Skating On The Wrong Side Of The Law: True Crimes From Skating History


From merry murderess and two time Olympian Yvonne de Ligne to deposed 1968 Olympic Gold Medallist Wolfgang Schwarz who was convicted on charges of human trafficking to the whole Tonya Harding affair, history has been peppered with tales of figure skaters who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Keep an eye on your skate guards - today we'll be sifting through the sands of time and exploring five true crime tales with skating connections!

THE DEATH OF MARILYN SMITH

For over five decades until her death in 2003, Marguerite Hodnik of Montana carried around a tremendous burden. In 1948, her daughter Marilyn Smith had made the trip from the quiet Powell County community of Deer Lodge to Pasadena, California to lead the Butte, Montana band in The Rose Parade as a majorette. While in the Golden State, Marilyn met a man named John Schwartz. At the age of sixteen, the couple decided to tie the knot, much to her mother's chagrin. Their relationship fizzled in less than a year when the teenager from Deer Lodge began performing in - you guessed it - professional ice shows.

Before Marilyn's divorce to Schwartz was even finalized, she was already engaged to another man named Howard Finkle who had come to San Diego to see her skate. To complicate matters even further, there was a third man in the picture. Charles Leonard Schneeloch was a thirty five year old miner who had come from Atlantic City to California to take a job at the Owens Gorge hydro-electric project.

With her husband John out of the picture and her fiancĂ© Howard living in a different city, Marilyn moved into an apartment with Charles. To add even more to the tangled web, Charles Schneeloch had an alias - Charles Snow - and a wife named Pauline and three children waiting for him back in New Jersey.

For just over a year, both Marilyn and Charles managed to keep their stories straight. She balanced dates with skates. He toiled at Owens Gorge and presumably wrote letters home to his wife and kids, telling them how lonely he was working the days away in a strange state. Their bizarre affair ended on January 30, 1950, when she disappeared from the apartment they shared in the dead of night.

Marilyn was found frozen in Inyo County's Bishop Creek on February 10, 1950. She was clad only in a pyjama top. Within days of the discovery of her body, Charles was detained by Sheriff Charles P. Cline for questioning after, according to the February 13, 1950 edition of the "Bulletin", neighbours noted that she "quarrelled violently with her common-law husband the night she disappeared."

As soon as the news broke in California, a distraught Pauline - back in Atlantic City - filed for divorce. An autopsy revealed that Marilyn was pregnant at the time of her death and according to the February 14, 1950 issue of the Spokane Daily Chronicle "disclosed a bruise on the side of her head." However, it was determined that the actual cause of her death was drowning. Schneeloch told Sheriff Cline: "We had a quarrel that night (January 30). I went to bed. The alarm woke me at 11:30. She must have set it. She was gone. I found an empty bottle that held sleeping pills, and under it a note in her handwriting." He conveniently destroyed the note.

Charles was ultimately cleared by California police and released on February 17, 1950. The February 18, 1950 issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that "he had been under questioning... and was released yesterday when he satisfied police as to his innocence. He will return to his job this morning, his parents learned, at the Owens Gorge hydro-electric project near Bishop." No one was ever charged in conjunction with her death.

The sad tale of this figure skater from Montana's tragic death almost reads like something out of a film noir or an urban legend of the era cautioning teenagers of the dangers of living life in the fast lane in California. The reality is that not every skater's story has a happy ending. We can only hope that Marilyn Smith has found solace somewhere other than the icy mountains of California.

THE HEIST OF RUE SAINT DIDIER

Just months before the beginning of World War I, a case that seemed almost tailor made for Inspector Jacques Clouseau himself to solve rocked the skating community in Paris, France: The Heist Of Rue Saint Didier.

The American Skating Rink on Rue Saint Didier was a popular destination for Parisian skating enthusiasts looking for a less crowded alternative to the Palais de Glace. Expert instruction was available for both recreational and more advanced skaters alike and the rink opened its doors to people of all classes perhaps moreso than the posher Palais.  Unfortunately, in late March 1914, an uproar ensued when several pieces of jewelry, including two priceless wedding bands, were stolen from the rink's dressing room during one skating such session. Monsieur Wanttam, a skating professor at the American Skating Rink, responded to the hullabaloo by filing a complaint with Monsieur Mulnier, Paris' police commissioner. An investigation ensued and in a couple of short days, a thirty year old skater who had taken up residence at a hotel on the Rue de Valois was arrested and charged with theft.

At first the culprit, Emile Viot, denied stealing the jewels but after what we can assume was some pretty intense questioning, he finally confessed and provided an explanation for why he committed the crime. In March 20 issue of the "Le Gaulois literary and political", A. Magne recorded Viot's confession: "I was engaged to a girl that I love very much and she was my wife for two days. I wanted, as is the custom, to offer her the best engagement ring and I do not have the means to buy [one]. That's why I committed the dishonest act alleged against me today. It is the love of my fiancée that [made me a] thief." Viot didn't get the guillotine, but he didn't get the rings or much sympathy from Monsieurs Mulnier or Wanttam either.

THE MELBOURNE SKATE THIEF

Stealing jewelry might be one thing but if you make off with a skater's skates, look out! In the winter of 1913, skates started going missing from the lockers at Wirth's Skating Rink on St. Kilda Rink in Melbourne, Australia. At first, only a couple of pairs went missing and patrons thought the missing skates might have just been a frustrating mix-up, but when ten pairs went AWOL on January 29 of that year it was painfully clear that there was a thief amongst the skaters' midst. The case was reported to Melbourne police and on February 28, 1913 a young man named William Kennedy was arrested. The "Mount Alexander Mail" reported that Kennedy "admitted having broken into the rink at different times and taken skates. He stated that whenever he and a mate of his got out of work they would steal a couple of pairs to pay for their room and beds. From the information given them by Kennedy, the detectives recovered eight pairs of skates at various secondhand shops in King Street." No word on his accomplice, but Kennedy was hauled into South Melbourne Court, plead guilty and was fined five pounds or in default, one month's imprisonment.

THE DEATH OF FREDERICK DODGE


He said, she said... Figure skating has long had a reputation for being a rather gossipy sport. Rumours often swirl faster than a scratch spin. More often than not, many are true and most are not. In the small village of Skaneatles, New York in September of 1886, an accomplished figure skater found himself at the epicenter of the gossip factory. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to defend himself. For you see, he was dead.

Frederick A. Dodge was the son of H.B. Dodge, owner and editor of "The Skaneatles Democrat". An athletic man who had been a pitcher for the Central City nine, Frederick Dodge was a widower with three children and a complete teetotaller. He was also quite a talented 'fancy' figure skater. The September 7, 1886 issue of "The Syracuse Daily Standard" affirmed, "He was known as the most graceful and accomplished ice skater in this part of the state before that exhilarating sport fell into unpopularity." 

Frederick was found dead on the floor of "The Skaneatles Democrat" editorial room on Sunday, September 5, 1886 at five in the evening. He had gone there that morning to have a sponge bath and shave before setting to work on the following day's paper. A few hours later, friends had gone to see him at the office but receiving no response when they knocked at the door, they left. When he didn't arrive home for dinner, two apprentices at the office, Albert T. Curtis and Charles E. Kochenburg, were sent to check on him and found the door locked. Worrying something was wrong, they broke down and the door and found him lying on the floor on his side. 

Frederick was clad only in his undergarments, his face half shaven, still covered in dry soap foam. A chair had been pulled up to the editorial table and on the table there was some of this foam. Investigators believed he'd rested or hit his head on the table, died and fell out of the chair onto the floor. The razor he had used was found at the back of the office. Many villagers immediately jumped to the conclusion that he'd met with foul play because his razor wasn't found near his body, but authorities believed the reason that the razor wasn't found next to him was that he'd fallen ill while shaving, got up from his chair and walked around, sat back down again and then keeled over.

Further investigation revealed that the week prior to Frederick's death, he had complained of feeling faint, then swooned and fell into unconsciousness. A Dr. H.B. Wright was summoned and when he arrived, he worked on him for half an hour and managed to revive him. Throughout the week, Dr. Wright made house calls and it was determined he was well enough to go back to work. Before the doctor had arrived the day Dodge fainted, two of his newspaper men had rubbed his body with arnica cream in an attempt to revive him. They observed a large bruise on his right side and a circular blackened spot near his heart. When Dodge was revived, they asked him about his injuries and he was reportedly evasive.

Rumours in the small village persisted that two days prior to the first episode and eight days before his death, Frederick, Dr. Wright and a Mr. Horton hired a horse and cart at the village livery. The three men travelled to Jordan together, where it was believed that Frederick was brutally attacked. The September 7, 1886 issue of "The Syracuse Daily Standard" reported, "Mr. Horton said last night that... while in his company one week ago Saturday Mr. Dodge received no injury to his knowledge and he could not account for the bruises found on his body. Dr. H.B. Wright said he had noticed the bruises but as he had diagnosed the case of one of organic heart trouble, he attributed no great importance to the bruises in the region of the heart. From what he had recently heard, however, he thought the case ought to be investigated further. If death resulted from a violent injury of the heart he would scarcely expect to find the result what it was in this case. Instead of an attack, a speedy recovery, and one week afterward a shock which produced death he should expect to see the patient die at once or sink gradually down to death. There would be no such improved condition as was found in this case from Monday to Sunday. If death resulted from other than organic heart trouble, then the most vital importance might be attached to the bruised condition of the body. The doctor said he had inquired whether Mr. Dodge was subject to disease of the heart, but was told that he had never had any trouble from that source."

The coroner ultimately supported the doctor's belief that Frederick passed away of a heart attack, but rumours persisted in the small town that Dr. Wright had "something to do with Mr. Dodge's death" as he'd been in Jordan with him the day he received this beating that no one else seemed to see. In reading newspaper accounts of Dodge's death, I don't really see any smoking gun or any reason not to believe he died of natural causes, but at the time, the good people of Skaneatles thought otherwise. I guess the moral in this story is that whether it be a coaching change, a partnership breaking up or even in this case a death, it's always a wise idea to check your facts before you speak.

THE SKATING COUNTERFEITER



In 1928, a thirty five year old Estonian immigrant who went by the name Edward John Wellman was arrested for burglary and sentenced to a six year term at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. After his release, he travelled around the Eastern seaboard using a variety of aliases - Matti Salo, Alexander Kerr, Alexander Kent among them. An expert counterfeiter, this man used pewter, silver chloride, sodium cyanide of potassium and silver to manufacture phony fifty cent pieces in his car, which he used to fund his gambling at the race tracks.

Arrested a second time on April 30, 1941 for passing his counterfeit coins off to a merchant in New Rochelle, Edward jumped a bail of twenty five hundred dollars (no paltry sum during the second World War) and was apprehended a second time on December 30, 1941 at the Tropical Park race track in Miami for doing the same thing. This time held at a seventy five hundred dollar bail, he was sent to Coral Gables prison, where he used the main-spring of an alarm clock to open his cell door and escape with another prisoner.

By this time under investigation by the Secret Service and the Treasury Department, Edward returned to New York City... and began making money by teaching figure skating! The October 28, 1942 issue of the "New York Sun" recalled, "Had Wellman been less of a master of the fancy figure, he might never have been caught, at least, on the ice. But people stopped to watch him and less perfect skaters were envious and soon Wellman was the sensation of the rink. And he boasted. He said - and it was probably true - that he had instructed many prominent people in the art of figure skating. And he told a young fellow last night that he paid from $57 to $67 a pair for his skates. The young fellow, it turned out later, was Detective Larry Mullins of the Flushing police precinct, who is a good country skater but nothing fancy when it comes to the figures. There seems to be some doubt, even now, as to just who skated out and apprehended Edward Wellman, who is also known as Alex. Kent and Alex. Kerr. But Police Headquarters insists it was Larry Mullins, its star skater. The Treasury Department, which is interested in any attempts to imitate its silver pieces, says that Wellman was taken at the rink by 'both police and secret service men'." Contemporary articles also note that a woman went to the Secret Service to inform them she recognized his picture on a "wanted" card as the same man she'd met at the Flushing Meadows ice skating rink on the site of the 1939 World's Fair.

Skaters at the Flushing Meadows Ice Rink in 1941

After Edward's arrest, the Secret Service searched his rooms at 1179 2nd Avenue and found over fifteen hundred dollars in fifty cent counterfeits. Three other men, Emil Greenwald, Walter Koslov, Elmar Rasmat and Edgar Palm, were arrested in conjunction with the counterfeit scheme. A fourth, Edgar Palm, committed suicide. Edward was sentenced on Nov 13, 1942 to serve eight years in prison for each of the six counts against him.

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