Murder at 30,000 Feet – Week 2

This is why your airplane bathroom feels so small

When Jessica, the flight attendant, reaches your side, her shrill scream stabs your ears.

The US Marshal steps out of the aisle and flashes his badge. The lines on his face deepen as he scans the tight space and the bloody body filling it. He closes the door and glances at you over his shoulder. “The others can’t see this. It’ll only make them panic.”

You nod. He’s not wrong. But how will he investigate and keep an eye on the rough looking woman in cuffs who occupies the seat next to his? “What do you need me to do?”

“Go sit with Mara while I check this out.” He stretches on a pair of latex gloves, turning to Jessica. “Miss, don’t let anyone back here.”

Tears glisten at the corners of her eyes, and one slips down her cheek as she nods.

You ease into the seat beside the handcuffed criminal.

She tosses you a tight smile. “You here to babysit?” Her Australian accent is unmistakable.

“I wouldn’t call it that.” You study her face more closely. Hadn’t a reporter friend of yours wrote an article about this woman? You tilt your head. “Mind if I ask what those are about?” You motion toward the cuffs.

Mara crosses her arms, slumping in the seat. “Just because I’m chained up doesn’t make me guilty.” She chews her lip. “I’ve got a trial coming up for first degree murder, and I killed the guy. But I had to.”

“Did he attack you?”

She sighed. “No. It was what they call a crime of passion on those court shows. I didn’t go into the place looking to kill. But when I saw– I couldn’t help myself.”

Talk about vague. You glance around the corner. When will that Marshal finish up?

“Say, what’s going on back there?” The male half of the honeymooning couple leans over the seat in front of you and lifts a brow. “Melani heard the flight attendant screaming, and asked me to check.”

You glance in the direction of their seats, and Melani peers over the top of hers with wide eyes. “I can’t say.”

The Marshal steps into the aisle and removes his gloves. He opened his mouth to speak, but his eyes cut to the man speaking to you, and he clamps it shut.

“Look. I’m Trey Hyatt.” The honeymooner jabs a thumb toward his wife. “We deserve to know what’s going on.”

By this time a small crowd has gathered. The onlookers nod and chatter in approval to Trey’s declaration of their rights. Devon and his mother stand near where you’re sitting. While his mom wears a look of concern, Devon yanks a little girl’s pigtail then glances away, face wreathed in artificial innocence.

The old cowboy steps into the throng, squashed between row K and a woman wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat.

The Marshal clears his throat and motions for silence. “Okay. Hush! I’ll tell you what I know. But remain calm.”

The droning voices dull, and the Marshal continues. “I’m US Marshal Ken Durland.” He glances at you. “Someone found a body in the restroom.”

A collective gasp rises, and the talking recommences with fresh gusto.

“Quiet!” The old cowboy raises his voice over the throng, sounding more commanding than you anticipated. With a name like Percival, shouldn’t he have a timid voice? “Let the Marshal finish. I, for one, would like to know what this means for those of us on the plane. We’ve got lots of hours left to spend together. Wouldn’t it be nice to know if one of us is a killer?”

A hush descended.

“Thank you.” Marshal Ken nodded. “What was your name?”

“You can call me Griz.” Okay, now that name makes sense.

The Marshal adjusts his shoulder holster. “I found an ID on the body. The victim’s name is Jeff Archer. That’s all I know at the moment.”

Turbulence rattles the airplane, and you grasp the arm rests, lifting silent prayers for safety.

“What are you going to do?” Devon’s mom scrubs a hand over her face.

“I’ll place a call to headquarters and see if they can dig up any information on Mr. Archer. That should give me some idea who we might be looking for, and –“

“Do you think the killer’s still on the plane?” Trey reaches for Melani’s hand.

Marshal Ken nods slowly. “His body’s still warm. He hasn’t been dead more than an hour.”

The woman in the sun hat lifts a hand to her mouth.

Melani breaks into sobs.

Devon’s mother casts a glance at the prisoner beside you. Not a fearful one. Then she hustles her boy back to their seats despite his protests about wanting to see grandma. That kid’s impatience might be the death of all the passengers.

“Thanks for keeping an eye on Mara.” Ken returns to his seat, and you step into the crowded aisle. He grabs the phone from the seat back and holds it to his ear.

Another jerk of the plane sends you barreling into the old cowboy. He grips your arms and sets you on your feet. Lightning flashes through the window.

Could this flight get any worse? First a dead body, now a storm.

As Marshal Ken rams the in-flight phone into the cradle, a low growl escapes his lips.

You meet his gaze, hoping your look asks ‘what’s wrong?’ instead of ‘is this how we all die?’

“The storm cut out the connection. Looks like we’ll be doing this the old fashioned way.”

A lump forms in your throat. “We?”

“Can’t do it on my own.” He rubs his hands over his pant legs. “I’ll have Griz keep an eye on Mara here. Then we can ask some questions.” He gestures for you to lean closer.

When you’re out of earshot of the milling flyers, he holds up a photograph, lined with wrinkles, as if it had been stored in a pocket for years. “I found this on him.” You study the picture. A young woman sits at a picnic table, her face toward the camera. She holds a little girl in her lap. Both are smiling. You run your thumb over the place where the woman’s eyes had been gouged out. Jagged edges of the glossy paper scrape your skin.

What could this mean? Why carry around a vandalized photo? You narrow your eyes. Something about the woman’s face strikes a familiar chord, but maybe you’re just imagining it.

You glance at the closed restroom door. Was the man inside the victim of a senseless killing, or did he carry sinister secrets of his own?

*****

Clue #1 The photograph

Thank you for joining me for the second week of our ongoing Friday mystery! In case you didn’t notice, I used Penelope Kaye’s suggestion for Percival’s nickname, so I’ll be sending her a $10 Amazon gift card.

I’ve created a Character/Crime-Solving Word document for those of you wanting to take notes as the weeks progress. It would be a way to keep your suspicions and the clues organized. Also, there will be additional characters added in the coming weeks, so I will create supplements to add as we progress in the case.

Comment on every post while the mystery lasts, and you will be entered into a drawing for a $50 Amazon gift card.

Murder at 30,000 Feet- Introduction

The fasten seat belt light flicks off with a hollow ding. You scrub a hand over your face then check the time on your iWatch. Only thirty-one hours until touch down in Sydney. Only thirty-one. The recycled air scratches your throat. Lovely. Good thing you brought Halls Fruit Breezers to take the edge off. You pop one in your mouth, and the creamy strawberry lozenge coats the aggravation.

Beside you, an old cowboy who had introduced himself as Percival Pettigrew when you first embarked slides his Stetson over his face and slumps into his seat, hands folded over his stomach. His fingertips are stained yellow, and cigarette smoke clings to him like a bad rash. Percival Pettigrew? Really? You chew the inside of your cheek. The name failed to fit the crusty cowboy persona. Why not give him a nickname? Duke? Nah, John Wayne will always be the Duke. Hmmm. Have to think about that one.

Percival Pettigrew…

“What can I get you to drink?” The stewardess, Jessica, stops her cart beside you. Her dark hair swept up in a French twist.

“Just water.” You’ll save it until after the fruity throat disc works its magic, but if you don’t get something to drink now, who knows when she’ll make it back around to row G.

She opens a miniature water bottle and pours about an ounce into a plastic cup. Stingy much? You take the swallow of water and smile. It’s not her fault the airline insists on behaving as if we’re in the midst of a shortage.

Jessica

Your seat lurches, sending water sloshing over the edges of your cup. After fitting it into the circular groove on your tray table, you peek around. A little boy rams his feet into your back again, his mother pats his leg, smiling. “Now, Devon, let’s find a new activity,” she says in a coddling voice. Precious Devon continues his assault against the seat and your final nerve. Too bad his mom doesn’t know that the word ‘parent’ it both a noun and a verb.

Portrait of a kid | free image by rawpixel.com
Devon
I took this photo of Nadia, one year ago, on the streets of Chisinau, Moldova.  She told me that in her early 20s she was thinking that those are the best years of somebody’s life. But her early 30s...
Devon’s Mom

The plane jerks, and Jessica grips the back of your seat. Your heart climbs into your throat as you grip the arm rests until your knuckles turn white. Probably wasn’t your brightest idea to binge watch Lost before flying across the Pacific. But hey, if you crash on an island occupied by homicidal smoke, polar bears, and a group of toughs who want to use you for their crazy experiments, you’ll arrive prepared.

Old Percival snores on. His fingers twitch as the turbulence passes. You still can’t think of a nickname that suits. Probably the high altitude. Devon’s feet pummel your back again. That little shyster isn’t helping creative matters either.

A baby cries from somewhere behind you but quickly settles. You pull your iPad from its sleeve. Might as well get a little work done. The last installment of the Banter app expose won’t write itself. How many people will delete their Banter accounts when they read the truth about their privacy being compromised? You hit the power button, and your tablet screen glows to life. You shrug. Most people wouldn’t care enough to worry about the spying software attached to their profiles. Or the government entities that keep tabs on their online activity. No, they were too excited to show their friends pictures of their sandwiches and post vague woe-is-me sentences in a desperate attempt to fish for sympathy. Whatever gets them through the day. You can’t be faulted for withholding information that laid bare the sinister side of social media.

Once you reach Sydney, there will be no time to finish this article before starting coverage of the Cordova trial. You take a sip of water. How could one man be capable of so much evil. You love your job, but the nightmarish cases it forces you to dive into leave you wishing for the chance to write a feel-good piece. Something about the Make-a-Wish foundation or Chick-fil-A. Anything but corruption and murder.

You straighten your shoulders and set to work. That’s not what you’re known for.

Devon’s tap dance on your back continues. If you don’t get out of this chair in the next minute, you’ll find a way to punish the little delinquent yourself. Didn’t someone say it takes a village to raise a child? Well, you’ll be glad to join this kid’s village. Or give that Super Nanny a call. Where’s a naughty mat when you need one?

You slip out of your seat, tablet in hand. A quick trip to the restroom is in order. Maybe you can finish your article without being kicked like a soccer ball.

As you pass row H, you narrow your eyes at Devon, hoping he’ll get the hint and knock it off when you get back. Devon sticks his tongue out, and your hint sails directly over his curly head. His mom sits beside him, beep, bop, booping on her smartphone. Judging by the sound of the music, she’s playing Kwazy Cupcakes. At least her taste in games is solid even if her parenting style is what the French call ‘checked-out.’

You continue down the aisle, scanning the faces of your fellow passengers. There are the honeymooners you avoided eye contact with in the terminal. That got PG-13 a little too quick.

Couples Of The Year - Interracial Couples - YouTube

A man wearing a badge sits near the bathroom door. Beside him, sits a woman in handcuffs. Okay. Did you accidentally step into a Lost remake? No. This criminal looks nothing like Evangeline Lilly.

William Fichtner - IMDb
U.S. Marshal
Female Prisoner

The green strip above the door handle reads ‘vacant.’ You pull open the door and a cold chill skims your arms. A man wearing a blood stained Red Cross t-shirt lays sprawled beside the sink. The gash across his throat turns your stomach.

You motion for the stewardess. But what can she do? Nothing can save this man. You fight the urge to scream. Somebody murdered him. You scan the backs of passengers heads.

Who?

***

Thank you so much for joining me on this whodunit adventure!!! Comment below to let me know what you think we should nickname our cowboy. Be sure to include your email address, because whoever picks the winning name will receive a $10 Amazon gift card.

Follow me for weekly clues that will point you to the killer one lucky ducky who follows the story to the end will receive a $50 Amazon gift card!

See you next week!

Author Interview and Giveaway- Nancy Mehl

Nancy Mehl

I’m beyond excited to introduce you to one of my all-time favorite authors, Nancy Mehl! Not only is her Kaely Quinn Profiler series one of the best I’ve read, but she’s been a personal blessing to me over the last few months. Without further ado, let’s dig into the interview.

  1. Are any events/people in your books based on reality, or is it pure imagination?

A combination. I believe we put some of ourselves and our life experiences in our stories. It’s what we know and what we understand.

2. Have you visited any of the locations in your books?

Yes. When my stories were based in Kansas, I almost always visited the places I wrote about. Most of the towns weren’t real, but I wanted to make certain they could exist in areas where I put them. When working on a series set in Sugarcreek, Ohio, I actually traveled there and was able to visit local shops and places I’d written about. It was a lot of fun.

3. Who was your favorite character to write and why?

Kaely Quinn, the main character in my Kaely Quinn Profiler series. She is so unique I loved writing about her.

4. What is your favorite genre to read?

Mystery and suspense. I’ve always loved it since I was a little girl. Still do.

You absolutely have to read this one! And isn’t the cover beautiful?

5. Do you hide secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

Sometimes I put the names of friends in my books without telling them. I love it when they find themselves in my story.

6. What is your most unusual writing quirk?

I can’t think of anything that’s really unusual. I do listen to music when I write. My dog is always in the room with me. I have a bird feeder outside my window and like to watch the birds while I’m writing. Not sure those are very unusual. Sorry.

7. What do you most hope your readers take away from Dead End?

Of course, I want them to enjoy the book. I’ll be wrapping up Kaely’s story so I pray they will be satisfied with the way I did it. I think Dead End offers a lot of hope. My prayer is that they’ll take that away with them.

Another winner

8. What is your favorite word and why?

My favorite word? That’s easy. Jesus.

9. If you had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world for a year while writing a book that took place in that same setting, where would you choose?

Alaska! I dream about taking a cruise there. I want to see the northern lights and watch a whale swim past the boat. Anyone who knows me knows I love snow. I think I could be happy there for a year!

10. Is there anything you would like to say to your readers and fans?

Thank you for buying my books and for all your kind comments to me. They mean more than you will ever know. Their encouragement is almost as good as chocolate!

Releasing 3/31/2020

I’m so thankful Nancy took the time to give us a peek into her process and her life.

In honor of her newest release, Dead End, I’m hosting a giveaway. Comment below (with your email address) to be entered for a chance to win one of three e-book copies of this amazing story! Be sure to drop your comment before midnight Saturday, April 4th. I’ll draw names on Sunday! To be honest, I’m a low key jelly of whoever wins. I pre-ordered a paperback, and Amazon said I won’t get it until April 30th. That is way to long to wait, considering I’ve been rather impatiently biding my time since December to find out how the series ends . . . But, I’ll take the moral high ground and be over the moon happy for the three lucky winners!

Author Spotlight- Sharee Stover

Meet my good friend, Sharee.

Happy Friday, Friends and Neighbors! Hope you all are doing fantastic. I’d like to introduce you to a great author and an even better friend, Sharee Stover. She also lives in my town, and I’ve been to lunch with her, so . . . yeah. I know a real-life celebrity. Her newest release, Silent Night Suspect, will his the shelves on December 1st. Can you believe that’s only nine days away?!? I can’t.

If you’re like me, you prefer your romantic suspense with a realistic amount of romance. Not the ooey-gooey, fall-in-love-with-a-stranger-you-know-literally-nothing-about in two days stuff that I can’t seem to escape. That was a major run-on sentence. My apologies. Anyhow. I absolutely loved the realism in Silent Night Suspect. Everything about this story was on point, and I highly recommend. Also, I have a little surprise at the end for you, my faithful readers.

I won’t waste anymore of your valuable time with my drivel. Let’s get on to the main event, shall we. Here was my interview with Sharee for your reading pleasure.

1. What is your favorite under-appreciated novel? My all-time favorite novel is Safely Home by Randy Alcorn. It’s the kind of book that stays with you. I own it in multiple formats. Ebook, Paperback, Audio…yep, it’s that good. Definitely one I’d recommend to anyone.

2. Are any of your characters based on real people? All names have been changed to protect the innocent. Giggle. Just kidding. Actually, all of my characters have certain features or characteristics of people I know. I think it helps to write a better character when I can picture or hear him/her in my mind. I might pick a friend or foe and take features from them to develop the dialogue.

3. Which of your characters do you most relate with? Asia Stratton from Silent Night Suspect is the most relatable for me. She’s raw and honest with her scars. I love that she’s still healing and though she’s come a long way, she’s willing to work on that healing. Asia is far more courageous than I would be too. There’s a line (NO SPOILERS) where she believes it’s the end and prays for courage to face it.

4. What kind of researching do you do, and how much time to you spend researching before beginning a book? Research is often done throughout the book especially as I come upon situations where I need more information, or like in Silent Night Suspect, needing to know drug actions/reactions. I’m always plotting several books at a time so if I see things that apply to a particular story I’m working on, I’ll tuck those away in my Scrivener folder or print them out and keep a file to reference later.

This is Sharee’s debut novel. You’ll want to check this one out too 🙂

5. Stephen King advises authors to ‘Kill their darlings.’ Have you edited any scenes out of your books that you particularly loved? If so, would you give an example? Editing and deleting things isn’t much an issue for me. I know I have a lot to learn and I want to maintain a teachable spirit, so I trust if I’m told something’s gotta go, it’s the best decision for the book. I can’t think of any particular scenes, but I do have a couple of books (yes, entire books) that are my darlings and I hope they’ll someday get their limelight.

6. How do you select your character’s names? I absolutely LOVE naming characters and I keep a spreadsheet of all my books to try and ensure that I don’t use the same name twice. One huge factor is checking that the name isn’t a famous person. Especially an infamous person. I use lots of different references, websites, and sometimes football players or credits from movies. I like unique names so I’m always on the lookout. I even keep a list for future reference. I’m a total name nerd.

7. Do you read your book reviews?

Book reviews are tricky things. I write many reviews myself for books I read so I appreciate the time and effort that goes into them. I’ve heard repeatedly at writing conferences that authors shouldn’t read our reviews. Especially the mean ones. I’m amazed sometimes at how cruel people can be. They forget there is a person behind that book.

However, it is a lot of fun to see how a book affected a reader and what things they especially liked. In the words of Mark Twain, I could live two months on one good compliment. Unfortunately, the reverse means those bad reviews also stick and can be discouraging. My husband runs interference for me by reading them first.

8. How long does it take you to write a book? Because I start plotting books way in advance, I usually write an entire book within a couple of months but then I need another two months to edit, re-edit, and re-re-edit my edits. I have trouble letting go.

9. Do you believe in writer’s block? Yes, but not for ideas. I always have too many of those bouncing around in my brain. I do have times when I just can’t seem to get my brain and fingers cooperating to put words on the page. When that happens, I take a break, Netflix binge and then try again.

10. What was your favorite childhood book? Rainbow Garden by Patricia M. St John. It’s the first book I specially ordered. I think I was

11. What is your favorite genre to read and why? I read almost all genres but my favorites are women’s fiction and suspense/mystery. Women’s fiction has deep characters that stick with me and I appreciate the changes they must endure. But I also need suspense/mystery because I get antsy for the plot action and nail-biting, page flipping that must happen.

12. How many drafts of you book do you generally write before publication? Depends on how many revisions I have to do. Giggle. There’s always a least two, but sometimes it’s a major overhaul.

13. If you had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world for a year while writing a book that took place in that same setting, where would you choose? I would love to go to South Korea and travel the country.

14. Do you have an unusual writing quirk? Not really. I always keep a glass of ice water beside me and generally speaking I’m chewing cinnamon gum. It helps me think.

15. What is your favorite word and why? I do love the word juxtaposition and try to put it in at least once in every book. It’s such a fun word to spell and I love the definition. For quick reference, dictionary.com says: an act or instance of placing close together or side by side, especially for comparison or contrast. I don’t know why it’s my favorite, it’s just groovy.

Sharee, thank you so much for answering my burning questions! I can’t wait to read your next book, Untraceable Evidence!

Would you like to win a free copy of Silent Night Suspect? That’s the only stupid question I’ll ask today, I promise. Receive an entry into the drawing for every comment on this post. Winner will be drawn on November 30th, so comment, comment, comment. You’ll thank me later!

The Family That Preys Together

Enter the crazy world of the Binder family

The year was 1870. Settlers moved to the untamed West in droves. Looking for new beginnings. Working the land. It was a time when neighbors helped one another. People never hesitated to lend a hand. Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case.

The Bender family moved to what is now Cherryvale, Kansas in Labette County. Aside from the fact they were Spiritualists–not a common religion–they gave the impressions of a normal family, determined to settle the West. With an eye for turning a profit, John Bender Sr., ‘Pa’ claimed a 160-acre plot along the Great Osage Trail (now called the Santa Fe trail). He built and inn to accommodate travelers who were headed to points farther West. His son, John, who often went by the name Thomas, claimed an adjoining plot, though he never built a house or planted crops there. The other two members of the family were ‘Ma’ and Kate. Kate was purported to be a psychic medium and Spiritualist healer. While Ma and Pa spoke only German, the younger Benders were fluent English speakers.

The inn they built was a simple one-room cabin with a sheet hung to separate the the space into two distinct areas. In the front portion, a small mercantile and public gathering space was operated. The back of the house provided privacy for the family’s living quarters. Sounds a little crowded to me. Why Thomas didn’t build a shack on his land in the name of elbow room is a mystery in it’s own right.

Travelers were given the gold-standard of hospitality. Or, at least the best accommodations one room and a sheet can supply. Weary wanderers often stopped by the inn for a meal and replenishing of the most basic necessities at the Bender’s inn.

Sketch of Kate

Kate Bender, who was reported to be a real head-turner, also encouraged visitors with her psychic and healing abilities. Most of the inn’s clientele constituted men traveling alone. The majority opted to spend the night. Hey, why sleep on the ground outside when you can stay in a house? Not to mention the many dangers on the trail posed by bandits, disease, accidents, or conflicts with the local Native Americans. No, staying with the Benders was on par with a night at the DoubleTree by Hilton . . . compared with the perils of the Osage Trail. Right?

While it wasn’t unusual for migrants to leave for points unknown never to be heard from again, a noteworthy number of men seemingly dropped off the face of the earth after visiting Labette County. It took several years before any real suspicions arose. Without modern conveniences like ‘The Nightly News with Lester Holt’ and ‘Buzzfeed,’ word traveled slowly. Letters lagged for months before reaching their intended recipients. Thus, the family and friends of those missing men believed everything was fine as a frog’s hair split four ways for quite some time before realizing something sinister may have occurred.

In March of 1873, Dr. William York, a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, disappeared after disembarking from a train in Cherryvale. His two brothers, knowing their kin would never leave so suddenly of his own volition, determined to find him. His brothers were Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York. These two boys had the ways and means to find their lost brother . . . or at least discover what happened to him.

Colonel York headed the investigation in Labette County. He questioned the Benders, but they denied any knowledge of his brother’s disappearance.

A group of helpful townspeople, along with Pa and Thomas Bender, met at the local school house. They discussed forming a search party to find the missing Dr. York. The strategy was to scour the countryside and surrounding farms and homes. Unfortunately, the weather shifted, and the folks never had a chance to search.

One day sometime later, a neighbor noticed the Benders animals wandering the farm land foraging for food. Their hungry cries alerted him that all was not well at the Bender’s inn. Upon investigating the one-room house, the neighbor found it empty. The family wagon was no where to be found. Food remained on the shelves in the kitchen. Clothes lay neatly folded in their proper place. But there was no trace of the Benders.

Everything in the house appeared normal. Until some poor unsuspecting soul opened the trapdoor behind the canvas sheet and stumbled upon a scene straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

The Bender’s house of horrors

The trapdoor led to a dank cellar. The sharp metallic scent of death hung think in the air. Blood covered the walls and saturated every surface. Stunned, the townsfolk moved the house off its foundation and dug underneath. Nothing.

The next area to investigate was the freshly plowed garden near the house. Neighbors later recalled that the garden always appeared newly worked. For all the effort the Benders lavished on their little slice of heaven, they never had a harvest. Or planted anything. Not vegetables anyway.

Volunteers worked through the night. The first body unearthed was that of Dr. William York. The back of the physician’s head had been smashed, and a slash across his throat spoke the brutality of his last moments alive. Soon, more bodies with similar injuries were found beneath the Kansas soil. Though sources are unable to find common ground as to the number of the Bender’s victims, estimated totals tend to flit around a dozen. Some believe they may have murdered up to twenty-one people. One source said a little girl was found in a grave. She’d reportedly been buried alive in a plot with her parents.

Those investigating the scene pieced together the Bender’s M.O. Inn guests were encouraged to sit against the canvas partition separating the public and private areas while dining. One of the Benders would then strike their visitor on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. The trap door was then opened, and the body dropped down to the cellar. There, another Bender would cut the poor victim’s throat before emptying his pockets of valuables. Yes, the entire family murdered somewhere between twelve and twenty people for something as petty as a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

When a man named Mr. Wetzell heard the investigator’s theory, he recalled a strange encounter he’d had with the murderous family. While dining at the inn, he declined the recommended seat before the curtain. At this possible upset of their carefully constructed plan, Ma Bender lost her cool and grew belligerent and abusive toward Mr. Wetzell. The two male Benders then emerged from their positions behind the canvas and Wetzell shrewdly beat a hasty retreat. Another traveler, William Pickering, shared a nearly identical tale.

As you can imagine, news of these heinous crimes spread like a 24-hour stomach bug. Curiosity-seekers and reporters flocked to the abandoned inn to catch a glimpse of the house where so many met a violent end. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported an estimated 3,000 people at the crime scene with more trains scheduled to arrive. The house was disassembled and carried away one piece at a time (yes, you can sing that to the tune of that one Johnny Cash song) by people seeking a memento.

Senator York offered a $1,000 reward for the capture of the Benders, and the governor added a sweet $2,000 to the pot. The reward was never claimed. In the following years, women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none of them were positively identified. Though reports of sightings of Ma and Pa and then of Kate and Thomas were made in different states throughout the West, the homicidal family was never definitively seen again. What became of that fearsome foursome is still a mystery. Did they open another inn and recommence their butchery elsewhere? Maybe with a new name. It’s possible.

It was later discovered that only Ma Bender and Kate were actually related. The name ‘Bender’ may not have been the legal surname of any of the bunch. This made tracking them down virtually impossible. Pa was born John Flickinger early in the 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. It is believed Ma was originally named Almira Meik. She married a man named Griffith with whom she had twelve children before he met and untimely end. Before marrying Pa, Ma married several times. Oddly enough, each of her husbands died from mysterious blows to the head. Was Ma Bender the criminal mastermind behind all these killings? It makes me wonder.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

One interesting tidbit I’ll share, though it may be completely false, is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s claim to have known the Benders. While giving a speech at a book fair in Detroit in 1937, she said, “All I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth. There were some stories I wanted to tell but would not be responsible for putting in a book for children, even though I knew them as a child.” One such story was her brush with the Benders whose inn was situated between the Ingalls’ home and Independence, Missouri.

According to Wilder, her family would stop at the Bender’s inn on their way to Independence. While Pa Ingalls would get water from their well to refresh the horses, he never stepped inside the tavern. Since this was the only place for travelers to stop, her father’s aversion to going inside struck her as odd. She also mentioned the fresh turned dirt in the garden, though nothing was planted or harvested from the plot.

She told the book fair attendees,

“The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa. 

Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, ‘The vigilantes are called out.’ Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been. 

For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, ‘They will never be found.’ They were never found, and later I formed my own conclusions why.”

Could this be why the Benders were never heard from again? Did our beloved Pa Ingalls join a mob and put an end to their killing spree once and for all? Who knows?

While Wilder’s story is intriguing, her time line is off by a few years. By the time the Bender’s investigation began, the Ingalls were reportedly no longer living in Kansas. Maybe Laura got her wires crossed on the timing of her family’s move. No matter what the case, it’s an interesting rabbit hole to fall into.

After 146 years, the only thing that’s certain in the case of America’s first serial killing family is this: We’ll never know where they went. Or if they continued killing elsewhere.

This case solidifies my notions in regards to crimes committed throughout history. Without the aid of forensics, surveillance cameras, and all the technology at our disposal, it was pretty easy to get away with murder or any crime really. Jesse James robbed over twenty banks. He didn’t die in a hangman’s noose or at the hands of a town sheriff. No. He met his end when one of his own gang members shot him. As far as I can tell, as long as you weren’t in the room when law enforcement showed up, you were golden. At least, that was the case with the Benders . . . or whoever they were. We don’t really know that either.

What do you think? Do you believe Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story is true?

Story Inspiration? Yes, Please!

Belle Gunness with her children Lucy Sorenson, Myrtle Sorenson, and Philip Gunness.

Doesn’t Belle Gunness look so warm and nurturing in this photo with her children? Okay, she really looks like a bit of a meanie. But in this case, the picture isn’t worth a measly thousand words. This photo is stirring a hundred thousand words inside my brain that may shape into a pretty sweet story one of these days. Here’s a little tidbit I hope will keep you reading. These children here . . . they’re the ones that were left after some pretty unsettling stuff went down.

Belle Gunness married her first husband, Mads Sorenson, 1893. I used to think people were too busy building sod houses and plowing with a pair of oxen to get into any real trouble in those days. Thank you, Laura Ingalls Wilder, for making me believe the good ‘ole days were good. I now realize they’re just ‘ole. Trouble followed poor Belle like Short Round followed Dr. Jones in Temple of Doom. It was strange, yea verily, suspicious how often tragedy befell the Norwegian emigrant.

Houses she owned mysteriously burned to the ground . . . more than once. Insurance has been around a while, and shrewd as Belle was, she was beyond prepared for such a disaster. Greenbacks or silver dollars (not sure what she preferred) lined her pockets as one property after the next became an insurance claim looking for a place to happen. Now, I sell insurance for a living and have developed a decided mistrust for people, so I find it fascinating no one was auditing this woman.

You think insurance fraud is bad. Let’s raise the stakes a skosh, shall we? Mads Sorenson died of what the medical examiner determined to be strychnine poisoning when not one but two life insurance policies were in force. They would only simultaneously be in force for one day . . . the day one ended and the other began. Just a coincidence? I don’t believe in the kind of coincidences where people get two insurance payouts for the same claim. Oddly enough, the M.E. changed his tune and labeled poor Mr. Sorenson’s death as heart failure. Hmmm.

Not only were the men she married subject to sudden death, her children were in equal danger. After Belle’s business burned to the ground and she collected the insurance money, two of her children (not pictured above for reasons that will become obvious) died from acute colitis. The symptoms of this disease are identical to the symptoms of strychnine poisoning. Well, that sounds like a familiar poison. I wonder why. Probably another coincidence. NOT!

With her fat bank roll, Belle Gunness purchased a 42-acre farm in LaPorte, Indiana where she moved with her three remaining children. This begs a serious question . . . Where was CPS? As if she hadn’t done enough damage, that farm burned down too, and she collected the insurance from the loss.

Belle married Peter Gunness in April 1902. He was a widower with two daughters. Soon after the wedding, one of the girls died mysteriously. Her new husband knew something was rotten in Denmark (or in this case, Indiana) and send his other daughter to live with relatives. Swanhild Gunness was one fortunate little girl, as she was the only child in Belle’s life to survive childhood. For reasons I will never understand, Peter stayed. Not a good choice, Pete. He died in December 1902 when a meat grinder fell off a kitchen shelf and landed directly on his head. Because that kind of thing happens all the time. Right . . .

Believe it or not, the coroner found evidence of strychnine in Peter Gunness’ blood. Real shocker. There was an inquest, but Belle could have won an Oscar for her performance. She cried the giant tears you’d expect from a brokenhearted widow who’d just lost her husband in a totally unplanned meat grinder incident and got off the hook scot-free. And I can barely cry my way out of a speeding ticket.

With her second husband cleanly out of the way, she discovered a new method of money making. Mail order grooms. She lured financially well-off men to her new farm house, telling them to bring their life savings and sink it into her thriving farm. These men were never seen again. It’s estimated forty men disappeared answering Belle’s ad for a wealthy husband. When their correspondence was later discovered, investigators learned Belle would admonish her would-be husbands to ‘not to tell anyone you are coming!’ Yeah, that wasn’t a suspicious request at all. Maybe I’ve got a distrustful mind, but if someone told me to meet them at the Chick-fil-A and keep it a secret, I’d be worried. For one, if I’m going to Chick-fil-A, I will be too excited to keep it a secret. The sauce is swoon-worthy. For two, inordinate need for secrecy is how kidnapping stories on Dateline start. PSA: If someone want to meet you and demands you keep it secret, do yourself a favor. Stay home. Binge watch Investigation Discovery shows and eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Trust me on this.

Seems legit

April 28, 1908, Belle’s farm house burned to the ground. When authorities searched the barn, they discovered the charred remains of her three children, Lucy and Myrtle Sorenson and Phillip Gunness along with the corpse of a headless woman. They believed the body belonged to Belle Gunness. It looks like the story is wrapped up, doesn’t it? All tied with a neat, little bow. Belle Gunness, the woman we know as Lady Bluebeard, is dead in what feels like a stroke of poetic justice.

Hush up, Porky Pig, because this is nia-nia nia-not all folks!

A man named Asa Helgelein traveled to LaPorte in search of his brother, Andrew. Asa was dead certain Gunness had murdered his brother and pressured the authorities to scour that farm for Andrew Helgelein’s body. Investigators found eleven bodies in the hog pen. Since pigs are omnivores, it’s honestly not a bad way to dispose of bodies. It’s weird that I think this way. I need to get help. One of the bodies they discovered belonged to Jennie Olsen, Belle’s foster child. So, not only were this mad woman’s kids not being removed from her custody, the state was giving her fresh victims! Totally insane!

Findings at Gunness ‘Murder Farm’

In the barn’s ashes, investigators found bridgework belonging to Belle Gunness. Since the unidentified body was missing it’s head, the coroner decided the teeth were sufficient evidence of Belle’s murder.

With the police swarming the place like ants on a lollipop, the searchlight was honed on the farm hand, Ray Lamphere. Though he was the prime suspect, he was only charged for the arson, not the murders.

Years later, on his deathbed, he gave a shocking testimony. Belle Gunness had killed her children and faked her own death. The pair had been romantically involved, and Ray would have done anything to please Belle . . . even help her dispose of her suitor’s bodies. Days before the fire, they traveled to Chicago and brought back a housekeeper. Hers was the decapitated body in the barn. Belle had pulled out all her teeth to make it look like she’d died with her children.

Investigators had difficulty stomaching a story so bizarre. I mean really . . . who does that? In 2008, DNA tests were preformed on the headless remains, but were inconclusive.

This begs so many questions. If Belle got away, where did she go? Did she kill again? To make this even spookier, mystery swirled around a woman named Esther Larsen in Los Angeles, California in 1931. She bore a remarkable resemblance to Gunness would have been roughly Belle’s age. In her pocket she carried a picture of children who could have been the doubles of those Lady Bluebeard lost in the fire in LaPorte, Indiana. She was awaiting trial for poisoning a man.

What do you think? Could Esther Larsen and Belle Gunness be the same person?

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Could Esther Larsen have been Belle Gunness in disguise?

Okay, so I have goosebumps on my arms right now. This story is so wild, that Hollywood couldn’t come up with something so full of twists. When my writer’s brain comes into play, I think of all the villains in literature who are men. So few women. That may need to change. In this day of technology, there are so many more possibilities. Online dating. Facebook. Chat rooms. So many ways to meet people you think you know . . . but do you really? I’m getting that tingly feeling. When I get around to writing my next series, echoes of Belle Gunness’ story may resound in one of those books. Stay tuned.