Days Inn Columbus, Indiana Assault 1990

Tuesday January 2, 1990, was the eve of the nine month anniversary of the bizarre murders of two Days Inn clerks working the overnight shift at two separate locations in northwest Indiana, just forty-five miles apart. Sometime after 1:40 a.m. on March 3, 1989, Mary “Peggy” Gill was robbed, raped and then executed in a vacant upstairs wing of the Days Inn in Merrillville. It is believed the killer then drove 45 miles south on I-65 to the Days Inn in Remington, where he robbed Jeanne Gilbert and abducted her. Her nude body was discovered a short time later twenty miles from the hotel.

With help from the FBI, a Task Force was assembled with experienced investigators from the Merrillville Police Department, Jasper County Sheriff’s Office, Lake County Sheriff’s Department, White County Sheriff’s Department and the Indiana State Police. Thousands of man hours went into hunting this sadistic killer. DNA was still in it’s infancy in both science and understanding, but one thing was for certain; the DNA profile they recovered from both Peggy and Jeanne was from the same offender. In addition, the .22 bullet fragments recovered from the bodies were indistinguishable, with the same striations.

But the real question for investigators- just who are they looking for? They had not a single eye witness to build on. No vehicle. No logical motive.

The Task Force bounced theories back and forth, but nothing made sense. Not long after, they had two separate offender profiles. One profile came from a Monticello police officer using a new computer program he helped design. Another came from a Chicago homicide investigator familiar with serial offenders, who spent weeks with the task force going over every minute detail of the murders. Detective Herb Clear of the Indiana State Police felt they[the profiles] were “pretty speculative… based on generalities derived from past cases”. They could settle on little about this offender, and what they did agree on, was worthless. For instance, both profiles agreed that “the killer was a white male, close to his victims in age, but lived far from both crime scenes”. While one touted he “had prior arrests for armed robbery and weapons related crimes”, another said “he had been arrested for various sex offenses”. Not long afterwards, the FBI would release their profile on the offender, it suggested “he[the offender] had little police contact since adulthood, outside of a horrible driving record“.

The profiles were worthless. Was law enforcement really at square one?

Theories floated back and forth. Was he a trucker, traveling salesman or did he have seasonal delivery job that put him on I-65 during the winter months? Maybe he was laid off during the winter season like a roofer or carpenter, resorting to armed robbery for extra money? They even checked for anyone suspicious who may have been contracted for snow removal in northern Indiana during the winter of 1989.

“It was a hunch”, recalled a FBI Special Agent who helped during the initial stages of the the investigation. “It had snowed in the days prior, so he may have plowed areas in or around the scene of the crime”.

Their thinking may not have been too far off. Perhaps he had plowed or salted streets and/or parking lots and seen targets of interest and then came back.

“The problem is, normally you have some idea of who you’re looking for. Some type of description. We were just looking for someone who was just… suspicious”, recalled Captain Bob Hicks of the Jasper County Sheriffs Department.

One hundred and forty miles south of Remington, the early morning hours of Tuesday January 2, 1990, the scene was familiar.

 

ColumbusDIMap

The Columbus Days Inn in 2018. The south exit now goes past some storage buildings and there has been new construction. Past the road south of the Days Inn was just a field. She walked a quarter mile thinking the killer was behind her waiting for the right moment to kill her, but she made it to a trailer and a woman let her in and called police.

A False Sense of Security

Early morning. Interstate 65. Days Inn. Columbus, Indiana. A twenty-one year-old female night auditor is working alone.

Around 5:00 a.m. the clerk looks up just as a rough, “stereotypical looking blue-collar trucker” walked in through the front door of the lobby. He had on blue jeans with a blue and black plaid button-up flannel. He had on a dark stocking cap, with straight medium-length brown and gray hair sticking out from underneath. It looked greasy and matted, as if he hadn’t bathed in days. He had a full brown and mostly gray colored beard and mustache, the hair was “long and stringy”.

He took a look around for a minute, then quickly approached the front desk. He was tall, about six foot or a few inches taller. His face was weathered, he looked to be in his late thirties to mid-forties. It was when he looked her in the eyes that she was slightly taken aback. He had these “bright green- almost yellow eyes”. His right eye was lazy and would not focus to center. Perhaps he was injured, he had a small band-aid underneath his lazy eye.

He needed change for the cigarette machine. The young clerk smiled and gave him some change. He was a nice guy and smiled, almost in a flirting way. Solely based on her first impression she asked, “are you a trucker sir?”

He said he was.

After a few minutes of small talk, he asked her, “any good places to eat around here?”

She told him a place or two, including the Bob Evans next door, but they don’t open for another forty-five minutes. He wanted to know of a few other places. She thought of a few more places that might be open to get a bite to eat. He thanked her and said he would be back. He walked out of the lobby into the dark freezing morning.

Fifteen to twenty minutes later he entered the lobby with steaming hot coffee in a foam cup. As he approached the desk he asked her if she had change for some a couple of sodas. Just as he got to the front desk she opened the drawer to get some change. The register drawer rolled open… soon as the change rattled from the drawer’s abrupt stop- searing coffee explodes in her eyes and face. She heard the foam cup bounce off the register and before it hit the floor, he had jumped the counter and clenched her shirt.

“I won’t hurt you if you keep your mouth shut. Give me all the money”, he growled in her face. Before she could see straight and get her eyes adjusted, she saw the six inch brown handled knife in the haze. She grabbed the cash and handed it to him.

“Is there more? Don’t lie”, he demanded as he pulled her to his face.

She shook her head yes, “It’s in the office safe, I can’t get in”

“The money from your purse, give it to me”, he barked in low voice, as he shoved her towards the purse that was sitting on a desk while his fist still clenched her shirt. She dug into her purse and opened her wallet, he noticed three gold rings on her fingers. She pulls out all of her money, just twenty dollars.

“The rings too”, he demanded and then explained “Just keep your mouth shut and I won’t hurt you”. She managed to twist them off and handed him her rings. One ring was unique- yellow gold with an “S” on it, with a diamond chip in the middle.

He ordered her into the office area behind the desk. “Just do what I say. Keep that mouth of yours shut and you’ll be okay”, he assured her. Once there, he ordered her through another door that led to the north-south hallway. He walked her to quickly down to the south end of the hall into the small vestibule that leads to the parking lot and stairwell.

He sexually assaulted her.

She thought the worse was over at least. Then his tone changed and he got increasingly hostile, “Get the fuck outside now”, he ordered her, but she thought for sure he was going to kill her and somewhat resisted. He forced her out the door to the parking lot.

“Don’t turn around and keep walking”, he growled into her ear. She heard him walking behind her, they pass a few cars and then reached the end of the parking lot. There was an embankment into a ditch covered in ice. Just as she started to cross, she fell through into the icy shallow water. It was such a shock, she though she was being killed. Once she got her bearings she waded through the knee high water and walked up the hill. She still thought he was behind her.

Each step she waited for either a flash or a knife blade to rain down on her. She walked for close to a quarter mile until she saw a trailer home. She bolted for it, banging on the door and window hysterically, until a woman answered and gave her shelter.

The call came into the Columbus Police Department at 5:55 a.m.

The twenty-one year-old survivor was taken to Bartholomew County Hospital for treatment and a Sexual Assault Kit  This brave woman would explain her encounter with this monster over and over again. She gave a description to the Columbus Police Department. Detective Harold Lowry began looking at local offenders and had two suspects in mind. They were certain this guy was a local.

The next day on January 3, 1990 CPD would release a composite sketch based on the victim’s description.

Columbus Sketch

The Columbus Assault sketch taken by a artist within hours of the investigation. Survivor stated he “had bright green eyes… almost yellow eyes”

“Bright green, almost yellow eyes”

The Task Force had been working day and night. Det. Herb Clear would bounce back and forth in the years to come, was this robbery motivated or sexually motivated? One thing many investigators couldn’t shake was how the case unfolded. Two women working for the same hotel chain robbed, sexually assaulted and executed on the same night. Serial killers typically wouldn’t operate in the same brazen manner. Unusually their victims are opportunistic. They have a plan and are ready when they get a chance.

This was brazen. He walked into an occupied hotel, robs them. Then rapes them. Finally he kills them on the spot or abducts them, then kills.

In 2015 one detective recalled, “My first thought… one thing I think we all agreed on, was this guy was on a rampage. He was just going to rape and kill women as he moved across the country or until he was apprehended. When he went silent, our thought switched to that maybe this was a one and done. Something set this guy off and he went nuts”.

The time, proximity and manner of the Lois “Evelyn” Wright and James Walton murders was something investigators couldn’t shake. The robbery and homicide of two hotel clerks eleven days apart, then two months later two clerks killed in the same manner in one night.

“Robbery first. That was the consensus. This guy wants fast cash”, another detective recalled. It would explain why Evelyn Wright and James Walton were killed by the same guy in a short period of time, less than two weeks apart. They were successful scores, each one thousands of dollars, there was just no sexual assault.

When investigators first hesrd about the sexual assault of the Days Inn clerk in Columbus, Indiana, the room was elated(that the woman could provide a first hand account). “Everything said it was it him. Everything. Everything, but two things. The weapon he used and she survived… The execution of the robbery and taking the clerk to an area and then abduct or kill”, former detective “Dave” explained.

 

Indianapolis, We’ve Had a Problem

There was a problem. The Columbus Police Department played their hand for them. They released a composite before they consulted the ISP handling the Days Inn murder investigation. Was that the reason why it took over fifteen months for the Indiana State Police to use the Columbus Assault survivor and make another composite? No one would admit it. If you believe ISP and members of the Task Force, when they released the “Secret Witness Composite” of the I-65 Serial Killer on March 5, 1991, amazingly it just so happened to be during the second anniversary press conference covering the Days Inn Murders, almost to the day- based solely on a new development, “just within the last few days”.

But a few reporters would later theorize(some 12 years later) that the ISP blew it off for political reasons, a shunning of Columbus Police Department. They had the face of the killer just because a woman happened to survive, after we’ve “busted our asses hunting this man”.

Others theorize it was tunnel vision because those that led the investigation were convinced that Donald Glover was either a killer, accomplice or a defiant witness. The Indiana State Police and Merrillville Police Department would publicly accuse Donald Glover by name. He was called out and name dropped, publicly criticized every opportunity. Even after he was cleared by DNA, press releases dating to 2001 would name Donald Glover as “someone who knows something”. Not only did the Task Force slander Glover’s name at press conferences, but it gave the killer a person to hunt, they were saying Glover witnessed something.

Glover was a strange individual in the case. According to investigators, Glover claimed to have entered the Merrillville Days Inn about 2:00 AM, twenty minuted after Peggy Gill checked her last guest in. He claimed to have waited five minutes then went to another hotel down next door. But when police checked the five other hotels in the cluster, he never came in or even got a room. The next day, he went back to the hotel and began asking police strange questions to investigators, After a few weeks Donald Glover refused to speak to investigators.

Monday March 4, 1991, when the ISP revised Columbus Assault witness composite was finally released to the press, Merrillville Police Chief Jerry McCory refused to answer any questions on who and how the witness saw this man.

For everyone the answer was obvious, or was it?. The task force had far too many ups and downs.

On the one year anniversary of the Days Inn Murders in 1990 just two months after the Columbus Assault, there was a major press conference. Sgt. Herb Clear gave an interview explaining the roller coaster ride it was over that first last year, “You get all hyped and then..”, SMACK! Sgt. Clear smacked his fist into his open palm, “You get shot right down again”.

Two hundred interviews. A serial killer captured for a similar string of crimes from Texas to Kansas the past summer was it. Four on them hopped on a plane, it was their man. By the time they arrived, before one of them could get in the interview room with him, it was over. It was impossible for him to have been in Indiana that March night. He was in jail.

Hundreds of tips and a few suspects they were certain on. They were invested in the profiles and while some very general items could match, the Columbus Assault suspect was possible, but not likely in their minds? Why? In September of 1989, Indianapolis Police shot and killed an armed robber at a Holiday Inn. They nearly jumped the gun on that one, “a fitting end”. Then the DNA came back- negative.

“Lets wait and see if the DNA is a match”, they all agreed according to reports. Their worse fear outside of more women turning up dead is spending countless hours and precious resources chasing this suspect only to find out he wasn’t their man. No reason to spread fear and misinformation. As far as Sgt. Herb Clear was concerned, “we’re waiting to see whether the semen collect at the Columbus rape matches that of the Days Inn killer. DNA tests can take up to three months, because there’s such a backlog of cases waiting to be submitted”. But one suspects robbing retail stores twelve-hundred miles away and killing employees seemed to fit better than the Columbus Assault that was at a Days Inn off I-65 at five-in-the-morning in Indiana?

Seriously?

Something wasn’t right. The Columbus rape was a priority DNA test that even by Sgt. Herb Clear admitted would take “three months at best” when going through the typical flow process at the press conference in March of 1990.

While I have no doubt that they wanted to protect the identity of the witness, Columbus PD had released a composite the following day on 1/3/1990. Why would it take fifteen months for the Indiana State Police to use the witness’s information and release the now famous nationwide ? That just so happened to be Indiana State Police’s already scheduled press conference marking the two year anniversary of the Days Inn Murders almost to the day?

According to Capt. Bob Hicks of the Jasper County Sheriff’s Department, “The witness was located over a year ago, but a new piece of evidence recently led the Task Force back to the witness”

Right, DNA you had nearly a year earlier?

But the witness had to contact the Task Force?

He would not elaborate on why the witness did not come forward at the time of the murders.

Hicks went on to say, “The witness was found through the investigation of leads. They didn’t really know they were a witness at the time”.

So a woman who was robbed, raped and possibly being led to her execution, survived and she didn’t know she was a witness? Bob Hicks and Herb Clear spoke about the Columbus rape at the press conference in March of 1990 and were “waiting on DNA results” that “typically take three months when they are not priority”.

Something just wasn’t right. I’ve asked numerous investigators or later investigators in the last 15 years who were quoted at the time and they all confirm, without question, the composite is based on the Columbus Assault of 1990. Could the ISP have blown a chance to catch this offender? Was this due to pride or politics? Tunnel vision? All of the above?

For fifteen months Indiana and the nation went without the composite of the Days Inn killer, because, “the witness didn’t know she was a witness?”