Unsolved Mysteries: Death Row Fugitive

Pictured is 14-year-old Mary Ellen, the victim of a murder in Ohio in 1965.

Spoilers ahead, if you haven’t seen it!

The third episode in volume two of Netflix’s revamping (how many different ways am I going to come up with to say they restarted the series? Stay tuned!) of Unsolved Mysteries is, “Death Row Fugitive.” This episode is about a convicted killer, Lester Eubanks, who was given a furlough (when a prisoner is allowed to leave prison and then return) to go Christmas shopping in 1973, and police believe he’s still at large.

This happened in Mansfield, Ohio, so this one is rather close to home, being only two and a half hours away from me (going south). Eubanks was convicted of killing 14-year-old Mary Ellen Deener, and Mary Ellen’s sister, Myrtle Carter, is still alive to tell the story.

It’s worth noting that the United States Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972, so he’s not actually on death row. Ohio reinstated the death penalty in 1974, and it was again found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1978, and then reinstated in 1981. So by the point of his furlough, contrary to the title, like I said, he wasn’t actually on death row; he was in the general prison population.

On Nov. 14, 1965, Mary Ellen and 12-year-old Brenda, were doing the laundry, and they took wet clothes to the laundry mat (via a taxi, what a different time, huh?) because the dryer wasn’t working. Incidentally, their grandmother lived right night door to the laundromat. Mary Ellen then left to go to a second laundromat to get change to finish drying the clothes. So it was maybe a 10 minute walk from one laundromat to the next, there and back?

But Mary Ellen never came back. By the time Brenda told the grandmother and the grandmother started looking for her, the police were already there. That’s a tiny window for a killing, but it makes sense since she was shot.

A gun match came back to Eubanks. An informant said he saw Eubanks in that area earlier in the night before the crime occurred.

Folks. I’m going to pause the episode right there and raise three red flags right away:

  • I trust nothing as it concerns law enforcement and black men in the 1960s. Remember, this is 1965. Along with that, whatever one wants to say about police — and there’s plenty to say — investigations of homicides, both in terms of actual investigative skill, and in terms of technology, have come a long way since 1965.
  • So the police determined the caliber of the gun and found out where that gun was sold, and determined that it was sold to Eubanks. As the retired captain with the Mansfield Police Department, John Arcudi said, the police found a weapon (a 32 Iver Johnson 11105) that “fit the description of the gun that was used to shoot Mary Ellen.” Again, paint me skeptical. Let’s even say that the gun was a match. That it was indeed the 32 Iver Johnson 11105 that shot Mary Ellen. That still doesn’t tell us that Eubanks shot her. Was that the only 32 Iver Johnson 11105 sold in all of Mansfield and neighboring areas? Which brings me to …
  • If I was skeptical of the two prior things, I’m dang sure skeptical of police informants, who are notoriously awful. And again, 1965. Yeah, okay, a police informant tells you that he saw Eubanks in the area, and importantly, “earlier in the night before the crime occurred.” Again, that means nothing.

I’m going to need stronger evidence. Let’s restart the episode and see if we get that. Maybe I’ll eat my words. That’s when they bring up that he was out on bond for a rape attempt at the time of the murder, and had a previous sexual assault issue.

Apparently, he was a good artist.

“I put the gun against her. I pulled the trigger twice,” Eubanks apparently writes in a written confession to police.

It was a chance encounter and he grabs her behind a building, and shoots her twice. Then gets dressed and goes dancing. When he comes back after dancing, which apparently only took 45 minutes to go downtown and come back, MARY ELLEN IS STILL ALIVE?! He then bludgeons her with a brick.

Remember earlier when I said it seemed like a quick timeline from, Mary Ellen walks to the other laundromat, after an undetermined amount of time, Brenda begins to wonder where she’s at, goes to her grandma’s house and the grandma goes searching only to see the police are already there? Does that all take longer than 45 minutes to happen? And who called the police and/or found the body?

Confession or not even in the courtroom (again, confessions aren’t as ironclad as people think, particularly in 1965), I’m skeptical of the events of what happened here, as told by police.

The Ohio Penitentiary was located at the state capital in Columbus, Ohio. Because he was in the general population, Eubanks eventually was eligible to go into a trustee program, which prisons and jails use to help acclimate inmates to life on the outside. They were able to go outside of the prison for errands and other things under supervision. Eubanks was also apparently something of an artist, so he participated in some art shows.

On Dec. 7, 1973, that’s when Eubanks is allowed on furlough to the mall, and it was about two to three hours later that Eubanks didn’t report back to the agreed meeting place.

I could do a whole rant about my problems with the fear-mongering over using one bad example (and this is granting that Eubanks did do the murder) of the furlough and trustee program going back to say the entire idea of those programs are bad, and don’t even get me started on the issues with the death penalty. In general, I find it problematic the fear-mongering by predominately police in this episode regarding prisoners and these programs.

In December 1993, 20 years after his escape, Arcudi randomly decides to see what’s going on with Eubanks, and realizes the federal and state warrants for his arrest are no longer there. Given that it was the 1970s, particularly in the transfer to digital, I’m going to assume that it’s a more mundane explanation: Clerical error. I mean, what else could ti be? Eubanks having an, uh, excuse the word, informant with state and/or federal authorities to get those warrants removed?

That’s when Arcudi pushed to get Eubanks on the famed show, America’s Most Wanted, in 1994. Shortly thereafter, someone comes forward and says Eubanks was living with Kay Banks, the widow of his cousin, Darrell Banks, in Los Angeles. Kay was originally from Ohio.

She apparently was his pen pal in prison, and there was even a photo of her in his prison cell. After Eubank’s escape, she said he went to Michigan, and then took a bus to California. By then, he was going by the name of Victor Young. Kay then scared him off by saying the FBI was calling about him (which wasn’t true). But he was off to Gardena and worked at some factory through at least the mid-1980s.

Oh, would you look at that! The Ohio State Highway Patrol begins looking into Mo Eubanks, Eubanks’ father, and lo and behold, another informant says while they were at his house they overhead him having a telephone conversation with his son. That noise you’re hearing are my eyeballs rolling out of my head.

And of course, a judge signs off on a subpoena to get Mo’s telephone records, which traces calls to a center for troubled youth. And of course there’s vague description of a black man working at this place.

The fact that one of the officers involved impinges Mo’s character by calling him a “supposed man of the cloth,” grosses me out, and fits in uncomfortably with the rest of this episode.

All these police are making him seem like an evil criminal mastermind, and while he may very well be evil if he committed this crime, a criminal mastermind he does not seem. After all, walking away from a shopping mall and going to Michigan, and then being able to skate by thanks to a clerical error is not so much mastermind as luck.

What’s weird to me is they keep showing those composition photos of what he might look like today or 20 years ago, but they haven’t actually said what his age is unless I missed it? That seems important. Okay, according to the U.S. Marshals 15 Most Wanted poster they briefly showed, he was born on Halloween 1943, so he’s about to be 77-years-old. Unfortunately, at that age, he could just be dead. (Worth pointing out how wild this is though: Joe Biden, should he become the next president, would be 78-years-old when he takes the oath of office.)

Overall, I want to make something quite clear here: What happened to Mary Ellen is tragic. She was shot (and I’m still not clear on whether her autopsy showed she was bludgeoned with a brick or a blunt object, as indicated by the confession?), and left to die in the middle of the street not even a few blocks from her home at only the age of 14. That’s barely a life able to be lived, and it’s tragic.

But I’m concerned and skeptical about 1960s policing, particularly as it concerns a black man, and whether this was even a proper conviction at all. That’s probably not going to be a popular thing to question, but for the reasons I’ve stated, I think I bring forth valuable red flags to consider, and would be curious how others would answer them.

That all said, it’s also worth knowing what happened to Eubanks. Is he still alive? Where? What’s he doing? What’s he been doing all these years? Has he committed any new crimes? Did he really do this? For now, all of those questions remained, you could say, an unsolved mystery.

What do you make of this case? Please do tell me if you think I’m way off base here. I’d like to hear why!

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