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The Real Story That Inspired ‘The Fugitive’

Unlike the movie, who the guilty party was in this scenario is still up for debate. Who really killed Marilyn Sheppard in 1954?
The Fugitive True Story Harrison Ford
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on July 31st, 2020

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment will focus on the real story of The Fugitive.

The 1960s television series The Fugitive and the subsequent 1993 movie adaptation starring Harrison Ford boast the same outrageous premise: A doctor is wrongfully accused of killing his wife and is sent to prison as a result. He then escapes from his shackles and sets out to find the real killer, causing a manhunt in the process.

That’s a simple and entertaining thriller concept. However, the story is also partly based on a real-life case. While not as exhilarating as The Fugitive, the true story involves a doctor who was accused of murdering his spouse only to later be exonerated. Unfortunately, the actual case didn’t provide any clear-cut answers as to who the real culprit was.

It all started on July 4, 1954, when Sam Sheppard’s pregnant wife, Marilyn, was beaten to death in the couple’s home in Bay Village, Ohio. Sheppard, an osteopathic doctor, claimed that he was sleeping on the couch when he heard noises coming from the upstairs bedroom where his wife slept. He rushed up to find a “bushy-haired” intruder attacking her. Sam was knocked out by the man, but he recovered and chased him across the lawn, only to be beaten down again. The couple’s son slept in his own bedroom while the fights went down.

The authorities didn’t believe Sheppard’s account of the incident, and he was arrested for murder. He stood trial in the fall of that year and was eventually found guilty and given a life sentence. The case and trial also caused a media frenzy that may have influenced the outcome of the proceedings. The general consensus among the press was that Sheppard was guilty, but their chronicling of the events has been the subject of much criticism throughout the years.

The prosecutors argued that Sheppard killed Marilyn due to marital difficulties. They suggested that he had been cheating on his wife and wanted out of his marriage. Sheppard’s attorney tried to counteract this claim by noting how the defendant had sustained injuries that could only have been inflicted by an intruder. That said, despite the lack of clear evidence, the prosecution’s story was enough for the jury to believe. It was also the narrative spun by newspapers.

The media’s handling of the case has since been deemed unethical by some commentators. They had access to the jurors and the judge at the time, which may have swayed the jury toward convicting Sheppard and ruining his life. Furthermore, as noted by an Ohio University study, the press favored scandalous editorializing and gossip over fact-based reporting during the trial.

Sheppard continuously appealed the verdict in the years that followed. He argued that the frenzy surrounding the case had destroyed his chance of a fair trial. His appeals were routinely denied until 1964 when US District Court Judge Carl A. Weinman accepted the request. He felt that Sam had been denied the right to due process, whether he was innocent or guilty. The Supreme Court supported the notion, and he was given another chance in 1966.

In November of that year, the second trial took place and Sheppard was acquitted. His attorney was F. Lee Bailey, who later represented the Boston Strangler, Patty Hearst, and O.J. Simpson. No one else was ever charged with Marilyn’s murder, but there was another suspect who’d been on the radar since the 1950s.

Richard Eberling operated a window cleaning business at the time of the murder and the trial. The Sheppards were his clients, and he allegedly developed a close relationship with Marilyn. He also admitted to being sexually attracted to her and recounted stories of having brownies with her in the Sheppard house. Some people who believe he’s guilty have speculated that this attraction could have spurred on his murderous impulses.

There are other factors that indicate his involvement. In 1959, Eberling was arrested on a larceny charge, which was when he was first suspected of murdering Marilyn. The police investigated his house and found some jewelry belonging to her. In an effort to trick him, they asked why his blood had been found in the Sheppard household after the murder. Eberling said that he’d cut his finger while working there a couple of days before the homicide.

In reality, no blood had been found and the cops were presumably trying to trick a confession out of him. Eberling took a polygraph test afterward, but the results were inconclusive and he was excused of any wrongdoing. During the re-trial, Eberling was summoned as a defense witness. When he took to the stand, Sheppard never identified him as the bushy-haired man that he wrestled with on the night of the murder.

Eberling’s criminal escapades continued for years, which led to renewed interest in him as the killer in the Sheppard case. He was convicted of theft, forgery, and aggravated murder in 1989, but his alleged involvement in killing Marilyn was never confirmed. While being interviewed for James Neff’s book The Wrong Man, however, Eberling made comments that suggested he was guilty. For example, he admitted to being in the house on the night that Marilyn was killed, but he arrived after the incident and got out of the house as quickly as possible.

These suggestive comments didn’t stand up in a court of law. When the case was re-examined in 2000, the jury concluded that Sheppard was still the most likely killer. This just so happened to be around the time when Sheppard’s son tried to sue the government for his father’s wrongful imprisonment. Still, there hasn’t been enough conclusive evidence to confirm who the guilty party was. There are plenty of reasons to suspect either of them.

Sheppard wasn’t able to get his life back on track. He died of liver failure in 1970, four years after his release from prison. After becoming a free man again, he returned to the medical profession before embarking on a career as a professional wrestler. His wrestling name was “The Killer Sheppard,” suggesting that he had no issue exploiting his notoriety to boost his in-ring career.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.