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Starting in 1976 threatening letters began circulating around Circleville, Ohio. Public domain.

Poison Pen Letters..

For years, the residents of an Ohio town were plagued by messages that revealed their darkest secrets

Travel approximately 25 miles from Columbus in Ohio and it is quite possible to overlook one of many small towns dotted around America. Situated along the banks of the Scioto River, Circleville is the type of small-town America in which everyone knows everyone else. It is likely to be the kind of place where residents can leave their doors unlocked overnight without fear of recriminations. On the face of it, Circleville does seem like the kind of place that big city citizens might turn to in order ‘to get away from it all’. During 1976, all of that changed. Someone began a campaign of terror against the entire town with the Circleville letters.

It’s a place that rarely attracts outside attention. But in then the frightening letters started to arrive. The sinister, sexually explicit and threatening letters began to appear in the mailboxes of Circleville residents. All were postmarked from nearby Columbus, Ohio, and none included a return address. Only one person’s letters have been well documented, those of Mary Gillispie.

Residents began receiving threatening letters that made reference to personal circumstances. Each letter was written in block capitals – harsh, unnatural formations that gave the letter urgency and sinister feel. What made the case even more interesting was that the letters appeared to originate from Columbus, not within the close-knit Circleville community.

On of the first letters was received by Mary Gillispie, a school bus driver, telling her that the letter writer was aware that she was having an affair with the superintendent of schools and that it had better stop.

In addition to allegations of an affair, the letter carried an ominous threat. It read, in part:
“I know where you live. I’ve been observing your house and know you have children. This is no joke. Please take it serious.”

The envelope was postmarked Columbus, Ohio. There was no return address, no signature inside, no way to tell who sent it. A week later, Mary received another letter with a similar tone. Mary kept the letters to herself, until her husband Ron also received one.

And this letter, addressed to Ron Gillispie, told him that if he didn’t do something to stop this affair, that his life was undoubtedly in danger.

The letters contained threats of violence and personal information that, in some cases, only the recipient was aware of. Many of these letters were hatefully written with vulgarisms and lewd artwork. None of the Circleville letters had any return address and all appeared to come from somewhere within Columbus. Every single letter was written in the same distinct style – block-letters – and might have been an attempt to cover up the author’s personal handwriting.

Even though many of the town’s 14,000 inhabitants were targeted, one woman was seemingly singled out for some severe and/or harsh treatment. Mary Gillespie drove a school bus for a living and was among the initial targets for the volatile author. In addition to revealing disturbing facts, such as her home being under surveillance by the author and that she was a married mother, the letter also contained an allegation that Gillespie was having an affair with a superintendent of schools. In no uncertain terms, the author demanded that she stop and that she was not a subject of a hoax or prank.

Anyone receiving the Circleville letters would be understandably upset at it. Worse was to follow though. Several additional letters were sent to her, all of a similar nature. At first, the terrified woman just hid them all away and began to keep a discreet and panicked eye on her everyday activities – just in case the unknown stalker made the mistake of being spotted. Gillespie did an admirable job at concealing her terror, until one of the Circleville letters arrived addressed to Ron Gillespie, Mary’s husband. This one was blunt and to the point. Ron was ordered to put an end to the affair or die.

Mary first admitted to Ron that she had no clue what the author was referring to and that no affair was taking place. Perhaps this was a failed attempt at blackmail, but the damage to Mary’s reputation had already been done. Just the idea that a mild-mannered woman that would easily blend into a crowd was having an extra-marital affair was enough to get the gossip-mongers talking. Both Ron and Mary Gillespie worked together to try and ignore the threats and intimidation and carry on. Another chilling letter quickly changed that.

The alleged affair became the talk of Circleville. The mysterious writer understood the power of gossip. The next letter was even more threatening. It read, in part:  “Gillispie, you have had 2 weeks and done nothing. Make her 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.”

The couple began to deliberate about who the possible Circleville letter writer could be. Their suspicions centered on Ron’s brother-in-law, Paul Freshour. To test this hypothesis, the Gillespie’s used the rampant panic as a tool and sent Freshour several similarly written letters, outlining that they knew who he was and what he was up to. A request to stop all activities without resorting to any violence was included, and that ploy looked as though it had worked.

Paul Freshour spent 10 years in prison.

While the Gillespie’s could not be certain that Freshour was responsible for their torment, they at least considered that it was over.

August 19th, 1977 began as just another day. Whatever had plagued them before was just a bad memory and things had returned to normal. When the phone rang that day it was treated as just another phone call. Ron answered.

He told his children he was going out to confront the letter writer. He took his weapon. He did not seem to be drunk. Said good-bye to his children and went out.

Mary never did find out what was said or who made the call, but it was assumed to be the phantom author and he was back with a bang.

Ron lost his temper, grabbed his pistol and left the house. At an intersection close to where they lived, Ron’s vehicle struck a tree and killed Ron Gillespie.

Within a short distance, at an intersection that he knew very well, he lost control of the vehicle, hit a tree, and was killed. Somewhere in between leaving the house and hitting that tree, his gun had fired one shot and there was never any explanation for when or how, at whom that gun could have been fired.

The police eliminated one potential suspect, and then ruled Ron Gillispie’s death an accident.  But several Circleville residents soon received anonymous letters accusing the sheriff of a cover-up. Ron Gillespie’s brother-in-law, Paul Freshour, said the sheriff had changed his story:

“The sheriff agreed with me that there was foul play. And then, when I contacted him again, he’d changed his attitude completely. Then, he was telling me that it wasn’t foul play, that the suspect had passed a polygraph test.”

If the caller was indeed the letter writer, then he or she had clearly carried out on the threat to Ron’s life. When the police investigated the crash, they discovered that Ron’s gun had been fired once. Detectives could find no reason or excuse for Ron to have fired at all whether it was deliberate or not. The crash happened moments after Ron drove away and no shot was reported.

The crash was ruled to be a genuine accident even though strange facts emerged. A postmortem examination recorded that Ron’s blood-alcohol level was 1.5 times the legal limit. Those that knew Ron best all confirmed that he was actually teetotal. The Sheriff was once said to have admitted that there was more to the crash than met the eye but later denied those ascertains. And the phantom letter writer began to get in contact with several residents, almost begging for a more thorough investigation to be conducted. It was almost as if the author wasn’t satisfied with the accident conclusion.

Was Ron Gillispie’s death an accident? Was he really drunk that night? And why had one bullet been fired from his handgun?

The Circleville letters began once more in earnest. As well as Mary Gillespie and her immediate family, elected officials were almost targeted. The threats and vulgar nature of the prose was the same as it had been before. The hostility shown to Mary proved to be too much for her to bear any longer. She admitted to the affair taking place, but insisted that it only began after the first of the letters had been delivered. When Freshour was accused of being the Circleville letter writer, he vehemently denied it.

Despite all of this harassment and the scandal that made her the talk of the town, Mary managed to keep her job. Six years after the campaign had begun, whoever was behind this took a bold step in furthering their tactics.

After Ron’s death, the letters kept coming. Mary kept her job driving a school bus. But beginning in 1983, the letter writer began putting signs along her bus route. Mary’s daughter was being targeted.  Notes continued throughout 1983, with some addressed to Mary’s daughter. That year, the anonymous wordsmith even took to installing signs along Mary’s bus route for the world to see.

Tired of the harassment, Mary pulled over, climbed out of her bus, and went to rip down one sign. But to her shock, she found it was rigged to a box with a string. Upon opening the box, Mary found a gun pointed right at her. Inside was a crude booby trap in the form of a pistol. Thankfully the trap failed to execute at all. Once again she called the police, and they quickly discovered that someone had made a crude attempt to file off the gun’s serial number. Police traced the gun to Freshour who, not for the first time, insisted he knew nothing about the events. Freshour stated that the gun went missing long before.

Paul Freshour spent 10 years in prison, despite an alibi and another possible suspect.

The gun was about the only solid lead that the police had available to them at the time. The police brought Paul in and gave him an ingenious test—he was told to copy the Circleville letters and emulate the author’s handwriting.  How anyone thought this would prove or disprove that he actually wrote them, is uncertain. Even if experts were able to prove that the handwriting was his, the investigation was criticized for the incorrect manner for administering the handwriting test in the first place. Paul was adamant of his innocence – yet with the firearm as evidence and an inconclusive test comparing his penmanship to the threatening letters, authorities believed they had their man. The Sheriff was satisfied that Freshour was the Circleville letter writer – or that the handwriting was close enough at least – and he arrested Freshour for attempted murder.

On October 24, 1983, Paul Freshour went on trial for the attempted murder of his sister-in-law, Mary Gillispie. He wasn’t charged with writing the threatening letters, but they were used as crucial evidence against him. On the stand, a handwriting expert said it was his opinion that the writing on the envelopes, documents, and postcards was made by the same person: Paul Freshour. Paul’s boss testified that Paul hadn’t gone to work the day the booby trap was found. Even though Paul had a solid alibi for almost the entire day, he never took the stand in his own defense. It was a decision he would come to regret. Paul was found guilty of attempted murder. He said the verdict was completely unexpected:

“I can’t blame the jury, because the jury didn’t hear all the evidence. But I just couldn’t believe it. I was really in shock.”

He was convicted and given a sentence of 25 years in prison with the recommendation that he spent at least 7 years behind bars. Many of Circleville’s residents had already convinced themselves that Freshour was guilty despite the evidence given during the trial.

Mary Gillispie told the sheriff one of the other bus drivers told her that she had been driving that same road about 20 minutes before Mary Gillispie found that booby trap at exactly that site. And when she went by that very same intersection, there was a yellow El Camino parked there. A large man with sandy hair was standing there. When he saw her come, he turned around and acted like he was going to the bathroom or something, but seemed also to be avoiding any kind of identification. The description of the individual does not fit Paul Freshour at all, and Paul had a very solid alibi for this time. There was no attempt at all to follow up on that lead. And if they had, they would have found that another possible suspect in this case had a brother who had a yellow El Camino.

In May of 1994, Paul Freshour was finally granted parole after serving 10 years. He was sure that the real criminal is still at large:

“I’d like to see someone really look at this case on the letters, reopen the letter part of it and get in and find out who wrote the letters. I’d also like to see someone look into my former brother-in-law’s death. Look, that’s not my family anymore. That’s my past. I’m not even going to look back at it. I’ve got a new family and a new future. But I would still like to see someone look at that accident real close and the letters.”

Freshour maintained his innocence until his death in 2012.

The Circleville letters finally stopped, but many questions remain. Who actually wrote the letters? Was Ron Gillispie’s death an accident or was he murdered?  And, who made the booby-trap found by Mary Gillispie?

Much to the town of Circleville’s surprise, the notes continued after Paul Freshour was sent to prison.  They were still postmarked from Columbus, even though Paul was serving time across the state.  He was heavily monitored and investigated, and no evidence of letter-writing/sending/smuggling could be found.

While serving his time, Freshour was considered to be a model prisoner. He rarely got the chance to correspond with the outside world. In the decade that he was incarcerated, the letters carried on regardless. Like before, they were all postmarked Columbus and Freshour was not sentenced to prison anywhere near Columbus. Even the prison wardens doubted that Freshour was guilty of writing the letters. Authorities, on the other hand, were not convinced. They maintained that, somehow, he was responsible for everything the police accused him.

While he was in prison he even received a mysterious letter that stated: “Now when are you going to believe you aren’t going to get out of there? I told you 2 years ago. When we set ’em up, they stay set up. Don’t you listen at all?” Six months after Freshour’s release, TV show Unsolved Mysteries aired a segment on the Circleville Letters. “The Circleville Writer” actually wrote a letter to Unsolved Mysteries insisting that they forget the story and stay away before they aired their segment:

It simply said: “Forget Circleville, Ohio… if you come to Ohio, you el sickos will pay. The Circleville Writer.”

Yes, he did just call them a bunch of el sickos.

Circleville Letters

 To all those who post information about the obscene and threatening letters on the internet, please review the following facts. These are answers to you questions.

 The obscene and threatening letters were sent to almost everyone in Circleville Ohio and many received them in Pickaway county Ohio for over 25 years.

 No on was ever indicted or charged for the letters and murder was involved as the letters claimed. There is so much cover up concerning the letters.  The letters were in the thousands. The sheriff kept the letters from all media until an arrest was made which was years later, which made him look good.  There will be more on the letters, and more follow-up soon.  Thanks on the positive information. There is lots of murder cover-up in Pickaway county starting with my brother-in-law, Ronald Gillespie.  The Pickaway County sheriff Dwight Radcliff hated me because I was in his case a lot over this murder. We argued for years and still at it. The letters were always covered-up and kept quiet.

 Paul Forshour

Paul was released from prison in May of 1994. In 2011, Paul (or someone purporting to be Paul) put up a simple website with a few documents. Most notably is the 164 page packet he sent to the FBI, requesting their help in investigating Ron’s murder and the origin of the Circleville Letters. Interestingly, he does not ask them to investigate the crime he was convicted for, even though he maintained his innocence. In the letter to the FBI, Paul accuses Sheriff Dwight Radcliff of being involved in a career-spanning coverup of corruption.

Some of the accusations and conspiracy theories Paul put forth included that arsenic was being included in many of the letters; that the letters were an attempt to get Gordon Massie (“a functioning alcoholic”) fired after he was “asked to leave” his previous school district for having an affair with an employee; and that Radcliff was covering up other crimes in order to decrease his town’s crime statistics and further his career. Paul claimed that the sheriff hid many of the letters people received in order to continue covering up allegations of child molestation by the Pickaway County coroner, and the district attorney (the same one who prosecuted Paul) impregnating a schoolteacher and having her murdered.

 Here’s a 100+ page PDF he had sent to the FBI prior to his death :https://circlevilleletters.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/the-full-story.pdf

The last letters were received up until about 2001,  a few people have claimed to be as late as 2003 but there’s no proof.

Circleville Letters

The full story

Circleville letters 2

Circleville letters 3_0001

Paul Freshour’s WordPress Site (Last Updated October 23, 2011)

The Sinister Mystery of the Circleville Letter Writer | The Lineup

Circleville Writer | Unsolved Mysteries Wiki | Fandom powered by Wikia

The Circleville Letters Mystery: Who Was Responsible? – Real …

The Mysterious Phantom Letters of Circleville | Mysterious Universe

[PDF]the full story – circlevilleletters

Unsolved Mystery FIX – The Circleville Letters – Lords of Pain

Circleville Letters Mystery Still Unsolved | Historic Mysteries

Poison Pen Murder | Unsolved more Mysteries

The Sinister Mystery of the Circleville, Ohio Poison-Pen Letter Writer

 


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