If Mary Shotwell Little had simply disappeared without a trace, she probably would be forgotten today.
By Gerdeen Dyer *
She was not a mover, not a shaker, not a celebrity. There was nothing about her life that would keep a mystery simmering for three decades.
But Atlanta's "missing bride" did not simply step into thin air in October 1965. She vanished in an autumn haze of tantalizing clues: flowers from a secret admirer, a bloody car that allegedly had been moved in broad daylight, papers signed after her disappearance. Little even left a trail, stretching hundreds of miles into another state.
And with all these clues, sifted and re-sifted by an army of investigators, nobody ever learned what happened to her. It was the strangest disappearance in the history of the city. It frightened the public, embarrassed the politicians, baffled the best investigators. And it left the young womans loved ones broken-hearted.
Police and FBI agents always held to their initial hunch, that Little had been kidnapped and murdered. But they never found a body, never focused on a strong suspect, and most vexing of all, never came up with a coherent theory of what had happened. Conspiracies normally follow a pattern, and so do crimes of opportunity and crimes of passion. But the Little disappearance seemed to defy such rules of logic. It was in a class by itself.
Back in the mid-1960s, some of the legendary masters of the whodunit were still writing best sellers. There is no evidence that anyone ever brought the Little case to the attention of Agatha Christie, or Rex Stout, or John Dickson Carr. But if any of these writers had heard of it, one can only guess that they would have been tempted to turn it into a novel. Still, they would have faced the same problem that defeated police: How do you explain all the facts?
Everyone agreed that Little was not the kind of woman who would drop out of sight willingly. She was 25, a hard-working secretary at the C&S Bank on Mitchell Street downtown who had been married to a bank examiner only six weeks. She was close to her family and had no enemies. And she was last seen in one of the safest public places in Atlanta.
The place was Lenox Square, a posh shopping mall in the upscale Buckhead district. People went there to browse in exclusive shops and eat in nice restaurants. It was well-lit, and even at night it was usually full of people.
By an absurd coincidence that seems somehow appropriate for the Little case, this non-threatening piece of ground also was the site of one of Georgia's biggest crimes during the Depression, the abduction of a man in the banking business. Before the mall was built in the 1950s, the property was the Ottley estate, home of a wealthy old-line family, and on July 6, 1933, millionaire banker John Ottley was snatched at gunpoint.
It was the city's first ransom kidnapping, and it was soon solved. The two gunmen were caught and Ottley was released unharmed. Compared to the disappearance that would come 32 years later, the Ottley case was as neat as a Buckhead lawn.
Little was in good spirits the night of her disappearance, Thursday, Oct. 14, 1965. Her husband, Roy, was out of town on bank business, but he was due back the next day, and they were planning to entertain friends in their apartment on Line Circle in Decatur on Friday night. Little had bought groceries at the Colonial grocery store at Lenox Square, and she then shared dinner at the S&S Cafeteria with another woman who worked at the bank.
She showed no premonition of what was to come. Her parting words to the older woman before heading toward her car at 8 p.m. were "See you."
That was the last anybody in Atlanta ever saw of Mary Shotwell Little. The next morning, the usually punctual secretary failed to show up at the bank, and phone calls to her home went unanswered.
Little's co-workers found her unexplained absence alarming. The woman who had dined with her the previous night informed their boss, and she even recalled that Little had mentioned the area where she was parked. With that information, the boss phoned security at Lenox Square, asking them to look in the yellow parking area on the Lenox Road side of the mall for a 1965 metallic pearl gray Mercury Comet. Security soon notified them that no such car could be found.
As the day wore on, Little's husband was reached in a town south of Atlanta, and he headed home. Her boss, frustrated at hearing nothing, drove to Lenox Square for his own search at midday. After a few minutes of driving through the crowded lot, he spotted Little's car, sitting in the yellow parking area.
What he saw in her car led to the biggest investigation Atlanta had ever seen. There were bags of undisturbed groceries, for a meal Little would never prepare. There were bloodstains. And there was a full set of women's underwear, neatly folded on the console between the front bucket seats.
By nightfall, the missing bride was the talk of Atlanta. A recent photo of the pleasant-faced young brunette -- gazing with a half-smile into the distance -- was put on posters and displayed on TV screens and newspaper front pages. Search parties swarmed Buckhead, and in the coming days fanned out across Atlanta.
In the early days of the investigation, police expected Little would be found soon, but they were not optimistic that she would be found alive. They feared the worst, because they believed they were looking for a kidnapper with an insane streak.
It seemed incredible that a woman could have been overpowered, injured and forced to strip naked in the Lenox parking lot at 8 p.m. without attracting any attention. Police theorized instead that Little had been abducted in her car and forced to drive elsewhere, and that her abductor had returned her car later to where he had found it.
That theory seemed to be borne out by the fact that the car had been missing for a time, but it pushed police toward a shocking conclusion: that the kidnapper had boldly returned the car to its spot in broad daylight, perhaps not long before Little's boss found it. What kind of criminal would do such a thing, and why? Would he risk capture merely to taunt and confuse the authorities?
At first, police refused to believe that the car had not been on the lot when security guards searched for it, but two people who worked at Lenox insisted that the Comet had not been in the yellow parking area when they arrived for work that morning.
Meanwhile, police were discovering that Little had not been totally carefree in the weeks before her disappearance. An old high school friend told them that a few days before Oct. 14, Little had expressed fear of being home alone and, oddly, of being alone in her car. "She had never acted that way before," the school chum recalled.
Investigators also learned that Little had received roses from an unknown admirer shortly before she vanished. Police traced the flowers to a florist near Little's home, but were unable to learn any details about the person who paid for them.
And then there were the phone calls. Co-workers remembered that Little had seemed shaken by calls she received at work. She never discussed the conversations with anyone, but other women in the office had heard enough to make them wonder.
Little had been impatient with the caller, declaring, "I'm a married woman now." But if this was merely an unwelcome former suitor, her suggestion for dealing with the problem seemed odd. "You can come over to my house any time you like," she had told the person on the other end of the line, "but I can't come over there."
It was a troubling picture: a likable young newlywed, sometimes placid, sometimes terrified; a woman pestered by someone she knew, but reluctant to break with that person; a woman who sometimes feared even being in her car, but who was last seen striding confidently toward it in the darkness.
The investigation, which was taken over after two weeks by legendary Atlanta homicide detective W.K. "Jack" Perry, turned up nothing of substance about Little's associates. Atlanta officers established that her husband had indeed been out of town at the time of the disappearance, and neither he nor anyone else appeared to have benefited from what had happened. And there was nothing to indicate that the vanished secretary was anything but the warm-hearted, loyal person she had always seemed to be.
A month after the disappearance, investigators got a lead that they expected to break the case wide open, but that instead led them to one of the strangest dead ends they had ever encountered.
They learned that Little's gasoline credit card had been used in North Carolina. According to records of an all-night gas station in Charlotte, Little's card had been used in the early morning of Oct. 15, just a few hours after she was last seen at Lenox Square. And the receipt bore what appeared to be her signature. And several hours later, in the late afternoon of the 15th, in Raleigh, the same card had been used again. The same signature was on it, and comparisons indicated it was hers.
Fearing that the trail might be cold after so many weeks, Perry and an assistant flew to North Carolina to interview the gas station attendants in the two cities. They wondered whether these men would remember anything at all.
But the men remembered, and the stories they told were macabre. In Charlotte, the attendant recalled a woman with a cut on her head, trying to hide her face, traveling in the company of a man who seemed to be giving her orders. In Raleigh, the attendant told of a "bloody woman," with blood even on her legs, traveling with two men.
If these stories were not odd enough, there was a coincidence that struck Perry when he first heard about the receipts: Charlotte was Little's hometown. It was the place where she had lived before moving to Atlanta, and her parents still lived there.
Since the drive from Charlotte and Raleigh was only two to three hours, Perry was left to wonder why Little was seen in those two cities 12 hours apart. Could it be possible that while Atlantans mobilized on that Friday to look for Little, she was being held somewhere in her own hometown?
Little's family in Charlotte were as puzzled by this as everyone else. They had heard nothing from their daughter, and had even traveled to Atlanta when they were told she was missing.
No previous theories made any of this easier to understand. Perhaps Little had been grabbed by a rapist, or perhaps as part of some undiscovered conspiracy. But in either case, why would an abductor drive her hundreds of miles to a place where she might be recognized, display her alive like a bloody trophy and force her to pay for a few dollars' worth of gas?
To add to the complications, Perry knew that if Little's car had in fact been moved in daylight at Lenox Square, he was dealing with more than one criminal. By the time the car was dropped off, the young woman already was far away in North Carolina.
Perry could get no good description of the car seen in the Tarheel state, and he learned to his dismay that the license plate on the vehicle had been a stolen one, taken in North Carolina. He was dealing with someone who took bizarre risks, someone who was either incredibly reckless or diabolically clever. But the identity and the motive of this person remained as shadowy as before.
And there the trail ended. Over the succeeding weeks and months, and finally years, Perry and his detectives re-examined every particle of evidence, with the same futile results. The veteran detective became convinced that some of his evidence had to be wrong, and he would mentally rule out each small piece while trying to fit the rest together into a coherent whole. It was good mental exercise, but it never yielded a suspect.
When he was put on the case, Perry had been warned by his boss that city officials wanted the mystery solved. But long after the political pressure had died away, he continued to keep the young bride in the back of his mind as he went on to solve hundreds of other cases. And he retained two unpublished scraps of information against which to test any future "leads." The disappearance of Mary Shotwell Little became a part of Atlanta folklore. Every few years there would be a bogus lead, sparked more by the media than by police, and the strange story would be rehashed, but the lead would turn out to be a hoax or the product of an overactive imagination.
Occasionally, there would be a development that would briefly raise hopes for a solution. In May 1967, for instance, a young woman named Dianne Shields was found strangled in suburban Atlanta. She had once briefly held the same job as Little, and it was reported that she, too, had received mysterious flowers. But police located and cleared the sender of those flowers, found no connection between the two women, and concluded that the cases were unrelated. Still the Shields slaying remains unsolved.
There are a few women in Atlanta who believe they saw Little murdered. They were children when the young bride disappeared, and in their memories are frightening images of her fate. In recent years, some of them have persuaded police to investigate their claims, with embarrassing results. Such things are not rare in murder investigations, but it is an enduring tragedy that the easygoing bank secretary should have become a fixture in some people's nightmares.
Barring a deathbed confession or an accidental discovery, it is unlikely that Little's disappearance will ever be solved. The people who investigated the case are long retired, and many, like Perry, are dead. So are many of Little's friends and relatives. As time goes on, her name will become more legendary, but it will arouse painful recollections in fewer and fewer people. Memories will fade, and only the media clips will remain.
But what of the vast police file on the case, one that filled a huge box? It met the same fate as Mary Shotwell Little.
Its been missing for years.
* Gerdeen Dyer wrote this in 1995, but he never stopped investigating the case. In 2004, as part of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigative team, he revisited the case, with new insights and witnesses. For that article, click here.
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