The Poison Pen: Who Wrote the Circleville Letters?

Circleville, Ohio — Source: City-Data.com

Your home is your castle. Even though there is no way to keep yourself and your family completely safe, we all have a reasonable expectation of security and privacy within the walls of our own homes.

Beginning in 1976, one small town in Ohio became gripped with fear when an unknown individual began mailing threatening and sexually explicit letters to residents. If you were raised in a small town, then you already know that there are no real strangers. Everybody knows each other.

But the person behind the poison pen that wrote the Circleville letters was too familiar with the goings-on of townsfolk, and for years, locals looked over their shoulder and wondered if they, too, would be targeted. More importantly, they wondered why regular people in a small town were in the letter writer’s crosshairs.

A Campaign of Psychological Torture

Imagine you’re quietly living your life, minding your own business. You go to work, you take care of your kids, you mow the lawn, you walk the dog. There’s nothing particularly interesting about your life — certainly not more interesting than the average person’s.

Sure, you’ve got secrets. Open anyone’s closet and you’ll get smacked in the face with a skeleton. But it’s not like you’re a serial killer. You don’t have a meth lab in your backyard shed. At the end of the day, your baggage is your business, not an entire town’s, right?

One day, you throw on a pair of slippers and mosey on out to your mailbox. Bills, bills, bills. Junk mail. Another credit card offer to decline. Wait, what’s that envelope with the Columbus, Ohio, postmark? You’re not expecting anything…

You pour yourself a cup of coffee and sit down at your kitchen table and rip open the mysterious envelope. You open the folded letter and suddenly your heart screeches to a halt. You can’t quite catch your breath. Your stomach does a somersault, and your hands start to tremble.

You’re being stalked.

In 1976, Circleville residents started receiving oddly sinister, handwritten letters in the mail. [1] The troubled author knew details about their lives that he shouldn’t have known and claimed to be watching them, but one person, in particular, bore the brunt of the disturbing communications, which started to arrive in her mailbox in the summer of 1977.

Mary Gillispie, a school bus driver, was stunned when she opened a letter from an anonymous person accusing her of having an affair with Gordon Massie, the superintendent of the school district she worked for. The author warned Mary that he had been keeping an eye on her home, as well as her comings and goings. He knew she had a husband and children, he wrote, and he demanded that she end the affair.

Horrified, Mary kept the frightening letter from her husband, Ron, but she wasn’t able to keep it under wraps for very long. Soon, Ron also received a letter from the mysterious author in which he informed Ron of his wife’s supposed affair with Massie.

The letter-writer warned Ron that if he didn’t inform the Westfall School Board of the affair, he would be killed. Those words undoubtedly turned Ron’s world upside-down, but when he confronted his wife, she denied having an affair.

The couple didn’t know what to do. They didn’t want rumors of an affair between Mary and Massie to spread around town, so they agreed to keep the letters to themselves for the time being.

Two weeks passed, and the Gillispie's were hopeful that there would be no more threatening letters, but the person behind the poison pen was far from done with his psychological torture. More letters arrived, this time threatening to go public about the alleged affair. If Mary didn’t end her romp with Massie, the author promised to share the information via TV, CB radio, and even erect billboards.

Mary and Ron decided it was time to share what was happening to them, so they first went to Ron’s sister Karen, her husband Paul Freshour, and Paul’s sister. Mary had a gut feeling that a fellow bus driver was behind the letters, she told them. He had come onto Mary and became angry when she rebuffed his advances. They decided that Paul would write a letter to Mary’s co-worker, David Longberry, telling him they knew it was him and insisting that he stop.

When several weeks passed without any new letters, Ron and Mary Gillispie, along with Ron’s family, breathed a collective sigh of relief. It appeared they had successfully put the fear of God into Mary’s colleague, and he had gotten the message loud and clear.

Instead, large signs started to appear around town claiming that Massie and the Gillispies’ 12-year-old daughter were involved in a sexual relationship. The escalation of the ferocious attacks terrified the family, and soon Ron was getting up extra early in the morning to drive around town and remove the signs before his daughter spotted them on her way to school.

The Escalation

August 19, 1977, was the last straw for Ron Gillispie.

The phone rang and Ron answered. On the other end of the line was a sinister voice informing Ron that he knew what his truck looked like and where he lived. Ron believed he recognized the voice and became enraged. Grabbing his gun, he kissed his daughter good-bye and took off like a madman in his truck.

A few short minutes later, Ron’s truck was found crashed at the end of the street with Ron dead behind the wheel. When Sheriff Dwight Radcliffe examined Ron’s gun, he realized that a single shot had been fired before the accident, but there was no evidence to suggest anyone had actually been shot at the site, and neither the bullet nor the casing was found.

Blood tests showed Ron’s blood alcohol content (BAC) was .16 — twice over the legal limit. Sheriff Radcliffe, who originally believed foul play was involved, changed his mind based on the BAC finding and concluded Ron had died as a result of a drunk-driving accident.

However, the Gillispie family didn’t accept Sheriff Radcliffe’s conclusion. Ron wasn’t a drinker, they said. The man certainly had plenty of reasons to drink, considering the stress the whole family had been under, but that just wasn’t Ron.

Sheriff Dwight Radcliffe in 2011 — Source: The Columbus Dispatch

Sheriff Radcliffe claimed a person of interest had been grilled about the odd nature in which Ron died, but he passed a polygraph test so Sheriff Radcliffe dismissed him as a suspect. Ron’s smashed pickup truck was disposed of in a junkyard in Ohio, thus eliminating any opportunity to study it further.

Shortly after Ron’s death, several Circleville residents began receiving more poison pen letters, this time accusing Sheriff Radcliffe of covering up the true nature of Ron Gillispie’s death. The letters also accused the sheriff of mishandling an investigation into Pickaway County Coroner, Dr. Ray Carroll, who had been accused of sexual abuse by several children.

Meanwhile, Mary’s sister-in-law, Karen, and her husband Paul Freshour separated after Paul discovered his wife was cheating on him. He filed for divorce, gained full custody of the couple’s children, and Karen moved out of the house and into a trailer in Mary Gillispie’s backyard.

What’s Really Going on Here?

The barrage of threatening letters received by the Gillispie family started with a revelation: “I know you’re having an affair with the superintendent.” Mary vehemently denied the allegations, but after Ron died, she admitted that she had, in fact, been having a fling with Gordon Massie. But, she claimed, the affair only started after she began receiving the letters.

There is no way to know for sure if Mary was telling the truth, but I think we can all agree that it’s beyond strange that she would start sleeping with Massie after being warned not to. (Seriously, who does that?)

A depiction of Mary Gillispie finding the booby-trapped sign — Source: Unsolved.com

The campaign of harassment continued and more and more signs began appearing along the side of the road on Mary’s bus route. On February 7, 1983, Mary decided she’d had enough. She hopped out of her bus and went to grab one of the signs, but this was no ordinary sign. A box was attached to the pole holding the sign and inside of it was a small pistol.

The gun was part of a booby trap designed to fire when the sign was pulled a certain way. Fortunately for Mary, she didn’t pull the sign the right way and the gun never went off.

When the police examined the gun, they were able to trace it back to none other than Paul Freshour, Mary’s ex-brother-in-law.

While Karen was living on Mary’s property, she shared her suspicions that her ex-husband might have been behind the threatening letters, phone calls, and signs. Mary took the information to Sheriff Radcliffe, who called Paul into the station, where he had him try and copy the handwriting in the letters. He also had Paul write down words and phrases as he spoke them. Then, Sheriff Radcliffe asked Paul to show him where he normally kept his gun.

Paul Freshour

Once in Paul’s garage, Paul showed Sheriff Radcliffe where he normally kept his pistol and explained that it had been stolen once before. The two men then went to the county courthouse, where Paul was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of Mary Gillispie.

On October 24, 1983, Paul Freshour went on trial. While he wasn’t charged with writing the letters, they became crucial pieces of evidence against him. Still, only 39 of the letters were allowed into evidence.

A handwriting expert took the stand to tell the jury that the handwriting in the letters matched Paul’s. Mary also took the stand and testified that she started to believe the letters were written by Paul after Karen shared her own suspicions with her.

Although Paul’s boss testified that Paul wasn’t at work that day [1], he still had a solid alibi for most of the day and never took the stand in his own defense. He would go on to kick himself for not testifying as, in the end, he was convicted of attempted murder. [2]

Paul Freshour (R) on trial for attempted murder.

Years later, he said:

“I can’t blame the jury, because the jury didn’t hear all the evidence. But I just couldn’t believe it. I was really in shock.”

Paul received the maximum sentence for the crime — seven to 25 years. Everyone in Circleville assumed that with Paul behind bars, the frightening letters would stop.

But they were wrong.

The Poison Pen Keeps on Writing

The residents of Circleville and surrounding areas finally started to feel safe again when the prison door slammed behind Paul Freshour, but their relief was short-lived. It seemed nothing could stop the poison pen from scribbling hate-filled diatribes against locals.

The vitriolic letters didn’t stop. They didn’t even slow down. They also grew more bizarre and disturbing.

Said author and journalist Martin Yant:

“They were being received all over a large area of Central Ohio. So, a lot of people couldn’t understand how Paul Freshour could be mailing all these letters from prison.”

The new batch of letters included allegations about the prosecutor in the case, Roger Kline. The letter writer also promised to dig up the grave of a deceased baby and mail the bones to the police if they didn’t look into Kline for allegedly playing a role in the murder of a pregnant school teacher. According to the Letter Writer, Kline had impregnated the teacher and then had her killed.

The prison was just as mystified as everyone else. The staff had done everything they could think to do to keep Paul from writing and sending the letters. When checking all of his ingoing and outgoing mail didn’t stop the letters, Paul was placed in solitary confinement with nothing to write on or with, but the letters kept coming. [1]

The prison warden concluded that there was no way Paul could have been writing the letters. [3]

Paul himself received a letter that read:

“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 was a model prisoner for seven years, but when he became eligible for parole, the board rejected his request because people were still receiving harassing letters. It didn’t matter that the prison warden had concluded it would have been impossible for Paul to send them. It didn’t matter that the letters were postmarked Columbus, even though Paul was imprisoned in Lima.

A depiction of the yellow El Camino and the mystery man who was seen at the intersection where the booby-trapped sign was found — Source: Unsolved.com

Paul Freshour remained in prison even after a witness came forward to say that approximately 20 minutes before Mary discovered the booby-trapped sign along the road, another bus driver saw a yellow El Camino parked at the very same intersection. [2] Next to the car stood a large man with sandy hair who turned around and acted like he was going to the bathroom when he spotted the bus driver observing him.

The man didn’t resemble Paul Freshour in any way, yet the police did absolutely nothing to follow up on the tip.

Paul Freshour being interviewed for the television series, “Unsolved Mysteries” — Source: Unsolved.com

Finally, in May 1994, after spending 10 years in prison, Paul was paroled. He maintained his innocence the entire time he was incarcerated and continued to maintain his innocence until his death in 2012, at the age of 70.

Interestingly, the letters also stopped in 1994.

Separating Truth From Lies

Roger Kline, the prosecutor who put Paul behind bars, was investigated based on the allegations that he had gotten a school teacher pregnant and had her murdered to protect his career. According to one account of the Circleville Letter Writer debacle, the police investigated the allegations and spoke with the parents of the deceased baby that the letter writer threatened to dig up. Though their silence was requested, the couple spoke with an Ohio TV station and confirmed that the allegations were true.

Roger Kline became an appellate court judge and retired in 2013 — Source: Circleville Herald

I’ve not been able to find that claim anywhere else, and it doesn’t make sense. Maybe my brain is only working at half-power, but wouldn’t the murdered school teacher have been the mother of the dead baby? What would a random deceased baby have to do with Kline and his affair with the school teacher? As for the parents’ interview, I can’t find that, either.

The Letter Writer did seem to be correct about Pickaway County Coroner Ray Carroll, however. He had been accused of sexually abusing several children, and the Letter Writer posited that Sheriff Radcliffe had mishandled the case.

In December 1993, Dr. Caroll was charged with 12 counts, eight of them alleging the doctor of gross immorality, sex crimes, corruption of a minor, pornography, obscenity, and indecent exposure. [4]

Remember David Longberry, the co-worker who came onto Mary? Mary and Ron initially suspected he might be the Circleville Letter Writer. Well, Longberry forcibly raped an 11-year-old girl in 1999 and became a fugitive on the run.

Now, the same source that said Roger Kline did, in fact, murder a pregnant school teacher, also stated that Longberry committed suicide while he was on the run. However, I did a little digging, and while there isn’t much information available about Longberry, I found a public records directory that states Longberry was still on the run as of 2005.

Here, Kline is listed as a deceased sex offender, but I can’t find information on when or where he died. I’m assuming he’s dead. [5]

Was Paul Freshour the Circleville Letter Writer?

Paul Freshour — Source: PressReader.com

When Paul Freshour got out of prison, he started his own website in which he lays out the case for his innocence and addresses numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the letters.

I have a hard time taking the content of Freshour’s site seriously, and here’s why. Under the heading, “FACTS THAT CAN BE CONFIRMED,” Freshour writes:

I believe that the obscene, threatening and dangerous letters were concealed because they would interfere with Sheriff Radcliff becoming the National Sheriff s Association’s President. See the date of the letters and the date of his involvement with the National Sheriff s Association. The crime rate in Pickaway County at that time would have eliminated him from this appointment.”

Instead of it being a fact that can be confirmed, it’s little more than Freshour’s opinion. Starting out with “I believe” isn’t a great way to prove something.

There are other downloadable documents here if you’re interested in perusing them.

The Internet is full of theories about the true author or authors of the Circleville Letters. This particular theory grabbed my attention, as it not only sounds very plausible, but the poster claims to have actually spoken to journalist Martin Yant. You can read it for yourself, but I’ll give you the gist.

Mary Gillispie’s co-worker, David Longberry, was furious when Mary rebuffed his advances and started a relationship with Gordon Massie, the superintendent, instead. He was the first (yes, first) person to write and send the Circleville Letters. This makes sense since the first letters sent to Mary and Ron only addressed the alleged affair between Mary and Gordon.

Ron Gillispie knew it was Longberry who was writing the letters and calling the family’s home, so one day he finally downed enough liquid courage to confront Longberry. His car accident was just that — an accident. This doesn’t explain why Ron fired off a shot, or where the bullet went. As the poster points out, if he was sloshed enough, he could have fired it out the window in anger, but not at anyone in particular. His family said that Ron wasn’t a drinker, so he would have been drunker than a skunk with a BAC of .16.

After Paul and Karen Freshour divorced, Karen started erecting signs around town — and eventually the booby trap — to frame Paul. Remember, Paul got the house and the kids in the divorce, so Karen had good reason to be bitter.

Martin Yant described Karen as “a very, very angry, manipulative woman who was still planting negative stories about Paul in the early 1990s.”

Karen is further connected to the case by the yellow El Camino spotted at the intersection where Mary found the booby-trapped sign. Karen’s boyfriend (and eventual husband) looked like the sandy-haired man observed at the intersection, and she had a relative who owned a yellow El Camino.

Moreover, some of the later letters were typed, not handwritten. The poster writes:

“Paul’s ex-wife (Karen) had asked Paul’s sister if she could use a typewriter that Paul had loaned to her because she was planning on writing a book. The sister was confused because she never knew his ex-wife to be a typist, and because they were going through a divorce at the time, found it odd that she would want one of Paul’s items. His ex assured the sister that Paul was okay with it, so she relented and let her use it. Not so coincidentally was there a typewriter used in some of the letters that the people in Circleville had been receiving around the same time.”

We may never know for sure who wrote all those letters and put all those signs along Karen’s bus route, but it goes without saying that whoever did it was a few fries short of a Happy Meal. It takes a rather frightening amount of anger and bitterness to spend years harassing someone, or, as the case may be, trying to set someone up.

I normally post my own theories, but I think this person’s theory is as good as any I could come up with. The only thing I don’t understand is why, if Karen Freshour was involved, the letters continued even after Paul was in prison, considering that led people to believe maybe he wasn’t the Circleville Letter Writer at all.

Another thing I don’t understand is why the Circleville Letter Writer harassed other Circleville residents, or how he knew so much about their lives. Perhaps it was just a ruse to draw attention away from the real author(s).

I would LOVE to hear your theories on this!

Sources:

  1. The True Crime Database
  2. Unsolved.com
  3. Mysterious Universe
  4. Columbus Metropolitan Library
  5. Parents For Megan’s Law

My name is Julie Fidler. I’m a writer, author, wife, and animal lover. I shed light on unsolved mysteries and shocking crimes.

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