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Death on a Quiet Street

Looking back now, Jerry Bricca’s last few hours on earth seem utterly poignant. On September 25, 1966, Bricca, a 28-year-old chemical engineer, went to work at the Monsanto plastics facility on River Road in Addyston. It was a Sunday, but it wasn’t unusual for him to work on a weekend. Before going to the plant, he attended 10 o’clock mass at St. Aloysius Church, then worked all day. On his way home around 8 p.m., he stopped at the United Dairy Farmers on the corner of Bridgetown and Aurora Avenue, bought milk, and drove the last mile to his three-bedroom tri-level on Greenway Avenue in the Woodhaven subdivision of Bridgetown, where his 23-year-old wife, Linda, and 4-year-old daughter, Debbie, were watching television and folding laundry in the first-floor rec room. The young family had moved to Cincinnati three years before when Monsanto transferred Jerry from Seattle.

When he got home, he remembered Monday was trash day, and lugged the cans to the curb. The cool rain that had fallen intermittently all day had subsided, and Joan Janszen, who lived across the street, used the respite to walk the family dog. She said hello, they traded a few comments about the weather, and she walked on. He went inside.

What happened after Jerry Bricca stepped into his house that night 41 years ago remains a mystery. Ask anyone of a certain age who grew up in this part of town if they remember it. They do. In fact, just say the name “Bricca.” The hard snap of consonants, the novelty of it, especially in this German-Irish part of town, possess a charge that will spark a memory.

Two nights later, on September 27, the bodies of Jerry, Linda, and Debbie were discovered. All three had been brutally murdered. According to the autopsy report, Jerry was stabbed nine times, Linda, eight. The primary wounds in both of them were seven inches deep. Debbie was stabbed four times, each thrust piercing completely through her small body. As one investigator observed, “it was overkill.” But despite an extensive investigation spearheaded by the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, no suspect has ever been named, no murderer brought to justice. We still don’t know who killed the Briccas or why.

Last September, I was having dinner with my friend John Boertlein when the Bricca murders came up. John, who grew up in Delhi and has known about the tragedy since childhood, worked on the Cincinnati police force for 25 years. He’s written two books about crime—Howdunit (Writer’s Digest Books) and Ohio Confidential, which I edited for Clerisy Press—along with articles on local crimes for Cincinnati Magazine. I grew up in Bridgetown, less than a mile from the Briccas’ home. More than likely I was with my family at the mass Jerry attended on his last day. The case has fascinated and horrified me since I first heard about it. As John and I traded the rumors and theories we’d heard through the years, we wondered about the feasibility of, if not solving the case, at least shining a new light on it—separating fact from fiction, busting a few myths, and answering some of the questions that have haunted the area most of our lives.

By the end of the night we resolved to try.

The Bricca murders remain part of west side folklore because there are still so many mysteries and unique circumstances: A young, all-American family is savagely slain in an area where such atrocities rarely, if ever, happen. No one knew them well. No local family appeared on the evening news shouting for justice. And no killer ever appeared on the evening news in handcuffs. Because the case lacks closure, it still resonates, and frustrates. And it strikes at a primal fear in all of us. If the Briccas weren’t safe, then who among us is?

When the news ripped through the area, I had nightmares, usually ones involving my dad taking out the garbage and our family being attacked. In talking about the case to many other people, I realized I was not alone. People remembered being afraid to go out at night, afraid to walk to the school bus.

If John and I were going to cut through the fog of rumor and local legend, we needed to clarify the facts as originally reported. We began by spending hours at the main library, winding through back issues of The Cincinnati Enquirer and Post Times-Star on microfilm. We learned the basic facts: Jerry came home on Sunday night, the bodies were found on Tuesday night. The papers were quick to report that the killer most likely was not the infamous Cincinnati Strangler. In the articles we found the names of investigators and neighbors and began tracking them down. We talked to cops, ex-cops, longtime residents, librarians, historical society archivists, and genealogy researchers. Through online archives we found family obituaries that provided the names of relatives and began calling them.

Obstacles immediately arose. Many of the people we sought were deceased, including most of the neighbors on Greenway—the people who, it seemed, knew the Briccas best. A few did speak to us, but their memories, understandably, were not always clear. What’s more, Jerry was raised in San Francisco, Linda in Barrington Hills, Illinois, which meant we couldn’t simply find an address and drive to the house to interview family members. We also learned very quickly that law-enforcement officials wanted little to do with the subject. Calls and e-mails to the sheriff’s office were initially ignored; eventually, we were told that the Bricca case officially remained open—there is no statute of limitations for homicides.

The people we did interview offered as many theories about the murder as they did memories. The many rumors that swirled around the case can be distilled into two suppositions: it was a screw up or a cover up. The case was either bungled by law enforcement, or the killer was a high-placed person whose connections kept him out of jail.

We pored through the archives of the Western Hills Press and checked out message boards on crime Web sites. We found two local crime enthusiasts—George Stimson and Jeffrey Tesch—who have covered the stories in books of their own. Stimson, a true crime writer, is the author of The Cincinnati Crime Book, which devotes a chapter to the Bricca case. Tesch, also a true crime writer who says he began researching the case in 1980, writes about the Briccas in his upcoming crime omnibus Queen City Gothic. Both generously offered information from their research.

In short, we tried to trace every lead we knew the police had followed. Though much of our efforts led to dead ends, the building blocks that would help us tell the story slowly began to fall into place.

Gerald John Bricca was the first child born to Elmer and Dolores Bricca in San Francisco, California, on January 25, 1938. The Bricca family had settled in San Francisco in the 1850s and prospered. Jerry attended St. Ignatius High School, and after graduating in 1956—in the same class as former California governor Jerry Brown—Jerry went to Stanford, where he earned a degree in engineering in 1960. He quickly landed a job at Monsanto and was sent to the company’s Seattle facility. At around 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, he wasn’t a big guy, but he was strong, with well-developed arms and shoulders. A competitive swimmer in high school, he completed the 1.5-mile, open-water Golden Gate Swim several times. Though by 1966 American men had begun to let their hair grow out a bit, Jerry kept a short brush cut. Neighbors describe him as hard-working and friendly, always quick with a smile and a greeting.

While working in Seattle, Jerry met an attractive United Airlines stewardess named Linda Jayne Bulaw. Linda was 18 and had recently graduated from training school. She was born January 4, 1943, to Adolph and June Bulaw, and grew up in Barrington Hills, a wealthy community 35 miles northwest of Chicago. Adolph ran Bulaw Welding and Engineering, a firm he started in 1935 that had prospered during World War II through lucrative government contracts. Linda attended Barrington High School, where she graduated in less than four years.

Everyone John and I spoke to mentioned Linda’s beauty. One resident of the area said that when she worked in the front yard, men nearly drove off the street when they passed by. She was tall and shapely, with sharp features and large brown eyes that possess, even in photos, an alluring intensity. Neighbors recall her unusual passion for animals, which led to her taking a part-time job at a veterinary clinic. They say she was friendly and outgoing, if less approachable than Jerry. “Aloof,” said one neighbor. “Sort of stuck up,” said another. Linda may have felt a bit out of place in the conservative, middle-class neighborhood. Still, people seemed to like her.

Jerry and Linda fell in love. They were married on November 25, 1961, and by all accounts the union was happy. “They were a young couple who were very much in love,” Jerry’s sister, who asked that her name not be used, told me. According to the sister, the Bricca family liked Linda quite a bit and felt that Jerry had found a good match. (In fact, a few weeks before the murders, Jerry, Linda, and Debbie attended the sister’s wedding. “We had a really good time,” she recalled. “They sat at the head table, they danced, it was fun.”)

On June 9, 1962, Linda gave birth to Deborah Ann, and a little more than a year later the young family moved to Cincinnati. Perhaps to be nearer to the Monsanto plant, they settled on the west side. The Woodhaven subdivision is made up mostly of small, split-level, three-bedroom, single-car-garage homes built in the standard architectural style of 1950s-era American suburbia. Since most of the homes weren’t air-conditioned in 1966, neighbors spent evenings on their porches, chatting and watching their kids play. Few locked their doors at night. The Green Township Police Department worked only 14-hour days. What harm, after all, could occur in such a place?

The Briccas settled in easily. The neighbors, most of whom were at least 10 years older than the young couple, christened them “the kids.” People enjoyed their company at the frequent block parties, basement gatherings, and backyard luaus. “They were just a normal couple,” says Nettie Caudell, who knew Linda better than the other neighbors because Debbie played with Nettie’s daughter Darlene.

Though cordial, the Briccas seemed to have kept somewhat to themselves. They likely would have moved to another city as Jerry climbed the ladder at Monsanto, and perhaps they saw their time here as temporary, one step along the road to the rest of their lives. Beyond some friendly socializing, the neighbors on Greenway didn’t know the Briccas well, but they did know their daily routine and noticed when things didn’t seem quite right.

The houses on Greenway are only 15 feet apart, and the neighbors might have heard the disturbance—if there was one—that September night, but for an unusual confluence of circumstances. Rain had fallen all day, and the temperature barely reached into the 60s. By Sunday night it was down in the low 50s, and folks shut their windows. The weather wasn’t the only thing keeping the neighbors inside: The Oscar-winning movie The Bridge on the River Kwai was making its television debut and ABC had preempted its entire evening’s schedule so the film could be aired in one night. An estimated 60 million viewers tuned in.

On Monday the cold snap ended. At 70 degrees and sunny, a typical workweek began. The men grabbed the morning Enquirer, ate their breakfasts, and drove to work. The women stayed home and got the kids off to school. When the garbage trucks drove away, the trash cans were brought in. But not at the Bricca house. The trash cans stayed on the curb, which raised an eyebrow or two in the neighborhood. “She was religious about bringing in those cans,” recalls Winnie Fisher, who lived across the street and two doors down from the Briccas.

Despite the nice weather, Linda was not working in the yard and Debbie did not run outside to play. And where were the dogs? They were mutts—Thumper, part cocker spaniel and Dusty, part poodle. But that Monday, the neighbors did not hear the familiar barking. The evening Post Times-Star plopped onto the yard late that afternoon and stayed there. The lights burned all day Monday and through the night without a trace of “the kids.”

Tuesday morning the cans were still on the curb, and the morning Enquirer sat in the yard next to the Monday evening paper. When the Tuesday Post Times-Star joined them later that day, the neighbors began to worry. The dogs were now barking incessantly. Betty Meyer told her husband Dick that something definitely was wrong. Dick called Monsanto and asked for Jerry but was told he hadn’t shown up for two days.

“I called Dick [Janszen, a neighbor] and told him something wasn’t right,” Meyer recalls. Some time between 10 and 10:30 p.m. that night, Dick’s wife urged the two men to knock on the Briccas’ door and find out what was going on. Though the lights were still on, no one answered. Finally, Dick Meyer tried the door. It opened and a foul, putrid smell hit them like a punch in the face. Meyer was a veteran of World War II; he knew that smell. “I told Dick there was something dead in there,” recalls Meyer. “There’s not another smell like that in the world.”

They closed the door and called the police.

None of the neighbors can forget those hours after the police arrived—the bodies carried out, the dogs removed, huge fans brought in to blow the stench into the night air, and the red glare of emergency lights scalding the quiet little street. Officers from the Hamilton County Sheriff’s department and from the Cincinnati Police Department, along with paramedics from the Mack Fire Department, worked inside for most of the night.

Meyer and Janszen were led into the house by detectives to identify the bodies. Meyer’s face tightens into a grim wince as he silently recollects what he saw. Asked to describe it, he is without words. Asked if it was gruesome, he nods: “Very.” He says he’ll never forget seeing the bodies of his neighbors covered in blood. “I can still see that little girl lying there,” he says. “I still get tears when I think about what those bastards did to her.”

Winnie Fisher recalls standing with her neighbors on the sidewalk across the street from the Briccas’ home that night. “We were all scared to death,” Fisher recalls. “That sort of thing didn’t happen here. Nothing in life ever prepared us for something like this.” Dick Meyer summed up the feelings of the neighbors: “How something like that could happen in this area was beyond us.”

Other west-siders apparently agreed. Within a couple of weeks of the murders, the Western Hills Press reported that residents in the area went on a spree, “buying ice picks, beer can openers, tear gas guns, shotguns, pistols, ammunition, doorlocks, barrel bolts, and door chain guards in an effort to protect themselves.” The SPCA reported that large dogs were being adopted at a surprising rate. Residents in Green Township petitioned for more streetlights. The township hired a night constable to provide, for the first time, round-the-clock police service. Trick-or-treat was moved to Sunday afternoon. Like many others, I recall traipsing around in my costume in the raw sunshine, bored by what had been in years past a fun and spooky ritual. The world, however, had become too spooky for our parents.

Author George Stimson, who grew up in East Hyde Park, clearly remembers that time. “When the murders happened such events were still relatively rare,” he says. “The crime really shocked the town and made people afraid. I was 12 at the time and I thought that everybody was going to be murdered.”

For nearly a year Cincinnati had been gripped by fear of a serial killer dubbed The Cincinnati Strangler, but his victims—elderly women, all of whom had been strangled—had been found in Clifton, Walnut Hills, downtown, and lower Price Hill. In the outer suburbs, folks had assumed they were protected from danger. The Bricca murders snatched that feeling away. The sanctity of clean, quiet streets where no one locked their doors had been betrayed, leaving a psychological scar on the community that has never faded.

For weeks The Enquirer ran updates on the investigation, offering various theories about the case. Reports of a “male friend” who had been seen with Linda suggested that perhaps a love triangle had ended in murder. But investigators could find no hard evidence to link anyone to the crime. The newspapers primarily quoted chief investigator Lt. Herbert Vogel and county prosecutor Melvin Rueger. John and I learned that both men are still alive and that they both live in Florida for part of the year. Unfortunately, Vogel could not be reached, and Rueger declined to comment. In a story printed in The Enquirer in September 1967, one year after the murder, Rueger said investigators had narrowed the search to a single suspect, whom they were unable to interrogate. Rueger blamed this on the Supreme Court’s Miranda ruling, which required police to advise suspects of their right to avoid self-incrimination by remaining silent and to have a lawyer present during questioning. He claimed that the suspect in the Bricca case had hired an attorney who protected his client from a police interrogation.

Rueger refused to discuss his 1967 statement or anything about the case. The most commonly rumored suspect died in 2004. Scuttlebutt held that police investigators followed that person around for several years in hopes of hearing him mention something incriminating enough to justify an interrogation or arrest, but none of the retired law enforcement officers we contacted could confirm this.

With most of the investigators deceased and the living ones unwilling to speak, we thought that perhaps the autopsy report could provide a clearer picture of the tragedy. The report revealed that Jerry and Linda were bound before they were killed, which seems to contradict the theory that the murders were committed in the heat of the moment. Jerry was also gagged with a pair of socks that may have been taped into his mouth. (A piece of tape, according to one of the newspaper reports, was found on his chin.) Though newspaper stories at the time indicated Linda had been raped, the autopsy report does not list any such finding. Jerry was stabbed in the back and neck, while Linda was stabbed mostly in the chest, though her face was marked with shallow cuts, perhaps made while she fought the assailant. The position of their wounds (Jerry’s left back, Linda’s right front) seems to indicate a murderer who held the weapon—possibly a carving knife from a set displayed in the dining room—in his left hand.

The newspapers theorized that Jerry came into the house and relaxed on the couch while the killer watched from the back yard. Jerry may have taken Debbie upstairs to her bedroom—she was found there, wearing her pajamas and one white sock—and the killer may have taken this opportunity to enter through the unlocked back door. Needless to say, the newspapers had little evidence to support this conjecture.

Demonstrable or not, this scenario leaves a lot of questions unanswered. How does someone holding a knife tie up two adults? How does he keep one at bay while taking care of the other? Was Debbie alive and a witness? Was she killed first? Was Jerry tied up first and then stabbed? Why does someone bent on murder tie up his victims first? And why, then, untie them later? As for the missing murder weapon, could a knife of the type suggested pierce human muscle and bone so deeply and so many times?

The police believed that the family knew the murderer because there was no sign of a struggle. Some drawers were open and Jerry’s wallet was missing, but the motive did not appear to be robbery. The dogs were sedated, and author Jeffrey Tesch theorizes that the killer stayed for hours to clean up the scene. The Monday Enquirer, which usually arrived around dawn, was missing among the newspapers in the Bricca’s yard. It’s possible that the killer wrapped the murder weapon in the newspaper and placed it in the trash cans by the curb, which were emptied that morning. Theoretically, this means the killer would have been in the house through much of the night. By the time the bodies were found, roughly 48 hours after the murder, the odds of finding the killer were already against the investigators. Forty-one years later, the odds aren’t any better.

Finally, in early January, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s office granted us an interview. John met with Captain Lloyd Zoellner and Sergeant Ron Reckers in hopes of finding out where the investigation stood. The officers said that periodically investigators review the file. Zoellner added that he looked into it himself when he was made commander of criminal investigations in 1999 and that he knows investigators examined the case in the 1980s and ’90s. “It’s still an active investigation,” he told John. “We’ve never stopped looking.”

Zoellner and Reckers contradict the claim by Melvin Rueger that law enforcement narrowed the investigation to a single suspect. They would not confirm that any suspects were followed in hopes of overhearing an admission of guilt. John pressed them on the rumor about a main suspect. “The rumor—you’re right—was going around,” Zoellner told him, “but there’s no forensic evidence whatsoever in the file that would tie anyone into the case.”

The investigators acknowledged hearing the theory about Linda Bricca having an affair, but they said many other theories had also been put forth, including that Jerry was having an affair, that the murder was tied to Jerry’s job, to the Mafia, to any number of possibilities. “There were other speculations, not just with one individual. Other persons were brought in,” Reckers said.

The sheriffs did, however, show interest (and take notes) when John brought up a neighbor’s observation that Linda had seemed particularly nervous a month or so before the murder.

“She was afraid of something, I know she was,” Nettie Caudell had told me. The Caudells lived a few doors up the street from the Briccas, and Debbie had been free to run there to play with Darlene whenever she wanted. But by late summer, Linda asked Caudell to call her when Debbie was ready to come home, so Linda could walk up and get her daughter. Caudell thought at the time that Linda’s fear may have had something to do with two United flight attendants, Lonnie Trumbull and Lisa Wick, who had been attacked earlier that summer in their Seattle apartment. Though Caudell could not remember their names, she did recall that Linda told her she’d worked with and lived with the two women.

Dick Meyer also said that Linda had mentioned a friend who had been murdered that summer. He recalls the friend as being Valerie Percy, the daughter of former Illinois Senator Charles Percy. Valerie Percy was murdered in suburban Chicago one week before the Briccas were killed, so it’s no wonder Meyer would associate her name with theirs. Valerie, also from an affluent area of Chicago, had been stabbed to death. Her murder has never been solved. According to reports in The Enquirer at the time, the similarity of the murders led chief investigator Herbert Vogel to travel to Chicago in an attempt to connect the crimes, but no evidence was ever found, nor did police, as far as we know, find a connection between Valerie Percy and Linda Bricca. However, both were from wealthy Chicago families and moved in the same social circles. As a Chicago investigative reporter told me, “Odds are they knew each other.”

However, the friend Linda mentioned to her neighbors probably wasn’t Valerie Percy. It’s far more likely that Linda was speaking of Lonnie Trumbull. Trumbull was bludgeoned to death in late June 1966, and one of her roommates, Lisa Wick, was beaten and remained in a coma for several weeks. To this day, Wick has no memory of the attack. Trumbull’s murder is generally attributed to serial killer Ted Bundy, who at the time was a 19-year-old college student working at a Safeway market not far from the apartment where the young women lived. However, no specific evidence has ever linked Bundy to the murder, and he went to his death denying it.

Was Linda Bricca merely unsettled by the attack on Trumbull and Wick, or did she fear that whoever attacked them would come after her? Caudell says Linda once mentioned helping to “break up a drug ring” during her time as a stewardess, but she can’t recall any other details. The sheriff’s office is looking into this new information.

The neighbors, of course, have their own theories. None of them believe the killer was having an affair with Linda. Winnie Fisher feels that we’ll never know the answer. Dick Meyer says he’s always thought the crime was a professional job. Having seen the devastating brutality of the murders, he can’t believe a spurned lover or any other person with no experience in violent behavior could commit such an act. “I just can’t believe anyone with any sense could do that,” he says. “Especially to that little girl.” The ruthless murder of the Briccas’ daughter, Debbie, more than any other aspect of the case, resonates in the hearts of people on the west side and fuels the infamy with which the tragedy is regarded. Her fragile innocence, coupled with our own primal desire to protect our families, makes the crime all the more disturbing.

Those of us who lived in the area at the time of the Bricca murders never felt quite as safe again. The cozy little street right behind Western Bowl—perhaps the quintessential west side landmark—became “the place where that young family was stabbed to death in their own house.” Nobody in the homes clustered around the Briccas’ heard anything or called for help or rescued them. Justice has never been served. No cautionary tale has arisen to explain why something like this could happen here. After 41 years, we still have no one to blame and therefore no way to make these murders make sense—or for that matter, make ourselves feel free from harm. Ever since the Bricca murders, the coast has never really been clear.

Captain Zoellner asked that we exhort readers who know something about the case to contact him in “strict confidentiality.” “I can’t believe that in a case like this there’s not somebody out there who knows something,” he added.

After so many years it’s tough to know. As Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters told us, “Some cases go unsolved.” And maybe that’s the hard truth of it. We couldn’t get anyone in law enforcement to speculate about the murderer or motive, even off the record. Both Stimson and Tesch, who have studied the case for years, believe in the theory of Linda Bricca’s affair. The Bricca family, according to Jerry’s sister, remains as mystified as the rest of us, but feel the police have done everything possible to solve the case.

After five months of research, I feel less sure than ever about who did it. Perhaps the killer was a spurned lover. Perhaps the murders were part of something larger and more insidious, and we have yet to connect the dots. Or perhaps it was a senseless, motiveless, arbitrary act. Whoever committed this terrible crime, only that person knows what happened. And the secret—the story we want to know and put, finally, to rest—will die with him.

The landscape of the west side has changed a lot since 1966, expanding for miles to the north and west. The Bridge­town Road that Jerry Bricca drove on his way home from Monsanto on that Sunday night no longer twists through a remote area of trees and meadows, plain little houses, and occasional rustic streets. Large “luxury communities” have sprung up all along the winding, two-lane road with reassuring names like Country Walk, Indian Walk, Legendary Ridge, High Ridge Estates, Aston Woods, and Bridgestone Sanctuary. They promise a life of comfort far from the crime and strife of the city, much like Woodhaven did 50 years ago. Beyond facile notions of conformity or prestige, these communities evoke a bucolic world of soccer games and swim meets, Saturday golf and backyard barbecues, a world where justice prevails, where hard work and clean living are rewarded, where at the end of a long day we can rise from our chairs, turn out the lights and, as the Briccas surely did hundreds of times in their cozy place on Greenway Avenue, head up to bed knowing without even thinking about it that we will sleep peacefully and we will be safe.

Originally published in the April 2008 issue. Illustration by Mario Wagner/agoodson.com