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A series of incriminating letters put a man in jail for attempted murder, but his confinement does not stop the letters from arriving.

The letters that led to Ron Gillespie’s death

Was Ron Gillespie’s death an accident?

CASE DETAILS

In December of 1993, a post card arrived at the Unsolved Mysteries offices that stood out from the rest. It was a threat designed to keep us from telling the following story.  It read, in part:  “Forget Circleville, Ohio … if you come to Ohio, you el sickos will pay.”  It’s signed: “The Circleville Writer.”

Circleville, Ohio is a small town 25 miles south of Columbus. It’s a place that rarely attracts outside attention. But in 1976, the frightening letters started to arrive.
Local journalist Martin Yant:

“The first letter was received by Mary Gillispie, a school bus driver, telling her that the letter writer was aware that she was having an affair with the superintendent of schools and that it had better stop.”

Why was one bullet fired from his gun?

In addition to allegations of an affair, the letter carried an ominous threat. It read, in part:
“I know where you live. I’ve been observing your house and know you have children. This is no joke. Please take it serious.”

The envelope was postmarked Columbus, Ohio. There was no return address, no signature inside, no way to tell who sent it. A week later, Mary received another letter with a similar tone. Mary kept the letters to herself, until her husband Ron also received one. According to Martin Yant:

“And this letter, addressed to Ron Gillispie, told him that if he didn’t do something to stop this affair, that his life was undoubtedly in danger.”

Actual letter received by Unsolved Mysteries

The alleged affair became the talk of Circleville. The mysterious writer understood the power of gossip. The next letter was even more threatening. It read, in part:  “Gillispie, you have had 2 weeks and done nothing. Make her 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.”

Mary and Ron evidently told three people about the letters:  Ron’s sister, her husband, Paul Freshour, and Paul’s sister. Mary had an idea about who was sending the letters.  And she had a plan. According to Paul Freshour, Ron Gillespie’s brother-in-law:

“We thought we’d scare the guy. We sent him four or five letters only. There was no violence in them or anything, just that we knew who he was and what he was doing, and we sent him the letters.” 

A trap was set for Mary Gillespie

For a while, the plan worked. The threatening letters stopped. Then, on August 19, 1977, Ron received a phone call. The call seemed to confirm Ron’s suspicions about the identity of the letter writer. According to journalist Martin Yant:

“He told his children he was going out to confront the letter writer. He took his weapon. He did not seem to be drunk. Said good-bye to his children and went out.”

Angry and upset, Ron hurried to the family’s red-and-white pickup, even though the letter writer had said he was watching it. According to Martin Yant:

“Within a short distance, at an intersection that he knew very well, he lost control of the vehicle, hit a tree, and was killed. Somewhere in between leaving the house and hitting that tree, his gun had fired one shot and there was never any explanation for when or how, at whom that gun could have been fired.”

The police eliminated one potential suspect, then ruled Ron Gillispie’s death an accident.  But several Circleville residents soon received anonymous letters accusing the sheriff of a cover-up. Ron Gillespie’s brother-in-law, Paul Freshour, said the sheriff had changed his story:

“The sheriff agreed with me that there was foul play. And then, when I contacted him again, he’d changed his attitude completely. Then, he was telling me that it wasn’t foul play, that the suspect had passed a polygraph test.”

Martin Yant pointed out another inconsistency:

“Gillispie had .16% alcohol in his blood, which would, in Ohio,  be one-and-a-half times the legal limit. Most people I’ve talked to said that he was not a heavy drinker and were surprised by that kind of finding.”

The gun belonged to Paul Freshour

Was Ron Gillispie’s death an accident? Was he really drunk that night? And why had one bullet been fired from his handgun?

After Ron’s death, the letters kept coming. His wife, Mary, and the superintendent of schools eventually admitted to a relationship, but said it began after the letters were sent. Mary kept her job driving a school bus. But beginning in 1983, the letter writer began putting signs along her bus route. Mary’s daughter was being targeted. According to Martin Yant, Mary finally took action:

“She ripped the sign down. Much to her surprise, behind the sign was this box and string and also another post that was attached to the fence post. She took it into the bus, and she opened it up, and there was a small pistol.”

When she looked closer, Mary realized that it was a crude booby trap designed to fire the gun at her. Investigators discovered that someone had tried to rub the serial number off the weapon. But when lab tests were able to read it accurately, the case took an incredible turn: it belonged to Mary’s brother-in-law, Paul Freshour. He had just split up with his wife, Ron Gillespie’s sister. Paul denied any involvement:

“I admitted the gun was mine, but I hadn’t seen it for a long time. I had no reason to check up on it or anything, and I don’t know when it had come up missing. I really don’t know what happened to it, and I told them that and that’s the truth. And that’s how it was.”

Paul Freshour

On February 25, 1983, Sheriff Dwight Radcliff asked Paul to take a handwriting test.  Paul agreed:

“He would give me an actual letter and ask me maybe to do the envelope part just as near as I could to the envelope. And then, on some, he would take the actual letter out and have me to do them as near as I could on the letters. And I did them because I knew I wasn’t responsible for the letters.”

Martin Yant said this was not the correct way to conducting handwriting analysis:

“That is not the proper way to test to see if someone has a certain writing style, because if they’re copying from a letter, they’re going to try to emulate the style.  And the experts said that the testing was improper. So they didn’t really say that these letters were written by Paul Freshour. They said that they could have been.”

The sheriff also searched Paul’s garage. He turned all the evidence he gathered over to the courts. Paul Freshour was charged with attempted murder:

“He called in the prosecutor and told the prosecutor that it was my writing on the booby trap and I was under arrest for attempted murder and placed on a $50,000 cash bond.”

Authorities did not follow up on the El Camino

On October 24, 1983, Paul Freshour went on trial for the attempted murder of his sister-in-law, Mary Gillispie. He wasn’t charged with writing the threatening letters, but they were used as crucial evidence against him. On the stand, a handwriting expert said it was his opinion that the writing on the envelopes, documents, and postcards was made by the same person: Paul Freshour. Paul’s boss testified that Paul hadn’t gone to work the day the booby trap was found. Even though Paul had a solid alibi for almost the entire day, he never took the stand in his own defense. It was a decision he would come to regret. Paul was found guilty of attempted murder. He said the verdict was completely unexpected:

“I can’t blame the jury, because the jury didn’t hear all the evidence. But I just couldn’t believe it. I was really in shock.”

Paul Freshour was given the maximum sentence for attempted murder: 7 to 25 years.  Everyone assumed he had written the Circleville letters. And everyone figured they would stop once Paul was in prison. Everyone was wrong. Journalist Martin Yant:

“They were being received all over a large area of central Ohio. So, a lot of people couldn’t understand how Paul Freshour could be mailing all these letters from prison.”

Following repeated complaints from Sheriff Radcliff, the warden had Paul placed in solitary confinement. But the letters continued. All of them were postmarked Columbus, even though Paul was imprisoned across the state in Lima. Martin Yant said the Warden became convinced that Paul was not writing the letters:

“Full-scale investigations were conducted twice, possibly three times, during which Paul Freshour was put into isolation. And the warden of the prison then wrote a letter to Paul’s wife saying that as far as he was concerned, it was impossible for Paul to be writing these letters and sending them from prison.”

For seven years, Paul was a model prisoner. But when he became eligible for parole, the board rejected his request based on the volume of letters still being sent. A few days after his hearing, Paul himself received a sadistic letter from the phantom writer. It read, in part:  “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?”

When journalist Martin Yant reviewed the sheriff’s investigative file, he uncovered evidence never mentioned at the trial:

“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.”

In May of 1994, Paul Freshour was finally granted parole after serving 10 years. To this day, he maintains his innocence. He’s sure that the real criminal is still at large:

“I’d like to see someone really look at this case on the letters, reopen the letter part of it and get in and find out who wrote the letters. I’d also like to see someone look into my former brother-in-law’s death. Look, that’s not my family anymore. That’s my past. I’m not even going to look back at it. I’ve got a new family and a new future. But I would still like to see someone look at that accident real close and the letters.”

The Circleville letters finally stopped, but many questions remain. Who actually wrote the letters? Was Ron Gillispie’s death an accident or was he murdered?  And, who made the booby-trap found by Mary Gillispie?


Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season seven with Robert Stack and in season four with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu.

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30 Comments

  1. Jenn

    Uhh…Am I the only one who believes that it was the Sheriff? I mean, writing a letter that tells no one to harm the Sheriff, the ability to cover-up everything, and the ability to “set-up” someone, speaks for it’s self…

    Reply

  2. Nancy Nichols

    I was lead here after watching a segment about this on drunk history. It peaked my interest so I wanted to look into it more.

    Reply

  3. Dj chatter

    How did they get pauls gun? I believe paul did it, and had someone send the letters while he was locked up

    Reply

  4. brian

    Interesting case

    Reply

  5. Erik

    I am surprised a movie hasn’t been made about this…

    Reply

  6. Bryan

    I’ve read literally every comment on every archive. This one has a lot of non sense. This reminds me a lot of the elderly couple who I believe was from OH. They got letters sent to them, phone calls, doorbell ringing, etc… Any updates?

    Reply

  7. Anonymous

    ” Oh geez , well since we are being accused of having an affair in these letters, we might as well have one ..” Mary is obviously a liar…very fishy on her part

    Reply

    • Michelle

      Very fishy on her part. The fact that her husband was killed made it real easy for her to continue the affair. I don’t know about the letters but the other part sounds about right. I don’t think Paul Freshour had anything to do with it.

      Reply

  8. El Scribo

    El Sickos

    Reply

  9. Beccaboo

    I never thought it was Paul. In fact my heart broke for him watching the segment. He seems down to earth and genuine. Was he compensated for being falsely imprisoned?

    Reply

  10. Leigh

    Who did the yellow El Camino belong to?

    Reply

  11. Arlo

    Paul’s Ex-wife had the motive, the means, and is the most obvious suspect.

    The biggest failing of this investigation was that she was not looked into at all. Very shoddy police work there.

    Reply

    • johnny

      pickaway county sheriffs are crooked i lived there all my life even there detectives got caught with stolen goods and got off the hook never mentioned at all

      Reply

  12. riddlesolver

    its a murder cuz most people all said that he drink a lot but when they test him after he died they discover a lot of achole in him the suspect probably poison him at the bar where he drinks they’re really good friends tell him about his family and where he lives that how the suspect knew everything is I think its a murder

    Reply

  13. somebody

    Pauls wife did it

    Reply

  14. Sheriff Radcliff

    Please do not question my authority or my super investigative skills. I am a professional

    Reply

  15. A superintendent

    We don’t go in schools. Just the buses. That’s why graduation rates are below the 70s 😉 Everything is a lie. Everything is fraud. Shoot heroin

    Reply

    • Hail to the Chimp

      What an outrageous and dangerous message to send out to our youth! Everyone knows that cannabis is a much better, more accessible high for children.

      Reply

  16. Christian

    One of the only people that knew they were having an affair could’ve been the janitor. He was at the school and probably caught the schools super intendant and the bus driver. He then starting writing the letters.

    Reply

  17. lebron james

    it was her daughter

    Reply

  18. Dameon

    She obviously is a liar..the affair was happening before the letters…

    Reply

  19. jim

    Creepy …all of it.

    Reply

  20. Hawaii

    Mary did it and used her feet to write the letters.

    Reply

  21. Alfred Neumanhausen

    Mary set the crime up with the help of her lover.

    Reply