Police discount murder theory

BEDFORD – Hours after an amateur sleuth announced an alleged connection between two half-century-old cases – a 1957 “murder without a body” in Ohio and the discovery, a year later, of a man’s remains near Bedford – state police investigators said the new information might be unreliable.

In a Monday article in the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, Fayette County engineer Ed Festor said he’s all but certain that a Bedford skeleton known only as “Mr. Bones” was the victim in a sensational murder that’s long been the stuff of legend in an Ohio city 300 miles away.

Festor was unavailable for comment Monday. But local police and the sole surviving attorney from that 1957 murder trial have expressed doubts that the bones found scattered in a Bedford ravine are those of Chuck Conner, an Ohio man who disappeared without a trace after an alcohol-soaked birthday party 56 years ago.

It all began with a shooting – or, at least, a purported shooting. In August 1957, guests at a Lima, Ohio, party told police they’d seen alleged organized crime figure Ralph Forsythe shoot Conner.

Conner, a painter, was a player at a card game that evening. It was Conner’s 37th birthday.

The problem: Nobody could find a body or a weapon. All the witnesses had been drinking heavily, and at least one ran to a nearby bar for more drinks before making a statement to police, retired Ohio defense attorney Joseph DaPore said Monday.

Now 83, DaPore is the sole surviving attorney in the case. He was one of three lawyers representing Forsythe, a man widely known to have run a “house of ill repute.”

“He ran numbers and gambling and prostitution,” said veteran Lima Magistrate Richard K. Warren, who also represented Forsythe in an unrelated case decades later. “He was an ‘entrepreneur,’ quote-unquote.”

Prosecutors took the rare step of charging Forsythe without a body, relying only on the witnesses to prove that he’d shot Conner in the head. They made much of a park caretaker’s claim that he’d seen Forsythe cleaning his car’s interior days after the alleged murder outside Cadiz, Ohio – an area dotted with abandoned mines and tunnels.

After a trial that lasted weeks, a jury found Forsythe not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter. He spent several years in prison, exhausting appeals until his attorneys argued successfully that the case’s widespread publicity had tainted the jury pool.

He was released, then returned to Lima and spent his time painting until his death several years later, DaPore said.

It’s only recently, however, that the Forsythe-Conner murder case made its way to Pennsylvania.

According to Festor, the decomposed body found in 1958 by Bedford County utility workers matches descriptions and photographs of Conner.

“Mr. Bones,” a tall man in his 30s, was found in October 1958 a half-mile from the turnpike, according to missing persons databases. His skull was shattered, apparently from a bullet, and investigators found a .30-06-caliber rifle with a single bullet fired and two loaded.

No one could identify him: He apparently carried no ID but had packed for a trip, with a sleeping bag, backpack and mess kit found nearby. Police never filed charges, and it remains unclear whether his death was the result of murder, suicide or accident.

His bones sat in a container for decades, stirring news attention in 2001 and 2007 when Bedford County authorities debated a plan to bury them. They remain above-ground, however, still considered evidence in a cold case.

With Festor’s announcement of a possible connection, Bedford County District Attorney Bill Higgins told the Tribune-Democrat the case could be reopened. Festor sent authorities a letter detailing his new theory, state police Cpl. Brian Hoover said.

But that letter might not result in a closed case.

“We’re getting some information now that this is some unreliable information,” Hoover said Monday. “I can’t really say why.”

Police had discussed reopening the case with Higgins, Hoover said, but new information arrived Monday that could affect their decision. He declined to detail the information.

DaPore, too, expressed surprise that the case would have traveled to Bedford. Talk of a hidden body usually involved sites in Ohio, he said, and it remains unclear whether Conner was even killed in the first place.

Conner bought several hundred dollars’ worth of travelers’ checks shortly before his disappearance, DaPore noted, indicating he could have planned a trip and vanished on his own accord.

Both “Mr. Bones'” identity and the Conner case continue to draw attention from amateur investigators, however. The “bodiless trial” in Lima remains a local legend, and the city’s chief judge still offers public presentations on the story.

“It’s still an unsolved mystery,” DaPore said. “I don’t think that case will ever go away.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.