Sixty years ago, Barbara and Patricia Grimes were a couple of ordinary teenage girls, addicted to the music of the swivel-hipped heartthrob who was driving women wild all over the country.
On Dec. 28, 1956, the Chicago sisters begged their mother to let them go on a short bus trip to see their idol in “Love Me Tender,” Elvis Presley’s first movie.
Within days, Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll himself would send a personal message to the star-struck sisters.
“If you are good Presley fans, you’ll go home and ease your mother’s worries,” the singer pleaded.
Unfortunately, Barbara, 15, and Patricia, 13, would never know they had received this singular honor. By the time Presley issued his appeal, the girls were already dead.
About a month after Barbara and Patricia set off to on their movie excursion, a construction worker driving along a deserted road near Willow Springs, Ill., noticed “these flesh-colored things” in a ditch. They were the frozen remains of the Grimes girls.
The discovery put an end to one of the biggest missing person investigations in the history of the city, in which detectives tried to track the girls’ movements.
Their mother, Loretta, said she had sent them off that evening with instructions to be home before midnight. A neighbor said she and her 6-year-old sister sat with the girls in the theater.
Several people recalled seeing them after the movie was over, but nothing was certain, wrote Tamara Shaffer in her book on the case, “Murder Gone Cold.” They had been spotted driving in a maroon car with two men, on a bus bound for Nashville, hanging around with sailors, in filling stations, hotels and dance halls. A Milwaukee mental patient sent ransom notes. Memphis police went on alert, just in case the sisters had decided to make a pilgrimage to Presley’s hometown. Rumors swirled that in addition to the movie, the girls’ agenda that night included wild drinking and trysts with secret lovers.
Until Jan. 22, police felt the girls had run away from home, despite their mother’s insistence that it was not like them.
“My poor babies,” Mrs. Grimes sobbed in a front-page story in the Chicago Tribune after the bodies were found. “Why couldn’t they have taken me and let my babies live? If the police had listened to me they would have had the true story half an hour after the girls were missing.”
Autopsy results found no stab or bullet wounds. The medical experts’ best guess at the cause of death was exposure to the cold weather that reduced “body temperature below the critical level compatible with life.”
Police quickly snatched a suspect, Walter Kranz, 53, a steamfitter who had called police headquarters in mid-January with the strange story that he had seen the location of the girls’ bodies in a dream. Further investigation, however, ruled Kranz out as the killer.
Another suspect soon emerged from Chicago’s skid row. Witnesses had told of seeing Patricia and Barbara in a restaurant with two men, one who looked like Elvis. Police narrowed their search to Edward Lee (Bennie) Bedwell, 21, a troublemaking drifter.
“Bennie’s Slaying Story!” screamed the Trib’s front page on Jan. 28, 1957, announcing that Bedwell had offered a 14-page confession.
He described in detail how he met the girls and another man, named Frank, at a bar a week after they went missing. The four went on a drinking binge for about a week, until the sisters resisted their sexual advances, he said.
Bedwell said he and the other man knocked the girls out, took off their clothes, and dumped them by the side of the road. He was not sure whether they were still alive at the time.
“I figured they would come to and go for help. I didn’t do it intentionally,” he told investigators.
The story, though, did not hold up in the face of the evidence, especially autopsy results suggesting the girls had likely died on Dec. 28 and that they had consumed no alcohol. The autopsy also showed that the older girl had had sexual relations before she died, but it was impossible to determine whether or not the act had been consensual.
Bedwell later recanted, claiming police had beaten and bribed the confession out of him.
With nothing concrete to connect him to the deaths, authorities set him free.
Police continued to follow leads for the next few years, but none panned out. There was speculation that the Grimes sisters may have been victims of the same killers who had murdered other children in the area at the time, but no firm links could be made.
The Grimes case went cold and grows colder with each passing year. This week marks six decades since their disappearance and many of the players, from Elvis Presley on, are long gone.
But some people still hold onto the hope there may someday be closure.
Ray Johnson, a retired criminal investigator and true-crime historian and author, became interested in the sisters when he was gathering ghost stories for his 2011 book, “Chicago’s Haunt Detective.” Not surprisingly, there are some eerie local legends connected with the Grimes girls, including sounds of doors slamming and bodies being dumped from an invisible ghost car on the road where the victims were found.
Johnson started “Help Solve Chicago’s Grimes Sisters’ Murder,” a Facebook group that has attracted 1,400 followers. It’s devoted to gathering tips that may one day help the Cook County Sheriff’s Police Department clear up this mystery.