by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
The following is a supplementary component of a larger research project I am currently working on about The Child Molester (1964) and the Highway Safety Foundation. The majority of this article is a summary of the events surrounding a series of shots at the end of the film, and this reconstruction would not have been possible without the gracious assistance of Bret Wood and Boyd Addlesperger (the Sherman Room Librarian at the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library). Bret Wood’s documentary Hell’s Highway – The True Story of Highway Safety Films (2003) is essential viewing for anyone interested in ephemeral or industrial films, exploitation cinema or screen histories more generally. A trailer can be viewed here, and it is available to purchase through Amazon.
The Child Molester is in the public domain, and as such can be seen in its entirety online (please note that there is extremely graphic imagery in this film that may be disturbing and upsetting for some viewers): Click here to view film
A Brief Introduction
As their name suggests, the bulk of the Highway Safety Foundation films concerned road safety. Famous highway safety films such as Signal 30 (1959) and Wheels of Tragedy (1963) combine zeitgeist-drenched re-enactments of small town Americana with grizzly footage of actual car accidents and their mangled (often dead) victims. The juxtaposition of these pantomime-like re-enactments with often extreme, real-life gore is shocking, even to viewers today. While there is debate regarding the educational effectiveness of films such as these – did they really reduce car accidents, or were they simply an exploitation wolf in didactic sheep’s clothing– there is no escaping the powerful impact of the Highway Safety Foundation films. But as artist William E. Jones’ Mansfield 1962 (2006) and Tearoom (1962/2007) (the latter which screened in 2008 at the Whitney in New York) has shown, the Highway Safety Foundation’s non-driver education films offer a just as fascinating (and conceptually problematic) point of interest. Sifting through public domain footage online, Jones discovered a Highway Safety Foundation film from 1964 titled Camera Surveillance: ostensibly a training film showing the virtues of using hidden cameras for law enforcement professionals, it consisted of footage Mansfield police filmed through a two-way mirror with the assistance of the Highway Safety Foundation of anonymous homosexual encounters in a public bathroom in Mansfield’s Central Park in 1962. This footage led to the arrest of a large number of men (numbers vary from 38 to 69), and formed the basis of Jones’ Mansfield works which are remarkable historical documents that eloquently and powerfully capture a particular moment of the unfolding story of human sexuality. Jones’ work is visual poetry that captures the very real invasions of privacy and abuses of human dignity that result from bigotry and discrimination. But the events that lead to the filming of the material later used in Camera Surveillance and Jones’ work lie in another Highway Safety Foundation film, which is the topic of this post. Ex-Mansfield Chief of Police John R. Butler wrote in his book about 19-year-old Jerrel Ray Howell who was charged and imprisoned for the murder of Connie Burtoch and Jean Hurrell, aged 7 and 9. In his interview with police the night of the murders, Howell informed them about the activities taking place in Central Park leading to the filming of the now notorious ‘tearoom’ footage.
While much of this film plays out at as a simple educational film for school-aged children about the threat of the eponymous child “molester”, the shock of seeing those murdered corpses of two young girls in the final moments is arguably one of the most shocking and grotesque moments in any Highway Safety Foundation film. But who are these children? Although Jerrel Ray Howell, Jean Hurrell and Connie Burtoch’s names are not used in the movie, there is enough evidence that supports claims that this crime scene footage in The Child Molester is taken from their case. This evidence supports the opinion of Bret Wood (director of the excellent documentary Hell’s Highway: The True Story of the Highway Safety Foundation) that he voiced in our email correspondence that “it’s a safe assumption. The circumstances are identical”. William E. Jones also explicitly states that both The Child Molester and Camera Surveillance were “inspired by” and “based on the 1962 double-homicide”. Witnesses at the Hurrell-Burtoch scene recall the girls wearing “bathing suits or sun suits”, and in the film, the outfits the girls wear (‘Mary’ in a white top and ‘Jeannie’ in a pink sun suit) closely resemble the same outfits worn by the victims shown in crime scene footage in the film’s final moments.
The Burtoch-Hurrell Murders: Mansfield, Ohio, 1962
The Child Molester cannot be fully considered without a reconstruction of the events that surround its climactic real-life crime scene footage. It was the middle of summer in Mansfield, Ohio on Saturday June 23, 1962. It had rained that day, and 9-year-old Jean Marie Burtoch and her 7-year-old friend Connie Lynn Hurrell, perhaps enjoying the break in the weather, were playing outside. Jean was in the fourth grade and was active within the community—she attended Sunday School, was a Brownie Scout and was a member of the Mansfield Children’s Theatre. Connie was a little younger, and had just finished second grade and was ready to move into the third. Connie’s mother was out that night and had left her daughter with a babysitter. Jean lived with her grandparents, and her grandfather Carl recalled seeing Jean and Connie playing outside at approximately 4pm that afternoon: “It had rained, they put on their swimming suits and went out to play in the puddles. I gave Jeanie some change and they went to the refreshment stand for ice cream. The two girls were friends although Connie had only lived near us a couple of weeks”. Michael Bowie, who was 13 at the time, remembered seeing the two girls at North Lake Park that afternoon, playing near a creek close by. They were alone, he recalled, and he warned them against playing in deep water.
Glendon Mount was in his early 20’s and worked at the mini-golf course at the park. He remembered seeing Howell playing with the girls near the golf course that afternoon at approximately 4pm to 4.30pm. In The Best Suit in Town: A Great Generation of Cops (2001) ex-Mansfield Chief of Police John R. Butler includes a lengthy excerpt of Howell’s confession of the murder of the two girls. Howell claims he met the girls near the water while they were catching water lizards. He offered to take them to a better location, but they refused because of snakes. Howell insisted that there were no snakes in that area, but the girls refused to believe him, and insisting on showing him otherwise, they left with him. Once in a secluded area with the two girls, Howell stated, “he got his penis out and held it in his hand and both girls started to scream. He told them to shut up and they screamed even louder and began to cry. Then they began to run, the smaller one behind the older one. I gave the small one a shove and she fell onto the other one. They were both down, still hollering. I then chopped both girls across the neck with a judo chop and then put the feet to them’”.
The bodies were discovered by a group of boys walking across the bridge that ran across Touby’s Run. One of those boys, John Duzan, spoke at Howell’s trial: “At first we thought it was a joke somebody was playing, they looked like dolls. They were face down in the water. We went to a filling station and the man there called the police”. The call was made from a nearby gas station close to 8pm that evening. Officer Edwin Smith received a call that some children had drowned in the creek near West Fourth Street Bridge, and the police arrived soon after. At first, there was some confusion about the scenario presented before them: coroner Dr D.C. Lavender, Butler recalls, believed it was an accidental death until a police officer pointed out blood and that some fabric had been tied around one of the girls’ necks. But upon further investigation, Lavender reported, “both girls died as a result of violent blows to the head which produced skull fractures and brain injuries…there was no evidence of sexual attack”. He also reported, “a ‘T’ shirt worn by one of the girls had been wrapped and knotted about her neck and that there was some possibility of partial strangulation”. On this, he was right: during Howell’s trial in 1965, a pathologist confirmed that Jean Burtoch had been strangled to death, while Connie Hurrell had drowned.
Howell was hardly an elusive suspect, and he was taken into custody only five hours after the discovery of the children’s bodies. The police gained intelligence very quickly (probably from Glendon Mount) that the troubled 18-year-old had been seen nearby at the North Lake Park near the public toilets speaking to the two children. Howell was familiar to police: he had been cited twice previously for “sexual perversion” in 1957 and 1968, and had been out of institutionalized care for only four months prior to the murders of the two girls. Four days after the killings, Dr Robert A Hames, the Director of Mental Hygiene and Corrections for the state of Ohio, was reported in the Mansfield News-Journal stating that “Howell was released from the Juvenile Diagnostic Center in Columbus four months ago because examination failed to show he needed further psychiatric treatment”. Media coverage of this self-defined “lone wolf” often mentioned his weight and IQ: he was 200 pounds and six foot tall at the age of 16, which according to the current Body Mass Index would suggest he was overweight (but not obese). Howell was also very bright, with his IQ ranking of 127 suggesting he was a young man of superior intelligence. But Howell was also clearly troubled, and according to court records he talked regularly about suicide “because he felt people didn’t like him”.
Howell was arrested at the house where he lived with his mother and stepfather that night at 1.30am, and confessed to the murder of Hurrell and Bertoch at 2.30am the next morning. The news was the front-page headline in the Mansfield News-Journal, and Glendon Mount picked him out of a line-up behind a two-way mirror that same day. According to Captain Marion L. Hardesty, he and two other detectives offered to take Howell to the funeral home to view the bodies. While he had little response to seeing the corpses, Hardesty noted that “in the cruiser on the way back … he started to sing and whistle and did that all the way back to the station”. Howell pleaded an insanity defence, which rendered an appalled public effectively crippled in their outrage: they still demanded some kind of action, even though the culprit had been easily captured. Police Chief Clare W. Kyler announced the day after the murder that “he would strongly urge to the city administration that the city re-establish park police to prevent a recurrence of Saturday’s tragedy”. But this was deemed insufficient, and it was in this climate that Howell’s comment during his interrogation regarding the gay sex occurring in the Central Park’s public toilets led to the ‘tearoom’ busts and its notorious footage.
In February 1963, eight months after the murders, and long since the ‘tearoom’ busts, Howell was sent to the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane for 25 months. Over three years after the murders, Howell’s trial began in the Richland County Commons Pleas Court in Mansfield on November 5, 1965 when he was deemed fit to stand. Public interest in the case when the trial started was low, and the local newspaper reported, “the courtroom has not been full. The spectators are mostly Howell’s family, the families of the two slain girls, courthouse employees and sherriff’s deputies”. Howell appeared calm throughout the trial, although he was still being medicated for his epilepsy. A few days into the trial, however, and it began to look less like the open-and-shut case that locals may have assumed it to be. Interest grew as prosecutor and defence attorneys debated the legal and constitutional ramifications surrounding Howell’s arrest and the seizure of the clothes he wore during the crime. It was in this context that Howell’s sudden change to a guilty plea of murder on November 11 1965 came as a shock: “Howell’s guilty plea came with an almost numbing calmness and left spectators in the half-filled common pleas courtroom a little wilted and disbelieving”. This plea nullified Howell’s previous insanity defence, but by pleading to two counts of second-degree murder he avoided the possibility of being executed if the insanity plea was rejected. Howell’s was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment, and he died in prison at age 33.
After the trial’s sudden conclusion, the rhetoric about “sex deviants” that had so strongly marked the case at the time of the murders had vanished. Instead, the Richland County Prosecutor Rex Larson made it clear whom he considered responsible with no mention of the events surrounding the ‘tearoom’ busts: “I lay these two deaths, and this is for the record, at the doorstep of the juvenile authorities in the state of Ohio…He (Howell) was in custody of the state juvenile authorities and was released by them without their resolving his personality problem … The state not only made it possible, but probable that he would do these acts”. The vehemence with which Larson’s speech shifts the responsibility for the murders of Connie Hurrell and Jean Bertoch from “sex deviates” to a broader institutional failing on the part of the government is striking, and raises significant questions surrounding the effectiveness of the crusade against “sex deviates” in the ‘tearoom’ busts in 1962. It may seem obvious from a contemporary perspective that associations between homosexuality and child abuse are factually unsupportable. Says Dr Gregory Herek: “The empirical research does not show that gay or bisexual men are any more likely than heterosexual men to molest children. This is not to argue that homosexual and bisexual men never molest children. But there is no scientific basis for asserting that they are more likely than heterosexual men to do so. And, as explained above, many child molesters cannot be characterized as having an adult sexual orientation at all; they are fixated on children”. But regardless of how ideologically regressive and factually unfounded the linking of homosexuality to so-called child sexual assault and other forms of what once was called “sex deviancy” may be now considered, there is little doubt that there was some degree of sincerity on the part of many in the Mansfield Police department and those involved in the ‘tearoom’ busts to take concrete action to avoid similar future instances. Whether this was justified higher up to distract the public from the slipshod manner that Howell – an earlier offender – was allowed to slip through the cracks to commit such a heinous crime is open to debate.
Tragically, it perhaps goes without saying therefore that these kinds of crimes did not magically vanish after the ‘tearoom’ busts. Only three days after Howell entered his guilty plea in court, a case with noteworthy similarities occurred again in Mansfield. On Sunday November 14 1965, 22-year-old Lester Eubanks attempted to rape 14 year-old Mary Ellen Deener who was on her way to the local Laundromat. Like Howell, Eubanks had a history of criminal activity: he had assaulted a 12-year-old girl when he was 16, and had been released on bond for assault with intent to rape at the time of Deener’s death. She was shot in the right side of her chest, and then in the abdomen, but in a curious allusion to the Howell’s murder, Eubanks returned to the body after he had shot her and smashed Deener’s head in with a brick. It may only be coincidence and nothing more than a failed attempt to conceal her identity, but considering the Deener murder occurred during a period when local interest in the Howell case had been regenerated, there is enough evidence to at least raise some suspicions that Eubanks may have to some degree returned to attack Deener with a brick as some kind of subconscious (or even conscious) allusion to Howell. This is, of course, just speculation, and shall no doubt remain as such: while Eubanks was convicted on May 25 1966 for first-degree murder while perpetrating a rape, he escaped from prison on December 7, 1973. As of January 2010, the FBI is still offering a reward of up to $10,000 USD for information leading to his arrest.
Butler, John P. The Best Suit in Town: A Generation of Cops. Royal Palm Press: Charlotte Harbor, 2001.
“Bodies of Two Girls Found In Creek; Suspect Murder.” Mansfield News-Journal 24 June 1962: 1.
Constable, George. “Parents of Slain Girls Recall Day of Brutal Murder.” Mansfield News-Journal 6 November 1965: 1, 13.
Gaynor, Donn. “Youth, 18, Admits Beating, Kicking 2 Girls to Death.” Mansfield News-Journal. 25 June 1962: 1-2.
Herek, Dr Gregory. “Facts About Homosexuality and Child Molestation.” 1997-2009. 11 January 2010. <http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/HTML/facts_molestation.html>.
“Howell Arrest Debated.” Mansfield News-Journal 10 November 1965: 1-2.
“Howell Could Get Parole in 30 Years.” Mansfield News-Journal 12 November
“Howell Enters Innocent Plea.” Mansfield News-Journal 26 June 1962: 1-2.
“Howell Remains Calm.” Mansfield News-Journal 6 November 1965: 1, 13.
“Howell in Special Jail Cell.” Mansfield News-Journal 27 June 1962: 1-2.
“Larson Blames Ohio Juvenile Authorities.” Mansfield News-Journal 12 November 1965: 1-2.
“Man Saw Howell, 2 Girls.” Mansfield News-Journal 8 November 1965: 1-2.
“Murderer of 2 Girls Dead in Columbus.” Mansfield News-Journal 10 July 1977.
“Sparring Continues in Trial.” Mansfield News-Journal 11 November 1965: 1-2.
“Wanted by the FBI – Lester Edward Eubanks.” Federal Bureau of Investigation. 31 January 2011. <http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/murders/lester-edward-eubanks >.
“Youth Has Record of Sexual Offenses.” Mansfield News-Journal 25 June 1962: 1-2.