The dark double life of Ellen Boehm, the mother who murdered her two sons—and nearly killed her daughter
Ellen Boehm, a single mom from St. Louis, Missouri, appeared devoted to her children. But in reality, she was unequipped for motherhood, financially strapped, and desperate. Within a year of each other, her sons, ages two and four, died mysteriously, and Boehm's eight-year-old daughter then suffered a near-fatal mishap when a hair dryer fell into the girl's bath. While neighbors wondered how Boehm remained so calm through it all, Det. Sgt. Joseph Burgoon of St. Louis Homicide had darker suspicions.
Burgoon soon unraveled a labyrinth of deception, greed, and obsession that revealed a cold-blooded killer whose get-rich-quick scheme came at the cost of her children's lives. Boehm had taken out insurance policies on her children with six different companies totaling nearly $100,000. Using police reports, case documents, and photos, journalist John Coston recreates the events that led to one mother's unspeakable acts of filicide—and a cop's relentless pursuit of the truth.
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About the Author
John Coston is a veteran journalist and a former news editor on the national desk at the Wall Street Journal. He has written for the Watertown Daily Times, the Hartford Courant, and the Miami Herald. Coston is the author of two true crime books, To Kill and Kill Again and Sleep, My Child, Forever.
Read an Excerpt
Sleep, My Child, Forever
By John Coston
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 John Coston
All rights reserved.
The Hair Dryer
Ellen could hear the sweet echoes of child's play coming from the bathroom. She was in the kitchen, putting away groceries, and her daughter, Stacy, was soaking in the bath, playing with her Barbie dolls. She would scrub them down and primp their hair, all the while talking in sing-song coos and whispers.
As Ellen unbagged groceries, the sounds emanating from the bathroom didn't register as an assurance that all was well, or that another tiring day of being a single, working mother was near its end. On this rainy night, Ellen's thoughts were pursuing a dangerous path.
As if it were nothing more than her next evening chore, Ellen left the kitchen, walking down the hallway to her bedroom. There she found the object that had been occupying her thoughts: a hair dryer. She picked it up, examining the length of the cord. Then, she plugged the appliance into a wall outlet outside the bathroom and looked in on her eight-year-old daughter.
Stacy was washing her face. Her eyes were closed to keep the suds out, but she heard something fall into the water. She splashed water into her face to clear the soap away so she could see what it was.
A 110-volt charge electrified her bathwater, and Stacy screamed. First blinding pain struck, then the sensation of something crawling all over her. She sensed that she was being pulled down into the water, but she didn't know why. There was no one there. When she tried to get up, she couldn't do it. She was overpowered by something pulling her down, a force she had never felt before. She didn't know how she did it, but somehow she managed to grab the hair dryer and turn it off. She threw it out of the tub and climbed out. Then Stacy saw her mother.
"Stacy," she said, appearing frantic, "what happened?"
"I don't know," Stacy answered. The words came slowly. She was still shaking all over.
Ellen daubed the trickle of blood coming from the little girl's mouth.
Stacy's little brother, Steve, who was four years old, had been awakened by his sister's scream, and he now stood at the entrance to the bathroom, watching his mother ask Stacy questions, helping her get dry with a towel.
Ellen turned to Steve. "Steve, what happened?"
The sleepy little boy had no answer.
"I'll get Todd. You start to get dressed."
Todd Andrews lived down the hall. Though Ellen didn't know him except to say hello, which was about how well she knew anyone in the building, she did know that he was a medical student. Maybe he could help. But he didn't answer his door, and in the short time that elapsed while Ellen had gone to fetch him, both of her children had become hysterical. There was uncontrollable crying and shrieking.
"We have got to get you dressed. We have to take you to the hospital."
Ellen shuttled them both to the bedroom, where she hurriedly began to dress them for a trip to the emergency room. Her mind was already preparing for the questions that would come from the doctors and nurses at Children's Hospital. She knew she couldn't tell anyone what really happened, so she prepped for an elaborate — and quite realistic — description of what happened.
"We came home from the grocery store," she would tell them, "and I told her to take a bath, and Steve was going to go to bed. She read Steve his bedtime story and he was lying down. And we thought he was asleep. And I told Stacy on the sofa, 'Let's get your bathwater run, you know. I'll help you in the tub, and if you need me I'll be in the kitchen, putting groceries away.'
"She had her Barbie dolls in the tub. And she was playing with them. And as I was putting groceries in the refrigerator, putting some meat away, then I heard a scream. And I ran to them, toward the bathroom, down the hallway, and I saw a cord that was plugged into the outlet. And Steve was up and he was crying. And Stacy was. She was just in shock. She was screaming. I yanked the cord up. And, oh, my God, it was a hair dryer. I got Stacy out of the tub.
"And Steve says, 'I got it just to rinse the Barbie dolls' hair, Mom. And I went in your dresser and got the hair dryer. And I plugged it in. I thought it was to dry their hair. And uh, I accidentally dropped it in the tub.'
"I didn't see Steve come out of the room. I didn't hear him, because I was putting the groceries away, and I was making noise putting the meat away in the refrigerator. And all I heard was her scream, and then him scream and start crying."
As Ellen pulled the shirt over Steve's head, then slipped on his socks and shoes, both children began to wail again. This time it was even louder than before, carrying down the hall, and now it was magnified by Ellen's screaming back at her kids.
Joseph Rodriegquez heard the commotion. He had been taking his trash out to toss it down the chute in the hallway. He heard the mother yelling, the kids screaming, and he lingered outside in the hall until he had heard enough. Then he went back into his apartment and called the police.
Mr. Rodriegquez's call to 911 was recorded at 11:04 P.M. He gave the dispatch officer the basic facts, and was told that a car would be around in a matter of minutes. Concerned, he then went down to the lobby of the building to wait.
Tom Leassner, a patrolman, got the call. It was 11:12 when he pulled his cruiser up to the front of the building. The address was 4720 South Broadway. He could see a man standing off to the side, and that the man was watching as a woman, with two bawling children in tow, exited the front of the building. The little girl was trying to say something. She was adamant about it.
Ellen had told Stacy that if the doctors asked her what happened, she was to say that Steven had thrown the hair dryer in the bathtub. Ellen told her daughter that she had talked to Steven, and that he said he did it because he thought she wanted to dry her Barbie doll's hair. But Stacy knew better. She knew Steven was sound asleep. After all, she had read him his bedtime story, The Little Popcorn, and had tucked him in.
"He was not in the bathroom. There was nobody there!"
Ellen yanked harder on Stacy's arm, moving toward the police car.
"He wasn't there. He wasn't ..."
"Officer," Ellen addressed Leassner, "would you please call an ambulance? My little girl has had an electrical shock."
"Alexian Brothers Hospital is just down the street, ma'am," he said, pointing in that direction. Officer Leassner could see that the sobbing little girl was in some distress, but she was walking and talking, and arguing with her mother to boot. To this day, the officer cannot recall the incident. In the log he would record later, it would go down as a Code 80. In other words, from what he had observed, this was no bona-fide incident.
Ellen turned and walked toward her car. If she wasn't going to get any satisfaction out of this policeman, she also wasn't going to stand around in the rain and get wet.
Rodriegquez watched as she drove away, then he approached the cruiser. The two men exchanged a few words about the 911 call, and Officer Leassner told Mr. Rodriegquez what Ellen had said. The matter was closed.
By the time Ellen arrived at Children's Hospital, little Stacy had settled down. She would tell it as her mother wanted. When Dr. Anna Fitz-James examined Stacy, Ellen explained that Stacy's little brother had dropped a hair dryer into her bath. Dr. Fitz-James noted the dilated pupils and the petechia, the minute hemorrhaging on her tongue. Otherwise, Stacy was fine. Ellen was told to keep an eye on her.
"I'll probably keep her home from school tomorrow," Ellen said.
"Fine," the doctor said.
"She said that it felt like something was crawling all over her when she was in the water," Ellen offered up.
Ever since her little brother David had died, Stacy had been having nightmares about it. In the dream David was killed by a black man. It was never made clear exactly how he was killed, but it was always the same man, who wore a white hat, a black shirt, and pink pants. Stacy knew that the man in that nightmare didn't kill her brother, because she was there when he died.
It had happened less than a year before Stacy's bathtub scare. Her mother had found the two-year-old lying on the living room floor. When she tried to wake him, he wouldn't stir. His face was blue and he didn't say anything. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1988, and Stacy would never forget it.CHAPTER 2
A Single Mother
It was the dog days of August 1988, and as it had been for two years now, every day must have seemed the same for Ellen. First she would get Stacy off to school. Then she would either drive her boys to her mother's apartment on Chippewa Street before heading downtown to work, or pick up her mother so she could baby-sit in the apartment. With her children's arrangements complete, Ellen went to her job.
Her routine commute went north along South Broadway, the principal north-south connector between the heart of downtown and the city's residential and commercial neighborhoods, where Ellen had lived all her life. On the final leg of her drive to work, she would speed downtown on I-55, the Ozark Expressway, which nobody ever called anything but "Fifty-Five." South Broadway is the old arterial feed to South St. Louis, once a lily-white enclave of blue-collar European immigrants. Its many neighborhoods were populated with German or Italian or Irish immigrants who had come here to find work in the breweries or in the city's expanding shoe-manufacturing industry. The streets and houses of the South Side, alongside the Mississippi River, offer endless examples of turn-of-the-century residential architecture. Modesty of scale didn't prevent breadth of detail when it came to building the front porch, or elaborating with a cornice, or creating a faux frieze in the plebeian red brick. Today, the neighborhoods of St. Louis's South Side still exude middle-class pride, but whereas there used to be a certainty that one could find the good life here, now many of them are leaving for greener pastures.
At the beginning of this century, St. Louis was ranked fourth in size among America's great cities. First there was New York, then Chicago and Philadelphia, and St. Louis, with 575,238 people. In the 1990 census, there were just under 400,000 residents of this city, ranking it as America's twenty-seventh largest city.
At the turn of the century, almost one out of every four families owned their own home. Today, only four out of ten homes are owner-occupied, and in what is a sign of decline, nearly fifteen percent of St. Louis's dwellings stand vacant. Of those, nearly one in four is boarded up, with no immediate plans for occupancy. Many of them are, by building-code standards, unfit for human habitation. Even more troubling is the growing poverty rate.
Almost four in every ten families in the city are living below poverty level. For single mothers with children under five years of age, sixty-five percent are living in poverty.
Ellen, the daughter of middle-class St. Louisians, was a child of the postwar prosperity and also a witness to the change. She was seven years old when the triumphal Busch Arch was completed. But only five years later, by the time she was twelve, St. Louis passed another milestone among American cities: It had lost more of its people to the suburbs in the decade between 1962 and 1972 than any other American city. While few cities in America were immune to white flight, St. Louis's problem was aggravated by an accompanying exodus among middle-class blacks to the cleaner, safer, and greener haven of outlying St. Louis County.
Today, downtown St. Louis is deserted after business hours. Along Market Street, Ellen would pass one after another building erected with equal proportions of magnitude — all of them on a grand scale — for the public administration of this place. The massive neoclassical edifices no longer symbolize grandeur and prosperity. Somehow, the better days were now long gone. This was no longer the gateway to the West. It was the place everyone wanted to leave.
Ellen worked at a modern, gray office building at 1010 Market. There she spent her day, keying hundreds of entries into a word processor for Andersen Consulting, a unit of Arthur Andersen & Co., the giant accounting firm. In 1988, she had been at Andersen for two years. She earned almost $20,000 a year, and appeared to be making a go of it as a divorced single parent.
To her coworkers, Ellen was a cheerful, gregarious, and hardworking employee. They actually knew next to nothing about the real Ellen Kay Booker Boehm — who had recently filed for bankruptcy protection, who had recently lost her home. They didn't know that her husband had left her when she was eight months pregnant with her third child.
In her twenty-eight years, Ellen had seen much of what life can throw at people. She had been born and had lived every day of her life right here, in a ten-square-mile patch of South St. Louis. This was where she grew up, experienced the rite of passage of her first job out of high school. Here was where she met her husband. Had her children. Bought her first house. And this was where she was finally abandoned to fend for herself.
In August of that year she finally had to give up the house, a two-story, redbrick flat on tree-lined Wyoming Street in the heart of South St. Louis. The house looked out on the athletic grounds behind Roosevelt High School, her alma mater. It killed her to leave, but there was no alternative. After Paul had left, she first tried to make ends meet by renting out the upstairs, but that didn't work out.
Ellen was supposed to get $105 a week in child support, but she couldn't even locate her husband. When the mortgage and credit-card payments overtook her, she just walked away. The Veterans' Administration, which held a mortgage for $30,000, took the house back.
This was a severe blow for someone who had always been very good with money. Fresh out of high school, on a modest salary as a secretary, Ellen had managed to save almost enough to make a down payment on a new car. It was a forest-green Dodge Aspen sedan right off the showroom floor at King Dodge.
Paul went with her to buy the car. Being a Chrysler man, he wanted to make sure she got a "slant six," a six-cylinder engine with a longevity that had become a legend. The car had power steering and a few other nonstandard features, but it wasn't loaded, as the lingo went, by any means. There was no air conditioning, for example, a definite shortcoming during the peak of summer in St. Louis, where the heat could be suffocating. But Ellen was in love with the car just the same. She had saved $500 for a down payment, and when she learned that it wasn't quite enough, Paul helped out. He made up what was needed with a $100 charge on his MasterCard, and Ellen was able to drive her new car out of the showroom.
The year was 1979. By all measures, the future looked bright. She had a job. She had a brand-new car. She was only nineteen years old, and out of high school barely a year. What's more, she already knew the man she would marry. They had met when she was a senior at Roosevelt High, and Paul Boehm was a bus driver.
In fact, Paul was so enamored, he wanted to marry his young, blond passenger the day she graduated from high school. Ellen wanted to wait, not ready to take the plunge. She wanted to get out on her own for a while.
Not until June 7, 1980, after she had experienced the freedom as a young adult for almost two years after her high school graduation did Ellen make good on her promise to Paul. It was three days before her twentieth birthday. Her groom was practically old enough to be her father, and this wasn't going to be his first marriage, nor would it be his last.
The newlyweds had considerable baggage that was destined to get in the way of their dream of a happy, normal life together. In Ellen's case were the scars of childhood abuse, which were compounded by a life spent with an older, alcoholic father, who wasn't even around during most of Ellen's last year in high school, and who was dead by the time she married.
John Booker, at five-feet-ten inches, wasn't tall, big-boned, or remarkably handsome. But women were taken by his pretty blue eyes, which in concert with his powerful thirst for whiskey and beer were his undoing. He could have been a wealthy man, but it was all blown away on women and drinking. This pattern was in full swing when he arrived in St. Louis in the middle fifties, looking for a job at McDonnell Douglas, the big aircraft company. He had traveled north from the little town of Ripley, Mississippi, where he had been born and raised on a cotton farm. But he wasn't a young Southern boy in search of a new destiny beyond the bayou. No, John Booker was already in his early forties, and he left behind a devout wife and seven children.
Excerpted from Sleep, My Child, Forever by John Coston. Copyright © 1995 John Coston. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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