“THE LITIGATING WITCH AND POLTERGEIST CASE” and More Bizarre True Stories! #WeirdDarkness
Listen to ““THE LITIGATING WITCH AND POLTERGEIST CASE” and More Bizarre True Stories! #WeirdDarkness” on Spreaker.
IN THIS EPISODE: A witch ends up in court – not as the defendant, but as the plaintiff! (The Litigating Witch Case) *** As you may have heard, nothing sells like sex and death. A Louisville brothel combined the two when someone dropped dead from poisoning. And the media absolutely loved it. (The Brothel Poisoning) *** While out jogging, Sherri Papini inexplicably disappeared. Twenty-two days later she returned home with a story so incredible it was hard to believe. In fact, some people still don’t believe her after all these years. (The Sherri Papini Mystery) *** When groups of sinister drones began hovering over homes in America’s Midwest, the FBI, US Air Force and 16 police forces set up a task force. But the drones vanished. And some wonder if they ever existed at all. (Attack of the Drones)
SOURCES AND REFERENCES FROM THE EPISODE…
“The Litigating Witch Case” from Esoterx.com: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/ktypnf2b
“The Brothel Poisoning” posted at Strange Company: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/3wn6vn74
“The Sheri Papini Mystery” posted at StrangeOutdoors.com: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/nesbr2yc
“Attack of the Drones” by Amelia Tait for TheGuardian.com: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/yt3s8bb6
Background music by Nicolas Gasparini/Myuu: https://tinyurl.com/lnqpfs8
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Originally aired: June 23, 2021
STORY: THE LITIGATING WITCH CASE=====
Cideville is a quaint farming village in Normandy, France near the only slightly larger town of Yerville, part of the Seine-Inférieure region, thirty-five miles from Havre, and 80 miles northwest of Paris. Cideville has always been a sleepy little hamlet, but in the winter of 1851, it was at the center of a curious defamation trial involving accusations of sorcery and the predations of an inconsiderate (yet musically talented) poltergeist. This was a rare instance where the accused witch was the plaintiff and the priest was the defendant, and ultimately everything got blamed on an angry ghost.
Father Jean Tinel was the Curé of Cideville, a parish priest entrusted with the souls of the good people of the town, and sadly, beginning in November 1850, he found his parsonage beset by disturbances of an inexplicable character centering on two young pupils in his household, Gustave Lemonnier (age 12) and Bunel (age 14). Gustave and Bunel were known to be of amiable dispositions, the sons of respectable parents who had entrusted Tinel with preparing the youths for entry into the priesthood. Beginning in late November 1850 – usually in whatever room the boys were in – strange rapping sounds were heard and objects flew about of their own accord.
Gustave Lemonnier, the younger of the pupils, aged twelve, said that raps began when he was alone, on November 26th, and continued. He saw knives, blacking-brushes, a roasting spit, and M. Tinel’s breviary leave their places and go through the window-panes. All sorts of objects flew about. He was struck in the face by a shoe, a candlestick, and by a black hand which afterwards disappeared up the chimney. A sort of human shape, dressed in a blouse, which appeared to be a spectre, followed him about for a whole fortnight. We learn from another witness that the child said that this spectre was only fifteen inches high. Once an invisible force pulled him by the leg, his comrade sprinkled some holy water, and the force let go; then a child’s voice was heard crying, “Pardon, mercy.” Notwithstanding all these disquieting events he did not ask to be allowed to go home (Podmore, 1908, p152-153).
Obviously, such spectral shenanigans were a bit disconcerting, but young Gustave and Bunel were priests-in-training, so it seems like they recognized that one of the job requirements was doing battle with evil spirits. Now, poltergeists have been known to land people in the loony bin or hospital, but rarely do they wind up in the courtroom. Legal trouble started when Gustave reported that the phantom in the blouse bore a remarkable resemblance to a shepherd swain (swain being a generic term for a “country youth”, which is a little bit odd since Thorel was aged 40 at the time) from nearby Anzouville-l’EsveDal named Felix Thorel, to whom Tinel had introduced the boys. Bunel reported that his compatriot Gustave had a “nervous attack” and lost consciousness immediately after meeting Thorel, making the apparent similarity of the apparition even more suspicious. To make matters worse, rumor had it that Thorel had boasted of his powers as a sorcerer.
This was enough to convince Father Tinel that something was awry at the Circle K. He accused Thorel of producing the bizarre phenomena in his parsonage and tormenting his two pupils. By Tinel’s account Thorel promptly knelt and begged his and the boy’s pardon, but Tinel was not feeling particularly charitable. Priests don’t dig the sorcery thing. Tinel demanded that Thorel’s employer (unsurprisingly named Mr. Pain) dismiss the shepherd. Not entirely satisfied that Thorel had been thoroughly reprimanded, Tinel beat him with a stick “to the effusion of blood”. Poor Thorel was now accused of sorcerous nefariousness, bloody, and unemployed. This was mid-19th Century France, so they weren’t burning witches anymore and the occasional beating of the underclass was nothing to write home about. What you really didn’t want was to be unemployed and indigent in Normandy. “Thereupon Thorel, having lost his place as shepherd in consequence of such suspicions, brought suit for defamation of character against the curate, laying the damages at twelve hundred francs. The trial was commenced before the justice of the peace of Yerville on the 7th of January, 1851” (Owen, 1860, p272). And it was at this trial that the bizarre details of the poltergeist’s behavior were described and written down for all posterity in the records of the court, including a parade of notable and respected witness to the strange goings on in the Tinel household. Tinel and his students were deposed, outlining the character of the poltergeist activity after the initial rappings.
On Tuesday, the 26th of November, 1850, as the two children were at work in one of the rooms in the upper story of the parsonage, about five o’clock in the afternoon, they heard knockings, resembling light blows of a hammer, on the wainscoting of the apartment. These knockings were continued daily throughout the week, at the same hour of the afternoon. On the next Sunday, the 1st of December, the blows commenced at mid-day; and it was on that day that the curate first thought of addressing them. He said, “Strike louder!” Thereupon the blows were repeated more loudly. They continued thus all that day. On Monday, December 2, the elder of the two boys said to the knockings, “Beat time to the tune of Maitre Corbeau,” and they immediately obeyed. The next day, Tuesday, December 3, the boy having related the above circumstances to M. Tinel, he, (Tinel,) being much astonished, resolved to try, and said, “Play us Maitre Corbeau,” and the knockings obeyed. The afternoon of that day, the knockings became so loud and violent that a table in the apartment moved somewhat, and the noise was so great that one could hardly stay in the room. Later in the same afternoon, the table moved from its place three times. The curate’s sister, after assuring herself that the children had not moved it, replaced it; but twice it followed her back again. The noises continued, with violence, all that week (Owen, 1860, p272).
It’s rare to find a poltergeist that will take requests from your playlist, and if it wasn’t for the various ghostly assaults that followed, it might have just been an intriguing novelty. Alas, poltergeists are temperamental critters, and the earnestness with which it made its presence known escalated. Witnesses emerged to attest to the ensuing nastiness that plagued Father Tinel’s humble home. A M. de Bagnel testified to hearing particular requested tunes beaten by the rappings, and that he could in no way discern the origin. Another local notable named August Huet, a neighboring proprietor along with the Curate of Limsey and another gentleman, heard similar rappings and were convinced the young boys could not have produced the sounds themselves. The poltergeist obligingly beat time to the tune of Au Claire de la Lune upon request. The Mayor of Cideville reported he watched as a set of fireplace tongs and a shovel flew across the room. The Curate of Saussay testified that upon visiting Tinel’s parsonage he saw hammers and bread move by themselves in manners he could not explain, emphasizing that in regards to the veracity of his testimony that he would Je le signerais de mon sang (“sign it with his own blood”). A local aristocrat, the Marquis de Mirville, having heard of the disturbances, resolved to investigate them. Initially he heard scratchings and rappings, but undaunted he resolved to experiment, and described his experience to the court. The transcripts of the testimony of the Marquis de Mirville outline his findings.
Last Wednesday I went to the Presbytery of Cideville and said to the ’cause,’ “When you wish to reply affirmatively rap once; when you wish to reply negatively rap twice.” Immediately a rap was heard. “Then you will be able to tell me how many letters there are in my name” Eight raps were heard, the last more distinct than the others, apparently to make one understand that it was the last. “My baptismal name now?” Reply, five raps. “And now my fore-name which figures on the register of the Civil List, and which no one has hitherto called me by.” Immediately, seven raps; “and the names of my children, first the eldest;” Five raps,—quite correct, she is called Aline. “That of the youngest?” Nine raps, a mistake, immediately rectified, for seven raps were struck. She is called Blanche. “Now let us pass to my age; strike as many raps as I have years.” Instantly the raps succeeded each other with such rapidity that I was obliged to stop them in order to count them, and I demanded more slowness; forty-eight raps were then heard very distinctly, the forty-eighth being more accentuated than the others. “That is not all. How many months do you reckon between the first of January of this year, and the moment I shall be forty-nine?” Three very loud raps and one faint one followed. “What does the faint one mean? Probably half a month?” One rap. “Good! But it is not finished. How many days now between that half month and my birthday?” Nine raps, the last being more accentuated. Perfectly correct, I shall be forty-nine on the 24th of April of this year…”Let us pass on to the place of my abode. How many letters are there in its name?” Eight raps; “and in the name of my Commune? Be careful not to make the usual mistake.” Ten raps were heard. Now I live in the Commune of Gomerville, the name of which is often written with two m’s, a mistake not made by the ’cause.’ It was demonstrated to me by this, that I had to do with an old acquaintance—I hope not a friend. “Let us pass to music; you are said to be a musician, the other day you sang the first part of Rossini’s Stabat, they say; since you know the first part you ought to know the second part, the bass part Pro peccatis suae gentis; let me hear it.” Instantly the mysterious agent rapped the rhythm of the first two bars correctly enough, but in the third committed an irregularity which slightly spoiled the rhythm. On my remarking this, it began again, corrected the mistake, and the passage was recognisable. Two or three popular airs, such as, J’ai du bon Tabic, Maitre Corbeau, etc…were articulated rapidly and without any mistake. The other pieces from the Italian repertoire which I demanded, were perfectly an- known to it. “Come,” I said to it, “you are a poor dilettante. Now follow me if you can.” I then hummed a waltz from Guillaume Tell. It listened at first without doing anything; then followed me exactly while I sang it; and several times during the morning, when we were no longer thinking of it, it came back to the same piece and tried to execute it alone (Lang, 1904, p458-459).
Personally, I think the Marquis’ expectation for the musical acumen of dead guy were overly optimistic, and frankly, were I a specter, I would probably have thrown something at him for his snarky commentary, but one can only expect the merest modicum of social restraint from a 19th Century French aristocrat. They were just getting over the Revolution after all. Over a dozen additional witnesses were called, and swore to either experiencing the musical machinations of the poltergeist, objects inexplicably flying about the parsonage, or Tinel’s angry encounter with Felix Thorel. Final judgement was rendered on February 15th, 1851, the learned judge concluding that the extraordinary phenomena at the Presbytery of Cideville “remain unknown”. This is of course, a rather irritating official judgement and didn’t really help Thorel. As Thorel himself had reportedly taken credit for sorcerous activities that caused the poltergeist activity at Tinel’s parsonage, as well as showing contrition before witnesses on two occasions, the court concluded that the defamation suit was frivolous. Thorel was ordered to pay six Francs in court costs and sent packing. Meanwhile, there was still a poltergeist to deal with. Tinel’s superiors in the church ordered the two young students to be removed and situated with another teacher, and immediately the poltergeist activity in the Tinel parsonage ceased.
There are a few lessons here. First, don’t sue for libel when you’ve gone around singing your own praises as a powerful sorcerer. Even if you aren’t responsible for local occult activity, you’ll probably be blamed for it. Second, music does seem to soothe the savage beast and unfortunately few people have tried the musical approach to communicating with a poltergeist. Third, poltergeist activity always spirals into throwing stuff. Or getting sucked into a television. Or some such unsavory end. Sure, maybe it’s entertaining at first, but inevitably dealing with the angry spirits involves projectiles. I’m sure there is some sort of obscure fourth lesson about not being a peasant in Normandy. There’s also a lesson here for poltergeists as well, and it comes from Aristotle, who said, “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy”. Evidently, we don’t get any better at it when we’re dead.
When Weird Darkness returns, you may have heard “nothing sells like sex”. Of course, for Weirdos listening to this podcast, “nothing sells like death”. Well then… a Louisville brothel combined the two when someone dropped dead from poisoning. And the media absolutely loved it. (The Brothel Poisoning)
STORY: THE BROTHEL POISONING=====
From the time the concept of “mass media” was invented, it has been universally acknowledged that nothing sells like sex or death. Put the two together, and you’ve got a sure-fire public favorite.
So, naturally, when people started dropping dead in a Louisville brothel, local journalists thought they themselves had died and gone straight to heaven.
The establishment run by forty year old Emma Austin spent the night of September 8, 1892 in a quiet manner–or, at least as quiet as it is in such places. Besides Mrs. Austin, the occupants were her eleven year old son Lloyd, Austin’s laundress Rachel Jackson, Mrs. Jackson’s young daughter Lillie, and Austin’s star employee, young, beautiful Eugenia Sherrill. Some four or five men came to call. Mrs. Sherrill–before presumably entertaining visitors in more private fashion–played “Nearer My God to Thee” on the piano. Someone sent out for ice cream, which was enjoyed by everyone in the house. And so to bed.
The next morning, young Lloyd said he was not feeling well, but Mrs. Austin insisted he go to school anyway. She then made breakfast: batter cakes, cantaloupe, jam, and coffee. Mrs. Austin and Eugenia Sherrill were the only ones to partake of the meal.
The other residents would soon be thankful they had skipped breakfast. Almost immediately, the two women began feeling deathly ill, suffering from uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea. A Mrs. Johnson, who was temporarily boarding in the house, heard their cries of agony and summoned a doctor. (As a side note, reporters later had a lot of fun publishing Mrs. Johnson’s insistent remarks that she had no idea–no, sir, no suspicion in the world–that she was rooming in a house of ill repute.)
At first, the physician, Dr. Brennan, presumed the women were suffering from nothing worse than a case of severe food poisoning–an ailment sadly common in pre-refrigeration summers–and gave them the medicine appropriate for such cases. However, Austin and Sherrill continued to deteriorate. Their eyes dilated, they were covered in a cold sweat, and, most alarming of all, they had begun vomiting blood. The doctor soon realized the women had been poisoned, probably deliberately.
This shocking development opened up an embarrassing can of worms for everyone involved. As I said above, Mrs. Johnson was left trying to explain why she, a seemingly respectable lady, had spent the last two weeks living in a brothel. Eugenia Sherrill’s position was even more mortifying: prostitution was merely her secret side career. Up until now, she was known to society only as a member of one of Kentucky’s most prominent and respectable families. Even worse, for the past year she had been married to Edward Sherrill, a prosperous traveling salesman. In her agony, poor Mrs. Sherrill was frantic to be brought to her home so she could die without her double life being discovered. Unfortunately, she was far too ill to be moved. Dr. Brennan was helpless to save them. Eugenia died at 12: 45 p.m. Mrs. Austin’s sufferings ended two hours later.
As it was obvious that foul play had taken place, the coroner immediately arranged an inquest. To save time, it was held in the brothel, which may be some sort of true-crime first. Because little Lloyd Austin was sick after eating the ice cream the night before, it was at first suspected that the dessert might have been poisoned. However, this theory was dismissed when it was realized that no one else felt ill after eating it. Most likely, the boy had just consumed so much of it he gave himself indigestion.
Among the inquest witnesses was Mrs. Austin’s adult daughter, Nellie Koch. Mrs. Koch lived elsewhere, having, as she enigmatically put it, “left my mother’s house several weeks ago.” When she heard of her mother’s illness, she came to see her. She testified that Mrs. Austin told her that she and Mrs. Sherrill became sick right after eating breakfast. Mrs. Koch also revealed that she had done a fine job of eliminating evidence by throwing away all the remnants of the batter cakes. None of the other witnesses were able to contribute anything useful to the investigation.
An autopsy was performed on Mrs. Austin. (Since Mrs. Sherrill had obviously died of the same cause, it was evidently felt that it was unnecessary to perform a post-mortem on her.) It revealed that she had died from ingesting some irritant poison, possibly arsenic. As no such substance was kept in the house, this indicated deliberate poisoning. Considering that the two dead women were the only ones to eat the batter cakes, that meal was clearly what had been adulterated.
Meanwhile, Edward Sherrill returned to Louisville from a business trip, to be greeted by the shock of his life. It is hard to know what stunned him most: the news that his young bride had been poisoned, or the revelation that whenever he was out of town, Eugenia was spending her nights in a brothel. The despairing man dashed to Mrs. Austin’s house–where the bodies of the two victims were on macabre public display–and clasped his wife’s body in his arms, wailing piteously that he refused to believe the “vile stories.” It was some fifteen minutes before the hysterical Mr. Sherrill could be parted from the corpse, still crying and insisting that his beloved “Genie” had been “true to him.”
It must have been a heartrending thing to watch. And, of course, every detail was lovingly preserved in the newspapers.
Mrs. Austin was quietly buried in Cave Hill Cemetery. In contrast, Eugenia’s funeral in her native Meade County was one of the largest in the area’s history. Hundreds attended her burial, all of them apparently drawn by an odd combination of pity and salacious curiosity.
There was no question that the two women had been deliberately poisoned, but no one could agree on who did it, and why. Nellie Koch suggested that Emma deliberately poisoned her food, and for some unfathomable reason, decided to take Mrs. Sherrill with her. Mrs. Johnson endorsed this theory. She said she found it odd that as the women were dying, Mrs. Sherrill was frantic to survive, while, in contrast, Mrs. Austin seemed utterly indifferent to her fate. In addition, Mrs. Austin had recently visited the Jeffersonville penitentiary to see her brother, Sam Gore. (He was serving a ten year sentence for murder.) A guard had heard her telling Gore that she would soon “end her trouble.” It was also noted that Emma had recently heavily insured her life, making her son the beneficiary. And why did she insist on sending Lloyd to school without breakfast, even though he wasn’t feeling well?
Others suggested that the victims were poisoned by one of the brothel’s clients–possibly someone who had a motive to cover up his visits to the house. Two of the men who came by on the night before the poisonings spent the night, which would have made it easy for them to slip something unpleasant into the food before they left. After this theory was aired in the newspapers, it inspired half the males in town to visit the police stations, nervously denying that they had ever so much as laid eyes on Mrs. Austin’s establishment. Thus providing Louisville’s wives with a handy guide to which of their husbands had a taste for bordellos.
No first-class murder mystery is complete without nutty anonymous letters to the authorities, and this one was no exception. On September 12, the coroner received an unsigned letter which took the investigation into a whole new territory:
“Dr. Berry: That poison Was intended For Vince Spaninger And Mrs. Austin. He Ate His Meals Thair, And He Has Bin Keeping A Woman for Twenty years. She Lives at 117 West Walnut, And Tha All Had A Fight And it Has not A more than. And she said she would Kill Him is She Caught Him in The Austin House. Enclosed You will find some of the Drug That Was used. Now find out who used it, Spaninger’s Wife or Mrs. Cole or Nelly Koch. Nelly and Her mother had the fuss about Him. The only Regret is that the Poisoning of The Innocent One. It is No secret About the way Spaninger And the Austin woman lived. All Second street know it. Policeman Sweeney Can Tell you if you Want to Know if He will talk. Anney Myers, Betty Harper, John Snyder, Jake Dehl. It is to be hoped you will Find the Guilty one.”
Vince Spaninger was a Louisville produce merchant. Mrs. Austin’s brothel was located directly above his store. It was far from the first time this anonymous author had written about Spaninger’s doings. For Vince, peddling vegetables was merely a way to make a living. His real profession was women. His romantic history was enough to make Casanova blush. For the past ten years or so, this same anonymous writer had been sending Speninger’s unfortunate wife Lizzie letters chronicling her husband’s many, many infidelities in great–and, it turned out–extremely accurate detail.
“Policeman Sweeney”–whose real name was actually “Feeny”–was asked about the anonymous writer’s claims, and he did indeed talk. He was able to confirm that Spaninger was one of the two men who had stayed overnight at Mrs. Austin’s house. It also emerged that Spaninger had suggested Emma make batter cakes for breakfast, but he declined to stay to eat any of them.
The plot, as they say, thickened.
Spaninger’s lady friend at 117 West Walnut turned out to be forty year old Josephine Cole. Like Mrs. Austin, Cole was a madam, but on a more modest scale. She made the bulk of her income from giving psychic readings at fifty cents a pop. She readily told reporters that yes, indeed, she had been Vince Spaninger’s mistress for the past fifteen years, and furthermore, she had tried to keep him from marrying. (By this point, Lizzie Spaninger was probably wishing Mrs. Cole had succeeded.) She admitted that she had been jealous of Vince’s relationship with the late Mrs. Austin, and confirmed that he had been the cause of the falling-out between Emma and Nellie Koch. She professed to have no idea who had written all those anonymous letters chronicling Mr. Spaninger’s every sordid move, but she intimated that whoever had deserved a medal. When questioned about the letters, Spaninger himself denounced them as a pack of lies. He had no idea who had poisoned Mrs. Austin and Mrs. Sherrill, but he did not believe Emma had committed suicide.
Nellie Koch denied that she had argued with her mother, and suggested that the letter writer–whoever he/she was–must also be the murderer.
The four names at the end of the anonymous letter were questioned, with little success. Betty Harper, a former prostitute, claimed not to have even known Mrs. Austin, and she certainly had no idea who had poisoned her. Annie Myers said much the same. John Snyder and Jacob Diehl were business partners of Spaninger’s. They both claimed to share the same convenient ignorance of the fact that a house of assignation had been operating over their store. However, Diehl was able to provide the interesting information that Spaninger believed that he thought all those pesky anonymous letters were written by Josephine Cole.
The “drug” the anonymous writer had included with the letter turned out to be arsenic. Did the writer get the arsenic elsewhere, or was it from the stash used as a murder weapon?
On September 14, two detectives called on Josephine Cole. They thought it was time to have a nice long chat. While there, one of them noticed that the writing on a photo of Spaninger resembled that of the anonymous tattletale. When he asked if this was her writing, Mrs. Cole realized the game was up and it was time to confess all. Yes, she had written those letters to Mrs. Spaninger. Most of them, at least. Some, she claimed, were sent by yet another of Vince’s mistresses, one Maggie Faulkner.
The detectives then asked the obvious follow-up question: where did she get the arsenic included with the letter? Mrs. Cole replied that on the morning Mrs. Austin cooked her last breakfast, Spaninger came to her house in an obviously agitated state. He told her that Mrs. Austin and Mrs. Sherrill were both going to die. When he took a handkerchief out of his pocket, he failed to notice that a brown paper packet fell out. Mrs. Cole presumed it was a love letter to another woman, so she managed to hide it with her foot until he left. When she opened the packet, she realized it contained poison. Mrs. Cole explained that she would have kept Vince’s little secret, if not for the fact that she subsequently learned that he had been far more than neighbors to Mrs. Austin. Although one would think the Casanova of the Produce Aisle’s habits would have been old news to Mrs. Cole, she was enraged enough to send that informative letter to the coroner, along with a sample of the powder and a list of names she thought could also dish the dirt on Spaninger. She believed his motive for the murder was to get Mrs. Austin out of the way so he could spend more time with his latest amour, Nellie Koch. (As a side note, Mrs. Cole was evidently unaware that her daughter Carrie was also said to have been Spaninger’s mistress.)
As a result of this little tale, both Spaninger and Mrs. Cole found themselves under arrest. Spaninger denied every word of Mrs. Cole’s story; in fact, he was positive she was the poisoner.
And what of Nellie Koch, who, thanks to Mrs. Cole, was suddenly under scrutiny? She had bitterly quarreled with her soon-to-be-deceased mother. She had thrown away the breakfast before it could be analyzed. And she had, shall we say, a colorful past. In 1886, she married a railroad worker named Gilbert Brockman. The pair spent their brief married life getting kicked out of various residences thanks to Nellie’s reputation for “immorality.” And then there was the time Brockman–at his wife’s urging–tried to murder one of her former lovers. In 1887, Brockman suddenly fell ill and died. The smart money assumed Nellie had poisoned him, but his doctors stubbornly stated that Brockman died of natural causes.
This was beginning to look like one of those Agatha Christie stories where all the characters have a motive. Usually, there is a hard time finding suspects in a murder case. 1892 Louisville was just lousy with them.
When the inquest resumed on September 16, it, like the earlier such inquiry, did little to clarify matters. Vince Spaninger denied any involvement with the crime. He claimed that he would have stayed to share the fatal breakfast, if it had not been for the fact that he had important matters to attend to. When Nellie Koch was on the stand, she was asked why she threw out the breakfast leftovers, considering their obvious possible link to the sudden illness of the two women. She replied that it didn’t occur to her that her mother might be poisoned. She denied having any sort of romantic relationship with Spaninger. Dr. Brennan testified that Mrs. Austin’s stomach had indeed contained arsenic. And so the coroner’s jury delivered the inevitable verdict: the two women had been poisoned by a person unknown.
There was a brief trial of Spaninger and Josephine Cole, which was no more illuminating than the inquest. Everyone who had spoken at the inquest repeated their stories. Mrs. Johnson (whose real name turned out to be “Lydia Anderson”) had fled town to avoid testifying at the inquest, but authorities managed to haul her back to take the stand. She proved to be as unhelpful as all the other witnesses. Her testimony indicated that Nellie Koch was far from grief-stricken by her mother’s untimely end, and that Spaninger was in the habit of discreetly using Mrs. Austin’s window, rather than the staircase, to enter her room.
At the end of the proceedings, the judge could only sigh, “We have a world of evidence, without a scintilla of proof.” Enough dirty laundry had been produced to fill a million washing machines, but none of it was the slightest help with establishing who had poisoned Mrs. Austin’s batter cakes. Everyone involved was set free to carry on their curious lives, and this complicated little murder mystery faded from public memory.
Although many people had motive for the poisoning, only two of them had an evident opportunity. No poison was found in any of the ingredients used to make the batter cakes. Thus, it was reasoned, the arsenic had to have been added to the batter itself. And the only people known to have been in the vicinity when the batter was made were Emma Austin and Vince Spaninger.
Was this murder/suicide? Did Mrs. Austin, resentful of Spaninger’s likely attentions to the younger, prettier Mrs. Sherrill, decide to poison her rival and herself? Or did Spaninger–certainly a man with a lot to hide–have his own secret motives to be rid of the women? Or did someone else manage to sneak in to poison the batter unseen?
While out jogging, Sherri Papini inexplicably disappeared. Twenty-two days later she returned home with a story so incredible it was hard to believe. In fact, some people still don’t believe her after all these years. (The Sherri Papini Mystery) That story is up next on Weird Darkness.
STORY: THE SHERRI PAPINI MYSTERY=====
Sherri Papini, 34, disappeared on November 2, 2016, whilst out jogging a mile from her home in Redding, California.
She reappeared 22 days later at 4.30 am on Thanksgiving Day near the town of Mountain Gale on November 24, 2016.
Sherri told the police that she had been kidnapped by two Hispanic women and a medical exam showed she had been “branded,” on her right shoulder, though it was unclear what the image was that had been burned into her skin. She had also lost a significant amount of weight during captivity.
In the months that followed the authorities cast some doubts on her story given the unlikely details and inconsistencies of the reported abduction.
The story remains a mystery as seemingly investigators still can’t decide if Sherri was the victim of a kidnapping or they are the victims of a hoax. But if it was a hoax, what was the motive? If the abduction was faked, who harmed her so badly?
Sherri’s husband, Keith Papini, became concerned when he returned from his job at Best Buy on November 2, 2016, and did not find her at home. She also had not picked her children up from daycare.
He used the “Find My iPhone” application to try and find where she was by locating her cell phone. The app indicated her cellphone was at the intersection of Sunrise Drive and Old Oregon Trail, about a mile from their home.
Keith said, “I couldn’t find her, so I called the daycare to see what time she picked up the kids. The kids were never picked up so I got freaked out, I hit the Find My iPhone app thing. I found her phone; it’s got like hair ripped out of it, like, in the headphones.”
When Keith went to retrieve the phone it was placed on the ground and with the headphones tidily wrapped around it. He contacted the authorities on the assumption that something bad had happened to Sherri.
Three weeks later, in the early morning hours of November 24, Sherri was found at the side of County Road 17 near Interstate 5 in Yolo County. The location was 150 miles (240 km) south of where she disappeared and around 15 miles north of Sacramento.
According to police, despite being chained, she had managed to flag down a passing car.
Sherri told police she had been held by two Hispanic women who took steps to keep their faces hidden from her, either by wearing masks or by keeping her head covered. Sherri said that the two women armed with a handgun had abducted her, beat her, and held her captive in a basement before one of them finally left her on the side of the road.
Sherri said the women had been driving a dark-colored SUV with a large rear side window at the time of the kidnapping but she was unable to give details of the make and model.
She seemed to have been physically abused during her captivity. She had been branded with a threatening message, her nose broken and her hair cut off. She also weighed only 87 pounds (40 kg) when she was found.
The sheriff’s office said, “Sherri appeared battered and bruised, her hair had been cut to shoulder length and she had a brand on her right shoulder. Sherri, however, stated she had not been sexually assaulted, and there is no physical evidence to indicate otherwise. “
‘The Sheriff’s Office examined the brand on Sherri’s shoulder and its possible meaning, but details remain confidential.
Sketches of Sherri’s alleged kidnappers were released in October 2017, 11 months after she was taken. One woman was described as being aged between 20 and 30 years old, 5 feet 5 inches tall and with curly dark hair, thin eyebrows and pierced ears. The second woman was between 40 and 50 years old, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, with long, straight black hair with some gray in it, thick eyebrows and pierced ears.
A medical examination of Sherri found there was male DNA on her person, but no other female DNA, seemingly at odds with her claim that two “Mexican women” abducted her. This male DNA was not her husband’s and Keith Papini volunteered for a polygraph and passed.
Then a man called the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office a few months after the alleged abduction claiming that Sherri was with him for the entire 22 days when she was supposedly held captive by the Hispanic women. But this lead went nowhere. Still, it helped to seed doubts in the Sheriff’s office.
The authorities were skeptical from the start about the abduction even before she was found alive. They spent days focused almost entirely on an exchange on the Papini’s computer that suggested she might have been involved with a man she met online.
Police found Sherri had been texting a man before her disappearance and they tracked down the man in Detroit, Michigan on November 9, a week after she disappeared. But the man was ruled out as a suspect in her disappearance and the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department refused to give further details.
Sherri also appeared to have had a troubled past. When she was 18 years old, her sister accused her of kicking in the back door of the family’s Shasta Lake home The same day, her parents, Richard and Loretta Graeff, called the police to report the incident as “vandalism” and claimed that she had taken off to “somewhere in Redding”.
When she was 21, her parents placed another call to the police alleging she had taken money from her father’s bank account which she later returned. Then Loretta reported that Sherri was harming herself and blaming the injuries on her.
Retired NYPD Sgt. Joseph Giacalone and now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice said after Sherri was found, “I don’t think they could find anything in the United States where that happened to someone. Generally, when kidnappings go on that long, they don’t end as well as this one did.
That no motive was ever revealed in the case is also perplexing, along with the $100,000 reward being offered in the case going unclaimed. “When you’re going to kidnap someone you’ve got a reason for it, whether it’s money, revenge or to get back at somebody,” Giacalone said. A pair of female kidnappers is also “very unusual” he said.
Since authorities have indicated there’s no public threat from the two women, Giacalone said that could suggest that Sherri knew her abductors. “Generally when law enforcement doesn’t say there’s a public threat, they genuinely believe the person actually knows the perpetrator.”
Others criticized the investigation, “The sheriff’s office was so focused on that one lead that they forgot how to run an investigation. I’m not afraid to call out law enforcement when they’re not doing their job and the problem, in this case, is that law enforcement has failed miserably.”
Sherri Papini now remains at home with her husband Keith and son and daughter on the outskirts of Shasta Lake in Northern California.
Neighbors have said that Sheri is now only seen outside infrequently and “mostly stays home”.
Weirdo family member Dave Barton sent in this next story. He calls it “Otto’s”…
When I was 16, I got into a wreck in my Dad’s truck, I had my license for 1 week when this happened and the truck was my Dad’s work truck, he had his own business. I was in deep trouble, luckily for me the guy who came to tow the truck was someone my dad had known from his teenage years. The man’s name was Otto. So my Dad rode with Otto since he wanted the truck towed to our house. When my Dad had cooled off enough to talk to me he told me about Otto and how they had both been street racers (was that a term used in the late 60’s?) anyway the main street in Salt Lake is State Street and weekend nights teenagers would cruise up and down state street until they made it illegal. They also went to a local drag strip so they didn’t risk speeding tickets. (one more ticket and no more license). He told me Otto started a business called Otto’s Auto and Marine where he would fix cars, boats, build race cars and towed cars. His shop was very successful. He was the only one who could test a boat engine under load at his shop, he basically had a big pool you could back a boat into and tie it down and run the engine, better than anyone else could do. He could have been considered a “local Legend” in certain circles. Obviously not to lawyers or white-collar guys but anyone with an auto shop, marine shop, raced cars or ran tow trucks knew about him. had a good shop, wish I had a shop like that. One kid in Auto shop would wear an Otto’s T-shirt and I thought it as cool. Fast forward 15 years or so I was working as a small engine mechanic. The building we were in was being sold and we had to move. We moved across the street. That is when I found out where Otto’s shop was, we were moving onto Otto’s building. I did not know if Otto’s was even around anymore or not. I thought it was cool. This is also when I learned I knew more people that knew who Otto was. I was rebuilding the engine to my truck and took it to a machine shop which is owned by a guy my Dad and I know and have used before. Talking to him one day I told him that we were moving into Otto’s old shop he got kind of quiet and told me it’s too bad what happened to Otto. My work had hired a new delivery driver. Turns out he had married into Otto’s family (he married Otto’s niece). Between the 2 of those guys I found out what had happened to Otto. Things were not going well in their marriage and Otto killed his wife and himself it was a shock that someone who seemed to have it all would…. well I guess the grass isn’t greener on the other side and you don’t know what other people are really going through, whatever the reason it is sad.
The building faces North the very west end of the building lower floor is breakroom, salesman’s office, and shop office (my office) which is directly right off the shop. Directly upstairs from that is where Otto and his wife had their office’s. We did not use this area for anything other than storage, it was in disrepair and had basically been stripped down. I worked in the shop which was of course right below the upstairs there were windows that would allow people from upstairs to see into the shop. I could also see upstairs from the shop. Well sometimes the lights would be on upstairs and the other guys I worked with would try to freak each other out saying that it was Otto’s ghost. I just chuckled to myself that someone just forgot to turn off the lights. And that it’s funny when people try to freak each other out. Now in the shop we had some shelving (rivetier shelving) for storing parts for the machines that were in for repair. Have you ever seen a bus boy using those grey plastic totes to collect all the dishes from the table? Well we used those bins on the shelves to make sure all the parts for a machine would stay in the same spot all together and wouldn’t get messed up with parts from another machine.
I mentioned that off the shop was an office. At the end of the day I would go into the office and enter my time and labor descriptions onto jobs, file for warranty emails etc. I was usually the last person to leave as well.
I don’t remember what day or month it was but it had to have been in the winter because it had gotten dark outside and I never stayed late enough in the spring, summer or fall months to be there when it was dark. Earlier in the day a front wheel assembly came in for one of the riding mowers I was working on (a complete assembly tire, rim bearings, shaft etc.) and I put it in the bin. Now the tire was big enough that I couldn’t just slip it into the bin with the limited space between the top of the bin and the bottom of the next upper shelf. I had to pull out the bin, put the tire in the bin and push the bin back. So it was the end of the day I was the last one in the building, it was locked up (I never liked being there alone without the doors locked) I was in my office doing the end of the day work when I heard a bang in the shop which scared the crap out of me so I got up and went out to the shop and found the tire that I had put in the bin earlier on the ground, the same tire that was big enough that I had to pull the bin out to put it in there. That tire was on the ground. I hurried and checked to see if anyone was in the sales office or front parking lot, nobody was, I checked the rest of the building and the main parking lot nobody was there, everything was locked. So, what did I do? I went and put the tire back in the bin, I figured if I put the tire back that Otto’s ghost wouldn’t think I was scared, but I was, I was freaking out. I went into the shop office to log out and shut down the computer (I could have gotten in trouble if I left the computer on overnight. Updates you know) and I went home. I told my wife and family what had happened, but I never told anyone at my work about it until I quit. I didn’t want Otto’s ghost if that’s who it was, maybe it was his wife’s ghost, but I am sticking with Otto’s ghost. Anyway I didn’t want Otto’s ghost to know that he had really scared me (and it really did scare me) if he knew maybe that would have encouraged him to do more and I don’t need that. I didn’t quit because of that; I just got a better job opportunity.
Now I have never had any weird experiences, never seen a ghost or anything like that. I would roll my eyes about people saying that something scary or paranormal would happen to them. (not literally that would be rude I was rolling my eyes in my mind) I’m not saying there aren’t spirits or ghosts or something out there. Too many stories, too many things that are unexplained for there not to be something out there. I just question the integrity of the people telling me that’s all. So, if people roll their eyes at what happened to me and don’t believe me that’s fine, I deserve it. But it really did happen. And it scared the crap out of me. I just wonder why nothing else happened to me or the others at my work. And I can’t think of any other explanation of how that happened. Can you?
Up next on Weird Darkness: when groups of sinister drones began hovering over homes in America’s Midwest, the FBI, US Air Force and 16 police forces set up a task force. But the drones vanished. And some wonder if they ever existed at all.
STORY: ATTACK OF THE DRONES=====
At twilight on New Year’s Eve, 2020, Placido Montoya, 35, a plumber from Fort Morgan, Colorado, was driving to work. Ahead of him he noticed blinking lights in the sky. He’d heard rumours of mysterious drones, whispers in his local community, but now he was seeing them with his own eyes. In the early morning gloom, it was hard to make out how big the lights were and how many were hovering above him. But one thing was clear to Montoya: he needed to give chase.
As he approached the drones in his car, they “took off very fast” and Montoya tried to follow. He confesses hitting 120mph before losing track of them. “They were creepy, really creepy,” he says. “I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s almost as if they were watching us.”
That night, Vince Iovinella, deputy sheriff at Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, received more than 30 calls from locals reporting drones “zipping around all over the place” – Iovinella himself saw one with red, white and green lights that he also tried to chase. “It outran me,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, neighbouring Nebraska and Kansas were also dealing with their own mysterious drone swarms. From December 2019 to January 2020, residents of the three states were perturbed by multiple sightings of numerous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with wingspans of up to 6ft flying between 6pm and 10pm in grid formations. On the same night that Iovinella was receiving calls, a Nebraska deputy reported seeing 30 to 50 drones in the sky. Witnesses were alarmed by the size and speed of the vehicles. “It got to the point that we were fixing to take up arms,” says Mike, 39, from Lindon, Colorado, who wishes to retain partial anonymity.
But as quickly as the drones came, they disappeared. “That was it, they were gone,” Montoya says. More than a year later, no one knows who was behind the drones. Despite an investigation involving the FBI, US Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there are no official answers. Amazon, Google and Uber have denied involvement, and so did a local air force base. “Somebody’s doing something and nobody’s saying anything about it,” Montoya summarises. But even “somebody doing something” is now up for debate: one reporter claims the drones never existed at all.
What really happened in the sky above the American Midwest in those fateful winter months, and what can the incident tell us about new technology and old fears?
Did the mystery drones really exist and, if so, why can’t anyone find out who was behind them? Is a new type of conspiracy theory being born? Are drones the new UFOs?
First things first, there are videos. On YouTube, you can easily find footage of blinking lights hovering over houses, farms and highways in Colorado. It’s evident at least some of these lights belonged to drones, although it’s harder to determine if these drones really were 6ft wide. In early 2020, Douglas D Johnson, a research affiliate with the Scientific Coalition for Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Studies, used America’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to uncover reams of FAA documentation about the drone mystery. Johnson’s research revealed that law-enforcement officers in 16 Colorado and Nebraska counties personally witnessed the drone activity, with one Kansas state trooper using night-vision goggles to estimate one drone had a 10ft wingspan.
Brett Tingley is a journalist for The War Zone, a defence news publication. He believes the documents prove something strange did occur. “There are consistencies among the eyewitness reports that suggest these drones possessed longer flight times than most off-the-shelf UAS [unmanned aircraft systems],” he says. He believes the witness testimony “appeared legitimate enough to local and state law enforcement, and the FAA, to take the sightings seriously”.
Still, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a frenzy. On 29 January 2020, Vicereporter Aaron Gordon published an article claiming the mysterious drone sightings were “a classic case of mass hysteria” – in an earlier article he noted that the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS) flew a Multi-Mission Aircraft for nearly five hours in Colorado on 6 January that year and found no suspicious drone activity. Johnson calls the Vice article “shoddy”, but Tingley concedes some sightings could have been hysteria, particularly after the drones made national news. Some officials even became a little hysterical: deputies in Nebraska reported finding “space potatoes” after chasing drones through a field. In actual fact, the lumpy brown objects were a farming product used to fill irrigation ruts in fields.
Iovinella agrees that “hysteria built up quickly” and says some witnesses were undoubtedly looking at planes. But: “I was irritated by people saying we didn’t see nothing because that’s not true,” he says. “I know what was happening those first few days of the drones. They were there.”
By 6 January 2020, a multi-agency taskforce had been set up to investigate – the FBI, Federal Aviation Authority, Air Force and local law-enforcement officials made up the team of 70. However, the taskforce disbanded by 22 January after drone sightings dramatically dropped off. FAA communications manager Ian Gregor now says: “We did not receive any information that enabled us to determine what exactly it was that people reported seeing and, if they were drones, who was flying them.” In a separate investigation, the CDPS examined 23 drone sightings between 6 and 13 January and determined 13 sightings were planets, stars, or “small hobbyist drones”. Six sightings were determined to be “atmospheric conditions or identified commercial aircraft”, while four sightings remained unidentified.
Witnesses such as Placido Montoya aren’t best pleased with the taskforce’s inconclusive investigation, nor the CDPS’s explanations. “I don’t feel safe. I looked up and I felt I was being violated,” he says. Iovinella stresses that investigations only began after sightings had died down and “the drones had already moved on”.
Why is it so difficult to determine who is flying a drone? In 2018, Gatwick had to cancel hundreds of flights after drones were spotted by the runway. Chaos reigned between 19 and 21 December while police and the military investigated. On 21 December, a couple were arrested – they were later awarded £200,000 compensation for false imprisonment. On 23 December, police said it was “a possibility” there was never a drone at all. In April 2019, police and Gatwick officials claimed the incident was potentially an inside job.
James Scanlan is a design and engineering professor who runs Southampton University’s Strategic Research Centre in Autonomous Systems. He says if an individual is controlling a drone from the ground, then radio frequencies can be used to determine where the transmission is coming from. “The problem comes where there’s a drone that’s flying with radio silence, so it’s not transmitting, no one’s transmitting to it – it might have a flight plan on board so it executes its mission and doesn’t need any control from the ground,” he says. “It’s very hard to do anything about those.”
Clues can, of course, be found in the drones themselves – which is why witnesses in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas wanted to shoot them down. Because these drones were reportedly very large and very fast, some assumed they were military. In early January 2020, FE Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming denied ownership of the drones after inquiries from local newspapers.
So who could possibly possess the kind of technology seen over the American skies last winter? Locals speculate about drug dealers, secret government operations or foreign spies. But Scanlan notes that you or I could purchase powerful drones. “There’s a commercial drone on the market called the Penguin B from a Latvian company that is about 6ft in wingspan and has a very long endurance, so I could go and fly those tomorrow.”
To this day, Tingley still receives emails claiming the mysterious drones never went away. Mike, the witness from Lindon, runs a 3,700-member Facebook group. “We still have people on there who’ve been keeping a very close eye on drone activity,” he says. Mike says the drones interfered with his mobile phone connection and believes they were equipped with audio surveillance, “because the moment we identified the location and pointed a camera up there, they suddenly went blackout.” Other witnesses have made similar claims.
Mike says claims of mass hysteria are “frustrating”, but then references ufologist and conspiracy theorist Milton William Cooper. Asked if he himself identifies as a conspiracy theorist, Mike says: “No, I tend to vet pretty much every lead and if I do not find credible evidence to support that lead I will not push forward with it.” Five minutes later, he begins discussing footage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Take the frame-by-frame footages of the towers coming down and compare that to a controlled demolition…”
The individuals in Mike’s Facebook group encompass everyone from curious witnesses to people who believe the drones somehow caused the coronavirus. Some are self-confessed UFO enthusiasts – mystery drones, after all, are unidentified flying objects by another name. In 2018, the top two websites for reporting UFOs revealed there has been a rapid decline in worldwide UFO sightings since 2014. In January 2019, drone researcher Faine Greenwood claimed, “This decline coincides with the period when relatively advanced drone technology first became truly accessible to consumers” in a Slate article entitled, “Drones are the new flying saucers.” In emails about the mystery drones uncovered by Douglas, one FAA official remarked, “Not too long ago we would have called these ‘UFOs’.” Their colleague replied: “Yep! Now everything is a drone!”
In her article, Greenwood explains that this is likely down to good old human psychology. “If we see something we can’t identify, we’re likely to slot in whatever seems most plausible – and what seems plausible may change depending on current events and modern fears.” Greenwood cites multiple instances in which pilots mistakenly reported drone sightings. (In 2016, police reported that a passenger plane at Heathrow collided with a drone before the UK’s transport minister clarified, “It may have even been a plastic bag.”)
Conspiracy theory expert Daniel Jolley, a psychology professor at Northumbria University, says even when drone incidents are real, mystery can breed suspicion. “When people hear about such things, they interpret this information in line with their prior beliefs… If you believe that powerful forces are up to shady things and generally have a mistrust of official information, you could be more likely to see a hidden motive.”
But Greenwood also believes, “We absolutely should be concerned about the malevolent use of consumer drones.” Johnson says he has obtained documents from America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission that show there were 57 drone-related security events at NRC-licensed facilities between 2014 and 2019; only five of these incidents were deemed resolved. He has also discovered that on two nights in September 2019, security guards reported seeing a number of drones flying over the largest power plant in the US, Palo Verde Generating Station in Arizona.
In January 2021, a year after Montoya first saw drones in the night sky, the Pentagon released a new strategy to counter small drones, with official documents stating, “Technology trends are dramatically transforming legitimate applications of [small drones] while simultaneously making them increasingly capable weapons in the hands of state actors, non-state actors and criminals.”
Many of the FOIA documents obtained by Johnson were redacted, including witness photographs of drones in FE Warren documents. Was the whole thing real or imagined? A conspiracy or a covert operation? Could it even be a bit of both? Some suspicious drone hobbyists believe the FAA itself orchestrated the mystery so they could enforce tighter regulations. On 26 December 2019, the FAA proposed that all but the smallest drones should broadcast tracking signals to allow them to be remotely identified.
One thing is evident: drones, real or imagined, are capable of causing chaos. “What caught me off guard is we have no answers to this day and it’s like everybody is OK with it,” Montoya says. At first, he thought Amazon was behind the drones. Now he wonders whether it could be the government or foreign powers. Before we end our call, he offers up one final theory. “It could have been aliens,” he says, with a laugh.