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2 on Death Row freed

Story originally published June 13, 1965.

Mary Harvey Meslener was 23 years old Feb. 23, 1959. She had grown up on McDonough St. in the Bronx, N.Y., an introvertish, shy child. The neighbors remember her as a "quiet sweet mama's girl."

Her mother described her as timid, very sensitive, and said she thought seriously about entering a convent at 17. "She was suspicious of all men until Frank came along."

Frank was Frank Meslener, then 29, a large tatooed man of contained emotion who had married her in 1954. They moved to Miami in late 1958 and lived with relatives at 19320 NW 7th Ct. They had a little money saved. He was taking an auto engine tune-up class at night school.

Mary Meslener put her reddish-blonde hair in a ponytail that Feb. 23, 1959, and worked eight hours as a telephone reservation clerk at the executive offices of National Airlines near Miami International Airport.

The job paid $68 a week. She had been employed 14 days. Her supervisor later described her as "very quiet," "very nervous," and "not one apt to make friends easily."

Near a candy machine, which held chocolate-covered peanuts, Mary Meslener punched her timecard Feb 23. The time: 7:36 p.m.

Presumably, she walked alone to her car parked in the lighted National lot. Soon she was to be murdered, the victim of a brutal, senseless, still-baffling crime.


Mary Meslener was due at North Miami High School that night for a creative writing class. She had enrolled seven weeks before and had previously told her instructor she would be a little late because she didn't quit work until 7:30 p.m. She never made it Feb. 23.

Late that Monday night, when she didn't return home, the husband and Mary's brother began searching the streets, the airport. They telephoned hospitals. They reporter her as a missing person to the police. Meslener searched again the next day and twice took the money from the bank to hire a private detective.

About 8 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25, a cloudy warm morning, Hugh Zeigler and his wife Olivia parked their jeep along the weed-strewn edge of NW South River Drive to go fishing. This was about three miles north-northwest from the edge of the airport.

"My dog started toward the water and I called to him and that is when I saw a pair of legs sticking out from under the underbrush," the woman said. "I said, 'Oh, my God! There lays a body!' "

Mary Meslener had been found.


It took the chief of police of Medley about 30 minutes to reach the scene, and by the time the first Dade homicide Criminal Bureau of Investigation (CBI) man arrived at 9:38 a.m. someone had gathered the evidence and put it on the hood of a car.

"We had to try to put the stuff back where it was found for the crime lab photographer," said Detective Philip Thibedeau.

Police found the victim's inexpensive Timex wristwatch which had no band, her initialed sterling silver Ronson cigaret lighter, a blood-smudged pack of Marlboro filter tip cigarets, a nickel, a penny, a few bobby pins, and an opened cellophane sack of chocolate covered peanuts.

The Medley chief, believing he recognized the woman, made a wrong identification. It wasn't clarified until a stunned Frank Meslener went to the count morgue at 10:05 p.m. that night.

His wife, Mary, 5 foot 3 inches, 118 pounds, had been dumped 40 feet from the roadway, 7 feet from the canal, partly on her face and partly on her side.

She had been shot once above the temple on the right side. The projectile had traversed forward and downward, coming out under the left eye.


The rigor mortis broke easily and Dr. Ray Justi, a medical examiner, eventually reached two firm conclusions: The canal bank couldn't have been the exact murder scene. Not nearly enough blood was there.

Secondly, from the condition of the body, he calculated the time of death at 20 to 40 hours earlier, or, quite probably, sometime shortly after she punched the timeclock the evening of Feb. 23.

The autopsy revealed chewed chocolate-covered peanuts. They had not been digested. Tests ran negative for alcohol.

Embedded within the skull was an earhook from the victim's prescription sunglasses, presumably severed by the bullet. Mary Meslener nearly always wore sunglasses while driving - even at night, her husband and brother said.

The sunglasses were missing. So were her pocketbook, billfold and, oddly, her shoes. Her sister-in-law said she sometimes would kick off shoes to drive. Most important, her car, a blue two-tone '58 Nash Rambler, also was missing.

There was no evidence of sexual assault, either by autopsy or appearance.


The first big break in the case came Thursday, Feb. 26. An airman had found Mary Meslener's plastic billfold in his locker at a barracks a few miles from where her body was found. The locker was at an Air Force installation, Miami Air Depot (MIAD), at the western edge of the airport. The locker had two padlocks on it, but the spring inside didn't work. It could be opened with a jerk.

Homicide detectives heard about the billfold on the 26th, two days after it was found, and descended upon the barracks in number and questioned scores of airmen.

They failed to establish who put the billfold there.

Six years later, even with a man convicted of the crime, this is still unresolved. The police assumption, purely speculative, was that maybe the killer threw it away and somebody picked it up and put it there. There was no other explanation.

An intensive search, meanwhile had begun for the missing Nash Rambler that February. The supposition was that it was in a canal and perhaps could be seen from the air. Police hired a Sun Line helicopter. The Coast Guard provided another.

Police did indeed find and recover two submerged cars by grappling hooks. Neither was Mary Meslener's.

Besides the airmen at MIAD, detectives interrogated Mary's co-workers, her classmates, neighbors here as well as in the Bronx 1,100 miles away, and all manner of known and suspected molesters and trouble-makers. They traced airport construction workers. The leads led nowhere.


The second major break in Case 9006B occurred April 3, 1959, with a collect telephone call; Police in Tampa found the missing Nash Rambler parked in a warehouse district lot adjacent to the Ryder Co. and the Patten Printing and Label Co.

It had been there for weeks, perhaps since the night of the crime 40 days before.

Nine inches from the accelerator lay a mutilated .38 slug on the floormat. Bone fragments and tissue still clung to the bullet. Presumably, it had killed the girl, splattered brain tissue on the closed driver's window, struck the window frame and fallen spent.

Blood that had flowed to the back floormat was type O, the victim's type. In the car also was her umbrella, an unexplained cap from a whiskey bottle, a matchbook, and a Gillette blade wrapper.

Apparently the killer had cut and pulled loose from the rings a clear plastic seat cover on the driver's side. It was gone.

Police tried unsuccessfully to trace both the whisky bottle cap and the matchbook.

An odd thing had happened to the car. Painters there to paint the building wanted it moved out of the way. They tried to shove it but couldn't because it was in gear. It was locked and the key was missing. So after considerable discussion about whose car it was, a Ryder employee broke in and took it out of gear. He didn't notice anything suspicious.

A policeman probably would have noticed the telltale disorder inside the car and comprehended its meaning. The car movers did not.


Police later took fingerprints of the unsuspecting car shovers for comparisons with a few latent prints found inside the car. Some were properly identified.

To the police, it appeared that the killer had wiped his prints. An ID fingerprint man, however, wasn't so sure. He said he had heard that the car had been repaired in a shop before the murder and suggested it might have been wiped then.

On the horn ring button the ID man later discovered one good latent palmprint.

It positively did not match that of the victim, her husband, or any of the car movers. It did not belong to the man eventually convicted for life for the murder either.

At the time the ID man felt quite possibly the print belonged to the killer. No one knew then - nor knows now - whose print it was. The lab man never testified at the trial to come.

Perhaps the print belongs to someone in no way connected to the crime. Perhaps it is indeed the killer's. The question is still totally unresolved.


Until May 7, 1959 - 77 days after the crime - the investigation remained stymied.

That was the day an eccentric airman third class at the West Palm Beach Air Force base gave his sergeant a bloodied shirt and said he thought he had done something terrible, he couldn't remember what.

He was a loner. He felt he failed miserably at nearly everything he tried, and as questioning later bore out, most of his buddies agreed. He didn't have many.

Some weeks before he had been tried in a courtmartial proceeding for unfitness because of a snafu over whether he had married a 17-year-old girl without permission and tried to get her an allotment check. He hadn't, it turned out, and he was acquitted.

The Air Force brought the bloodied shirt to the attention of the county solicitor of Palm Beach County. From there, a routine query went to Dade County. Could the shirt have anything to do with the unsolved Mary Meslener murder? The homicide bureau decided to try and find out.


Detective Thibedeau questioned Shea at the base May 8. Shea nervously told him a weird tale about a kidnap attempt of a baby from a baby carriage near the Americana Hotel, women screaming, and a ride to a race track. He said he couldn't remember. It didn't make sense. Thibedeau returned, bringing with him the blood-stained yellow and white checkered sport shirt made by "Torino Sportswear."

Laboratory analysis established the blood as human. But whose blood, now more than ever six years later, is of extreme importance.

At the time, one lab man said he believed the type to be O, the same as the victim's. About 40 per cent of the population has O blood.

With this finding , apparently made May 14, 1959, the detectives wanted to interrogate Shea. The Air Force had already shipped him off to Eglin Air Force Base for hospitalization and psychiatric examination.

A homicide sergeant, an assistant state attorney and a fingerprint lab man arrived at Eglin Saturday, May 16, and after talking to two Air Force investigators the Dade sergeant questioned Shea.

In the State Attorney's file, there is a 47-page pretrial statement by the sergeant of what happened. There are also statements by the two OSI men and the fingerprint technician. They reveal the background of a peculiar confession.

A second interrogation, conducted alone by the sergeant initially, began the next day.

"The man was shaking so badly that he reminded you of someone who had palsy. It was impossible for him to light a cigaret," the sergeant said.

"Did he try?"

"He tried. I lit the cigaret for him.


Subterfuge is an oft-used practice of police interrogators.

The police told Shea his fingerprints were in the victim's car. This was not true. Shea says he also was told an eye-witness had seen him buy a bottle of whisky in Miami the night of the crime. There was no witness.

The sergeant said it was a "physical impossibility" that the blood on the shirt could be Shea's. He was in error.

Shea, near hysteria insisted the blood on the shirt was his. The Air Force had typed him AB negative, he said.

Police had the hospital re-type his blood on the spot. The second reading was B negative. (About 10 per cent of the population has B type blood.)

"It had to be that girl's, he told me," Shea now says. "He told me the evidence would put me in the electric chair. He kept calling me a liar." Police also showed him the victim's bloody dress that day


There is no suggestion whatsoever - at anytime by anyone, Shea, specifically - that the police used force to extract a confession.

Shea would explain later to unbelieving police that he was "just playing goofy," "trying to act nuts," in a desperate attempt to get a medical discharge because the Air Force wouldn't let him marry his girl. He felt the Air Force made him send her home in disgrace. That's why he put his own blood the shirt, he said.

The sergeant testified how Shea broke:

"So finally he said, 'I'll tell you, Mac.' It was a long pause, and he said, 'I did it.' I said, 'How did you do it?' 'I shot her.' 'Why did you shoot her?' 'I was scared.' 'Why were you afraid, Joe?' 'She was screaming and hollering and I thought I was going to get picked up by the police.'

"The conversation at this time was stopped because he was crying so badly that I could hardly understand him. He put his head down again, he was crying. He was just sobbing by this time."

The interrogation ended about two hours later after Shea had regurgitated in a rest room. In the interrogation room, he went into convulsions and fainted, according to the statements.

Graphically and vividly, Shea would retell the murder:

"She was just about to get in the car ... and I scared her. I guess, she started hollering and I went over to grab her ... I hit her ... and I took her legs and swung them around, under the steering post there ... She woke up and started hollering and screaming thief - just a delinquent juvenile or works like that, and started tugging on my arm and making me swerve. If I'm not mistaken I think she even yelled rape a couple of times."

He said he stopped the car. "I put my hands over her mouth so she wouldn't yell any more and she bit my finger and I don't know why, all I heard was the gun go off ... I was frantic, realizing what I'd just done."

He said he cradled her head in his arms and cried, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

Often he would weep in the retelling. Police, prosecution, and especially an Air Force psychiatrist, interpreted this as true guilt, remorse, shame.

In the six months, Shea awaited trial, mostly in the old courthouse skyscraper jail, he once tied a belt to his neck and a bunk and stood in silence until a jailer hurriedly took it off. He wrote bad poetry which he gave to newspaper reporters and he drew sketches of his prospective casket.

Police quietly sent a Catholic priest to him. Shea admitted guilt, the police said. Police put an officer in his cell to pose as rapist. Shea again admitted guilt.

Shea confessed to the jailer, he confessed to his deeply worried parents, he confessed to psychiatrists. He even confessed to the bailiffs while the 12-man jury deliberated. That day, Nov. 4, 1959, the bailiffs twice administered oxygen to Shea.


The prosecution had subpoenaed 28 person for the trial, expecting to use some for rebuttal testimony. That wasn't necessary.

Defense Attorney Mike Zarowny, a cross-examiner of ferocity, dramatically rested the defense without calling a single witness for his side. Thus, he had both opening and closing arguments.

"I couldn't put Shea on the stand," Zarowny said the other day. "He was trying to destroy himself."

When the jury recommended mercy with the verdict to Circuit Judge Ray Pearson, Zarowny felt "as if we'd won almost. He didn't get the char." Shea's parents were grateful. There was no appeal.


Now, 5 1/2 years later, what wasn't said at that trial appears more important.

One day last month Detective Thibedeau, who voluntarily resigned from the Dade County Police Department as a lieutenant in 1962, told his newspaper he believes Joe Shea is innocent. The Meslener murder had been his case from the start.

"When I began to express doubts at the time, my superiors shunted me aside. Here I was supposed to be running the case and I could hardly find out what was going on." Thibedeau was never called to testify.

For years Thibedeau has been telling policemen of his doubts. On one occasion he went to the state attorney's office. He was asked to submit proof of Shea's innocence. He couldn't do it. No one paid much attention to his opinions - until he went to a newspaper.

This newspaper also learned last month that Warren D. Holmes, chief examiner for the Miami Police Polygraph Section in 1959, told the Dade homicide officers that Shea was innocent even before the trial. At that time he made a statement under oath to the prosecution. Holmes was never called to testify.


Is Jose Shea innocent? Is his confession valid?

Shea formally signed a single-space typewritten 17-page confession the night of May 20, 1959.

To substantiate a confession, sound police work requires corroborating evidence or testimony; not merely the confessor's word. Too many kooks, or mentally unbalanced individuals, confess falsely.

It is not unusual at all - despite excellent police work - to leave some loose ends. The inability to verify a specific act independently is not necessarily meaningful.