A dead girl's braid. A photograph of a man in police custody, eyes wide with fear. Another photograph of the man's strangled throat.
What these things have in common is the reaction of author James Badal and filmmaker Mark Stone, who, when they came across them, did the mental equivalent of slamming their palms down on their desks and exclaiming, "Ah ha!"
Moments like these propel Badal and Stone to pursue two of the city's oldest unsolved (and maybe unsolvable) mysteries, the Torso Murders and the Beverly Potts abduction. Badal and Stone are Cleveland's "Cold Case," hoping to finally put to rest these two legendary crimes.
Sitting together at Stone's dining-room table, the two look as if they would never have met if not for a shared passion for true crime. Badal, a leonine figure with a handlebar moustache, leather vest and braided leather bracelet, is a member of the English department faculty at Cuyahoga Community College. Stone, with his baby daughter on his lap and a look appropriate for the local playground, runs his own production business, Storytellers Media Group, from his Lakewood home.
Badal, the author of the "In the Wake of the Butcher," turned a lifelong interest in the Torso Murders — a spate of 13 Depression-era killings and mutilations that led to the downfall of Cleveland safety director Eliot Ness — into a book in 2001. Stone followed with his documentary, "The Fourteenth Victim" (a reference to Ness) in 2003. The two are now collaborating again on a book (by Badal, "Twilight of Innocence: The Disappearance of Beverly Potts," due out in 2005) as well as a documentary ("Dusk & Shadow —The Mystery of Beverly Potts," airing this month on PBS 45/49) about Cleveland's most famous missing girl, who disappeared from her neighborhood in the summer of 1951.
So far, they haven't cracked either case. But they have drummed up quite a bit of interest. More than a year ago, the Cuyahoga County Coroner's office agreed to test the DNA on postage stamps sent to Ness by a local doctor who Ness thought might have been the Torso Murderer. Before Badal and Stone could celebrate the new evidence, however, the
testing was called off. Coroner Dr. Elizabeth Balraj said tests would ruin the postcards, so the Western Reserve Historical Society, which owns them, decided against it.
Disappointed but relentless, Badal and Stone press on. What drives them is more than just a desire to solve the cases.
"It's the desire to report a murder correctly," explains Stone. "It's just so intriguing."
Over the past few years, the pair has reviewed stacks of transcripts, interview notes and police records; contacted surviving witnesses and coaxed relatives of suspects and victims — including Beverly's sister — to talk. They have revealed new information about both cases, corrected inaccuracies and kept the memories of the victims alive. Digging up the details of these horrific crimes have helped place them in context — historical, social, even emotional.
Badal and Stone have found that the pain suffered by crime victims doesn't end with them or their immediate family. It's passed down from generation to generation. Ripping open emotional wounds, they feared, would be an inevitable consequence of their work. Instead, they found that most surviving family members were grateful to them for shedding light into dark corners.
"I got some kind and thoughtful comments from the Andrassy family [one of the Torso Murderer's victims]," Badal says, "for showing them where Edward's grave was because they didn't know."
Perhaps Badal's greatest revelation so far has been unearthing evidence that exonerates Torso Murder suspect Frank Dolezal, the only person ever arrested for the string of killings. What's more, Dolezal supposedly hanged himself in jail. Yet photographs of his neck, which Badal and Stone obtained from the county morgue, suggest the ligature marks were not consistent with hanging by cloth, the official story.
At the moment, the two are pursuing a forensic expert to back their theory that Dolezal was murdered in jail. They're close, they say, and so is another Torso Murder documentary. Among the titles being tossed around: "The Fifteenth Victim."
"Dusk & Shadow —The Mystery of Beverly Potts" will air on PBS 45/49 Dec. 14 at 9 p.m.