stranger candy.jpg

Children are often told to “never talk to strangers” and in almost every case, that proverbial “stranger” is imagined to be a menacing man in a raincoat, lurking on a nearby park bench. But what if the “stranger” was someone not frightening at all? What if the “stranger” was a seemingly pleasant young woman with candy, who didn’t look as if she would ever hurt a child? That makes the story of Chyrell Jolls all the more terrifying.

On June 22, 1961, little Richie Edgington was just five years old. He lived with his parents in a nice middle-class neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. He and his friends loved to play in nearby Delaware Park, a sprawling north side landscape that was adjacent to the Buffalo Zoo and lined the shores of Delaware Park Lake. On the afternoon of June 22, Richie was playing hide and seek with his friends when a woman walked up to him and told him, “My mother is with your mother and you’re supposed to come with me.” When the boy hesitated, she grabbed him by the wrist and snapped, “If you don’t come with me, I’ll drown you.” Confused and frightened, Richie let the woman take him away. She told him everything would be okay, as long as he didn’t cry. If anyone stopped them, he was to say that his name was “Davey Johnson.” As they walked, the woman ate Tootsie Rolls, but didn’t share them with Richie. She promised him candy later, as long as he didn’t cry. Twice she stopped to ask people for directions and, holding the boy tightly by the hand, they entered the zoo. Along the way, she picked up various objects from the street: butcher’s twine and a plastic bag.

They walked through the zoo and then onto the golf course that was next to it, where a greenskeeper named Paul Costa yelled at them to get off the fairway – the woman’s heels were tearing up the turf, plus they might be hit by a flying golf ball. The woman gave him a nasty look and she walked away with the boy. 

It’s likely that Costa saved the boy’s life. Fleeing the park, the kidnapped walked Richie down along some railroad tracks, finally stopping next to a lonely pond along the New York Central tracks. She told him that this was where she was going to drown him “and you’ll never see you mother or father again.” Perhaps fearing the boy might struggle too much, though, she apparently changed her mind. She gave the boy a piece of candy and then told him they were going to play “cowboys and Indians,” tied him to the railroad tracks, put the plastic bag over his head, and walked away. 

Richie was eventually able to free himself and make his way to a nearby house. The woman who lived there called the police. Richie and his mother spent most of the might at the police station, recounting the events of the day. Even at age five, he had remarkable recall. The officers wanted every details – because on April 23, there had been another kidnapping in the neighborhood. Another five-year-old named Susan Benedict had been lured from her home by a woman who offered her candy and a trip to the zoo. Susan had been found alive, tied to the same stretch of railroad tracks. 

Police feared they had a deranged woman abducting children in Buffalo and that she might strike again. They had no idea how soon or how horrifying the next incident would prove to be.

While the police were searching for clues in the kidnapping the next day, another little boy disappeared. Andrew Ashley, only 3 1/2, left home to play with a friend and by 6:00 p.m. that evening, he had not returned. His parents, Donna and Francis Ashley, went to the home of the playmate, only to learn the family had been out of town all day. They frantically searched the neighborhood and then called the police. 

Buffalo Police Commissioner Frank Felicetta personally took charge of the investigation. He ordered a house-to-house search of the neighborhood. He spoke with the media, asking local newspapers to put out a call for information from readers. He also contacted psychiatric hospitals for information on female outpatients, especially those that had been released to serve as domestics in homes in North Buffalo.

The disappearance of little Andrew became front page news that weekend. A massive search began Friday night and grew to include hundreds of law enforcement and civilian volunteers, including the Boy Scouts. A neighbor reported seeing Andrew on Friday afternoon with a woman who had him by the hand and was leading him in the direction of the zoo. More witnesses came forward who had seen him in the company of his female abductor. Descriptions of her varied widely. About the only things the witnesses seemed to agree upon were that she was slender and that she had been wearing a dress and no hat. Her age was variously placed at 28 to 40 years old. On Saturday, the FBI took on the case and stationed an agent at the Ashley apartment. Because of the drowning threat made to Richie Edgington, the police began dragging Delaware Park Lake and two ponds in nearby Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Then, a call came into the police station, the mother of a six-year-old named Elizabeth Palermo had caught a “big girl” leading her daughter away by the hand. The girl took off running when Mrs. Palermo shouted at her and Palermo ran after her. The chase ended abruptly when the fleeing girl was stopped by a man named Robert Brown, who had been driving around looking for the girl who had approached his five-year-old daughter Patty and asked her to “go for candy.” Officers took the girl and the agitated parents to the station, where she identified herself as Michele Johnson of 91 Wade Street. Mrs. Palermo immediately told the police that there was no such address. The girl then admitted her name was Chyrel Jolls and she lived at 21 Leroy Avenue with her parents. Chyrel was 15 years old.

Though her behavior had been strange – asking children to go get candy amid the massive neighborhood search for a kidnapper – police didn’t seriously consider her a suspect. They believed they were looking for a woman, not a teenager. An officer told her that she’d “just picked the wrong day to invite children for candy.” Chyrel was released. The police even asked Mr. Brown to give her a ride home.

But the authorities were not finished with Chyrel. On Sunday morning, the FBI traced a call to the Ashley home. A female caller told Mrs. Ashley that her son was okay and would be returned unharmed if the police investigation was called off. The call was traced to a telephone booth, where agents found Chyrell Jolls still talking to Mrs. Ashley. She was arrested but told the FBI that she had just been trying to “console” Mrs. Ashley. Unaware of her brush with the police the day before, the FBI wrote her off as a misguided teenager and let her go. 

But then thing took a horrific turn – the body of Andrew Ashley was found floating in three feet of water in Delaware Park Lake. His hands and feet were tied with a nylon stocking, a dishrag stuffed in his mouth. He wore only his underwear and a T-shirt. Cause of death was suffocation due to drowning. Medical Examiner James J. Creighton later determined that Andrew had been bound and tossed into the lake within an hour of his abduction.

Leads poured in, suspects were questioned, but days passed without an arrest. Once again, young Richie Edginton turned out to be an excellent witness. Newspapers released a revised sketch of the kidnapper based on his description of her. This sketch showed a younger girl with her hair in a ponytail. He had described his abductor as “old enough to be somebody’s mommy,” but Richie’s mother was only 21 at the time. 

The revised sketch prompted Mrs. Palermo and Mr. Brown to call the police again about the girl they had chased the previous week. Both parents felt Chyrel bore a strong resemblance to the sketch. On July 3, Chyrel was brought in for questioning. This time she was openly hostile, ranting about how she hated policemen, who were following her everywhere. A search of Chyrel’s home turned up several items of interest, including a journal of her daily activities with several references to the Ashley investigation and an undated, hand-drawn map of a route through Delaware Park labeled, “The way I went last Friday.”

At police headquarters, she was questioned by Commissioner Felicetta. A background check revealed that she had a very troubled history. At only 15, she had already been in mental hospitals twice, where her treatment had included shock therapy. At 12, she was suspected of setting a fire at a group home while living there. She currently lived with her parents and a younger sister, but had been in an out of foster homes or institutions for much of her life. Family members gave the police more disturbing details. An aunt reported that some years before, she had found her young son tied up and left in a back room of her home. Chyrel had been staying with them at the time. An uncle told police that she had called him on Sunday morning and “predicted” that Andrew Ashley’s body would be found in the lake. However, he didn’t believe that Chyrel had killed him. He said she was a troubled girl and that he had tried to help her. He had advised her not to take any babysitting jobs.

Chyrel was questioned by psychiatrist Samuel Yochelson. Her mother and Commissioner Felicetta were both present when Chyrel confessed to the doctor that she had carried out the kidnappings. She denied killing Andrew, though, claiming that she had left him bound and gagged on the lakeshore. He must have rolled himself into the water, she said. 

A grand jury indicted Chyrel Jolls on August 2, 1961, though District Attorney Carmen Ball said he doubted she would be found fit to stand trial. Psychiatrists offered differing opinions on her sanity, but ultimately a judge committed her to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane on January 12, 1962. Two years later, a doctor at the hospital declared that she was mentally fit to stand trial, but after two weeks in court, the judge ordered a mistrial. Observing her behavior in the courtroom—which included collapsing to the floor, agitation, and speaking out of turn—the judge determined it wasn’t possible to have a fair and impartial trial.

Chyrel was returned to Matteawan. Five years later, she petitioned for release. At a court hearing in November of 1969, two psychiatrists testified that Chyrel was no longer psychotic and was now able to understand the nature of the charges and assist in her own defense. However, the doctors feared that another trial could trigger another psychotic episode and cause her to relapse. They recommended that the charges against her be dismissed. The court accepted the recommendation and all criminal charges against Chyrel Jolls were dropped. She was sent to a mental health facility in 1970, and she was released as “cured” on January 29, 1971.

Chyrel went on to live a normal life. She married, had children, and then grandchildren. She passed away in January 2017 with her strange and disturbing past behind her.