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Blog: Murder or Hoax?

An anonymous letter leads the authorities on a grim chase.
mystery trees

In a real-life drama resembling something from an Agatha Christie novel, a person's alleged murdered body was yet to be discovered in Redwood City. It involved an anonymous letter, a claimed relative of the dead victim, and interstate connections to a crime that could not be proven.

The Times reported on the situation in their March 9, 1938, edition:

"Investigation of Redwood City's murder fantasy turned today to Seattle, Washington, as authorities sought further contact with the mysterious person whose anonymous letter to Seattle police said his (or her) 16-year-old sister had been strangled and her body dumped on a lonely road 'two miles east of Redwood City.'

"Undersheriff Lawrence J. Nieri, after a conference with James J. McGrath at the latter's hospital room in San Francisco, expects to confer with Seattle detectives in an effort to obtain further information from the letter writer.

"The letter (that) was signed simply 'M,' said that search would reveal the body of a young girl at the designated spot. It added: '…in heaven's name believe me. God knows the hell I am compelled to endure. She is my sister.' The writer gave instructions to place a want ad in the Seattle Times if the police desired to make further contact.

"Mud-grimed deputies of Sheriff McGrath last night ended a day-long search of the countryside below Redwood City for the body of the girl, and wondered whether they had a murder mystery or a grim hoax to deal with."

The previous day's The Times stated that a "small army" of peace officers and volunteers had searched "a spot off the Bayshore Highway a half mile south of Friendly Acres, midway between Redwood City and East Palo Alto." The spot featured a thick copse of eucalyptus trees that "fitted the description of the 'murder spot' described by the mysterious' M.'"

Nieri seemed to have solved the case to his satisfaction by the 10th. The Times reported that he believed the whole thing was "the work of a 'stir crazy' McNeil Island (Washington) prisoner who perpetrated a similar hoax on county authorities nearly two years ago."

The prisoner in question, auto thief Harvey H. Martindale, sent a similar letter in 1936 to our county's authorities alerting them to the location of a body of a man he had thrown from a speeding car "along the Skyline Boulevard." Nothing came of that alleged crime, either. Nieri closed the 1938 case, according to The Times, "convinced that the 'murder' case was a hoax after an exhaustive search of the county below Redwood City failed to find a body."

Douglas MacGowan

About the Author: Douglas MacGowan

Doug MacGowan has authored seven books and countless articles, mainly about history and true crime. He has been a resident of Redwood City since 2000.
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