The Murder of Helen Clevenger

1936 was not so kind to a young 19-year-old NYU student Helen Clevenger. She had traveled to the mountains with her uncle, William Clevenger. He was a 54 year-old bachelor who taught agriculture and food science at NC State. This road trip with her uncle was her first foray into adulthood for the honor student.

At around 10:30 pm on the night of July 15th, Helen retired to her room, room 224, after having dinner with her uncle and some friends. There was a severe storm that night, so it was no surprised that the gunshot that took the young woman’s life was written off as a thunderclap. The following morning, at around 7:30 am, William walked down the hall and knocked on his niece’s door. When there was no answer, he tested the door and it opened easily. He walked inside to find her crumpled on the floor in her green striped pajamas. Her clothes were stained with blood and she had been badly beaten.

The cops were quickly called and an investigation was soon underway. The mystery of who murdered this young woman gripped the nation. Even her the state of New York flew in detectives to help in the investigation. Who could have possibly killed this innocent young women? And why? The need for an answer could have led to an innocent man being charged and executed for the crime.

Helen’s body was a grisly sight to behold. Her ultimate cause of death was the close range gunshot wound to the chest by a .32 caliber gun. But the killer hadn’t stopped there. They had beaten her as well. At first, the jagged marks that had been left behind were believed to be caused by a can opener. It wasn’t until later, once they had the murder weapon, that they realized it was caused from an odd projection from the butt of the gun.

The guests at the hotel were questioned, and several suspects were detained, Mr. Clevenger was one of them. They also detained the house detective, Mr. Gaddy. The police interrogated 60 hotel staffers, but they turned their focus on two of the young black bellhops, Joe Urey and LD Roddy. They both swore they were innocent, and the investigation soon came to a standstill. A bellboy on duty had said that he had saw a mysterious man creeping about the lobby who stood around 5’9” and weighed about 160 pounds. He said the man then fled the lobby and into the hotel manager’s office before racing out the door, and jumping from the porch, 15 feet down onto O Henry Avenue.

Thomas Martin and John Quinn Jr were dispatched to Asheville on August 7. Around the time of their arrival, the hotel cook, Banks Taylor, told the cops that Martin Moore, 22 and a janitor at the hotel, owned a .32. The cops raced to question Moore. He denied he had anything to do with it, but the cops found the gun, wrapped in burlap, under the crawl space of his home. They sent the gun to Brooklyn to be analyzed, and they found hairs on the gun that matched Helen’s.

Sometime after this, Buncombe County Sheriff Laurence Brown announced that Moore had confessed to the killing. Moore said, quote “I got scared. I figured she was not in the room… But when I got in, she was there and she screamed. That’s why I shot her.” End quote.

Moore soon took back his confession and claimed that he had been coerce by Brown and Quinn. Then, four days later, Dr. Mark Griffin, a psychiatrist, said Moore confessed to him. Martin Moore was indicted and quickly placed on trail on August 19th, only 11 days after the cops found the pistol. J. Scroop Styles, was his attorney, and he argued the legitimacy of the confession that had been squeezed out of the a vulnerable and ill-educated young black man. Moore and his family also stated that he had been at a birthday party at the time of the murder.

But, this didn’t sway Judge Don Phillips and he approved the confession. This made Zeb Nettles, the prosecutor, job easy. The all white jury had a guilty verdict in an hour. Moore was condemned to death and was set on the fast track to the brand-new gas chamber. He was unable to get an appeal because his attorney missed an important deadline. While the NAACP had initially said the trail was orderly and apparently fair, had second thoughts and thought about starting a campaign to save Moore’s life.

But nothing slowed the execution. A cringing and weeping Moore was led to the gas chamber on December 11 1936 in Raleigh. He was seated and sealed into the room where is life soon was taken away.

Martin Moore

Sheriff Brown had a lot of pressure on him. Word of the murder had spread like wildfire. To put this into context, this is some of the other things that was going on in Asheville during the summer of 1936. F. Scott Fitzgerald was holed up the Grove Park Inn writing. His wife Zelda was at Highland Hospital. The Biltmore House was open for tours, which Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil and her husband John Cecil had opened the house in 1930 to help the local economy. Thomas Wolfe’s mother, Julia Wolfe was operating a boarding house. There is a good chance that Sheriff Brown had received a lot of pressure from the tourism officials. Putting somebody behind bars would have lessened everybody’s anxiety. There was even $1000 in reward money for anybody that could help them find the killer.

According to Wicked Asheville, a hotel pass key was found in the door. The key that Helen would have been given was bloody and found under the radiator in the room. A news article in the Asheville Citizen had said that the key found was the mysterious 12th key. The 11 keys the hotel knew of were in possession of the guests that were supposed to have them, so nobody knows where this 12th key came from.

Another piece of information was there was an H engraved on the shell casing. Investigators learned that no ammunition like that had been sold in Asheville in the last 10 years. They found fingerprints, but the Sheriff said they were valueless. There were also no signs of rape or attempted rape. At least 10 guests heard her screaming the night before, but the lobby had only received one call about the screams. Four people had noticed a suspicious person lurking in the building or running out of the lobby.

Another man staying on the same floor as Helen, in room 218, Mr. JJJ Cox, said he had left his door open to create a cooling draft, but when he awoke the next morning, it had been closed and locked. But he said he had never heard anything going on.

Mark Wollner was a 35 year old German violinist. He had been living in Asheville for two years and had studio across the street from the hotel. Mary Brown Wollner, his estranged wife, was a language teacher at the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington DC. Their four year old lived with her.

Somebody told the Sheriff that Mr. Wollner had said at around 10 PM on Wednesday that he had a date with a girl at the Battery Park Hotel. EB Pittman, a bank employee from Raleigh, had been staying in the room across from Helen’s. He had said on the night of her death that he had stepped out into the hall after he heard screams at around 1 AM and exchanged words with a shadowy figure in front of her door. The Sheriff asked Pittman to go to the Grove Park Inn on Friday, July 17th, where Wollner was playing, to see if he fit the description of the man he had seen the night of the murder.

Pittman said that the build fit, but Wollner’s voice was a higher pitch. The Sheriff brought Wollner in for questioning on Saturday. He was jailed shortly thereafter. Howard L Sumner, the county physician, came to examine Wollner in his cell and noted that he had a fresh cut on his left foot, a bruise on the same heel, and strange brown stains on his clothing. Remember, a bell boy had saw a man jump from the porch, down 15 feet, onto the street below. That jump would have likely hurt whoever made it.

 But Wollner claimed to have an alibi. He said he was home all night and the tubercular daughter of his landlady was able to corroborate. However, other people challenged this alibi. The Cumberland Evening Times shared a timeline of Wollner’s whereabouts that night according to witnesses. Doug Eller, a reporter, saw Wollner from 10 to 10:30 PM drinking beer, presumably at the restaurant in the hotel at the time. The sheriff said a girl told him that she saw Wollner on the street around 2 AM. A man named Charles English saw Wollner drinking coffee at 6 AM the next morning. Then his neighbors saw him come home at 6:30 AM. One of his neighbors, Nevada Whittaker, said that Wollner had walked with difficulty up the stairs to his room, as if he had been injuried. It sounds like he had an interesting night to say the least. Something had to be going on for a person to stay out all night long in 1936. But Wollner was released on July 24th.

Sheriff Brown grabbed up Mr. Clevenger the same day he released Wollner. He had just returned from Ohio after visiting for his niece’s funeral. Brown questioned him for 4 hours and then locked him up, but he was never charged. Which likely only added fuel to the fire when Clevenger decided to sue the city.

Another person of interest at the time had been Daniel Gaddy, the night watchman. Gaddy had not punched his time card in the corridor outside of Helen’s room at 1 AM like he was suppose to do, but Brown didn’t think he could have committed the crime.

Once all of these suspects were thrown out the window, that’s when Banks Taylor had come forward and mentioned Martin Moore.

Once they had the gun, they simply glazed over the fact that there was a 12th pass key. Martin Moore, in his confession, had said he was trying to rob somebody. He had walked down the hall trying doors, but they were locked, and then he came upon Helen’s and it opened for him, so why was there a pass key in the door? Of course the Sheriff had an answer. His answer? Somebody put it there later.

When Moore was put on the stand, he even stated that a fat man, presumably Quinn, the detective from New York, had beaten him with a hose to try and get him to confess. He also stated he had loaned the gun to LD Roddy, another employee at the hotel, and that the man had returned the gun to him the day after the murder. Investigators also lied when they said they found Moore’s fingerprints on a lampshade in Helen’s room. In reality, none of the prints were usable.

Some of the people at the time believed that Gaddy had really committed the murder since he had not punched his card when he was supposed to at 1 AM, which was the time of the murder. One man, Booker T Sherril, served as a bell captain at the hotel from the 1930s until it closed in 1972. He continued to live there when it was turned into apartments until his death on October 30, 2003. His oral history can be found in the archives at UNCA. In them he states, quote:

“I was off duty during the time of the 1936 murder and was not questioned but there were some bad feelings about this. Some think it was never solved. Some think the son of the manager was to blame. It upset this city and it took eight to ten years for the people to relax. Room 224 was permanently blocked. Although I kept my thoughts to myself, I don’t think Moore, a relatively new night janitor, had the mentality to commit the crime.” End quote

As you can see in pictures, Moore didn’t exactly match the description of the 5’ 9” 160 pound person that one of the bell hops had seen.

The manager’s son was never questioned, yet he would have had access to the room keys. Things got brushed under the rug for Wollner, even though he had suspicious injuries. Was an innocent man put to death for the murder, or had Moore really killed Helen? Where had Gaddy been when was supposed to be punching his card at 1 AM? Nobody will ever truly know.

But one thing is for certain, the Battery Park Hotel has been in a state of unrest since then. Eventually, Battery Park was turned into Apartments for the elderly. But over the years it has been the scene of many different tragedies. Many people have lept to their death from the Battery Park hotel, most notable is Clifton Alheit, a government official, who jumped to his death from the roof on September 4, 1943.

We’ll likely never find out who really killed Helen Clevenger.

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