MARY JANE REED
A LINGERING SPIRIT FROM ILLINOIS'S HAUNTED HISTORY
On the dark night of June 24, 1948, a young girl named Mary Jane Reed went out on a date and never returned. Her death, along with the death of her boyfriend, shocked the small town of Oregon, Illinois, located on the Rock River about 100 miles west of Chicago. That night was the beginning of a curious, macabre series of events, which included a hushed conspiracy, a purported ghost and a crime that remains unsolved to this day.
Mary Jane met her date for that fateful night, Stanley Skridla, through the DeKalb/Ogle Telephone Co., where the 17-year-old worked as a switchboard operator and Skridla, 28, was a lineman. Skridla was a Navy veteran who lived in Rockford, but was working in Oregon at the time. The two were attracted to one another despite their age difference, which was not really a concern for Mary Jane. The pretty young woman had dropped out of high school at 15 to help take care of her mother, who suffered from severe arthritis.
The Reed family lived on Hastings Road, just east of the Rock River. The area was known as Sandtown since most of the residents worked at the town’s silica plant. Sandtown was considered the wrong side of town but it didn’t matter to Mary Jane, a headstrong and independent girl who was determined to never let her circumstances get in the way of what she hoped to accomplish in life. Unfortunately, her dreams would never be fulfilled.
Mary Jane met Stan Skridla on June 24, 1948 for their first – and last – date. Various reports later had them at taverns on the east side and south side of Oregon that night. It’s believed that their last stop was the Stenhouse (now known as the Roadhouse) and after that, they drove out to a popular lover’s lane on County Farm Road in Skridla’s Buick. They were never seen alive again.
The next morning, around 6:00 a.m., a state highway department employee named John Eckerd was driving to work on County Farm Road and noticed a shoe lying alongside the roadway. He stopped to take a look and discovered Stan Skridla’s bullet-ridden body lying face-down in a grassy ditch. Police later found five .32-caliber bullet casings at the scene. A pool of blood found on the edge of the road showed where the killer had dragged the young man’s body into the grass. Skridla’s Buick was found abandoned about an hour later, about one mile north of the lover’s lane, where Illinois Route 2 and Pine Road intersected. Other than a lipstick-stained cigarette on the floorboard of the car, there was no sign of Mary Jane.
Back in Sandtown, Mary Jane’s parents, Clifford and Ruth Reed, were already worried about their daughter by the time that they got the news about Skridla’s death. Before this, she had always called home if she was going to be late or spend the night at a friend’s house. They feared that she had been kidnapped by Skridla’s killer. Worried, two of the older children in the family went to see a psychic, who told them that their sister was still alive and was being held prisoner in a shack by an older man.
Stan Skridla was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Rockford on June 28. The next day would bring terrible news for the Reeds. On June 29, two policemen came to the door and told them that they had news and it was not good. Mary Jane’s brother, Warren Reed, was just 5 years old at the time but he still remembers that day. He recalled, “I was holding my mom’s hand and I could feel the energy just drain out of her.” The officers told Mrs. Reed that Mary Jane’s body had been found in a patch of weeds along Silica Road.
She had been shot in the back of the head with what appeared to be the same caliber gun that had been used to kill Skridla. She was wearing brown loafers, a white blouse and her mother’s wedding ring. Her brown slacks were folded neatly on her back. Ironically, the police had checked the area along Silica Road, now known as Devil’s Backbone Road, several times after Mary Jane disappeared. Her father had even passed that way several times on his way to work at the silica plant. Her body ended up being found by Harold Sigler, a truck driver who was on his way to the plant. The height of the truck’s cab allowed him to see over the weeds and catch a glimpse of the pale body that had been hidden among them. The police recovered a bullet casing at the scene.
The Reed family was devastated. Mary Jane’s brother, Donald, was supposed to be married on June 26 and Mary Jane was to be one of the bridesmaids. The wedding was postponed until after the funeral, which was held on June 30. Mary Jane was laid to rest at Daysville Cemetery in Oregon but she would not rest there in peace.
With two murders on their hands, the Ogle County Sheriff’s office enlisted the help of the state and local police. There were very few clues to go on but Chief Deputy Willard “Jiggs” Burright, the lead investigator, ruled out robbery as a motive. Skridla still had his wallet and Mary Jane was still wearing her mother’s ring. Authorities began focusing on Mary Jane’s previous relationships, surmising that jealousy may have been a motive for the killings.
Detectives interviewed Skridla’s family members and other men that Mary Jane had dated. The investigation extended to Dixon, Rockford, Freeport and Chicago. Police also looked for a couple that Skridla and Mary Jane had reportedly been seen arguing with before they went to Country Farm Road. A witness interviewed at the inquest said that he saw two suspicious men outside one of the taverns the couple had visited. Most of the leads turned out to be dead ends.
As weeks, then months, passed, the slayings vanished from the front pages of local newspapers and eventually left the minds of everyone except for the Reeds. Ruth Reed was never the same after Mary Jane’s murder and family members later sought psychiatric care for her. Warren Reed later reported that his mother would often hide him behind the couch in the living room, convinced that his sister’s killer was coming after all of them.
The Skridla-Reed murder case was re-opened in the 1950s, but with no success. As years went by, evidence disappeared from the original case files, including the bullet casings, photographs and investigation reports. Jerry Brooks became the Ogle County sheriff in 1970 and he re-opened the case again. He re-interviewed witnesses and wrote new reports from scratch because the case file was almost empty. Many of the original interviews could not be re-created, though, because so many of the witnesses had died or too much time had passed for them to remember specific details. His most intriguing lead was the report of the two men outside the tavern and he theorized that they might have followed the couple to the lover’s lane. Brooks worked the case for almost two decades but was no closer to solving it than the detectives were back in 1948. Brooks left office in 1990 but he has never given up on the case; he still believes that a solution is possible.
And he’s not the only one. Warren Reed thinks there is much more to the case than meets the eye. In 2005, he pressed for an exhumation order for his sister’s body, wondering if clues might be found that were beyond the forensic skills of investigators at the time of the murder. In August of that year, an Ogle County judge approved guidelines for exhuming the body that would allow pathologists to examine Mary Jane’s remains. Reed was thrilled with the outcome of the hearing. “I want to wake up the community. People just kind of hushed things up when they shouldn’t have. This crime should have been solved. It probably took 20 years off my parents’ life,” he told reporters.
Joining Reed in his fight for answers was Mike Arians, a former insurance fraud investigator. Arians owned a restaurant in Oregon and was elected the town’s mayor in April 1999. He was drawn to the mystery surrounding the murders because he became convinced, after some investigating of his own, that certain aspects of the case were covered up. He spoke at length about his investigation but was more uncomfortable about the other thing that led him to the case: namely Mary Jane’s ghost. Arians swore that Mary Jane and her mother maintained a “presence” at his restaurant, the Roadhouse, which in its former incarnation was the Stenhouse, possibly Mary Jane’s last stop before she and Skridla drove to their doom. As proof of this, he claimed that the same haunting acoustic song, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66’s “After Sunrise,” would play spontaneously and repeatedly on the jukebox; that employees had seen apparitions of Mary Jane and her mother; and that, without explanation, drafts of cold air or the overwhelming scent of flowers would permeate the surroundings. He admitted that spirits in the Roadhouse sounded “crazy,” but added that he did not believe the ghosts would rest in peace “until this thing is resolved.”
Arians’ actual involvement in the case did not begin until shortly after he took office in 1999. People soon began coming to him and telling him about the murders, eventually asking him if he would use his investigative skills to look into them. Arians agreed and soon after, the strange events began. In addition to the ghostly happenings at the Roadhouse, other ominous events began to occur, like the flower delivery that came to his restaurant for Mary Jane. No one could trace where the arrangement came from and the Roadhouse was closed that day. He later learned that it had been Mary Jane’s birthday.
Arians’ assistance was instrumental in helping Warren Reed obtain the exhumation order for Mary Jane’s body. The grave was opened on August 23, 2005 and while it did not immediately point out her killer, the exhumation did manage to dispel some of the rumors that had circulated for decades, like those that claimed that her head was not buried with her body or that a gun had been placed in the casket. Officials were surprised to find that her corpse was mostly intact. She had been buried with all of her organs and skin still covered her body. Authorities kept the undergarments that she was wearing when she was buried and oddly, some additional clothing was found inside the vault. A dress and a slip were found wrapped in newspapers dated June 25, 1948, blaring headlines about her murder.
A few months after the exhumation, officials seemed optimistic when opening the grave yielded a few clues and pointed detectives in the direction of two “people of interest” but that optimism soon faded. According to a 24-page report that was written by Captain Rick Wilkinson (with certain names and details blacked out) in February 2006, the sheriff’s department faced too many obstacles when re-opening the case.
“This investigation, in my opinion, was tainted and mishandled from the start, and nothing that I am aware of can possibly change those facts,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson followed up on a number of original leads from 1948, as well as leads from the 1950s and the 1980s, when the case was opened again. No new evidence was provided by the exhumation, but, as Warren Reed wanted, it got people talking and witnesses came forward with information about two new “people of interest.” Unfortunately, both of them were deceased by 2006.
“They’re not here to defend themselves. They do have families that are still alive, and we can’t definitely say they were the people who committed this crime,” Ogle County Sheriff Mel Messer said.
But the story of the exhumation was not yet over. In December 2007, something very strange came to light when a forensic anthropologist who had been hired by Warren Reed and Mike Arians to examine Mary Jane’s remains revealed that the bones in her casket actually came from two different bodies. The skeletal analysis was conducted by Lisa Klepinger, a board-certified forensic anthropologist at the University of Illinois. She was assisted by John Moore, professor of anatomy, pathophysiology and forensics at Parkland College in Champaign. They jointly wrote that the skull and part of the top portion of the spine that were found in Mary Jane’s casket belonged to someone else. Had the rumors that Mary Jane’s head was not buried with her body finally been substantiated?
Warren Reed thought it might be possible. Rumors had always circulated that Mary Jane’s head had been taken by a lovesick killer because he couldn’t stand to let her go. “Maybe someone wanted a trophy. Maybe they’ve got it sitting on a shelf or in a box somewhere,” Reed theorized.
Could it have been a mistake? Could the skull and backbones have been accidentally switched during an examination at the police lab after the exhumation? This seems the most likely explanation to police officials. Others say that Klepinger’s findings are a mistake, merely an opinion open for debate. Still others say that none of it matters because although the case will never “officially” be closed since it’s an open homicide, it will certainly never be solved. Regardless, it seems to be a case of a dead person telling a tale; it just wasn’t the story that anyone expected to hear.
Will the case ever really be solved? No one can say but Warren Reed and Mike Arians aren’t giving up hope. They have not given up on the idea that, eventually, some incontrovertible evidence will emerge that solves Mary Jane’s murder once and for all. Until that time, these two men will continue their investigation and two lonesome ghosts will continue to walk at the last place that a beautiful young girl was seen alive.