Investigators generally agree that 1935 was the year the Michigan murders began. The murders usually occurred in the Mountain Ridge area, but a few occurred as far away as Marquette and Houghton. Women disappeared as far west as Green Bay, Wisconsin and as far south as Detroit, but no one was sure which of those disappearances, if any, could be connected to what was happening in the Mountain Ridge area. Some reporters and police officers attempted to make a connection, but unless the bodies were found, no connection could be made. Undoubtedly many girls were leaving broken homes as the nation struggled with economic Depression.
One killer working Michigan highways couldn’t be responsible for all those disappearances. Surely some of those girls had gone to Hollywood looking for careers in the movies, or they had just drifted until they found new lives.
Some people speculated that two or more men could have been worked together on the killings. Others felt there were copy cat killers. The list of known victims grew as bodies were found.
For those girls who just disappeared, one could only wonder what happened to them. But enough bodies were found to confirm the presence of a serial killer.
Lucille Bachaek, age 17, raped and strangled in a wooded area behind Almasy House, January 7, 1937.
Mabel Vinson, 22, raped and strangled, February 1, 1935.
Jeninne Orbison, 19, raped and strangled, March 11, 1935.
The police looked at young men on the edge of survival as possible suspects. Among these young men, Jack Brianka headed the sheriff’s list. Finally after the murder of Orbison, he was arrested and questioned, but he was let go when it was discovered that he had an unbreakable alibi.
He was playing cards with his employers, Enrico Rinaldi and his daughter Lucinda Rinaldi.
Still the police watched him.
Miles Olson, the sheriff’s son and now a deputy, was determined to link Jack with the crimes. Perhaps he had an accomplice. Perhaps his alibi was false.
Jack Brianka was one suspect neither Sheriff Leo Olson nor Deputy Miles wanted to give up.
Penny 1970 “That always used to scare me,” Audrey, one of the maids admitted. I’d be alone in one of the rooms, Jack would be here in the house, and I would just get the shivers.” We were sipping coffee in the maid’s break room at Almasy House. One of the other maids mentioned that Jack had once been a suspect.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “Jack Brianka wouldn’t hurt a puppy. He’s a great guy.”
“Did they have any other suspects?” I’m the one they ask when they want to know anything about the history of this town.
“Jeff Hollander was a suspect for awhile.”
“He was a priest here for awhile.”
Audrey sighed. People don’t like to hear bad things about priests or ministers. But the old timers here know Hollander’s reputation was anything but pristine.
“Well, they got the killer now,” Audrey said. “I’ll be glad when he gets his ass fried down there in Louisiana. How many people did he kill down there. One or two. Here the count must be close to a hundred.”
“Yeah I said. “If he had been arrested here in Michigan, the most he could get is life imprison.”
1935 Prohibition had ended. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the White House. Despite Roosevelt’s best efforts the Depression lingered.
Yvonne Brianka pulled her green second-hand coat closer around her shoulders. It kept out most of the March coldness. She walked home from the picture show with only the street lights for company. Claudette Colbert had been brilliant as Cleopatra. Vonnie loved picture shows and she saw each new show as it appeared. Usually she went to the movies with her brother Jack, but not that night. He had warned her to be careful. Stay to the brightly lit streets where there were more people. There was safety in numbers.
Jack always worried about her when she went to the show alone. He had told her to ask Rita, the clerk at the grocery store or that new girl who cleaned for the Rinaldi offices.
Jack had a mysterious new girl friend. Vonnie was curious. Who could it be? Why keep it a secret?
In just a few short months, Lisa would be here, and they could go to the picture show together. Jack would not have to worry about her. She knew they were lucky. Many people, both men and women, were jobless. But thanks to the Rinaldis, the Briankas would all have jobs.
Jack chauffeured and gardened; Vonnie cooked and cleaned. There was much to do, and Lucinda, who was the Enrico Rinaldi’s only daughter had wanted to hire an extra maid for some time. Vonnie had talked her into waiting until Lisa could take the job. That would be soon. Lisa could leave the orphanage when she turned 16., and then she would have a job with the Rinaldis too.
Vonnie felt sorry for the homeless men and women. She had seen many hoboes with their torn clothes and hopeless eyes. With Lucinda’s permission, she fed the hoboes hearty vegetables and chicken soups and stews. She remembered that Jack had lived for awhile as a hobo, and she always sent a little prayer along with these men.
Vonnie was not churchy, but she did believe there was a god and maybe a goddess too. She honored whatever deities existed by feeding the homeless men, and also the wildlife around the Rinaldi mansion.
She prayed every night for the unemployed and also for President and Mrs. Roosevelt. They were doing their best to get the country out of the Depression.
The movie replayed in her mind as she walked.
There was only one woman she knew who was prettier than Claudette Colbert and that was her employer, Lucinda Rinaldi. Lucinda would make a great Cleopatra. She had dark eyes and black hair like the Egyptian queen. Lucinda really should be a movie star except that girls with as much money as Lucinda had, didn’t work.
Lucinda was engaged to marry state senator Brad Davies. Some people were saying Brad was headed for Washington D.C. and that Lucinda might be first lady some day. Vonnie wondered what it would be like to work at the White House and to be the personal maid to the First Lady.
Vonnie ignored Jack’s instructions to stay on well-lit streets and around people she knew. She was tired, having been up since dawn cooking, cleaning and even sewing.
She took a short cut through a few acres of woods. On one end was Almasy House, still occupied by the spooky old lady who had hovered over Vonnie, Jack and Lisa after their mother’s death. At the other end was the Rinaldi mansion.
Vonnie wasn’t paying attention. A twig cracked. She turned to look behind her. The trees stood like tall ghosts. Something she could not see was moving in the woods with her. She thought it must be an animal. Perhaps a deer. Vonnie knew a killer stalked women in Upper Michigan. Some people thought he operated out of Mountain Ridge.
A body had been found in these woods. Why hadn’t she remembered that before she started trekking through the trees? She walked on. Something rustled among the trees. Definitely an animal, she thought.
It must be an animal. Why hadn’t she taken a stick? Perhaps it was just a dog or a cat out night hunting. She walked a little faster. Then she ran.
Something moved behind her. She tripped; stumbled; righted herself and started to run again. Something grabbed her coat. It felt like a claw as it pulled her backward and then and then pushed her down. Something heavy lay on top of her.
A heavy glove went into her mouth. “Don’t make a sound.”
Then another voice. “It’s the Jew bitch.” There were two of them. She tried to struggle.
His weight was too heavy on her. She could not move. She whimpered and when she did he pressed harder pinning her head to the cold ground. Pine needles prickled against her skin. “Quiet.” one of the voices said.
She couldn’t see the men, but she smelled the stale scent of cigarettes and beer.
Something went around her mouth. He’s going to kill me she thought. The gag tightened. She couldn’t cry out. She felt her clothes being torn off in the cold night. She shivered, and tried to scream. They were going to kill her.
Rough hands clawed at her bare legs. She felt something like a sword being thrust inside her and then thrust again and again. Her body shook like a rag doll.
He grunted as he pushed inside her.
She tried to ignore the pain.
And after the first one raped her, the second one took his turn on top of her. She felt the dirt of the forest and the dirt of their bodies as they rubbed against her. She felt their fluids between her legs. She knew she was crying, but she couldn’t stand these men on her. She wanted them to kill her so it would be over with. She even wanted to kill them.
When they were finished. One of them ordered her to lie still.
She heard her own sobs and waited for death. They didn’t kill her, and she didn’t look up to see who they were. Her tears blinded her. The night was still as dark as the dirt she stared at?
“Ever tell anyone and you’re dead. Your brother and your sister are dead,” one of them said. “I could kill you and then go get Lisa. Think I can’t get her at that orphanage?”
She lay on the ground stunned for a long time.
Had they left? The moments dragged on and she heard nothing. They must have left. She pulled the gag from her mouth.
Finally she was able to get up and find her clothing or most of it in the dark. Still stunned and cold, she limped toward the Rinaldi house. She let herself in the back door and locked it. But she still did not feel safe.
Whoever those men were, they must never come inside.
She poured hot water, washed herself and prayed she would never have to endure that again. She shivered. The hardest part was knowing that whoever attacked her, knew her, knew she had a brother and a sister, knew they were vulnerable.
At least they weren’t the killers that everyone was talking about. She was still alive.
Her body felt cold and sore and exposed. She put on a flannel nightgown and wrapped herself in blankets. She drank warm milk. Still she felt cold. After awhile she got up and washed her body again. She couldn’t get the smell of those men off her. She couldn’t forget how much it hurt. It still hurt.
A rooster crowed somewhere to the south. Some families, even wealthy ones, kept their own chickens, so they could have fresh eggs. The rooster served as her alarm clock most mornings, but on this morning, she was awake.
The nightmare of the night before had not left her. And each time she tried to move she felt the bruises. Even her face was swollen.
She wanted to wash herself again. The filth of those men clung to her. Their smell clung to her, and it made her want to vomit.
Her legs ached, but her feet were uninjured. She forced her feet into a pair low heals that she had purchased from the Sears catalog.
Lucinda Rinaldi woke up and stretched. As she combed her hair and put on a simple cotton dress, she planned her day. It was too early for planting the garden, but she had a garden plan. She would show it to Vonnie this morning after breakfast.
Spring meant spring cleaning. She was anxious to get to it.
How she liked the Briankas, Jack and Vonnie, who were hard workers and great people. She couldn’t wait to meet the younger sister, Lisa.
Lucinda knew there were those who hated the Briankas, but she also knew about prejudice, and it would never be part of her hiring decisions. Vonnie and that good looking brother of hers were not religious, but their dad had been Jewish.
Some people did not like Jewish people. The Brianka family had even been attacked by the Klan when the siblings were young. People said their dad abandoned them after that.
She herself had never been the target of the Ku Klux Klan, but she knew she could be. She and her dad were Negroes, though they passed as White.
She shuttered to think about what some people of her race endured in the South and could endure even here in Mountain Ridge where the Klan mostly drank cheap beer and met at Almasy House in what they thought was secret.
Those men were idiots and she wished that her dad would fire every one of them.
Soon she would be the wife of a very important man. The wedding was planned and it would take place in Lansing in just a few months.
It was time to start acting like a young lady. Still she bounced down the stairs, through the parlor and dining room and into the kitchen where the smell of fresh coffee greeted her.
What stopped her was the sight of Vonnie leaning against the kitchen table. Vonnie’s hair was uncombed and her face was swollen; bruises formed beneath her right eye. Vonnie had more bruises on her wrist. The long-sleeved dress hid the rest of her arms.
“What happened?” Lucinda asked. She touched Vonnie’s sleeve, but Vonnie pulled it back as if in pain.
“I fell down the stairs.”
“We have to get you to a doctor.”
“Where did you fall?”
Vonnie knew she had been caught in a lie. The house had a cellar, but a box lift connected the kitchen to the pantry and the lower stories to the upstairs. What reason would she have had to go upstairs or downstairs? She had not been upstairs this morning. Lucinda would know that. She would suspect. And Vonnie had never lied to her employer before.
“I just fell,” she amended her story. “Outside on the cement.”
“Sit down. I’ll get the car and take you to Dr. Tracie.”
“No. No doctor.”
“You’re hurt. Now you are going to the doctor. That is an order.”
Vonnie noticed where her arm was bleeding. “I’m ruining your dress.”
“It’s your dress; I gave it to you, and I will get you another one. I saw you mooning over some of those dresses in the Sears catalog.”
“I’m all right,” Vonnie insisted. But she wasn’t.
Lucinda had Jack bring the car around, but she herself drove Vonnie to the doctor. Vonnie did not want her brother fussing over her now.
The examination at Doc Tracie’ office was superficial. He looked at the bruises and gave her some ointments. He bandaged the deeper cuts. “That must have been some fall,” he said. “Is there something else you need to tell me?”
She shook her head no.
“It looks like someone beat the daylights out of you.” Then he called Lucinda in from the waiting room. “She needs to rest for a few days,” he said.
“She will.” Lucinda promised.
Vonnie remembered the spring cleaning. “There’s so much work to do.”
Lucinda had already decided it was time to get that younger sister - what was her name? Lisa - from that orphanage. She knew from talking to Jack that Lisa was not happy, and that she needed to get away.
Enrico sat at his desk going over the records of iron ore. How much had been shipped? How much sat on the docks at Marquette? How much lay beneath the earth’s surface yet? The answers lay on the papers strewn across his desk.
His assistant came in to tell him the sheriff was waiting to see him.
It was the yearly invitation to join the Klan. Enrico always found excuses not to join. How he dreaded these meetings and disliked the tall blond sheriff who wore his gun like a gunfighter in those western movies and Zane Grey novels. Enrico believed he would be shot if he revealed the truth about his race.
“Show him in,” Enrico said after a moment. He had already put off this meeting twice by making excuses about why he couldn’t see the sheriff.
Olson walked quickly into the office, his right hand extended. Enrico tried not to look at it with distaste.
“Mr. Rinaldi, thank you for seeing me. I know you’re a busy man.”
“We’re doing our annual membership drive. The Ku Klux Klan is very vigilant as you can probably guess.”
“I think I told you last year and the year before I have no interest in joining the Klan.”
“That is a very unusual sentiment for a White man. And here you are from the South.”
“Is there anything else I can help you with, Sheriff?”
“Perhaps a donation. We keep the scumbags out. There ain’t never been a Nigger living in this here town.”
Enrico almost laughed at that statement. “I am afraid my expenses are tight. I have a payroll to meet.”
“Of course. If you should change your mind, you just call me now.”
Enrico nodded and then he watched the sheriff leave. Should he have made a donation? He didn’t want Leo Olson to be suspicious.
The Indian woman made a poultice of plantain and placed it on Vonnie’s shoulder. As she worked, she talked about her daughter, Dancing Bear, the smartest girl at the school. “She’ll be going to college,” the old lady bragged. “She takes all the hard courses that are mostly for boys. Chemistry. Physics. Algebra. And she has to help those White boys.”
Vonnie smiled and let the old woman fuss over her. She had not met the woman’s daughter, but was sure she would like her.
When the woman disappeared into the living room to begin cleaning, Lucinda sat down beside Vonnie. “Tell me what really happened?”
Vonnie sighed and stared at her hands.
“There were two men. I think there were two. They tackled me; they hit me.”
“In the woods behind Almasy House.”
“What were you doing there?”
“I took a shortcut.”
“Did they do anything else to you?”
Vonnie shut her eyes tight trying to keep the tears back. She nodded.
Lucinda held her and let her cry for awhile.
“I’m calling the sheriff, “ she said.
“No,” Vonnie grabbed her employer and held tight to Lucinda’s arm. She ignored the pain her movement caused. “I’m so ashamed.”
“What happened wasn’t your fault.”
“I should have stayed on the path. I shouldn’t have taken the shortcut. I should have been paying more attention.”
“You mustn’t tell anyone. If Jack finds out, he’ll want to kill someone.”
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK