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Murder at Asheville's Battery Park Hotel: An Interview with Author Anne Smith
Did the phrase “That’s what I was wondering…” solve a murder? In the morning hours of July 16, 1936, Helen Clevenger’s uncle discovered her bloodied body crumpled on the floor of her small room in Asheville’s grand Battery Park Hotel. She had been shot through the chest. Buncombe County Sheriff Laurence Brown, up for reelection, desperately searched for the teenager’s killer as the public clamored for answers. Though witnesses reported seeing a white man leave the scene, Brown’s focus turned instead to the hotel’s Black employees and on August 9 he arrested bell hop Martin Moore.
After a frenzied four-day trial that captured the nation’s attention, Moore was convicted of Helen’s murder on August 22. Though Moore confessed to Sherriff Brown, doubt of his guilt lingers and many Southerners feared that justice had not, in fact, been served. Author Anne Chesky Smith weaves together varying accounts of the murder and investigation to expose a complex and disturbing chapter in Asheville’s history.
And thank you so much for joining us on Crime Capsule. It is such a pleasure to have you.
[00:00:07.730] - Anne
Absolutely. I'm happy to be here.
[00:00:10.910] - Ben
You have been working on this case, this story, for a decade. How did you first come to the tale of Helen Klevenshire?
[00:00:24.410] - Anne
Well, when I first discovered the case and the story of Helen's murder, I was working I just started as either assistant director or director at the Swannova Valley Museum in Black Mountain, North Carolina. And Black Mountain is a small town about 20 minutes outside of Ashville, North Carolina, in the mountains. And one of our most well known folks is Sheriff Florence Brown, who was Sheriff for 30 plus years in Buncomb County, which is the county that Asheville is in, and Black Mountain. And this is a common problem in small museums. But we have boxes of materials that had not been processed. And this is not a new issue for small museums that have lots of stuff and not enough staff time or money. But I was processing this box and I don't know when it had come into the Museum. Excuse me. And I pulled out the stack of papers. And at first glance, I figured out these were from Sheriff Brown's career, as before he was Sheriff while he was Sheriff. And I started going through them. And in this pile of papers, most of them related to this one murder, and it was Helen's murder.
But the thing that stuck out to me the most was a carbon copy of a confession, someone confessing to Helen's murder. And I had never heard the story before. So that, of course, piqued my interest. And then I went digging through old newspapers to try to find the story. And when I found it, I actually went to our local library because, again, this was ten years ago. This is before Newspapers.com was really a thing. So I was combing through lots of microfish from the time, very small, very grainy. And there was a story and it was covered everywhere. It was so sensationalized. It was huge news in Ashville, but also around the country. And the story kind of came out from there. And it was so compelling that I went back to the Museum and realized what a treasure trove of archival materials this was because the Sheriff's Department, the actual police Department who both worked on this case, didn't have records of the case anymore. So having whatever Sheriff Brown saved from that case, which was a major defining moment in his career, was a huge find. And it was how I got started with researching the whole story.
[00:03:11.970] - Ben
So let me get this straight. You've never heard of this case before, that moment in which you pull the alleged murderers possibly coerced confession straight out of the archival file and it's staring you in the face and you just have this moment? That's extraordinary.
[00:03:31.870] - Anne
Looking back at the time, I didn't really know what I had and I will say there are multiple confessions and we can get into that later. So this was actually a later confession that had been sent to Sheriff Brown for his records. And so that was pretty interesting.
[00:03:55.190] - Ben
It's like being thrown into the deep end without any warning whatsoever, isn't it? That's really amazing.
[00:04:01.460] - Anne
[00:04:03.350] - Ben
So let's dive right into that deep end. Go ahead and introduce us to Helen Clevener. She has this kind of interesting backstory and how she came to arrive in North Carolina has a couple of sort of twists and turns there. So help us to understand how she ended up at the Battery Park Hotel at such a young age in 1936.
[00:04:34.430] - Anne
Sure. So Helen was not a local girl. I think we know most about her as being in Asheville, but she was from Staten Island. She was a very smart valedictorian of her high school in Staten Island, went to NYU. She was 19 when she made it to North Carolina. But she had completed her freshman year at NYU, had gotten some merit scholarships. She was a writer. She wrote for student newspaper at her high school. She wrote poetry. Just a really bright and as it comes about, pretty unassuming white teenage girl at the time. This is 1936. Segregation in the south is rampant. We're right in the middle of Jim Crow. But her father works pretty high up in the Food and Drug Administration and he's got a couple of brothers in North Carolina. And Helen just completed her first year. She's never been to the south. So her father concocts this plan with her uncles down, who are both teachers at the time, is North Carolina State College, now in State University. And to go down and visit them, save some time with them in Raleigh, but also travel with one of her uncles, who is a dairy extension specialist.
He teaches at the College during the school year, but then during the summers, he travels around the state and advises local dairies. So Helen's along on the ride for this to meet people, try a lot of cheese and ice cream, which sounds amazing. And just generally learn about North Carolina. She starts in Raleigh. She hangs out there for a while. They do the Eastern part of the state and then they had to do the Western part of the state. And that's how she ends up in Western North Carolina in July 1936, really just traveling with her Bachelor uncle, which does come into play. He's a single 50 something year old man traveling with 19 year old woman. And that does come into play some later on. They're kind of an odd pairing in the 1930s that he's the chaperone.
[00:06:56.630] - Ben
It is interesting because you have such an array of sources at your disposal to tell the story. And one of the most moving sources that you have is Helen's own diary. And reading her entries is you really get a sense of just how lively she was, how curious she was, how open to new experiences she was, how much she enjoyed meeting these people and traveling around on the farms and sort of learning the different traditional handcrafts and food waste and so forth. It really is a pleasure to just kind of pal along with her as she's making these entries and seeing what I'm going to go out on a limb here. But what must have really been kind of like a foreign country for her being a city girl, right?
[00:07:44.030] - Anne
Yeah. I mean, she definitely grew up in the city. I've studied in the city, and I wish I had more of her letters and her diary entries, what I have. And we've even tried to track down the diary. There's a guy who's working on this kind of similarly, but he's part of the Bahai community, which Helen wasn't well and had tried to track down if her diary had ended up in their archives. And we haven't been able to track it down. But because the newspaper coverage of this was so intense, whatever the reporters could get their hands on. So they published verbatim injuries from her diary postcards that she'd written to her parents about the trip, I assume, with their permission. But again, it's hard specifically to know. But her parents were so distraught, they were sharing a lot of things with the press also in hopes of getting her having some representation for her because everyone was very consumed with the death with her death. But it was harder to find out who she was in life. And even I contacted the Tottenhille Historical Society, which is where Helen was from in Staten Islands, and they had never heard of her but were able to pull some yearbook for me.
And of course, now they know. But that was pretty interesting, too, that she doesn't have the same infamy essentially in Staten Island, even though she spent her life in New York City that she does here in Ashley. And her story is told over and over here, especially on ghost tours and things like that.
[00:09:31.960] - Ben
So tell us, she and her uncle make it to the Battery Park Hotel, and they actually make it there twice. They sort of land there, and then they take another little jaunt and then they come back, and that's when things begin to unfold. But tell us just about the hotel itself. It felt like as I read your book, I couldn't help but think of kind of those great hotels in film or literature, like the Shining Hotel. It's sort of from this era of build big and build grand and kind of let this place be the destination. Right. And it's very dramatic. That your sort of account of the construction of it and the local reaction to it and the ill will in some ways, it's fascinating.
[00:10:26.990] - Anne
Yeah, absolutely. So the Battery Park, it's still standing in Asheville. It's very prominent on the skyline. There are now a few other tall buildings. But at the time, it was the skyscraper, and it replaced an earlier Battery Park Hotel, which Asheville was a huge tourist destination forever. And then the railroads came in the late 1870s, early 1880s, and things just exploded. And because of our climate here, we're also really well known as a treatment location for tuberculosis. So a lot of these hotels were built with this in mind. And then, of course, other ones were saying, well, actually, we're not allowing TB patients here. This is just the tourist destination. There's no sick here, but they were springing up all over the place. So Battery Park was a resort hotel. But then in the 1920s, things start changing. The cities start starting to be designed more around automobile traffic. And EW Grove, who's actually really well known in Ashville, simply because he built the Grove Park Inn, which is probably our Premier hotel still. And if you know a few things about Ashville, you know about the Biltmore House and maybe you know about the Grove Park Inn.
And so he built the Grove Park in but he also built the Battery Park Hotel, and he bought the old Battery Park, said he was going to keep it, run it like it was. And then he tore it down. He decided it was outdated. It was this kind of long, sprawling resort hotel. He tore it down. Not only did he tear it down, but he leveled the mountain that it was on because we're thinking about automobile traffic here. So we want flat, we want walkable areas. And so he levels the Hill and he builds this kind of skyscraper. Battery Park Hotel. And people are also probably fairly familiar with the writer Thomas. Look, he's another one of our Asheville sons, where he grew up as a historic site here in Asheville, pretty close to the Battery Park. And then in his novel Lacomb word angel, which is a thinly fictionalized version of what's going on in Ashel at the time that he's writing. He just writes with derision about this hotel that's popping up. And then, of course, years later, he and everyone else are guests there. So they eventually do come around. But it's a very impressive building, but it's also surrounded by a number of other impressive hotels. And it's really a tourist center in Asheville.
[00:13:53.610] - Ben
It's lavish. I mean, they spared no expense on the interior, did they?
[00:13:58.990] - Anne
No. It was beautiful inside from the pictures. It fell into disrepair in the 70s, and now it's been renovated and put in the store register and is apartment complex for senior citizens. But it's still lovely and all the renovations have been done. But at the time, it was a grand hotel where if you weren't staying at Grove Park and you want to stay in downtown Ashville. So Grove Park is a little bit further removed from the city. This is one of the big ones that you stayed up.
[00:14:39.470] - Ben
This was the place to be. So the reason that I want to spend a moment on it, the reason that I want to spend a moment on it is because like any good Alfred Hitchcock or Agatha Christie narrative, the layout of the hotel, the design of the hotel, the premises of the hotel are actually central to our understanding of the murder that took place there. They cannot be separated in every single element, from the floor layout to the balustrads, to the windows, to the height of the ceilings to the next floor and so forth. It all matters. The door locks, they matter. Every single bit of the design of this hotel plays into this case. And for our listeners out there who are trying to sort of construct a picture in their minds, there are some images that are available out there to look at online if they want to take a look. You also have in your book a really good depiction from the trial of the floor plan, which was extremely helpful for me as I was going through, to sort of get a sense of. Yeah, absolutely. I was sort of grateful that one of the attorneys had managed to sort of construct that and then show it at trial.
But it is very much a sort of labyrinthine and yet modern structure, and both of those aspects come into play. So take us to the night of July 16 to 1936.
[00:16:26.310] - Anne
All right. So Helen and her uncle, who she calls Uncle Billy William Clavenger, they've been out in farther Western North Carolina visiting Dairies. They've already been at the Battery Park once before left and come back. And this is their second night of their second trip to the Battery Park, which does come into play a bit because perhaps they've been seen around Asheville previously. So they're coming back. It's pretty late at night. They've been out in Fairviews. People are familiar with Asheville. Fairview is not far. It's more or less a suburb of Ashville at this point. Not a terribly far drive, but it's dark when they get back. It's stormy when they get back. And adds to the picture of the whole story that it's a dark and stormy night.
[00:17:22.200] - Ben
Absolutely. Those are the best Kinding.
[00:17:25.970] - Anne
And Thunder rolling over the mountains and they pull back up to the hotel, come in the lobby and pretty much it's past 10:00. At that point, they had a pretty full day. So they head up in the elevator, and these are 1936 elevators. There are bellhops that take you up and down the elevator. So someone takes them up to the second floor. And Helen, from what her uncle says, she's so happy. She says, you know, so many nice people. Thank you for bringing me and having such a great time. And then says Goodnight. And her room is to the right, off the elevator and around the corner. And then William's room is to the left and down the hall. So she goes around the corner and they go into their rooms. And that's the last time that William sees her. So she goes into her room. The hotel itself, the floor plan is kind of Lshaped. And the rooms are very small, very modest. There's a single bed, a dresser, a wardrobe, a desk, a chair, and then a very small bathroom. And so she goes about what we know from the investigation of what they found in the room. So we have an idea of what she might have done when she got back in the room, which is she washed out her undergarments, she changed into her pajamas. She wrote a postcard to her mother about her day. She has some magazines in there, so she probably relaxed and read some magazines.
And likely even by 01:00, A.m. Was not asleep, but her light was still on at that time. And so at 01:00 A.m., something happens. Someone. Either the door is unlocked and someone comes in or someone unlocks the door. And then it happens. You know, what we know from the police reports and the newspaper coverage is that she was shot in the chest, that she was beaten in the face and that she fought back. And then it's really murky as to what really happens in that room. And we can go into that a little bit more, but there's a lot then that happens outside the room.
[00:20:10.190] - Ben
I mean, that moment is actually pure vintage Hitchcock, isn't it? Because what you have is a large sound, like a gunshot. You have screams, you have thuds. You have an assailant kind of running off into the night, who is dimly glimpsed by some of the other guests of the hotel. She's in room 22 24, which is at the end of the hall. There's only a few people around her who can kind of get a look at what is going on. She's not in a major, sort of through way where it's a very public area. All the rooms around her are hearing things but not seeing them. Right. And by the time she is discovered, the culprit is long gone, and she has no chance. Her wounds were so deep. It's really the kind of thing that you would have expected in 1940s murder mystery. I couldn't help but think over and over again of sort of the great cinematography of that period.
[00:21:32.850] - Anne
Well, and yes, everyone's hearing things. It's all, as they say, kind of muffled by the Thunder and lightning and storm. And there's not air conditioning at this time. So everybody it's summer, it's July, everybody's sleeping with their windows open. So in some ways they should be able to hear better because the windows are open. But in other ways, they're also getting this sound of the storm outside that kind of like a white noise machine drowning everything out. But still, people all around Helen's room above, below, on either side, across the hallway, they all remember hearing these various sounds, a scream, a woman calling for her mother or saying, a man's voice saying, it's okay, Polly or Molly, the sound of glass breaking. So they all talk about these things that they heard. But only one of those people who heard these things happen in the hotel that night actually calls down to the front desk to report a disturbance and ask what's going on. And they do end up sending the night watchman up to listen. But by the time he gets to that floor, everything's quiet. So he does not enter her room. He just listens at the door and doesn't hear anything.
So returns back to the lobby.
[00:23:01.710] - Ben
It makes you wonder what would have happened if he had just knocked on the door, cracked it open to see if everything was okay, how the story would have turned out differently. I do hesitate to mention this, but I think it is important. Your account of the actual struggle is it is traumatic. And the position of her body against the assailant, there was a point at which she was sort of down on her knees. It appeared as though she was almost begging for her life. And her murderer seemed to be completely heartless. And they just absolutely merciless in his response.
[00:23:44.400] - Anne
Yeah, kind of what they put together. And I've read many different accounts of this, but my interpretation is that she may have been on her knees, the shot may have caused her just to fall to her knees and then she was screaming. And that's where either the gun jammed or he was just simply trying to get her to stop screaming. And that's where he started beating her in the face. And it's very traumatic injuries. Traumatic to think about. And she ends up falling back onto her back with her knees folded under her and she's right in the doorway. It's the doorway and it turns right into a bathroom and then it opens up into the rest of the room. So she's right in this very narrow hallway, even to the point when they do discover her, the door hits against her knees.
[00:24:47.880] - Ben
Yeah. Which sort of suggests that she had gone to the door to answer it and then was still in the process of admitting this person to the room or even just sort of cracking it open to see who they were and what they wanted. She never got back into the interior of the room at all that we know of. She might have, but it seems very unusual for that to have happened, given the layout.
[00:25:13.470] - Anne
Yeah. I mean, it seems to me, too, if someone was coming into the room and she had been on the bed, like if they had opened it and it was unlocked, she might have backed into a corner rather than come forward. But she also seems like a very brave person. We know she has some defensive wounds. We know she was fighting back, so maybe there was some physical action that brought her to the door to push someone out or ask them to leave or try to escape herself. And it's hard to know, but there's a realm of possibilities there. But I like to think that she was a fighter.
[00:25:58.390] - Ben
Yeah. So several hours do pass, and unfortunately, she dies without receiving any aid whatsoever. No one knows that she is in there or has been attacked in this way. And there's a little bit of a commotion the next morning as her uncle is sort of getting himself up for breakfast and wondering, Where's my niece? It's time to go downstairs and start the day. Give us a sense of kind of what happened after the night had passed.
[00:26:45.030] - Anne
Sure. So William wakes up. He's a little annoyed because he'd ask the hotel to give him a call to wake him up. So he oversleeps, but he still gets out the door and he's supposed to meet Helen downstairs in the dining room for breakfast like they normally do. But he thinks, well, they didn't call me to wake me up, so maybe they didn't call Helen. I'll just run by her room and knock on the door and make sure she's awake. So he goes. He knocks, he calls for her, and there's no answer. And from his telling of it, he goes and he kind of pushes the door and it opens and it opens and it hits against something. And so he's calling out. He's really getting worried, very anxious at this point. He goes and looks around the door, and there she is. And he comes out screaming, oh, my, look what they have done to her. And there are a couple of people in the hallway at that time, the hotel Carpenter, and one of the mates who actually just checked is going by, checking the rooms, seeing who's checked out and what rooms need to be cleaned.
And so he screams to them, look what they've done to her. The hotel Carpenter goes in and looks and then immediately goes to call first. The assistant manager, who comes up also goes and looks at how long they haven't messed with her. They don't know that she's actually deceased at this point. They don't render any aid. They're all kind of panicked. And then the assistant manager calls the manager, who is Pat Branch, who's down having breakfast in the dining room. And so he comes up, looks at the body, and then goes finds they have a house doctor, Dr. Buck. So he goes and finds Dr. Buck. Dr. Buck is not dressed yet this whole time. They're just kind of standing century outside the room but not actually checking on her. And so finally Dr. Buck gets dressed and comes up and does a physical examination and pronounces her deceased. But then they decide that because she's deceased, they're going to call the coroner. So they call the coroner, who is not in his office. He's out of town for the morning. And when he can't come, they just wait. They don't call the Sheriff's Department for over an hour.
And finally they call the Sheriff's Department and the police Department. And the police technically have jurisdiction. And there's a whole kerfuffle about the chief of police is on a fishing trip, so they end up calling the Sheriff's Department. Right. So he and his assistant are out on a fishing trip, so they don't even hear about it. They think it's just a random rumor till much later. And I think are pretty embarrassed about it because it becomes such a huge deal. But then the Sheriff's Department does finally get called, and the first law enforcement officer on the scene is Deputy Sheriff Tom Brown, who is the Sheriff, Lawrence Brown's brother. And so was certainly appointed by Lawrence when he came into office. And so he's the first one there. And Pat Branch meets him in the lobby, takes him up to the room, and then they find this key in the door, which there's a whole slew of articles and speculation about this key that's in the door. But Pat Branch takes it out and they turn it over to law enforcement. And there's much speculation about that key. But then they finally start the investigation into what happened to Helen.
And more deputies come in. Sheriff Laurent Brown eventually arrives, and they dust for fingerprints. They do pretty standard forensics stuff at the time. Of course, there's no DNA. There is less typing. There's some hair forensics. But really it's pretty limited in what they can do with physical evidence. And they end up really not finding much of any physical evidence.
[00:31:16.420] - Ben
Yeah, it was funny. And as I was reading, I was kind of observing these. I'm going to try to be nice here. It's going to be hard for me. But I was sort of watching these apes, men, like, lumbering around and around this hotel room, this side of the murder. And it was just sort of grading them on their ability to keep forensic integrity intact. And it went from sort of like, okay, her uncle discovers the body bumps against the door. We've already sort of contaminated, maybe the door handle and like the entryway. So that's gone from an A to an A minus. They start showing up. They start digging around in there goes from an A minus to about a B to a B minus. More guys enter. They're all sort of taking a look, poking the body. It just kind of degrades, degrades, degrades. And by the end, it's like, what really do we have to work with? And the answer is a little. But if only they had gone through the right channels first and gotten an investigator on the scene as soon as possible and didn't have all these snafus, maybe we would have had some evidence that hadn't gotten disturbed in some way.
I don't know.
[00:32:34.870] - Anne
Well, and I will say there are a number of articles that appear in various newspapers kind of talking about how this case has been bungled from the beginning. So it's certainly not we think about it is sort of an early period of forensic science. And even now, with all our advances in DNA technology, there's still false positives and a lot of skepticism around some of that. But at the same time, it's almost like the cynic in me is almost wondering if it's intentional on someone's part. There's certainly a conspiracy theorist might find some intentionality and how things go about. They do find some bloody fingerprints on a light bulb, which is probably the best physical evidence that they actually find. They're all partials as far as they say. They're not able to match it to an actual fingerprint. But they do assume that the murderer had unscrewed the light bulb because they didn't know how the switch worked and they wanted to darken the room. So that's probably the best piece of physical evidence that they collect is these partial bloody fingerprints on a light bulb that was left in the room unscrewed from the lamp itself.
[00:34:12.650] - Ben
So one thing that we did learn a little bit later, this whole case kind of goes soup to nuts just in a matter of weeks. It was really remarkable. And there are reasons for that which will, of course, get into as far as racial justice goes. But this case progresses quite quickly. And one thing that they do find is that Helen, thankfully, was not sexually assaulted at first. There was some speculation that she might have been. And of course, the journalists who are descending upon the scene, the vultures kind of flapping their wings in as quickly as possible. There's always that kind of rumor. But they say, no, that was not the case. And in fact, that changes the nature of the investigation to the point where they say, okay, well, what was taking place here? Was it a random act of violence? Was it a botched burglary? How do we characterize this. If that was not part of the motive.
[00:35:09.810] - Anne
I will say they then kind of shift to robbery, but nothing was actually taken from her room. And she had a very minor amount of valuable. She had a watch that she had taken off and put on the chair. She was wearing a ring. She had a few dollars in her pocketbook. And certainly we know two other rooms were unlocked and open at the time from when the night watchman came around. And likely people that may have had more valuable than the lights would have been off and a little bit easier to sneak into and Rob someone of items in those cases rather than a room with a light on. So they do speculate in lots of headlines. And even after the fact, even after the case is closed, they are still talking about the rapist murder of Helen Clevener and some of these Detective magazines. And really, in my interpretation, I think that was likely the motive, but that sexual assault was the motive, but that Helen screamed and fought back and she lost her life. But that likely may have happened either way.
[00:36:35.010] - Ben
So the cavalry does arrive, and most prominent among the cavalry is Sheriff Florence Brown, who is, as you said, sort of legendary figure in Western North Carolina history. There's a passage in your book that I would love for you to read to us, which is the and I think our listeners will kind of get a sense of who this guy was almost exclusively through this passage. Right. They say clothes make the man, but in this case of the car makes the man. Would you just describe, based on those sources that you found this vehicle that Lawrence Brown drives? I hesitate only because he drives the Batmobile. It's basically the Batmobile, and it's kind of the right time. It's kind of the right period. Would you describe Sheriff Brown's Batmobile to us, please? And this is one of the best things I read all week.
[00:37:44.070] - Anne
Yeah, I'll just read the passage. It actually appeared in the Charlotte News right around the time that mean that people were reporting on this. I actually think I have to go back and check that it was written by a female reporter, which was pretty rare at the time. But this is how it's described
[00:38:07.950] - Anne
A 1934 model Gram Supercharger made at the Indianapolis plant, especially for the Sheriff's war against bootleggers. Bulletproof glass, almost an inch and threequarters thick, protects the occupants. And through this glass are sheathed portholes, which can be opened only by the hard thrust of a gun. From the inside, radiator hood and cowl are bulletproof lined with special steel. But the front bumper is the most impressive part of the big sedan. It consists of armoured plate to protect the front tires from bullets and a heavy bumper for knocking cars off the road. If he can't make a fleeting car stop any other way, Mr. Brown runs up behind it and smacks it with that mighty prow inside our gun racks and pistol holders. The car is equipped with Tommy guns and automatics. No one has ever escaped pursuit. So when you think about that, especially in today's context of what's happening in the world of law enforcement and policing, it's just incredibly difficult to imagine. But Lawrence Brown campaigned on this promise of bringing in moonshiners and moonshining and bootlegging. This was kind of proficient was put into effect at the game of 1920. And Larry Brown was elected soon after for his first term.
And then he lost the term. And this is his first term back in office. So he really wants to stay in office. He's chasing down moon, Jenners. And of course, there are many rumors and oral history stories that the Browns had their own moonshine still and were producing their own alcohol, which was while busting up everybody else's bills at the time. So he's quite the officer really also gunning for reelection in November. It's July, and he needs to be reelected in November after losing the previous term. So he's feeling the heat.
[00:40:27.990] - Ben
We had a guest on over the holidays who wrote a book called Mississippi Moonshine Politics. And Janice was very forthcoming about the long history of the corrupt Sheriff up and down Southern States during the era of Prohibition. I mean, it was almost like a cartoon character. You would run into so many of them, you know, they just caricatured themselves over and over again. very quickly, very quickly, the interest turns to the account of a potential suspect as a person of interest. This was glimpsed on the night. And the investigation has to come up with some bodies, right? I mean, they have to come up with people that they can begin to hold or charge or detain in order to satisfy public interest. And we see this shift happen really within hours and days of Helen's murder. I mean, they are under pressure to find suspects. So how does that take shape in that first kind of critical period for law enforcement?
[00:42:00.770] - Anne
Yes, Sheriff Brown is under pressure. So is the police Department. They are feeling very embarrassed that they are not the lead investigators on this case because they were on a fishing trip. And this fishing trip is reported in the paper with this confrontation between the reporter and the police chief. And it gets pretty heated. But the police actually are the ones who make the first arrest, and they arrest Joe Yuri, who's a young black man who works at the hotel. And the only evidence is that he had like a year previously been accused of taking a man to a woman's room, who then complained nothing really happened, and he was proven innocent of even that much. But that is why he's the first suspect that the police go to. And they find, like, a rust stain on his shirt, which they think is blood, and hold him for a very short amount of time and release him. And so I think they really wanted to make that arrest quickly just to say we're still here. And then the Sheriff's Department starts taking witness statements. And because there was such a gap between when Helen was found and when the Sheriff's Department was called, a lot of the witnesses have checked out of the hotel already, and so they've got to go track them down, but they end up facing a lot of the investigation on these eyewitness reports.
They go around asking what people heard, and so that's when all these they do remember, they woke up, they heard screams, they heard like glass shattering. They heard all these different things, but it's not really leading them to anything. They do, however, find several people who actually saw someone in the hotel that night making an escape from the hotel. So the first one is Erwin Pitman, who is in the room directly, almost directly across the hall from Helen. And right around 01:00 A.m., which is when they eventually pinpoint the time of the murder to have occurred. He hears a scream. He's getting ready for bed. He's brushing his teeth, and he runs to the door to look out and see what's going on. But he realizes he looks around really quickly, realizes there's no one there, and that he's also in his underwear. He goes back and puts pulls on a robe and comes back out. And at that point, when he comes back out in his robe, he sees someone in Helen's doorway, kind of back in the doorway. And he's thinking that that person is a guest just like he is. He says, I wonder what that noise was.
And the person replies, that's what I was wondering, too. And Pitman, thinking they're just another guest, looks around the hall, doesn't hear anything else. He goes back in his room and goes to sleep. Well, a few minutes later, unbeknownst to Erwin Pitman, the employees who are down in the lobby see a man run down the back staircase. So there's an elevator, but there's also a staircase that leads down and then run across the back part of the lobby and run into the manager's office. So we've talked about the manager before. Pat Ranch runs into the manager's office, Stoops behind the desk, and then one of them kind of goes to investigate. They think maybe he's just someone who's running to close the windows because of the rain. And then they realize once he Ducks behind the desk, that maybe not, maybe this is an intruder. And so when they go and investigate, the man goes out the doors from the manager's office, which leads out onto the balcony and then jumps over the balcony. And there's a taxi driver, Casey Jones, who's out on the porch, who's just dropped off some folks at the hotel who also sees him jump over the balcony Bannister into the street and then run around the corner of the hotel.
All of these people, they can't give a good description of who this person is. It's dark, they say, but they think he's around five £980 fairly specific. And they all aren't positive that he's a white man, but are pretty sure that he's a white man. And going back to Pittman, if he had any inclination that there was a black man in the segregated hotel in 1936 inside a room at 01:00 A.m., I think that would have really occurred to him that that was strange very quickly. Right. And that does not come up. So the Sheriff's Department is really looking into white men that may have met Helen or seen Helen while she was visiting, spoken to Helen and they go down this road of there were these few unshaperoned hours when her uncle was off doing something that maybe she spoke to someone or met someone or she had a secret boyfriend that may have come down. So they're going on this kind of angle. And so they eventually get a statement from someone who's overheard this fairly well known violinist, the German violinist, his name is Mark Walner. They overheard him saying the night previously, I've got to get a lot of alcohol.
I've got a date with a girl at the Battery Park or something to that effect. And based on that, they go and they pick him up and they put him in jail. One thing that the police Department or the Sheriff's Department does is they hold people indefinitely without charges, which is a big point of contention among folks, at least in a lot of the newspaper reports, that they just arrest these people on suspicion but don't charge them with anything and just hold them indefinitely. And so that's the first arrest that they make. And, of course, that's very sensational because he's fairly well known. He's only been in Asheville for a while, but he's known as a ladies man. He's a very dapper dresser. I'm always sad that these pictures are in black and white because I know he's wearing just these crazy vibrant colors. And I think it would be really fun to see his outfit because it looks a lot more subdued in black and white from what they described in the newspapers. Yeah, they hold him for quite a while.
[00:49:03.170] - Ben
I mean, the whole time the police are just grasping at straws. Right. I mean, they're just trying to come up with anybody they possibly can. And there are no really good solid leads. It's all circumspect and kind of hearsay and so forth. But there is this one funny moment where Volnar is in custody and he manages to get a hold. Someone brings him his violin, and you write that for sort of half an hour one afternoon, he plays the most magnificent solo suite on violin to the entire jail. And no one bats an eye. I mean, no one is impressed. Here you have this exceptional music sort of flowing forth out of this instrument in this unlikely setting. And you would think that music has the power to soothe the Savage breast. And these hardened criminals that are in lockup might turn their heads. No, they don't care.
[00:50:06.110] - Anne
Well, it's interesting, too, because it's like Sheriff Brown is giving these reporters this kind of like, in my mind, unprecedented access to folks in the jail. Like, the fact that Vulner could get his violin into the jail is huge, is just insane. But then the reporters are watching us and listening, and I almost wonder, like, how does this filter through the time? Who are these people who are jailed? What are they jailed for? What is the end game of the reporters of making this story something that people want to read and hear about. And you always wonder, like, what actually was going on there? But, yeah, he's got his violin. He gives this whole concert and unimpressed, they say, whatever, I'd really like to get out of jail.
[00:51:03.290] - Ben
So there are two more persons of interest that emerge. Vulners eventually release. They can't stick them with anything. They've got nothing. And there are these two other persons of interest that emerge, one of whom is an employee at the hotel. Another employee at the hotel. There are many who come and go over the course of the investigation. Daniel Gaddy, who is the night watchman, he was especially kind of interesting because of his access to keys. Right. And to the patrols that he would make on a regular basis. And then we actually have Uncle Billy who becomes a person of interest. Briefly, what was the dynamic with these two suspects?
[00:51:59.030] - Anne
So with Daniel Gaddy, he's the resident. He's held the longest. He's just held because and the Sheriff ends up saying, I don't think that he did it, but I think he knows what's happened because they get this kind of break in the case. The way that the night watchman is kind of held accountable is that there's a watch clock in the beach hallway that he's supposed to punch every hour on hour on every floor. And for some reason, when they open that watch clock on Helen's Hall, the only time in the last week or so that has been recorded on the paper disc that's in the watch clock that he has not punched, the only time he has not punched is 01:00 A.m. On the night of the murder. And they're just like, oh, my gosh, what happened here? And so Gaddy has a ton of excuses. My wife was sick. I'm late on a car payment. My mind must have been somewhere else. And that's why I didn't punch. I must have just forgotten. And the Sheriff's Department is not accepting that. So they just told him they eventually find his master key on his key ring, but it's broken.
And he said, well, I was thinking about renting this house, and I thought maybe this key would open it up. And so he breaks the key in the lock, and then they go to that house and find the other half of his key and that it had been there for a while. So they're like, well, there's just all these very strange things. And he was also the one that had gone up after the phone call, came down about the disturbance that night and gone and checked on all the doors and not heard anything. And so there's just some strangest there that is concerning to law enforcement officers. And he ends up hanging out in jail for quite a long time. People are very suspicious of William Clevenger. It goes back to this whole he's a 50 year old Bachelor who's escorting his young niece around unchaperoned by anyone else. They go and interview his colleagues at NC State, who all say he kind of keeps himself. Some describe him as eccentric and some just describe him as an old Bachelor. I suspect that if he was living in the 21st century, he may have been a homosexual male, but in 1936, he was a Bachelor, sure.
But they're all very skeptical of him traveling around with his nieces. And that comes up over and over again. It's also the only person that she knows in Asheville, really. And so typically in murders, the people closest to you are the biggest suspects.
[00:55:14.280] - Anne
And people just get in an uproar when he leaves Asheville to go up Helen's funeral, she's actually being buried in Ohio, where her father's family is from. And he says, well, I'm just going to go up to the funeral. And he promises a Sheriff he's going to come right back. And then the Sheriff does this crazy thing where he says, in 48 hours, I'm going to make an arrest. I'm going to make the arrest. And so everybody is kind of on pins needles waiting for this arrest. And they also know that in 48 hours, Helen's funeral will be over and Uncle Billy is supposed to be in back in Asheville. So the rumor Mills just starts going everyone assumes this is who they're going to arrest. It's going to be Uncle Billy. We already suspect him. And he's arriving back in town right at the time. The Sheriff says he's going to make an arrest. Well, William leaves the funeral and starts heading back to Staten Island with his brother. And the Sheriff ends up having to track him down and make him come back. So he turns around, he comes back, he goes in for questioning with the Sheriff's office the 48 hours comes and goes, and the Sheriff finally comes out with an update and says, I'm sorry I've not made an arrest, but William is going to just stay here voluntarily in jail to help us out with some points of the case.
So he's in jail voluntarily for a little while, a few days, and then he decides he's had enough of jail and walks out of his own, which was news to the Sheriff. And he was very unhappy with that. But William did stay in Asheville for a little while longer. He's not in the jail.
[00:56:56.800] - Ben
I do recall a scene in which you describe Sheriff Brown breaking down one of his own doors in anger and frustration at the fact that he had not been kept in the loop as to what was going on.
[00:57:13.810] - Anne
Yeah, I think he was embarrassed because a reporter came to his door in Black Mountain where he lived and said, do you know where William Clevenger is? And he said, yeah, he's in the jail. He said, Are you sure? And the Sheriff at that point jumped in his car and according to reporters, drove it right straight up to the Sheriff's office so quickly, he ended up ramming right into the door and busting it into slinners, I think is what they say. How accurate that really is, I don't know. But he's not happy.
[00:57:47.760] - Ben
When you drive the Batmobile, anything can happen, really. There are one or two other sort of minor suspects to other bellhops that are also brought in, but they both have pretty good alibis. And really at this point and their alibis check out for the night of the murder. But really, at this point in the case, there is not a lot to go on, is there, Sheriff Brown, he's having a hard time.
[00:58:19.750] - Anne
Yeah. The fact that he hasn't been able to make an arrest is big, and he knows that he's up for reelection. The public is just kind of merciless. Reporters have flown in from all over the country. It's making international news, and he is getting a really bad rap. A lot of them are reporting on this, saying this Podunk Sheriff's Department in Western North Carolina can't solve the case. He's really feeling it, and he is not happy about it. He's really feeling the pressure. And so he's still grasping at Charles. But he starts really writing letters to investigate different folks. And he writes a letter to the chief of police in New York asking them to see if they can go up to Helen's parents house and see if she owned a gun, asked about her character, things like that. And the chief of police in New York writes back and says, yeah, we'll do that and we'll do one better. Basically, we'll send some New York detectives down as well. And so pretty soon after he writes that letter, it's the end of July. At that point, these two New York detectives show up in Asheville to aid in the investigation
[00:59:47.560] - Ben
But little do they know that they're actually about to have a break in the case.
[00:59:55.070] - Anne
Yeah, a big break in the case, if you can call it that.
[00:59:59.450] - Ben
Well, we will pick this up next week and thank you so much for joining us and sharing the first half of the stores of Helen Clevenger and her Batmobile driving justice seeker with us.