Sharpe Shooter: A Skeleton in the Closet

 Author’s Note: This is the true story behind the fictional book, Sharpe Shooter. The names have been changed for privacy.

Spoiler Alert: Do not read until after you have read Sharpe Shooter.

I am a concrete-linear thinker. That’s an academic way of saying I need you to spell it out and keep it simple. I also process information externally. Unlike Rodin’s “The Thinker,” my thinking spot is out loud and in your face. Few people who know me would believe that I was painfully shy and quiet as a child. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps I saved up all those early years of talking to use in adulthood. When I get nervous, I’m especially bad. Rambling on and on, I’m the verbal equivalent of a spider monkey jumping from word to word, topic to topic. Like an uncomfortable Woody Allen character, I ask questions, answer them myself, speculate, recall, re-think, re-word, and reiterate. I acknowledge that a little of me goes a long way. I own it; it’s who I am. I can be accidentally obnoxious.

Another one of my idiosyncrasies is that I try to fix things. Whether it is the broken clothes dryer or my friend’s shattered marriage, I always think that if I can find just the right tool – or words – I can make everything better. If that doesn’t work, then as a last resort I turn to humor. Make it better or make ‘em laugh. Unfortunately, some people fail to see the humor in my “sorry you have to put your dog to sleep” or “I wish your husband wasn’t leaving you” jokes. Consequently, I’ve often been accused of being somewhat insensitive. I’m really not though.

My husband has given up trying to control me. He says my problem is that I have no filter. If I think it, I say it. He obviously lacks the wisdom needed to understand the concrete-linear-external-processing thing. Still, he may have a point. I do tend to over-share my private thoughts with others. Here’s a perfect example.

Traveling by car is one of my least favorite activities. I blame it on a few near-miss collisions that occurred when I was a child. Regardless, when I’m riding in the car I tend to stare out the window as if hypnotized by the white lines or entranced by the scenic beauty. In Texas, you have to drive a really long time to get anywhere out of town. As sometimes happens, a fellow passenger will ask me what I’m looking at. My honest reply: “I’m looking for dead bodies.”

For many years, I was obsessed with finding a dead body, especially on the side of the road. Could that discarded green trash bad contain more than just leaves? Was that an arm I saw on the edge of the creek we just sped past? I was envious to the point of anger when some overall clad, dirty-faced, toothless hick on the news was interviewed about stumbling across a corpse in the woods down by his favorite fishing hole. “I jest looked down and thar it t’were. Deader ‘n door nail.”

That lucky cuss. Why couldn’t I be the hero?

I knew it was not normal, and for the longest time I did not really know or care why I harbored this unusual obsession. At some point, though, I figured it out. It was because of my Uncle Matthew. I wanted to be that person who helped a grief-stricken family close the book on the painful disappearance of their loved one. It was all because of Uncle Matthew – our great family mystery.

To understand Uncle Matthew (who was actually my second cousin), you first have to understand his mother, Cora Meade. Vivacious and flirty, Cora was the princess of her small Texas town. She came from a large family of Methodists, some being more social than spiritual. Cora loved being married to the postmaster in that small town and having the prettiest magnolia tree on her street. She couldn’t have cared less that it was Park Drive and not Park Avenue. Some people are happy being big fish in little ponds; Cora was certainly happy with her life. Her only regret early on was that she and her husband, Frank, were only able to have one child instead of a houseful. But her only child, her beloved Matthew, was enough. While the families of her siblings grew in number (twins ran in the family), Cora and her husband poured all their love on to their son. Matthew was destined to be spoiled rotten, but he wasn’t. Matthew was destined to be gregarious and well-liked, but he wasn’t. Matthew was instead a quiet, sullen boy who seemed a misfit in his small town. He was the same age as my mother, so these two only-children became close friends and were more like siblings than cousins.

I can only imagine how my mother felt that day in August of 1963 when she got the call from her Aunt Cora that Matthew was missing. By this time, Matthew and my mother were in their mid-30s living their separate lives. Matthew, who lived alone in a small apartment in Ft. Worth, worked at an educational testing company. We only saw him on family holidays, but he always seemed happy enough. Apparently, the quiet, harmless life of this simple man was actually not so simple.

One August evening my brother and I were told to get in the car immediately and we sped off toward the highway. We were living in Dallas at the time. We were not told where we were headed or why. My mother and father talked softly but seriously in the front seat. I fell asleep in the back. When I woke up, we were stopped on the side of the road, and I saw the red twinkling of a police car’s lights.

My brother told me later that we had been driving toward Uncle Matthew’s apartment when my parents spotted his car on the side of the road. A basket of freshly washed laundry sat on the back seat of his car. My uncle’s keys and wallet were on the front seat. The most frightening item of all, though, was my uncle’s eyeglasses sitting on the dashboard. Uncle Matthew was nearly blind without his glasses.

Even at the age of seven, I knew something was terribly wrong. The rest of that evening was a blur, and it would stay that way for many years.

Weeks, then months passed, and no clues were found as to Matthew’s whereabouts. Cora and Frank were called to Ft. Worth multiple times to identify the remains of the latest John Doe, but no match was found. Tarrant County sheriffs and detectives searched to no avail. Private detectives followed up on tips and leads. Three, four, five years passed before Cora was finally convinced to have her only son declared legally dead. By this time, Frank, too, was gone. He died from a heart attack, probably from the strain and heartache of losing his only child. Cora, however, would not give up.

Matthew’s room was kept intact for as long as I could remember. Although not a museum or shrine, his room contained his personal possessions ready to be reclaimed upon his return. Occasionally, we would catch Cora referring to him in present tense, a sad reminder that she could not let go of the hope that kept her company. Her heart told her that her son was still alive, and she carried that thought with her for thirty-two years until her death in 1996.

I remember once asking my father what he thought really happened to Uncle Matthew. He speculated, of course, for no one knew the truth. He said that Uncle Matthew was “different.” My father suspected that Matthew had moved up North where he could live outside the close scrutiny of a small town and conservative parents. After all, that is where several of the private eyes had traced his whereabouts before losing him in the vast anonymity of New York City. But how could a person break his parents’ hearts like that? How could he leave and never come back?

Cora’s funeral was particularly sad. We felt that we were not only putting her to rest but also all the pain and sorrow she had dragged along behind her for all those years. I was not the only one, however, scanning the crowd of friends and family who attended the service. Surely if Matthew were still alive, he would have found a way to attend his mother’s funeral. The family consensus was that a mysterious and sad chapter was closed on that cold day in January when Cora was laid to rest. But it would not be so.

“We found Matthew,” a frail and frazzled voice said on the other end of the line. Shock is hardly a strong enough word to describe my reaction. It was 2005 and Uncle Matthew had been missing for 42 years. The story relayed by my mother’s aunt was as unbelievable as it was upsetting.

As my great aunt Lucy began to tell the story for probably the tenth time in the past two days, I tried to untangle the details I was hearing. She used euphemisms like “passed” instead of “dead” and “service” instead of “burial.” After several minutes of listening and questioning, I finally had a pretty clear picture of what had transpired. Assuring her that I would pass the information on to my brother and sister, I hung up the phone and tried to digest the news.

In 1963 when Uncle Matthew “went missing,” the DNA science available today did not exist. Dr. Kildare and Burke’s Law were the closest television shows we had to CSI and Cold Case. Crimes were investigated and solved the old-fashioned way, by luck and eye witnesses. Unfortunately, Tarrant County investigators had neither in Uncle Matthew’s case.

But in 2005, something happened. Crime lab employees were cleaning out an old evidence closet and came across a sealed box of bones. One choice they had was to toss out the box, as it had been gathering dust for more than forty years. Little information was known about this “Jane Doe.” Apparently when the body had been discovered near a creek bed in 1963, the police put together a sketch of the woman’s probable appearance. No leads were found and no one was able to identify the woman based on the artist’s drawing. So there it had sat, another unsolved case.

However, with new science and technologies available in 2005, it was decided that instead of discarding this evidence, they would turn the skeletonized remains over to a forensic anthropologist who worked for the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office. Upon reanalyzing the bones, the doctor made an important determination. The bones were that of a male, not a female. With this new important fact, Jane became John and the case was re-opened. At that point, the skeleton was passed on to a forensic artist who reconstructed the face using all the scientific wizardry and artistry only dreamed about by young Dr. Kildare. A photo of the reconstructed face was taken and placed in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram in hopes that someone might identify the man. Someone did.

The facts here are fuzzy, but a person who knew my great aunt, now living in South Texas, recognized the picture as being Matthew and set in motion a series of DNA tests that would prove the identity of the remains. At last we had found Matthew: He had literally been the skeleton in the closet. Sadly, this skeleton, our Matthew, had originally been found less than four months after his disappearance and had been left unidentified for forty-two years. This skeleton, our Matthew, had died from two gunshot wounds to the head.

I cannot imagine that there is a shared reaction for families who, after months or years of searching, eventually find their loved one’s body. To assume anyone else would have the same response would be foolish. But for our family, there was both a sense of peace and frustration.

How could this have happened? Why was Matthew’s body initially identified as being a woman? Because of this one error, Cora and Frank had never been called to make an identification. No tips or leads were followed connecting this body to this crime. Someone had gotten away with murder and left a family shattered by grief.

Indeed, some of the details of this account may seem vague, but that is because people just do not talk about this sort of thing. Well, I wanted to talk about it; I needed to talk about it. I felt I owed Cora to find out as much as I could. Driven by a mixture of curiosity and anger, I called the detective in charge of the case. What I found out did not make the situation any easier to handle. If anything, it added to the already deep sense of despair. I knew that the key to the mystery was the original misidentification of the gender of the remains. I was determined to get a reasonable answer in this unreasonable situation.

I got my answer. The identification was based on clothing. Clothing? Not bones or anatomy or science or medicine? Clothing? My mother always told me to wear clean undies “just in case,” but who knew it might really matter? I was told that based on the raincoat and socks found on the victim, the body was determined to be female. So that was that. As far as solving the crime was concerned, forty-two years later there is not much chance. Now all that was left to do was give Uncle Matthew a proper burial and lay him to rest beside his waiting parents.

I consider myself somewhat of a funeral aficionado, for I have had more experience in planning these events than most laymen. Coffins and clothing, vaults and hymns – it’s all pretty standard stuff. Uncle Matthew’s funeral was different, though. It was a simple graveside service attended by the seven families who were named in Cora’s will. We were the ones who were responsible for taking care of Matthew in case he were ever found. Someone picked up the box of bones from the sheriff’s office and drove them from Ft. Worth to the cemetery in Hillsboro. The remains had already been placed in the ground when the service began.

No one really knew what to say about the man who had been gone such a long time from our lives. I remember staring at the green turf-like carpet and wondering who the lump under my feet was. It could have been an aunt or uncle or cousin. The flaps of the tent snapping in the wind were the only sounds for a long period of uncomfortable silence. Finally, my sister offered up the memory that Uncle Matthew was a good dancer. Others shared a recollection or two. I remember announcing later as we gathered in the parlor of the funeral home that this was “the worst funeral I had ever been to.” It was my attempt at breaking the tension as the seven of us heirs each wrote a check for $300 to pay for the burial. I further recall having said something about this being the only funeral I had ever attended with a “cover charge.” My husband frowned at me. Inappropriate funeral humor is apparently unappreciated.

As if matters could get any stranger, I was working on compiling my family tree and looking up various article online. I came across one that included Matthew’s name. According to this conspiracy theorist, Matthew had served under Major Edwin Wilson in the US Army. I have no records to determine whether this was a fact. The writer said that it was possible that Matthew, who would have been out of the service at the time, had been asked by Wilson to kill Oswald in retaliation for Oswald trying to shoot him. According to some, Oswald apparently shot at Wilson in April of 1963 who was at his Dallas home, but the shot missed him. This writer theorized that Matthew may have been killed for refusing the request.

It’s one thing to read wild accusations about other people, but when it’s someone you know and love, that’s a whole different story. I was furious. I tried to ignore it, but it was hard. After a few years, I got up the nerve to contact the person who wrote the speculation, but by that time he had passed away and the information was no longer online.

That’s when my real frustration began. I wanted to know why anyone would have murdered my sweet, unassuming Uncle Matthew. Could he have indeed been connected to the JFK assassination? Of course not, but it got my imaginative juices flowing. More than that, I needed closure. I needed answers to my endless questions—even if the answers were simply made up.

The book, Sharpe Shooter, is loosely based on fact. The majority is fiction. It is my attempt to reach a reasonable, yet interesting conclusion about how Matthew might have met his end. It helps me sleep at night.

After writing the first book, I got hooked on mystery writing and have created the Maycroft Mystery Series. In case you’re wondering, there’s a lot of me in Deena Sharpe.

That day in June of 2005, we not only laid to rest my Uncle Matthew but also my obsession with looking for dead bodies. I no longer stare out the window as we drive along the highway. But there is more to be learned from this seemingly tragic episode. I think about finding Matthew and how one should never give up hope. I think about Cora and a mother’s enduring love for her child. Perhaps human error kept Uncle Matthew’s parents from finding the boy who had gone missing for all those years. Or perhaps a divine hand kept a mother and father from finding out the truth about their murdered son. Ultimately, this is a story about hope and love and tolerance and remembering. Uncle Matthew deserves his day in the sun.

©Copyright 2014 Lisa B. Thomas


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2 Responses to Sharpe Shooter: A Skeleton in the Closet

  1. Lisa Thomas says:

    Thank you so much. I wish the mistake in his identity had never been made so that his parents could have gotten closure, but I don’t know that finding out their son was murdered would have been better. I’d like to think my journey into mystery writing was possibly one positive thing that came out of his senseless death. Glad you enjoyed the book and hope you’ll read the rest of the series.

  2. Kit says:

    My sister and I were reminiscing this morning about the deaths of our parents. They died six years apart over a decade ago and both were in their eighties, and we were both in touch with both of them at the time of their deaths from natural causes as the expression goes. And we still occasionally want to talk about it with each other.

    So of course Matthew was on your mind. Of course you wondered. I am glad that you were able to come up with an answer that did not blame the victim and did not sensationalize the death and did not leave a dangerous killer who was likely to kill someone else running loose. The debunked theory of a possible conspiracy theorist was a very nice touch. There are of course some real conspiracies in the world, but others are so crackpot that they ignore even the most rock solid basic laws of physics in their explanations. One person tried to convince me that the aircraft that went down in Pennsylvania on 9/11 was either shot out of the air by the air force or had to have been blown out of the air by a bomb on board because the wreckage was scattered over such a large area. Actually most of the wreckage was too close together for that to be the case.

    Not that that has anything to do with Uncle Matthew. I am glad that you got some closure. I am glad that you started writing mysteries, that you write them so well, and that you made up such a delightful, logical amateur detective. Thank you!

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