Like any good prospective Certified Public Accountant preparing for the most rigorous and significant exam of his life, I was investigating the official Unsolved Mysteries website this weekend and discovered that it has about 100 case transcripts from the show posted on the site. The only things missing are the amateur reenactments and Robert Stack’s deliciously creepy narration. So that’s basically been the last 50 hours of my life, plus a bathroom break or two. Transports me right back to 8th grade when Lifetime would have a marathon and I’d sooner have murdered my sister than given her that remote. (Fitting).
Unsolved Mysteries will always be way more thrilling to me than any horror movie. The climax in a horror movie involves a hero fighting an enemy with one of two inevitable outcomes. The climax in the best Unsolved Mysteries cases involves Robert Stack asking you to contact the authorities with any information you may have. All of the sudden, the story is no longer finite, and you could potentially be a part of it. Maybe the killer’s in your closet right now. Or maybe the missing arsonist named Gayle is your best friend “Shawna”. Or maybe it’s Shawna’s lost twin sister she doesn’t even know about. Or maybe Shawna’s twin sister was abducted by aliens who then perpetrated the arson for reasons unknown. Unknown!
The possible outcomes are limitless, and it’s adrenaline-inducingly maddening to know that there is an absolute and indisputable solution to this mystery, but that it will probably always exist outside of the limits of your knowledge. (This is not to say I don’t enjoy the “Solved” cases. They lack a little of the immediacy of their unsolved brethren, but are no less real and gripping, and usually have the courtesy to leave at least a few questions about motive or method unanswered.)
My favorites on the site so far are “Elizabeth Carmichael” and “Anthrax Murder” in the Solved section, and “Robert Borton, Jr.” and “Lenny Dirickson” in the Missing section. (Sorry; I can’t link directly to the cases.) “Anthrax Murder” is especially unsettling.
Reading so many of these over the past two days inspired (that may be too strong of a word given the genre) me to write my own fabricated unsolved mystery in homage, complete with its own UPDATE. It’s a little too fanciful and tidy to be real, but what it lacks in fourth-wall elimination, it somewhat makes up for in the gratification of a closed loop.
Dangerous Flame on the Plains
In 1955, 27-year-old Carl Dunner was a successful criminal prosecutor for the state of Colorado, with an eye towards running for the state assembly. Unbeknownst to everyone — especially his long-term girlfriend Mavis — he was also a fairy, as they called them back then.
It wasn’t until 50 years later, when Carl was on his deathbed, that he finally revealed this to his and Mavis’s youngest granddaughter, Claire. With it, he relayed a stunning 50-plus-year-old secret: Carl had had a secret lover whom he’d been looking for for half a century.
“I was visiting Grandfather in the hospital. I was there by myself, and he called me over to come sit beside him. He put his hand on my arm. I remember thinking that was strange, cause Grandfather was always really formal with his family; he hardly ever touched us. But so he put his hand on my arm, and then he told me there’d been this man named Abel Chamblis he’d had an affair with in the early 50s, before he married Grandma Mavis, and he [Abel]’d up and disappeared one day, and Grandfather had been looking for him ever since. ”
According to the story Dunner told Claire, he and Abel Chamblis had met on a train from Fort Collins to Denver. The two hit it off. Claire says Gunner described Chamblis as “…the most beautiful human being he’d ever seen. He was entranced”.
The two began a scandalous and fraught 5-year affair which played out in various hotels on the developing frontiers of metropolitan Denver.
Chamblis expressed a desire to run off to Los Angeles, where they could be together openly. But Dunner demurred; his career was too important. Chamblis grew impatient. One night in 1955, the two had a stormy fight that ended in Chamblis storming out. It was the last time Dunner would ever see him.
“Grandfather didn’t hear from Abel for a few weeks (Abel’d always called him; he never had even given Grandfather a phone number) so he called the boarding house Abel’d said he was staying at, except there were no Abel Chamblises registered as guests there.”
Nor, it would turn out, at any of the boarding houses throughout the Denver area. With a sinking feeling, Dunner realized that in his desire to keep their relationship on the hush-hush, he’d scrupulously prevented anyone he knew from ever seeing Chamblis; there was no one he could ask, even casually, if they’d seen him around. He also realized that his paramore had never given him anything but the vaguest facts about his life: grew up all over the Midwest, was an art enthusiast, wanted to do something “creative,” rather than farm like his relatives. Dunner wasn’t even sure what the man was doing in Denver to make ends meet.
With so few available avenues through which to pursue his lover, Dunner decided it was hopeless and finally married Mavis. The old flame never left his mind, though, and as his burgeoning political career led to more and more access to confidential records, he began conducting an informal missing-person search that would span over half a century without any results.
Not only could he not find any records of an Abel Chamblis ever living in Colorado, the sole social security number he could find tied to that name was for a Nebraska man who was a little too old to have been the beautiful Adonis Carl knew in the early 50s. What’s more, the local papers pulled up on microfiche declared the man to have been murdered two years before Carl even met Abel by the infamous “Valhalla Villain,” who terrorized the plains states in the late 40s. Subsequent searches of variations on the name yielded similar dead ends. But he never gave up the search until his death, eight days after he made his confession to his Claire.
“The last thing Grandfather asked me to do was to keep up the search, if and when I had the time. He said I was the only one in the family who was clever enough to do it. I took his request very seriously.”
And so Claire, now an attorney herself, has been searching these past four years for a man her grandfather last saw when segregation was still de juris. She has had to conduct her search without any assistance from her family, who are outraged by the story, and have chosen to believe she has made it up. The only clue she has to go off of is a possibly fake name and a self portrait the man had given Dunner at his request. He also did one of Dunner, which he kept for himself.
UPDATE. 4 and half years into her search, Claire made a shocking discovery.
“I figured Los Angeles was a pretty good place to do some research, since that’s where Mr. Chamblis kept telling Grandfather they should go. I thought maybe he just went on by himself. So I was at the L.A. public library looking through old newspaper articles about births and deaths, just scraping for even the weakest lead, when this old lazy-eyed man came up from behind me and looked down at the picture Grandfather had given me.
He said, ‘Do you know that man, young lady?’
And I said, ‘No, he was a friend of my grandfather’s.’
And he got this little bewildered smile on his face and he said, ‘Did your grandfather know he was friends with the Valhalla Villain? That’s the spitting image of the man. His face was all over the local paper when I lived in Iowa in ’48’. I mean, I was stunned.”
Could her Grandfather’s secret lover have also been a man wanted in 6 states for crimes ranging from arson to grand larceny to first-degree murder? Claire poured herself into researching the Valhalla Villain. The time line certainly fit: his crime spree had gradually moved westward from the first murder/robbery in Indiana in 1946, and his last reported crime occurred in Nebraska at the end of 1949. It made sense that his next stop would be Colorado. And most of his robberies had involved rare art collections, which gelled with her grandfather’s description of Chamblis as an art lover. But could the great love of a criminal prosecutor’s life life really have been a cold-blooded murderer?
Claire wasn’t able to find any photos of the criminal to compare to the self-portrait, though. Exasperated, she finally flew to the small town of Juene Source, Iowa, whose newspapers the man from the L.A. library had recalled seeing the pictures in. Pouring through old microfiches of the papers, she at last found a photo of the man, snapped by a journalist visiting the museum for a sneak peak at the visiting collection the Villain made off with. The image she saw chilled her to the bone.
“It almost perfectly matched the self-portrait Grandfather gave me, except for one important detail: the man in the newspaper photo had a lazy eye. I asked a friend in a the police force to run an age-lapse on the photo, and the result looked very much like the old man I’d met at the L.A. library.”
Claire Dunner-Duchamp firmly believes that the man she met in the library that day was none other than an infamous criminal mastermind for whom her grandfather had held a torch until his death. She’s satisfied, and has ended her search.
“Grandfather never asked me to relay any messages or anything; he just wanted to know for sure his old lover was out there somewhere. And now I believe we do.”
The authorities, however, are still not appeased.
The long-time mayor of Juene Source, Iowa had this to say:
“I mean, you have to understand, it was more than 20 years before anyone would even consider loaning out a major collection to our art museum gaain. Before that heist, this town was well on its way to becoming the upscale resort town of the upper Midwest. But after…I mean, everyone just thought of us as a bunch of hicks who were too incompetent to keep criminals from just…having their way with the place. And now everybody just heads straight for Minnesota for vacation. They barely stop in Iowa to relieve themselves. This man crippled our town’s economy. Plus, you know, all those people he killed. He needs to be brought to justice, no matter how long ago all of this happened. I mean, we don’t even know what he’s been up to for the past 50 years. For all we know, he’s still been committing heinous crimes in other states all of this time.”
The official identity and origins of the Valhalla Villain remain unknown. Claire Dunner-Duchamp is certain that Abel Chamblis was just an alias he lifted off one of his victims, but believes he told her grandfather the truth about his Midwestern farm upbringing. He was allegedly last seen in Southern California. His approximate age would now be 85. He has a lazy eye on the right side and thick white hair worn in the style of John F. Kennedy. He is around 5 feet 8 inches tall, and weighs between 150 and 160 pounds. If you have any information regarding this person, please do not hesitate to contact us at the number below.
[Final shot is a side-by-side-by-side shot of the self-portrait of Carl Dunner’s lover, the picture of the Valhalla Villain from the Juene Source Gazette-Ledger, and the age-lapsed photo of same. All three feature the same gently upturned smile and lustful eyes. A 1-800 number is displayed at the bottom of the screen.]
Ok, so I definitely need a better name than “Valhalla Villain”. It was just the first name that popped into my head. It doesn’t even make sense. If anyone has a good moniker for a deadly criminal terrorizing the plains states, please drop it off in the comments.
If anyone can think of a less contrived way to introduce the Villain that doesn’t make it immediately clear that that gun’s going to go off in act three, that would certainly also be much appreciated.
And any other suggestions for making it more realistic or eerie are strongly encouraged.
Overall, what do y’all think? Did it creep you out a little bit?