A      S   T   R   A   N   G   E   R      C   A   L   L   S

This Urban Legend itself was first imprinted into the history of cinema as early as 1971 in “Fosters Release” – a short story, inspired by the apparent events of that fictional night. It was only three years later that the story would grow to a more mainstream audience, inspiring the cult classic “Black Christmas”, which has now gone down in history as one of the very first slashers that would inspire the famous names and masked faces we know so well in modern pop culture. In fact, this story was brought to the screen on five different occasions in the 70’s alone, solidifying the story in the minds of the everyday citizen, and our stranger on the phone had become a household name – so to speak – with the terrifying “When a stranger calls” by Fred Walton in 1979.

Since then, the story has been told several times, whether it be through short films, television, or feature-length productions. Each one putting their own little spin on this harrowing tale. We all remember the infamous line “what’s your favourite scary movie?” from the 1997 classic “Scream” in which a young Drew Barrymore is taunted over the phone by a masked killer – this scene was a homage to the film “When a stranger calls” that rein-acted this legend. To this day, this story continues to linger in western folklore, adapting and changing to new environments and smarter technology, but what if we were to go the other way? Venturing back to the very first instance of this story. Was this legend true? Or completely fabricated? In reality, the truth is somewhere in the middle. 

Janett Christman was merely days away from her 14th birthday when her school, Jefferson Junior High School, were hosting an unrelated dance party for the students that attended on that cold Saturday of the 18th March 1950. Janett had been invited to attend with some friends, but unfortunately for all involved, she declined. You see, Janett had already promised her night away to Mr and Mrs Romack – Babysitting. Janett had previously sat for two families, the Romack’s and the Mueller’s, who were all close friends of each other’s, and I can only speculate that Janet’s information was passed between, as often is the case with babysitters.

When the sun finally began to set and twilight laid its blanket of royal blue across the cold sky, Janett arrived at the Romacks home in the passenger seat of Ed Romack’s car, having picking her up from her home. Once there, Anne Romack would explain that little Gregory would sleep with the radio on, and shouldn’t be any trouble at all, Ed Romack, on the other hand, gave Janett a crash course in how to load, unload, and fire a shotgun for safety measures, in case anything was to occur. This shotgun was placed by the front door with the instructions to turn on the porchlight outside if anyone came knocking. Once the Romack’s were happy to do so, they locked the front door and left for a night of card games and laughter with friends. They were lucky to leave when they did as the weather outside began to rapidly worsen as the sharp storm winds flung rain and sleet through the cold air that was rapidly dropping at a considerable rate, blanketed by the booming sound waves of the thunder and lightning that blasted above.

It was 10:35 pm when a call rang through the steady offices of Boone County Sherriff’s Department. Officer Ray McCowan calmly picked up the receiver and asked what the emergency was. What he was met with was the haunting screams and howls of a woman screaming in sheer terror – blood-curdling screams that shot a shiver down his spine faster than any cold gust outside could do. “Come quick!” he heard her call through her frantic panic and before he could even think to intervene, the phone line was cut short. 

With nothing but a dial tone ringing through his ears, Officer McCowan knew that this was no prank call, he knew what he had just heard was real and yet there was simply nothing he could do about it, the call had been too short to provide a trace. All he could do was wait in tense anticipation with nothing but sheer hope that the phone would ring again, but in his heart of hearts, he knew that she would never call again.

Later into the night, Ed Romack called his home to check on everything from the Moon Valley Villa, where he was with his wife – but there was no answer. Hours later, at roughly half one in the morning, the Romack’s arrived at their home to find their porch light was switched on and the front window blinds were open. They approached the front door as Ed fiddled with his keys but as they drew closer they found it was already unlocked. Confused by this they sharply stepped inside of their

home to find the not-yet-14 years old little girl, Janett Christman sprawled out across the living room floor surrounded by her own blood that was soaking into the fabric of the carpet. Her clothes were dishevelled, her legs spread as she laid cold on the ground, now only half-dressed. There was a head wound from a blunt instrument and multiple puncture wounds by what seemed to be a metallic pencil, but most notably, there was the cord of an electric iron that had been cut and tightly wrapped around her neck. As they entered the room, Anne noticed the landline phone dangling off the hook, explaining why Ed could not get through earlier, and with that realisation, a sudden gut-wrenching panic twisted her stomach to her chest. She turned and darted to the stairs, pacing up them as fast as she could to her baby boy, Greg, who miraculously laid calmly, still asleep; completely oblivious to the torment and horror that had occurred a few feet below.

Inside the home were clear indications of an altercation - Janett had fought back against her attacker. Blood smears and fingerprints were found in both the living room and kitchen, where the back door was unlocked and left ajar standing above a pool of blood. The police followed this trail to find a male footprint left in the mud near a side window that had been shattered with a garden hoe. This led several police investigators to the conclusion that this was the point the perpetrator had gained entry to the house.

 

Others disagreed.

 

Many detectives believed that, due to the strict instructions given to Janett by Ed Romack, whoever arrived at the house with ill intent knew Janett and gained entry through the front door, acting as a friend. This theory is backed up by the fact the front porch light was turned on, as Ed had told her to do if somebody came to it. The theory was also backed up by the fact that the shotgun was untouched and the fact the killer seemed to know where to locate the electric iron, to use its cord as the weapon of choice.

 

Although this tragic event shocked the town to its very core, it was not the first of its kind in the area. Only four years earlier, on 5th February 1946, a 20-year-old girl by the name of Marylou Jenkins was brutally murdered in an alarmingly similar way to Janett. Marylou was home alone, less than a mile from where Janett would be murdered four years later - whilst her mum spent the evening a mere few houses away tending to an elderly couple while her father was out of town on business. Marylou and her mother had a clever little way of communicating through the darkness of the night - the idea was to simply turn on a light, lift up the window shades, and make a phone call. 

 

Later that night, Marylou’s mum looked out of the elderly couple's window to see the window shades across the street were up and the light was on, but as she had received no phone call, she didn’t think anything of it; This would prove to be a grave error on her part as she arrived home to find her daughter lying dead on the living room floor... She had been raped and strangled with an extension cord.

 

It was only a fortnight later that Floyd Cochran, a 35-year-old disabled man was arrested for the vicious murder. He had willingly admitted without any remorse that he murdered his wife and then unsuccessfully tried to take his own life. Due to the timeline of the murders and Boone County’s desperation to have Marylou's murder solved, something happened that we hear far too often; after ten hours of interrogation, Floyd admitted to the crime of raping and murdering Marylou Jenkins, even though not a single shred of evidence placed him at the scene.

Floyd was put to death on 26th September 1947 by gas chamber, but a mere few hours before the execution, he recanted his alleged confession of Marylou and it was later concluded that he was coerced by the police to give a false confession, but by this point, it was too late and Marylou’s death is, to this day, considered solved.

Over the next four years, there would be several attacks, rapes and arrests across the area, and slowly but surely, things began to settle down. It had seemed that the arrest of Floyd Cochran and a later peeping-tom, named Jake Bradford had left the town feeling settled once more.  That was until the murder of Janett Christman reignited the flames into a bushfire that spread across the many voices of the nearby residence; with an alarming amount of parallels between Marylou’s and Janett’s murders, the whispering doubt of the police’s original affirmation had begun.

As the investigation into Janett Christman’s murder continued, one promising suspect had made its way to the forefront of many investigators minds - Robert Mueller - with a large amount of evidence, albeit circumstantial, began to pile up against him. Mueller was 27-years old, a friend of Ed Romack since school and was an Army Air Corps Captain with a distinguishable record during his service in World War II. After, he returned to Columbia to look after his father's restaurant, as well as working as a tailor. He was often remembered for being a well-dressed gentleman who was known to carry a mechanical pencil in his jacket pocket or shirt. After the war, Robert Mueller and Ed Romack grew close once more, spending more and more time together with their mutual friends. Even so, Ed would later explain that Robert had, what he called, a lustful eye for virgin women, and spoke often of having a desire to defile someone young. On top of this, and far more damning, Robert knew Janett since she also babysat for them on numerous occasions, and Robert had apparently made lewd and lecherous comments to Ed about her well-developed hips and breasts.

On top of these alarming signs of guilt, is the fact that Ed Romack received a phone call from Robert the morning after the murder, offering his assistance to ‘clean up the mess’. Although, this itself was dubious as not even the press had printed the tragedy of the events that had unfolded. With an overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence, the police arrived at Robert Mueller's residence to speak with him, but rather than following the basic guidelines of an arrest, the officers decided not to take him into custody, and instead transported him to the officers home. Later, he was taken to the state capital, Jefferson City, where he was given a polygraph test and passed.

 

To cut a long story of mix-ups, frustrating incidents, and incompetence short, Robert Mueller was never charged with any crime. To this day, the horrifying events that unfolded for Janett Christman remain unsolved; lost in the darkness of that cold night, only to live on in legend. 

S O U R C E S

(In order of mention)

The Hutchinson News-Herald       

St Louis Star-Times                           

Kansas City Times                          

Mexico Evening Ledger              

Daily Capital News                            

 

Mueller v. Powell 203 F.2d 797 Court Appeals 8th Circuit | 1953

Kansas City Star                              

Kansas City Star                                

| 20th March 1950

| 20th March 1950

| 20th March 1950

| 20th March 1950

| 26th September 1947

 

| 14th May 1952

| 4th June 1952

© Luke Mordue

Based in London, UK