New Jersey’s eerie “Watcher” mystery has a precedent: In 1976, the citizens of Circleville, Ohio began receiving sinister handwritten letters. The anonymous author knew many personal details about each resident and claimed to be watching them. They were postmarked from Columbus, without a return address.
The most dangerous letters were directed at Mary Gillispie. The Circleville Letter Writer accused the local bus driver of having an affair with the superintendent of schools.
“I know where you live,” read one of the threatening missives. “I’ve been observing your house and know you have children. This is no joke. Please take it serious.”
Shortly thereafter, Mary’s husband Ron received a letter. Whispers of the illicit affair spread through the once-quiet town.
Then a new letter arrived at the Gillispie door: “Gillispie, you have had 2 weeks and done nothing. Admit the truth and inform the school board. If not, I will broadcast it on CBS, posters, signs, and billboards, until the truth comes out.”
Surely this malevolent scribe was someone close to the Gillispie household. Mary and Ron gathered with their loved ones—including Ron’s sister and his sister’s husband, Paul Freshour—to discuss possible suspects.
The letters stopped briefly in 1977. Then, on August 17, Ron received a phone call that infuriated him.
The man burst out the front door and climbed into his car – armed with his gun.
He would never return home again. Later that day, authorities found Ron’s car wrapped around a tree, with Ron’s body inside. Strangely, his gun had been fired, but the reason why remained a mystery.
Circleville authorities ruled his death an accident caused by alcohol – a decision that upset the Circleville Writer. Soon new letters surfaced accusing the sheriff of a coverup. A local journalist reported that, according to police records, Ron Gillispie died with one-and-a-half times the legal limit of alcohol in his system. According to close friends, however, Ron was not a heavy drinker.
Eventually, Mary and her lover confirmed the affair, though they claimed their relationship started only after the letters began. Notes continued throughout 1983, with some addressed to Mary’s daughter. That year, the anonymous wordsmith even took to installing signs along Mary’s bus route for the world to see.
Tired of the harassment, Mary pulled over, climbed out of her bus, and went to rip down one sign. But to her shock, she found it was rigged to a box with a string. Upon opening the box, Mary found a gun pointed right at her.
Terrified, she reported the incident. Police examined the firearm. While the serial number was partially scratched off, it was still traceable. The weapon belonged to Mary’s former brother-in-law, Paul Freshour.
Paul was adamant of his innocence—yet with the firearm as evidence and an inconclusive test comparing his penmanship to the threatening letters, authorities believed they had their man. They arrested him for attempted murder.
On October 24, 1983, Paul stood trial for the attempted murder of Mary Gillispie. While Paul was not officially accused of being the Circleville Letter Writer, the prosecution repeatedly brought up the inconclusive results of his handwriting test to cast guilt on the man.
Right or wrong, the jury connected the dots. They found Paul guilty of attempted murder, and the judge handed down the maximum sentence of 7 to 25 years.
Circleville breathed a sigh of relief. Surely the letters would stop now, right? Wrong. New letters arrived from Columbus, even though Paul was locked away behind bars in another town, with part of his sentence spent in solitary confinement.
What’s more? Paul received his own letter, while he was in prison.
To Paul, The Circleville Letter Writer wrote: “Now when are you going to believe you aren’t going to get out of there? I told you 2 years ago. When we set ’em up, they stay set up. Don’t you listen at all?”
Paul served a decade in prison and was finally released in May of 1994. By then, reports of threatening letters ceased in Circleville. Paul maintained his innocence until his death in 2012.
To this day, the unsolved case of the Circleville Letter Writer attracts speculation. Was Paul really the man behind the poison pen? Could Mary somehow have been involved? Was there a formal coverup as the anonymous author alleged? The truth remains a mystery.
Photos (in order): Eric Thayer / Getty; Caselet / Flickr; Joe Raedle / Getty; Joe Raedle / Getty
This post by Stephanie Almazan originally appeared on The Lineup. It has been republished by permission.