Does a leopard change its spots? Does war change a man?


Gladys Marsden

December 30, 2020 will mark the 75th anniversary of the murder of Gladys Cordelia Marsden.

There was no attempt to conceal Gladys’s body. Her badly beaten and nearly nude body wasn’t so much on display behind Detroit’s Edward Ruddiman School but instead left behind after someone took what they wanted then moved on.

School engineer Edward Yates said that when he first spotted her that Sunday morning at 8 AM, he thought it was simply “a bundle of old clothes.” If only …

Gladys’s shoes and stockings were in place but her slip was pushed up around her neck; everything else had been forcibly removed. From the injuries she’d obviously sustained, Gladys must have put up a heck of a fight so police were already thinking it was possible that her clothes had been torn off in the struggle.

The authorities would have to wait until the autopsy results were in before they would make a statement as to whether or not she’d been raped. She had not.

Gladys had not been sexually assaulted but she had been brutally beaten. She suffered a broken left jaw, four of her teeth had been knocked out, she had a fractured vertebra, a cerebral hemorrhage and there were long, deep scratches in the flesh of her face, arms and legs. Cause of death was strangulation; the beating she suffered beforehand was brutal.

Police were surprised and disappointed that, although her fingernails were long, there was nothing underneath them that could help forensically. A freezing rain had fallen overnight, so that didn’t help either.

Google map satellite image of the Ruddiman School’s grounds where Gladys was killed.

The contents of Gladys’s purse were strewn about the crime scene; no cash or jewelry was found so it was most certainly a robbery homicide. A three cent postage stamp was found stuck to her buttock.

Ed Yates, at the crime scene, handling Gladys’s stuff

This was a terrible end to 1945 and to what, police would later learn, had been a good time out.

Gladys Marsden was a twice-divorced, 43-year-old woman with a grown son, born of her first marriage.

Her son, Tearle Thomas Wofford, was 22-years-old, currently serving in the Navy and stationed in San Diego; he had a wife Mary and a 6-month-old daughter Sherry.

Gladys was employed as an Army ordnance stenographer and she lived alone at 16928 Tireman Avenue in the relatively new low-income housing development called Howard Gardens.

Gladys might have been living alone but she wasn’t going to ring in the new year alone because 76-year-old Mary Barnes, was in town with her new husband August. Mary wasn’t Gladys’s biological mother but she was the only mother Gladys had ever known.

Mary Barnes

Her own mother, Nettie, had died on February 10, 1903, at the age of 38, when Gladys was just shy of 2 months old. Mary Parson, herself a young widow, had married into the Marsden family on October 1, 1904, and she had cared for Gladys, one of six Marsden children, as if she were her own child. A seventh child, a son, was born to Mary and Thomas Marsden in 1906.

After Gladys’s 82-year-old father Thomas died on March 5, 1941, mother and daughter lived together until Mary moved to Ohio to marry August Barnes in October of 1945.

Two months later, newlyweds Mary and August were in town visiting Gladys. They’d been in Detroit since Friday, December 28, 1945.

Mary recounted to police the events of the last night she’d seen her daughter.

On Saturday, December 29th, Gladys took Mr. and Mrs. Barnes to a neighborhood bar that she was known to frequent called the Southfield Tavern at 7212 Southfield Road.

Saturday turned into Sunday and the two older folks were tired. They announced they were leaving and they urged Gladys to come with them but Gladys declined. She had just that evening made the acquaintance of a handsome young soldier. According to Mary, Gladys told them to “run along, that she would be coming in a few minutes.”

Maybe the multiple medals and ribbons that adorned his uniform gave everyone a false sense of security. The soldier told Mary, “I’ll see her home, so don’t worry.” Mary and August left, never to see Gladys alive again. She was only six blocks from her home when she was killed.

Google Maps depiction of key locations the night Gladys died

This was the best lead police would have so they interviewed anyone who’d been at the bar that night, as either patron or employee.

Witnesses testified that Gladys and the soldier had left the bar together some time between 1:30 and 2 AM. 

Those who remembered the soldier, described him as being about 25-years-old, 5′ 8″, maybe 155 pounds. He had black wavy hair, a small pencil mustache. He was wearing a garrison cap, Pacific Campaign ribbons and a Combat Infantryman’s badge. The soldier had entered the bar around 9 PM with an attractive, sweater-wearing young woman. The two had struck up a conversation with a man known only as “Louie.”

Eyewitnesses said that after awhile the solider and his girlfriend had an argument causing her to leave “in a huff.” At this point the solider moved over to where Gladys, Mary and August were sitting. The young man focused all his attention on Gladys and she seemed to be happy to have it. Stanley Grabowski, bartender that evening, remembered serving Gladys and her new friend 6 drinks, all of which were paid for by Gladys.

It was also noted that this behavior was unusual for Gladys. Mrs. Marsden had been a regular at the Southfield Tavern for nearly a year, usually going there three times a week, but she rarely came in alone and this was the first time anyone could recall Gladys associating with a stranger. She was described as jovial, well-liked and a “good drinker.” I’m not exactly sure what that implies but perhaps Gladys could hold her liquor and not start a fight after she’d had a few.

Regular customer Ed Kranz couldn’t tell police who the soldier was but he was positive he’d seen the same man in the bar earlier that day but in civilian clothes. Bartender Stanley Grabowski hadn’t worked the day shift so he was unable to confirm this.

Police put out a three state APB for anyone matching the description of this soldier. They also wanted to talk to “Louie” and the mysterious sweater girl so the police made sure newspapers carried descriptions of the two individuals.

The following day a parked, stolen car with two blood-stained men’s shirts in the backseat was found in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Nathan Hibbs, a 27-year-old Jackson, Michigan civilian and the suspected car thief, bore a resemblance to this mysterious soldier and he admitted to sometimes wearing an army uniform in public. He provided a solid alibi for the murder but he had no explanation for the blood-stained shirts.

Police were hopeful but ultimately there was no connection between that vehicle or the man who’d stolen it and Gladys Marsden. Nathan Hibbs would later plead guilty to having stolen the car.

Arrested along with Hibbs was Nicholas Bockmiller, an 18-year-old sailor stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. He too was fingerprinted, photographed and held for questioning. Police were photographing any man involved, hoping to find the soldier and/or “Louie” but so far none of the witnesses were able to say “Yes, that’s him.”

Police also suspected a 32-year-old unnamed married man with a previous arrest for rape, who had never been prosecuted because the victim refused to press charges, but again they had to admit there was no evidence against him and this clearly was not a sex crime. Perhaps the police were just hoping they’d finally be able to put the man away for something.

Police were no closer to finding “Louie” or the sweater-clad girl but less than a week after the murder, they were finally able to identify the uniform worn by the soldier as most likely belonging to a member of the Michigan State Troops.

[The Michigan State Troops were a type of Home Guard, intended to fill a void created when Michigan’s National Guardsmen were activated and sent overseas during WWII.]

Owen J. Cleary, 1943 photo

On Saturday, January 5, 1946, the Detroit Free Press printed an announcement from Inspector Charles E. Searle, of the Homicide Squad, regarding the identification of the suspect’s uniform. A circular with the suspect’s physical description had been sent to Col. Owen J. Cleary, Michigan State Troops

Newspapers and their readers followed the story very closely.

Charles Blattert, a 30-year-old Detroit resident, was one such reader.

Charles and his wife Norma thought the description of the soldier, except for the age, matched that of Charles’s younger brother Walter. They also knew that Walter had been to the Southfield Tavern in the past.

When they next saw Walter, January 5th, 1946, Charles could tell something was troubling him. “When he visited us on Saturday, he was in dreadful shape. He hadn’t eaten. He hadn’t slept.”

Walter readily confessed to his brother that he was involved in the death of Gladys Marsden and Charles urged him to turn himself in.

That evening, January 5, 1946, Charles and Walter Blattert walked into police headquarters and Charles announced that Walter had something to tell them.

When later asked why he would voluntarily turn himself in, Walter admitted, “I thought I might get a break and get less time.” Walter also revealed that the coverage of the investigation by The Free Press that had him nervous.

Walter J. Blattert and his older brother Charles
The Times Herald –  April 4, 1946

Walter confessed to punching Gladys several times the night of December 30th but said he didn’t know she was dead until he read it in the papers the next day. He blamed the violence on the excessive drinking both he and Gladys had done while at the tavern.

According to Walter, he was escorting Gladys home and they were taking a shortcut through the school grounds when they began arguing and he’d slapped her. He explained that this was “to sober her up” and to “quiet her down” because she was making too much noise.

“I was getting pretty drunk when we got to the street, and she was making a hell of a racket. I bawled her out for being so noisy in front of a bunch of kids, and that’s when the argument started.”

According to Walter, he slapped Gladys to sober her up but she slapped him back and when she did, Gladys came in contact with an old war wound of his. The searing pain sent him into a blind rage and he repeatedly punched her in the face. Walter adamantly denied strangling Gladys though and he certainly wouldn’t have raped her. If Gladys was strangled, “Somebody else must have got to her after I did. When I left her she rose on one elbow and made a little noise in her throat,” Blattert recalled.

He struck her at least a half a dozen times and shoved her against a brick wall. “She was too drunk to fight very hard.”

Every time Gladys tried to stand up, Walter knocked her down. When he saw she was out, Walter removed Gladys’s wrist watch then went through her purse, stealing $9.45 and a compact. He said remembered little about the incident “until I woke up the next morning and saw the compact and the watch.”

Walter’s talk of an “old war wound” was true but there were certainly some half-truths and outright lies in his version of events. More lies were to come and lies told before Walter even met Gladys would soon be revealed.

Walter J. Blattert was a decorated veteran who had fought for five months in France, Belgium and Germany with General Patton’s Third Army. That was true.

It was in Germany, on February 13, 1945, that Walter was wounded by shrapnel, leaving an 11 inch scar on his hip and some slight paralysis. He was awarded a Purple Heart and two Battle Stars.

In September 1945, following several months in a London hospital, Walter received a medical discharge. He’d logged 15 months of service.

[The date of Walter’s injury coincides with the bombing of Dresden and in an effort to verify that, I requested Walter’s military records. Unfortunately, his records and millions of other documents were destroyed in a July 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center. I was notified by mail that a few scraps of water-damaged and potentially moldy scraps of paper relating to Pvt. Blattert had been located and that for $70 these documents could be photocopied and mailed to me. That seemed a little too pricey for me, especially as I had no idea what information I would be paying for.]

Police asked Walter about his female companion on the night that Gladys died and he told them all he knew was that her name was “Jean” and that she was someone he’d just met on the street trolley ride to the bar.

“I was looking for excitement,” he said. “I got on a W. Warren street car. I picked up a girl on the car after a flirtation. We got off the car and went to the bar, where I saw Mrs. Marsden.

“I was nearly broke, so I started taking all the drinks that were offered.” [No doubt the assorted medals and ribbons Walter chose to wear that night went a long way to garnering free drinks.]

The police wanted to know what became of Mrs. Marsden’s stolen possessions?

Walter told the police that after learning Gladys was dead, he disposed of the compact and watch. He had participated in a military funeral the following day and dumped the items en route to the ceremony. Police Lt. Charles Buckhold declined to reveal the location of the cemetery but on January 7th, Blattert was escorted from his jail cell to the cemetery in an attempt to retrieve the items. The search was fruitless.

What did Walter do after the altercation with Mrs. Marsden?

Walter claimed he rode around on a succession of street cars, falling asleep twice until finally he made his way back to the Troops barracks.

Walter was fingerprinted and photographed. Mary Barnes and Stanley Grabowski positively identified Walter as the man they last saw Gladys Marsden with.

The police stopped looking for “Louie.”

Walter might have been able to pass for 25-years-old but he was actually only 17-years-old when he killed Gladys. At the time of his arrest, newspapers were reporting his age as 19 and why wouldn’t they. That’s what his discharge papers said. Nobody realized that Walter had lied about his birth date when he enlisted in the military. He was born in 1928 not 1925.

What would cause a young man to lie about his age and join the army at the age of 16? Patriotism? Perhaps. Disappointment and loss? Perhaps.

In 1938, when Walter was 10, his 16-year-old brother Edmund, Jr. had died in a drowning accident. Walter’s niece Marie died in October 1942 when she was only 15 months old. Two months later Walter’s 54-year-old father Edmund died, on December 17, 1942, following a 5 month long illness. Maybe Walter just wanted to see something of the world before he too died? Or maybe the idea of sanctioned violence appealed to him.

According to Charles Blattert, prior to serving in the army his brother Walter “was a good kid and didn’t drink before he went into the war.”

One thing Walter didn’t reveal, perhaps not even to his brother, was that at the time he was pummeling Gladys Marsden, he was out on a $500 bond and awaiting trial on a charge of robbery.

Walter and a recently discharged Coast Guardsman, 17-year-old Samuel Jackson, were accused of beating up 56-year-old Mrs. Freida Astrein and stealing her purse, which held $20.00.

Police Inspector Marvin Lane, of the Holdup Squad, said that in more than a dozen cases from September 20 to December 25, 1945 descriptions of the suspect resembled Walter Blattert. In all cases, the victims were slugged before being robbed.

Police soon learned the identity of Blattert’s date the evening Gladys was killed.

Her name was Barbara Jean Moss. She was 19-years-old, the wife of an active duty Marine who was serving overseas, the mother of two boys (aged 2 years and 1 year old) and despite initially lying to police about the extent of their friendship, Barbara Jean was very well-acquainted with Walter Blattert. The two had been keeping company since September 11, 1945.

In fact, when Walter Blattert was arrested on November 9, 1945 for beating and robbing Freida Astrein, he told police the victim’s purse, which was found in his car, belonged to Barbara Jean.

Police detectives repeatedly went back to Barbara Jean to ask about the night of December 30th. During a second interview, Barbara Jean told police it was true that she and Walter had argued while at the Southfield Tavern and that she had left in a huff. Barbara Jean said she arrived back home at 10 PM. “Home” being 8102 Rutland Street, part of the Herman Gardens housing project. Yes, the same housing project that Gladys lived in however there’s no evidence that they two knew one another.

As you can see from the photo below, there was more than one building in the development. If you scroll back up to the “key locations” map, Rutland Street, which runs North and South, is two streets west of Gladys’s home.

Howard Gardens – Manning Bros. Inc. photo, 1944

Five hours after Barbara Jean had left the Southfield Tavern, Walter knocked on her door. He washed blood off his hands, threw the money, compact and wrist watch on the bed and said “I had to slap her to get it.”

Barbara Jean claimed to know nothing about the woman’s death until she read it in the papers the following day.

Things would get worse for Barbara Jean Moss.

Police told Mrs. Moss they’d want to interview the 15-year-old girl who had babysat her children on the night of December 30th.

Police also now began to wonder if Barbara Jean Moss might have been involved in some of the other crimes they suspected Blattert had committed. Maybe Blattert routinely gifted stolen jewelry to Mrs. Moss?

The more police questioned Barbara Jean, the more she revealed.

On January 10, 1946, Mrs. Moss admitted that she’d been pressuring her babysitter to lie to police should they question her. The truth is her children, aged 2 and 1, had been left alone while she went to the bar with Walter Blattert. As a result of this admission, her children were removed from the home and taken into care.

Prosecutor Gerald K. O’Brien’s investigation showed that Barbara Jean had harbored Blattert in her city-funded, low-cost housing apartment after the events of December 30, 1945 while having full knowledge of his crime. Mrs. Moss soon received an official notification of eviction and was told she had 30 days to relocate.

And finally, on January 11, 1946, Barbara Jean Moss was charged as an accessory after the fact in the murder of Gladys Marsden.

Barbara Jean admitted to police that she’d arranged a two night stay, Jan 3rd and 4th, 1946, at the Hotel Briggs for Walter after he had said that he “didn’t want to go back to my house for fear he might be identified as Mrs. Marsden’s murderer.” She was released on $5000 bond.

photo from “Detroit’s Historic Hotels and Restaurants” by Patricia Ibbotson

One day after Barbara Jean Moss was charged, her mother Nellene Dunbar was detained because she’s admitted to being in the car when her daughter Barbara Jean disposed of the compact and watch stolen from Gladys Marsden. She too was released on bond; the amount was halved, only $2500.

It doesn’t seem as though the District Attorney ever took Nellen to court on these charges. Nor do I think they ever found the items in question.

It was announced on January 7, 1946 that Walter J. Blattert would be charged with first degree murder.

His defense team leaned heavily on the fact that their client had been drinking copious amounts of alcohol during the evening and that during the fight, Gladys Marsden had aggravated an old war wound causing him to go into a blind rage.

There was additional fallout from the arrest of Blattert. Days after Blattert’s arrest, Walter Migda, owner of the Southfield Tavern was in danger of losing his liquor license because both Blattert and Mrs. Moss were underage and had been served drinks all throughout the evening.

At a hearing before the state liquor license committee, bartender Stanley Grabowski testified that both of them had shown identification to prove they were over 21. However, Walter Blattert and Barbara Jean Moss testified to the contrary; they’d never been asked to show proof of age.

Mr. and Mrs. Barnes was also called to testify but they didn’t know one way or the other if there was under-aged drinking that night and probably couldn’t care any less. Gladys had been brutally killed, I doubt Mr. Migda’s liquor license and livelihood was of any importance to them.

The Detroit Free Press announced on January 25, 1946 that Migda’s license had in fact been revoked. Multiple appeals were filed but the Southfield Tavern would eventually close.

Walter Blattert’s trial began on April 2, 1946 and concluded on April 4th with the jury finding the defendant guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. The jury had deliberated for 45 minutes and cast 10 ballots. Blattert did seem to tear up upon hearing the ruling but quickly gained his composure. Sentencing was scheduled for April 10, 1946.

In the courtroom to that day and throughout the proceedings was Mrs. Barbara Jean Moss, her own trial was 6 months away.

Barbara Jean, no doubt, had heard Walter say what he could during his own testimony to help her. He told the jury that Mrs. Moss had nothing to do with a planned robbery of Gladys Marsden and that it was she who encouraged him to turn himself in not his brother Charles.

Walter J. Blattert was sentenced to 14 -15 years in prison, the maximum.

I can’t imagine this sat well with Tearle Wofford. It had taken Tearle four and one-half days to drive from San Diego to Detroit after being notified of his mother’s murder. When he arrived, he was asked what he thought would be an appropriate punishment, Tearle told the Detroit Free Press “If I could mete out the justice that is deserving, I’d torture him a week before I let him die.”

On April 12, 1946, Samuel Jackson plead guilty to larceny in connection to the robbery of Mrs. Astrein. Judge Paul E. Krause sentenced him to 4 years probation.

On October 10, 1946, Barbara Jean Moss was found guilty of accessory after the fact in the murder of Gladys Marsden. She did not take the stand and the defense called not a single witness. The maximum penalty would be five years in prison.

She wept hysterically as the verdict was read which prompted Judge Paul Krause to remind her “There’s no use in crying now Barbara. It’s all over now.”

Less than two weeks later, on October 23, 1946, Barbara Jean Moss was sentenced to serve nine months to 15 years in the Detroit House of Corrections.

On June 25, 1947, Barbara Jean’s husband Eugene Moss filed for divorce. Eugene charged Barbara Jean with infidelity and named Walter J. Blattert in the suit. Eugene asked for an immediate hearing in the matter so that he could re-enlist in the Marines. The divorce was granted in 1948.

I’m not sure when Barbara Jean Moss was released from prison but on August 20, 1948 in Dade County, Florida, she married John W. Donaldson. Thirty years later they would divorce. Barbara died at the age of 61, on October 16, 1987, in Tallahassee, leaving behind her 2 sons and a daughter by her second husband.

Not that we can know what Barbara Jean’s relationship with her two sons was like after that dark time in her life but it’s worth mentioning that when her eldest son Eugene died in 1996, his last name was officially Cubitt and he was a Foster Care Review Board member. Her youngest son Louis bears the last name Donaldson, so he might have been adopted by Barbara Jean’s second husband John.

Walter J. Blattert was granted parole on August 20, 1954, despite a vehement protest from his trial judge John P. Scallen. He’d served less than 8 1/2 years.

In a letter to the parole board, Judge John P. Scallen wrote “The facts and circumstances in this case I recall vividly, as it was perhaps the most inhuman and savage killing that I have tried in my 24 years on the Recorder’s Court bench.”

Judge Scallen further wrote that he’d consulted with Ralph Garber, the assistance prosecutor who originally handled the case, and with members of the Police Bureau and “they concur wholeheartedly that Blattert should not be loosed upon society.”

Blattert was considered a free man once his parole ended on February 9, 1957.

On July 4, 1957, Walter Blattert was arrested when police caught him climbing down from the roof of Nicolo’s Cocktail Lounge at 13313 Harper Avenue in Detroit. Police suspected him of breaking and entering and detained him. I can find nothing further on this investigation so I have to assume Walter was released rather than charged with a crime.

Walter J. Blattert died from a sudden heart attack on June 23, 1990, in Warren, Michigan. He was 61-years-old.

The money I spent on Walter’s death certificate was worth it. From that one document I learned not only his cause of death and that he was cremated but that Walter was married when he died.

I wasn’t able to find a marriage record for Walter, not before or even after learning his wife’s name, however I’ve since discovered that his wife Geneva Peck registered a name change with the Social Security Administration in March 1963, so that narrows it down a little.

Geneva Peck actually filed four name changes with Social Security. The first change was after her 1944 marriage to Paul Oliver, then again in 1958 (Dorton), 1959 (Pastor) and finally in 1963 (Blattert) after she married Walter.

The December 1991 obituary for Geneva Blattert lists her deceased husband Walter, a deceased daughter named Pauline Tuttle, a living sister.

I learned something surprising while researching this story. There is no comprehensive list or database of Purple Heart recipients. Any of the lists available online have been compiled by volunteers and the information is constantly being updated. I did not find Walter J. Blattert in the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor.

findagrave – Dee G.

Gladys Marsden’s son Tearle was only 29-years-old when he died on September 8, 1953. A second daughter born to Tearle and Mary Wofford, whom they named Deborah Ann, died in 1953, she was only18 months old.

I see from Tearle’s headstone that he served in not only WWII but Korea. He is buried in the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon, California.

Gladys Marsden is buried in section 20 of the Grand Lawn Cemetery in Detroit, Michigan.

For those interested in such things – The Ruddiman Middle School, built in 1922, was closed in 2009. It’s now abandoned, making it a natural destination for graffiti artists, firebugs and urban explorers.

On Sunday, November 10, 2013, at 2:30 PM, police received an anonymous tip thru Crimestoppers about a dead body in the building. The corpse was burned beyond recognition and missing its head.

Mary Mazur, spokeswoman for the Wayne County Medical Examiners office, made a statement to the press about plans to work with a forensic pathologist but seven years later, the deceased is still a John Doe and the case is unsolved.

For an unofficial tour of the building, Ruin Road has a video up on YouTube –


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