Thomas Vandiver, Beatrice and Wanda – Unsolved Case

In the Southern Indiana Hoosier National Forest, near the sleepy town of English, lies Hemlock Cliffs. This 1.2 mile loop trail, Hemlock Cliffs, entices hikers with breathtaking views, towering cliffs, hidden caves, cascading waterfalls and fantastical rock formations sculpted by time. However, there lurks a mystery beneath its beauty. The disappearance of the Thomas Vandiver and family, seemingly swallowed whole by the forest.

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Despite 75 years passed since their disappearance, theories about the missing family of three still run rampant in Crawford County. It ranges from plausible to downright bizarre. But beneath the surface of speculation, one name seems to hold an unshakeable weight; William Messamore. It is with him that this story begins.

William “Bill” Messamore was born in the rolling hills of Christian County, Kentucky in December 1916. Details about his early life seem to be largely unknown. His criminal record, however, provides a timeline of transgressions. He faced charges for bank robbery at the age of 17, serving three years before releasing in 1936. Just two years later, he found himself back behind bars for another bank robbery in Eddyville, Kentucky. This time he received a ten-year sentence. He was granted parole in 1947, William crossed the state line into Southern Indiana.

Driving through rural Crawford County, William spotted a vacant farmhouse perched atop a hill in Mifflin, Indiana. Despite his recent lengthy incarceration, his appearance was a stark contrast to a man down on his luck. William arrived at the courthouse in nearby English driving a fancy car and wearing a tailored-suit. He purchased the deed to the property with cash, and immediately moved in.

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The sudden arrival of William in the close-knit community initially sparked suspicion amongst the residents. His eccentricities and preference for solitude fueling the local rumour mill. William was also vague about what he did for work. His frequent “business trips” to Kentucky, from which he would return with flashy new cars deepened their suspicions. However, a seemingly selfless act of generosity by William slowly chipped away at the community’s initial reservations about him.

Thomas Vandiver (31) with his new wife Beatrice (44), and her daughter (16) Wanda Johnson bought a piece of property. The home was just down the hill from William. Tragedy struck that Fall when the Vandiver’s home mysteriously burned to the ashes. Thomas was out of work. He relied on a meagre 20 dollar monthly compensation cheque. The family was virtually left with nothing.

Though the property was devastating by the fire, William quickly intervened to lend a helping hand. He not only bought the burned land from the Thomas Vandiver, but also offered them refuge in his own home. Additionally, he offered to pay them to take care of his house and property. The trio agreed, gathered the few belongings they had salvaged from the blaze, and moved into William’s farmhouse.

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For four months, the arrangement seemed to go as planned. But then, in January 1949, the Vandivers vanished. Pearl Pearson, mother of Thomas Vandiver, who lived nearby, marched into the sheriff’s office. She demanded a well-being check on her son. She explained that since early January, contact with him had inexplicably ceased.

Responding to Pearl’s plea, the police descended upon the Messamore farmhouse. No answer came to their knocks, prompting them to breach the door. Inside, an unsettling orderliness prevailed. The belongings of Vandivers remained save for a few reasons. Signature Overalls of Thomas Vandiver, Wanda’s cherished knitted sweater and Beatrice’s favourite dress.

A prickle of unease sent goosebumps down the sheriff’s spine as he stepped outside. There, beside the back door, a freshly turned patch of earth drew his gaze. A swift excavation unearthed a horrifying sight. Wanda’s beloved pet collie, Prince, lay lifeless, silenced by a gunshot.

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While the police awaited William’s return. They wove together a timeline of the Thomas Vandiver and family’s disappearance through accounts from the townsfolk. One of Thomas’s friends offered up that Thomas had recently confided in him that “Bill,” was “mean as hell.” The friend claimed he and his family were asleep. But thanks to William’s unsettling late-night habit of hammering away in the attic for hours on end.

Another piece of the puzzle emerged from William’s neighbour Glen Brown. He recalled seeing Thomas by his mailbox on January 6th. During their brief conversation, Thomas implied he was desperately waiting for a letter. Adding fuel to the flames, Wanda’s step uncle opines of a possible blossoming “relationship” between his step-niece and William.

A search quickly unfolded as investigators and volunteers scoured the cave-riddled land for the Vandiver family. Locals, however, cast a pall of despair over their efforts. They warned that if the family met their end in one of the gaping pits. Any hope of recovery was likely lost. These weren’t ordinary shallow holes, they claimed, these were massive caverns of impossible depths, known for swallowing small animals whole.

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The next day, William unexpectedly strolled into the sheriff’s office, outrage radiating from him. He demanded to know who had broken into his home, and why. When questioned about the missing Vandivers, he denied knowing their whereabouts. His alibi? Another “business trip” had kept him conveniently absent since early January.

The grim fate of Wanda’s dog, however, elicited a chilling confession from William. He admitted to silencing the animal’s “incessant barking” with a gunshot, his voice devoid of remorse. Adding another layer of unease, William occasionally slipped, referring to Wanda as his “girlfriend.”

Dashie Colgate, William’s mother, offered a chilling detail when questioned by police. When the Vandivers vanished, William appeared at her Louisville, Kentucky home with a young woman introduced as his “girlfriend” Wanda. Dashie’s account painted a disturbing picture. Wanda “tore up four bed sheets and bled all over them” during her brief stay. Then, one morning, they simply left together, and never returned.

A second search of William’s property also resulted in several unnerving discoveries. In a wood stove that salvaged from the Vandivers burned home. Police found Thomas Vandiver’s shoes, charred beyond recognition. Elsewhere on the property, a bonfire had partially consumed a wheelbarrow and rug, both belonging to William. And, In the mailbox, Thomas Vandiver’s eagerly awaited letter, his monthly veterans compensation check, dated January 7th, remained untouched. However, despite the unsettling clues, the lack of concrete evidence forced police to release William.

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Indiana authorities soon discovered an outstanding warrant for William’s arrest in Kentucky, a parole violation for failing to report, however they quickly realised that William had once again vanished. Finally, on Valentine’s Day, fate intervened when a Louisville, Kentucky police officer spotted William disembarking from a Greyhound bus. William was apprehended for the parole violation, but Indiana police hadn’t forgotten the missing family. To secure his return for questioning, they added the charge of “dog stealing,” stemming from the chilling confession about Wanda’s dog. William was extradited back to Indiana.

William, back in custody, remained tight-lipped about the Vandivers’ fate. His reason for fleeing? A trip to a safety deposit box in faraway Olympia, Washington, he claimed. Intrigued, Indiana police contacted the local banks. The box, indeed, existed. Its contents, upon forced disclosure, revealed ten thousand dollars in cash, as well as a ring and pocket watch that belonged to Thomas and Beatrice Vandiver.

Confronted, William readily confessed another bank robbery had financed this hidden stash. But when pressed about the jewellery, William dropped a bombshell; he named Thomas Vandiver as one of his accomplices in the crime.

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In William’s twisted narrative, July 1948 marked his first encounter with “Charlie,” an enigmatic stranger who happened to be passing through English. Talk of money woes fueled a dark proposition; a bank heist, William suggested. Charlie, receptive to the lure of ill-gotten riches, became a willing partner.

A small Kentucky bank in Kevil emerged as their target, meticulously scouted for its vulnerability. But a crucial element remained missing, the getaway driver. As luck (or perhaps misfortune) would have it, the Vandivers entered William’s life the very next month, becoming his neighbours. Desperate for money to care for his family, Thomas, according to William’s account, agreed to take the position.

On August 17, 1948 they carried out the robbery. William and Charlie entered the Kevil, Kentucky bank, guns drawn and demanded money. While Charlie kept his gun fixed on the teller and customers, William loaded up several sacks of cash. With Thomas at the wheel, they made a clean getaway and headed to a rented Louisville, Kentucky apartment to split the loot.

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FBI confirmed William’s involvement in the Kevil, Kentucky robbery. However, the investigation, aided by William’s information, identified his actual accomplices; Thomas Gore and Charles Stegall, not Thomas Vandiver. Subsequently police apprehended Gore and Stegall and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

William, despite the damning evidence piling up, clung to his innocence, refusing to admit any involvement in the family’s disappearance. In his Corydon, Indiana jail cell, unfazed by another looming bank robbery charge, he boasted to detectives about hidden stashes of cash tucked away in Crawford County caves that would be awaiting him after his release. But the detectives swiftly reminded him, armed robbery in Kentucky could potentially carry a life sentence, and this was strike three.

The following morning, March 14th, shouts woke Mrs. Basely, the wife of the Corydon sheriff, whose living quarters were located behind the jail. Rushing to investigate, she found her husband and his deputy locked in a cell. William, in a daring escape, had overpowered them and vanished out a second-story window.

The manhunt led police to the banks of the Ohio River. Fresh footprints vanished near a disturbed patch of mud. But the chase wouldn’t last long. Just hours later, a Kentucky sheriff found William at a roadside diner. William, who sat casually sipping coffee in a booth, went with them willingly.

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William, seemingly adept at Houdini-esque escapes, struck again while awaiting trial for the Kevil bank robbery. In a Paducah, Kentucky jail, he overpowered the sheriff and his teenage son, locking them in a storage closet before vanishing into the night. The next morning, forty miles away, police found him fast asleep in a train car. Again, he was returned to jail.

In April, a guilty plea to armed robbery sealed William’s fate. But before justice could fully take hold, his Mifflin farmhouse vanished in a blaze, potentially erasing any hidden evidence within. While a local man named Howard King was found guilty of arson, he faced no jail time for the crime.

June witnessed William’s final, desperate dash for freedom. Aided by a bribed jail cook who smuggled hacksaw blades in a magazine to William, he sliced through his cell bars and used the metal chunk as a weapon, escaping through a backdoor. His freedom was fleeting, however, and he was captured again the next day. Later that same month, William was found guilty of armed robbery and sentenced to 28 years in California’s notorious Alcatraz prison.

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In 1957, a determined Indiana prosecutor, Eugene Feller, journeyed to Alcatraz, seeking answers from William about the Vandivers’ fate. Eugene cut to the chase; “They’re dead, aren’t they?” He asked. William’s reply was chilling; “I know they are.” Eugene pressed, “You killed them didn’t you?” But William’s answer was a cryptic, “Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that.” He would not elaborate. After his release in the late 1970’s, William settled down once more in Kentucky.

In 1983, a cryptic postcard signed “Col” (Possibly short for William’s nickname, “Colonel”) arrived at the Crawford County, Indiana sheriff’s office, postmarked Kentucky. It read: “South of Eckerty there is something of great interest to you.” Sheriff Pete Eastridge spent ten gruelling months hunting down William. Finally, after a tip from a journalist, Pete found him in Louisville.

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Accompanied by his deputy, Pete sat down with William one final time at his strangely fortified home. William had barred the home’s windows with sliding steel plates and constructed an array of booby traps within to “ensure his safety.” The conversation between them was bizarre. William gift “Indian Head” pennies to the Sheriff and deputy, each with a “special year” on them. He bragged about memorising the dictionary and displayed his ability to mimic a person’s handwriting. Yet, through it all, he denied the postcard and any involvement in the Vandivers’ disappearance.

Whispers of sightings of the Vandivers persisted long after their disappearance. Reports of seeing Wanda in Terre Haute, Indiana came in late 1949, and later in the 50s in another Indiana city. Thomas and Beatrice spotted in a southern Indiana cafe in 1970s as per rumour. Unfortunately, no one confirmed the sightings.

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The Vandivers’ disappearance sparked numerous theories about their whereabouts. Most believed William was responsible, suggesting he had likely disposed of their body’s somewhere in the vast forest, or perhaps in one of the area caves. Others suspected Thomas Vandiver discovered William’s hidden loot and left with his family to forge a new life. Even wilder tales hinted at the possibility of William’s involvement with the mob, a group known for silencing inconvenient witnesses like the Vandivers.

If William was responsible, he took the answers to his grave. He died of naturally on February 12, 1986 at the age of 69. The body donated to the University of Louisville Medical School.

An unsolved mystery recount by Fehmeeda Farid Khan

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