Murder in Three Acts1
George Edgerly has had more brushes with greatness than most career criminals. In 1960, with the help of F. Lee Bailey, Edgerly beat a murder rap and years later he was prosecuted by John Kerry for the 1975 rape of a Massachusetts prostitute.
F. Lee Bailey, of course, is perhaps one of America’s best known defense attorneys with clients like O.J. Simpson and Patty Hearst, among many others. John Kerry is the former senator from Massachusetts and 2004 Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States. As of 2014 he is the Secretary of State of the United States, which disproves the belief that there are no second acts in America.
Bailey and Kerry both pulled a victory out of what appeared to be sure defeat, and in each case their performances helped thrust them into the limelight.
But this isn’t a story about Bailey or Kerry. It is the sordid tale of murder and mayhem that seemed to follow George Edgerly throughout his life.
Act I: The Murder of Elizabeth Edgerly
The story begins in December 1959, when Edgerly’s 25-year-old wife, Elizabeth disappeared after a confrontation with her husband, in Lowell, Mass., across the river from their home in Dracut. The couple had had a stormy relationship and Edgerly reportedly had a wicked temper. On more than one occasion, Elizabeth was seen with bruises and cuts that she blamed on her husband, and several witnesses testified at his 1960 murder trial that Edgerly and Elizabeth had been fighting the day she disappeared.
Elizabeth’s disappearance on December 27, 1959, was the climax of an escalating monthlong fight between the husband and wife that began on Thanksgiving Day when several people heard Edgerly tell his wife, “I’ll kill you yet” when she asked him to go out and buy a loaf of bread. Edgerly was irked because his brother-in-law and his wife were sharing Thanksgiving dinner despite the fact that Edgerly was unemployed at the time.
Two weeks before Elizabeth vanished, Edgerly’s temper once again raised its head when Elizabeth, her brother, and another man were enjoying a few drinks at the Tremont Cafe. Edgerly appeared and tried to pull Elizabeth out of the booth. Elizabeth’s brother, Francis Hawkins, accompanied his sister out to Edgerly’s car and when Edgerly emerged from the tavern, he attempted to throttle Hawkins. The unidentified friend happened to have a handgun and Edgerly reportedly tried to grab it from him.
“He would have killed the three of us,” Hawkins said on the stand.
On December 27, Hawkins, Elizabeth, and Edgerly were drinking together at the Three Pines Restaurant in Middleton, where they ate dinner. The trio then headed to an Allenhurst restaurant where they continued to drink. Hawkins was upset that his wife had become pregnant by another man, and the trio was discussing his options. After about three hours of drinking, the group left and headed back toward Dracut. Both Hawkins and the barmaid said that Elizabeth was so intoxicated when she left the bar that she had to be physically helped to the car. Hawkins said she was unconscious when Edgerly dropped him off at around 11:15 p.m.
No one ever saw Elizabeth Edgerly alive again.
Hawkins and Edgerly met up again around 4:30 a.m., and Hawkins noted that his brother-in-law had changed clothes. Hawkins asked about his sister and Edgerly told him she had “taken off” at the corner of Pawtucket and School streets in Lowell.
“Betty won’t be home tonight,” Edgerly told his brother-in-law.
When Hawkins saw Edgerly in the early morning hours of December 28, he said Edgerly was holding his right hand inside his coat and kept it there until he went into a shed behind his home where he remained for three or four minutes.
Edgerly did not report his wife missing because, according to him, it wasn’t unusual for her to disappear for days at a time. After Elizabeth’s mother contacted police, Edgerly told them that he had stopped to aid a motorist stuck in the snow at the intersection of Pawtucket and School and when he returned she had vanished.
Edgerly became a suspect in his wife’s disappearance when he offered differing accounts of his actions after Elizabeth vanished and contradicted himself about what he was wearing that night.
However, without a body, no outward signs of foul play, and a woman who was known to spend days away from home, the police had no case against him.
Over the next several months Edgerly was repeatedly questioned by police and according to testimony at his murder trial, took more than 20 lie detector tests. It was not until April 11, 1960 that police were able to get the results they were seeking.
“Now we have what we want,” Lieutenant George Harnois of the District Attorney’s office told Edgerly after that final test. “I think you killed her.”
Edgerly was nonplussed.
“You have the right to your own opinion,” he replied.
Edgerly had been brought into headquarters for questioning that day because two young boys had found a dismembered female torso in a Dracut brook. The head, arms, and legs were missing, but police surmised that it belonged to Elzabeth.
The autopsy revealed that the woman had been slain just a couple of hours after she had eaten, and that the killer had taken great pains to hide the woman’s identity. The killer had used a hacksaw to dismember the corpse and then taken a knife to remove signs of a goiter.
A search of Edgerly’s shed revealed a package of 12 hacksaw blades with four missing. Police could not find a hacksaw and Edgerly, an automobile mechanic, said he had lost his about a year before.
Police also found evidence of bloody clothes in the trunk of Edgerly’s car, which he explained away as the result of an assault on his wife before Christmas, when she was absent for a few days.
About a week after the torso was found, a search of the area revealed the legs that belonged with the torso. Missing, however, was one foot that was malformed because of a previous injury.
Edgerly went on trial in February 1960, and Bailey joined the defense team about halfway through the 17-day affair.
“George was an interesting guy, pretty unflappable. He was screwing both his mother-in-law and his wife’s sisters. That was evidence in the trial,” Bailey told Jeffrey Toobin in a 2004 New Yorker article on John Kerry. “He was sitting in an iron cage in the middle of the courtroom, which is where defendants used to have to sit in those days.”
Bailey was called in to refute the polygraph testimony, and his masterful cross-examination and summing up were credited by many with helping Edgerly win an acquittal.
“This is a case of circumstantial evidence,” Bailey told jurors. “Nobody saw Edgerly murder his wife and no one so testified. Circumstantial evidence is like a chain and no chain is stronger than its weakest link.”
For their part, the prosecutors admitted that Hawkins was a convicted criminal who hated his brother-in-law, but that the jurors should not hold that against him. The state acknowledged that the case was circumstantial, but explained that this was to be expected.
“When a man intends to kill his wife, he does not invite the same people to the murder that he invited to the wedding,” prosecutor Frank Monarski told jurors.
After 10 hours, the jury decided that the state had not overcome the burden of proof and Edgerly was freed.
Act II: Motorgate
On February 1, 1974, a Beverly, Mass. resident spotted something washed up on the shore of the Danvers River. Investigating, he realized it was a corpse and police were summoned. What began as a routine murder investigation would quietly become a national scandal involving the country’s largest automobile manufacturer. Several people would go to jail for fraud and theft, and George Edgerly would end up on trial for murder once again.
The victim, Francis Smith, was a Boston resident who was employed as a district service representative for General Motors’s Chevrolet Division. Police quickly recreated his last day alive, finding that he had spent his workday at the automobile dealership owned by R. Gordon Butler in Lowell. The last known people to see him that day were a Butler Chevy service department employee, James Dolson, and his boss, George Edgerly. It was Smith’s job to monitor Butler’s warranty repair jobs. The large dealership was expected to perform about $30,000 in monthly warranty work, but Butler was doing nearly twice that.
While police in Middlesex County looked at the criminal side of things, auditors with General Motors began to examine the company’s warranty program for possible fraud. The company would eventually uncover hundreds of thousands of dollars in padded warranty repair bills and large-scale violations of the company’s ethics policy that forbids employees from accepting anything other than “nominal” gifts from dealerships. General Motors would maintain a tight lid on the extent of the problem, but after a 15-month internal investigation, about 36 employees in the company’s Northeast offices were summarily terminated for “violating company policies.”
About the same time that the employees were terminated, Butler, Edgerly, and the dealership’s general manager were indicted by a Boston grand jury for theft and fraud.
Under the direction of the that trio, repairmen for the dealership were submitting false claims to General Motors for warranty work. Customers would bring in their cars for simple repairs — which the mechanics would do — but GM was billed for extensive repair jobs like engine rebuilds and transmission work. GM not only paid for the repairs that were never done, but would also send replacement parts that were subsequently sold to other customers.
When the press got wind of the story in those post-Watergate years, the scandal was quickly dubbed “Motorgate.”
In 1976, Edgerly was sentenced to three to five years in prison. Butler and his general manager, Theodore Kemos, were given two years in prison and fined $2,500 each.
For Edgerly, however, the conviction in that case was small potatoes. A month after Smith’s body was found, Edgerly had been indicted for his murder.
Interlude: The Edgerly Rape Case
John Kerry was beginning his public service career as an assistant district attorney when he was tapped to serve as prosecutor in Edgerly’s 1977 rape case. It was not a very strong case against Edgerly, despite the witnesses to the assault.
The rape began on January 1, 1975 when Edgerly and three other men picked up the young woman, a prostitute, at a Merrimack Street bar in Lowell and drove the woman to a wooded area where they forced her to perform oral sex. She also claimed that Edgerly attempted to rape her, “but was unable to complete the act.” After the assault, the men drove their victim back to the bar.
“Kerry told me this Edgerly was a lucky guy. This could be a snakebit case. It was not a slam dunk,” one of Kerry’s co-workers told Toobin in the New Yorker article. “Nobody was going to try that case if you were looking just to put a notch in your belt.”
Edgerly held the upper hand in the case, Kerry acknowledged.
“It was an improbable kind of case,” Kerry told Toobin. “The victim was very suspect because of her life style and background. The bottom line was that she did not consent, the bottom line was that she had been raped.”
Raped or not, the victim had not helped her own case by trying to extort money from Edgerly to make the case go away. She admitted on the stand that she was willing to accept money from Edgerly, but said it was simply a ruse to get him to admit his guilt.
The other men in the car — each of whom admitted he had lied in previous statements to investigators — testified that Edgerly, 49, had sexually assaulted the woman and the jury convicted him of rape. For the first time in his life, Edgerly was given serious jail time: 18-to-30 years.
Act III: The Murder of Frank Smith
The break in the Smith murder case came long before investigators in the Motorgate fraud case wrapped up their probe — and before Edgerly faced off with John Kerry.
A few weeks after Smith’s body turned up in the marsh along the Danvers River, police were called to the local hospital where James Dolson — the Butler Chevy employee who spent the last day with Edgerly and Smith — was lying near death from a stab wound. He wanted to talk to authorities.
Dolson told police that he had witnessed Edgerly shoot Smith and dump his body in the Danvers River after a 12-hour booze fest. Over the course of their liquid lunch that stretched late into the night, Edgerly was reportedly waving a pistol around and at one point asked Smith “if he wanted to go for a ride.”
Dolson found his tongue after Edgerly lured him to a remote cabin and stabbed him. Another man, Jackie Shanahan, was also present that day and turned state’s evidence to avoid being charged himself.
Edgerly, already serving time for his role in Motorgate and for rape, was charged with assault against Dolson. At trial, he took the stand and said Shanahan stabbed Dolson because of some feud between the two men. Shanahan denied this, but Edgerly was acquitted.
In 1978, Edgerly went on trial for Smith’s murder. The evidence against him was once again circumstantial, but with Dolson’s admission of seeing Edgerly shoot Smith — a man he had reason to want dead — this time it was Edgerly who faced an uphill battle to establish his innocence.
At trial, the prosecution introduced witnesses who would testify that Edgerly asked them for a gun, saying there was someone “he wanted to frighten,” and Shanahan, who admitted getting the pistol for his friend.
Shanahan also testified that Edgerly wanted to get rid of Dolson “because he saw him kill someone.”
Edgerly took the stand in his own defense and blamed the killing on his old boss, Gordon Butler.
Butler, Edgerly claimed, was involved in drug smuggling. On one trip to Mexico, Edgerly found that Dolson was carrying two aerosol bottles filled with drugs for Butler. Edgerly told the jury that he dumped out the drugs in an airport bathroom.
Butler and his Motorgate co-conspirator, Ted Kemos, began pressuring Edgerly for the drugs, claiming that they were connected with the Boston Mob. Panicking, Edgerly told Kemos that Smith had taken the drugs.
It was the Mob that killed Smith, he said.
The jury did not believe him, and in 1978, Edgerly was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Edgerly, now an extremely old man, is in custody at the Massachusetts Department of Corrections Shirley Institution.