Sam Sheppard – How a Murder Inspired a Wrestling Career

Sam Sheppard was convicted of murder in 1954. The case was controversial from the start, and his story inspired the popular 1960s TV series “The Fugitive” (which was later adapted into the 1993 box office hit film with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones). A professional wrestling career followed, and Sheppard’s anatomical knowledge led to him creating a finishing move that would be popularized during the Attitude Era!

From left to right: Sam Sheppard and his wife Marilyn Reese, Sheppard's mug shot in 1954, and while wrestling as "Killer" Sam Sheppard a few months before his death.
From left to right: Sam Sheppard and his wife Marilyn Reese, Sheppard’s mug shot in 1954, and while wrestling as “Killer” Sam Sheppard a few months before his death.

The Sam Sheppard Story

Born December 29th, 1923, Sam Sheppard had no idea how much his picture-perfect all-American life would be disrupted by the very same system under the constitution that swore to protect his most basic human rights.

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Murder of Marilyn Reese Sheppard

On July 3rd, 1954, Marilyn Reese and Sam Sheppard spent the night entertaining guests at their lakefront residence in Bay View, Ohio, throwing an independence day party.

According to Sheppard, he fell asleep on the day bed in the living room toward the end of the evening as he and his wife watched a movie named “The Strange Holiday.” At this point, his wife Marilyn walked the remaining guests out.

In the early morning hours of July 4th, Sam was awakened by the shout of his wife upstairs. According to Sheppard, as he entered the bedroom, he would be hit over the head and knocked unconscious.

A few moments later, a terrible event would occur at the beachfront as Sam woke up and chased the intruder down to the beach.

At 5:40 in the morning, Sam made a phone call to his neighbor. When they arrived, Sam was seen shirtless with blood on the knees of his pants. The police would soon be called.

Upon their arrival, Sam was in complete shock. Several expensive items were missing from his home when authorities looked over the crime scene.

All the while, the family dog they had on the property was not heard barking, and their young son Chip slept through the entire struggle.

There was no sign of forced entry whatsoever.

Later during the trial, it would be known that Sam was caught having an extramarital affair with Susan Hayes, a 24-year-old laboratory technician at Bayview Hospital in Bay Village. The prosecution attempted to show that Hayes was the motive for murder. It was the perfect storm to ruin Sam Sheppard in more ways than one. At this point, Sheppard would “fall on the sword” for his wife.

Sam Sheppard and his wife Marilyn Reese during happier times.
Sam Sheppard and his wife Marilyn Reese during happier times. [Photo: Film Daily]

Circus-Like Media Surrounding the First Trial

The Sam Sheppard murder trial first began on October 18th, 1954. Due to the excessive media circus surrounding the arrest and prosecution, it would live in infamy.

No media outlet managed to poison public opinion more than Ohio’s own Cleveland Press. Taking it upon themselves to be Sam Sheppard’s Judge, Jury, and executioner, they would go on to publish a front-page article entitled: “Do it Now! Dr. Gerber.”

It was an article demanding the public inquest of an autopsy of Marilyn Reese Sheppard.

Soon, every word in Marilyn’s autopsy would become general knowledge, and it stripped the family of their right to privacy.

Coroner Dr. Samuel Gerber was tasked with the inquest. (You can read the official autopsy report here).

On July 30th, The Cleveland Press printed, “Why isn’t Sam Sheppard in jail?” and in later writings had articles entitled, “Quit stalling, bring him in.”

The adage of innocent until proven guilty was not the case here.

When police finally brought Sam Sheppard in for questioning, the media would further control the police in the case.

Over the days and months that followed, the local media was caught running salacious stories about Sam Sheppard and the murder of his wife, Marilyn.

During the jury selection for his trial, several jury members raised their hands when asked if they had heard any of the stories that the local radio stations aired. Yet, not one jury member was replaced, further embittering Sam Sheppard’s chances at a fair trial.

Seventy-five people were called upon to be on the jury. All three local newspapers would release the names and addresses of each of the seventy-five potential jury members. Seven of the twelve jurors who would decide Sam’s fate would admit to having several newspapers delivered to their homes that contained propaganda explicitly created to put an innocent man in jail.

A Supreme Court judge would later call the atmosphere surrounding the case a “carnival-type atmosphere.”

Dr. Sam Sheppard outside the court chambers on October 26th, 1954. Defense Counsel Fred Garmone can be seen reading the latest news headlines on the case.
Dr. Sam Sheppard outside the court chambers on October 26th, 1954. Defense Counsel Fred Garmone can be seen reading the latest news headlines on the case. [Photo: The Plain Dealer]

The Defence

Samuel Sheppard would be defended by a lawyer named William Corrigan. He argued that Sam had intensive injuries that resulted from a struggle with an intruder. Corrigan based his argument on a report made by neurosurgeon Charles Elkins.

The latter examined Sheppard and found he had suffered a cervical concussion, nerve injury, many absent or weak reflexes (most notably on the left side of his body), and injury in the region of the second cervical vertebra in the back of the neck. Elkins stated that it was impossible to fake or simulate the missing reflex responses.

The defense also argued that the evidence did not add up.

A massive amount of blood was found at the crime scene, yet, the only blood found on Sam was on his trousers, which matched someone who was kneeling over a body, not bludgeoning them to death.

During the autopsy of Marilyn Reese, two of her teeth were broken, which suggested that she bit the attacker. During Sam’s check-up, no open wounds were found on his body.

The public would argue that the broken teeth could have been a byproduct of being so viciously beaten. This argument would be debunked when Criminologist Paul L. Kirk went on record saying that if the teeth were broken during the beating, they would have been found inside her mouth, and her lips would be severely damaged, which neither were the case.

Sam Sheppard would then take the stand on his defense, stating, “I think that she cried or screamed my name once or twice, during which time I ran upstairs, thinking that she might be reacting similarly to convulsions that she had in the early days of her pregnancy.”

He continued, “I charged into our room and saw a form with a light garment, I believe, at that time grappling with something or someone. I could hear loud moans or groaning sounds and noises during this short period.

“I was struck down. It seems like I was hit from behind somehow but had grappled this individual from in front or generally in front of me. I was knocked out.

“The next thing I knew, I was gathering my senses while coming to a sitting position next to the bed, my feet toward the hallway. … I looked at my wife. I believe I took her pulse and felt that she was gone.

“I believe that I, after that, instinctively or subconsciously ran into my youngster’s room next door and somehow determined that he was all right. I am not sure how I determined this.

“After that, I thought that I heard a noise downstairs, seemingly in the front eastern portion of the house.”

Sheppard ran back downstairs and chased what he described as a “bushy-haired intruder” or “form” down to Lake Erie beach near his home before being knocked out again.

The defense called eighteen character witnesses for Sheppard and two witnesses who said that they had seen a bushy-haired man near the Sheppard home on the day of the crime.

Sam Sheppard during his first trial in 1954.
Sam Sheppard during his first trial in 1954. [Photo: IMDB]

The Fate of Sam Sheppard

On December 21st, 1954, after four days of deliberation, a very tainted pool of jurors delivered their verdict of guilty on second-degree murder. Sam Sheppard was sentenced to life in prison.

He would only end up serving ten years.

On January 7th, 1955, Sam Sheppard was informed while incarcerated that his mother had died. She had ended her life.

When it rains, it pours. Eleven days later, his father would lose his battle with stomach cancer.

The family curse would continue as on February 13th, 1963, his father-in-law, Thomas S. Reese, also took his own life inside an east Cleveland hotel room.

Justice Finally Served

Sam Sheppard’s original attorney, William Corrigan, would spend six years fighting for an appeal, but, in the end, his endeavors would all go ignored. On July 30th, 1961, Corrigan, Sheppard’s biggest supporter, would also pass away.

Soon, a young lawyer named F. Lee Bailey would take over Sheppard’s council and pick up the fight for an appeal.

Bailey’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus (a report of unlawful imprisonment) was granted on July 15th, 1964, by a United States district court judge who called the 1954 trial a “mockery of justice” that shredded Sheppard’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.

The State of Ohio was ordered to release Sheppard on bond and gave the prosecutor 60 days to bring charges against him; otherwise, the case would be dismissed permanently.

The State of Ohio appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals Court for the Sixth Circuit, which on March 4th, 1965, reversed the federal judge’s ruling.

Bailey appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

On June 6th, 1966, the Supreme Court, by an 8-to-1 vote, struck down the murder conviction.

The decision noted, among other factors, that a “carnival atmosphere” had permeated the trial and that the trial judge, Edward J. Blythin, who had died in 1958, was biased against Sheppard because Blythin had refused to sequester the jury, did not order the jury to ignore and disregard media reports of the case, and when speaking to newspaper columnist Dorothy Kilgallen shortly before the trial started said, “Well, he’s guilty as hell. There’s no question about it.”

The Retrial

Jury selection began October 24th, 1966, and opening statements began eight days later.

Media interest remained high, but the jury was sequestered this time.

Essentially, the same case was presented as the one twelve years earlier. Sheppard’s lawyer aggressively sought to discredit each prosecution witness during cross-examination.

When Coroner Samuel Gerber testified about a murder weapon he described as a “surgical weapon,” Bailey led Gerber to admit that they never found a murder weapon and that he had nothing to tie Sheppard to the murder.

In his closing argument, Bailey scathingly dismissed the prosecution’s case against Sheppard as “ten pounds of hogwash in a five-pound bag.”

After deliberating for 12 hours, the jury returned on November 16th with a “not guilty” verdict.

During this trial, Criminologist Paul Kirk presented the blood spatter evidence he collected in Sheppard’s home in 1955 and proved that the killer had to be left-handed. Sam was indeed right-handed. This played a crucial role in the decision of the jury.

The Pro Wrestling Career of Sam Sheppard

In the years following his exoneration and release from prison, Sam Sheppard would remarry to the daughter of professional wrestler George Strickland.

At the age of 45, Sheppard would debut in August 1969 as “Killer” Sam Sheppard. His notoriety made him a big draw with wrestling crowds.

"Killer" Sam Sheppard and his father-in-law, George Strickland.
“Killer” Sam Sheppard and his father-in-law, George Strickland, in 1969. [Photo: All That’s Interesting]
Sheppard used his anatomical knowledge to develop a new submission hold during his short-lived wrestling career: the “mandible claw” — a move later popularized by wrestler “Mankind” Mick Foley in 1996.

Sheppard’s wrestling career would only last about six months before Sam’s untimely passing.

On April 6th, 1970, Sam Sheppard died from what was first thought to be liver failure. The later official cause of death would be noted as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a brain condition linked to excessive alcohol usage.

During his six-month marriage before his passing, his wife would go on record to say that Sam would drink one and a half liters of liquor every day.

Later Life and Disgrace

After release from prison, Sam Sheppard also tried to go back to his initial profession as a doctor by opening a clinic in Gahanna, Ohio. However, he was firmly locked into his alcohol addiction at this point, and his skills as a surgeon had deteriorated.

Five days after being granted privileges, he performed a discectomy on a woman and accidentally cut one of her arteries.

On August 6th, he nicked the right iliac artery on a 29-year-old patient who bled to death internally.

Sheppard would resign after a build-up of lawsuits from the patients’ families following both accidents.

The Likeliest Suspect in the Murder of Marilyn Reese Sheppard

During the civil trial, plaintiff attorney Terry Gilbert contended that Richard Eberling, an occasional handyman and window washer at the Sheppard home, was the likeliest suspect in the murder of Marilyn Reese Sheppard. Eberling was said to have found Marilyn attractive, and he was remarkably familiar with the layout of the Sheppard home.

In 1959, detectives questioned Richard Eberling about various burglaries, which he would later confess to. He also would show the detectives his loot, which included two rings that belonged to Marilyn Sheppard.

Eberling stole the rings in 1958, a few years after the murder, from Sam Sheppard’s brother’s house, taken from a box marked “Personal Property of Marilyn Sheppard.”

Eberling would also admit to police that he indeed did leave blood DNA at the Sheppard home. Eberling took a polygraph test with questions about the murder of Marilyn. The polygraph examiner concluded that Eberling did not show deception in his answers.

However, other experts evaluated the polygraph results years later and found it to be inconclusive.

The Chakraborty Report on DNA involving Richard Eberling stated that evidence, which was not available in the two murder trials, played a vital role in the civil trial. Analysis of blood at the crime scene showed that there was the presence of blood from a third person other than Marilyn and Dr. Sam Sheppard.

Richard Eberling was associated with women who had suspicious deaths throughout his life. He was convicted of murdering Ethel May Durkin, a wealthy, elderly widow who died without any immediate family.

Durkin’s 1984 murder in Lakewood, Ohio, was uncovered when a court-appointed review of the woman’s estate revealed that Eberling, Durkin’s guardian and executor, had failed to execute her final wishes, which included stipulations on her burial.

Final Thoughts

In the United States, you are protected under a presumption of innocence — a legal principle that every person accused of any crime is considered innocent until proven guilty. This same system failed on every single level for Sam Sheppard.

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Michael Marek is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories. He is a lifelong wrestling fan and a former United States Army cook.