COLUMBIA CITY — It’s been 50 years since anyone has seen Harry Beasley alive.
Whitley County’s most mysterious unsolved homicide continues to be just that, a mystery, and though investigators continue to follow up on potential leads, it seems there will never be an answer.
Who killed Harry Beasley? — and why?
No one has seen Beasley, commonly known as “Sleepy” or “Runt,” since June 28, 1968. Even after he was reported missing, it was another 10 years before his body was found — right in the heart of downtown Columbia City.
Columbia City’s fire department was doing a routine check of one of the city’s 17 cisterns in May of 1978. When a flashlight was shone down into the large cavern at the southeast corner of the Courthouse Square, there was a haunting discovery: remains of a decomposed body.
Former Columbia City Police Chief Ron Glassley was one of several who climbed down into the cistern to begin suctioning out the 10,000 gallons of water and retrieve the remains, along with John North and two other men.
“It was quite an experience,” Glassley said.
After utilizing a partial Social Security card and identifying the remains of the clothing in the cistern, police determined the body to be Beasley’s. How he got in there has not been determined, and likely never will be.
The chances of this crime being solved are fading.
After 50 years, many of Beasley’s relatives who were alive at the time have now passed, and even the killer or killers may not still be around. Even many who investigated the case, such as Columbia City Police Chief Cecil Huntley, are no longer living.
Beasley has been described as a unique man — a handyman who lived alone, didn’t have a car or a phone, and when he wasn’t doing an odd job or reciting Bible verses, he was often found on the Courthouse lawn, sleeping.
Beasley reportedly suffered a head injury as a child, which caused him to fall asleep wherever he sat down.
He was often seen wearing overalls and mismatched shoes. That’s what helped police to identify his body.
Metal buttons and fasteners were found in the debris, along with one brown loafer type shoe and a black Oxford type shoe. The clothing matched the description of what Beasley was wearing at the time of his disappearance.
One of the last people who saw him was Lee Gross, a gas station attendant on South Line Street, who described Beasley’s clothing to police.
The discovery of Beasley’s body did not provide many more answers for police, however, investigators did discover a puncture in the back of his skull, which likely provides some clues to the cause of his death.
The Indiana State Police determined the hole in Beasley’s skull was likely not from a gunshot wound, but it could have been made by another object, such as a sharp instrument. There were no metallic substances inside the skull, and no signs of an exit wound.
“It was felt that this was an abnormal hole, such as might have been produced by a sharp object such as a phillips screwdriver, punch, or possibly a large icepick.” — said Dr. John Vogel, Whitley County coroner, in news reports from 1978.
Many theories have been proposed, but all include likely foul play. The steel lid of the cistern weighs 125 pounds. Even if Beasley managed to lift off the lid on his own, he would not have been able to crawl inside and replace the lid. It was no accident that he was in the cistern.
How, though, could someone have murdered Beasley on the Courthouse lawn and shoved him down into a hole, less than 3 feet wide, without being noticed?
Some theorize that the homicide took place during the Old Settlers Day Festival, when there were tents and a grandstand that could have provided cover for the killer.
There are some reports that Beasley was last seen in a parked car with three other men near the Courthouse. Some say he was last seen leaving a Columbia City restaurant after breakfast. Some suspect a carnival worker could have killed him.
Beasley was determined to have “died at the hands of a person or persons unknown, either from a wound in the skull or hypothermia in the water of the cistern,” which had a water temperature of 40 degrees.
Cisterns were used by the fire department for water during fires in the city. There are still cisterns throughout Columbia City; however, all of the lids now have locks on them.
The two times the cisterns were used was about 100 years ago. When fighting the 1910 “Banana Row” fire, which destroyed most of the 100 block of South Main Street, and the Harper Buggy Co. fire at Main and Ellsworth streets in 1921.
Beasley was 45 years old at the time of his disappearance. If he were still alive, he would be 95 years old. Every year that passes, the case is less likely to ever be solved.
“Probably whoever was involved is not alive anymore,” said Whitley County Prosecutor’s Investigator Mike Christie.
That doesn’t stop him from pursuing leads, however.
Within the last year, Christie traveled to an Indiana correctional facility to interview someone who claimed to have information. The man was imprisoned shortly after Beasley’s death, for murder, but Christie determined his statements to be useless.
“He was a lifer — he’d been in prison for a long time,” Christie said. “It was a possibility, but after I talked to him, he had no connection with Whitley County at all. I think he was trying to work a deal. It was obvious he didn’t know anything about this murder up here.”
Since Christie joined law enforcement in Whitley County in 1983, there have been tips on the Beasley case off and on, but no true leads.
“None of the tips ever panned out,” Christie said. “It’s been a long time ago.”
Often the tips were erroneous. For instance, the killer would only be 5 years old.
The crime hasn’t been solved due to lack of effort. Christie said there is a plethora of investigative information in Beasley’s file, which still resides at the Columbia City Police Department as an open case.
“The way the officers handled the situation and write up reports — it was all well-documented and they did a thorough investigation,” Christie said. “The leads back then, and the leads since then, have all been run down. It’s the coldest cold case we have.”
Adding to the unusual circumstances of the case, Beasley’s brother, Gail “Snowball” Beasley, was murdered shortly after the discovery of Harry’s body in 1978.
Gail was shot to death by his roommate, Norma (Mona) McClain at the home they occupied near Coesse Corners, east of Columbia City in Whitley County.
Deputy Sheriff Harold Taulbee reported that the victim was shot twice with a .22 caliber rifle, first in the chest, then back of the rib cage.
McClain reportedly called police and reported the crime herself. She told police she and Gail had been drinking most of the night and morning, and were quarreling.
Due to the unique timing of Gail’s death, only a month after his brother’s body was found, and shortly before his interview with police on his brother’s death, many have questioned if there is a correlation between the two.
“Whether the two are connected or if it was coincidental, I don’t know. I don’t know what precipitated that (Gail’s murder),” Christie said.
Though there are some unsolved crimes in Whitley County, the case of Harry Beasley is undoubtedly the most mysterious.