Mel Williams just wanted to record a drunk guy on a roll.
Instead, he may have helped breathe new life into the investigation of a former Charleston girl's murder a half-century ago.
On Oct. 24, 1953, 15-year-old Evelyn Hartley was abducted from a house in La Crosse, Wis. Despite a massive manhunt, she was never found.
Suspects were rounded up and later released. Each new lead led nowhere, and the presumed murder now remains that area's most prominent unsolved mystery.
However, when he read a newspaper story about a historian looking into the old Hartley case, Williams recalled a tape he made about 35 years ago in the tavern he owned.
It started as an impromptu interview with a local "character" whose rough-around-the-edges vocabulary matched his appearance, said Williams.
It evolved into a conversation between two men about Hartley's murder.
Now, the storyline provided on that recording may point investigators — armed with new technology — in a fresh direction, according to historian and author Andy Thompson.
"It's really surprised everybody," he said. "It's this haunting voice from the past confessing to this. There is a tendency to believe this is the way it happened.
"I believe it."
Although the three implicated on the reel-to-reel tape are now dead, and Hartley's surviving siblings seem to have no interest in reopening old wounds, a resolution to the 51-year-old murder could still bring a peace to many who recall the tragedy.
Among them are Hartley's former classmates in Charleston.
‘A smart girl'
Her father, Richard Hartley, was a zoology professor at Eastern Illinois University during the 1940s. Before moving with her family to La Crosse in 1950, Evelyn Hartley attended the university's elementary school.
On Oct. 28, 1953, Mattoon's Daily Journal-Gazette reported that Charleston Mayor Ralph E. Closson asked local citizens to "pause a minute in our daily routine" and pray.
"The Hartleys are former residents of Charleston and I feel that we should ask God to comfort them and to return their daughter safely to their home," said Closson.
Charleston resident Carlos Harrison remembered attending the EIU laboratory school with Hartley.
"She was smart, I remember," said Harrison, owner of Harrison Cyclery in Charleston. "She was friendly."
And he remembered his surprise when he learned of her disappearance.
"It was a big thing in Charleston. I thought it was a shame, the fact that they never did solve it."
Harrison, who graduated from university high school, eventually wants to organize a class reunion.
"It's nice that they finally could solve it (before then)," he said. "I'll be glad."
Hartley had been babysitting at the home of the Viggo Rasmussen family, who were at a high school football game, when she was "rudely dragged" from the house, the La Crosse Tribune newspaper reported on Oct. 26, 1953.
Richard Hartley had gone to Rasmussen's home to find a 20-month-old baby all alone.
The search, according to the newspaper, was the "most thorough" in the city's history. The searchers tramped across the country side, scoured the banks of the Mississippi River and blazed through the skies above La Crosse, but found little more than Evelyn Hartley's glasses, shoes and blood outside Rasmussen's house.
Over the years, the Tribune later stated, police regularly got calls from people with information about the as-of-yet undiscovered location of Hartley's body, and who put it there.
The girl, who would be in her 60s now, is still classified by police as "missing."
But none of this was on the mind of Mel Williams the night he plunked his microphone in front of Clyde "Tywee" Peterson.
‘He knew everything'
Williams isn't actually sure when he decided to capture Peterson's personality on tape — perhaps 35 years ago or so — but he definitely remembers why.
"You couldn't help but like him," said Williams. "He was funny. I wanted to tape him because he was quite a character."
Peterson was associated with a group of men who Williams described as "drunk veterans," and they frequented Williams' tavern in La Farge, about 45 minutes south of La Crosse.
However, Peterson was by himself when Williams began the interview. By himself, that is, until he was joined by Whitey Barkley, a local mink farmer and "a bigmouth," according to Williams.
"He knew everything," said the barkeeper. "He said, ‘Tell him about that Hartley girl you kidnapped, Tywee.'"
And he did.
By Peterson's account, he went with Jack Gaulphair (a local "vagabond," said Williams) and a mutual friend to La Crosse on that fateful Saturday night.
Gaulphair knew or knew of Hartley, and where she was babysitting. From the Rasmussen home, they took Hartley to their friend's farm.
There, Gaulphair killed her.
Unfortunately, he could not be questioned: Gaulphair had committed suicide less than 10 years after the kidnapping.
Peterson and the other suspect have since died as well. Barkley, now 96, has dimentia and cannot provide any more insight on the case.
Authorities have asked that the place of the murder and Hartley's makeshift grave alleged on Williams' recording remain undisclosed.
Williams took the tape home and forgot about it until the 50th anniversary of Hartley's kidnapping, when he read about the quest of Andy Thompson.
‘Into high gear'
In August 2003, the self-proclaimed "history buff" introduced himself to Capt. Mitch Brohmer of the La Crosse detective bureau.
Thompson, general manager of Prudential Lovejoy Realty in La Crosse, had tackled numerous other enigmas over the previous 10 years.
He had heard about the Hartley case from his business partner, Peggy Lovejoy, who knew about Thompson's passion for unsolved mysteries.
But Brohmer had apparently seen that zeal more than a few times.
"His initial response to me was, ‘Here's another guy that's interested in this case,'" said Thompson.
But he kept returning to the detective's office, and Brohmer opened up more each time.
On Oct. 24, 2003, the Tribune published a story about the book to be authored by Thompson, Lovejoy and freelance writer and former newspaper reporter Susan T. Hessel.
In La Farge, Williams' wife read that article, and asked her husband if he still had the tape.
"I just forgot about that thing," said Williams. "I finally found it."
He turned over the aging reel-to-reel tape to Thompson, who took it to a professional recording studio in Winona, Minn. A CD copy was burned at the same time as he listened to the tale unfold for the first time in more than 30 years.
Peterson's confession comprised about seven minutes of the tape.
The historian promptly took his new evidence to the authorities. Sheriff and police officials told the Tribune they would follow up on the new information.
Thompson said investigators may eventually exhume the bodies of the men mentioned on the tape, and possibly try to link samples of their DNA with the blood found at the Rasmussen house.
Then, cadaver dogs may be used to try to locate Hartley's final resting place revealed in Williams' recording. Although the location is in a Mississippi River flood plain, and the body likely washed away a long time ago, its scent may still have been absorbed by nearby trees, said Thompson.
"They (investigators) are not telling me what they're doing, specifically," he added. "But it's on their agenda."
Thompson himself visited the house where Peterson claimed Gaulphair killed Hartley.
The historian knocked on the door. A man answered.
"There was a 50-year-old murder that may have taken place in your house," said Thompson. "May I come in?"
And in he went.
"He poured me some coffee, and we walked around together."
While many people believe they know what really happened to Hartley, the account on the tape had never before been theorized, commented Thompson.
"With everything going on, we are taking legitimate steps into at least identifying who may have been at the scene, and that's a big piece of it," he said.
"Of all the stories I've ever worked on, this is the one that's kicked into high gear."
Contact Nathaniel West at email@example.com or 238-6860.