Grimes Sisters: The Unsolved Murders of Chicago’s 1950s Teens

On a cold Chicago night in late December 1956, a trip to the movie theater turned deadly for Barbara and Patricia Grimes, two sisters who would never return home. 

The sisters had gone to see the debut film of their idol, Elvis, in Love Me Tender at the Brighton Theater on December 28, 1956. Their mother, Loretta Grimes, expected the girls to return home before midnight. The girls, however, did not return home, sparking a massive search effort. 

Grimes Sisters Chicago 1950s Teens

It would be nearly a month before the family knew what became of their beloved daughters, but even today, more than 60 years after the sisters vanished, the mystery of their murder remains unsolved. 

This is the story of the Grimes Sisters.

The Grimes Family

Barbara and Patricia Grimes — 15 and 13, respectively — were two of six children in the Grimes household. Their family resided in Chicago, in the McKinley Park area, part of the larger Brighton Park neighborhood. 

Grimes Sisters, Barbra and Patricia
December 28, 1956, Barbara Grimes, 15, and Patricia Grimes, 13, vanished shortly after leaving a movie at the Brighton Theater in Chicago, Illinois.

Both girls were said to be exceptional students: Barbara attended Thomas Kelly High School, while Patricia was enrolled at St. Maurice Catholic Elementary School. Their parents worked to provide a stable life for their children. Their father, Joseph, was a truck driver, and their mother, Loretta, was a company clerk for Parke Davis. Some accounts mention that their parents were divorced at the time of their disappearance, though this is not well-documented.

Both Barbara and Patricia were huge fans of American rock sensation Elvis Presley. Like many teenage girls at the time, they loved listening to Elvis and watching him whenever they could. Both sisters were part of the official Elvis fan club. The girls had already seen Love Me Tender no less than a dozen times; still, they begged their mother to let them go watch it again. 

They left home on that December evening with only $2.50 between them — just enough money to buy their admission to the show, and some snacks. There was no evidence of any strange behavior from either sister leading up to the disappearance. Friends and family recount the girls leaving home and excitedly heading to the theater to see their idol once more. Nobody could predict the tragedy that would soon befall the young girls.

“There have been 192 unsolved murders in Chicago in the last 5 years,” wrote L. Edgar Prina in an April 1957 issue of the Washington Evening Star. “None of them compares, for gruesome mystery, with the Grimes case.”

The Sisters’ Night Out

The Grimes sisters left home around 7:30 p.m. on December 28. The Brighton Park Theater was only one-and-a-half miles from the family residence. It is unknown if the girls walked to the theater or took the bus, but it is likely that they walked, given they only had $2.50 and Barbara had been told to keep 50 cents of that money in case they decided to stay for the double feature. 

Regardless, Barbara and Patricia made it safely to the theater, as they were seen by at least one school friend during the movie. The eyewitness, Dorothy Weinert, reported sitting behind Barbara and Patricia during the first screening of the film. 

Grimes Sisters Brighton Theater in Chicago
Sisters Barbara and Patricia Grimes disappeared shortly after leaving a screening of “Love Me Tender” at the Brighton Theater in Chicago, Illinois.

Dorothy, a classmate of Patricia, left the theater with her younger sister during intermission between the double feature at approximately 9:30 p.m., as they opted to return home rather than stay for the second screening. While leaving the theater, Dorothy recalls seeing both Grimes sisters waiting in the concession line for popcorn. The two sisters seemed happy, and Dorothy did not notice anything strange about their demeanor. 

It should also be noted that nobody was seen with the sisters as they waited together to purchase concessions. At that point, everything seemed normal with the teenage sisters.

The Sisters Go Missing

Loretta knew her daughters would likely stay for the second screening, given how much they loved Elvis. However, the girls should have arrived home before midnight. When midnight came and there was no sign of Barbara and Patricia, their mother grew concerned. 

She asked their older sister, Theresa, to go wait by the nearest bus stop in hopes of finding the girls. Their brother, Joey, accompanied Theresa to wait near the bus stop. While they waited, Loretta took it upon herself to reach out to the girls’ friends, hoping that perhaps they had bumped into one of them at the theater and might have gone home together. 

Loretta’s search yielded no results: none of the girls’ friends knew of their whereabouts. Shortly thereafter, Theresa and Joey returned home, but without Barbara and Patricia in tow. They had waited and watched, and buses came and went, but their sisters were nowhere to be found. Loretta wasted no time and promptly filed a police report with Chicago P.D. just after 2 a.m. on December 29.

The ensuing search was one of the largest in American history to date. Hundreds of police officers were assigned to search for the girls in a full-time capacity. Police canvassed the neighborhood of Brighton Park, speaking to neighbors and hanging over 15,000 flyers.

The church where the girls attended services offered a generous $1,000 reward for any information that would lead to the whereabouts of Barbara and Patricia. Over 300,000 citizens of Chicago were questioned during the investigation. The FBI aided in the investigation after Loretta received multiple ransom notes, none of which were legitimate. An entire task force was created to help bring Barbara and Patricia home. 

At some point during the search, people began to question if the girls might have left home on their own volition. Perhaps they wanted to wander like their idol, Elvis. Many people doubted that the girls had been kidnapped, as the extensive search generated so few genuine leads. 

But Loretta Grimes was adamant: her daughters would not have run away with so little money, not to mention no spare clothes, while leaving behind their new Christmas gifts. Loretta was sure that someone had taken her daughters, and she pleaded with the public to please “let the girls call me.”

Grimes Sisters Elvis Presley
Elvis broadcasted on television and radio, urging the girls to return home.

The search did not stop in Chicago. The news swept the nation, and even the girls’ idol got involved. Elvis Presley himself begged the girls to return home in a special radio broadcast. Furthermore, the Graceland estate put forth an official televised statement, in which Presley asked the girls to return home. 

Surely, if the girls had run away, hearing their idol beg them to come back home would be enough to make them think twice. But days passed after the efforts of Elvis and his team, and still nothing was heard from the sisters.

The Case Unfrozen

In early January of 1957, the Chicago area experienced heavy snowfall, freezing the area over. While this did not put an end to the search efforts, it did not aid investigators in their pursuit of Barbara and Patricia. 

On January 22, 1957, local resident Leonard Prescott was driving to the grocery store. He drove down German Church Road, a quiet country road in Cook County, Illinois. While driving, Prescott witnessed what he thought were two abandoned mannequins lying on the side of the road.

He turned around to go get his wife, with the intention of showing her the mannequins. When the couple returned, they made a grim and shocking discovery: these were not mannequins at all, but rather the bodies of Barbara and Patricia Grimes. Prescott and his wife immediately reported to the local police department in Cook County. 

Grimes Sisters bodies found
Over 100 volunteer sheriff’s police officers and firefighters search an area near Willow Springs, Illinois, for clues related to the case of the slain Grimes sisters. Photo Chicago Tribune

Barbara and Patricia were naked when their bodies were discovered. There were obvious signs of trauma, especially to the facial area of both girls. This damage was ascribed as that done by animals. The prevailing conclusion is that the girls’ bodies were there prior to the major snowfall, buried in the snow, and had just been made visible after the thawing of the snow and ice. 

Autopsies were performed on both girls, but the official cause of death was reported as exposure to freezing temperatures. These autopsy results are heavily criticized, given that Barbara’s face was heavily bruised and disfigured, and Patricia had multiple puncture wounds in the chest area, consistent with that of an ice pick. Ultimately, the coroner’s jury decided that Barbara and Patricia had been murdered. The initial team of forensic investigators attributed the bruising and puncture wounds to post-mortem bites from rodents.

Strange Circumstances in their Deaths

Though the entire story of the Grimes’ sisters’ disappearance and death is disturbing and strange, there are several especially unusual circumstances that warrant further examination. First, a coroner assisting in the autopsy determined that the girls had died within just four hours of being at the theater, as the dinner they ate at home was still in their stomach, undigested. 

Grimes Sisters detectives at crime scene
Officers from the police crime lab are conducting a search in the area where the bodies of the Grimes sisters were discovered. Photo Chicago Tribune

Furthermore, the way in which the girls’ bodies were found is harrowingly strange. Barbara was lying face down in the embankment, with Patricia lying face up on top of her sister, posed at a perpendicular angle. While a death from hypothermia could explain why the girls were found naked, it would not explain the weird way the bodies were posed. 

Also, the road the girls were found on is well over twenty minutes away from their neighborhood, by car. Walking on foot, it would have taken the girls nearly five hours to reach the spot where their bodies were found. It simply made no sense for two girls to go wandering into the cold Chicago night, with no spare clothing and no money. 

If the sisters were dead the same night they went missing, why the ransom notes? Reportedly, Loretta received at least two ransom notes during the investigation, one of which instructed her to drive to Milwaukee and wait in a church with a large sum of cash. 

While this is not the first time a fake ransom letter has been sent, it’s quite odd that more than one was sent to Loretta. The girls’ bodies were found, but their clothes were never recovered. These are only a few of the strange circumstances surrounding the Grimes sister’s disappearance and murder.

The Suspects

Three primary suspects were identified throughout the investigation. The first and most notable of these was Edward “Bennie” Bedwell, who the Chicago Tribune called a “skid row dishwasher.” Bedwell was a drifter in his young twenties. He worked as a part-time dishwasher at a Chicago restaurant. The owners of said restaurant claimed to have seen Bedwell and another young man with two girls who looked like the Grimes sisters on the morning of December 30. 

Grimes Sisters police interview
January 29, 1957, William C. Willingham Jr. identified by confessed killer Bennie Bedwell as an accomplice. United Press Telephoto

This information was reported to the police after the discovery of the bodies, and Bedwell was subsequently arrested and interrogated by police. After a grueling three days of intense interrogation, Bedwell confessed to murdering both girls with the help of an accomplice. On January 27, 1957, he signed a formal confession and was charged with murdering the Grimes sisters. 

However, Loretta did not believe the confession. According to her, the facts of the confession could not have been true, as her daughters did not know the street they were allegedly seen on. The man named as Bedwell’s accomplice also denounced any involvement, stating the girls they were seen with were not the Grimes sisters. Eventually, Bedwell recanted his confession and admitted that the police had forcibly extorted it from him. The autopsy report supported this claim, as the details of his confession were not consistent with the autopsy results. 

The next suspect in the case was a 17-year-old named Max Fleig. By Illinois law, minors were not allowed to be subjected to polygraph examinations. Despite this law, Chicago P.D. administered a polygraph to Fleig anyways. 

He failed the test, and during the examination, he confessed to murdering the sisters. However, as it was illegal to conduct said test to begin with, the police could not use this confession as any form of evidence. Without a polygraph, a confession, or any physical evidence linking Fleig to the crime, he was released and never charged for the murders. 

The third and final suspect was Walter Kranz, who was much older than the other two suspects, aged 53 at the time of the murders. Kranz claimed to be a psychic, and he called the Chicago P.D. complaint line in mid-January 1957 to reveal his prophecy about the Grimes’ sisters. 

He told the operator that he had a vision of where the girls’ bodies could be found. Ultimately, the girls were found one mile from the location Kranz described. Police immediately brought him in for questioning, and he denied any involvement in the murders. 

Kranz maintained that he knew this due solely to his psychic ability, and although his handwriting was ruled as being very similar to a ransom note Loretta had received, there was no physical evidence to tie Kranz to the crime. Although Kranz had become Chicago P.D.’s number one suspect, he was ultimately released after questioning due to lack of evidence. 

Case Controversies

Aside from the multiple strange circumstances surrounding the girls’ death, several controversies have emerged from the Grimes sisters’ case. First, though the initial autopsy ruled that the girls had died either the evening of December 28 or morning of December 29, there were innumerable alleged sightings of the sisters after their disappearance. 

There are far too many to recount here, but numerous eyewitnesses report seeing the girls on trains, walking through town, standing outside local bars, and in other spots. There was even a job recruiter in Nashville, Tennessee who insisted the Grimes sisters had come to Nashville seeking employment. Of the hundreds of reports, it was never officially determined if any of these sightings were legitimate. 

Throughout the investigation, few were more dedicated to the cause than Cook County coroner’s office chief investigator, Harry Glos. Glos firmly believed Edward Bedwell to be the culprit, and he criticized the way the autopsies were performed. 

According to Glos, the wounds on the girls’ bodies were not consistent with rodent bites, but rather from physical attacks by a perpetrator. Glos was also insistent that the girls were abused sexually prior to their death, which is supported by autopsy findings. His theory is that these facts were left out of the official report to spare Loretta and the public from the gruesome details. 

Perhaps the biggest twist in the case presented by Glos is the girls’ true time of death. While official coroner reports indicate the girls died shortly after leaving the theater, Glos disagrees. He contends that the ice layer found on the girls’ bodies could only have formed if they were warm when dumped there, just before the major freeze in early January. 

According to Glos, this would not have been possible if the girls were dead long before being dumped there. Additionally, milk was found in Barbara’s stomach, and she did not consume milk at home or at the movie theater, according to reports from family and friends. It also should be noted that Bedwell was said to bear a resemblance to Elvis, and that an eyewitness reported seeing a man who favored Elvis chatting with the girls before they got into his car upon leaving the theater. 

All these conflicting and controversial opinions complicate the case even further. However, if Glos is correct and the girls were alive until January, the plethora of eyewitness accounts seeing the girls after December 29 could very well be true. 

Unfortunately, the case has gone cold, and no new breakthroughs have been made in recent years. Loretta Grimes, passed away in December 1989, at age 83. Given how long ago the murder occurred, it is unlikely that the case will ever be solved. Despite this, the community continues to hold hope that one day Barbara and Patricia Grimes will have the justice they deserve.

Sources & Further Reading