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 now, 58 years later, the pain still lingers. Correspondent Harold Dow reports on this 48 Hours Mystery.

"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 this 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 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 5 or 6 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?"

By Fall 2003, Herb had far more questions than answers. So he turned to the town of Gainesville for help. He decided to take out an ad in the paper and offer a $10,000 reward for anybody who had information concerning Buddy's death.

A lifelong entrepreneur, Herb owns True.com, a successful online dating service. That success has afforded him a team of his own investigators and a $10,000 reward that may have lead to their best lead yet. But he says he would trade his own financial success in a minute to know his father.

"We received a three-page single-space letter from a woman who identified herself as M. Smith," says Herb. "It's an extraordinary letter."

The letter they received in October 2003 reads like an eyewitness account to murder.

"M. Smith is a woman who, in my opinion, is trying to clear her conscience, who was involved in Buddy's death," says Williams, who has had the difficult job of finding Smith. "She states that she loved to drink, dance and party. So she decided she wanted to have an affair with Buddy."

M. Smith said she knew Buddy was married, but didn't care: "I enjoyed flirting with him."

Apparently, Buddy wasn't the only person she was interested in, says Williams. Smith was also dating a police officer, and she knew he was married with children.

That married police officer, whom Smith refers to (these are not real names) as "Jim," and his two friends, "Tom" and "Charlie," followed her to the cabinet shop that night.

"I had been in the cabinet shop talking to Buddy for about 20 minutes when Jim, Tom, and Charlie entered," wrote Smith. "Jim went berserk. He pulled a gun and said he was going to kill both of us. I knew he was jealous, but I had never seen him that crazy."

"Buddy's trying to explain he's never been out with her," said Williams. "Jim decides that they're having an affair. He said, 'I know you have been. We're gonna watch y'all have sex.'"

At this point, Smith said, Jim and his friends made her strip naked and then proceeded to put her underwear on Buddy: "He asked Buddy how it felt to finally get into my panties."

According to Smith, the humiliation did not end there. Jim sexually assaulted her as Tom and Charlie set upon Buddy. "I could hear hammering in the restroom, and I saw Charlie remove a rubber belt from a saw," she said. "I did not see what they did to Buddy."

Her description of the scene matches exactly how Buddy's 13-year-old apprentice, Reece Lance, remembers it, too. He showed up for work the next day to learn his boss had committed suicide.

"Being that young and visiting the scene where someone had died really stuck in my mind," said Lance, about Buddy's suicide. "Why would you go to that much trouble [if you're going to commit suicide?]"

That's the same question that Judge Dorothy Lewis has. She thinks it's a cover up. Lewis is justice of the peace for Cook County, and also serves as the coroner and determines the cause of death.

She said that Buddy's death inquest looks like it had been tampered with: "The signature line is torn off. There should be a long page and it's ripped out. It wasn't even the right name. They've got 'Richard.'"

Lewis thinks this is all part of what could be a police cover-up. "If you do inquests, you read that, you know that something's not right here."

She's also troubled by some of the language used: "There are some details in there like the tightly fitting door. Nobody puts that in an inquest report. That's not the way you write them."

While the door was locked from the inside, at least two witnesses from 1946 disagree that it fit tightly. Lance recalled that "when we were in the toilet, we could see through the cracks."

Ruth also remembers the door being loose the night she and the man discovered Buddy. "He got that corner up there, tore it back and just looked in," she said.

The crack, Ruth said, was wide enough for the man to see Buddy hanging, which led investigators to believe that the opening was also wide enough for the perpetrators standing outside the door to fit their hands through the crack to latch the door.

Lewis' conclusion? "The policeman lied. It's obvious that he lied. He covered up," said Lewis. "He got other people to cover up for him, and there's someone out there who knows that."

For the authorities in Gainesville, however, foul play is looking more and more likely. "Based on what I know right now ... someone has gotten away with murder," said Lewis, who along with the Cook County prosecutor's office, has given their permission to exhume Buddy Vest's body.

Now, 58 years after the loss of his father, Herb hopes the facts surrounding Buddy's death will be uncovered with the exhumation of his body.

As it stands right now, all Herb really has to go on is an anonymous letter sent by Smith describing a horrific murder: "Buddy was gagged and could not say anything. He beat Buddy across the buttocks a few times with the hose and asked him how he liked that. He then beat me with the hose. I thought he was going to kill me."

What started out as an attempt by Smith to make her boyfriend jealous had backfired, when he and two friends beat her and Buddy.

"I feel sorry for her that she got in that position," said Herb. "I do, however, believe that she would feel a great deal better if she came forward and talked to us. She owes that to us."

According to Smith, at least one of the three perpetrators is still alive: "If I told you when, or what he did, you'd be able to identify him, and I cannot do that. I am not trying to protect him, but there are innocent people who have no idea of what actually happened."

But just what happened that night might be revealed in the autopsy. Forensic pathologist Dr. Joseph Guileyardo, part of the autopsy team, says the body was found in an advanced state of decomposition: "The remains were primarily skeletal remains or just bones."

But those bones could still tell a story. "One abnormality was a fracture – with a defect in the nasal bone. This is a blunt -mpact type of injury," said Guileyardo, who said that Buddy's nose had been broken, and he had a broken tooth.

Guileyardo's verdict: "I would not certify this death as a suicide. I think there's really nothing to support suicide at all. Homicide is the most likely manner of death here."

Because there is no statute of limitations on murder, Cook County prosecutor Janelle Haverkamp opened an investigation. "Murder is murder," said Haverkamp. "No one should ever be able to get away with murder, no matter how difficult the investigation is or no matter much time it takes."

Smith, however, said in her letter: "Please do not try to identify me. This occurred many years ago, and I will not cause embarrassment to any of the families involved."

"Buddy Vest was just an innocent bystander at the hands of her boyfriend's rage," said psychiatrist Lisa Clayton, who is part of Herb's investigative team. "She essentially created this death and this tragedy because of her own immature poor judgment that she had at the time."

It was Clayton's job to analyze the letter. "I imagine what she did over the years was just try to bury it, and almost act like it really didn't happen and put that in the back of her mind," said Clayton.

Now, she believes Smith is trying to atone for her sins and that Smith thinks writing the letter may be enough: "I've done my part. I'm atoned. I'm forgiven. He knows the truth. Let it be. If he wants to send money, good. If he doesn't, at least he knows."

With the help of Judge Lewis, and a newly opened murder investigation, the hunt was on for Buddy's killers.

"She has an obligation to come forward and tell us after all these years," said Herb of Smith's identity.

And although Smith has expressed interest in the newly increased $25,000 reward, she still has not surfaced: "I do not think that I deserve a reward, but I would accept it. ... I cannot identify myself. I have family and know the families of those who were responsible for his death."

Ever since the district attorney opened the murder investigation into Buddy's death, investigators working for Herb have received dozens of tips, combed old county records and checked out rumors of a police cover-up, all in an effort to find Smith.

48 Hours followed up on some of those leads. But Herb's investigators also believe Smith revealed another promising clue when she left instructions on how she'd like the $25,000 reward delivered: "You could put cash in an envelope addressed to general delivery, M. Smith, 73063 Gainesville, Texas."

Williams said he discovered something very suspicious about the 73063 zip code: "I went to the post office in Gainesville, and in the course of the conversation with the supervisor at the post office, when he saw that zip code, it's when he said, 'That letter's not coming to Gainesville. That letter's going to Mulhall, Okla.'"

Mulhall is a town 180 miles away, which means any reward money would have ended up being delivered to the post office in that small town of 239 people, and held until an M. Smith signed for it.

"The supervisor himself said, 'Don't be surprised if you have a postal employee or an ex-postal employee involved in this,'" said Williams, who found only two people working at the post office.

Did postmaster Marla Bennett know an M. Smith? Williams said when he interviewed her, she told him she once dated a Mark Smith. But she denied any knowledge of the Buddy Vest case.

So 48 Hours decided to pursue its own investigation in Mulhall, and find out who would sign for an overnight letter it sent to "M. Smith, c/o of the U.S. Post Office."

Bennett signed for the letter, and Dow approached her. "Did you open the letter that you just signed," he asked.

Bennett said she did: "I represent the U.S. Postal Office.

But according to the U.S. Postal Service, Bennett had no authority to open the letter.

When Dow asked Bennett if she knew a Mark Smith, or an M. Smith, she said no. But six denials, and a half hour later, Bennett changed her mind: "I do know a Mark Smith. Well, not personally ... He lives in Marshall. He's a welder. He's a young man. I think he was born and raised in Hennessey."

For not knowing someone personally, Bennett seemed to know quite a bit about Mark Smith. Could she somehow be involved in helping get the reward money to M. Smith?

"You can tell us nothing about the death of Harold Buddy Vest back in 1946," asked Dow.

"No," said Bennett.

Needless to say, Herb's investigators aren't done with the Mulhall Post Office yet. But now, there's a new lead - the name of one of the men who may have killed Buddy Vest.

Herb's search for his father's killers has always been about redemption, not retribution. And a condition of Herb's forgiveness is that the people involved reveal their identities.

"If Smith and the other perpetrators do not come forth, I will recommend to the D.A., 'Prosecute them to the full extent of the law,'" said Herb. "Any civil action that I can personally take against them, I will."

Herb's investigators are now focusing their investigation on identifying the three men who were said to be there the night of Buddy's murder. They believe at least one man is a cop -- Smith's married boyfriend who is referred to as Jim in her letter.

And there's the name of a Gainesville cop that has also been brought to the attention of all involved in the case: Jack Garrett.

"I would say he was one of the meanest men in Gainesville," says Dotty Troop, Garrett's sister-in-law.

And, according to newspaper accounts, and his own children, Garrett had actually been involved in two shootings, one while on the police force, and one as a civilian. Garrett killed the civilian but claimed self-defense and was exonerated.

"I know that Jack Garrett is the kind of man that would do that, and it wouldn't even bother him," said Troop. "He'd go home and sleep like a baby. He's cold."

Today, Herb's investigators are speculating that Garrett could be Smith's boyfriend, Jim. But they acknowledge some problems with Smith's timeline.

In fact, when Buddy died, Garrett wasn't a cop, but the Gainesville city attorney. Herb's investigators think Smith may have made subtle changes in her letter to protect the true identities of those involved.

Still, there is no proof that Garrett is involved, and one of his children has told 48 Hours that Garrett had nothing to do with Buddy's death.

The answer may have perished with Garrett, who died more than 30 years ago. But with a dozen police officers on the force in 1946, the search for suspects continues.

And still, there are more clues to be uncovered. Herb and his mother are having additional DNA testing performed on the envelope containing Smith's letter. The first tests found an unknown male's DNA on the flap.

Herb's mission is far from over, but it has brought him closer to his father, the man he never knew. "Before, I always talked about my father, but now he's dad to me," said Herb.

But now, Herb knows the truth: that his father was a victim.

"I feel like he'd be proud of his little boy that went on and got to the bottom of it, albeit 60 years later," said Herb.