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Indianapolis True Crime: The 1964 71st Street Murder

Updated: Jun 18, 2019

In 1964, the northeast side of Indianapolis in the area south of Castleton was on the verge of a dramatic change. Traditionally rural, the area was still dominated by farms and country lanes, while at the same time, subdivisions were beginning to sprout up as the city moved northward. Interstate 465 had yet to cut through the area, and local businessman and landowner Skiles Test had died in March of that year.

That August, on Saturday the 29th, local resident Erich Tuschinsky was driving along 71st towards his home on the northwest corner of 71st and Indiana 1, also known as Shadeland Avenue, just north of the Skiles Test estate. It was around 6:30 pm as Erich made the turn off of 71st into his driveway. As he did so, he glanced down a narrow gravel road which ran adjacent to his property, and spotted something that he would tell local media looked like a “fender of a car.” He pulled his car into the lane, and found no car, but instead found the charred remains of a corpse.

The location of Erich's discovery is now occupied by Interstate 465, although Erich’s home is still present at the corner 71st and Shadeland. The lane itself, formed something of a detour around his home and between 71st and Shadeland. The site is also just to the northwest of Skiles Test Elementary, which was under construction at the time of the murder.

This 1962 aerial image shows the possible location of murder in the red square. Erich's home is directly to the right of the red square. Interstate 465 would run right through the red square. Skiles Test Elementary would be built on the clear land southwest of the square.

Erich returned home where his wife described him as being “as pale as a ghost” to the Indianapolis Star. Erich’s wife called the fire department who in turn called the Marion County Sheriff. The remains of what was determined to be a male were laying on his back, with his hands reaching into the air. The coroner reported that the victim appeared to have been killed my multiple blows from an axe. Additionally, there was a clear burn trail several feet long leading to the body, suggesting the use of an accelerant.

The Indianapolis Star pulled no punches with its August 30, 1964 edition which featured a headline screaming “Burned, Hacked Body Found,” accompanied with a gruesome photo of the scene of the crime, complete with the remains of the victim, and a clear as day burn trail. A link to the full size clipping of this front page can be found here.

Facts would spin wildly for the next few days of the investigation. The age of the victim was theorized as being from the mid 20's to latter 40's. Law enforcement also theorized that the perpetrator had burned the body to eliminate evidence, including fingerprints. However, a print from the right thumb was eventually recovered.

Police canvassed the local area to see if anyone had seen anything suspicious or seen any unfamiliar cars. The coroner estimated the victim had been dead 12 to 18 hours. A local resident, Warren Hogan, lived at 7162 N. Shadeland and said that he and his wife had used the gravel road Friday morning, and saw nothing suspicious. A report of a fight near Allisonville the night before where a man was badly beaten was investigated for a connection. Additionally, police investigated the discovery of an ax used in a burglary to chop a safe at a local residence out of the wall. However, both cases proved to have no connection with the 71st Street murder. A survey crew in the area on Saturday morning also reported seeing nothing suspicious. Additionally, Marion County Sheriff Deputy Omar Rooks Jr. had used the lane as a turnaround that same day and did not see any body or anything else to arouse suspicion.

The victim had no identification, and the damage from the fire further discouraged a visual identification. However, clues were found on the remains. First, the victim was wearing a Catholic Immaculate Conception medal (early media reports misidentified this as a St. Christopher medal). Additionally, he was wearing a Timex watch (which was stuck at 12:40), and he had a full upper denture and a partial lower plate. Photos of the dentures dental implant information were cross checked with the IU School of Dentistry in Indianapolis, and were also sent to all 470 dentists in Marion County.

Fingerprint checks by the Indianapolis and Indiana State Police Departments revealed no matches, and the prints were also being checked by the FBI with no luck. Detectives checked with the only Catholic supply business in Indianapolis, but the victim’s medal was not one kept in stock in Indianapolis. The lack of solid leads led investigators to theorize that the victim was a transient. One theory was that he had been involved in the Indiana State Fair, which was in progress at the time of the murder.

Indianapolis News, September 3, 1964

Despite the available evidence, no suspects were identified, and the identity of the victim remained a mystery and the investigation slowed during the remainder of 1964. However, a break was about to occur. On Thursday, February 5, 1965, the Indianapolis News reported that the previous evening, police in Texarkana, Texas spotted a vehicle parked in an alley a few blocks from the local police station. The car had a Indiana dealers license plate which had been attached with wire and a shattered back window. This raised the suspicion of the police, who upon looking into the car found a large amount of blood spread in the interior. No one was in the car and no driver was in sight. A few hours later, an officer spotted a man in an alley wearing a heavy winter coat and snow boots. Thinking this was odd the officer asked the man to stop and requested dentification. The photo on the drivers license he produced did match and the man evaded questions.

Eventually the man identified himself as Charles Leo Crawford, and admitted that the car was his, and admitted to killing a hitchhiker a few days before in Missouri. Additionally, under questioning Crawford admitted to two other killings back in Indianapolis: The shooting death of Lewis Briggs, a part time cab driver in Irvington in November of 1964, and the still unidentified male whose remains had been found burned on 71st Street. Both cases were still unsolved. Crawford provided written statements admitting to these crimes and waived his right to attorney prior to confessing. 

Indianapolis Star, September 18, 1964 marriage annoucement for Charles and Paula.

Charles Crawford was an ex-convict who had been released from a federal psychiatric facility near Springfield, Missouri in June 1964, following imprisonment for a kidnapping charge. After his release, he had come to Indianapolis (where his mother and step father still lived) and married Paula McElfresh in September of 1964. At the time of his arrest it was reported that he  was residing at 313 Eastern on the south side of Indianapolis with Paula, who was pregnant.

1965 Indianapolis City Directory, IUPUI Library

Interestingly, the 1965 city directory put Crawford and his wife at 1554 Ringgold, with no mention of the Eastern street address. He was reported to be a sewing machine salesman for the Select Sewing Service Company and had left Indianapolis the previous Monday. He told police that he had stolen the car in Terre Haute (other reports say this theft occurred in Indianapolis) and picked up the hitchhiker near St. Louis. After leaving St. Louis, Crawford told Texas authorities that he found he was running out of gas so he killed the hitchhiker and took his money.

The man found on 71st Street was known to Crawford and was named Ambrose Victor Best. The two men had been imprisoned together in Springfield, Missouri, during which time they had also been lovers. Crawford was released in June while Best was paroled on August 27, two days before his murder. Best was originally from Clinton, North Carolina. Crawford told Texas police that he had killed Best with a meat cleaver when Best turned up in Indianapolis.  

Indianapolis News, February 4, 1965

Best's disappearance after his release from prison had been noted by authorities. The Indianapolis Star reported on February 10, 1965, that the FBI had been looking into Best after he failed to report to a parole officer in North Carolina. The FBI was aware of the relationship between Crawford and Best while they were incarcerated and an agent had actually interviewed Crawford (photo at the time of his arrest to the left)  in December of 1964 to find out if he had seen Best or knew his whereabouts since Best's August 27 release. Per the Star's report, Crawford told the agent that Best had come to see him on August 28, but Crawford stated that he "didn't want to continue their relationship," so he took Best to the bus station to catch a bus to North Carolina. The FBI explained to the media that they had been following leads for Best all over the country, and since the unsolved 71st murder was not in their jurisdiction, they were not aware of a possible connection. Considering that Crawford admitted to seeing Best the day before his burned body was found, and his past relationship with Best, it seems likely a connection could have been made if the FBI had been aware of the murder.

Indianapolis Star, February 5, 1965

After his arrest in Texas, Crawford was sent back to Missouri where he was charged with the murder of the hitchhiker, found guilty, and received a life sentence. Based on Crawford's statements to Texas officials, Indianapolis police located a meat cleaver at his parents home at 2905 Sumner Ave. which was used by Crawford to kill Best. The cleaver still had remnants of blood and hair left from the day of the crimes. What was also revealed by Crawford's statement was that Best had not been killed on the gravel lane off of 71st Street, but in a wooded area near his parents' home, after he and Best had had dinner together. Crawford had also told Texas authorities that he killed Best "to get him out of the way." He then dumped the body on the northeast side and attempted to burn the remains. Of the three murders, Briggs and the hitchhiker had been killed with a firearm, specifically, with gunshots to the head. Best had been killed with a cleaver, a decidedly more personal method, perhaps reflective of their past relationship. 

Crawford's experience with the Indiana justice system in regard to the murder of Best and Briggs was somewhat odd. In 1973, while still incarcerated in Missouri, the Indianapolis Star reported that Crawford had been indicted in Marion County for the murder of Arthur Best. Due to Crawford's incarceration in Missouri, nothing else came of this indictment, or was so reported, until 1990, when Crawford was nearing possible parole in the summer of that year. The Missouri parole board was apparently unaware of the Indiana murders and despite the 1973 indictment for the Best killing, those charges were later dropped on speedy trial grounds.

However, the family of Lewis Briggs, including his son, had not forgotten and began to lobby Marion County officials, especially prosecutor Stephen Goldsmith, to pursue charges before Crawford was paroled. According to a May 23, 1990 Indianapolis Star article, authorities would try to get Crawford on at least one of the murders he committed in Indianapolis. The article noted that Marion County officials had not acted earlier because they had thought the life sentence in Missouri would have seen Crawford die in prison. Goldsmith admitted the flaw in this policy: "There was a policy made that if a person was going to stay in prison for life, he wouldn't be prosecuted on additional charges. It was probably not the right decision."  In 1990, Marion County forwarded a request for detainer for Crawford, noting the pending murder charges. 

Being informed of Crawford's crimes in Indiana, Missouri halted the parole proceedings, but it wasn't until April 1993 that Crawford was returned to Marion County and appeared in court for his initial hearing on the charge related to with Briggs' death. After several continuances, and a waiver of his right to a jury trial, Crawford's case for the murder of Briggs went to a bench trail (trial where the judge acts as the jury) on February 14, 1994, and a guilty verdict was retuned on March 11. Crawford appealed and his case reached the Indiana Supreme Court in 1996. A link to the case can be found here. Crawford argued various grounds for his appeal, including that his right to a speedy trial had been denied since it had taken the state 30 years to bring charges.

However, the court noted that charges had not been brought for the Briggs until 1990, and the delay of the trial until 1994 was part of the normal course of prosecutions. Crawford's other argument were also not persuasive, and the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed his conviction for first degree murder. Justice DeBruler was the lone dissent on the appeal. If you have time, I recommend reading the entire Supreme Court opinion authored by then Justice Sullivan. It is a very detailed account of the criminal proceedings related to the three murders committed by Crawford and provides background information on his arrest and the crimes in general. 

The situation relating to the Ambrose Best case appears to have run into a dead end. A few days after facing charges for the Briggs murder in 1993, Crawford was formally charged with the murder of Best. Speedy trial issues were again at hand, as they had been in the 1970's, but the judge ruled that while the indictment had been dropped, there was no sign that the case had been closed; thus clearing the way for Crawford to be charged for Best's murder. However, there are no further media reports related to the Best murder charges, or a trial. Considering the guilty verdict in the Briggs case, it is possible that the prosecutor chose to no longer pursue the Best case. Crawford would spend the remainder of his life in the Indiana Department of Corrections. I have been unable to find his obituary, although DOC records note that he is deceased. Paula Crawford filed for divorce from Charles in 1967. No further information was found for her, nor was any birth notice found for the child she carried at the time of was carrying when Charles was arrested. 

Ambrose Best was buried in his hometown of Clinton, North Carolina. In the end, there aren't very many details about Best, and no photos of him were located. Considering Indianapolis was his first stop the day after being paroled in 1964, it would seem that he still felt some connection with Crawford from their time in prison. Unfortunately, his sad story ended violently at the hands of a person he probably trusted. 

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