Who Killed Janett Christman?
By March of 1950, police in Columbia were ready for spring.
The last few months had been particularly taxing for the force, whose time and resources had been stretched to the limit by a series of sexual assaults. In October 1949, just a few days before Halloween, a 16-year-old babysitter had been raped in a house on East Sunset Lane by a man in a bizarre mask — the victim described it as a white sack with holes cut out for the eyes. A month later, on Nov. 29, someone attempted to rape 18-year-old Sally Johnson, a Stephens College student who was dozing on the couch of her living room while her parents were away. Johnson’s home was less than a block from the site of the October attack. The very next day, a University of Missouri student was raped when an attacker, wearing a white hood, held her and her date at gunpoint and forced them to exit their car parked near Hinkson Creek. The attacker led the couple about a quarter-mile away from their car before robbing the man, tying his hands, and leading the woman away to assault her.
Even beyond those violent crimes, Columbia had been struggling with a prowler and peeping Tom problem. Every week, it seemed, there were new reports of shadowy suspects peering through windows, especially at college sorority houses or homes with young daughters. Two weeks after the rape at Hinkson Creek, Police Chief Eugene Pond urged Columbians — especially college women — to pull down their shades and lock their doors when they got ready for bed, to deter any suspicious men who might be lurking nearby.
By December, though, Chief Pond was confident that the city was getting closer to solving the attacks. On Dec. 4, police arrested Jake Bradford, a 26-year-old black man they caught peering through a window on Hitt Street. After nearly a week in the city jail, Bradford confessed to the October rape and the later attack on Sally Johnson, after 10 hours of continuous questioning. The police finally had a suspect behind bars.
When March arrived, there had been no reports of any major attacks for months. One day early in the month, the weather was particularly nice and a group of girlfriends from Jefferson Junior High School headed to the Mizzou campus to take pictures on the quad. Ann Cornett, Carol Haley, Maribeth Buescher and Janett Christman had been friends since kindergarten. Their photos showed the girls smiling sanguinely, stretched out on the lawn in front of Jesse Hall or posing next to the Columns. In one picture, Janett was draped across the hood of a car, her 13-year-old body arranged in her best imitation of a pinup pose. Her 14th birthday was coming up soon and she undoubtedly was excited on that unusually warm March day, hamming it up with her best friends on an outing downtown.
Janett never lived to see her birthday. Early on a Sunday morning, just a few days later, Carol Haley’s mother received a telephone call. Janett had been murdered the night before, while babysitting for a family on Stewart Road.
Janett was killed more than 65 years ago, but the details of the crime are still vivid in the minds of her friends. By all accounts, March 18 was a particularly grim and almost literary evening for the murder — dark, wet and stormy, with rolling thunder and a heavy sleet that would stall efforts to investigate the crime later that night. Janett had agreed to sit for Ed and Anne Romack while they attended a bridge party at Moon Valley Villa, a restaurant on the eastern edge of Columbia. The Romacks lived on Stewart Road, south of the Columbia Cemetery and present-day public library, in a house that lay outside the town limits in 1950. Their home was small and isolated, in a relatively undeveloped part of the city, and the seclusion of the place paired with the bad weather would spell doom for the unsuspecting teen.
To skirt the details of Janett’s homicide would be a disservice to a life that was taken far too young and far too brutally. Janett Christman was raped and murdered, although investigators were never sure in what order the crimes occurred. The facts of the case, as reported by the Columbia Police Department, are this: At 7:50 p.m., Ed and Anne Romack left for their bridge party, leaving Janett in charge of their 3-year-old son, Greg. Ed Romack had shown Janett the shotgun he kept in a closet off the living room before he left, “conscious,” he said, “of the fact that my home was in an isolated section.” Romack had taught Janett how to load and fire the gun, but it hadn’t been moved when police later investigated the home. The Romacks wouldn’t return to the house until 1:35 a.m., when they found Janett dead in the living room.
Somewhere in that timeframe, an intruder broke into the house and killed Janett. Police reported seeing a sawhorse beneath a living room window, and spoke of footprints found on the side of the house, graphing the killer’s scramble up the wall. Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Carl Sapp told a local reporter that the assailant had to break the glass in the window and crawl across the piano in the living room before he finally made his way fully inside the house.
In an era before cellphones and forensic evidence, it’s amazing that investigators were able to pinpoint the time of the murder, but they could because Janett tried to contact police at the start of the attack. Around 11 o’clock that night, Officer Roy McGowan received a call at the police station and heard what sounded like “a young girl screaming hysterically.” According to McGowan, “her voice suddenly died out and I was unable to get her to give me a street number to go to.” At the same time, Anne Romack called the house from Moon Valley Villa to check on the baby. She heard a busy signal and assumed another family on their party line was using the phone. Later interviews with the five other subscribers on the phone line would confirm that the call to police came from the Romack house, placing Janett’s estimated time of death at 11 p.m.
There are no known witnesses to the murder of Janett Christman — Greg Romack, a toddler at the time, slept through the entire attack. The Romacks found Janett lying on the floor of the living room by the piano, her hair matted with blood, her body bruised, and her beige skirt pushed up to her waist. The killer had strangled her with a cord snipped from an electric iron — the weapon had left deep grooves around her neck — and stabbed her with some sort of small, circular weapon that left round puncture marks on her scalp. While technically recognizable, the body no longer seemed like Janett’s. There was no glimmer of life from her round, friendly face; her corpse gave no hint of the sunny 13-year-old who had played the piano beautifully, who fretted over her full figure, whose friends and family adored her.
“I just remember seeing her at the funeral, and thinking she looked really nice,” says Carol Haley Holt. Her eyes fill with tears. “She missed out on a lot. She missed out on a whole life, and we missed her.”
Janett Christman died loved. She’s still remembered by her best friends, who think of her whenever they pass by Parker’s Funeral Home, where they mourned at her services, or Ernie’s Café & Steakhouse, where her family lived above the restaurant they owned and operated. She’s still remembered by her classmates, who speak of her when they come back to Columbia for reunions. She’s still remembered by two sisters — Reta Christman Smith, only 18 months younger than Janett, and Cheryl Christman Bottorff, who was just a baby when Janett was murdered. Everyone agrees that Janett would have been someone special. “She was a very smart lady,” Reta says. “I always figured she would have been a successful woman.”
Janett was “sweet as can be,” says her friend Maribeth Buescher Jackson, but Janett also was a hardworking hustler. At 13, she was already eager for spending money, and lined up part-time jobs in addition to her chores at home. When she asked her parents if she could babysit, Charles and Lula Mae Christman agreed, provided they vetted the families in the homes where she worked.
“The murder occurred in the county, you know,” Bill Clark says over breakfast at the Country Kitchen on Providence Road. Clark, a columnist for the Columbia Daily Tribune, has lived in the city for years and conducted his own investigation into the case for his column.
“You had West Boulevard,” he continues, “and the next street to the east was Greenwood. Between those two streets, that was the city line, and this murder occurred about 100 yards into the county.”
The exact location of the Christman murder, at 1015 Stewart Road, had a huge bearing on the handling of the case, which quickly became a turf war for the two main agencies investigating the crime. Technically, according to the boundaries at the time, Janett was murdered outside Columbia, and the case should have fallen under the jurisdiction of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, helmed by Sheriff Glen Powell. But the first person to respond after the Romacks called for law enforcement was Lt. Joe Douglas with the city police force, a move that brought Chief Pond into the investigation. From Day 1, the Christman case was a mess of conflicting egos, handled by two departments who not only wouldn’t cooperate, but held fundamentally different theories on who committed the crime.
“As far as Pond was concerned, that was his investigation,” Clark says. “He was a climber. He would do anything to put his name out there, something that would get him to the next position. He wanted to solve this thing.”
The day after the murder, Chief Pond announced he would solve the crime in two days. He was joined by Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Carl Sapp, who was preparing for Jake Bradford’s upcoming rape trial and wanted to play just as large a role in the Christman investigation. Later that spring, Sapp would reference the murder in his re-election campaign. The major players in the investigation quickly organized into factions: the prosecutor and the police chief against the county sheriff and his deputy, Julius Wedemier. Both groups cooperated with the Missouri Highway Patrol, but refused to work with one another.
Much of the acrimony can be attributed to petty political squabbling, but there also was a fundamental difference in each agency’s approach to the case. According to Columbia police records, Pond and his officers took the broken window on the west side of the Romack house at face value. The glass had been shattered by a garden hoe that lay outside the house — when they sent the hoe to the Highway Patrol crime lab, technicians found glass particles clinging to the neck of the implement. There was a baby grand piano — Janett loved to practice on it — right under the window, and while “pictures and papers on this piano were not too greatly disturbed,” officers did find a muddy smear on one of the papers, which they concluded was a footprint from the intruder. The back door to the house was ajar when the Romacks returned home, and the police and Highway Patrol concluded “the subject was a prowler and an opportunist, who when finding Jeanette [sic] by herself, took advantage of the situation and forced entry.”
The sheriff’s department examined the same scene, but came away with an entirely different conclusion. The hoe was lying outside the house when officers examined the crime scene, but according to the Romacks, it had been in the utility closet when they left the house. And that piano — just as police reported, the items on top were barely disturbed, especially compared to the bloody mess in the room. The piano had been waxed recently, but there were no scratches or gouges in the surface, no evidence that someone had scrabbled their way across it to get into the house. Significantly, the Romacks reported that the front door was unlocked when they returned to the house, even though they specifically remembered locking it behind them. Janett was smart enough to know not to open the door for someone she didn’t know. And the porch lamp was on; Janett had a habit of turning on the light when she heard a car coming into the driveway.
The most compelling evidence though, in the sheriff’s view, came from Janett’s autopsy. The direct cause of death was asphyxia from the electric cord tied tightly around her neck with a double knot. That cord came from an iron in the sewing room of the Romack house, down a hallway leading to the bedrooms. It hadn’t been ripped out — it was cut, neatly, by a pair of scissors the attacker found in the same room. With plenty of electrical appliances in the living room, why would a stranger take extra time to cut that specific cord when, ostensibly, the Romacks could come home at any moment? And why would he have chosen that specific room, and known where to find the iron and the scissors?
Sheriff’s investigators also noted in their report evidence of blunt trauma and two small puncture wounds on Janett’s scalp, as if someone had stabbed her with a cork borer or “a small round pipe.”
Their differing conclusions led the police department and the sheriff’s department to embark on two markedly different investigations. Based on their theory that a random prowler had committed the crime, the police and prosecutor Sapp adopted what Deputy Wedemier described in a public statement as a “wholesale arrest method.”
Pond and his officers hauled in hundreds of suspects — largely from Columbia’s black community — for questioning, based on tips from the community or suspicious behavior they claimed to have observed. In some of the cases, their reasoning seemed sound. Anyone in town with new or unexplainable scratches, for example, was automatically suspected. But in many other cases, based on their countless suspect reports, police reasoning was less grounded, particularly when it involved a black suspect. For instance, one report described how “James Robert Lee Slater (Negro)” was brought in for walking around a white neighborhood at 9 p.m. and shadowing his face from police car lights. Police held Slater at the city jail for two days, where he was “questioned extensively” and “run numerous times on the polygraph,” before he was finally released.
Working off the theory that Janett was murdered by someone she knew, the sheriff’s department took a different approach. Wedemier began by questioning Ed and Anne Romack. Ed, a certified public accountant with his father’s company, had an alibi corroborated by his wife and his friends at the bridge party. He had been at Moon Valley Villa all night, in the presence of several other couples. Still, when Wedemier questioned him on March 21, a day after details of the crime had been splashed across the city’s newspapers, he pushed him to say more. Who could he think of who knew the layout of his house, Wedemier asked, and why wasn’t the house disturbed apart from the blood, as if the killer had known where to find the supplies he needed? Romack replied, “he was thinking, he needed some time to think.”
With permission from authorities, Ed Romack took his shaken and pregnant wife to her hometown of Idaho Falls, Idaho, to visit her parents. He returned to Columbia on April 10. Wedemier and Ed Romack spoke several times in the ensuing days; Wedemier even flew out to California, accompanied by Ed, to interview Anne who had traveled on from Idaho to California for a vacation. Both Romacks, in oral statements and signed depositions, pointed to one man who could have done it: Ed’s high school friend, Robert Mueller, a former Army Air Corps captain with a distinguished military record in World War II.
“I felt from the very beginning that Bob was the guilty person,” reads a line from Anne Romack’s deposition to Wedemier. Together, the couple provided the sheriff’s department with pages of scathing circumstantial evidence against Mueller, beginning with Ann’s personal experiences.
“Bob doesn’t use words, he uses his hands,” Ann’s sworn statement declared. She said Mueller frequently made passes at her when they were together, ranging from the annoying (Mueller had once tried to stuff confetti down her gown at a New Year’s party) to the predatory (frequently running his hands over her stomach, especially when she was pregnant). The day before the murder, she said, Mueller came over to the house to help her hem a dress and groped her, running his hands over her breasts.
Ed Romack’s statement was even more damning. He claimed Mueller, who also knew Janett, had commented on the babysitter’s breasts and well-developed hips, and had often mentioned that Janett was a virgin. Romack added that his friend was always talking about trying to “get” a virgin, and had once suggested that they “go down to The Hink [Hinkson Creek] and get a nice young girl.” When questioned, Mueller would later attribute this comment to Romack.
“Yes, he would comment on a nicely built female,” says Caryl Floyd, Mueller’s eldest child. She was just 4 when Janett Christman was killed, and only discovered five years ago that her father was suspected in the case. “Did he do it all the time? Well, if there were a whole lot of nicely built ladies, yes, he would.”
Caryl remained close to her father all his life and remembers him as loving and giving and gentle, not the kind of person who would even think about committing such a crime. Was there was any possibility her father could have killed Janett Christman?
“I’m trying to remember some of the articles I read,” she recalls. “I remember one where they were talking about how the person had gone through the window and over the piano. To me that made absolutely no sense. He was not, let’s say, athletic, in any means. I can see him finding a way through the front door, but I can’t see him finding a way through a window. He would have known the piano was there, if he had been in the house many times.”
Aside from anecdotal suspicions, the Romacks — and Mueller, too — conceded that he knew the layout of the house and had thought about the crime. Mueller, a talented tailor, had used the couple’s iron and the scissors in their sewing room numerous times; according to the Romacks, he was the “only probable male person” who knew what type of iron the family owned. He also admitted he had been in the Romacks’ utility closet and knew gardening tools were kept there, though not specifically the hoe. Both Romacks also stated that around 9 a.m. the day after the murder — before any details of the crime had been published — Mueller telephoned them at Ed’s father’s house and offered to “come over and clean up that bloody mess.”
Though Mueller never specifically corroborated that claim, he did admit to telling patrons at his father’s restaurant on the Monday after the crime, “I don’t have an alibi, but, buddy, I don’t have no scratches.”
The Romacks’ testimony against their friend goes on for pages. Ed also stated that Mueller had discussed the crime with him and theorized the attacker hadn’t really come in through the window — someone could easily have gotten into the house by coming to the door and saying, “Ed sent me for poker chips.” Mueller attended the same bridge party as the Romacks on the night of Janett’s death, but he didn’t have an alibi for a portion of the night; several guests noted he had left the restaurant at one point and reappeared after an hour or two. Perhaps most significantly, when Sheriff Powell and Deputy Wedemier questioned Mueller on all of the Romacks’ statements, he responded that he “could not point to any particular one thing and say it was untrue.”
As Anne Romack told Wedemier in her deposition, “He is the only one it could have been, if it is one of our friends.”
There were other, indisputable facts that pointed to Mueller as a viable suspect. According to Reta Smith, her sister Janett was only allowed to babysit for two families: the Romacks and the Muellers. Robert Mueller had asked Janett to watch his child the night of March 18, so he knew that she already had agreed to sit for the Romacks. Another circumstance led the sheriff’s department to suspect Mueller of the murder. Mueller always carried a mechanical pencil in his front pocket, a habit known to his friends and police. Wedemier speculated that the pencil could have made the strange puncture marks on Janett’s scalp — when he later sent the pencil to the Highway Patrol crime lab, technicians noted that its outside diameter matched the diameter of Janett’s stab wounds and stated that it could have been the weapon used. Mueller’s habit was so entrenched that it continued even after he left Columbia.
“He always had his mechanical pencil in his pocket,” his daughter, Caryl Floyd, says. “As far as I know, he died with it there.”
While sheriff’s investigators were growing increasingly suspicious of Mueller, Chief Pond and the Columbia police seemed no closer to finding a likely perpetrator. They continued to haul in suspects, corresponding with police departments as far away as Arkansas and Ohio on suspicious individuals picked up in other states. At the same time, Prosecuting Attorney Carl Sapp was facing his own troubles in Columbia.
Jake Bradford, whom Sapp had charged with two of the assaults leading up to the Christman murder, was now retracting his confession at his March trial for the attempted rape of Sally Johnson, claiming that he had been held illegally and threatened into testifying against himself. Stanley Ginn, Bradford’s attorney, pointed out that Johnson had never positively identified Bradford — in fact, she told police that he seemed “awfully little” to be the man who attacked her. During the investigation, police had asked Bradford to show them the house where he had confessed to attacking Johnson, but he led them to the wrong address and incorrectly described the mask Johnson had said her attacker was wearing. Crucially, Bradford’s claims of illegal detention and threats by officials had substance.
Long before Miranda warnings became the law of the land for police procedure, City Attorney David Bear testified at the trial that he never informed Bradford of his Fifth Amendment right to silence or the right to an attorney, and admitted that Sapp had called the suspect a “black son of a bitch” during questioning. Bradford claimed that Dr. Henry Griffith, the county coroner, had waved a gun in his face and threatened him with mob violence. After he signed a confession, Bradford said Griffith had dialed a number on the telephone in front of him and told the person who answered at the other end, “You boys don’t have to come in now.”
Despite the procedural flaws, juries convicted Jake Bradford in two trials for the sexual assault cases from the previous fall. Yet, even as his trials progressed, some Columbians began to note similarities among the rape cases in 1949, the Christman murder in 1950, and another murder-rape perpetrated on West Boulevard four years earlier. The murder of Marylou Jenkins on Feb. 5, 1946, brought comparisons to mind with the Christman case, even though the crime allegedly was solved in 1946. Marylou, a 19-year-old Stephens College graduate, was attacked late in the evening while alone in her house; her mother, a nurse, was spending the night with an elderly couple who lived next door. Like Janett, Marylou was raped and strangled with an electric cord, in her case a cord ripped from a lamp fixture. The two crimes occurred just blocks away from one another, and just blocks away from the 1949 assaults.
Unlike Janett’s case, however, police essentially closed the Jenkins murder within weeks of the crime. On Feb. 23, 1946, police and sheriff’s officers arrested Floyd Cochran, a 34-year-old black man, after he tried to kill himself that afternoon. Cochran was guilty of one murder — he readily admitted to officers that he had killed his wife that same day — but the official reasons for charging him in the Jenkins case are still murky. According to University of Missouri doctoral history student Mary Beth Brown, officials learned that Cochran had worked for Marylou’s father as a junk hauler at one time. George Spencer, the prosecuting attorney at the time, claimed Cochran “made admissions implicating him in the murder,” but later revelations indicated that he neither admitted nor denied responsibility. Cochran was executed for Marylou Jenkins’ murder on Sept. 26, 1947, in the gas chamber at the Missouri penitentiary in Jefferson City.
“We always wondered if they just put him to death to solve the case, whether it was truly him or not,” says Janett’s sister, Reta Smith. “But it was just that at that time, it seemed like they could close the case and get it over with.”
She wasn’t the only Columbian to doubt Cochran’s involvement in the Jenkins murder. Officials collected numerous statements during the Christman investigation, in which several Columbia residents said they felt Cochran couldn’t have murdered Marylou, given that assaults had continued after his execution. Many thought the same way about Jake Bradford, convicted of two 1949 assaults.
Doubts about Cochran and Bradford’s guilt had wide-reaching implications for solving the series of crimes in Columbia. If the convicted men were innocent, it meant that the man — or men — responsible for those crimes could still be free and capable of committing others. There were enough similarities among all of the crimes to theorize they had been committed by the same culprit. With the exception of the rape and robbery by Hinkson Creek, both murders and two of the 1949 assaults had targeted young women home alone, and all were committed within blocks of one another. The area in which the crimes occurred lay directly behind Robert Mueller’s home at 112 Park Hill Ave., where he had lived most of his life — all four sites were about 15 minutes away on foot. All three victims of the nonlethal sexual attacks also told police their attacker wore a mask they described as a white sack with slits cut over the eyes. Mueller, who had chaired the Senior Play Stage Set Committee as a student at Hickman High School 10 years earlier, later admitted he made similar masks in his spare time.
Beyond the nearly identical murder methods used on both girls, there’s also some evidence that Mueller may have known Marylou Jenkins. Both attended Hickman High School together for two years — Mueller graduated in 1941, and Marylou graduated in 1943. And both participated in the Dramatics Club. At Stephens College, Marylou Jenkins and Anne Browning Romack were classmates.
By the end of April 1950, Sheriff Powell and Deputy Wedemier thought they had enough evidence against Mueller to make an arrest. But they waited until they knew he was carrying his mechanical pencil so they could send it to the crime lab in Jefferson City for analysis. On May 4, Ed Romack notified the investigators that Mueller had invited him over for the evening, and the three men agreed that Romack would arrange a poker party at Moon Valley Villa because Mueller usually kept score and almost certainly would bring his pencil with him.
Wedemier took Mueller into custody as he left his house for the poker game. He got into Mueller’s car and ordered him to drive into the countryside, where Powell awaited at Wedemier’s farm. Powell and Wedemier would each testify in a later civil suit that they took him outside the city limits to avoid publicity, but history student Mary Beth Brown says her research indicates it is more likely they did it to shield their actions from prosecutor Sapp and police chief Pond.
Although the sheriff had enough evidence against Mueller to make an arrest, the pair’s methods destroyed their case against him. Instead of taking him to sheriff’s headquarters, they took Mueller to Wedemier’s farmhouse outside the city, without an arrest warrant, and held him there all night for questioning. Inexplicably, Powell also asked Stanley Ginn, Jake Bradford’s attorney, to accompany them as a witness. That fact would later get Ginn thrown off Bradford’s case after prosecutor Sapp successfully argued that the attorney’s participation in Mueller’s arrest that night constituted a conflict of interest. After the all-night interrogation, Mueller agreed to accompany the officers to Jefferson City and take a lie-detector test. According to Bill Clark’s research, Mueller passed the polygraph exam; officers released him in Columbia around 5:30 p.m. on May 5. Powell never charged Mueller with the crime.
Just when it seemed Powell and Wedemier had missed their one opportunity to charge Mueller, Boone County Circuit Court Judge W.M. Dinwiddie dropped another chance in their lap when he convened a grand jury to investigate “the series of heinous crimes — rape and murder — which have shocked the whole county.” The order from the Circuit Court stated that Prosecuting Attorney Carl Sapp had requested the grand jury because, Dinwiddie told the Columbia Daily Tribune, “there was testimony relative to these series of offenses that should go before a grand jury.”
Although Dinwiddie had told the grand jury it was free to probe the investigations carried out by the different departments, the main point of assembling the jury, many assumed, was to identify a suspect. As the Tribune reported on May 24, 1950, “presumably, the grand jury will hear testimony about the circumstantial evidence which the sheriff’s office is said to have gathered concerning the brutal rape murder of Miss Janett Christman.” Yet when the grand jury handed down its decision on June 17, 1950, there was no formal charge. Instead, the group of 12 jurors released a statement criticizing the lack of cooperation between the police department and the sheriff’s department.
“You always wonder, what happened?” Reta Smith says. “You know, what happened to the grand jury? Then you have to wonder, were they paid off? Because some of the testimony was just blatant.”
Rumors that grand jurors were paid not to deliver an indictment have swirled around Columbia since 1950. Yet, no one has ever found evidence that all 12 men on the jury were paid not to name a suspect.
There are, however, strange signs that Prosecuting Attorney Carl Sapp, who presumably should have welcomed an indictment backed by glaring evidence, seemed to take a special interest in protecting Robert Mueller.
Although Sapp had worked with the city police department over the course of the Christman investigation, he was aware of the statements the Romacks had made to Powell and Wedemier before requesting Dinwiddie convene the grand jury. Powell would later testify in a subsequent civil suit that Sapp had called Mueller “guilty as hell” after reading the statements the sheriff had collected from the couple, a charge Sapp strenuously denied whenever he was questioned about it. Yet Sapp also personally requested that Paul Peterson, an attorney and good friend of the Muellers, appear before the grand jury. The two men would disagree on this point a few years later, when testifying in Mueller’s civil lawsuit against Powell and Wedemier.
“He [Peterson] asked to appear,” Sapp insisted while on the witness stand in the civil suit, “and I requested him then because he wanted to talk to the grand jury and the grand jury wanted to hear him.”
Peterson, according to an article in the Columbia Missourian, “flatly denied this.”
“I did not ask for permission to go before the grand jury,” Peterson stated. “He [Sapp] asked me.”
There was also the matter of Sapp’s obvious animosity toward Powell and Wedemier, evident over the course of his re-election campaign in 1950. In his stump speeches, Sapp repeatedly attacked Wedemier’s record with the St. Louis Police Department, where the deputy sheriff formerly served, at one point referring to him patronizingly as “the St. Louis prison guard.” Sapp also claimed publicly that Powell wanted to beat him out of office and told crowds that both the sheriff and Deputy Wedemier had spread the rumor that Sapp had been paid $50,000 not to prosecute Mueller, a claim Powell said he heard for the first time in Sapp’s campaign speech.
Janett Christman’s parents were suspicious of Sapp and bitter over his handling of their daughter’s case. Charles Christman released a written statement after the grand jury criticized law enforcement for lack of cooperation, praising the sheriff’s department for its investigation and saying it would have been “useless” for Powell to have requested assistance from Sapp and the Columbia police. Lula Mae Christman was even more active in her criticism of the prosecuting attorney. She traveled to Rocheport at one point during his re-election campaign to heckle him when he publicly discussed the case, later saying, “He didn’t have the right to use our name.”
Lula Mae said Sapp “acted like he was so interested in our case, and he never came once to talk to us. He was very underhanded.”
The family concurred. “Oh yes, we felt he was biased,” says Janett’s sister Reta. “And of course, the Muellers had a lot of money. I can remember our minister, Dr. C.E. Lemon, counseling my parents, and at one point he said, ‘You could destitute and bankrupt your family, and they could still outspend you.’ ”
In 1950, the entire Christman family (Charles, Lula Mae, Janett, Reta and Cheryl) lived in the tiny, one-bedroom apartment above Ernie’s Café & Steakhouse, the business Charles Christman had spent his life savings to buy. The Muellers, on the other hand, were established business owners. Carl Mueller (Robert’s father) owned Mueller’s Virginia Cafe; Robert served as the restaurant’s manager. The Mueller family lived in the Grasslands neighborhood, an upscale area populated primarily by Columbia business owners and university administrators. Their neighbor across the street was the Waters family, owners and publishers of the Columbia Daily Tribune.
The grand jury decision still puzzles after all these years. The panel heard and saw Sheriff Powell’s evidence; jurors knew about the masks and the pencil, about Mueller’s comments and his lack of alibi. Powell testified and jurors acknowledged they had viewed the Romacks’ testimony. Despite all those corroborative statements, the panel failed to indict Mueller or name another suspect.
Less than two months after the grand jury failed to return an indictment, Mueller sued Powell and Wedemier for $400,000, claiming the sheriff and his deputy had violated his civil rights and conspired to influence the grand jury to indict him. The civil suit lasted nearly three years, from Aug. 9, 1950, when Mueller first filed suit in District Court, until June 1953, when the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the District Court ruling in favor of Powell and Wedemier. Mueller, by that point, had already left Columbia — in 1951, he returned to military life and enlisted in the recently formed Air Force, moving his family to Tucson, Ariz.
Despite the objections set out in his case, Mueller seemed to have few real complaints about the way Powell and Wedemier handled him during questioning in April 1950. He testified that there was no violence and no threats — he was treated well by the officials, he said, provided with meals, Coca-Cola and coffee, and he willingly agreed to accompany them to Jefferson City for a lie-detector test. Even his claim that his family was never notified of his whereabouts wasn’t strictly true — despite his father’s vehement testimony at the original civil trial, Carl Mueller later admitted during the appeal that his son was allowed to call him before taking the polygraph test, adding that “I knew Glen would look after Bob — Glen wouldn’t see my son mistreated in any way, with violence.”
Money did not seem to be the primary objective for suing Powell and Wedemier. Rather, Mueller seemed most concerned that the officers “didn’t believe the answers he gave” during questioning, and didn’t later “see fit to make a statement clearing my name.” Mueller’s main complaint in his case, it seemed, was that Sheriff Powell didn’t believe he was innocent. When he first sued Powell and Wedemier, Mueller insisted, “I am convinced that a conspiracy exists to destroy my character.” He didn’t care about damages, he said, but wanted to clear his name.
If clearing his name was the primary objective, filing a suit against Sheriff Powell and Deputy Wedemier was an interesting strategy. Despite Mueller’s insistence that the officers had destroyed his reputation, he was never publicly outed as a suspect in the Christman case before he filed suit. The first time newspapers in Columbia printed Mueller’s name in association with Janett Christman’s murder was Aug. 9, 1950, when they ran the stories about Mueller filing suit against the sheriff and the deputy. And without legal action, the Romacks’ testimony about Mueller would never have been made public. Powell and Wedemier only shared the couple’s statements when they were asked to explain their reasons for suspecting Mueller.
If anything, the civil trial was more damaging to Mueller’s reputation than anything Powell and Wedemier could have done. For more than two years, the press followed breathlessly as Ed and Anne Romack testified on the stand, they listened and recorded when Wedemier claimed Sapp himself thought Mueller was guilty, and they published the statements Mueller made to the officers when they questioned him at Wedemier’s farmhouse. Most incriminating was Wedemier’s testimony on May 14, 1952, when he told the court that Mueller had said, when questioned on Janett Christman’s murder, “I might have done it and forgotten it — I do things and forget them.”
Mueller’s motives for filing suit also were questioned in court when Powell’s attorney, Don Carter, asked attorney Paul Peterson if it was true that another of Mueller’s attorneys had called Powell in his office and told him, “Now, this whole thing can be stopped if you will make the statement to the newspapers absolving Mueller from the case. Do that, and this lawsuit will be dropped.” Peterson replied that he didn’t know, because he had been in Minnesota at the time.
Powell and Wedemier were cleared of all charges two separate times — once in Kansas City by the Western District Court of Missouri, and once in St. Louis by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit. Judges in both jurisdictions ruled that the two had reasonable cause for arresting Mueller, and testimony from members of the grand jury revealed that there never was a conspiracy to indict him — five jurors testified that Powell never discussed Mueller or the Christman case with them outside the jury room.
With his civil suit exhausted, Mueller returned to Tucson in 1953. He came back to Columbia only once, allegedly, for a Hickman High School reunion. Mueller remained in the Air Force for most of his life, serving in Korea and Vietnam. He retired as a major in San Jose, Calif., where he lived until his death on July 5, 2006. He is survived by his daughter, Caryl Floyd, and one son, also named Robert.
“Well, obviously it’s a bitter pill to swallow,” says Reta Smith, now 78 years old. “To know that things were bungled so badly that it was not solvable.”
With all the documented testimony that points to Robert Mueller, it’s hard to find an alternative resolution of the Janett Christman murder. It’s not just that the Romacks thought he was guilty, but that Mueller himself corroborated their statements in his lawsuit against the sheriff. It’s not just that Mueller left a party early on the night of the murder, but that his alibi — that he had gone home for a few hours so a doctor could attend to his sick child — was denied by the same doctor when questioned by Wedemier.
The state reopened the Janett Christman murder case in 1953, and for the first time, investigators linked the Christman and Jenkins murders — most notably by George Spencer, the prosecuting attorney largely responsible for the execution of Floyd Cochran. Yet efforts to find the murderer proved just as fruitless the second time around. A large part of the problem, according to Frank Conley, a former Boone County prosecutor and judge, was that the prosecutor’s office didn’t have complete files from any of the agencies that investigated the case. That wouldn’t happen for another decade, when Conley took over as prosecuting attorney in 1963 and ordered better cooperation between the police and sheriff’s department.
But just as quickly as a complete file was assembled, it silently vanished. The current prosecuting attorney’s office has no record of it, and Conley suspects that it no longer exists or was lost when the prosecutor’s office moved to its current location at the Boone County Courthouse on Walnut Street.
The principals in the Christman case are now dead. Over time, the physical evidence from the case also has disappeared; the Columbia Police Department, Missouri Highway Patrol and Boone County Sheriff’s Department all say there is no trace left.
Janett Christman was buried in Memorial Park Cemetery on her 14th birthday, March 21, 1950, wearing a burgundy suit she had bought with her babysitting money. It was her Easter suit, friends say, and she had planned to wear it as she sat in the pews at First Christian Church next to her mother and father and two younger sisters. Her friends and family still can’t say, with certainty, who murdered her before she got that chance. Perhaps they never will.
Shortly before Missouri Attorney General John Dalton reopened Janett Christman’s case in 1953, Jake Bradford was finally released from jail, after a long fight to get the 1949 rape charges against him overturned. When he was first convicted in the spring of 1950 of assaulting Sally Johnson, he was sentenced to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary. He appealed that sentence on the grounds that he wasn’t granted a preliminary trial, a plea that was denied by a trial court and the Supreme Court of Missouri in 1951. A little more than a year later, on July 17, 1952, Bradford was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the 1949 rape of the 16-year-old babysitter on Sunset Lane in Columbia.
Finally, in 1953, the Missouri Supreme Court again re-examined Bradford’s conviction and ruled to release him, after finding that police officers had, in fact, used threats of mob violence to coerce a confession, and that the 16-year-old victim could not definitively state that her attacker had even been a black man. On Dec. 29, 1953, Bradford was commuted from the Missouri State Penitentiary and returned to Columbia. He moved to Boonville shortly afterward, and died there in 2002 at the Riverdell Nursing Center.
Sheriff Glen Powell spent his entire life in Columbia, serving as postmaster after leaving the sheriff’s department, and died in 1984 at the age of 82. His deputy, Julius Wedemier, spent a few more years with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department before moving to Waynesville and opening a chain of pizza parlors. According to his great-niece, Regina Van Berkum, Wedemier died in 1975 at the age of 77, and is buried in his hometown of St. Louis.
Stanley Ginn, Bradford’s attorney, died in Columbia after an illustrious life. He and his wife, Rosemary, became some of Missouri’s most beloved citizens — Stanley became the superintendent of the Missouri State Highway Patrol; Rosemary was appointed U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Both were buried in Columbia’s Memorial Park Cemetery after their deaths in 2003.
Prosecuting Attorney Carl Sapp continued to work as a lawyer in Columbia for many years after leaving office (he never won a second term as Boone County prosecutor, despite his vigorous campaigning). He died on Oct. 20, 1998, at the age of 80.
By 1953, Columbia Police Chief Eugene Pond had moved on to the Kansas City Police Department, where he became chief of detectives. He served as police chief in Wichita, Kan., from 1957 to 1968. In that time period, FBI crime statistics held that Wichita was the “Safest City in America” from 1958 to 1960. The Topeka Capital-Journal named Pond a “Distinguished Kansan” in 1967. He later served in the FBI under Director Clarence Kelly. Pond died in 1986 in New Mexico, at the age of 73.
Robert Mueller died in 2006 in San Jose, Calif. He is buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, Calif.
The Romacks moved to Idaho Falls, Idaho, after the murder. There, they raised three children. Anne Romack died in 1980 and is buried in Idaho Falls. Ed Romack died a few years ago in Idaho. The couple, dissatisfied that nothing came out of the investigation, hired a private investigator out-of-pocket after police failed to solve the case, according to their son, Greg, the toddler Janett Christman was babysitting that fateful night. Greg Romack now lives in Alaska.
Janett Christman’s parents stayed in Columbia for many years after their eldest daughter’s death. They owned Ernie’s Steakhouse for 25 years before they retired. Charles Christman died in Columbia in 1974.Lula Mae Christman moved to Kansas City shortly after that, and died in 2009. Daughter Reta Christman Smith still lives in Kansas City with her husband, Bob; Cheryl Louise Christman Bottorff, the youngest Christman sister, settled in Florida. Janett Christman is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery, in a small grave on the south side of the grounds.