The Mysterious Disappearance of Vern Heimach
My name is Mal Cutter. For several years I was Weeder's Clump's only barber, and I have lived in our town all of my life, except for the two years I served in the Army. Over the years I have told my customers many interesting stories about local events, and I enjoy telling them when I am cutting hair. It helps to pass the time. There is one story that is my favorite because it is a complicated mystery that has never lost its fascination. Actually, I was involved in the beginning of the story, but I didn’t know it at the time. The truth was disclosed some 45 years later when the mystery was solved. But I need to begin at the beginning.
It was the middle of October in 1958, Homecoming weekend at Weeders Clump High School, and I was a senior. I was with a few friends in the school gymnasium, watching the dancers and wishing I had a girl to bring to the big dance. We were the typical high school no-date-nerds, and we were seated on the bleachers telling jokes and clowning around, when Vern Heimach's big brother Lester came rushing up to Vern and said, “Dixie's pregnant.”
Vern leaped to his feet and said, “I have to find Dixie.” Then he ran out of the gym and no one ever saw him again. We all thought he ran away to escape a shotgun wedding. At least that was the general consensus of those who knew him. We thought we would eventually learn of his whereabouts, but we never did. It was like Vern had vanished from the face of the earth.
Then near the end of October, Dixie O'Grady went away to live with her ailing aunt. The elderly woman was diagnosed with terminal cancer and had no one to care for her. Some of us wondered if the main reason for Dixie's leaving was something other than to play Florence Nightingale, and the gossip spread throughout the community. But Liam O'Grady, Dixie's father, walked among us with his head held high, and his son Buster knocked many a guy's block off if they made any remarks about Dixie's being a dandy housekeeper. After a time, things cooled off and Dixie was no longer the main subject of the talk in beauty parlors, the town library, the post office, and the IGA. Instead, people were worried that Russia was going to bomb us.
At the end of a year, Dixie returned to live among us again. Either the aunt had recovered or died. Apparently, she didn't need Dixie's loving care any longer. Dixie enrolled in the big state university to study to be a teacher. There was still no word about Vern. Maybe he joined the Army or the circus. When he was a kid, he was always threatening to run away and join the circus. Dixie graduated with honors and married a wealthy banker from Rushville, causing Boone Fowler to proclaim that the aristocracy in America live in Rushville.
Time marches on in its inexorable, relentless pace, and it was October 2004. I was trimming the hair on the ears of Bear Bombast, Heliotrope University's legendary football coach, when Homer Bigfield came in and, despite being out of breath, managed to ask me if I had heard the news. I finally got Homer calmed down so he wouldn't have a heart attack; then I asked him to fill me in what was so exciting.
Homer said that a deer hunter had discovered human remains in a shallow grave on the north forty of Buster O'Grady's farm. The hunter, a man named Hancock Chase, a wealthy businessman from Upperville, had been hunting on my Uncle Bub's farm, and he had shot and wounded a large buck. The buck had managed to run to the corner of Buster's O'Grady's farm, where it collapsed in a wooded thicket and died. In tracking the buck, Chase tripped and fell on his face and was amazed at something white sticking up out of the ground about three inches from his eyes. Upon further inquiry, Chase realized that it was what looked like a human bone. He scratched around a bit and unearthed a skull that was definitely human.
Hancock Chase forgot about the deer and used his cellphone to call the county sheriff Hamlet Steele, who responded immediately with siren screaming even though one could scarcely regard the discovery as an emergency. The bones of whoever it was had been there a long time. Forensic science would have to discover just how long.
The location of the grave explained why it had not been discovered until Hancock Chase had literally stumbled and fallen upon it. The body had been buried in a patch of woods on rough terrain that was useless for farming purposes. It was an area of land that wasn’t worth anything to anybody, a. place where cattle or people would not go for any reason; not even Boone Fowler would hunt for morel mushrooms there. The wounded deer had gone there out of necessity, only to lead the hunter to another death. If Hancock Chase had not tripped and fallen on his face, the skeleton might not have been discovered.
Now Sheriff Steele had a huge problem: Who did those bones belong to? No DNA was available so Hamlet Steele knew that the task to identify the victim would not be easy, and so he and his deputy Bumpus Badger searched the ground carefully, using a Mintner-Giggins metal detector. They found two important items of evidence which enabled them to identify the remains and focus on a suspect. The first item was a Minneapolis-Moline bronze belt buckle, which Vern Heimach always wore. His family was well known for their loyalty to M & M.
It was no wonder that Vern’s whereabouts were unknown. Ever since that night in 1958, he had been lying in a shallow grave on Buster O’Grady’s north forty, and he could not have committed suicide because no weapon was found. Thus, Vern had to have been killed elsewhere because no one would willingly have come to this place, not even to commit suicide.
The other item located by the metal detector was a Weeder’s Clump High School class ring for 1958, and the name inscribed on the ring was Danny O’Grady, known by the nickname Buster. In checking the records, Steele found that Buster, although two years older than his sister Dixie, had failed two grades in school, thus graduating in the same class with her.
Danny “Buster” O’Grady had inherited the farm from his father Liam, who died in 1972. Over the years Buster had developed the reputation of being a bad hat. He was notorious for posting no trespassing signs and having people arrested who failed to obey them. It was widely known that he would shoot stray dogs and cats that wandered onto his territory. He had actually shot at Chub Baltho’s bull, but fortunately he had been too far away to injure the bull. The pattern of violence in Buster’s behavior was well known. Possum Gwathmy said that Buster was as mean as nine miles of bad road.
Here is the scenario that Hamlet Steele and Bumpus Badger developed. Buster became enraged at Vern for taking advantage of Dixie because he knew that Vern was not the marrying kind. Thus, Buster lured Vern to the O’Grady farm where he either shot him, stabbed him, or beat him to death. Buster then hid Vern’s body until the next night when Liam and his wife Wanda went to Beardstown to check about a hay bailer. While they were gone, Buster transported Vern’s body to the one place on the farm where no one would ever find it.
In the process of digging the grave, Buster developed a blister on his ring finger and removed the ring, thinking he had put it in his pocket. Instead it fell into some leaves. The ground was so hard that Buster could dig a grave only three feet deep.
When Buster had returned from his evil enterprise, he discovered that his ring was missing, but he didn’t return to search around the grave for it because he was confident it would be lost among the brush and leaves.
Sheriff Hamlet Steele paid a visit to Buster O’Grady, and he had a plan to see if he could trick Buster. First, he asked Buster if he had any idea of the identity of the human remains that were found on his property.
Buster was not without imagination, and he replied, “They are probably the remains of an Indian. Lots of Native American artifacts have been found in that area.”
Then Steel replied, “Why, yes, they have. Can you identify this artifact?” and he held the WCHS class ring up for Buster to see.
The significance of Steel’s question had not dawned on Buster, and he said, “It’s our high school class ring.”
“Yes, it is, but would you look carefully and see whose name is inscribed on the ring?” Steele said.
“No, on second thought I would rather you didn’t handle the ring, so I will tell you. The name on the ring is Danny O’Grady—your name.”
“Where did you find it? I lost it shortly after I bought it, and I searched everywhere for it. I think someone stole it,” Buster said.
“You know where I found it, and I am arresting you for the murder of Vern Heimach. The jig’s up. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you.”
“You can’t prove I killed Vern. You’re going to end up with egg on your face. You’ll find yourself up the creek without a paddle, you pathetic Deputy Dog,” Buster snarled.
The case against Buster O’Grady was prosecuted by a young district attorney named Laverne Clugston, who had come to Weeder’s Clump from Quincy. He was brilliant, and he had to be because Buster hired the famous defense trial lawyer Clarence Darrow Webster, who began by using every logical fallacy in the book and then some he invented on the spot. But Laverne Clugston argued the case with a passion, identifying and refuting every logical fallacy to the jury.
It looked as if Clarence Darrow Webster had met his match, but then he made a brilliant move; he changed his strategy. He called three witnesses for the defense to prove that Buster had lost his class ring long before Vern Heimach disappeared. He called Dixie and her brother Ignatius, who testified that Buster had lost his ring almost immediately after he had bought it. They said that Buster couldn’t stop talking about his ring and wondering how he could have lost it.
Next, he called Vern Heimach’s brother Lester, who testified that Vern had not bought a class ring because their father had ordered them not to spend their money on such frivolous and useless things. Lester said that Vern always felt bad that he didn’t have a class ring to give to Dixie to wear because in those days a guy always gave his class ring to his steady Main Squeeze to wear, even though it was several sizes too big for her finger. It was a macho status symbol to have your girl walking around wearing your class ring.
Finally, Clarence Darrow Webster offered this scenario. Vern Heimach stole Buster O’Grady’s class ring, but he couldn’t wear it or give it to Dixie to wear because she would discover its rightful owner, so Vern kept the ring and carried it in his pocket as a good luck charm. When Dixie informed her parents she was pregnant, Liam became furious when Vern told him he wasn’t going to marry her.
Liam killed him in a fit of rage and buried his body in the lonely grave, not knowing Buster’s class ring was in Vern’s pocket. Thus, Vern was killed not by Buster O’Grady but rather by Buster’s father Liam.
Well, the jury had two scenarios to consider, and the silver-tongued Clarence Darrow Webster hit the key issue and hit it hard: reasonable doubt. He insisted that the jury could not convict Buster O’Grady because there was reasonable doubt, and thus they should find him not guilty.
After the jury found Buster not guilty, and he was returned to the bosom of his family, the people of Weeder’s Clump were treated to a delicious irony. It seems when Dixie O’Grady was away for a year she had a baby boy whose eyes were as blue as Henry Fonda’s in Welcome to Hard Times. Dixie gave the baby up for adoption but named him Laverne after his father. When the rules governing adoption were relaxed and adopted children could locate their birth parents, Laverne discovered that his mother was living in Rushville. On the birth certificate she had listed Vern Heimach as the father, and Laverne had decided to live in Weeder’s Clump to find out about his father’s people, not realizing that one day he would be called upon to prosecute the man accused of murdering his father.
When it dawned on Buster that Laverne Clugston was his nephew, the mean-spirited farmer underwent the most remarkable transformation ever seen in our community. He removed every no trespassing sign on his property, he began to donate generously to several charities, he stopped carrying a razor-sharp Swiss Army Knife, and he would actually feed stray cats and dogs instead of shooting them. On calm summer evenings he could be heard singing the old hymns such as “Love Lifted Me,” “Be Thou My Vision,” “Blessed Assurance,” and “Farther Along.” Buster became so friendly and convivial that he was chosen “Man of the Year” by the Illinois Bean Growers Association at their annual convention in the Windy City.
The happy moral of this tale can be expressed cogently: Sometimes you can teach the old maestro a new tune, but it isn’t easy.