Anonymous letters threaten to expose an Ohio town’s rumored secrets

Imagine the horror and shock of finding a poison pen letter in your mailbox from someone who claims to know your deepest secrets. And what happens when the letters keep rolling in, and your friends and neighbors start receiving them too? This may sound like a plot out of a thriller, but in fact, a very real flood of anonymous letters terrorized a small town in Central Ohio for nearly 20 years. And even after one man went to jail, the letters didn’t stop.

Today, the question of the identity of the mastermind behind the Poison Pen letters continues to divide the city of Circleville, where many still believe the wrong person went to prison. I take a look at the matter that is the subject of many podcasts “The Circleville Letter.”

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, just 30 miles north of Circleville, a quaint town known for Annual Pumpkin Show Which, according to the city’s website, attracts more than 400,000 visitors a year. However, nowhere on that website is there a mention of another incident that shed a spotlight on the city: the Dangerous Letters campaign that began in the late 1970s.

The mainly handwritten, anonymous letters initially focused on the married Westfall school superintendent Gordon Massey, whom the author accused of having an affair with a school bus driver by the name of Mary Gillispie. But soon, Gillispie herself, her husband, Ron, and even their children became the target of letters that grew in number and vitriol. Over time, almost everyone in town either received a letter or knew someone who did.

The vicious tone of the letters seemed out of character for Circleville, a Midwestern community where many residents place family, faith, and football above everything else. The Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office investigated but turned up nothing. People began to wonder, who would take the time to crank out letter after letter to scare friends and neighbors? Was it more than one person? Male or female? Could the writer be the person behind you in the grocery line or at the post office? And will the letters lead to violence?

Life and Letters went on for years in Circleville. Then the author began supplementing the letters with signs posted in the city and along Mary Gillispie’s bus route. On the afternoon of February 7, 1983, Gillispie was driving her empty school bus to pick up students when, as she told police, she saw one such sign on a fence. She stopped, pulled off the sign, and discovered that it was a box attached to the trailing twine. After taking the box home, she says she looked inside and was shocked to see a loaded gun. Sheriff investigators determined the handmade device to be a booby trap that failed to fire.

The alleged attempted murder of a school bus driver became a big story in the area. And even bigger news was the man who was arrested and charged with the crime: Mary Gillispie’s brother-in-law, Paul Fresher. The arrest shocked his family and friends. Freshour, the manager of the Anheuser-Busch facility, had no criminal history and lived outside Circleville. Pam Stanton, a longtime family friend, thought investigators had the wrong man. “Uncle Paul was not so cruel, harsh, murderous,” she said. “It’s just absurd.”

However, Fresher became suspicious after the gun was found. And though he denied having installed the equipment and told investigators that his firearm had been stolen from his garage weeks earlier, his fate was sealed after investigators spoke with his estranged wife, Karen Sue. He told them that he believed Fresher was actually the Circleville letter writer.

In October of 1983, Freshour was tried for attempted murder. It was not a strong case. There was no physical evidence that Freshor was tied to either the gun or the device in which he was found, and Freshour had an alibi for most of the afternoon when the alleged booby trap would have been placed on the fence. Nevertheless, two document examiners testified that the handwriting found on the anonymous letters sent to Mary Gillispie could be Freshour’s handwriting, she was convicted and sent to prison.

Although Freshaur was convicted of attempted murder, investigators believed he was the man behind the poison pen letters and that his long reign of terror was finally over. they were wrong. The letters didn’t stop.

Paul Fresher was gunned down, but the attack of anonymous threats continued. and continued after a frustrated prison warden kept Freshour in solitary confinement. A letter was also sent to Paul Fresher himself. Still, officials insisted that the fresher letter was behind the campaign, suggesting he had an accomplice outside prison. It was another 10 years before the letters finally ended, around the same time that Paul Fresher was released from prison.

So, was he a Circleville letter writer? Until his death, Freshaur insisted that he was neither the author nor the man who planted the booby trap. An analysis by former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole as part of a “48 Hours” investigation raises new doubts about whether the case was settled with Fresher’s conviction.

O’Toole, who in his career with the FBI helped profile notorious criminals like the Unabomber, describes a man who doesn’t fit into the public persona of Freshour. She believes that the unnamed author of Circleville had a severe personality disorder and enjoyed hurting others. She suggests that people around the author may have witnessed this brutality. “That kind of power, the need to control. The need to dominate,” she says, “…the need to intimidate people. These letters already existed.”

More importantly, O’Toole believes that the person behind the letters, who went to so much trouble to remain anonymous, likely wouldn’t have taken the risk of setting up a booby trap. Instead, she says, “I think there’s certainly a possibility that — that sordid trap was laid by someone else … who took advantage of the situation.”

O’Toole’s belief that the author may be someone other than Paul Fresher calls into question the testimony of the two handwriting experts at trial who linked the letters to Fresher. So “48 Hours” asked forensic documents specialist Beverly East to conduct a new analysis.

After comparing a selection of 49 of the unknown letters to the known writings of Paul Fresher, the former says he is confident he knows the identity of the Circleville letter writer. “I’ll go to court and swear by the Bible on the evidence I find,” she said.

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