Detectives have been hunting him since 1962, when he shot the 19-year-old business school student in the face and left her body in a garage near the Ohio State campus. Thanks to good evidence storage and advances in technology, police have the key to his identity. Now they just have to find him
The late summer air was unseasonably cool as Gary Ontko cut across his backyard into the alley behind it. He and two friends had spent the afternoon moving into the house they were sharing on Woodruff Avenue near Ohio State’s campus. It was September 1962. When one of his roommates, already in pajamas, realized he’d mistakenly left the windows rolled down in his 1953 Buick, which was parked near a garage in the alley, Gary volunteered to roll them up. It was late, after 11:30 p.m., when he walked out the back door into the darkness.
Unfamiliar with his new surroundings, the Columbus Business University student walked cautiously toward his destination. The garage was large enough to fit six cars and had been empty all day, save a few cardboard scraps and an empty paint can. But as he neared the open door, he noticed something new. The light of the moon or a nearby streetlamp bounced off an object on the cement floor and caught his eye. He assumed it was a sack, perhaps of cement. But as he drew closer, he saw there were two of them. Hesitant but curious, he peered in for a better look at the paleness sprawled on the floor. It struck him: What he saw was a pair of human legs.
Panicked, Gary fled to find his friend. “I hope it’s my imagination, but I think there’s a body in the garage,” he yelled. Without a phone to use, the two drove to a nearby diner to call police. Fifteen minutes later, investigators arrived at the garage to find a young woman, dead. She had been shot three times in the face and—judging by the condition of her clothing—sexually assaulted. Soon, police and then all of Columbus would know the victim was Mary Margaret Andrews, a business student who had moved to Columbus from a small town near Steubenville a year earlier. Everyone called her Peggy. She was 19 years old.
More than 50 years have passed since that September night, and the case of who killed Peggy Andrews remains unsolved. The bright, deeply religious college student, a daughter, sister and friend, lies in a grave near Steubenville, beside her parents, while her killer—as far as police know—walks free.
Hers is one of nearly 800 unsolved homicide cases in Columbus dating back to 1955. Though it’s the second-oldest case on that list, crucial evidence is remarkably still intact and—thanks to DNA technology and a recent tip—detectives are confident it’s solvable. Now, it’s a race against time.
Detective Dana Farbacher drops a black plastic bin on a conference room table at Columbus police headquarters with a thud. Inside is every interview, every document, every photograph involved in the case of Peggy Andrews. Notes from encounters with thousands of people who were questioned, summaries of suspect interviews and polygraph tests, crime scene photos and newspaper clippings are bound in cracking old rubber bands and fraying file folders, the edges creased and curling. Hundreds upon hundreds of yellowing pages filled with tiny print punched by a typewriter are neatly ordered, organized chronologically and according to an index of names, manually compiled and typed to help the detectives tasked with combing through the report. The file must weigh 30 pounds. A label taped to the bin’s surface says her death was the 18th homicide in Columbus in 1962; the original detectives investigating her case had plenty of time to dedicate and the means to be thorough.
“It’s an interesting case because there’s a lot of physical evidence left even though it’s from 1962,” Farbacher says. “Here’s a case where it’s good, which a rarity.” It’s not uncommon for evidence this old to have been lost or rendered useless by faulty preservation methods.
For nearly a decade, the investigation remained intense, until leads fizzled and the trail grew cold. The case was shelved and virtually untouched until 2000, when a veteran detective’s input sparked a second look and breakthroughs in forensic science made it possible to put the old evidence to use.
The clothes Peggy wore the day she was killed were sent to the Ohio Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab, where genetic material was extracted and submitted to the FBI to obtain a DNA profile. They’ve got the killer’s DNA. They just need a suspect.
While he waits for a tip, the slightest clue from anyone who might know what happened that night, the only thing left for Farbacher to do is sift through the contents of the overstuffed black bin—hoping to uncover something he hasn’t before—and replay the story in his mind.
Peggy Andrews was born May 3, 1943, in Wintersville, Ohio, a small town just a few miles west of Steubenville. She was the first child of Alex and Mary Andrews. Her brother Patrick, seven years her junior, still lives in their childhood home. It’s a simple house in a simple neighborhood: single-story, white siding, Patrick’s old pickup truck in the driveway. His parents have been gone more than a decade, and memories of his sister’s death still haunt him.
“She was the apple of my mother’s and father’s eyes,” he says, his voice trembling. “She was very loving, very caring.”
Peggy was well-liked by classmates at the Catholic high school she attended in Steubenville. She was the kind of person who would befriend an outcast or welcome a girl new to town into her social circle. Childhood friends still refer to Peggy as the leader of their group, the one whose house was a frequent gathering place on a Friday or Saturday night. Memories of the neighborhood hayride during her 16th birthday party still make her friends smile.
She was a carefree, lighthearted girl, and she was smart. A dedicated student, Peggy earned good grades in school and talked about attending college in Columbus after graduation. Patrick was only 11 years old when his sister left for business school, but he remembers she had wanted to become an accountant or auditor.
Peggy was also pious. She attended Catholic Mass every morning and included prayers in letters to friends. They’d see “Oh Mary conceived without sin” and “St. Joseph pray for us” written in cursive at the top of a letter and immediately know it was from Peggy. She’d even talked about becoming a nun.
With her parents’ support, Peggy moved out almost immediately after graduating high school in 1961. Their niece, Peggy’s cousin, lived in Columbus at the time. “My parents felt that she should sample the world, to see what life was really like,” Patrick says.
After moving to town, Peggy enrolled in classes at the Columbus Business University (now Bradford School). In 1962, she began working full time as an accountant’s secretary and attended night classes twice a week. She shared a room with two other young women in a boarding house on 18th Avenue, a block or so away from Buckeye Donuts today. Eighteen coeds lived in the house under the supervision of two housemothers.
“This was probably a place where her family would have liked to have seen her,” Farbacher says. “Not out in an apartment by herself, but with other girls her age, being monitored by a motherly figure to kind of keep them in check.”
On the day she died, a Thursday, Peggy worked Downtown all day before heading to class around 5 p.m. After dismissal, she met her roommates, Carol Maxwell and Carol Eick, and two male classmates outside. Ordinarily, the women would take the bus home together. But that night, Peggy wasn’t feeling well. She’d been battling a cold and, rather than suffer an uncomfortable commute on a crowded bus, she opted to find a ride home instead. Friend and classmate Ron Negutt offered to take her.
The women exchanged goodbyes and went their separate ways. But first, Eick handed Peggy a department store bag to take home for her. She’d done some shopping at the Lerner shop Downtown and wasn’t keen on lugging her new dress and sweaters on the bus with her. Peggy took the navy blue bag and ducked into Negutt’s car. It was just after 9 p.m.
Negutt, now a retired real estate agent living in Gahanna, says he drove her the 3 miles from the Downtown school to her boarding house and dropped her off but didn’t wait around long enough to see her walk inside. A nearby streetlamp provided enough light to guide her. He punched the gas and headed to the 7-11 Club, where he met a friend. He says he reached the bar by 9:30 p.m.
Maxwell and Eick told police they got home at 9:30 p.m., but Peggy wasn’t there. They waited downstairs, listening for the click-clack of her high-heeled shoes on the concrete walkway on the side of the house and the squeak of the gate opening to the backyard. Peggy usually entered the house from the back door, they said. But the sounds never came, and neither did Peggy. They went to bed an hour later. The two housemothers remained downstairs, sipping tea while they waited. They kept watch until 12:30 a.m. Curfew was midnight, and it was unlike Peggy to break the rules, let alone stay out late.
Just a few houses down the alley, police had arrived at a cinderblock garage behind a house on Woodruff Avenue, where the students who discovered her body lived.
She still wore her secretary’s attire: a white blouse buttoned to the top, a brown sweater with brass buttons and a tan skirt that fell below the knees. The back of her long, red coat was covered with dirt, as if she’d been dragged or rolled from her back. She wore her Steubenville Catholic Central High School class ring and a silver wristwatch. A small black bow was pinned in her brown, curly hair. The contents of her leather purse were scattered, including an open red billfold. She lay on her left side, her right arm draped across her body.
An autopsy found Peggy had been shot three times in the head; there were three bullet wounds on her face caused by a small-caliber weapon, as well as a jagged wound near her hairline. The autopsy report does not specify what caused the fourth wound, but detectives suggest it could have been the butt of the gun or the impact of her fall. Another bullet hole was found in the collar of her coat. The palms of her hands were dirty, but her short nails were clean. There was black dust on the soles of both her feet, even though her left shoe was still in place. Both her girdle and underwear had been ripped, and her garter had been torn off. Her slip had been rolled up. Semen was found on the back of her skirt, though the autopsy determined she hadn’t been raped.
Police didn’t learn where Peggy lived until one of the housemothers called them at dawn. The women had awoken to find Peggy still missing. One happened to look outside and notice a pile of objects in the backyard. After a closer look, they discovered Peggy’s school books stacked on the ground behind the house. Next to them was the Lerner shopping bag. Detectives arrived and made the gut-wrenching connection.
“It’s unique because the items were all piled up,” Farbacher says. “It’s not like they were scattered everywhere. Their theory at the time, and I think it’s probably correct, is she walked down that walkway to go to the back of the house. She gets confronted back there by a person with a gun who probably ordered her, ‘Put that stuff down and come with me,’ and took her up the alley to where she was ultimately killed.”
With this theory in mind, detectives began to piece together the puzzle. First, they questioned the two men who reported her body, also students at Columbus Business University.
Investigators summarized the interview this way: “Both of these subjects were thoroughly checked out and their stories have been sustained that they just recently moved into this address. Both subjects were very straightforward with their story and apparently very frightened by their experience.” Eventually, the men agreed to take polygraph tests. Both passed.
Negutt, the classmate who dropped her off, says he was brought to police headquarters that night for questioning. He told detectives he’d only known Peggy for a month or two and they were friendly but not romantically involved. Investigators thoroughly searched his car, removing hubcaps and scouring the vehicle inside and out, looking for clues. He passed both a polygraph and a paraffin test, which at the time was the most accurate way of determining whether a person had recently fired a gun.
Detectives spoke with her relatives, roommates and friends from back home to uncover a possible motive. Did she have enemies or an ex-boyfriend? Did she date often? The answers were consistently negative. She never had a serious boyfriend, either in Wintersville or Columbus, and she didn’t have much time to date while balancing work and school. One boy she had dated once in high school was questioned and cleared. He told police Peggy was “too wrapped up in religion” to become seriously involved in a romantic relationship.
Immediately after Peggy was found, detectives canvassed the neighborhood. They asked residents if they’d seen or heard anything and found only one family who had.
The Logue family lived next door to the students who found Peggy’s body. According to their statement to police, the father, mother and two sons had been watching “The Real McCoys” until 9 p.m. After the show, 13-year-old Robert Logue Jr. and his younger brother had gone upstairs to get dressed for bed. They came down to find their mother, Mary Elizabeth, practicing her speedwriting. The boys were hungry, so they made a couple of sandwiches. As they ate, their dog began to growl. Mary Elizabeth rose from the table, flipped on the back spotlight and sent the dog outside. Soon, the dog began to bark.
There was a loud bang, followed by three more in rapid succession. Young Robert thought it was a car backfiring; his mother said she assumed the sounds were bursting firecrackers, commonly set off by local fraternity members. The boy stepped out into the yard to check it out. He told police he saw two cars idling in the alley. As he walked out, the cars gunned their engines and sped off.
Were the drivers associated with the shooting? Farbacher doesn’t think so.
“If this guy has access to a car, why drive her [to the garage]?” he says. “Why not drive her far away to a remote location?” The cars probably belonged to college students out for a joyride.
After questioning every man who had known Peggy or been linked to the crime, police expanded their reach. Sixty known sex offenders in the Columbus area were interviewed by the end of the week, according to a Columbus Dispatch story. Officers plucked suspicious characters off the street and brought them Downtown for questioning.
A possible link to another sexual assault sparked additional leads.
Police began investigating a connection between the killing and a crime that happened nearby the night before. A woman on Alden Avenue, less than a mile from where Peggy was found, reported being accosted in front of her home by a man with a gun. The man ordered her inside and forced her to perform a sex act. At some point during the incident, she shouted for help to a roommate, who emerged from his room to confront the attacker, who then fired two shots before running away.
The Citizen-Journal published a sketch of the man suspected in the crime based on a description the victim provided (white man, small build, young). Within days, Columbus police received 250 phone calls from area residents with tips. Ten detectives were assigned to investigate the leads.
Bullets found in Peggy’s body and those recovered from the scene of the sexual assault on Alden Avenue were sent to the FBI for underwater ballistics testing to determine whether they were fired from the same gun. Tests were inconclusive, but the bullets displayed similar characteristics linking them, like the number and size of lands and grooves imprinted when the gun was fired. Still, the weapon was missing.
After more than a year of fruitless questioning and scouring the area for clues, detectives finally got a break. A .22-caliber pistol was uncovered in October 1963 in a university district drain spout. Testing linked the weapon to both crimes, though again not with complete certainty.
“All the characteristics of [the gun] are very consistent with the rounds that were recovered from [Peggy],” Farbacher says. “They believe that it was the gun that was used to kill her. Nobody could get up in court and say, ‘Yes, that was definitely it.’ But it has all the characteristics.”
Detectives identified Frederick John Vlaskamp, an Ohio State student who at the time of Peggy’s death lived just a few blocks from the scene, as the owner of the gun. He told police the gun had been stolen from him before the murder, but he hadn’t reported it because he thought he might have misplaced it. Although he denied any involvement with the attack and shooting, he retained an attorney. Vlaskamp later passed a polygraph test and was cleared as a suspect. After that, police found no major clues, and every lead either dissolved or elicited a false confession.
But in 2000, a Columbus detective uncovered something he was certain would crack the case wide open.
David Morris had been a homicide detective for more than 20 years before he transferred to the cold case unit. He took an interest in Peggy’s case right away.
“Mary Margaret Andrews was a hallmark around there for an unsolved homicide,” says Morris, now retired.
After digging through the case file, he contacted a retired detective who had been one of the first to respond to the crime scene. Morris was surprised by how vividly the former detective could recall the details and was struck by something he shared. He described to Morris the semen stain on the back of Peggy’s skirt. “Back then, nobody had ever heard about DNA,” Morris says. But in 2000, it was possible for forensic scientists to extract DNA from certain materials. Morris sent the garment to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the FBI, where experts extracted a genetic profile from the stain.
“Now, we potentially have the DNA of the killer,” he says. Morris thought of Vlaskamp, the former owner of the gun. Though Vlaskamp was cleared in 1963 of any involvement in the crime, Morris was confident he’d found his answer. He visited Vlaskamp in southern Ohio to obtain a DNA sample, which he willingly provided. The results, unsurprisingly, were negative.
The profile was also submitted to the federal Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which compares DNA samples obtained at a crime scene to a national database of DNA profiles contributed by federal, state and local participating forensic laboratories. There was no positive match.
Morris’ disappointment only fueled his interest in the case, but to no avail. He retired in 2008, leaving the case unsolved and virtually untouched until Farbacher picked it up after receiving a tip.
“All the cases are solvable. It just takes the right break,” Morris says. “It’s just fate and common sense, just never giving up is what it takes. Just keep plugging away at it.”
It’s tedious, sometimes mind-numbing work, reading page after page of statements, sifting through evidence, making calls that lead to dead ends. But it’s the day-to-day for Farbacher and four other full-time detectives committed to the cold case unit. That’s five detectives for some 800 cases.
“Obviously, that’s an impossible task,” says Sgt. Eric Pilya, who supervises the cold case unit. “So what we have to do is pick and choose what cases we’re going to work, the cases that, in our mind, we have the best chance of solving.” The unit has solved 88 of them since its establishment in 1994.
He points out that as cases grow older, so do those involved.
“We are racing against time on these with witnesses and potential suspects,” he says.
Farbacher adds: “Is it possible this person has been arrested and never swabbed [for DNA that would be entered into CODIS]? Yes. Is it possible they’re out there and have never been locked up before? Yes. Is it possible that the person who committed this crime is deceased? Yes, that’s possible.”
The missing connection between Peggy and her killer presents another challenge. Farbacher says most homicides have a clearer explanation.
“You could have a drug-related murder where the person who is a drug dealer is going to eliminate the competition. You could have a domestic homicide; you could have something out of revenge,” he says. “We talk about a true victim, and that’s what she was. She was a true victim. This woman did absolutely nothing to put herself in a position to become a homicide victim and, sadly, she became that.”
Aside from tenaciously rereading case files and following up on hunches, what will it take to find and convict the man who killed Peggy Andrews so many years ago? Pilya answers that question with one of his own.
“With cases like this, is it good to be lucky? Absolutely.”