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The Unsolved Sawmill Murder – Margaret Martin

19-year-old Margaret Martin from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, was known as a shy but friendly girl that had many friends. “I liked to dance, but she never went to dances. She was very popular, very studious,” her friend Betty Hopkins fondly recalled.1

Martin graduated from Kingston High School in 1937 and took a couple of classes at Wilkes-Barre Business College to gain secretarial skills. She graduated with honours.

On Saturday the 17th of December, 1938, a neighbour who took phone calls for the Martin family informed Martin that a man had called with a job offer for her. The anonymous caller said that he was new in town and was setting up an insurance agency and was looking for a secretary. It was just 17 days after her graduation and she assumed that Wilkes-Barre Business College must have recommended her to this potential employer. A chuffed Martin took the phone call and arranged to meet the anonymous caller at Kingston Corners, just a short distance from her family home on Covert Street.

The last time Martin was seen alive was when a man who lived in an apartment at Kingston Corners spotted her climbing into a brown Plymouth. The man who was driving the car was said to be between 25 and 30-years-old and was slightly overweight.

When Martin didn’t arrive home, police were contacted and a search was launched.

Due to a six-month strike at the local newspapers, her disappearance wasn’t well publicised but there were a few articles detailing her disappearance. An “Evening Star” article noted that police were checking into the possibility that she had been lured away by a man who was running a “white slave ring.”2

On the 21st of December, 1938, 19-year-old muskrat hunter, Anthony Rezykowski, made a gruesome discovery as he was laying traps alongside the icy cold water of Keelersburg Creek in Northmoreland Township, Wyoming County. As he approached a disused bridge, he spotted a burlap sack bobbing up and down with the flow of the water. Protruding from the burlap sack was a human hand.

The search was over: it was Margret Martin and she had been viciously abused.

She had been slashed across the abdomen and leg. It’s presumed that the killer had attempted to dismember her. In addition, she had been bludgeoned with a heavy rock. Her body was bound with a clothesline: both legs were jammed up underneath her chin. She was raped before being strangled.

Martin’s mother had the traumatising task of identifying her body.

50 State troopers were called in to search the isolated, snow-covered countryside where she was found. Within days, they expressed the belief that Martin had been murdered by a “sex maniac with a cruel, distorted mind.” They soon received an anonymous tip from somebody who claimed they had overheard the anonymous caller making the telephone call to Martin in which he offered her a job. He was described as being between 25 and 30-years-old with sandy hair. He was said to be “neat” and “suave.” This was the only tangible clue they had to go on. 3

Investigators gathered around the creek where Martin’s body was found.

As it so transpired, the anonymous caller had called the Wilkes-Barre Business College at approximately 9:15AM on the morning of the 17th of December. The school secretary gave the man the name of two students along with their phone numbers. The second student she named was Martin. The caller never called the first student, just Martin. This makes one wonder if he knew the school would suggest Martin and share her phone number with him.

The inch-by-inch search of the craggy surrounding area turned up no clues that could point investigators in the direction of the killer. Unfortunately, just moments after the body of Martin was found, the skies opened up and snow fell down, turning the crime scene into a winter wonderland. If there were any footprints or tire tracks, the snow had obliterated them.

While the search of the surrounding area was unfruitful, investigators reached a breakthrough several weeks later when they discovered the site where Martin had been tortured and murdered. Inside a steam boiler of an abandoned sawmill near Forkston, approximately 15 miles away, was a pile of burnt clothes. The burnt clothes matched what Martin was wearing on the day of her disappearance. Also discovered in the ash were several pieces of jewellery that Martin had been wearing on the day of her disappearance.

Outside the abandoned sawmill, investigators found footprints of a man and a woman in frozen mud. At one point in the track, the woman’s footprints disappeared and thereafter there were signs that some kind of object had been dragged.4

A man living nearby the sawmill reported seeing light from the sawmill fire as somebody opened the door at approximately 9PM on the same day Martin disappeared. He told investigators that he had fired several warning shots in the direction of the sawmill but didn’t think to investigate any further as he assumed it was just a trespasser. Was the killer disturbed as he attempted to dismember Martin and dispose of her body in the sawmill? Investigators believe so.

While families worldwide were getting ready to celebrate the Christmas festivities, Martin was buried in the cemetery of St. Ignatius Church on the 24th of December. It was the day she had planned on attending a Kingston High School alumni dance. Around 1,000 mourners arrived to pay their last respects. Several plain-clothes officers mingled around the crowds on the possibility that the killer would show his face; it certainly isn’t unheard of for killers to show up at their victim’s funerals. It was to no avail.5 Martin was buried beside her brother, who she watched die of a childhood disease when he was just 4-years-old. In a cruel twist of fate, he too was buried the day before Christmas.

One main theory was that the killer was a local due to the fact that he was clearly familiar with the rugged terrain. The abandoned sawmill wasn’t in an easy location to find. Presumably he knew exactly where it was and knew that it was abandoned. Another theory amongst the locals was that the killer was a serial killer from another town but police didn’t have the ability to track such a killer during the time.

Four years after the murder, 21-year-old Orban Taylor from New York City handed himself into authorities and confessed that he had killed Martin. A former resident of Wilkes-Barre, Orban was brought in for extensive questioning and after 20 long hours, admitted that he had fabricated the confession. While some of what he had said matched the facts of the case, the majority contradicted evidence. Nevertheless, police had to investigate his claims. They could find no evidence to substantiate his claims and he wasn’t charged in relation to the murder of Martin. He was, however, charged with second degree assault in an unrelated crime. Two years later, he died in prison after drinking a cocktail of typewriter cleaning fluid, orange juice, sugar and water.6

The search for Martin’s murderer gripped the Wyoming Valley for years and even left many Kingston residents too terrified to venture outside. Pennsylvania authorities never close the cold cases in their archive. In fact, every year, unsolved murders are reopened and reviewed each and every year and Martin’s murder is no different. However, over the forthcoming years following her murder, tips and leads have dwindled significantly and police aren’t hopeful that this case will ever be solved.

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Footnotes:

  1. The Times Ledger, 24 January, 1999 – “A Gruesome Murder that went Unsolved”
  2. Evening Star, 22 December, 1938 – “Girl, 19, May Be Detained”
  3. Evening Star, 23 December, 1938 – “National Guardsmen Join in Search for Girl’s Slayer”
  4. The Evening Sun, 30 December, 1938 – “Footprints Discovered”
  5. The Times Leader, 27 April, 2009 – “Cold Murder Cases Live On”
  6. Star-Gazette, 25 May, 1944 – “Inmate Dead from Poison Cocktail”

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