09/11/2021 By RuneLite
Six decades later, Fulton County still echoes:"What happened to Fay Rawley?"As if passing down a treasured heirloom, generations continue to share conjecture and gossip about the case, making Fay Rawley almost mythic. After all, how can a real, live person — especially someone as well known as the gadabout Rawley — seemingly vanish without a trace?The story is not folklore yet sorely short of facts after Nov. 8, 1953. That's when the businessman and his new Cadillac were last seen.A long search for the former bank president included a strip-mine excavation for his body before the prying eyes of national magazines and thousands of beer-swilling curiosity-seekers. The dig triggered a carnival of intrigue that mixed extramarital affairs, off-the-books loans, a dogged sheriff, inheritance riddles and lock-box puzzles. At the unyielding search site, police got so desperate as to listen to the advice of "witchers," rural soothsayers employing animal bones and divining rods in search of clues.But in the end, wherever Fay Rawley landed on this earth, his secrets went with him, unsolved. Sixty years later, there are apparently only two possibilities of what happened:Either Fay Rawley got away with one the greatest disappearing acts in history — or someone got away with murder. At age 56, Fay Rawley hardly swaggered with the look or charm of a playboy.He couldn't hear well. He wore spectacles for his bad eyes and dentures for his missing teeth. He trundled about with a slight stoop, eager to chit-chat but meager with smiles. You could find him often with either a pool cue or highball in his hand.But, to some, he did have one endearing quality: he was flush with cash, often eager to spread it around. The farmer had served as Woodland Township supervisor and run the bank in Astoria, about 50 miles southwest of Peoria. Not long before vanishing, he was seen with $65,000 in his pocket while chewing the fat at the Astoria grain elevator. A thick wallet beckons as a strong aphrodisiac for a certain type of woman. And long after Rawley vanished, police found out what many husbands already knew: Rawley was a rounder, and he didn't let a pesky wedding ring — his or others — slow him from chasing skirts."He was a slick old duck," one of his gadabout pals said in 1957. "Women were his downfall."By 1953, he had been separated from his wife, Hazel, for several years. By then, she had left him behind in their white, two-story farmhouse home in Summum, an incorporated hamlet near Astoria. She was granted a divorce on Nov. 9, 1953 — the day after he was last seen. She never talked to the press, so the subject of their estrangement never became fodder for newspaper stories.Still, in a 1957 interview, a Rawley buddy might've inadvertently given insight to the wife's marital dissatisfaction: "He was a swell guy. We ran around together for 10 to 12 years, four or five nights a week, riding around, playing pool and so on."A social schedule like that can be hard on a marriage. Meanwhile, free-wheeling away from home, Rawley made easy friends as something of a soft touch. Outside the legal confines of his former bank, Rawley would loan money to familiar faces — heck, he knew everyone in and around town — who couldn't catch a break elsewhere.As a pool-hall friend said at the time, "He helped people that everyone else turned down with loans. He'd never push them. I don't think they made a better fellow."That's one viewpoint. But if you owed him money, or if he kept making time with your wife, the future might've loomed far brighter without Fay Rawley around. Rawley's disappearance might have never made for local legend if not for Sheriff Virgil Ball. Many men wanted to get their hands on Rawley, but Ball was the last to look for him. And the lawman learned that it's hard to chase a ghost.Ball, a former Marine Corps hero, was elected sheriff in 1954. By that time, a year had slipped away with little done to track down Rawley. After all, at the time, the sheriff's office had a force of exactly two officers — the sheriff and one deputy — to patrol and protect most of the four-largest counties in Illinois. Such responsibilities would allow precious little time for a missing-person's manhunt. But Ball refused to let the probe lie dormant. He used countless hours of his off time to shake the trees and ask questions, going back to the start of the nagging case.Late the night Rawley vanished, a worker at the Key Coal Co. strip mine, not far from Rawley's house, saw Rawley's new '53 Cadillac there. That would not have been unusual: Rawley, always restless, often would drive into the mine after nightfall to shoot the breeze with whoever might be around. But on that night, the worker could not identify the driver or the number of occupants.Sheriff Ball kept asking questions. By 1957, Ball had pinpointed the spot where he knew — just knew — he'd find Rawley and his Cadillac, but it was under 75 feet of dirt.The theory was that on Nov. 8, 1953, the car had been driven into the mine and parked alongside a 20-foot-tall pile of earth. On the other side of that pile, atop an even higher pile, stood an excavation crane. The operator was to dig earth and dump it in the exact place where (supposedly) Rawley's car rested. However, because of compromised sight lines, the operator would not have been able to see the car as he moved and dumped ton after ton of dirt atop the Cadillac — and whatever might be inside it.After securing the mine's permission onto the property, Ball convinced a reluctant Fulton County Board to spare $800 to allow a small-scale excavation that summer. At Ball's order, geologists drilled deep into the soil and found scrapings of metal — green, and like that of Rawley's Cadillac. So, the sheriff hauled in a crane, drag line and scoop, chomping out 10 cubic yards of dirt at a time, slowly scraping out a 150-foot wide crater.The search triggered an onslaught of onlookers. A slew of local reporters, sometimes 100 a day, converged on the mine, dubbing themselves the "Summum Press Club." The beguiling mystery even lured Life and Look magazine reporters to sit with the crowd and wait for a glimpse of Rawley.Meanwhile, amused locals — mostly men and kids — flocked to the site. Some walked for miles, while carloads crept along U.S. Route 24, jammed bumper-to-bumper, for a chance to gaze at the growing hole in the ground. The sun beat down, with almost no shade trees in the strip mine to offer relief; men wore wide-brim hats while Ball donned a pith helmet, evoking the look of an archeologist seeking fabled treasure. The scene became something of a tailgate party, with gawkers perched on beer coolers, sucking suds and ruminating gossip. Two enterprising college students set up a tent to sell sandwiches, soft drinks and ice to the masses. To maintain security, Ball roped off the area, then brought in U.S. Marines and Illinois State Police to keep dour watch. Meanwhile, though, the most interesting facets of the case were being dug up by reporters. Rawley's name had peppered police reports. Two weeks before Rawley disappeared, he was assaulted in Macomb. A week later, someone threw acid on his car. Around that time, a motorist tried to run him down in Astoria, then again in Camp Ellis.Why? As the Journal Star circumspectly reported, "He had a number of women friends and ... this may supply the motive."In fact, the last known person to see Rawley alive was one of those women friends. In 1957, Helen Wagner was 44 years old and living in Astoria. But in November 1953, she was living in an apartment in Macomb, six months divorced and keeping company with Rawley. In 1957, she recounted that in fall 1953, Rawley wanted to marry her after he was divorced. At first, she liked the idea, but later changed her mind. She planned to remarry her ex-husband, Theodore Wagner, from whom she had been granted a divorce on grounds of "cruelty": her divorce petition alleged he "always had a gun" and had threatened to shoot her dead.Two months earlier, when she revealed her intent to reconcile with her ex-husband, Rawley seemed upset, but not suicidal. And they continued to see each other. On Nov. 8, 1953, Rawley left her apartment at 7:50 p.m., presumably to go home, she said. Still, she said she expected to see him again sometime. When he never showed up again, she knew something was wrong.In a lengthy published interview, she seemed less worried about Rawley's fate than about her tarnished reputation."I never should have gone with him. I'm not proud of that," she said. "Oh, I know I was single, and he had been separated from his wife for eight years, but the kind of person he was, it's nothing to my credit. And I have nothing else to my discredit, I can tell you that, and that's the truth."Did she know what happened to him? "I wouldn't know. I wouldn't know," she told a reporter.Three months after Rawley left her apartment, she remarried her ex-husband. The dig went on. Spectators soon had another diversion to pass the time: watching the self-proclaimed "witchers." One was Orville Fleming, a janitor at the Astoria post office, who tromped around with a trusty rod, a piece of animal jawbone tied to the end. It dipped wildly over a spot where he believed diggers would find a car. Though Ball maintained skepticism, Fleming won over two police officers who testified to the rod's power."If you held it too tight, it would have ripped the skin right off your hands," one lawman said.To anyone, Fleming offered to bet the princely sum of $20 that Ball would find a body under the spot indicated by his rod. "Of course," he said, "I won't bet whose body it is, but there's a body in that trunk for sure."If anyone took that bet, no one collected. After seven long days of excavation, the mine grew impatient, and Ball called everything off. In 1962, out of office for four years — sheriffs back then were limited to one term — Ball tried another approach at the mine: digging in a new spot with bulldozers. The search sparked renewed media ballyhoo, and a teen troubadour grabbed headlines while traipsing through Peoria bistros crooning his self-penned "The Ballad of Fay Rawley."But the second search proved no more successful, prompting some observers to joke about "Ball's Folly." But the ex-lawman, who'd partly financed the second search out of his own pocket, felt no pang of regret."As long as a man feels he's right about something, he should go ahead and do it," Ball said. "If he later finds he's wrong, there's no reason to feel bad about it."Still, chagrined was Rawley's lone son, Robert Rawley. After the disappearance, the 28-year-old tried to run his father's affairs, then took out ads in newspapers seeking clues to the mystery. As years wore on, he fought with the courts to try to open bank lock boxes his father owned. He thought the boxes could contain tips about the disappearance, and certainly information about the estate holdings. The younger Rawley pegged the estate at $250,000, while others close to Fay Rawley put the amount as double that.But because of security purposes, Fay Rawley's bank fought the effort to open the boxes: what if Rawley were to pop up out of nowhere? So, the younger Rawley had to wait until 1960, when the legal span of seven years had expired with no sign of Fay Rawley, whom a judge then declared legally dead.The lock boxes were opened, only to reveal deeds and bonds — but no clues regarding the missing man's whereabouts. After a protracted fight, a judge in 1967 allowed the bonds to be cashed as part of Robert Rawley's legal inheritance.But he got none of it. In 1961, while driving a new Cadillac on the roads of Fulton County — just as his father often did — the younger Rawley was killed in an auto wreck. The money would be split by Robert Rawley's ex-wife, second wife and two daughters. As years wore on, Ball continued to check out tips: sightings of Rawley in South America, tales of makeshift cemeteries near Astoria. All went nowhere, leaving Ball unmoving from his stance that Rawley and his Cadillac remained buried at the mine site — now in private ownership and converted into a strip-mine lake.In interviews in his later years, Ball revealed he had a strong idea as to the identity of Rawley's killer, whom he believed had an accomplice. But before dying at age 85 in 1999, he never revealed those names publicly.Privately, he remained tight-lipped, as well. The family of Judge Charles Wilhelm, who retired from the Fulton County bench in 1999, was close with the Ball family. Yet Wilhelm, one of those two enterprising college students who had sold food and drinks at the '57 dig site, never did hear any whispers of possible suspects."I wish I knew," says Wilhelm, 79, of Lewistown, who still hears occasional coffee-shop conjecture about the case. " ... I wish I had even an inkling."Well, there might be at least two people who have an idea about the killer. One is me.While researching this case and going through old photo files at the Journal Star, I found another file, jammed with notes from 1957. A reporter and editor — both now dead — traded those for several days during the dig. The notes hint toward a suspect, and the paper even secured his photo, apparently to run upon his arrest. That never happened, so his identity remained unpublished.The Fulton County Sheriff's Office has no file on Rawley. So there's no confirmation available there.But Virgil Ball's son says he knows who did it: his dad told him."I feel my father was very correct in who did the crime," says John Ball, 68, of Lewistown. "And I'm confident Fay Rawley's car and body are in that mine."John Ball, who never went into law enforcement, says his father didn't share with him any key reports or evidence regarding the case. But he says the suspect was a husband upset about an affair between his wife and Rawley.And that suspect is the same person indicated in the old Journal Star file.The suspect and the accomplice are both dead. Still I have no idea if the suspect's descendants are still around. So it would be unfair to publish the suspect's name (or that of his accomplice) without proof of involvement.Otherwise, Virgil Ball never pinpointed a likely manner of murder. And, his son says, his dad did not have a clear idea whether Rawley was killed at the mine or driven there post-mortem.Rawley's house showed signs of a struggle, John Ball says. A lamp was overturned, and his eyeglasses were left behind. Apparently, Fay Rawley did not want to go on one last ride in his new '53 Cadillac.I don't know if Rawley's family ever figured out what happened. He has two granddaughters, but I could not track them down.Maybe someday, someone will bring forth a solid answer. Maybe a descendant will discuss a deathbed confession or hand over a guilt-soaked diary.Until then, the riddle will remain:What happened to Fay Rawley?
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/philluciano, 686-3155 or (800) 225- 5757, Ext. 3155. Follow him on Twitter @LucianoPhil.