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Cold case

August 25, 2007 | 12:18 pm



Aug. 25, 1957

1957_0825_andersen_portrait Chicago police recovered the torso from a battered, cut-down 55-gallon drum floating in Lake Michigan. A 5-gallon metal bucket containing the head, hands and one arm were found in the lake two days later. The victim had been shot in the head at least once, maybe four times. It's difficult to tell from news accounts.

Given the location--Chicago--and the advanced method of disposal--victim shot in the head (apparently with a .32-caliber pistol), dismembered, put into metal drums and dumped in Lake Michigan, you might assume that the subject was a low-level mobster. You would be wrong. She was 15-year-old Judith Mae Andersen, who disappeared late one Friday night, Aug. 16, 1957, while walking home from visiting a girlfriend.

This unsolved killing is what Sherlock Holmes would have called a three-pipe problem. Unfortunately, the news reports don't help and in fact hinder the dedicated and impartial inquirer. For at least the last 20 years, police and news reports have focused exclusively on an individual who has never been charged and may have no link to the killing.

The facts in the case are depressingly few and incredibly tragic.

1957_0825_map On the night of Aug. 16, 1957, Judith Mae Andersen, 15, was supposedly watching TV at the home of Elena Abbatacola, 1019 N. Central Avenue. Judith was the only daughter of Ralph W. and Ruth A. Andersen, who also had three sons, and lived at 1520 N. Lotus Ave. She was about to enter her junior year at Austin High School. Because she was identified through fingerprints recovered from a picture of Jesus in her room, we can infer that she had no police record and that she was at least somewhat religious.

About 11 p.m., Judith called her mother to say that she and her friend were watching a movie on TV and asked to stay until it was over.

Her mother said no, so Judith began walking home, a distance of 0.8 of a mile. She never arrived.


On Aug. 22, a cut-down 55-gallon drum containing a torso was found at Montrose Harbor. Two days later, the head, hands and an arm were found in a 5-gallon bucket recovered from the same area.

1957_0825_andersen_pix2 According to The Times, despite the fingerprint evidence, Judith's father, Ralph, refused to believe that the victim was his daughter because the body did not bear traces of a smallpox vaccination on her left arm.

The killing touched off a massive investigation involving large numbers of detectives. Many people called in tips (there were various reports of people hearing shots and screams) but nothing ever proved to be conclusive and the case went into hibernation for lack of leads. Attention eventually focused on a convicted sex criminal identified in 1987 and 1991 articles in the Chicago Tribune. However a recent story in the Tribune withholds the man's identity. He was never charged in the case.

In googling this killing, I discovered a website devoted to the case. It's prudent to be extremely skeptical of websites devoted to actual crimes, so I'm going to limit myself to what appear to be accounts from the original investigation.

According to a 1957 news account, on the night Judith disappeared, she visited the home of Nancy O'Brien, 222 N. Kenneth Ave. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Nancy and Judith had been dating a sailor named  Kenneth Blevins stationed at the Norman, Okla., Naval Air Station while he was on leave in Chicago. Nancy said she and Kenneth were going to get married and called Kenneth in Oklahoma to prove it. Kenneth told them that he loved Nancy but told the Sun-Times that he loved Judith.

In attempting to reconstruct her last day, newspapers also found that Judith was at the Dairy Bar, 5156 W. North Ave, but accounts of her visits are conflicting and problematic.

Judith's father supposedly called the Abbatacolas to check on Judith when she failed to come home. When no one answered, he went to the house, but no one came to the door--at least according to an unverified account on the Internet. He supposedly searched the neighborhood without success and finally roused someone at the Abbatacola household at 2:30 a.m. He was allegedly told that Judith planned to take the bus home.

According to testimony at the inquest, Elena Abbatacola contacted three boys after Judith's disappearance and told them not to reveal that they spent the evening together.

1957_0825_andersen_detective All right, armchair sleuths (especially those of you living in Chicago--you know who you are), I expect some help. Let me preface this by emphasizing that superficially, at least, this seems to be an extremely elaborate disposal.

(At right, Detective James Hennigan, who is assigned to the case, with some of the files on the investigation).

Here's what the killer has to do:

He (and I'm going to assume this was a man--maybe two) must get control of a 15-year-old girl, shoot her in the head several times, find a location where he can safely cut up the body, dispose of the blood, put the remains in two metal drums, seal or close the drums, load them into a vehicle, drive to Lake Michigan and dump them in Montrose Harbor. All without getting caught. And I would say that the killer must have had a good reason for going to all of that trouble instead of simply driving out to rural DuPage County and throwing the victim in a culvert.

Here's a few of the things we don't know. (Keep in mind that the remains had been in the water for about a week, so presumably some questions can't be answered, for example, whether she was sexually assaulted or had suffered any injuries other than being shot).

For starters:

  • What kind of firearm was used in the killing? Forensics should be able to tell us not only the caliber but identify the brand of handgun used in the slaying. One news account says the gun was a .32-caliber revolver.
  • Where was she shot? News accounts say she was hit one to four times in the head, once in the temple. Why shoot someone four times in the head when once should do the job?
  • What kind of implement was used to dismember her?
  • How skillfully was she dismembered? Was it amateurish and clumsy or well-executed?
  • We know the original investigators tried to determine the origin of the two metal drums. Where did they come from?  How was the 55-gallon drum cut down? With a welding torch? How were they sealed to keep the remains from escaping?

We may not know the killer's identity, but we can be certain he had a gun and a vehicle, and because of the elaborate disposal we can probably rule out somebody acting on the spur of the moment who suddenly finds himself with a dead teenager on his hands. It is also reasonable to assume that the killer was familiar with Montrose Harbor and knew he could dump two drums in the water without being caught. I would also imagine he's either fairly strong to be able to lift the drums in and out of a car with a big trunk (or maybe he had a truck)--or perhaps he had help.

Frankly, this killing seems quite professional and if the victim were a 30-year-old man instead of a 15-year-old girl, I would suspect an execution by someone in organized crime. The fact that nobody has ever come forward with information might again argue for a link to organized crime. But it's absurd and irresponsible to speculate with so little information.

The tragedy, of course, is that there is no resolution to what became of Judith Mae Andersen. Maybe at this late date, someone will come forward and provide some answers.

Photographs courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

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