Article Thumbnail

Six Decades After a Gruesome Murder Spree, the ‘Pied Piper of Tucson’ Still Leaves His Mark

In the ’60s, he was ‘King of the Teenagers,’ adored by high schoolers and their parents. But behind Charles Schmid’s super-cool facade lay the mind of a psychopath

Charles Schmid Jr. was the king of the teenagers. Think Fonzie from Happy Days: With an affected Elvis curl on his lip, he was the essence of early 1960s cool. Everyone wanted to be around “Smitty” — as they affectionately called him — and the hamburger drive-ins and jukebox joints all along Tucson’s Speedway Boulevard were Schmid’s stomping grounds for drinking, cruising and picking up girls. Parents loved him. Girls adored him. Guys envied him. Schmid’s moniker amongst the local teens: “The Pied Piper of Tucson.” 

“He’d ride up to the high school in his red Chevy convertible and everyone would come running over,” is how his best friend, Richard Bruns, described the scene during the era. “A pretty boy, an idol, the teenager’s hero, wild and cool Smitty, the parent’s ideal.”

But Schmid wasn’t a high school student: He was a 23-year-old man who would try to look and dress as a teenager to lure in adolescent girls. Schmid was also a serial killer.

As it would eventually transpire, Schmid brutally murdered three teenage girls — the first, he says, for “kicks” — and then dumped their bodies by “the old drinking spot” out in the desert. He bragged openly about these homicides, yet the high school girls still wanted to date him, and his buddies refused to snitch. The kids would keep his horrific secrets as he wooed the teens to help him commit his dirty work. 

“Almost as fantastic as the murders themselves was the disclosure that at least 30 teenagers, all friends of Schmid’s, had apparently heard him brag about the crimes — and said nothing,” states a Time magazine article. “Confided one 16-year-old coed at Tucson’s Palo Verde High School: ‘A lot of people knew, but it was already too late. Telling would just have made it tough on everyone.’”

Imagine Arthur Fonzarelli suddenly becoming a serial murderer and boasting about it while Potsie and Ralph Malph don’t breathe a word. That’s what was happening in this sleepy Arizona town: a nefarious rampage that later became the diabolical muse to such artists as Joyce Carol Oates, inspiring her 1966 short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The 1971 movie The Todd Killings, featuring Richard Thomas (John Boy from The Waltons), was likewise based on the Schmid murders, as well as the 1985 Laura Dern vehicle Smooth Talk and Rose McGowan’s 2014 directorial debut, Dawn.

Schmid’s murder spree was very much a product of the times. In 1964, an underbelly of turmoil was lurking: Teenagers were moving on from being Archie Comic-esque high schoolers; JFK had just been assassinated; a generational discourse was beginning to rumble over the Vietnam War; and teens running away from home and dismissing their parents’ suburban values was becoming more commonplace. As such, when a rebellious high schooler went missing, murder wasn’t always the first conclusion to be drawn.

Much like Charles Manson, Schmid was a charismatic sociopath who preyed upon vulnerable adolescent girls. But unlike Manson, Smitty wasn’t a career criminal: He was a rich kid (albeit adopted), one who’d once led his high school gymnastic team to a state championship. Smitty bragged that his money came from smuggling cars from Mexico, but in reality, he cruised Tucson on a $300 a month allowance ($2,515 in today’s money) from his step-parents. He also had reign over their credit cards and lived rent-free in a cottage behind their house, where he’d throw beer parties for the high schoolers. The only previous trouble Smitty had gotten in was getting suspended for stealing tools from his welding class. After the incident, he could have been readmitted back into his school, but Smitty chose not to. “I quit out of boredom,” he said.

Even though Smitty was no longer a student, leaving high school wasn’t in his plans. Like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, he still kept hanging around the campus, as well as all the popular teen haunts on Speedway Boulevard  — the burger joints, Sunset Rollarama, the HiHo Club — while he broke the hearts of the 16-year-olds he dated.

But as the years went on, it became clearer that something was just not right about Tucson’s oldest teenager. Smitty stood 5-foot-3. Self-conscious about his diminutive stature, he would stuff his oversized black leather cowboy boots with 3 to 4 inches of rags, along with smashed up tin cans. This size-hack presented a clunky, peculiar step to his walk, to the point where it was rumored that Smitty had wooden feet. “One of his boots was at a strange angle, as if his foot wasn’t in it. It pointed out to the left, bent at the ankle,” Oates described in her acclaimed short story. 

Long before goth culture existed, Smitty would also dye his hair black and paint his face with pancake makeup. He’d wear white lipstick to make his complexion, which was already darkened with tanning pills, stand out. He accented his look with a fake greasepaint beauty mark on his cheek that kept growing in size as time went on, and he’d stretch his lower lip with a clothespin to try and give it an affected Elvis swagger. This unique posturing was topped by a large bandage on his nose, which he claimed was broken in a (non-existent) fight. 

All the while, Smitty bragged that he knew 100 ways to make love and created other elaborate lies, including that he ran dope for the Hells Angels. So, when he began boasting that he’d murdered 15-year old Alleen Rowe, Bruns, his best buddy, thought at first it was just another made-up story.

* * * * *

So where did it all go wrong for Smitty? How did he transition from being the popular guy at the drive-in and dancing The Frug to becoming a cold-blooded murderer?

“I was a witness to him losing his mind,” Bruns wrote in his book, I, a Squealer, the first draft of which he penned in 1966. “Like the time he grabbed his cat, tied a heavy cord to its tail and began to bash it bloody against the wall.” Following this, Smitty turned to Bruns — then 19-years-old and straight out of reform school — and exclaimed, “You feel compassion, why?” As anyone who binged the Netflix series Don’t Fuck With Cats would know, this type of animal abuse is generally a sure sign of a psychotic mind. 

On May 31, 1964, Schmid escalated things radically when he decided to kill Rowe, just to see what it was like. Worse, he coerced a pair of teenagers to help him with his murderous scheme. Smitty’s then-girlfriend, 17-year-old Mary French, coaxed Rowe into coming out and drinking beer with Schmid and another teenager, John Saunders. “Smitty said he wanted to kill someone, a girl, and see if he could get away with it,” French later testified. “He wanted me to keep trying to get Alleen to go out, and he wanted to kill someone and do it that night.”

Joining the murder crew for a drive out to the desert was such a spontaneous decision that Rowe, who was home alone while her mother was at work, still had curlers in her hair. 

Her murder was up-close, horrific and personal. Once they got to “the old drinking spot,” as they referred to the area, Schmid walked Rowe down to a dry stream bed, raped her and then tried to strangle her. It didn’t work, so he bashed her head in with a rock, with Saunders’ assistance. She was hit so hard that the curlers in her hair were knocked off her head.    

After the heinous deed, Smitty returned to French, who was patiently waiting in the car listening to the radio, and said, “We killed her. I love you very much.”

The three buried Rowe’s body in a shallow grave. Her disappearance was reported as a runaway, and Smitty went back to his teenage-hero life, cruising Speedway Boulevard in his red convertible and throwing beer parties at his cottage. But Rowe’s murder became an open secret amongst Tucson’s youth. “I wouldn’t want to be a fink — telling the police,” a teenager was quoted saying at the time. 

Schmid started dating a 17-year-old platinum blonde named Gretchen Fritz, the daughter of a prominent Tucson heart surgeon. Life Magazine, who covered the case, disgracefully tried to paint her as a bad girl for once “turning up at a formal dance accompanied by boys wearing what was described as beatnik dress.” Certainly, the pair had a tumultuous relationship: They would publicly fight and then vandalize each other’s cars. Smitty once wrote an anonymous letter to the Tucson Health Department claiming that Fritz had a venereal disease. But Smitty couldn’t risk breaking up with Fritz — she knew he’d murdered Rowe.

“I’d like to kill that bitch,” Schmid was quoted saying to Bruns. “I’d like to twist her pretty little neck.” And that’s just what happened. On the night of August 11, 1965, Schmid strangled Fritz and her sister, 13-year-old Wendy (who simply had the horrific luck of being with Fritz on the night in question), when they stopped by his cottage after seeing an Elvis movie at the drive-in.  

Schmid then drove the bodies out to the desert. This time, he dumped them on the side of a hill, stating he “just didn’t care if they were found or not. A guitar string found alongside the bodies suggested that this was the means of strangulation. 

The Fritz sisters’ disappearance was also labeled as another case of teen runaways, but a week later, while putting on an Elvis album, Schmid casually told Bruns, “You know I killed her…” He even bragged that there was a fourth victim and gloated that it “gets easier” each time he killed. “Later on he told me he had gone to the grave of Alleen Rowe,” Bruns said when he testified, adding, “He said some animals had cut their way into the grave and had eaten her.” 

* * * * *

Bruns eventually became the one who “snitched” and turned Schmid in to the police, as events began to unfold in increasingly frightening ways. Two weeks after the Fritz sisters went missing, Schmid and Bruns were at a teen beer party when some strange men showed up and told them to get into a car. “We were driven down Speedway Boulevard, Tucson’s ‘action strip,’ past the drive-ins, night clubs, supermarkets and gas stations,” Bruns recalled. “No one spoke the whole way.” 

The men were part of the Bonanno Crime Family, one of the five major NYC organized crime families, as depicted in the movie Donnie Brasco. The local operation of the Mafia clan was run by the oldest son of kingpin leader “Joe Bananas” Bonanno.

Schmid and Bruns were taken to an apartment complex for questioning over the disappearance of the Fritz sisters. Bruns was told, “We’ve been asked by a friend to help find them, and that’s why we want to talk to you. We’ve already talked to Smitty here for a bit, but we wanted to get the two of you together.”

Schmid kept to a story that the sisters had run away to San Diego. Still, the Bonanno Family questioning ended with: “You guys aren’t planning on leaving town for any reason in the near future, are you? We’ll probably be wanting to talk to you again, and so we’d like to know where we can find you if we come looking.”

Once they got home, Schmid was so freaked out that he actually called the FBI and said the mob was after him. He then asked the FBI for protection. “Look,” Bruns said, “my neck’s in this now too. If you didn’t bury those bodies, I’m not going to take the chance of them being found.”

In response, Smitty picked up his old man’s station wagon. First, he and Bruns went to Johnny’s Drive-In on Speedway Boulevard for some hamburgers, then they headed out to the old drinking spot in the desert. Bruns could smell the decomposing bodies in the pitch dark. Insects crawled on the corpses. One of the sister’s legs was torn off by an animal and was now over her head. The sound of Schmid moving the bodies across the desert floor was described by Bruns as “a noise like dragging a hollow shell.” But even this horrific experience wasn’t what finally led Bruns to eventually call the police. Instead, the decision largely had to do with his becoming a stalker.  

Bruns had just broken up with a teen named Kathy Morath. (Schmid had dated her as well.) After the breakup, Bruns became obsessed, particularly with the idea that she was going to be Schmid’s next victim. So, seven days a week, Bruns kept a regular watch in front of her house and throughout her neighborhood — in order “to protect her” — rightfully resulting in freaking out Morath and her family and neighbors. (“Maybe I did go a little nuts,” Bruns later stated.)

Morath’s parents called the police, but instead of sending Bruns to jail, the judge ordered him to move to Ohio and live with his grandmother. One night, at grandma’s house, Bruns got drunk, called the Tucson Police and told them about the murders. He claimed that protecting Morath was the motivation for his actions. Since two months had already gone by since the Fritz sisters were killed, Bruns blamed not telling the authorities on “the code of youth” not to “squeal on a friend.”

* * * * *

The Pied Piper of Tucson murders became international news. The newspapers of the day sensationalized the story, painting a seedy portrait. As Bruns described: 

“Smitty was cast in the role of president of the club which, it was said, was comprised only of a bunch of potheads, pushers, bootleggers, car thieves, muggers, purse snatchers, pimps, and of course murderers.” The Arizona Daily Star stated, “Speculation on the reason for the killings is rampant. Some believe all three were killed because of their knowledge of the so-called sex club or ‘little mafia,’ which rumor says would provide girls, liquor and marijuana or dope for parties — for a price.” 

“Rather than just accept the murders for what they had been — horrible tragedies to be learned from — people had to exaggerate and add to them,” said Bruns. “It had never occurred to them they were giving the city as a whole a black eye.”

“Many Tucsonans are more upset by the portrayal of Tucson in national magazines than they are about the murders,” Johanna Eubank, a Tucson-based journalist who wrote a series on the murders, tells me.

Bruns partially blamed the murders on sleepy Tucson too, though, saying that it fostered a bored rich kid to thrill-kill for the hell of it. “A transient city that has nothing to offer young people,” he said. “Nothing to do but cruise in cars, and make out, or get in trouble.”

During Smitty’s 1966 trial, Bruns wrote his firsthand account of what happened, largely to document the incidents in fear that Smitty would try to frame him for the murders. This wasn’t paranoia on Bruns’ part — it was, in fact, Smitty’s defense: “I couldn’t have murdered them — cuz Bruns murdered them.” “Back in the day, apparently many believed Richard [Bruns] was complicit at best and the real murderer at the worst,” says Eubank. “I think that’s unlikely, but I could be wrong.”

After the trial, Bruns boxed up the manuscript and moved on with his life, eventually going back to school and becoming a teacher. Forty years later, says Bruns’ daughter, Lisa Espich, in an interview, “My sisters and I were going through old photos and boxes of things with my mother and we came across it.” Espich took the manuscript to her father, who was shocked to know it still existed. His daughters finally convinced him to turn his 1966 manuscript into a book, which came out in March 2018.

“These cases will forever be a part of my father’s history,” Espich said. “After all of these years, I’m glad that his side of the story can finally be told.”

* * * * *

Smitty, the great womanizer in stuffed cowboy boots who bragged about his sexual prowess, was sentenced to the gas chamber for murdering the teenage girls.

Schmid claimed that his defense attorney, F. Lee Bailey (later known for representing O.J. Simpson), coerced him into taking a guilty plea. Thus, he agreed to lead police to where he buried Alleen Rowe, to show the prosecution that her skull wasn’t fractured (and thereby proving his innocence). Followed by a news crew, and with wrists in handcuffs, Schmid dug up the decomposed body. But Rowe’s skull, as would soon become evident, had been thoroughly bashed in.

When Schmid’s sentence was handed down, his wife, Diane — a 15-year-old girl he’d married shortly after meeting her on a blind date, just two months after the Fritz murders — burst into hysterical tears. Outside the courthouse, Schmid quietly told his child bride, “That’s the way it goes.” Schmid was then sent to Death Row at Arizona State Prison in Florence.

* * * * *

In 1970, Richard Shelton, an English professor at the University of Arizona, randomly received a letter from Schmid, asking him to critique his poetry. “My immediate reaction was probably typical — nothing in my background had taught me to react in any other way — but I am ashamed of it now,” Shelton later wrote in his book, Crossing the Yard. “Here was my chance, I thought, to read the poetry of a monster.”

Shelton found the prospect of meeting Schmid face-to-face to be “thrilling.” “He was stepping right out of a brutal murder mystery and into my quiet, academic life,” Shelton wrote. “Without a moment’s hesitation and for all the wrong reasons, I wrote back to him that I would be willing to read and critique his poetry.”

In his book, Shelton describes Schmid’s poetry as crude and unfinished, but complex. “I thought he was talented right from the beginning,” Shelton explained. I recognized that there was some good stuff in it.” Still, he found himself questioning his own motives early on. “One of the images blew me away, knowing his history. It is an image of a girl’s arm sticking out of the sand… Of course, it gave me a pause.”

“I had to constantly question my own motives for doing this, knowing that there were grieving parents,” Shelton reasoned. “And knowing that what I was doing was going to cause me trouble later on.” But, he added, “it was worth it.” Schmid not only became the professor’s muse, but their jailhouse meeting became a catalyst for Shelton to start a writing program at the Arizona prison. 

In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty in Arizona to be unconstitutional. Schmid was taken off of Death Row (now with a 50 years to life sentence) and was allowed to live in a dormitory with the general prison population. He began attending Shelton’s weekly writing workshops and became one of his star pupils. When I reach out to Shelton to discuss their relationship, he tells me, “I never felt manipulated by him, although I’m sure he was a master at it with other people, but never with me.” 

To adapt to his new poetry persona, Schmid legally changed his name, with the help of Shelton, to Paul David Ashley. Afterward, Shelton noted a distinct change in Schmid’s character. “I think he learned to care about other people,” he says. “He had never really known how to love.”

Shelton tried to help Schmid put out an anthology of his work called The Unfinished Man, but publication was halted due to the inevitable controversy that arose, with Schimd’s notoriety causing the publisher to receive death threats. Schmid’s poetry, though, can still be found in the anthology Lustmord: The Writings and Artifacts of Murderers, where his poems sit alongside works created by other psychopaths and serial killers, providing some insight into these deranged minds. (Consider Schmid’s poetry as the literary version of a John Wayne Gacy clown portrait.) 

L.A.-based musician Jon DeRosa used lines from a Schmid poem in his haunting 2012 song “Ladies in Love.” “I didn’t so much want to glorify what he’d done, but creatively, I thought there was something there to make something beautiful and eerie out of it,” says DeRosa. “My present-day self would probably not have done it, as I have a bit of a different perspective about those things now. Not to mention the poem is quite misogynistic and telling of his feelings toward women. But at the time, I was very drawn to it.”

“There’s a real gravity to ‘Ladies in Love,’ both because of and despite the violence it suggests and those heinous acts the poet committed in real life,” says vocalist/songwriter/musician LD Beghtol, who has collaborated with Stephin Merritt and the  Magnetic Fields. Beghtol was the one who introduced DeRosa to Schmid’s poetry and also helped with the recording. “It’s better than most writings by more disorganized killers,” he says. “It’s not that removed from some beat poetry or even the more esoteric teen drama songs of the period, really.”

“Is it great? No. But neither is most poetry written by ‘normal’ people,” says Beghtol. “It’s expressive and compelling and just conventional in structure and syntax enough where he doesn’t immediately come across as a madman. But his madness certainly seems present, just under the surface. And so one can get a sense of how he mesmerized his audience — and eventual accomplices — of bored teenagers with his enigmatic words and twinkling, evil charm.” 

But Schmid’s jailhouse passion for poetry didn’t calm the imprisoned Pied Piper, and while incarcerated, Schmid attempted two prison escapes. The first didn’t get him far: On October 12, 1972, Schmid disappeared from his cellblock. Three hours later, the diminutive convict was found inside a 15-inch wide by 12-inch deep clothes locker in the prison welding shop, near a hollowed-out gymnastics side horse. Four men had carried Schmid to the welding shop inside the wooden horse.

Just a month later, on Nov 11th, Schmid escaped from Florence prison along with fellow prisoner/convicted murderer, Raymond Hudgens. At the time, Shelton had formed such a strong friendship with Schmid that Smitty had even relayed his jailbreak plan beforehand. “I realized that for somebody to tell you they were going to escape from prison, somebody serving a life sentence, and then do it, that was an incredible act of trust,” says Shelton. “And once he’d given that trust, I had to return it with trust of my own.” 

According to the New York Times, Schmid put those high school gymnastic skills to use and climbed over a prison fence while class was in session in the education and rehabilitation section of the prison. The escaped fugitives were on the run for two and a half days, during which time they momentarily held four hostages on a ranch near Tempe. 

Schmid and Hudgens eventually went their separate ways, but both were ultimately recaptured. Schmid was spotted walking in a railyard by Southern Pacific Railroad employee, Bill Lanier. At the time, Schmid attempted to hide his appearance by wearing a ludicrous blond wig. But of all poetic justice, Lanier recognized Smitty because they went to high school together. Who could ever forget the Pied Piper of Tucson?

It didn’t end well for Smitty. On March 20, 1975, he was attacked in his prison dormitory and repeatedly slashed with homemade shanks, two fellow inmates — who went by the names “Sneaky Pete” and “Dirty Dan” — instigating their own death sentence for Smitty. 

Rumors spread that he was stabbed because of a drug deal, or refusing to take part in an escape plan or perhaps even a hit job by the mob. But Shelton knew the real reason. “[Schmid] had been involved in the Aryan Brotherhood,” he says. “And when he changed, they didn’t trust him anymore and they killed him. They were afraid he was a snitch.” 

Schmid had one eye stabbed out and was severely slashed in the abdomen, lungs and intestines. A guard on the scene noted, “The only place there wasn’t blood was his lips.”

Schmid died 10 days later, and Shelton was legally appointed by Schmid’s ailing mother to handle his affairs, including standing by his bedside. “It was pretty grizzly because they kept coming and asking if they could remove certain things, like an eye or a kidney,” he said. “And they let him go, piece by piece.”

At the request of his parents, Schmid was buried in the prison cemetery, out in the desert. The grave, in a gruesome irony, wasn’t so far from the old drinking spot.