and face covered in blood. Police said he was stabbed 12 times in the torso, the blade piercing his heart, liver, stomach and intestines. A blow from a blunt instrument had fractured his skull.
Despite those horrific injuries, Roedel would remain alive for five hours before dying at Deaconess Hospital. Officers tried talking to Roedel at his home and again at the hospital but his answers were slurred and incoherent.
His wife told police that after they got home she went upstairs for just a few a minutes but came back down after hearing her husband yell. She said she found him on the hall floor, wounded, according to newspaper articles. The assailant was gone.
Police found no signs of forced entry through a door or window to the house, according to newspaper reports, and investigators ruled out robbery as a motive.
A neighbor told police that about that time he saw a young man run across First Avenue to a new Ford Mustang on West Florida Street and drive away with the headlights off.
That piece of information would lead police to a suspect. Two weeks later when officers came to arrest 22-year-old Johnny Lester Wheeler at his job at Royal Crown Bottling Corp., he surrendered without a struggle.
It turned out that Wheeler and Roedel were connected. Roedel was divorced and in April 1970 he married again, to a woman from Kentucky named Ruby Brantley — the wife who found Roedel fatally injured and called police. Wheeler was her son-in-law.
Testimony at Wheeler’s probable cause hearing revealed that within hours of the slaying Wheeler was brought to police headquarters and put in a lineup, but the witness failed to pick him out, newspaper articles said.
However, other testimony at the hearing revealed that Wheeler had been driving a new Mustang — one that belonged to his mother-in-law, Ruby Brantley. She was never identified as a suspect or charged in the case and a newspaper article on the investigation reported Roedel had less than $10,000 in life insurance when he died.
A grand jury was convened to consider the case against Wheeler, as well as other matters. But no indictment was returned.
What evidence police had at the time wasn’t enough. Wheeler was released from jail. He has never been formally charged in the case. Brantley moved back to Henderson and married again, dying in 2008.
The crime that captured the imagination of a city for nearly a month faded to obscurity.
Not for Victoria Burnett, the oldest of Roedel’s three children.
“Every now and then it will just come to us out of the clear blue,” Burnett said. “It brings back sad memories. It’s unsettling because you don’t know why. Dad had no enemies. He would joke and cut up with people.”
She recalls Roedel as a good-natured family man who loved to fish and hunt squirrel and rabbits. He was a World War II veteran and worked as an inspector in Sterling Brewery’s bottle shop.
“Congenial” and “unassuming” and “quiet” were the words Roedel’s neighbors used to describe him to the Evansville Courier at the time of his slaying.
Burnett said she and her husband, Ed Burnett, were living in Tacoma, Washington, near McCord Air Force Base when her father remarried. She said she didn’t actually meet her father’s new wife until they visited her in the hospital after the birth of her first son. By that time Burnett had returned to Evansville. Seven months later her father would be killed.
At the time, Burnett said, she liked Brantley well enough but the relationship was never close. Not long after her father’s funeral, the family lost touch with her.
“She liked to do things my dad liked to do: Go have a beer and dancing. Daddy loved to dance. Ruby was a fun-loving person and outgoing,” Burnett said.
Brantley had an affect on her father, she said. Roedel drove a four-door Plymouth Fury before he remarried, she said, and before that it was a 1955 Ford station wagon he used to haul his hunting beagles.
“That was Paul. Not a Mustang,” Burnett said. “I didn’t know about it until after his death.”
After her father’s death, Burnett said, the family discovered that not just the car but her father’s house and other assets too had been put in Brantley’s name.
Burnett holds onto a few mementos reminding her of her father: A fading photograph; a picture from her wedding of Roedel walking her down the aisle; a single dried flower, funeral notice and yellowed newspaper clippings pressed into scrapbook pages.
“I would like it to be solved. Maybe we will get some leads,” she said. “I’d like to know why he was stabbed 12 times. Usually, they say that’s a passionate crime when somebody is stabbed. It’s personal.”
Source: Evansville Courier Press, http://bit.ly/2dlabgG
Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com
This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by the Evansville Courier & Press.