Urban legends have been around for centuries. Typically, there’s always partial truth to the stories, but they tend to become hyperbole as the tales get passed on to other people. In this narrative, the tragic elements became an anecdote that managed to seep into Hollywood and inspire countless horror films that have since formed into cult classics such as “Halloween” by John Carpenter and “When a Stranger Calls” by Fred Walton. As you will soon see, the reality is much scarier than fiction.
Janett Christman was born on March 21st, 1936. She was the oldest daughter of Charles and Lula Christman, with a younger sister by 18-months, Reta Christman Smith and a newborn baby, Cheryl Christman Bottorff. The young family of five had been living in Boonville, Missouri before relocating to the small, college-oriented town of Columbia, Missouri, known for its football team, Missouri (Mizzou) Tigers, and were living on the upper floor of the business they owned, Ernie’s Cafe and Steakhouse, where they made an honest and reputable living.
Janett was 13-years-old and an 8th-grade student at Jefferson Junior High School. She was described as a loving churchgoing teenager who had a knack for playing the piano, and singing in the choir. Janett was super intelligent, and independent for her age — working fervently for the things she desired.
On the brisk Saturday of March 18th, 1950, there was a dance party being held that evening for students. Janett had been invited to go by several of her friends but declined because he had plans to babysit. (She would often babysit for two families that were well acquainted with one another; the Romacks and the Muellers.) On this evening, she was going to be tending to Ed and Anne Romack’s 3-year-old son, Gregory, hoping the job would provide enough money for a burgundy colored suit she had been saving up for the upcoming Easter holiday.
Dusk began to settle in and around 7:30 p.m. Janett arrived at the Romacks’ residence. The couple had recently moved to a rural and isolated home on 1015 Stewart Road directly on the outskirts of Columbia. At the time, Anne was pregnant, and due to the recent and exhausting relocation, they hadn’t been able to have a night out just for themselves in a long while. So when the chance arose to spend time with friends and play cards, they capitalized on the opportunity. When Janett arrived, Anne assured her that Gregory enjoyed sleeping with the radio on and he shouldn’t be too much of a hassle. Prior to leaving, Ed quickly taught Janett how to load, unload, and fire the shotgun in case anything transpired. As they were leaving, Ed placed the gun near the front door and said they would be back soon and advised her to lock the door and turn the front porch light on if anyone came knocking. With that, they departed in good spirits and went about their night.
Throughout the evening the weather began to worsen. The temperature dwindled down to the mid-twenties with a storm bringing in the rain and sleet. The robust winds swayed the nearby trees and echoed against the home. Despite the unexpected weather, there was no apparent cause for concern until 10:35 p.m. when Boone County Sheriff’s Department received a frantic phone call. With the treacherous weather pouring in, the night for local police had been going relatively slow. When the phone suddenly began ringing, officer Ray McCowan picked up the receiver and asked what the emergency was. He was immediately met with the howls of a woman screaming in sheer panic, uttering the words “Come quick!” He tried intervening but the phone line was cut short and a dial tone was all that could be heard. McCowan knew straightaway the horror emanating from the female caller’s voice was genuine and not a prank by doltish teenagers, but all he could do was anticipate the phone ringing again because the call was too short to provide a trace and the woman didn’t mention any additional information as to what was unfolding or her whereabouts.
Shortly thereafter, Anne Romack called home from the Moon Valley Villa — where she, her husband, the Muellers, and other friends were — to check on Janett and see how the night with Gregory was going, but nobody answered the phone. Considering it was quite late, Anne wasn’t too concerned, presuming Janett had fallen asleep. The Romacks continued to spend a few extra hours away before heading home at approximately 1:15 a.m. It was 1:35 a.m. when the Romacks pulled into their driveway that was filled with rain and seeping mud. They noticed the porch light was on and the front window blinds were open wide. As Ed began to fiddle with his keys to unlock the front door, he realized it had already been unlocked. He was perplexed because of his instructions to Janett before leaving and as he and Anne walked through the front door they were met with a ghastly discovery.
Three days shy of her 14th birthday, Janett Christman was found sprawled out on the living room floor in a pool of blood soaking through the shagged carpet. She had been violently raped and murdered. Her legs were spread out with her right slipper barely hanging off her foot. There was a head wound from a blunt instrument, multiple puncture wounds from a mechanical pencil, and a cord from an electric iron that had been snipped with a pair of scissors was bound tightly around her neck. A few feet away was the landline phone dangling off the hook — the reason why Anne was unable to get a response when she called earlier that evening. The sight of this horrifying scene sent Anne into a hectic state as she darted up the stairs to check on her 3-year-old son, Greg, who had been unharmed and shockingly still asleep, oblivious to the horror awaiting downstairs. Ed Romack hastily dialed the police and they were dispatched immediately.
Sheriff Glen Powell from Boone County’s Sheriff’s Department arrived with numerous detectives and bloodhounds. Unfortunate complications soon arose, however, when Lt. Joe Douglas from the city police — a different jurisdiction that hadn’t any authority since the Romacks lived 100-yards out of city limits — arrived at the scene and attempted to take reign of the investigation. The battle of leadership had the separate agencies being uncooperative with one another, and though answers unraveled quickly, there were many disagreements amongst the two groups.
Inside of the home were clear indications Janett had resisted her attacker. Blood smears and fingerprints were found in the living room and kitchen, where the back door had been unlocked and left ajar. As the police followed the trail outside, the search dogs managed to track the assailant’s scent one mile up from Stewart Rd. to West Boulevard and across West Ash St. before losing the trail. Back at the crime scene, an adult male’s footprints were found near a side window of the residence that had been shattered with a garden hoe, where several authorities believed the perpetrator had gained entry, primarily due to muddy papers found on the piano that was situated nearby.
The method of entry is where the two jurisdictions collided. Due to Ed’s instructions he gave Janett, many detectives suspected the perpetrator knew Janett and tried appearing friendly to get inside. This theory was substantiated by the front porch light being turned on, as he told Janett to do if someone came to the door, the loaded shotgun nearby untouched, and the apparent knowledge as to where to locate the electric iron to use the cord for a murder weapon. With this prevailing theory, law enforcement worked twelve-hour shifts tirelessly performing stakeouts and canvassing surrounding areas under the suspicion the killer may return to the scene to relish in what he had accomplished. Likewise, the police sought assistance from the public, asking for locals to call in if they see anything peculiar or anyone they know acting differently than normal.
Meanwhile, local officers had gone around questioning Janett’s friends, family, and students from her school. During this process, along with local residents phoning in possible leads, potential suspects were formed. However, it quickly became evident that a racial bias was present because the majority of the men brought in for questioning were black men in the community who were unwarrantedly deemed suspicious. Nevertheless, this tactic was fruitless and the police were no closer to resolving Janett’s murder.
This wasn’t the first rape and murder to befall Columbia, Missouri. Four years earlier on the bitterly cold night of February 5th, 1946, 20-year-old Marylou Jenkins had been brutally murdered in a similar manner to Janett. Marylou was at home alone — coincidentally less than a mile away; two blocks over from the Romack Residence — while her mother spent the evening a few houses away tending to an elderly couple, while her father was out of town conducting business. When Marylou’s mother had to spend the night away down the street, they conjured up a plan to alert one another if something was amiss. Their scheme was to turn on a light, lift up the shades, and place a phone call.
Late into the night, Marylou’s mother noticed a light on in her house with the shades up, but since she never received a phone call she didn’t believe anything was wrong. The following morning when she returned home, she stumbled upon the gut-wrenching scene of her daughter deceased on the living room floor. She had been raped and strangled with an extension cord.
Two weeks later, Floyd Cochran, a 35-year-old disabled trash hauler, was arrested for savagely murdering his wife. Afterward, he attempted to commit suicide but was unsuccessful. Once the police were aware of what transpired, they took him into custody. Floyd willingly admitted without any remorse that he murdered his wife. Considering the timeline of events and the desperate need to solve Marylou’s murder, Boone County investigators interrogated Floyd for ten hours, where he supposedly made incriminating statements that led to his guilt, and he later confessed to the crime, despite no evidence connecting him to the murder. Floyd was subsequently sentenced to die on September 26th, 1947, via the gas chamber. A few hours before being executed, he recanted his alleged confession. It was later discovered he was coerced to give a false confession, but the deed had already been done and Marylou’s death is considered solved.
A series of prowlers and peeping Toms would emerge in the following years, and in the late months of 1949, the activity increased with a string of sexual assaults. The first rape occurred several days before Halloween. A 16-year-old teenager was babysitting on East Sunset Lane, when an unidentified male wearing a white homemade mask with holes cut out for eyes, broke into the residence and violated the young woman in the living room. The following month on November 29th, 1949, 18-year-old Stephens College student, Sally Johnson, became the next target. She lived one block away from where the prior victim was attacked and was home alone falling asleep on the sofa while watching television when an unknown male gained entry and attempted to violate her. Thankfully, she resisted her attacker and was left unharmed, as the perpetrator panicked and fled from the home. On the very next day, another more brazen incident occurred. A college student enrolled at the University of Missouri was on a date with her boyfriend. They were at Hinkson Creek — a lover’s lane — and in their vehicle when a man draped in a white hood and brandishing a firearm appeared and ordered them out of the car. They did as he instructed and he forced the couple several yards away. He proceeded to rob and bind the male, then ordered the female to walk. When they were a considerable distance away, he sexually assaulted the female and sprinted away from the crime scene. Days later on December 4th, 1949, a 26-year-old black male named Jake Bradford had been arrested after the police caught him in the act of peeping inside a young woman’s window. Bradford spent a week in jail and after intense questioning, he confessed to assaulting the 16-year-old in October and the attempted rape of 18-year-old Sally Johnson, even though she was brought in to ask if he was the perpetrator and was unable to provide an adequate answer.
Nevertheless, the reports of peculiar prowlers and rapes in the area diminished. The police believed they apprehended the right man, and locals began to feel a sense of relief, then all of a sudden the nightmare resurfaced when the tragedy fell upon Janett Christman, with shocking parallels to Marylou Jenkins, causing many people to cast doubt on law enforcement’s original affirmation.
As the police continued on with their investigation into Janett Christman’s murder, one prime suspect named Robert Mueller materialized, and the circumstantial evidence against him began piling up heavily. Mueller was 27-years-old and friends with Ed Romack since high school. After graduation, Mueller served in World War II as an Army Air Corps Captain and had a distinguishable record. He later returned to Columbia, Missouri, overlooking his father’s restaurant – Mueller’s Virginia Cafe, and working as a tailor. Many people remember him for dressing well and always carrying around a mechanical pencil in his front shirt or jacket pocket. When Mueller and Ed Romack reacquainted, they shared mutual friends and would frequently spend time together. According to Ed, he had a lustful eye for virgin women and spoke about having a desire to defile someone young. Moreover, he knew Janett since she babysat for him on numerous occasions, and Ed recalled him making lecherous comments about her well-developed hips and breasts. Additionally, Mueller’s lewd behavior stemmed over to Ed’s wife, Anne, who felt uncomfortable around him because of his uninvited sexual advancements. Much to her dismay, one day before Janett’s murder Mueller had been visiting the home helping Anne hemp a dress and reportedly tried groping her breasts. In a formal statement given to police, Anne described Mueller as a man who “doesn’t use words, he uses his hands.” The oddities didn’t end there, however. The morning of Janett’s death, Robert contacted Janett to ask if she would babysit his children for the night, but she declined because she already had pre arrangements to look after the Romacks’ son. Furthermore, Mueller attended the gathering with the Romacks and their mutual friends but hours into the party he excused himself claiming he had to meet a doctor who was meant to tend to his son. Mueller disappeared for two hours before returning to the party. The police questioned Mueller’s doctor and discovered he never went to the Mueller residence that evening. To implicate Robert even further, Ed Romack got a phone call from Mueller at his father’s home on the morning after the murder. Supposedly, he had asked if he needed any assistance with cleaning up the blood throughout the house. However, he shouldn’t have known about the tragedy that took place because the crime hadn’t been printed in the local newspaper yet. Additionally, Ed claimed Mueller would later speak to him regarding the crime and began expounding on how he believed the crime unfolded, claiming that breaking a window to climb into the home would be too loud and noticeable. Instead, it would be much easier to knock on the door and say, “Ed sent me here to get poker chips.”
The circumstantial evidence against Mueller was staggering and overwhelming. In May 1950, law enforcement compiled all the evidence against him and went to his residence to speak with him. Rather than following the basic guidelines of an arrest warrant and interview procedure, the officers didn’t take him into custody — rather, they transported him to a farmhouse outside of city limits and interrogated him at length throughout the course of the night. Mueller was subsequently taken to the state capital, Jefferson City, where he was given a polygraph test and passed. With the unfortunate results of the lie detector test, the detectives had to let Mueller go free. However, all of the evidence pointed in his direction and the court judge, W.M. Dinwiddle, felt compelled to arrange a grand jury to investigate Mueller’s case further.
Over time and legal issues, Robert Mueller was never charged because of the profound level of incompetence police conducted during their investigation into him. These intertwined factors led Mueller to not be apprehended and he later sued the police department but lost the lawsuit. Afterward, he relocated with his family to Tuscon, Arizona, and in 2006 he passed away at 83-years-old.
After everything that had transpired in the small town of Columbia, it seemed as if all families involved in some form or another needed to uproot their lives from the haunting memories and start anew. The Romacks moved to Idaho Falls, Idaho, and lived with sincere regret that conclusive answers were never given. In the 1980s, Anne passed away. Ed eventually remarried and in 2016 he passed away at 93-years-old. As for his son, Gregory, he grew up successful and settled down in Alaska. The Christman family remained in Columbia and continued running their business until Janett’s father, Charles Christman, passed away on September 24th, 1974, at 60-years-old. After his death, his wife Lula Christman moved to Kansas City, where she would remain until her passing in 2009. Her oldest daughter, Reta, would settle down with a wonderful man and start a family of her own, while the youngest daughter Cheryl — who was only a baby at the time of Janet’s murder — moved to Florida.
It’s now been 68 years, and the once loving, hard-working, and independent 13-year-old who was saving up for a burgundy dress for Easter, would have been 84-years-old on March 21st, 2020. While the Romacks and the Christman family believed Robert Mueller is responsible for Janett’s murder, they were painfully stricken with the unsatisfaction for receiving legal justice and closure, and the case officially remains unsolved.