Mr. Chris's Blog:
down to earth
The Highs Ice Cream Murders
April 4, 2016
I recently started reading the book pictured here titled “Who Killed the Girls,” written by someone in Australia. It is fictional but is based on the Highs Ice Cream Murders that took place in Staunton, VA in 1967, along with the events that led to the ultimate identification of the murderer some 40 years later. The murders occurred a few years before I was born, so I have some objectivity in saying that the story is admittedly fascinating. However, for my family, it is unfortunately not a story at all, it is real life.
My grandmother, who I called “Baball,” managed the Highs Ice Cream store in our quiet little town of Staunton, and my Mom, her sisters, and sister-in-law all worked there at various times as teenagers. In 1967, my Mom’s older sister (Carolyn) and Mom’s brother’s wife (Connie) were both shot and killed in the back room of the store. A male suspect was tried but not convicted, and long story short, the case went unsolved for 40+ years. In early 2009, through the good deed of Connie’s cousin, along with a retired Staunton police detective, the murderer, a female, confessed to the killings while on her death bed in a nearby nursing facility. My Mom and Dad, under the cover of a local pastor and his wife, were asked to visit with this lady to help develop information prior to the ultimate interrogation. Through that process, Mom learned that the lady actually lived just two blocks from our home place in Staunton for most of her later life. Crazy, huh? Yes, this story is full of similar oddities that you just can’t make up unfortunately.
In confessing to law enforcement, the lady provided just enough information to open up a lot of questions regarding what appeared to be a crooked police investigation, before dying there at the nursing facility; thus, leaving the perfect hanging end to the story. Accordingly, the case never made it to trial and while there are ample clues, we will never fully know all of the details of what happened and why.
That is the cliff notes version and I don’t care to re-tell or dramatize the story; that has been done enough. If you desire to know more, just google it. There is a ton of information out there and it has been covered by most every major news outlet, in addition to several murder mystery and unsolved crime shows through the years.
The Highs Ice Cream murders was a topic that was never talked about much in our extended family growing up and as close as I was to my Baball I don’t ever recall her talking about it either. I am not sure why it wasn’t talked about much other than maybe that is just how families dealt with tragedy and loss back then. My Mom always kept a picture of Carolyn hanging in our living room and from an early age, Mom always shared with me about Carolyn’s life, likely in an effort to establish a relationship with an aunt I otherwise would not have the opportunity to grow up with. I am sure it was also a healthy outlet for Mom. Regardless of why, I feel like I have always known my Aunt Carolyn.
Occasionally, an investigator would stop by our house in an effort to run down new information, or someone in the entertainment industry would call asking for an interview with Mom, or the local newspaper would randomly publish an anniversary-like story about the murders. I can only say that as an observer, these always re-opened wounds for Mom; deep wounds that never really heal I guess. This was very difficult when the investigation re-opened and took a major turn in later years, garnering so much public attention. There is a confusing mix of compassion, anger, forgiveness, hate, thankfulness and regret that is very real during a time like that. Mom rarely talked publicly on the topic and the handful of times she did in later years it was only with the local Staunton news and strictly to celebrate Carolyn’s life. Mom never returned calls and never took money to talk about the Highs Ice Cream Murders, and to my knowledge, no one in our family ever did. A good book could surely be written from their perspective. I personally don’t feel I have that right or license, but I do want to share a very specific message here.
Dialing back several years from 1967, my grandfather (Mom’s father) died when Mom was just 13 years old. His death left Baball with eight (8) children, my Mom being somewhere in the middle age-wise. There was no money and Baball didn’t have an occupation. She literally traded their farm for a small house in town. I spent a lot of my childhood at that house and I can tell you that it was absolutely tiny; I can’t imagine how such a large family lived there. Baball, who had never known much beyond having and raising babies, worked various jobs and went through what we would probably call a mid-life crisis today. She hit the late night party scene, quickly re-married, but soon divorced. She married again before long, this time to a guy named Don, who had been a bad alcoholic for years. Park your thoughts on that for right now please.
My Mom and Dad were married in December 1966 after Dad had been drafted into army. They immediately moved to San Francisco where Dad was stationed. Mom, who had never lived anywhere but little old Staunton, setup house in CA and re-entered high school there in the middle of the hippie 1960’s, not knowing anyone. Four months later, the murders at Highs happened. Mom and Dad flew back to Staunton, cooperated with the police investigation, did the funerals and headed back to CA to continue on. She was 17 years old. Likewise, park your thoughts on that as well for right now please.
After some additional time in CA, Dad received orders to join the war in Viet Nam. Mom returned to Staunton, secured a job and setup to live in a rental while Dad headed to Cam Ranh Bay in Viet Nam, an unknown land half a world away where volumes of young American boys were dying by the day. She was probably 18 years old at that point.
Ok, you can un-park those thoughts now. So anyone would consider that an absolutely terrible series of life events, right? Mom was basically on her own from the age of 13 and had literally dealt with loss and loneliness as a way of life throughout her teen years. Many teens during this developmental age would turn to alcohol, drugs, or maybe even contemplate suicide. At minimum, a child’s outlook on life likely wouldn’t be positive and their motivation would likely be weak. Serious depression would be an expectation I would think. However, for anyone who knows my Mom, she is a solid, stable, and positive person, and always has been I understand, even going back to those years. Why? Well, before I try to answer that, let me fast-forward and describe some interesting outcomes:
- My Dad didn’t encounter any major physical or psychological impacts from his time in Viet Nam. He was stationed in a relatively safe area and was assigned to a supporting role in a non-combat zone. He was honorably discharged after 1-2 years overseas and came back to Staunton, started a family, and bought the house on North Drive that I still call home today. Outside of his day job, he eventually became a pastor and has helped so many people through the years.
- Baball became one of the mostly Godly women I will ever know and Don achieved sobriety when I was too young to remember him ever drinking. She cheered me on during my little league baseball games at the park and he rode Space Mountain with me during my first Disney trip. They loved each other deeply, and I loved them deeply. I had wonderful grandparents.
- My Mom was a stay-at-home mother for my brother and I our entire childhood, and she was a good one. My Mom and Dad have what Mom always described as “a marriage made in Heaven” and with a first-hand account, I can say that it has always been true for them. Hands down, I have great parents. My brother and I were their #1 focus.
- My brother and I have our own families now. We are all doing just fine, are happy, and are doing our best to raise good kids. My brother and sister-in-law actually adopted boy/girl siblings last year. The lives of those children will forever be better as a result, as will ours.
- I have 20 first cousins on the Hevener side. I pretty much grew up with them all and they are all doing well. Our Hevener family has always been close. I have wonderful memories growing up with my extended family and yes, there was a time when we all packed it in for Christmas at Baball and Don’s house! I am sure it was miserably crowded, but I only remember how fun and special it was.
And then there is Kim, one of my first cousins. Kim was 2 years old when her Mom died at Highs. I have always known Kim, but was never really able to know her very well until I moved to Richmond after college. She is a wonderful gal and she married a wonderful guy. They have two lovely daughters, and Kim has invested most of her adult life as a stay-at-home mother. They are what I would describe as a family made in Heaven.
Tony Bennett, UVA’s basketball coach, mentioned after UVA lost out in the NCAA basketball tournament recently that “joy will come in the morning.” He was actually referencing an old hymn that is based on Psalms chapter 30, verse 5 – “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” This is the verse I think about whenever I hear or read about the Highs Ice Cream Murders.
My Mom and the Hevener family had strong faith; I am not sure why, but it always has been in place and was embedded in them long before the Highs Ice Cream Murders. Whenever you see something positive I may be doing in my life or witness some milestone involving my family, I want you to think about the series of life events I mentioned above and ponder how such goodness and joy could possibly come from such a legacy of loss and tragedy. I can’t speak directly to how faith was at play during all of those hard years, but I can speak directly to the outcome. Simply said, I didn’t live it, but I am the product of it.
My life has pretty much involved mountains; this I know, but here is what I also know – I will deal with valleys in my life. They may not involve losing a loved one at a young age, a murder, or a Viet Nam, but a tough phase will come, they do for all of us. However, I am blessed to understand the lessons from those who have lived before me and successfully dealt with serious valleys in life, and it is this understanding that I want to share you. If you are dealing with tragedy, loss or simply going through a tough time in your life, I don’t want to pretend to understand your situation or assume there is a one-size fits all answer, but please know that there can be joy after tragedy, and good times after bad times. It may not be tomorrow, next week, or next year, but life awaits on the other side. It doesn’t mean there won’t be tough years ongoing, but hang in and stay strong, better days will come.
Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. Joy ultimately came for my family. My brother and I certainly gave Mom her fair share of wrinkles and we deserved our fair share of spankings and discipline I am sure. However, our years on this earth have been part of the “better days” that laid ahead for our Mom, and without a doubt, good days they have been.
We don’t always know why tragedy or hard times occur. Only God holds that knowledge and he only lets us know what He needs us to know, but He does fully promise to hold our hand throughout our journey. If you are going through a time of darkness right now, I encourage you to stay strong and remain faithful, and I pray there will be good days ahead for you and your family.
Until next week,
© Chris Campbell. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.