In the late 1950s, Pensacola lost its innocence.
In one of the most unsettling crimes in the history of Escambia County, a serial grave robber violated the remains of four young women. It’s a case that reads like a movie script: a frustrated sheriff, FBI analysis, fingerprints, footprints and anonymous tips. But it was real—too real for a small town like Pensacola. Citizens were scared, and officials clamored to find justice for the silent victims. The perpetrator seemed to come and go like a ghost in the night. He became known as the Ghoul of Whitmire Cemetery.
This mystery is still unsolved. The silence of sanctity was broken on July 12, 1957. A cemetery keeper walking the grounds at Roberts Cemetery in Gull Point noticed something out of place. He saw that a slab of concrete was moved from the top of a gravesite. Upon inspection, he was horrified: the lid of the coffin was open. Inside was the body of a young woman. Her name was Ruby Lee Robinson, and she had been laid to rest in Roberts Cemetery seven months prior.
The caretaker ran back to the office and called the sheriff. When authorities arrived, they found that the woman’s body was disarranged, and her clothes were disheveled. They feared the worst.
Lawmen canvassed the neighborhood looking for witnesses, but turned up nothing. Investigators noted that the concrete slab covering the gravesite weighed over 1,000 pounds.
Noticing a hole chiseled in the foot of the vault, they deduced that the criminal used a long metal pole to pry the lid off while using an adjacent grave and several bricks as a fulcrum. The sheriff’s office knew that this was not the work of teenage vandals, and they hoped it would be an isolated incident. As it turned out, it was the last grave robbery at Roberts Cemetery. The next three occurrences took place consecutively at Whitmire Cemetery in Ferry Pass—for which the ghoul earned his ghastly moniker.
The second victim was discovered just three days later on July 15, 1957. On that day, E. P. Kingston went to visit the grave of his late wife, Betty Mae. She was buried in Whitmire Cemetery one month earlier after losing a battle with cancer. As Mr. Kingston approached his wife’s grave, he was exposed to a grisly sight. Her grave had been desecrated, and her body lay exposed. The scene was similar to that of the Roberts break-in. Again, a concrete slab was moved by the use of a lever. The evidence showed that there was definitely a ghoul on the loose.
Repeating the investigative process, authorities combed the neighborhood in Ferry Pass hoping to find information. They made a house-by-house survey on Whitmire Road, which ran beside the cemetery, but found nothing. Crime scene experts dusted the coffin and concrete vault for latent prints and again, nothing.
While the case was getting cold, the local rumor mill was heating up. The public was outraged, and the Whitmire Ghoul became Pensacola’s main topic of conversation. Tips started pouring in to the sheriff’s office. Investigators interviewed dozens of suspects as a result, but no arrests were made. Meanwhile, at Whitmire Cemetery, locals were taking matters into their own hands. Neighborhood residents armed themselves, gathered after dark and awaited the ghoul’s next attack.
The city stayed on guard for weeks, but nothing happened. Had the publicity scared the ghoul away? Did the sheriff get too close to his man? Months went by without any graveyard crimes. Rumors continued to circulate, but the hysteria lessened with inactivity and time.
Then, almost one year later, it started again. On Feb. 23, 1958, the ghoul desecrated the grave of Joan Danley. The 14-year-old girl was buried in Whitmire Cemetery the previous October. She died tragically when she was struck by a car on Nine Mile Road.
The cemetery scene was all too familiar: a concrete slab was levered away from the gravesite, and the victim’s clothes were found in disarray. It wasn’t long before the mania surrounding the ghoul erupted again. The sheriff offered a $500 reward for information leading to his arrest. The case began garnering national attention.
Again, the city went on high alert. Officials, as well as non-officials, staked out Whitmire Cemetery nightly. They dared the ghoul to reveal himself once more, and he did. On March 8, under a cloak of thick fog, the ghoul crept into the cemetery and violated the grave of 11-year-old Suzette Elaine Parker. But this crime was different than the rest. When the open casket was found the next day, the only thing inside was a bow from the little girl’s dress.
Investigators focused on this last case as the key to solving the puzzle.
THE PARKER CASE
The responsibility of identifying the Whitmire Ghoul fell on the shoulders of Escambia County Sheriff Emmett Shelby. After the first incident, Shelby assigned the case to a team of top detectives led by criminal investigator Charles Solari. Solari began working for the sheriff’s department in 1945 after graduating from the FBI Academy in Washington, D.C. He enlisted the bureau’s help when faced with the bizarre circumstances surrounding the case of Suzette Parker.
In the Parker case, the Whitmire Ghoul did something he had never done before: he removed the body. When authorities arrived at the scene, they fanned out to search for the young girl. A mounted deputy found the remains in a thicket about 250 yards from the graveyard. Her clothes were disheveled, and her body was burned in several places with matches left behind by the assailant.
The young girl’s remains were taken back to the mortuary and examined by Dr. A. H. Northup, a pathologist. Northup determined that, other than the apparent burn marks, the body was unmolested. In fact, there was no sign of sexual violence on any of the victims. Although the crimes appeared sexual in nature, there was little physical evidence to substantiate that.
With little else to go on, Solari turned to the young science of forensic investigation. He collected clothing from the Suzette Parker crime scene including the deceased’s dress, slip, socks and underwear. He also took an evidentiary sample from the lining of the casket. On March 11, 1958, Solari wrote a letter to the FBI, requesting that the bureau provide scientific analysis of the items collected.
On March 27, the FBI laboratory returned their findings. Two light stains were found on the undergarments and were chemically tested for semen. The preliminary tests were positive, which indicated the possible presence of semen in the stains. However, under a microscope, it could not be conclusively established.
Unsatisfied with the Bureau’s initial conclusions, Solari wrote another letter requesting that the laboratory test the stains on the clothing for blood type. He received a reply directly from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover explained that it would be of no use retesting the samples. The stains were too thin, and most of the material was destroyed in the first set of tests.
Again, Solari hit a brick wall. With little physical evidence and plenty of leads exhausted, he started reworking the facts of the case.
Following the grave robbery of Suzette Parker, the ghoul vanished. Investigators continued working the case knowing that even if the perpetrator were caught, he probably wouldn’t serve much jail time. Although the crimes were incredibly heinous, the offense of grave molestation only carried up to a year in jail.
Local hysteria calmed, but the ghoul forever left his mark on the local psyche. Just as quickly as he appeared, he was gone. Or was he?
On Feb. 18, 1965, seven years after the last incident, the sheriff’s office was called back to Whitmire Cemetery. In the same cemetery, during the same time of year and in the same manner, a woman’s grave had been disturbed. This case was not publicized.
An investigating officer noted that a green and cream-colored Chevrolet passed by the scene of the crime. That same car description appears several times throughout the sheriff’s office case file. Who knows? Maybe the ghoul is still out there somewhere driving that green and cream Chevrolet. Or maybe enough time has passed that he’s come closer to his morbid obsession—six feet under.