by B. Chefsky
(Plain Press, February 2018) After hearing a gunshot and seeing a man speed away from the scene, a neighbor found the body of Virgil Hunter lying face down on the carpeted floor of his third story apartment on West 25th Street, according to a 911 call.
“I heard a gunshot and saw someone run down the stairs. I walked back over to the apartment … and someone has been shot,” the male caller told a dispatcher.
“I think this gentleman is dead,” the caller said.
By the time paramedics arrived Virgil had no pulse. He was pronounced dead at the scene at 1:15 a.m. on Wednesday, January 19, 1994, the coldest day in Cleveland history.
In the remaining hours before sunlight, crime detectives from the Cleveland Division of Police rummaged through Virgil’s apartment for clues to his murder. Hair fibers found on the living room couch were gathered into plastic evidence bags and tagged with his name along with other biological evidence. Latent print evidence like fingerprints, palm and foot prints were collected. His shoes were placed in a bag. The scene was photographed and documented. The crime scene investigation team included three professionals along with uniformed officers. The coroner oversaw the handling of the body.
A handful of reporters bundled in thick winter coats, wool hats, scarfs and gloves, braved the subzero weather to arrive at the scene by 4:00 a.m., rushing out of their vans with cameras in hand. NEWS 8 reported the story as a break-in with a possible murder victim. The Plain Dealer published a story in the Metro News later that morning with the headline, “Police Identify Murder Victim from West Side.”
“The door to the victim’s apartment was forcibly opened to gain entry,” they wrote, adding “Mr. Virgil Hunter was apparently surprised by the intruder or intruders. Evidence collected at the scene suggests a struggle took place.”
The article further noted that results from the DNA tests could take weeks or even months depending on the quality of the physical evidence.
“There were no reported witnesses,” concluded the PD.
The story was followed by a photograph of Virgil placed alongside the cartoon character Daffy Duck. A generous gutter of whitespace separated the two pictures.
To regular readers of the newspaper, this didn’t strike them as strange, causing some concern with publication specialists later. Daffy Duck had nothing to do with Virgil’s murder. But the striking similarities in their appearance were obvious. Both were gangly looking with round dark eyes and three small tufts of hair at the very top of their heads. With two small arcs, just above their eyes for eyebrows, an elongated neck and broad smile, they matched brilliantly to each other.
News of Virgil’s murder appeared on page D4, in the lower quarter of the page, between advertisements for automobile tires and outdoor lawn furniture at Home Depot. Staff employees at the newspaper didn’t notice the Daffy Duck blunder until a customer from Parma phoned the editors desk to ask what the cartoon duck had to do with Virgil’s death. The phone receptionist was taken aback by surprise.
“Oh, my goodness,” said a shaky voice at the PD, when asked about the article. “I’ll let our front office know right away.”
When Dixie Hare read about Virgil’s death, she was both horrified and grief stricken. She told co-workers at Clark’s restaurant where she worked the graveyard shift that Virgil was her regular customer.
“He sat at the same table in the corner every morning, order two fried eggs firm, toasted rye bread with butter, bacon, and home fries,” Dixie said. “He drank three cups of coffee and read the paper while he ate. He always left a decent tip. I can’t believe he’s dead,” she told Marcy, a line cook in the kitchen.
“Sounds like he was murdered, honey,” Marcy corrected her.
A few days later, the PD retracted the article in small print on page D3 of the Metro News stating that the “unfortunate incident was an error on [their part],” and further apologized for “misrepresenting the victim”. The well-scripted but brief retraction failed to mention how the error happened or why editors at the newspaper didn’t notice it before going to print. The newspaper stated that it was an “embarrassing incident” and pledged to deal with the issue internally “consistent with its values to serve the Cleveland community.”
The closing paragraph reported that a suspect or suspects in Virgil’s murder remained at large and anyone with information should contact the Cleveland Division of Police. A homicide hotline number was provided.
Walt Disney Company filed a law suit against the PD for infringement rights on the misuse of their corporate image Daffy Duck. A spokesperson for the company at the time said in a statement: “This lawsuit is not a publicity ploy and we look forward to vigorously defending Daffy Duck.”
For their part, the PD issued a brief but separate retraction in the Business Section claiming responsibility for the oversight but insisted no harm was done.
“The duck obviously didn’t murder Mr. Hunter,” they wrote. “But until an investigation is completed we maintain our innocence.”
The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum of money. The New York Times reported the settlement amount to be in the high six figures. CNN reported even higher settlement numbers.
The Cleveland Police Homicide Unit solved Virgil’s murder several years later. Evidence collected from the crime scene pointed to E. J. Fudd, a wildlife photographer from St. Louis. Mr. Fudd, also known as E. Keith, was known for his uncanny pictures of rabbits. A small-time thug with a long criminal record, he was also wanted for tax evasion. He allegedly broke into Virgil’s apartment on the night in question to steal his stereo and television, and take whatever else he could find to reportedly support his drug addiction.
In a court appearance in 2001, Fudd, in a brown derby, a baggy suit, and a high-collared shirt, claimed he followed Virgil back to his apartment that evening but did not intend to kill him.
District Attorney F. Leghorn provided evidence to the contrary stating, “It was Mr. Fudd’s intention to gain entry into Mr. Hunter’s residence, aware that he was at home, to steal his property in order to trade or sell the merchandise for drugs resulting in an altercation. He then bludgeoned and shot Mr. Hunter to death with a double-barreled shotgun.”
A jury found E. J. Fudd guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.
Dixie, originally from Brooklyn, New York, retired from Clark’s restaurant in 2007 to work part time serving cocktails on a party boat to Kelleys Island in the summer and during the winter she traveled to Panama City, Florida, where she kicked around flea markets and played bingo at storefront churches along the Southern coastline with her half-sister Jane.
“Gruesome, isn’t it?” she told a reporter following Mr. Fudd’s conviction.