Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Charlotte Rexroad: 40 Years Later, Many Questions

Posted Mar 08, 2010 @ 07:00 AM
Martha Woollard had rehearsed a tearful reunion many times. Her mom knocks on the door on Christmas, bearing a gift and an explanation. Or maybe, their eyes meet in the football stadium at her graduation from Garaway High School. Years of waiting, though, became decades. There were no such moments.

All Woollard has is a glossy black-and-white photo of her mom.

“You spend your life scanning crowds, to see if you see her face,” Woollard said.

At baseball games.

While shopping in stores.

On vacations and in her own neighborhood.

Martha Woollard is 46 years old. She holds down a good job as a recruiter at Traditions at Bath Road nursing home. She raised two children and is on her second marriage. She lives in the Kenmore area of Akron and loves her four grandchildren.

She knows where she has been in life and where she’s going.

Woollard, however, isn’t as sure about where she came from.

Her family tree was chopped to pieces on a cold, rainy night in Canton. A night that altered the future of four children left behind. A mysterious and fateful night 40 years ago when her mom left to wash clothes and never was seen again.

Canton in 1970 was home to blue-collar factory jobs. Its population of more than 120,000 was 50 percent larger than today. The present downtown bears only some resemblance to then. The site of the McKinley Grand hotel on Market Avenue S was home to the six-story historic McKinley Hotel. An aging, deteriorating building, which once hosted the likes of Rudolph Valentino and Al Jolson, it had plunged to a point of no return. It became home to down-on-their-luck guests and the overflow of homeless from the nearby Salvation Army.

“We had mostly people living in there by the week and by the month, like rental units,” said attorney George Tzangas, who owned the building.

A family of six landed in room 50. Four children — Mary Lynn Rexroad, 14, Martha Rexroad, 6, Freeman Wyne Jr., 5, and Margaret Wyne, 4.

Their mom was a pretty woman with a soft, rectangular face and short black hair. Her name was Charlotte Estelle Rexroad. She was tallish but petite, at 5-foot-6, 112 pounds. The only dad the children knew was her live-in boyfriend, Freeman Wyne. A freckle-faced auto mechanic at Schlemmer Buick a mile up the road, he was the father of the two youngest.

Everyone called Wyne by his nickname, “Red,” because of his red hair. He was born in Boggs, a little town in the heart of West Virginia. A drinker with a reputation as a freeloader with sticky fingers, he could take apart a car engine and put it together again inside of two hours. Seemed, though, he never kept a steady job.

“He was a bad actor, as worthless as they come,” recalled one of Charlotte Rexroad’s brothers, Glenn Rexroad Jr.

She often attracted the wrong guy. Her brother had seen it many times before. She had done a stint in the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), where she had trained as a dental technician in Bainbridge, Md., in 1955. That was long before she met Freeman Wyne. It was at that time that Rexroad got pregnant with her firstborn, Mary. A married Naval officer was rumored to be the father.

Four blocks from the McKinley Hotel, Canton’s lower working class and jobless fraternized in a strip of bars that police officers referred to as “Skid Row.”

On both sides of Tuscarawas Street E, from Rex Avenue to the railroad tracks at Savannah Avenue, nightlife lit up places such as the Landmark Cafe, Newt’s Pool Room, the Modern Cafe, State Burlesk, Factory Bar, the Hub Cafe, and its adjoining Pizzas by Petsy.

“They were the kind of places that guys would get out of jail, then go over there and spend their last $5 on wine,” recalled retired police officer James Crawford.

It’s the area where Charlotte Rexroad last was seen alive.

To this day, her disappearance is an unsolved, albeit forgotten case at the city police department. People go missing all the time. Always have; always will.

The FBI’s NCIC database, a clearinghouse of missings from around the country, typically numbers more than 100,000 people on any given day. Men and women who can’t be found; don’t want to be found; and some who were killed and likely never will be found.

Martha Woollard’s husband, Jeff, has watched her search in earnest for truth for better than 10 years. Armed with a computer and the Internet, she has scoured dot-coms. PeopleSearch. PeopleSite. Birthfamily. Peoplefinder. Intelius. Findme. Ancestry. Omnitrace. She once paid $800 for a “Miracle Search.”

She has learned bits and pieces about her mom and family.

But no miracle.

She even wrote on Dr. Phil’s message board:

“I am searching for my birth mother ... According to the missing person report, our mother disappeared ... from Canton, OH. She had gone to the laundromat with (Freeman Wyne) and they decided to go to the bar and then the stories change. The entire missing persons report was based on a mean drunk and a scared 14 year old girl.”

Today, Woollard is caught somewhere between truth and hope.

“Do you want to believe that your mother is alive, out there living somewhere and not contacting you?” her husband explained. “Or, do you want to believe she was murdered 40 years ago in a horrific way?”

Neither is a happy ending.

“We never really had a home,” Woollard said of her early childhood. “I remember sleeping in shelters or in cars. And (Wyne) was constantly hitting everybody. For me growing up, he was always the monster, the person I was afraid of. I remember we’d pack up in the middle of the night and move to the next place.”

Her memories are fleeting, though her favorite meal was buttermilk and Oreos.

On March 11, 1970, a Wednesday, the temperature in Canton peaked at 43 degrees. It cooled in the evening. Some radios in cars cruising through downtown that day and night likely were tuned to the melodic Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the No. 1 song in the country. Still, there were reminders it was troubling times.

That same day, the Greavu family of Canton Township received word that their 21-year-old son, Billy, lost his life in Vietnam. He was the 89th serviceman from Stark County to die in the war.

In homes all over Stark County, other families sat down to dinner that evening. At the McKinley Hotel, Freeman Wyne and his girlfriend of five years, Charlotte Rexroad, left to wash clothes. It’s not clear if they went to the hotel laundry room, a laundry within walking distance, or if they washed clothes at all. They exited room 50 together, passing others where families were tucked in with their TVs for the night, watching “Hee Haw,” “The Virginian,” “Room 222,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Hawaii Five-O.”

Wearing a pink blouse and blue skirt, with a blue scarf and a gray coat, 34-year-old Charlotte Rexroad wasn’t exactly dressed for a night on the town. After all, she wore brown slippers. Her four children, ages 14, 6, 5 and 4, remained behind in the untidy and often messy hotel room.

After leaving the hotel, Rexroad and Wyne altered their plans. They owned a car at the time, but it is not clear if they drove that night or walked the four blocks to Skid Row on Tuscarawas Street E.

The couple stopped for drinks at either the Landmark Cafe, a now-vacant building on the northeast corner of Cherry Avenue, or at Dee Freconna’s Factory Bar, a rowdy dive with a neon “liquor” sign jutting from the brick building, above the sidewalk. Wyne mentioned both places during interviews later with police.

From there, Wyne and Rexroad went to Benny Petsy’s Hub Cafe and pizza restaurant at 417 Tuscarawas St., across the street from “TNT Girl” Tracy Carroll’s nightly show at the State Burlesk. Again, Wyne provided slightly different accounts of what occurred next, during interviews with police:

Rexroad, he said, was dancing with other men. It was about 8:55 p.m., Wyne said, when he went to the bathroom. When he returned to his seat, she was on her way out the door with another man. In another account, Wyne said Rexroad got up and left with another man and woman, saying she was going to have a good time and that he should do as he pleased.

Wyne said he tried to reason with her to stay, but Rexroad went with the couple and was last seen walking east on Tuscarawas.

Four years ago, Martha Woollard obtained a copy of the police report about her mom’s disappearance. It didn’t make sense to her. She has watched enough crime shows on TV to know the husband or boyfriend always should be a prime suspect.

Why hadn’t police confiscated Wyne’s clothing? Where were the clothes they supposedly washed? Why didn’t they scour the hotel for clues? Over the years, memories corrode, but to this day, she remembers seeing blood on Wyne’s jeans that night.

“We were always told our mother was a whore, and she left us,” Woollard said.

The children, separated, all landed in the foster care system. The first stop for Woollard, then 6, and Mary Lynn, 14, was at David and Mona Thatcher’s three-bedroom house on Arlington Avenue SW.

On a shopping trip to buy clothes for the girls, the two girls told the Thatchers that it was better than Christmas.

“Mary was a little disturbed then,” recalled David Thatcher, who now lives in Hagerstown, Md. “She said, ‘I think (Freeman Wyne) killed my mom.’ And she’d mention it a lot, over and over at the time.”

All four children eventually were adopted. Mary Lynn went to live with her uncle, Glenn Rexroad Jr., and moved to West Virginia. The three youngest were adopted by Wilford and Gladys Marker in Canton, then moved to Sugarcreek.

After drinking, Freeman Wyne returned to the McKinley Hotel alone on the night of March 11. Drunk and belligerent, he created a disturbance — enough havoc that patrol officers arrested him on a charge of intoxication. He spent the night in the city jail, then paid a $10 fine and was released the next morning.

The same morning, 14-year-old Mary Lynn, a student at Hartford Middle School, walked to the police station to report her mom missing. She told officers her mom hadn’t come home since leaving the night before 
with Wyneto wash clothes.

“She felt that perhaps the stepfather did something to her, due to the fact that her mother wasn’t the kind of woman who stayed away from home,” officers wrote in their report.

Mary Lynn added that her two younger sisters and brother were at the hotel, where a neighbor named Lovey was baby-sitting them.

Officer James Crawford and detective Lester Kamp went looking for Freeman Wyne. They found him at the Landmark Cafe. They asked what happened with him and Charlotte Rexroad the night before. Wyne said she had been dancing with other men, then decided to leave the Hub Cafe with a man and woman — he said he had not seen her since.

“The writers were not too sure that he was telling a true story at this time,” Kamp wrote in his report. “We did bring this subject back to headquarters with us, where we did attempt to interrogate him further reference his wife; however, he could give us no further information ... he was advised to check the places his wife may go, also with relatives in the city and out of the city, and that he would be contacted later ...”

Officer Crawford brought the children from the hotel back to the station. He contacted Sue Albu of the Stark County Child Welfare office. She put the children, temporarily, in an emergency foster care home on Georgetown Road NE.

Four days later, a Monday, officers spoke to Wyne again. This time at his job at Schlemmer Buick. He told them he still hadn’t seen Rexroad. He went on to explain she’d recently had a cancer operation and hadn’t been herself lately. Wyne said she’d taken no interest in him or her family lately and suggested that’s why she left home.

The investigation appeared to have ended there.

Three years later, police deemed the case inactive but not cleared.

One reason for that decision — the complainant, Freeman Wyne, hadn’t expressed interest in the case since he was last interviewed. 

Canton Police Lt. Scott Beard said Rexroad’s information is not in the NCIC missing persons database, probably because her case began before it was created in 1975. He, said, though, that he would look into the possibility of entering it. Such a step could be helpful, because police agencies around the country have access to it.

With a similar face and features, Woollard resembles her mother, Rexroad. But there’s plenty that remains a mystery, including the identity of her birth father.

“I want to know where my green eyes, sarcastic wit and quick temper come from,” she said.

Besides scouring the Internet, contacting the military, Social Security office and even far-flung relatives, Woollard and her younger sister, Margaret “Maggie” Seward, have contemplated donating their DNA to compare to unidentified remains.

“I believe she’s dead, that (Freeman Wyne) killed her,” Seward said.

Wyne died at age 76 in 2008, at Raleigh General Hospital in Beckley, W. Va., without ever sharing any more about that night in Canton 40 years ago.

In the fall of 1996, when they had just begun their quest, Woollard and Seward tracked down Wyne. Seward called him at his home in a one-bedroom trailer in Summerville, W.Va. He invited them for a visit.

The half-sisters drove down.

“I was going to confront him,” Woollard said.

They had so many questions for him. They wanted to know more about their mom. Where did Woollard get her green eyes, short temper and sarcastic wit? What happened on that night of March 11, 1970? Why had their mom abandoned them? Even more to the point, did he kill their mom?

“It was disappointing,” Woollard said.

“It was a pretty bizarre visit,” Seward said.

They talked to him for better than three hours, but he confessed to nothing. Confined to a wheelchair, he had suffered a stroke. Wyne told the women he simply didn’t remember much of that night.

Two days after Christmas in 2006, Woollard wrote a letter to her mom — though she had nowhere to send it. In it, she introduces herself. She explains how she has thought of her every day of her life: “My entire life changed March 11, 1970. That is the last time I saw you. So much has happened since that day that I feel we would need years to catch up. Just to have that time with you is all that I want ...”

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...