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A Dead Canary was the Key to Oregon's Bizarre case of...
THE SKELETON IN
THE GARTER BELT
The elderly woman's bedroom became her crypt.
was it a case of perfect murder, or a macabre
love story? Only a dead bird knew the answer...
By Donald L. DuPay
Special Investigator for
I HAD BEEN a cop for a long time: six years on the street, most of it working the crime ridden ghetto, followed by eight years as a detective. I had seen a lot. You know what I mean: A lot of gruesome things. Not much fazed me.
Still, August 29th, 1975, was a day I'll never forget. I was a detective, working the four-to-midnight shift out of the Homicide Detail in Portland Oregon. I didn't know it yet, but a routine call asking police to check on an unseen occupant of a house, was going to turn into the most bizarre case I ever investigated, a text book case of the perfect crime.
Bessie Mae Staley, had been a respected member of her neighborhood. She was a restaurant owner and a staunch Catholic. Bessie owned and operated Staley's, a small restaurant located in the sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, known as The Grotto, the beautiful Catholic sanctuary in the Northeast section of Portland, as a popular attraction. Bessies little restaurant did well.
Bessie had lived with her husband in a SE Portland house, they owned until his death. Built in the 20's, it was an old wood frame, two bedroom house that had a large kitchen, a bath, a separate dining room and a large front room with a fire place. Always the business woman, when her husband died, Bessie converted the second floor of her home into an apartment. She installed an outside stairway and rented it out to two elderly gentlemen.
People in the neighborhood would stop and chat with Bessie Staley when they met her on the street, but she was a busy lady. She had no children and was managing nicely by herself.
Eventually, the neighbors began to see Bessie with a new man whose name was Charles Lewis. Charles was a bookkeeper by trade and took care of the bookkeeping duties at Bessies restaurant. When they first met, Charles was in his early 50's, and although Bessie was 14 years older than Charlies, they fell in love.
In spite of Bessie being a good Catholic, she and Charlies never married. For the next 15 years they lived in her old house, ran the little restaurant and collected the rent on the upstairs apartment.
As Bessie got older, her health started to deteriorate rapidly, and she became senile. Bessie made out a will leaving everything to Charles and Charles reciprocated. But other than personal possessions, Charles didn't have anything to leave Bessie. Gradually, Bessie's senility took her mind. She and Charles had to close the restaurant and retire to their home.
As Bessie got into her late 70's, the disease that took her mind altered her personality. According to a distant relative, Bessie had gone completely crazy and was impossible to be around. She had become caustic and nasty in her advanced years.
But Charles was the bookkeeper, so he collected the monthly rent money. And when the Social Security checks would arrive in the mail, Charles would walk the four blocks to the bank and cash them both. After all, even though Charles never had power of attorney, the people in the bank knew that Bessie couldn't take care of herself and were happy to cash the checks and give the money to Charles. Charles would always hurry home because he couldn't leave Bessie alone. He would say hello to the neighbors who spoke to him on the street. "Yes," he'd say, "Bessie's home but not in good health, thank you." Charles didn't linger in conversation.
One neighbor commented that in the past three years, he'd seen Charles maybe only about six times. Charles would get the groceries delivered. They were always left at the back door. He didn't go out much. He just stayed at home and took care of Bessie. Such a nice man, he must love her dearly, the neighbors thought.
One day, when the rent was due, the upstairs tenants knocked on Charles and Bessie's back door with the rent money. Through the back door window, they could see Charles lying on the floor. Since he was down on the floor and didn't move when they knocked, the decided to call the police.
When the uniform cops got there, there couldn't arouse Charles either and broke into the apartment to see what was wrong. They found Charles Lewis face down on the floor. His eyes were open and he was breathing, but he couldn't speak and he couldn't move. It was obvious that Charles had suffered a serious medical problem and had been lying on the floor for several hours or perhaps days. There was no way to tell.
The cops ordered that an ambulance be dispatched. Charles was taken to Oregon's best medical facility, the University Hospital in Southwest Portland. When he was admitted, his identification showed him to be 68-years-old. When the ambulance left the house, the officers secured the door and were ready to leave.
"You're leaving?" asked the upstairs tenant. "Yes," replied the officer. "He's been sent to the hospital. There's nothing more we can do here except lock up."
"But what about Bessie?" the tenant asked. "What shall I do with the rent money?"
"There was no one else in the house" answered the cop. "Who's Bessie?"
The tenant went on to explain that Bessie Staley had owned the house and lived there with Charles Lewis. Although no one had seen her for several years, everyone supposed she was by now an invalid. Charles always said he was taking care of her.
The cops didn't think so. Charles had apparently collapsed on the floor in the dining room, and they thought he was alone in the house. Maybe Bessie had gone visiting, but the cops would double check to make sure. They searched the house again, including the basement and Charles' bedroom and found no one.
Another door, covered with dust, hadn't been opened yet. An old dusty bath towel was stuffed into the crack between the bottom of the door and the wooden floor. When the officer opened the dusty door, he looked inside the room. Quickly, he closed it again, and put in a call for detectives.
When I arrived, I opened the squeaky old wooden door of Bessie Staley's bedroom. I had apparently opened the door of her tomb! A layer of dust blanketed everything. The blinds were pulled tightly shut, and the window curtains had yellowed and frayed. Very little daylight was coming in. Bath towels like the one under the door, were stuffed in the window cracks too. Dead flies lay on the sill. There were two heat vents in the bedroom. Both were blocked by rages stuffed into them.
In the corner, on a metal stand, was an empty bird cage. At least it looked empty from the doorway. As I walked up to it, I could see a small yellow canary laying dead on the bottom, its water and seed containers empty. My footsteps into the room had left track marks on the dusty floor.
Personal items, like a hairbrush and comb, lay untouched on the dresser top in the thick dust. Dusty photos of people I didn't know were on a nightstand. Near them was an old wind-up alarm clock that had stopped ticking long ago.
On the old metal-frame bed was a skeleton lying face up. Dead maggots were visible in the empty eye sockets and open jaw-bone of the victim. Shoulder length gray hair covered the skull and part of the neck bones. Cloth fragments of what had once been the victims robes were on the bed under the skeleton. From a sleeve fragment, an arm bone protruded. Both arms were laying at her side. Among the bones and on the bed where her stomach had been was a large pile of dead maggots--several hundred at least.
Looped around the corpse's pelvic bone was a garter belt. The fasteners were still connected to the shredded remains of two nylon stockings. The stockings still contained the leg bones. Feet and toe bones poked through holes in they nylon. The bedding on which the skeleton lay was stiff and hard from the dried blood and ooze that had seeped into it while the body had decomposed.
I looked around the room slowly, taking it all in: the thick dust, the maggots, the skeleton on the bed with long gray hair, the rags stuffed into the window cracks and the dead canary in the cage. It looked exactly like a set from a horror movie. But it wasn't a set, it was real--very, very real. We had obviously found Bessie Staley.
Records show that Bessie was 82. The coroner would say that she had probably died when she was 79. Charles Lewis had taken good care of Bessie, very good care indeed!
I was anxious to talk to the Medical Examiner about this case. What could we learn from the autopsy? What was the cause of death? And Charles. Now that we knew where he had been keeping Bessie, I had a few good questions for him.
When I entered Charles' hospital room, I saw that he was hooked up to drip tubes and monitors. the old man lay on his side, eyes open, breathing slowly. I told him I was a detective and that I wanted to ask him some questions about Bessie Staley. His steady gaze at nothing didn't change. His eyes didn't flicker or recognize me; he didn't move or respond. The doctor told me Charles Lewis was dying. Tests showed that he had terminal cancer, pneumonia, diabetes, and fatal heart disease.
Charles didn't answer any questions posed by me or the doctor. In fact, he never spoke again. I tried to find some of the answers by looking into his eyes, but poor Charles just wasn't there. Seventy-two hours after the ambulance had removed him from the house, Charles Lewis died.
The Medical Examiner was no help either. The skeletal remains of Bessie Staley lay on the stainless steel autopsy table, but there were no buckets on the floor to put the organs in, no plastic bags and no cutting tools. With nothing left but a skeleton, there was no body to cut open, no organs to cut out and examine, no brain to remove. The maggots and a lot of time had done all that work.
What went though his mind? Did he
realize when he shut the bedroom door
and "buried" both Bessie and the canary
that he was making his own prison, too?
What kind of man would live with a dead body?
I can tell you how she didn't die, said the M.E. "She didn't die of a beating. There is not one broken bone, no broken jaw, no cracked skull, no crushed bones in the throat, indicating she may have been strangled, and no bullet holes anywhere. She probably died of natural causes, perhaps a heart attack."
"But remember, she went crazy years before she died," I reminded him. "Maybe Charles couldn't stand her anymore. Could he have put a pillow over her face and smothered her while she as laying down?"
"Yes, she could have died that way," the M.E. replied. "Could he have poisoned a crazy, burdensome old lady?"
"Yes, she could have died that way too," the M.E. answered. "Could he have starved her to death? I asked. "Yes, she could have died that way too. Why are you asking all these questions?"the M. E. asked.
"Because she didn't just die in her sleep," I replied. "Ladies don't sleep with their garter belt and nylons on."
"But she could have been taking a nap," the M.E. suggested.
"Yes, or she could have smothered in another room and carried into the bedroom," I said.
"Why do you think he killed her?" asked the M.E.
"Because Charles knew he didn't need her anymore. Remember, once he cashed her first Social Security check, he realized he was home free. Charles was fourteen years younger than Bessie, and I think he decided to kill her rather than take care of her sometime after he cashed the first check. He embezzled eighteen thousand dollars. He kept cashing those checks for three years after she died.
"Remember the canary?" I asked. "I think the canary's the key to this mystery. I think Charles had a ruthless streak in him. Why didn't he feed and water the bird?"
"No," I continued, "I think he said goodbye to Bessie and the bird at the same time; he killed them both. He killed them both by shutting the bedroom door and 'burying' them with a towel in the crack under the door."
"We'll never know now," said the Medical Examiner.
Charles Lewis had apparently committed the perfect crime, embezzlement for sure and probably murder. Nevertheless, the old embezzling bookkeeper had died with his lips sealed. He'd gotten away with it. But what must have gone through the man's mind? Did Charles realize when he shut the bedroom door and 'buried' both Bessie and the canary that he had created his own prison too?
With Bessie's body in the bedroom, Charles could never again let anyone in the house. He could only go out to cash the Social Security checks and come right back home. No wonder he didn't stop and chat with the neighbors. Charles had a secret.
What kind of man could live with a dead body in the next room for three years? Although Bessie Staley never got on the homicide status board and was never listed as a homicide, I know what happened to her. A little bird told me!
By Don DuPay
ABSOLUTELY NO PORTION OF THIS ARTICLE MAY BE REPRODUCED OR DISSEMINATED WITHOUT EXPRESS PERMISSION FROM THE AUTHOR, DONALD LEE DUPAY, UNDER PENALTY OF COPYRIGHT LAWS!!