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The Mysterious Phantom Letters of Circleville

There is little that is more frightening than being watched by someone, some stranger, being stalked by them without ever knowing who they are or what they want. The feeling of helplessness can spread like a virus until it becomes all consuming. While in most cases this sort of activity is focused on one individual and the culprit caught, this is not always the case. In a small, rural town in the U.S. state of Ohio, a phantom threat used a series of inexplicable unmarked letters dripping with menace, vitriol, and a surprising amount of secret information to reach out and conjure up terror, panic, and at least one unexplainable death. It would be a case that would see a possibly innocent man imprisoned, a possble murder, a whole town gripped in fear as they were watched from afar, and a mystery that has never been solved.

Circleville, Ohio, in the United States, is a quaint, small town of around 14,000 located around 25 miles from Columbus along the Scioto River. It is a sleepy rural town that under normal circumstances doesn’t generate much news or excitement, and one might even drive right by it without giving it much thought. However, in 1976 the town was held in the grip of panic and terror as a mysterious, sinister series of letters began to find their way to residents from some unknown phantom sender. Written in nondescript block-style letters, without any return address or signature, and carrying secret, intimate information about the recipients’ lives and often threats of violence, these letters were often laced with profanity and hatred, generously peppered with vulgarity and sexual imagery, and no one had any idea of who they came from or why.

Circleville, Ohio

Circleville, Ohio

Although for the most part these mysterious letters seemed to be empty threats meant to scare or perhaps elicit an opportunity for blackmail more than anything else, this would not always be the case. One of the the first of these threatening letters was received by a mild-mannered school bus driver named Mary Gillispie, who was a rather typical working lady who under normal circumstances just sort of blended into the crowd and wouldn’t be normally thought of as an enemy to be lashed out against. The letter, which was postmarked from Columbus, explained that the sender knew that she was having an affair with the superintendent of schools and warned her to stop. More chillingly, the mysterious writer of the letter claimed to know where she lived, that she had children, and also claimed that he or she had been steadily watching Mary and her house. The sender also told her in no uncertain terms that the letter was not a prank and that she should take it seriously. Besides the postmark, there was no information as to who the sender could be. There was no signature, no return address, nothing. It was essentially untraceable.

The understandably shaken woman began receiving a string of similar venomous letters, which she filed away and kept to herself as she kept a paranoid eye on her surroundings and wondered if any stranger who passed her on the street was the phantom sender. In each case, the letters were written in a nondescript, plain block-letter style, had no return address or signature, and were all postmarked from Columbus, Ohio. It might have remained a weird secret if the sender did not then send a letter to Mary’s husband, Ron Gillispie. This letter was similarly postmarked from Columbus and also had no return address or signature, and it ominously commanded him to put an end to his wife’s affair or his life would be in imminent danger. For her part, Mary adamantly denied that any such affair was going on and that she had no idea what the letters were talking about. This did not stop gossip from spreading around about the alleged affair, tarnishing Mary’s reputation and standing in the small rural town.

Yet, while many people were receiving them, and these letters were certainly creepy and not a little scary, none of the many threats within them ever seemed to come to pass. It seemed as if the mysterious sender was merely trying to scare them and spread gossip. For their part, the Gillespies merely did their best to put the letters under wraps and try to ignore them, but one particularly frightening and malevolent letter would really catch their attention. It read:

Gillispie, you have had 2 weeks and done nothing. Admit the truth and inform the school board. If not, I will broadcast it on CBS, posters, signs, and billboards, until the truth comes out.

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The Gillispies began to suspect that the sender was perhaps someone from within their own family, and they decided that it was likely a man named Paul Freshour, who was the husband of Ron’s sister. They tested out this theory by sending Freshour a few anonymous letters of their own that simply explained that they knew who he was and that he should stop, without any threat of violence. Interestingly, the strange, menacing letters stopped shortly after and it seemed that the whole mystery might have been solved, or at least over.

Just as the Gillespies were starting to think that the whole incident had passed, Ron received a mysterious phone call on August 19, 1977. It is unknown just who placed the call or what the two talked about, but what is known is that it was likely the letter writer, and that whatever he had said sent Ron Gillespie into a rage. He grabbed his gun, told his kids he was leaving, and stormed out the door to drive off in the family’s pickup truck. Not long after, the truck would crash into a tree at a nearby intersection, killing Ron in the process. Strangely, authorities found that his weapon had been fired a single time at some point after he had left the house, although it could not be ascertained just who he could have possibly fired at as he was driving the short distance from his house to the intersection, or how it could have possibly gone off accidentally. The police had no explanation for it.

The authorities quickly ruled out the possibility of foul play and deemed the crash an accident, but this was looked upon suspiciously by the Gillespies and many of the the people who knew them. For one, it was claimed that the sheriff had originally said that there had been foul play involved, before suddenly changing his stance and declaring it to be an accident and that the sole murder suspect that had been apprehended had been ruled out, all with little explanation. There was also the fact that Ron’s blood alcohol level at the time was supposedly found to be one and a half times the legal limit, yet his closest family and friends claimed that he hardly ever drank at all. Strangely, several residents also began to receive phantom letters from an anonymous sender who did not seem to want the mysterious death to be written off as an accident, which claimed that the authorities were orchestrating a cover-up, and also suggesting that the mystery letter writer had reemerged.

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In the meantime, the shadowy letter writer once again began to send threatening, vindictive letters peppered with vulgar profanity to the Gillepsies and other residents as well. Even city officials were targeted, yet the letters showed a particular vehemence and hostility towards Mary Gillespie, continuing to threaten her over the torrid affair until she broke down and admitted that she was indeed having the affair, but oddly claiming that it had started after the first letter had arrived. Even then, the letters continued to taunt the family, aimed at not only Mary, but her husband and sister as well, and there was no way to prove if they were coming from Paul Freshour, who denied having anything to do with it when confronted.

This continued all the way up to 1983, when the mysterious sender graduated from malicious letters to a new form of harassment. Mary, who had kept her job as a bus driver even in the aftermath of her shameful secret being made public, one day noticed that someone had put up a sign along her bus route that threatened her daughter. Horrified and enraged, Mary stopped the bus and tore it down from its post, after which she noticed a box with a string protruding from it behind the sign, which was attached to yet another post. When Mary got to the bus and opened the box, she found that it contained a pistol, and that the whole contraption was a primitive, jury-rigged booby trap of some kind that had been intended to shoot her but had failed to go off.

The authorities were contacted, and an inspection of the pistol showed that someone had attempted to file off the weapon’s serial number, but it was a sloppy, unprofessional job and there was enough left for a positive identification of the owner. Eerily, that owner turned out to be the very man Mary had suspected of being the phantom letter writer all along; her brother-in-law Paul Freshour. When he was confronted, Freshour, who had since divorced Ron Gillespie’s sister, claimed that the gun had gone missing a long time ago and that he didn’t know what had happened to it, denying any involvement in the booby trap.

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Despite this denial, Paul Freshour was subjected to a handwriting test, which involved Freshour being told to copy what was written on the mysterious envelopes and in the letters. Besides the fact that this has been criticized as being an improper way to perform a handwriting test, as well as the fact that experts could not determine if Freshour had actually written the letters or not, the sheriff nevertheless deemed the handwriting to be his. This, plus the pistol registered to him, was enough to get Freshour arrested and accused of attempted murder.

The letters and pistol were the only real evidence any one had against Freshour when he went to trial on October 24, 1983, and he apparently had an alibi for the day when the booby trap was found, yet he was eventually convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 7 to 25 years in prison. By the end of the controversial trial, despite largely circumstantial evidence, almost everyone in Circleville was convinced that he had been behind the mysterious letters, that he had attempted to kill Mary Gillespie, and that he very well might have had a hand in the death of Ron Gillespie. For his part, Freshour stood by his innocence to the end, but the public was already convinced, and it was taken as a matter of course that the threatening letters would stop with his incarceration. The thing is, they didn’t.

The letters continued unabated, increasing in intensity even, reaching hundreds of people all over the region. Yet even then authorities were so convinced that Freshour was still behind it that they placed him in solitary confinement to make him stop. Even then the letters continued over a large swath of area, taunting and terrorizing people from all walks of life, and all of them were postmarked from Columbus just as they always had always been, which was odd considering Freshour was not in prison in Columbus. In the face of the deluge of continuing letters, the postmarks, and a full investigation and observation of Freshour, the prison warden came to the conclusion that he could not have possibly been responsible for the unsettling letters.

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Due to the persistent letters, it seemed more and more plausible that perhaps an innocent man had been put away in prison. However, even then many authorities bizarrely clung to the idea that Freshour was somehow responsible, to the point that his parole hearing was denied because of it, despite his being un upstanding model prisoner. In the wake of this rejection, Paul Freshour himself would get a menacing, taunting letter from the phantom sender, in which a section cryptically states:

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?

It was not until May of 1994 that Paul Freshour would finally be released on parole after languishing for 10 years in prison. To this day he adamantly insists that he is innocent and that the real criminal is still out there running free. There has been some evidence dug up by independent researchers that seem to suggest that he just might be right. Journalist Martin Yant, who has spent years looking into the case of the Circleville letters, claims to have found new evidence in the sheriff’s files that had not been put forward in court for some reason. Yant said:

Mary Gillispie told the sheriff one of the other bus drivers told her that she had been driving that same road about 20 minutes before Mary Gillispie found that booby trap at exactly that site. And when she went by that very same intersection, there was a yellow El Camino parked there. A large man with sandy hair was standing there. When he saw her come, he turned around and acted like he was going to the bathroom or something, but seemed also to be avoiding any kind of identification. The description of the individual does not fit Paul Freshour at all, and Paul had a very solid alibi for this time. There was no attempt at all to follow up on that lead. And if they had, as I say, they would have found that another possible suspect in this case had a brother who had a yellow El Camino.

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Not long after Freshour’s release from prison the mystery letters slowly petered out until they were gone, and indeed they had experienced a lull even in the days leading up to his release. Strangely, although the letters stopped, there was an odd message sent to the TV show Unsolved Mysteries, which aired an episode covering the phenomenon on November 11, 1994. The letter was received at the offices and simply read: “Forget Circleville, Ohio … if you come to Ohio, you el sickos will pay.” The letter was signed “The Circleville Writer.” It is still unknown just who was behind the rash of bizarre letters or what they wanted, and Paul Freshour passed away in 2012, with his seemingly unjust incarceration never finding an answer.

If it was not Paul Freshour, then who was behind this mysterious assault of phantom letters that left so many across a large area in such a state of fear? Was Ron Gillispie’s death just an accident or something more ominous, and if it was a murder who was behind it? Why or how was his gun fired only a single time and does that pertain to the case? Who rigged that booby trap for Mary Gillispie and why did they want to kill her? Indeed, why did they so vehemently focus on her to begin with? Was there someone trying to frame Freshour for the whole sadistic affair and why didn’t they ever come forth with their true intentions or demands? Will the phantom letter writer ever strike again? It is hard to come to an answer to any of these questions. The true culprit behind the bizarre and frightening Circleville letters has never been found and it seems they never will. It remains just one more weird case upon the landscape of unexplained strangeness floating about out there, and the Circleville letters remain a little-known yet fascinating unsolved cold case.