Postmarked For Murder

<b>48 Hours Mystery</b>: A Son Learns His Dad's 'Suicide' Was Murder

Herb Vest was not quite 2 years old when he lost his father. And, 58 years later, the pain still lingered. Correspondent Harold Dow reports on this 48 Hours Mystery that was originally broadcast Feb. 12, 2005.
"Suicide is a very selfish thing. And it leaves survivors, I believe, with a certain amount of guilt. It's unreasoned guilt, but it leaves the survivors with that feeling," says Herb.

"There's nothing worse than to believe that your father was a coward and would voluntarily leave his wife and baby."

"Why didn't we know something was wrong with him? Why didn't we catch it? Why didn't we see something?" says Ruth Vest, who was just 23 when she became a widow. "I had had a really easy life, you know, a fortunate life. And I didn't know those things happened to people."

The suicide of Harold "Buddy" Vest took everyone by surprise. The 25-year-old had just returned from World War II. He and Ruth had just bought a new house, and he was starting his own cabinet shop in the small town of Gainesville, Texas.

This should have been the best time of their lives. But on the night of June 27, 1946, Buddy told his wife that he would be working late. Around 2 a.m., Ruth started to get worried, and went to her neighbor, Lawanna Howard, to look for her husband at his cabinet shop.

The cabinet shop was empty and dark except for a light behind the locked bathroom door.

"You unlocked the door, and we went in, but we couldn't get in the bathroom," recalls Lawanna, who met with Ruth for the broadcast. It was the first time in 58 years that they had seen each other. "I was scared to death."

They went back outside and found a man to help pull the door open. "I don't remember if he said anything," says Ruth. "I knew that when he looked at me that he (Buddy) was dead."

On the other side of the bathroom door, Buddy was hanging from a thin leather belt. "I think my brain just completely shut down," says Ruth. "I couldn't accept it."

Ruth, in a state of shock, immediately took her son, Herb, and moved back to her parent's house in Henrietta, Texas, 65 miles away. Within 12 hours after finding her husband's body, she left Gainesville, never to return again.

But from that point on, Ruth said she was determined to keep this terrible secret from her son.

"We played this cover-up game with each other for another 40 years," said Herb. "And just a few years ago, about five or six years ago, Ruth told me that he committed suicide. And I told her that I already knew that."

Herb had actually discovered the truth about his father's suicide when he was 11, when he found some old family letters in the attic.

"And then that question that began that day would haunt me the rest of my life. Why would this man commit suicide?" asked Herb. "After all, this is my dad: somebody I never had the opportunity to play baseball with, somebody I never had an opportunity to pat me on the back and say 'You did a good job.' You always wonder what might have been."

Although he never really knew his dad, it's probably fair to say that Buddy would have been proud of his son. Today, Herb is a self-made millionaire, and married to his second wife, Kerensa.

"He's got to know the truth. He wants to be able to give that to his mother," said Kerensa. "He wants answers. That's a way for him to feel closer to his dad."

As the years went on, Herb would learn more bizarre details from other family members about that night in 1946, including the fact that Buddy was found in women's undergarments.

Convinced there was more to this story, Herb hired his own team of investigators in October 2003 to look into his father's death, starting with the official death inquest that described the police finding Buddy's hands and feet tied against the wall. This seemed suspicious for a suicide.

"It did not make sense. His feet were bound. But not only were they bound, they were tethered to the wall," said Herb. "His hands were bound. One of them had been freed, but the other remained bound when the body was found."

In addition, Herb's private investigator, Danny Williams, discovered just three weeks after Buddy's death that someone had checked into a local hospital under the name Harold Vest.

"This tells me the perpetrators took his billfold, watch and ring. And somebody used his identification and checked into the hospital in Wichita Falls," said Williams.

Herb's search for answers brought him back to Buddy's place of death, Gainesville, Texas, which had its own sordid past. Back in 1862, 44 people considered to be Yankee sympathizers were publicly hanged there.

"I wondered whether this could be an event in which my father was a Yankee from Chicago, married a southern girl, and was coming into their town, setting up a business in competition with other businesses there," said Herb. "And whether or not there could be some resentment there still?"