In 1970 my friends Vada, Debby, and I spent an evening with a Ouija board. It felt exciting — a bit on the forbidden side of life. I must admit that although I had always hoped for encounters with the supernatural or some real psychic power – the practical side of me doubted either would ever happen.
On that particular evening in my bedroom in my parent’s country home in the Shenandoah my window was open and so were our minds. It has been over 50 years since that night so every nuance is difficult to recall. Here is what I remember:
Deb and I sat on my bed with the Ouija board between us as we ran the pointer. Vada sat in a chair by the bed with pad and paper on her lap ready to scribe any revelation. How we began is not a clear memory but I know we were hoping to channel a spirit. We were too naïve to know what that could mean.
The pointer moved to letters that spelled out “CAROLYN”. Our hopes buoyed and we asked how she, Carolyn, came to be in the spirit world. The letters spelled “SHOTHIGHSICECREAM”. Hmmmm. Vada, our scribe, translated: “Shot Highs Ice Cream”. This struck me as funny – murder and intrigue in such a benign location – an ice cream shop of all places! I giggled and looked at Deb. She was giggling too. We began to laugh. I was also thinking how ridiculous our imaginations were………… yep. “Ridiculous” is what I thought. And disappointed is how I felt. Well, that is – until I looked at Vada. She had been sitting in a chair with her feet propped on the bed, languidly smoking a cigarette, not expecting much, her usual cynical attitude in place. But now her cigarette burned alone in the ashtray while she gripped the pad and pen and leaned forward — her face stricken with a look I had never seen on her before. She was clearly shocked. And Vada was pretty hard to shock.
I said, “What?”
And she breathed out, “That’s my cousin. She was murdered at High’s Ice Cream Store.”
Deb and I were stunned. Vada leaned closer and said, “Ask who did it.” Deb and I, now somber and a little shaken, placed our hands on the pointer and it spelled, “NOTTOM”. Vada was still looking stricken but translated this nonsensical word into two words: “Not Tom”. Still confused Deb and I pressed Vada for what she knew about this mystery as neither of us had any knowledge of this tragedy.
Vada recounted what she knew of the crime. Three years earlier two women working at High’s Ice Cream Store near Staunton, Virginia had been murdered: Carolyn and Connie. A man named Gus Thomas was believed to have been the killer although there was no real motive other than a small amount of money missing from the register. Because of insufficient evidence Mr. Thomas had been acquitted and the murder had remained an unsolved mystery. So here we were three years later – three unassuming girls on a lark – and it seemed as if someone was reaching out from the grave. What else could we do but to ask the name of the real killer from the spirit we had summoned? We were given what seemed to be initials that I, unfortunately, cannot now recall. In further investigation with the spirit world we were told of “letters in attic”. Any other information that we may have been privy to that night is now covered in so many cobwebs I cannot tell it.
I remember feeling excited, incredulous and a bit uneasy. I wanted to know how we were receiving this information. Who was this spirit really? God? NO. The devil? The answer came: “WHYDOYOUQUESTIONMEWHENIHAVETOLDYOUTHETRUTH” translated as “why do you question me when I have told you the truth?” And with that revelation we gasped and then came a sudden gust of wind through the open window blowing the curtains dramatically and snuffing out our candle. The lights eerily dimmed to complete darkness and then back on as if by a dimmer switch. The room became strangely cold and misty.
We were completely undone. We cast the Ouija board aside as if we’d received an electric shock and bolted out of the room. We found my parents in the den living life as usual. We poured out our story with our words tumbling over one another but my practical parents were simply amused by our story and dismissed it as girlish hysteria – so typical of my parents.
Nevertheless, the three of us puzzled and pondered the incident on into the night and for several days thereafter. However, we were young and interested in boys and parties and being young. Eventually as time grew into long years I, too, came to think of it as hysterical imagining. Then, out of the blue — a phrase fraught with meaning in this particular instance – yes, “out of the blue” on a Sunday morning in February 2009 I opened an e-mail from my old friend Debby who was living in Culpepper, Virginia. It was a simple plea addressing me as “Precious Lamb” and then a short directive to go to the internet and look up “MURDER HIGHS ICE CREAM”, which I did, of course, without delay.
Lo! and behold! that mysterious murder of long ago had been brought into the spotlight once again because the real killer had made a death bed confession! And, indeed, it was NOT TOM, but a woman named Diane Crawford Smith! The incredible news made headlines – including The New York Times. Indeed it was a bizarre tale. It seems that a woman named Joyce Bradshaw stepped forward to say that a few days before the murders she had lunch with Diane who showed her a pistol and said she “had a bullet” for one of the girls she worked with at High’s Ice Cream. Joyce had reported this to a Staunton detective by the name of Bocock after the murders but was told that Diane had passed a polygraph and the bullets didn’t match her gun. The detective also told Joyce that Diane was a “crack shot” which Joyce took as a warning to shut up and did not go back to the police during the original investigation. However, many years later with the threatening detective gone Joyce felt free to tell what she knew. A new investigation moved forward finding Diane in a nursing home in Harrisonburg, Virginia (about 30 miles from Staunton) dying from heart and kidney disease. Diane admitted that in April 1967 she had shot the two women in the head in the back room of the store because she was angry with them for teasing her about her being a lesbian. Diane said, “I was just pushed so far so I shot them and that was it.” She denied the murder was premeditated although she could not say why she had brought the gun with her to the Ice Cream Shop. And then in another stunning admission Diane told investigators that she had given the murder weapon to the lead Staunton detective and that he buried it on his property. Detective Bocock had gone on to serve a long career with the Staunton Police Force, retiring in the 1980’s. It was only after his death in 2006 that the real story came to light. Although Diane admitted that she and the detective were friendly and she had done some target shooting on his property she could not adequately explain the detective’s cover-up. Also no murder weapon was found on his land. There is also no evidence to suggest that Detective Bocock and Diane had any serious relationship. The later investigation also revealed that Diane had spent some time in a mental facility soon after the double murders. Although she had later married and had children she eventually divorced and had a long romantic relationship with another woman. Another interesting twist to the story is that Detective Bocock was the one responsible for placing blame on Mr. Thomas for the murder. Mr. Thomas was originally indicted for the murders and went on trial for one of the murders but because there was so little evidence the jury quickly acquitted him. So why did Detective Bocock finger Mr. Thomas for the murders? Why did he protect Diane? Why did the detective cover-up this crime? What was his motive? And what happened to the gun? After Diane’s confession Mr. Thomas said it had been difficult having been associated with the murders for all those years. Diane died before she could be prosecuted.
The Staunton Chief of Police promised to continue to investigate but admitted, “the fact remains that there will likely be questions surrounding this case we will never be able to answer.” And so we are left with yet another mystery surrounding the High’s Ice Cream Shop Murders – certainly Deb and I are intrigued and extremely curious. Sadly, our friend Vada passed away in 2000 and is unavailable for comment — unless we want to consult the Ouija board……