John Markle was the son of the Academy-award winning actress
Mercedes McCambridge (who won the Oscar for "All the King's Men,"
but was best known as the voice of the demon in "The Exorcist").
In the late 80's John murdered his family and killed himself after he
was suspended by his employer for embezzling money into his mother's
account. His employer was Stephens Inc., a bond brokerage firm in Little
Unable to withstand the shame, John put on a
"Freddy Kruger" mask, killed his wife and two daughters in his
prestigious home in Little Rock's historical section. Then he called his
lawyer and shot himself in both temples simultaneously.
The family tried to suppress a lot of documentation in
the case, but the two newspapers in Little Rock sued and eventually got
everything released. It included some venomous letters to his mom about
how he had never been able to please her and felt unloved.
15 years later, murder-suicide
fades from view
September 30, 2002
A VIOLENT THUNDERSTORM AND A CREEPY
old house, a famous mother who had literally portrayed the devil, a
methodical killer wearing a Halloween mask: Despite dramatic elements
that would tax a B-movie screenwriter, one of the strangest business-related
crimes in recent history has very nearly faded from view.
The case of Ronald Gene Simmons, who shocked the
nation only six weeks later by slaughtering 14 members of his family and
two former co-workers in Pope County, is detailed in two books and
innumerable articles available on the Internet. Two books also were
written about the murder of Little Rock socialite Alice McArthur five
The murders of three West Memphis boys in 1993
inspired two critically acclaimed documentaries and celebrity support
for the three youths convicted of the killings.
But as the 15th anniversary of the deaths of John,
Christina, Amy and Suzanne Markle nears, the only lingering attention
comes from a handful of conspiracy theorists who insinuate -- but never
quite allege -- that Bill Clinton or Jack and Witt Stephens may have
been involved in the annihilation of the prosperous Little Rock family.
(See story on Page 23.)
Weeks of investigation confirmed what seemed obvious
as soon as the crime was discovered. John Markle left a short suicide
note in which he acknowledged killing his wife and two young daughters.
He dated and timed the note and called his attorney barely a quarter-hour
before his body was found, answering the question of when. Three
handguns containing 14 spent. shells explained how.
It would take a few more days for the Little Rock
Police Department to determine that the discovery of his risky
embezzlement scheme had motivated Markle, a 45-year-old futures trader
for Stephens Inc., to destroy his family and himself. It would be four
years before all the subsequent litigation was resolved.
Fifteen years later, the Stephens organization
declines to add any information to the public record on the Markle case,
except to say that more sophisticated controls are now in place that
would prevent a similar scam.
As far as the public was concerned, the Markle case
began at 4 a.m. on the stormy morning of Nov. 16, 1987. That's when John
Markle telephoned his attorney, Richard Lawrence, and in a brief
conversation asked him to come right away to the Markle home: a somber
Victorian at 1820 Main St. in the historic Quapaw Quarter.
Lawrence, having an insider's knowledge of turmoil in
Markle's life, twice tried to call Markle back before setting Out, but
he got no answer. At 4:10, he called the Little Rock Police Department
and asked the dispatcher to send an officer to the Markle house.
A lightning strike darkened the street lights outside
the house as Lawrence drove up. All that was visible was a small light
in a downstairs window. The storm had been disrupting police radio
transmissions, which may be why no patrol car had responded to
He spotted two police cars in the parking lot of the
nearby Safeway supermarket. (now a Harvest Foods location), and he asked
one of the officers to accompany him to the house.
The storm door was unlocked and the front door was
slightly ajar, so Officer Jeffrey Armstrong walked in. He found Markle's
dead body in a downstairs study. The time was 4:17 a.m.
Within minutes, the bodies of Amy Michelle, 13, and
Suzanne Marie, 9, were found together on the bed in Amy's second-floor
bedroom. The body of Chris Markle, who had turned 45 the previous week,
was found on the waterbed in the master suite that occupied the entire
third floor of the house.
In the study near Markle's body were a Western-style
.45-caliber Colt revolver and a .38-caliber Charter Arms revolver The
third murder weapon, a .38-caliber Colt revolver, was found in an
upstairs bathroom. (Fifteen other firearms were recovered from the house,
but they apparently weren't used that night.)
Also near John's body was a rubber "old man"
Halloween mask spattered with blood, and on the desk in the study was a
note handwritten on a pad of yellow legal paper. The date and time --
"11/16/87 at 2:30 a.m.". -- were written on the note. Otherwise, all it
"Let it hereby be stated as true that I, John L.
Markle, murdered my wife, and two children, Amy and Suzanne, and then
committed suicide myself. My wife had no knowledge or part in this. I
think the evidence shall so prove." It was signed "John Markle."
In the hallway next to the study was a black
briefcase. Attached to it was a note to Lawrence. Inside were:
* two letters to Lawrence marked in the order in
which he was to read them;
* a long letter to Markle's mother;
* 64 $100 bills;
* a $5,000 cashier's check;
* a spiral notebook;
* a handwritten will; and
* assorted personal papers such as car titles and
News reports at the time couldn't resist such derails
as the video of "A Nightmare on Elm Street" that was in the family's VCR
and the copy of "Bouquet For Murder," the first book about the 1982
murder of Alice McArthur, that was found in the home. The book probably
had no real significance; the scary movie may have explained why Suzanne
was sleeping with her sister rather than in her own bedroom.
Police investigators would conclude from blood
analysis that Markle wore the rubber mask as he shot Amy four times, and
probably while he put five bullets in Suzanne and three in Chris. A
couple of hours later, he phoned Lawrence and then shot himself in both
sides of his head simultaneously using the revolvers that were found
with his body. That no one in the neighborhood reported hearing more
than a dozen gunshots was explained by the thunderstorm.
Lab tests would reveal that all four Markles had
trace amounts of Elavil, an antidepressant that causes drowsiness, in
their systems. John and Chris both tested positive for Valium and
marijuana, and John also had ingested an appetite suppressant and a
small quantity of alcohol.
John Lawrence Markle was born early on Christmas Day
1941 in Hollywood, Calif., to Mercedes McCambridge, a 23-year-old radio
actress, and her husband, writer William Fifield. When John was 8,
McCambridge would win the Academy Award as best supporting actress for
her screen debut in "All the King's Men," a political drama that was
also named the "best picture" of 1949.
By then, her marriage to Fifield was over and she was
married to Fletcher Markle, a film and TV director who adopted her young
Despite an erratic Hollywood upbringing, John Markle
was a brilliant if eccentric student. He earned his master's degree in
economics from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1968. He
and Christina married in July of that year.
John joined Salomon Brothers in Dallas in 1972, the
same year his mother won a Tony for her Broadway role in "Follies." The
next year, Markle received his Ph.D. in economics from UCLA. Also in
1973, Mercedes McCambridge performed as the voice of the demon in the
classic horror film "The Exorcist."
The Markle family was lured to Little Rock in 1979 by
Stephens Inc., where John was the firm's economist and one-man futures-trading
department. He handled a corporate account for the firm's founders, Jack
and Witt Stephens. A few months before his death, Markle told Forbes
magazine that he had no position limits that he knew of. At one point,
he boasted, he had $800,000 on the line and no one stopped him.
At Stephens Inc., his pessimistic view of the
American economy earned him the nickname "Dr Doom" -- indeed, he had his
greatest trading success when interest rates were on the rise in the
Markle's idiosyncrasies were legendary: He was
described as temperamental, rude and "socially retarded"; he favored
purple shoes; he insisted on wearing a leather Harley Davidson cap while
trading and required his assistant to wear a particular hat as well. He
threatened to kill a co-worker with an AK-47 and later loaded his
arsenal of guns into the trunk of his car to prove. that he could make
good on the threat.
But he wowed his employers by generating at least $3
million in trading profits during the first three years of his
employment. He was made a vice president after only eight months, the
fastest ascension in Stephens history, and he answered only to Jack
Stephens, who would later admit that he knew little about the type of
futures trading that Markle was doing. Rumors that he was mishandling
accounts were never pursued, mainly because Markle was a frequent target
of unflattering gossip.
The Markle family lived in North Little Rock for a
short time before purchasing the renovated, house on Main Street for
$125,000 in 1980. When he applied for a home improvement loan in January
1987, he listed his annual income as $140,000 -- $135,000 in salary and
$5,000 in dividends and interest income.
He and Chris and their two little girls settled into
the community. To be near them, McCambridge, long divorced from Fletcher
Markle, moved into the Quapaw Towers for a couple of years beginning in
1981. In 1986, she played the mother of a suicidal daughter in the
Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of "'Night, Mother."
The Markle girls attended The Anthony School for a
while, and at the time of their deaths Amy was enrolled in Mann Junior
High and Suzanne was in fourth grade at Gibbs Magnet School.
The Markles were financially secure and had a number
of close friends, but theirs was clearly not a picture-perfect family
life. In August 1986, John was arrested in Little Rock and charged with
soliciting a prostitute. The charge of solicitation was dropped, but he
pleaded guilty to public intoxication. Marijuana was apparently a
regular part of John Markle's life.
After the killings, the police investigation would
show that Markle routinely cashed three or four checks totaling
$600-$1,000 a week. "Where this cash was spent would be purely
speculative," Detective Michael Roche wrote in his case summary.
John Markle was also a heavy smoker whose high-stress
lifestyle led to a sextuple heart bypass surgery when he was 43.
Richard Lawrence told police in a written statement
that his client "would like to get things done right away instead of
putting it off. But I didn't believe his problems would put him in a
life or death situation."
On Tuesday, Nov. 17, the day after the bodies were
discovered, readers of the competing Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas
Democrat learned that Markle had been on "medical leave", from his job
at Stephens Inc. since early October That was the company's official
statement, but it wasn't the whole truth.
After a memorial service at Trinity Episcopal
Cathedral the following Thursday, Stephens Inc. came clean: Markle had
been placed on medical leave on Oct. 7, but his employment had been
terminated the previous Friday, Nov. 13.
KARN radio station scooped the newspapers by
reporting that the murder-suicide was related to discrepancies in
Markle's handing of accounts belonging to Stephens Inc. and his mother
The station didn't reveal its source and its information was sketchy,
but the radio report was the first to pinpoint the motive behind what
Pulaski County Coroner Steve Nawojczyk would call "an act of macabre
The official report released by Little Rock Police
Chief Jess E "Doc" Hale on Dec. 4 would describe Markle's risky five-year
operation and its accidental discovery (Five months later, after being
accused of a petty theft, Hale would take his own life.) More details of
Markle's embezzlement would emerge though court documents and testimony.
Simply put, Markle would order trades through a
Chicago brokerage, Geldermann's Inc., without specifying whether the
trades should be entered on the Stephens house account or on an account
he had opened for his mother in 1982. At the end of each trading day,
Markle would assign profitable trades to his mother's account and losing
trades to the Stephens account.
Such "post-allocation" was a blatant violation of
Chicago Board of Trade rules and Stephens' internal policy, but some
Geldermann's employees apparently were willing to bend the rules for a "good
customer." In fact, Markle probably was using the same system even
before he joined Stephens in 1979, and he apparently chose Geldermann 's
because a helpful friend had gone to work there.
The Stephens house account lost $5.2 million during
the time that Markle controlled it-more than $1.3 mililioninthe first 10
months of 1987 alone.
His performance for the company was the worst among
Stephens traders in 1987, but 91.7 percent of trades in his mother's
account were profitable - a record that was literally too good to be
true. The only losses in the McCambridge account were trades in precious
metals, a commodity in which Stephens didn't deal, so those losses
couldn't be assigned to the Stephens account.
There was no evidence that McCambridge knew of the
scheme. She believed the $604,000 she gave her son to manage in 1982 was
invested in safe Treasury bills and money markets - definitely not in
commodity futures, which lose more often than they win. Instead, her
signature was forged on the application and power of attorney that
Markle used to set up and manage the account.
Over time, another $500,000 would be deposited in
McCambridge's account, for a total investment of about $1.1 million.
Meanwhile, $1.18 million would be disbursed from the account -- some to
McCambridge, some to Markle and some that could not be accounted for
because of incomplete documentation.
One of Markle's
contacts at Geldermann's moved to another Chicago firm, Elders Futures
Inc., and Markle began moving both the Stephens and McCambridge accounts
from Geldermann's to Elders in September 1987. That's when the
embezzlement scheme began to unravel.
Geldermann's had been
careful to mail all statements about McCambridge's account to Markle's
home, but Elders sent a statement on the flew McCambridge account to
Stephens Inc., where it caught the attention of Bruce Bennett. Bennett questioned Elders about the
previously unknown account for Markle's mother, and on Oct. 6, a
Geldermann's officer revealed the existence of a McCambridge account at
his firm as well.
Since that account was
also a secret to Stephens Inc., compliance officer Phil Shellabarger
immediately began an investigation. The following day, he and other
Stephens representatives confronted Markle, who initially denied any
wrongdoing but later admitted
diverting profits to his mother's account.
Because of his history
of heart disease, he was placed on medical leave while his accounts were
reviewed. A few days later, he was relieved of his key to the Stephens
offices and his access to company computers was cut off.
Markle came up with at
least two different ideas for making restitution to his employer in
order to avoid criminal prosecution, both of which would have required
his mother's cooperation. And that proved to be the sticking point.
When the embezzlement
was discovered, his mother had approximately $1.2 million between the
two accounts at Geldermann's and Elders. Markle originally offered to
leave all her money on account with Stephens Inc.; McCambridge would
draw interest from the account during her lifetime, and the balance
would revert to Stephens on her death.
Markle seemed to
believe that Jack and Witt Stephens and Jack's son, Stephens Inc.
President Warren Stephens, were amenable to this solution. But
McCambridge was not - even though she had been friendly with the
Stephenses, especially "Mr. Witt," while she lived in Little Rock and,
as Markle pointed out in a bitter letter to his mother, it wouldn't have
cost her anything.
apparently rejected Markle's second idea for reimbursing his employer:
$600,000 in cash and the remainder of her estate at the time of her
Instead, on Oct. 21,
McCambridge sent telegrams to the thee Stephenses in which she denied
any wrongdoing and even suggested that Stephens Inc. owed her money.
On Nov. 11, Stephens
Inc. finally received an accounting of the Geldermann's transactions and
the extent of the company's financial loss became more clear According
to according to
Police Chief Hale's final report, Warren Stephens demanded $1
million in restitution during a final meeting with Markle on Nov. 13.
"Mr. Markle seemed to
believe this was a good proposal," Hale reported, and he requested 30
additional days to come up with the money.
But days before that
last discussion, Markle had contacted his life insurance company and
confirmed that his $500,000 policy would be paid in case of suicide. His
diary suggested that while he was making preparations for what he called
"option [partial]," he hadn't firmly decided to kill his family and
himself until he heard Stephens' final offer.
On Nov. 9, Markle
voided the will he had executed a
few months after his heart surgery in 1985, and he, two witnesses and a
notary signed the handwritten will
that was found in his briefcase. Unlike the first will, the new one made
no provision for Chris and named no guardians for Amy and Suzanne.
In the new will, he
estimated the net value of his estate at $890,000. He left $500,000 to
his mother, which would bring her cash assets to approximately $1.7
million. His letters to her and to his attorney, Richard Lawrence,
encouraged McCambridge to immediately pay Stephens Inc. $700,000,
leaving her with $1 million to invest for income.
But Markle didn't
foresee all the legal questions that his deadly actions would cause.
Eight lawsuits would be filed by his estate, Christina's estate, two
life insurance companies and McCambridge Christina's estate even
suggested that she may have outlived John, which would have completely
changed the chain of inheritance and settled a third of John's estate --
as well as Chris' $250,000 life insurance policy -- on his wife's
Eventually all eight
lawsuits were settled out of court with a single, confidential agreement.
This much is known: Three insurance policies on John Markle's life
totaling just over $653,000 were distributed in December 1988; $549,000
went to Markle's estate, and McCambridge and her former husband,
Fletcher Markle, each received $52,000.
Markle's estate also
sold the house and auctioned off many of the family's personal effects.
Inc. was pursuing numerous legal complaints against Markle's estate,
McCambridge and Geldermann's. In out-of-court settlements, Stephens
received $600,000 from McCambridge and $340,000 from Markle's estate.
Stephens Inc. and
McCambridge jointly sued Geldermann's, arguing that Markle never could
have managed the embezzlement scam without the Chicago company's
$500,000 in actual damages -- the
difference between the $1.1 million she had given Markle to invest and
the $600,000 she wound up with after settling with Stephens -- plus $1
miliion in punitive damages for
allowing Markle to set up an unauthorized account in her name. Her claim
against Geldermann's eventually was dismissed.
Stephens Inc. sought
$6.2 million in compensatory damages
-- $5.2 million for all the losses Markle racked up in Stephens' house
account over the five-year period, plus almost $1 million for
commissions paid to Geldermann's during that time -- and an equal amount
in punitive damages.
acknowledged that some employees had facilitated Markle's scheme by
allowing him to "post-allocate" the trades. But Geldermann's argued
during a three-week trial in December 1990 that only $854,000 in profits
was skimmed from the Stephens account and that even that could have been
prevented if Stephens had supervised Markle adequately.
"Jack Stephens trusted
Markle and made a mistake," Little Rock attorney O.H. "Bud" Storey, who
represented Geldermann's, told the jury.
The jury awarded
Stephens actual damages of just under $1.4 million, plus $1 million in
punitive damages. The court reduced the actual damages by $940,000 since
Stephens had recouped that much through its settlements with McCambridge
and the Markle estate, but appeals that stretched into 1991 failed to
win. reduction of the punitive damages.
RELATED ARTICLE: 'Thanks
for All Your Help'
NEXT TO THE SHOCKING
deaths themselves, the most explosive element of the John Markle murder-suicide
case was the 12-page letter that he left behind for his mother.
actress Mercedes McCambridge spent year and a half trying to keep the
contents, of the letter from being released under the Arkansas Freedom
of Information Act. The tone and some of the content was leaked to the
press shortly after the killings, but the letter itself was a bombshell
when finally was released in April 1989 and printed in full in the A
Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat.
The bulk of the letter
appears to have been written over a period of several days, and in it
John Markle seemed to be planning not murder suicide but to break off
all contact with his mother. His diary noted on Oct. 31 that he had just
about finished the letter to my mother."
Only the first page of
the letter referred to the killings, and it appears to have been written
last after McCambridge reject d a restitution plan that would have left
her $1.2 million on account with Stephens Inc. and let her draw interest
during her lifetime.
"But NO, you refused
and sent your wires -- which by the way Warren mention [sic] as negative
impact on his and his father and uncle: So, you didn't do it and you
played hang-up for a week with me and now Stephens is made [sic] at me,
and you, and so a deal that would have cost you nothing has now changed
in a very different way. I wished you'd never done a lot of the things
you did. Night mother," he wrote, the last an apparent reference to a
play in which she had portrayed the mother of a suicidal daughter.
"... You were never
around much when I needed you, so now land my whole family are dead --
so you can have the money -- funny how things work out isn't [it]??"
The second page of the
letter begins with a confession to the embezzlement.
"Guilty: John Markle
traded your account on an undisclosed discretionary basis. I added funds
to your account; I added losses to the Stephens account."
After that, he
recounted in chronological order a variety of slights, beginning with
his conception in an attempt to save McCambridge's marriage to writer
William Fifield and the guilt he felt when they divorced.
The letter is sprinkled
with Hollywood characters: "We (were) living in the Judy Garland House
on Glenroy in WLA..." "You and Joan
Crawford were both drinking and fighting like hell ... ." "You were
filming something with Elizabeth Taylor in London ..."
He pointed out that he
had called her daily for 26 years and bad used even his boyhood earnings
to buy her gifts. "What was I trying to buy?" he wrote. He accused her
of ruining innumerable family gatherings and of being no help times of
family crisis. Many of the sections ended with the underlined words, "Thanks
for all your help."
THERE IS SOMETHING
about the explosive smell of money in Little Rock's Ozark air that turns
a young man's thoughts to suicide.
Thus begins an article
titled "Allegations Regarding Vince Foster, the NSA
NSA, and Banking Transactions Spying,
Part XXXI" that is published on the Internet by J. Orlin Grabbe. It is
one of the few Internet articles that describe the November 1987 deaths
of John Markle, a futures trader at Stephens Inc., and his wife and two
Grabbe, whose home page
(www.aci.net/kalliste) also features photos of nude women and an essay
on the faking of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon, goes
into little detail about the Markle case, dwelling primarily on the
business dealings of the Stephens "Empire." But he clearly suggests that
the Markle case was not a straightforward murder-suicide.
"He was fired on Friday
the 13th Friday (Nov. 1987). He had
been asked, they said, about an unidentified, out-of-state brokerage
account Brokerage Account he
controlled, and its relationship to a Stephens corporate account. Rumors
would circulate saying maybe he was putting profitable trades in the
secret account, and sticking Stephens with the unprofitable ones. But
that's all they were, rumors. For Markle himself wasn't talking."
Grabbe makes no
reference to the letter Markle left for his mother in which he declared
himself guilty of adding profits to his mother's account and losses to
the Stephens account.
"Three days after
Markle was fired, there was a furious thunderstorm in Little Rock,
during which, it is said, John Markle killed his wife, his two young
daughters, and then himself. And to do the job, he used three different
handguns. That's what they said.
"Curious deaths, those.
But this was Stephens country, and no one wanted to ask very many
questions. They found it much safer to talk about the violent weather."
The idea that Markle
could have shot himself in both sides of the head simultaneously seems
to be the detail that is hardest for doubters to swallow. Indeed, Little
Rock Police Chief Doc Hale said he had never before seen that particular
method of suicide.
An Associated Press
article about the Markle case was posted on FreeRepublic.com, a self-described
"conservative news forum," in 1998 and is still available online (www.freerepublic.com/forum/a102747.htm).
The person who
anonymously posted the decade-old story made the following comment: "Seems
most everyone in Little Rock has a taste for self inflicted gunshot
wounds.... If Klinton [sic] survives til 2000 will there be anyone alive
Forum participants also
questioned why one person would use three guns to kill four people and
found it suspicious that Hillary Clinton would attend a memorial service
for the Markles.
But among people who
were tangentially involved, there appears to
be no question that the case was just what it appeared to be: A murder-suicide
by an angry, depressed man who had brought shame and financial ruin on
Lamar James, who wrote
the Arkansas Gazette's first articles on the crime, said he compiled a
list of possible sources of information when printed out, stretched
eight feet. He continued to contact names on the list for months
"It was the longest
list, of source numbers I ever compiled on a case I was covering,
including the Gene Simmons and Alice McArthur cases," he said. "I don't
recall anyone questioning Markle's involvement at the time."
Steve Nawojczyk, then
the Pulaski County coroner, said Markle's connection to the billionaire
Stephenses made police investigators hyper-aware that their work would
"I remember it being a
big conversation of the cops at the scene. They knew that this was what
we called a red-ball case -- which meant that your eyeballs would be red
from working on it -- so they were crossing all the t's and dotting all
the i's," Nawojczyk said. "They investigated the heck out of it."
John Markle was the son of the Academy-award winning actress
Mercedes McCambridge (who won the Oscar for "All the King's Men,"
but was best known as the voice of the demon in "The Exorcist").