|Mary Shotwell Little. Photos via Newspapers.com|
Tragedy has an extra level of poignancy if the victim is a young bride. However, when the tragedy is an unsolved mystery--and a particularly bizarre one, at that--it goes beyond merely "poignant" to "uniquely unnerving."
Small wonder that the following story is one that has lingered uneasily in the collective memory of Atlanta, Georgia for over fifty years.
Mary Shotwell grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. After graduating from college, she moved to Atlanta, where she found work as a secretary at the C&S Bank. During the Labor Day weekend of 1965 the pretty, outgoing twenty-five year old married a bank examiner she had been dating for the past year, Roy Little. She was prosperous, well-liked, and in love. In short, Mrs. Little seemed destined for a life of unremarkable contentment.
Destiny, however, had other ideas.
October 14, 1965 started off as utterly routine for the newlywed. She was living alone at the moment, as Roy was in LaGrange training to be an auditor for the state's Banking Department. After getting off work, Mary did some grocery shopping and met a co-worker, Isla Stack, for dinner at a cafeteria in Lenox Square, a popular open-air shopping center She was in the best of spirits and told her friend how much she was enjoying being married. At around 8 p.m., the two parted and Mary walked back to her car. "I'll see you tomorrow!" she told Stack cheerily.
|Lenox Square in the 1960s|
When Mary failed to come to work the next morning, her boss, Eugene Rackley, was immediately uneasy, as she was normally a conscientious employee. He phoned her apartment, but got no answer. By now thoroughly alarmed, Rackley called police, as well as Roy Little, who immediately prepared to return to Atlanta.
Meanwhile, a Lenox Square security guard took note of a silver Mercury Comet parked in the lot. It had been there all morning, which was somewhat unusual. He took a closer look, and saw grass stems and blood on the front seat and right front window. He contacted the police. It turned out to be Mary's car.
|Police photo of Mary's car|
Where had the Comet been all night? No one at the mall had seen it overnight or early the next morning. Also, it was soon discovered that someone had replaced the license plates with ones that had recently been stolen from a car in North Carolina. The car was covered with red dust, indicating that it had been driven in a rural area. The groceries Mary had bought the day before were still inside, along with a pack of her cigarettes. The car also contained something that had particularly frightening implications: Mary's slip, panties, bra, girdle, and one stocking. There were drops of blood on the underwear, and the stocking seemed to have been slashed with a knife. Tests indicated the type of blood found in the car was the same as Mary's. The other items of clothing Mary had been wearing, as well as her purse and car keys, have never been found. The supposition was that she had been kidnapped and driven elsewhere, after which her abductors were either stupid or incredibly brazen enough to return the car to its original parking place.
The police discovered that the day after Mary disappeared, her credit card had been used to buy gasoline at a station in Charlotte: coincidentally or not, her hometown. Twelve hours later, the card was used again at a gas station in Raleigh. The credit card slips bore what was believed to be Mary's genuine signature. Attendants at both the stations said the gas was bought by a young woman matching Mary's description. She was in the company of an unshaven middle-aged man who appeared to be telling her what to do. They also stated that the woman had a head wound and bloodstains on her hands and legs, but she made no attempt to ask anyone for help.
Adding to the puzzle was the long gap between the two gas purchases, as Raleigh is only about two hours away from Charlotte, and there were only forty-one miles on the car's odometer that were unaccounted for.
Shortly after the disappearance was publicized, Roy Little received an anonymous ransom demand: $20,000 in exchange for Mary's safe return. He was told to go to an overpass in Pigsah National Forest, where he would find further instructions. An FBI agent went to the place indicated, but found nothing. It is surmised that the caller, who was never identified, was merely a sick prankster.
When investigators spoke with Mary's friends, they learned that the missing woman's seemingly ideal life had recently taken a dark turn. Mary had spoken of being afraid to be alone--and, particularly, of being alone in her car. Co-workers stated that she had been getting phone calls at her job that left Mary deeply upset. Although she refused to discuss these calls with anyone, she had been overheard telling the person on the other line, "I'm a married woman now," and "You can come over to my house any time you like, but I can't come over there." She hinted to a couple of close friends that she had something important to tell them, but would not say what that was. Shortly before Mary vanished, she had received a delivery of red roses. They were sent anonymously, and police were unable to trace who was responsible.
Most people presumed that Mary's shadowy, sinister admirer was behind her disappearance, but police considered other theories. There was an ongoing scandal at her workplace involving claims of sexual harassment and a prostitution ring that allegedly operated on bank property. Although Mary was not personally involved, it was suggested that she might possibly have stumbled across some dangerous information relating to the dispute.
Although Roy Little's alibi seemed impeccable, he too came in for a share of scrutiny. It emerged that Mary's friends had heartily disliked Roy, finding him surly, cold, and remote. Some of them had even boycotted the wedding. Mary's husband seemed unsettlingly nonchalant about his bride's highly ominous disappearance--he appeared more concerned about getting their car back--and he refused all requests to take a lie detector test. When talking to investigators, he would drop odd little remarks about "perfect crimes," and appeared highly reluctant to discuss his wife at all. Jack Perry, the lead detective on the case, commented years later, "That boy wasn't right for some reason." On the other hand, by all accounts Roy and Mary were happy together, and investigators could find no motive for him to want her dead.
Or was Mrs. Little the random victim of some predator? A few days after Mary vanished, a woman went to police with an alarming story. She stated that she had been walking to her car parked at Lenox Square around the same time Mary was preparing to leave the mall. She suddenly realized a tall, thin man was following her. She rushed into her car, and just as she locked the door, the man grabbed the door handle. When he saw he couldn't open the door, he tapped on the window and said, "Your tire is low." The woman drove to a nearby service station. Her tires were fine. FBI agent Jim Ponder was convinced this never-identified man kidnapped Mary Little, raped and murdered her, drove her back to Lenox where he switched cars, and buried her body somewhere in the woods around Raleigh.
Some investigators, perplexed by the many incomprehensible clues surrounding the case, began to wonder if the missing woman had engineered her own disappearance. The amount of blood in the car was so small--less than you'd see from a nosebleed, according to someone in the state crime lab--that it was speculated that the blood had been deliberately planted in order to create a "fake" crime scene. Possible corroboration for this theory came from a woman named Margaret Fargason. She had been shopping at Lenox Square the evening Mary vanished. She claimed that she had seen Mary's car being driven out of the mall around 8 p.m. A woman matching Mrs. Little's description was at the wheel, and she was alone. She contacted the police, but investigators never bothered to interview her.
Months went by, with the riddle of what became of Mary remaining as puzzling as ever. Then, two years later, Atlanta saw another tragic event that investigators hoped might lead to solving the mystery. On May 19, 1967, 22-year-old Diane Shields, who had briefly been employed at the C&S Bank after Mary disappeared, left her new workplace after a routine day on the job. She was never seen alive again. Late that night, police on patrol noticed her car parked near an Atlanta laundromat, with a long trail of blood behind it. When the officers opened the trunk, they found the dead body of Diane Shields. She had been strangled. Shields had not been raped and her jewelry was intact, leaving the motive for her murder a puzzle.
The links between the two women were intriguing. Like Mary, Shields had last been seen going to her car. At one time, Shields had been roommates with one Sandra Green. Green had shared an apartment with Mary before the latter's marriage. Most eerily of all, shortly before her death, Shields told an old friend that she was working undercover for the police in order to solve the disappearance of a woman called "Mary." (This startling claim has never been verified.) Unfortunately, these suggestive coincidences failed to help the police solve either crime. To date, Shields' murder is as stubbornly baffling as the fate of Mary Shotwell Little.