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Unknown Sender: The Mystery of the Circleville Letters

For years, residents in and around Circleville, Ohio were plagued by a mysterious letter writer who seemed to know their darkest secrets. Death followed.

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Allegations of an affair led to a series of threatening letters that puzzled authorities in Ohio for years. Photo by Calvin Hanson/Getty Images

Mary Gillispie had seen enough.

It was the afternoon of February 7, 1983, and Gillispie, a school bus driver for the Westfall School District in Circleville, Ohio, had just dropped off one group of children and was headed to pick up another at Monroe Elementary School when she spotted the sign. It had been placed along her bus route at the intersection of Scioto-Darby Road and Five Points Pike.

Gillispie parked the bus, exited, and approached the handwritten sign, which made an obscene remark about her young daughter, Traci. Gillispie had been receiving such harassment for years, typically via letters in the mail, and she knew the sign was the work of the same anonymous perpetrator. In the letters, the person had warned her that messages would be posted publicly.

Gillispie, annoyed, picked up the sign and the peculiar post used to hold it up, taking the entire set-up back on the bus and going about her work. That evening, when she inspected the sign more closely, she opened a small container on the post. Inside was a .25 caliber handgun.

Soon, Gillispie would learn that the person who had spent years harassing her had intended for her to rip the sign down in anger. And when she did, the gun was rigged to go off.

With a current population of around 14,000 people, Circleville, Ohio, is not a place large enough to harbor many secrets. Roughly 25 miles south of Columbus, it’s home to manufacturing companies, Ohio Christian University, and a water tower painted like a pumpkin. The town has a sense of neighborly intimacy—a closeness that the Circleville letter writer made a target of scorn.

In the summer of 1976, Mary Gillispie received a letter postmarked in Columbus that had no signature and no return address. It asserted that Mary was having an affair with the Westfall School District superintendent, Gordon Massie, and warned her to stop.

“I know where you live,” read one of the warnings. “I’ve been observing your house and know you have children. This is no joke. Please take it serious.”

Soon, her husband Ron began receiving letters, too, demanding that he go to the school board with the information or risk being killed. Mary assured Ron the allegation was false. They decided to remain silent and hope the letter writer stopped. But the person didn’t. Within weeks, more threats arrived, this time cautioning that if Mary didn’t end the affair, it would be disclosed on CB radio and billboard ads.

At that point, the Gillispies decided to disclose the harassment to their family. They told Karen (Ron’s sister) and her husband Paul Freshour, an employee at a local Anheuser-Busch plant who was once a prison guard and had survived a harrowing 30-hour ordeal as a hostage when inmates briefly took over the Ohio State Penitentiary in August 1968.

Speaking with the Freshours, Mary said that she had a suspect in mind—David Longberry, a bus driver who had once made a pass at her. Maybe, she thought, Longberry was feeling jilted and wanted to taunt her. It was agreed that Paul would write a letter to Longberry to demonstrate that the Gillispies knew what he was doing and to stop immediately.

For a little while, the letters stopped. And then the signs appeared.

To their dismay, Mary and Ron Gillispie began seeing signs posted around town that made claims that Gordon Massie, the superintendent, was romantically involved with the Gillispies’ 12-year-old daughter, Traci. Reportedly, Ron drove around town early in the morning to tear the signs down before Traci could see them.

The harassment campaign no doubt angered Ron. On August 19, 1977, he received a phone call at their home. The caller declared he was observing the Gillispie house and that he knew what Ron’s truck looked like. Ron, furious, told his family he thought he recognized the caller’s voice and raced out the door with the intention of confronting him. He brought along a gun.

Moments later, a shot was fired. But no perpetrator was hurt. Instead, it was Ron Gillispie who lay dead behind the wheel of his truck. No one else was in sight.

Authorities, including Pickaway County Sheriff Dwight Radcliff, failed to find any bullet casing on the scene. Ron Gillispie had been drinking—his blood alcohol content (BAC) was .16—twice the legal limit. Absent any hard evidence to the contrary, Radcliff concluded that Ron had driven himself into a tree by accident.

The relatives found that hard to accept, asserting that Ron wasn’t known to be a heavy drinker. But police didn’t seem convinced anyone else was to blame. Radcliff told Paul Freshour that one person of interest—whom he didn’t name—was questioned but had passed a polygraph test.

Soon, more letters began arriving, this time to other residents in and around Circleville that presented the idea Radcliff was engaged in some kind of cover-up regarding Ron’s death and that Mary and Gordon Massie were responsible for killing him.

Ron’s death wasn’t the only change in Mary’s life. Paul and Karen Freshour were divorcing, and Mary allowed Karen to move into a trailer on Mary’s property. At some point after Ron’s death, Mary also admitted that she actually had had an affair with Massie, but it had started after the letters began arriving, not before.

It was a strange admission, but not quite as strange as what happened along her bus route on February 7, 1983. After Mary confiscated the booby-trapped sign that had seemingly been set up to fire the gun once she pulled the message down, Radcliff and the authorities started trying to trace ownership of the firearm. The serial number had been filed off, but they were able to secure enough to identify who it belonged to. In doing so, it seemed assured that the owner of the weapon would also be the person behind the letters.

The gun belonged to Paul Freshour.

Both Mary Gillispie and the police were stumped. Why Freshour? Throughout the investigation and on through his eventual criminal trial, no one could explain exactly what motivated Freshour to threaten his in-laws. And while Freshour maintained his innocence, the evidence against him was hard to ignore.

After being released on $50,000 bond, Freshour voluntarily checked himself into the Mental Health Center at Riverside Hospital because he wanted to be examined, possibly to help with a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. (That plea was later dropped.) Later, a co-worker at Anheuser-Busch named Wesley Wells testified that Freshour had purchased the gun from him for $35, while personnel records showed that Freshour had taken a day off from work on February 7—the same day Mary discovered the booby trap. Even more compelling was the fact that handwriting samples taken from Freshour’s employment file were, to handwriting experts, a match for 391 of the letters and 103 postcards sent to the Gillispies and other local residents.

In total, over 1000 letters had been sent across Southern Ohio, many of them complaining of political corruption. Some contained arsenic.

Freshour admitted he bought the gun but didn’t know what happened to it. He also said Radcliff had simply asked him to try and copy samples of the offending letters, which resulted in a handwriting match.

Freshour was indicted by a grand jury in March 1983 and set for trial in October 1983. It lasted one week. The jury needed just two-and-a-half hours to return a verdict of guilty on the charge of attempted murder using a firearm that was either in Freshour’s possession or under his control. (He was not formally charged with writing any of the letters, though 39 were admitted into evidence.) Judge William Ammer sentenced him to seven to 25 years (and an additional three years for controlling a firearm during the offense).

The Circleville mystery didn’t end there. Even as Freshour was imprisoned, sometimes even in solitary confinement, the letters continued to come to residents. Even Freshour received one, taunting him after a parole hearing had concluded without allowing him early release: “Now when are you going to believe you aren’t getting out of there? I told you two years ago: When we set ‘em up, they stay set up. Don’t you listen at all?”

Freshour was paroled in 1994 and continued to insist he had nothing to do with the letters. If he was guilty, his motivations for writing them remain puzzling. One theory is that he felt he was demonstrating loyalty to his wife, Karen, whose brother Ron may have known about Mary’s affair—one Mary denied took place until after Ron’s death—and wanted to help both of them covertly put an end to it.

But the Freshour marriage seemed strained. Divorce filings in Columbus included allegations made by Karen that Paul was physically abusive and prone to a violent temper. Perhaps Karen, spiteful over a divorce that ended with Paul receiving custody of their kids, wanted to frame him, though it’s not clear why she would risk killing Mary Gillispie in the process.

There was one lead that police were criticized for failing to follow up on. According to another bus driver working the day Mary discovered the booby trap, a yellow El Camino was parked at the intersection, and a man who looked nothing like Freshour was standing nearby, pretending to urinate. The man was never identified.

Freshour died in 2012. No new evidence has come to light in the Circleville letters case. If it was Freshour, he certainly abandoned the practice once he received a prison sentence. If there were copycats or accomplices, they, too, stopped—the letters dried up by the early 1990s.

In 2021, the CBS program 48 Hours asked former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O'Toole and forensic document expert Beverley East to examine the letters. O'Toole said she didn't think Freshour was the culprit based on the impression she got of a controlling, vindictive letter-writer, traits that Freshour's relatives insist don't fit him. But East pointed to the letter G, which resembled the number 6 in many of the Circleville letters as well as Freshour's own handwriting, a telling and perhaps incriminating detail. East believes Freshour wrote the letters. The show also identified Freshour's fingerprints on some of the letters that were sent while he was in prison—a seeming contradiction no one seems able to explain. As far as the police are concerned, the case remains closed.

In a 1978 article in The Dayton Daily News commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Ohio State Penitentiary riots, Freshour was asked if he suffered any lingering emotional damage from being held captive. He claimed he didn’t, though said people often asked if he had become an alcoholic, saw a psychiatrist, or had any lasting effects. There was nothing wrong with Paul Freshour. Nothing he could point out.

“I still have nightmares every once in a while,” Freshour said. “I dream about what might have been, and what was. But considering it all, I feel I am lucky that I am as well-adjusted as I am, considering how close I came to death.”

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This post originally appeared on Mental Floss and was published December 10, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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