Charles “Smitty” Schmid was a young man with a serious inferiority complex. He was insecure about his height – he only stood 5’3″ tall – so he stuffed his cowboy boots with newspapers to appear taller. He also used makeup to create an artificial mole on his cheek to try to make himself look mean. To kids and teens in Tucson, Arizona, Schmid was a rebellious leader. He frequently cruised an area in Tucson known as the Speedway in the 1960s, picking up girls.
Schmid had been a good athlete in high school, but he quit school after he was caught stealing tools from the campus machine shop. Even after high school, Schmid never bothered to get a job, instead living on an allowance from his parents. Well before his crimes came to light, Schmid was known as the Pied Piper for his pull on the other kids in Tucson.
On May 31, 1964, 21-year-old Charles “Smitty” Schmid proclaimed to his girlfriend Mary French and friend John Saunders, “I want to kill a girl tonight. I think I can get away with it.” That very night, Schmid made good on his promise. With the help of French, he lured 15-year-old Alleen Rowe to what she thought was a night out and a party. There was no party. Schmid, French, Saunders, and Rowe drove into the desert outside of Tucson and parked the car. There, Schmid raped Rowe and killed her by bashing her head with a rock. The three then buried Alleen Rowe's body in the desert.
A couple of months after Rowe’s murder, Charles Schmid began dating another teenage girl named Gretchen Fritz. After they had been dating for a while, Schmid told Fritz he had murdered Alleen Rowe and that he had also murdered a boy and buried him in the desert (this earlier murder was never substantiated). Schmid continued to date around, and Gretchen Fritz grew jealous. Fritz told Schmid that she would tell her father, a prominent Tucson heart surgeon, about the murders if he didn’t stop seeing other girls.
On August 16, 1965, Gretchen and her 14-year-old sister Wendy Fritz went to a drive-in and disappeared. Charles Schmid was the reason the girls never returned home. Fearing that his young girlfriend would spill his secrets, Schmid strangled and killed both Gretchen and her sister Wendy and buried them in the desert. Schmid boasted of the murders to some friends, including Richard Bruns. In fact, the murders became somewhat of an open secret among a certain group of Tucson teens. Schmid even took Bruns to see his handiwork in the desert.
Richard Bruns became paranoid that his friend Charles Schmid might eventually kill his girlfriend, so he contacted Tucson Police and told them about Schmid’s crimes. Because Schmid had shown him, Bruns was able to lead police officers to the bodies in the desert.
Richard “Smitty” Schmid was arrested and charged with murder. His trial became a media sensation – LIFE magazine wrote a famous article detailing the crimes titled “The Pied Piper of Tucson”, giving Schmid his infamous moniker. Many major magazines covered the trial, and famed attorney F. Lee Bailey (known for representing Sam Sheppard, O.J. Simpson, the Boston Strangler, and more) was brought in for consultation by the defense.
In 1966, a jury found Schmid guilty. He was sentenced to death for his crimes. However, Arizona temporarily abolished the death penalty in the early 1970s, so Schmid’s sentence was commuted to 50 years in prison. Over the next seven years, Schmid made multiple escape attempts, once actually making it out and taking four hostages before being recaptured.
On March 10, 1975, Schmid was attacked and stabbed nearly 50 times by two of his fellow prisoners. He clung to life but died from his injuries 20 days later, on May 30. Schmid was 32 years old. A number of books and movies were based on this eerie case, from Joyce Carol Oates's seminal "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" to 2014's short film directed by Rose McGowan, Dawn.
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