CORTLAND, Ohio (WKBN) — For sisters Kim Puleo and Bobbi Thompson and their cousin Shari Baxter, Sundays growing up were family days with dinner at the 165 High St. home of their grandparents, Hermer and Edna McLaughlin.

But someone took that away when the McLaughlins were murdered Dec. 10, 1973, in their home.

The case is still unsolved and has hung over the three throughout their childhood, teen and now adult years. They would like to see it solved.

But they are not the only ones who had their innocence stripped away. The murders were a shock to the small town which at the time was still a village with just one police officer, the legendary Chief David Murphy.

Hermer, 70, and Edna, 57, were shot and killed in their 165 High St. home a few minutes after 11 p.m., after a clerk had brought back receipts to the house from the corner store they ran on North Main Street.

At first glance, it appears investigators had some evidence to work with. A witness saw three men leaving the home and authorities also had a description of the car the suspects used. A lot of cases have been solved with far less.

Also, because the killings happened just after the receipts from the store were brought back to the house, police could have explored a robbery angle.

However, despite an investigation by police and the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office, the case went cold. In 1994, city police under former Chief Gary Mink reopened the investigation and even asked the then-popular television show Unsolved Mysteries to spotlight the case. They declined.

The case is still an unsolved mystery.

Hermer McLaughlin, cold case
Hermer McLaughlin

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Hermer was born Sept. 8, 1903, in Greenville, Pa., and worked on a farm early in his life, dropping out of school in eighth grade to help support his family. During World War II, he worked at Ravenna Arsenal and also spent two years at Republic Steel. He married Edna in October 1937.

Edna was born April 30, 1916, but it is not known where. She graduated from Linesville High School in Crawford County, Pa., and was a telephone operator before she met Hermer.

The couple had two daughters, Carol, Shari’s mom, and Mary Rose, the mother of Bobbi and Kim. A son, Richard, was stillborn.

The granddaughters said they were not sure how the two met, especially with a 13-year age difference.

While both ran the corner store, Hermer was active in volunteer firefighting and had returned from a fire association meeting just before he was killed.

Kim, the youngest of the three, does not have many memories of her grandparents, as they were killed when she was in third grade. She said her grandparents spent a lot of time at the store. She remembered helping at the store once a week.

“Every Monday was stock day, and we would help,” she said.

Bobbi remembered the Sunday dinners with the entire family — nine people in all. Shari lived in a house behind her grandparents and was a constant fixture there, she said.

She said her grandfather was active in firefighting circles, and he would often be waiting for her when she was dropped off by the school bus. Her grandmother excelled at knitting, Shari said.

One benefit of having her grandparents so close was access to their television, Shari said, back in the days before cable was available and there were at most four channels people had access to. Her grandparents had an antenna.

“They always had better channels on their television,” Shari said.

Edna McLaughlin, cold case
Edna McLaughlin

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Television wasn’t the only thing that was different in 1973.

Cortland was still a village, with a population of about 3,000. Residents interviewed by The Vindicator in the aftermath of the couple’s killing said it was not uncommon to leave their doors unlocked, even at night.

Six months before the McLaughlins were killed, the Cortland/Bazetta area was jarred by the deaths of industrialist C. Walter Holmquist and his wife Dorothy during a robbery at their Bazetta Township home. The killer was still on the loose when the McLaughlins were killed.

That crime, especially violent crime, would come to such a quiet place was a shock, but it was part of a nationwide trend, as crime rates across the country began to climb for a variety of reasons in the late 1960s and continued rising in the 1970s.

At the time, the population of Trumbull County was 232,579, with over 30,000 more residents than today. If you add in nearby Mahoning County, the area as a whole had a population of over 535,000 people. Today the combined population of both counties is 430,591.

Since 1973, Cortland has become a city and the population has more than doubled, with a 2020 census count of 6,664.

Competition for news in Trumbull County was fierce, with the daily newspapers in Warren, The Tribune Chronicle and The Vindicator in Youngstown duking it out for readership, and a lot of their stories, especially on the front page, in 1973, were on violent crime.

The morning the McLaughins were killed, investigators with the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office arrested a woman for the shooting death of her husband in Weathersfield. A couple of days after the McLaughlins died, deputies were investigating another shooting when a man picked up two teenage girls he knew at Western Reserve High School in Warren, drove them to a secluded area on Knoll Avenue in Warren Township and shot them both. One of them died.

There was more than crime going on.

Drivers were faced with the possibility of a gas shortage because of the decision by the oil-producing nations in OPEC to scale back production as a result of U.S. support for Israel during the Six-Day War, and President Nixon was mulling over a proposal that motorists be limited to just 10 gallons a week. Gas stations were also asked to close on Sundays. Truck drivers were going on wildcat strikes across the country, protesting the high cost of diesel fuel and clogging up truck plazas nationwide.

The average price of a gallon of gas in 1973 was a whopping 39 cents.

And that was good, because most cars were gas guzzlers, although they could be had for what would today be a song.

A 1974 Chevy Caprice cost $3,595 at State Chevrolet, while Strausbaugh Dodge had a used ’73 Coupe Deville for the drive-off-the-lot price of $3,099.

Stores were beginning to prepare for the holidays, and the two newspapers were filled with ads for gifts, especially jewelry and watches. The NFL regular season was wrapping up, with the Steelers defeating the Houston Oilers 33-7 in the Astrodome Dec. 9 on their way to a 10-4 record and a playoff berth. The Browns, on the other hand, were drubbed by the Bengals 34-17 at Municipal Stadium the same day, dropping their record to 7-4-2. They lost their season finale the next weekend to the Rams to finish the year at 7-5-2. It was the season O.J. Simpson became the first runner to top 2,000 yards in a season, as he finished the year with a then-record 2,003 yards.

Monday night football was in its fourth year on television, and the Rams were well on their way to a 40-6 pounding of the visiting New York Giants when a clerk dropped off the day’s receipts to the McLaughlins just after 11 p.m. at their High Street home…

McLauglin murder newspaper article
A Tribune Chronicle article on the killings in 1973.

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Later, Shari said she thought something was funny because when she looked out the back of her house, the lights were ablaze at her grandparents’ home despite the fact it was after 11 p.m. on a school night, although she added her grandfather had just returned home from a fire association meeting. She never heard any gunfire or saw anything out of the ordinary.

Shari’s mom, Carol, found her parents in the house, according to an account of the murder published in The Vindicator. Edna was already dead and Hermer was alive, but badly injured, and unconscious. Carol called police about 11:10 p.m. after hearing the shots and running to her parents’ home.

Hermer was taken to the then Trumbull Memorial Hospital in Warren, but he was never able to say anything. He died about a half-hour after his daughter called police.

Murphy told the newspaper a neighbor had seen a white car pull into the McLaughlins’ drive and three men got out, one of them carrying something that resembled a broom that Murphy later told the newspaper was probably the .12-gauge shotgun used to gun down the couple.

It appeared to be a robbery because the receipts were taken, Murphy said. However, a large amount of cash remained in the home. One room was ransacked, but that was it. There did not appear to be a struggle or any signs of a forced entry.

Not much of the aftermath of the investigation was reported on. About a week before she was killed, Edna had made a report to police about a counterfeit bill, and newspaper accounts said she had remarked she was afraid of retribution because she reported it.

There was also another angle; because of the then unsolved deaths of the Holmquists, some were wondering if there was a connection between the two crimes. The same weapon, a .12-gauge shotgun, was used in both double homicides.

Trumbull County Coroner Dr. Joseph Sudimack told The Vindicator the similarities in the two cases were “striking.”

Murphy, who had been a cop in the village for over 30 years, said he couldn’t remember another murder in Cortland.

As a tribute to how people felt about the McLaughlins and also a commentary about the small town fabric of the village, a $10,000 reward was offered the next day for any information on the people who committed the murders.

It has never been collected.

Picture of Hermer McLaughlin at a parade.

***

For Shari, Bobbi and Kim, the days to come would usher in years of confusion, loss and frustration.

Shari said her father had just come home from a fire association meeting, and he woke her up. When she saw all the lights on, she was confused.

“I didn’t quite understand why all the lights were on,” she said.

When she was told what happened, she said she was “absolutely shocked.”

Bobbi also remembers being woken up by her parents, who told her “there was a bad accident.” Her paternal grandparents came over to watch the children while her mother and father went to see what they could do for Hermer and Edna.

Kim said she does not remember much of being told the news, but she does remember being confused.

“I really didn’t understand what they were telling me,” Kim said. “It didn’t dawn on me until at the funeral home; Dad took me into his arms to see my grandmother. I swear she moved.”

Shari’s father was a millwright and also a volunteer firefighter. One thing she does remember is police and others trampling through the crime scene. She said her father was even able to gain access to the house, which would be unheard of today.

Because of her father’s work with the fire department, he knew a lot of police officers, Shari said. She said it was her father who found the shotgun shells in the living room that were used in the shooting. He gave them to investigators.

Because she lived so close to her grandparents and now lives in the home where they lost their lives, Shari has the most to say of the three granddaughters, probably because she is surrounded by their presence.

Shari doesn’t believe her grandparents were killed in a robbery. She thinks there were other reasons.

The three were young and grew up with grief, but their parents, who were older, took the loss especially hard, the three said. Kim said her parents were quiet in later years, and they always made sure to lock their doors.

That was the unofficial mantra of the village after the couple was killed. One person described by The Vindicator as a hardware store owner said his sales of what then passed for home security — guns and locks — skyrocketed just a week after the killings.

“I’ve sold more guns, ammunition and locks this week than ever before,” the merchant told the newspaper. What he especially noticed was that people were buying ammunition for older types of guns that he suspected people had been keeping in storage.

Another merchant told the newspaper, “the town is scared. The people are shook.”

But the hardware store owner suggested he did not think guns would really help.

“You’d be up against professionals,” he said, “and what would you do?”

A Plain Dealer article on the deaths of the McLaughlins.

***

Bobbi was a student at Howland High School when her grandparents were killed, and after she graduated, she got a job on U.S. 422. She said she had a lot of anger and bitterness and wasn’t quite sure what she should do, so she decided to try and find out on her own what happened to her grandparents by going to different places on The Strip after she was done with work.

It was the Salad Days for the famed strip, where people in the early 70s flocked to places like the El Rio or The Flamingo or The Living Room, and Bobbi would go by herself and hang out and see if she could pick up any scuttlebutt on the deaths of her grandparents.

She never did hear anything and after a while, the hanging out stopped.

“It’s done,” she said. “You can’t find nothing. You live your life and hope the police can do their job.”

Cortland police have not forgotten the case. Detective John Weston said there are plans afoot to have the state attorney general’s Cold Case Unit assist the department in reexamining the case.

Weston said they were in talks for that to happen just before COVID-19 hit the world in March of 2020 and that was put on the back burner, but with cases of the virus trending down, they expect to be in touch with the AG’s office again.

“We’re hoping to get them involved again in the future,” said Weston, who has been a police officer in Cortland since 1988.

There are at least three boxes of evidence the department has in storage, but Weston did not want to give specifics on what investigators may or may not have because he did not want to tip off any potential suspects. He did say police were still interviewing people about the case in 1978.

Although it seems against the odds for an arrest or any other headway to be made in a case that is almost 50 years old, there is precedent, including locally.

In 2013, prosecutors in Mahoning County were able to indict then 64-year-old James Ferrara for the brutal Dec. 13, 1974, murders of Benjamin Marsh, 33; his wife, Marilyn, 32; and daughter, Heather, 4, in their South Turner Road home in Canfield Township. A 1-year-old son, Christopher, was found unharmed more than a day later, crawling in his mother’s blood.

At the time he was indicted, Ferrara was serving a life sentence for an unrelated 1982 double homicide in Columbus. Investigators with the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office looked to reopen the Marsh case in 2009 and were informed by the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, which helped investigate the crime scene, that they had a fingerprint that was lifted from the home.

The fingerprint was then checked against possible matches and was matched to Ferrara. Ferrara was interviewed in prison and denied ever being at the home, but when he went on trial in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, his attorneys could not explain how his fingerprint was at the scene of a triple homicide on the door that was used to gain entry to the home. The fact that Ferrara, who people said prided himself on being a jailhouse sage and lawyer, did not exercise his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination made any kind of explanation even harder.

A jury convicted Ferrara, and he was sentenced to three terms of life in prison without parole to run consecutive to the sentence he was serving for the double homicide.

In June 2021, police in Great Falls, Mont., were able to clear the Jan. 2, 1956, double murder of U.S. Air Force Airman Duane Bogle, 18 and his 16-year-old girlfriend Patricia Kalitzke. Investigators were able to take semen that was found in a vaginal swab during Kalitzke’s autopsy and link it to a man who was 29 at the time, Kenneth Gould.

Gould, a married father of two at the time of the killings, moved a month later, but investigators used a hereditary DNA database to track him down. Although Gould died in 2007, family members supplied DNA and it matched the DNA found on the vaginal swab, leading police to close the case.

Of course, in 1973, DNA technology was not even a thought in solving crimes, and it is not known if any fingerprints or any other physical evidence was found or preserved. If there is, Weston would not say.

Investigators typically say the key to cracking open a cold case, especially a very old one, is some type of physical evidence that can tie a suspect to a crime scene. Witnesses are important, but memories can fade over time. Physical evidence doesn’t lie and doesn’t have any memory problems.

“Two people can see three different things,” Weston said.

As for a link with the Holmquist case, Trumbull County prosecutors got a break in 1977, when John Tidwell, now 73, was charged with the crime. He pleaded guilty to a murder charge after a trial where the jury failed to reach a verdict. He served a lengthy prison sentence in California before being returned to Ohio in 2019 to begin serving a sentence for the killing of the Holmquists.

An accomplice in the Holmquist case testified against Tidwell during his trial in exchange for immunity.

The granddaughters think Tidwell had something to do with their grandparents’ deaths. Kim said she will never forget the day he returned to Ohio from California to start his sentence here and there was a January tornado that churned through nearby Mosquito Lake and knocked over a tree in the cemetery where her grandparents are buried.

***

Shortly after her grandparents died, Kim had a vivid dream, of being in her grandparents’ house and following people around who were investigating the crime. There was fingerprint dust all around in her dream, she said, but the dream was devoid of faces; “I couldn’t make out a face or anything like that.”

It was Kim who reached out to ask a reporter to write about the case almost 50 years after it happened because she said she was hoping to see the case solved.

Shari said if she could ask who is responsible, she would ask why. Bobbi said she is not too concerned with the why.

“I don’t know if I care why,” she said. “It’s done.”

Shari lives in the same house where her grandparents died.

“It’s comforting,” she said. “I feel their presence there.”

This story is part of a series of cold cases that WKBN is examining.

Do you have a cold case that you’d like us to look into further? Submit a cold case to WKBN.

Anyone with information on this case can call Cortland police at 330-638-1000, ext. 1625.