‘Murder on Staunton Road’ sheds new light on Charleston’s chilliest cold case | Kanawha Valley

‘Murder on Staunton Road’ sheds new light on Charleston’s chilliest cold case | Kanawha Valley

Sixty-seven years after the body of Charleston Daily Mail owner Juliet Staunton Clark was found sprawled in a pool of blood on the living room floor of her South Hills home, questions about her still-unsolved murder continue to outnumber answers.

The enduring mystery of Charleston’s highest profile homicide is explored in depth in “Murder on Staunton Road,” a book by Charlestonians Charlie Ryan and Mitch Evans. The book will be available at Charleston area bookstores and through Amazon starting Oct. 30.

Ryan, namesake of Charles Ryan Associates, the public relations firm he founded here in 1974, and Evans, a Charleston financial planner for Ameriprise Financial and its precursors since 1983, spent more than two years researching the cold case.

In addition to scrolling through countless reels of microfilm to access newspaper accounts of the crime and ensuing investigation, they assembled biographical profiles of the victim and members of her family. Then they interviewed friends, relatives and descendants of the murdered Daily Mail owner, along with those still surviving who have connections to the case. Finally, they filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests and made countless calls in what turned out to be a fruitless effort to obtain the case file of the murder investigation, related documents and access to physical evidence.

“It took two and a half years and a lot of commitment,” Ryan said. “We gathered all these disparate pieces of information and chronicled them in a way that should give readers insight into the moment in time in Charleston when this brutal murder took place.”

“It was an honor to learn about the Staunton family,” Evans said. “I felt really drawn to Juliet Staunton Clark and her story.”

The homicide drew national newspaper coverage in the pre-television news era that was nearing an end in 1953.

“You had a wealthy woman, the widow of a former governor of Alaska, who owned a newspaper in a growing town in what was considered the south, living at the highest tier of her city’s social life until she was brutally bludgeoned to death,” Ryan said. “It captured the imagination of a broad section of America.”

Juliet Staunton Clay Clark was the daughter of Edward W. Staunton, a former Charleston mayor who helped develop the city’s first streetcar system and built an upscale residential development along a road bearing his name in South Hills. After graduating from prestigious Smith College in 1916, Juliet returned to Charleston, where she married attorney Buckner Woodford Clay.

The couple’s first child, Buckner Woodford Clay Jr., was four years old when his father died in 1923 at the age of 45. Their second child, Lyell Buffington Clay, was born 20 days after his father’s death.

Six years later, Juliet married widower and journalist Walter Clark, who moved to Charleston in 1914 to try his hand at running his own newspaper after writing for publications from Connecticut to Washington, D.C. Clark bought the foundering News Mail at auction for $10,000 and renamed it the Charleston Daily Mail. After being half of the two-man operation that produced the Daily Mail in its earliest years, Clark gradually assembled a talented staff and upgraded the paper’s production plant.

Before arriving in Charleston, Clark took several leaves of absence from newspaper work to prospect for gold in Alaska. While the prospecting may not have panned out financially for Clark, his connections made in Alaska played a role in President William Taft’s decision to appoint him the first territorial governor of what would become the 49th state. After spending four years in Juneau, Clark returned to the Lower 48 in 1913, after Woodrow Wilson replaced Taft as president.

When Clark died of a heart attack in 1950, Juliet Staunton Clark became principal owner of the Daily Mail, by then the largest afternoon daily in the state. She named her brother, Fred Staunton, publisher and left him in charge of day-to-day management, but spent time at the newspaper nearly every day.

“She was a rich woman, the Katharine Graham of Charleston,” Fanny Staunton Ogilvie, daughter of Fred Staunton, said of her aunt, Juliet Staunton Clark, in an interview with the authors.

According to the book, Clark was well-liked by the Daily Mail staff, who appreciated her relatively hands-off management style, along with her periodic newsroom drop-offs of food. She avoided controversy, choosing instead to become immersed in community and civic matters and maintaining connections with Charleston’s movers and shakers.

But some family members interviewed for the book described her as moody, subject to extreme highs and lows, to the point of being bipolar in the words of one descendant. According to a recap of Clark’s murder five years after the fact in the New York Daily News by crime writer Ruth Reynolds, “There was an undercurrent of talk in Charleston that beneath Mrs. Clark’s graciousness lay a strong will and a violent temper.”

The motive for her brutal murder, which took place three years after Juliet Clark assumed ownership of the newspaper, remains baffling to this day. In fact, what is known about the murder continues to be outweighed by what remains a mystery. Why?

n When the investigation ran out of steam several years after the murder, there was no cold case follow-up probe.

n City officials say the Charleston Police Department case file for the investigation and all physical evidence it produced cannot be found, despite an extensive search conducted at Evans’ request.

n Although a suspect apparently known only to the lead detectives in the case and John Copenhaver, Charleston’s mayor at the time, was known but not publicly identified, no indictment or arrest warrant was sought.

n Polygraph examinations were administered to many relatives and other associates of the victim who were in Charleston at the time of the murder. When the lie detector tests were complete, those who participated in them were summoned to a five-hour meeting in the Mayor’s Conference Room with the polygraph examiners, police and the mayor. All declined comment after the meeting. Results of the tests have never been released and no trace of the tests’ results can now be found.

n There is no indication that the murder scene was dusted for fingerprints or if attempts were made to identify footprints or tire tread patterns in the driveway.

It would not be terribly unreasonable for a reasonable person to conclude that an effort had been made to ensure that the identity of Juliet Staunton Clark’s murderer is never publicly known.

Facts established during the homicide as reported in press accounts — the only remaining public record of the investigation — include:

n Clark’s death occurred between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. on the night of Aug. 21, 1953, due to loss of blood and trauma from seven skull fractures caused by blows from a blunt object, in what had to have been a fit of rage.

n Her 3-year-old grandson, Jay, had been asleep in an adjacent bedroom when his grandmother was attacked and beaten to death, but did not awaken until investigators arrived at the murder scene the next morning. Jay was staying with Clark while his mother recuperated from giving birth to twin girls, one of whom died, several days earlier.

n Robbery was not considered a motive for the murder, since none of the many pieces of valuable jewelry owned by Clark had been removed from her home, including the five diamond rings and diamond-studded watch she was wearing when her body was found. The home had not been ransacked, and none of its contents appeared to have been tampered with.

n There were no indications of a forced entry into Clark’s home, or of a violent struggle in the living room, although an ash tray on a living room coffee table had been overturned, dislodging a lighted cigarette, which burned a groove on the table’s surface. Three small rugs on the living room floor were disarranged, with the murder victim’s body found face down on one of them.

n Police believe that Clark had been seated on a living room divan, reading, when the killer entered the house through the seldom-locked front door. It was assumed, but not conclusively established, that Clark was acquainted with her killer.

From the time those facts were established within days of the murder until now, investigators have come no closer to arresting the murderer, although early on, several persons of interest were detained for questioning and later released when their innocence was verified.

They included a recently incarcerated West Virginia State Penitentiary inmate from Kanawha County, a mentally disturbed man who alternately claimed responsibility for the crime and denied any knowledge of it, and three young men seen lurking in a section of woods off Staunton Road, which proved to be the site of a beer stockpile they had cached and had been drinking.

One member of Clark’s family fell under police suspicion and was grilled for nearly 14 hours by police, then voluntarily submitted to a polygraph test and gradually faded from the forefront of police interest. Another blood relative went on an extended vacation immediately after the murder, which drew suspicion, not diminished by his refusal to be polygraphed upon his return. But he soon began to cooperate with investigators, whose attention turned elsewhere.

Although 30 city police officers were initially assigned to the case, nominally led by Detective W.W. “Red” Fisher, it was clear that within one week of the murder, Mayor John Copenhaver had “assumed the position of chief investigator, interrogator and spokesman to the press,” according to the book.

It was the mayor who determined that the services of renowned polygraph expert Dr. Fred Inbau of Chicago’s Northwestern University were needed to adequately question those connected to Clark. Copenhaver sat in during many of the lie detector tests and took part in the questioning of suspects by police.

At one point during the investigation, the mayor spoke to a church group about the case, unaware that a Charleston Gazette reporter was in the audience. Copenhaver let it be known that the identity of the killer was known to him and police investigators, but there was not enough evidence available to mount a successful prosecution.

Several years later, Tom Tolliver, Clark’s gardener, who was questioned as a suspect in the early days of the probe, encountered Detective Fisher by chance in the Sterling Restaurant, and struck up a conversation about the case. Tolliver said Fisher told him “we had the person in hand, but the mayor wouldn’t sign a warrant for an arrest.”

Near the end of their book, Evans and Ryan list 31 questions that remain unanswered 67 years after Charleston’s highest profile unsolved murder, despite their research.

“They hang heavy in the air surrounding well-known names and legacies,” they wrote.

They may have at least partially answered those questions in a chapter dealing with Copenhaver’s death in 1959, not long after election to a third term as mayor.

“Although still considered an open case, for all intents and purposes, the Clark murder investigation died with Copenhaver, fading into obscurity in reports buried or lost in records of the Charleston city police and those of Charleston’s extraordinary mayor,” according to the authors.

Were it possible for Copenhaver to know that the case remains unsolved today, “he would have reason to be relieved,” they concluded. “It was a convenience that avoided any awkward arrest and prosecution — possibly of a prominent person — resulting in what the mayor said might be the ‘perfect crime.’”

The book includes biographical sketches of many Charlestonians mentioned in the book, a brief history of the Staunton family, and a foreword by Brooks McCabe about life in Charleston during its 1950s boom period, when the city’s population was 73,501 — nearly 20,000 people more than Lexington, Kentucky.

While “Murder on Staunton Avenue” may not deliver a solution to the decades-old homicide, it does bring to light a number of previously unknown details, suggests possible motives and gives readers a glimpse of the stars of Charleston’s newspaper scene in its heyday.

For those with an interest in Charleston’s history or fans of true crime novels — or both — it’s a must read.

More information on the book, its authors and a link for buyers can be found at murderonstaunton.com.


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