Each season my Crime Girl Gang podcast co-hosts and I examine real life cold cases and then solve them from a fictional perspective.
The murder of university student Betty Gail Brown 56 years ago is one of the most intriguing cases we’ve looked at.
Betty was found in her car after a late night study session, strangled to death with her own bra. But no-one (not even the man who confessed to her murder and was later found not guilty) appears to have had a motive for killing her.
Find out more about the case and listen to the podcast here: https://crimegirlgang.com/the-murder-of-betty-gail-brown-part-1/
Meanwhile, here’s how I’d solve the case if I were writing it in fiction:
(Inspired by the real life case of Betty Gail Brown)
October 21st 1958
My third college entry. I’m terribly shook. I know it’s peanuts in the bigger picture (I mean, there’s a killer targeting girls who look just like me, for Pete’s sake). Still, I’m freaking out even so.
Richie Carrington asked me to go to Main Street for coffee after the poetry lecture this afternoon. I thought he was going to invite me to the dance, he sure seemed nervous. But when we sat down, he pulled this serious kinda face and I straight away knew something was up.
‘We need to talk,’ he said, fidgeting with his napkin, not looking at me. Then, ‘I respect you too much to try and take advantage of you here, but I’ve been lying awake at night trying to work out what to do. I have to say something, Sally Ann, what with you being a Sunday school teacher an’ all. It’s just not right.’
I was quite speechless, and that’s something for me!
Officer Jefferies, who goes to our church, was watching us from the counter spooning sugar into his mug. Jeez, I’ll just die if he heard! What if it gets back to Mother? What then?
I’ve been feeling mad with Richie all day. And mad at myself too. How could I let this happen? How am I going to make it go away?
Maggie Mills put a heated pad in her daughter’s bed and smoothed down the covers. It was a cold night, freezing for October. Sally Ann was out late at a study session cramming for a big test tomorrow. Maggie didn’t want her coming home and catching a chill.
Wrapping her dressing gown tightly round her, she hurried back to her own room and turned in with The Good Book. As she read, she listened out for Sally Ann’s key in the latch but it had been a long day. Weights attached themselves to her eyes and she dropped off over Sodom and Gomorrah.
Maggie’s feet woke her. She must have kicked the extra blanket away in her sleep. Her toes were ice. She got up to find a pair of socks. Her late husband used to wear socks to bed, Maggie used to tease him about it. The joke’s on her now.
It took her brain a moment to make sense of what her eyes had seen. Sally Ann’s door was still open. It was two in the morning. Where was she?
Maggie’s flesh tightened on her frame.
‘Sally Ann? Are you there?’
The house seemed to mock her with its silence.
She tried again; her whole body gripped with panic, her heart knocking against her chest like a sinner trying to get through the gates of heaven.
Maggie’s mind flashed on the story everyone was talking about. Holy Mother, what if he’d got her? What if…?
Her hands shook. She fumbled with the telephone.
‘Oh, Officer Jefferies, thank God! It’s Maggie Mills. Sally Ann hasn’t come home. I’m so frightened.’
When he answered, the policeman’s voice was calm and reassuring.
‘Don’t you worry, Maggie. I’ll find your baby.’
‘We should talk. Have you thought any more about what I said?’
Richie was holding onto Sally Ann’s arm, he was panting like he’d run to catch up with her.
She shook him off. It was just the two of them on the steps of Forrer Hall, and it was dark. Sally Ann shivered, though not because of the cold.
‘I need to get home, Richie. My mother’ll worry if I’m not back soon.’
She felt his eyes on her neck all the way to the Oldsmobile though when she turned on her headlights, he’d disappeared.
The sky was as black as the road. She had to drive carefully, braking suddenly as a critter ran out in front of her sending her heart a skitter.
Kathleen was waiting for her in front of the diner. She was wearing tartan Bermuda shorts with long woollen socks and Oxfords. She looked cross. That was the order Sally Ann noticed those things.
Kathleen got in, rubbed her hands together.
‘You took your time.’
Sally Ann turned up the heater.
‘Richie knows,’ she said accelerating away from the kerb.
The car made a screech on the asphalt, high-pitched like an animal’s scream.
She pulled into the driveway in front of the old Morrison building. The place was deserted. They were safe, no-one would see them here.
‘We’ve got to stop. My life would be over if anyone found out.’
Kathleen twisted round in her seat. She was wearing Soir de Paris.
‘You don’t mean that Sal.’
Sally Ann twisted her hands in her lap, her eyes glued to her fingers, biting back her tears.
‘It’s not what I want but-’
Without looking at her, Sally Ann could tell Kathleen was smiling.
She glanced up.
‘I’m not brave like you. You don’t know my mother. You don’t understand.’
Kathleen moved closer. She stroked Sally Ann’s hair, whispered in her ear.
‘But I understand you.’
Sally Ann thought about what Richie had said. What he might do. How much she hated him now.
And then she stopped thinking about anything apart from how soft Kathleen’s lips were, how good she smelled.
The windows steamed up. The outside world vanished. All that mattered was here inside this car.
A knock on the glass.
The girls sprang apart. Sally Ann’s heart sledge hammered against her rib cage. She couldn’t breathe.
Who was there? Oh God, what had they seen?
The knock came again. And with it, another thought. What if it’s him?
Sally Ann went to turn the key in the ignition, then stopped.
The face looking through the window was Officer Jefferies not some psycho killer. But she was in a hole all the same.
She wound down the window, the frigid air pouring in, readying her excuses.
The policeman shone his flashlight inside the car.
‘Kathleen Harris. Have you no shame? I’ll give you ten seconds to get out of here.’
Sally Ann opened her mouth to argue, but Kathleen was already pushing at the door. She ran off without a backward glance.
‘Shift over,’ Officer Jefferies said. ‘We need to talk.’
He opened the driver side and got into the Oldsmobile.
‘What were you and Kathleen doing out here, Sally Ann?’
Red hot shame filled her from top to toe.
‘It didn’t look much like talking to me.’
Sally Ann’s eyes filled.
‘Please don’t tell my mother. It’ll kill her.’
For a moment the policeman said nothing. Sally Ann held her breath, fingers crossed, praying hard.
Forgive me, father. I have sinned. Forgive me and I’ll lead a normal life. I’ll get married and have babies and never see Kathleen again. Only please don’t let anyone else find out what I am.
When the policeman spoke next, his tone was gentler.
Sally Ann crossed the rest of her fingers, her toes too.
‘I’ve known you a long time, Sally Ann. I’d hate anything bad to happen to you. It’s not safe for a young girl like you to be out here on your own at this time of night.’
‘You’ve heard what’s been happening, haven’t you? There’s a man strangling university students with their brassieres.’
It came out as a squeak.
‘They look just like you, Sally Ann. Blonde, blue eyes, five foot two.’
She looked up, surprised. He’d guessed her height perfectly.
‘Kinda like that song. Do you know it?’
He sang a few lines. He was off key, his breath came out in dragon puffs.
‘”Five foot two, eyes of blue, But, oh, what those five foot could do…”
‘I don’t want to upset you, but you should know, Sally Ann. He doesn’t just strangle them.’
It was cold in the car. The lights were off. The road deserted.
Her voice quavered.
‘What else does he do?’
The policeman put a hand on hers, comforting. Only his skin was cold like he’d been outside for hours. Though unlike Sally Ann, he wasn’t shivering.
‘He does nasty things.’ Pause. ‘You should keep your doors locked. Anyone could get in.’
He reached over and pushed down the bolt.
‘You’ve chosen a very remote place, Sally Ann. Imagine if you were in trouble. No-one would hear you scream. It wasn’t clever. I’d have expected more from a girl like you.’
Despite the temperature, the air suddenly felt stuffy. It was hard to breathe.
‘You’re right. Can I go home now? I’ve learned my lesson.’
The policeman angled his head, appraised her.
‘I’m not sure you have.’
His tongue flicked over his lips, his eyes were hard.
Every muscle in the girl’s body tensed, the blood crashed in her ears.
You’ve chosen a very remote place, Sally Ann. No-one would hear you scream.
She yanked the door handle. It was locked. The bolt had been pulled out of the socket.
She jerked her head round.
The policeman was still looking at her in that appraising way. Now he smiled and opened his fist. A small black stick with a rounded end rested in his palm like an exclamation point, the punch line of a bad gag.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You will,’ he said grabbing the back of her neck and slamming her head against the dashboard.
The blow didn’t kill her, but the bra he removed from her body and wrapped round her neck did.
‘Oh, Officer Jefferies, thank God! Sally Ann hasn’t come home. I’m so frightened.’
‘Don’t you worry, Maggie. I’ll find your baby. Trust me.’
October 22nd 1958
I went down to The Creamery after class today. After everything with Richie, I just wasn’t feeling myself. Officer Jefferies was there (twice in two days, it’s like he’s following me or something!) He bought me a chocolate malt and we talked some.
He’s nice, not a mess like SOME of the boys here. Mother would just love it if he and I got together! A policeman and so devout too! If only I could shake off my ways…