MANSFIELD, Ohio – Mary Ellen Deener, 14, set out from the laundromat one fall night 55 years ago in search of change for the dryer.
When she failed to return, the Mansfield, Ohio, teen’s 12-year-old sister, with whom she’d been doing their family’s laundry, ran next door to their grandmother’s home. As the older woman went to look for Mary Ellen, she was horrified to instead find police and a crime scene.
At the center of the crime scene was Mary Ellen’s body. She’d been shot twice in the stomach and her skull had been fractured by a brick.
Nickels and dimes were strewn across the ground near her lifeless hand, the Mansfield News Journal reported.
Her killer, soon identified as Lester Edward Eubanks, confessed to authorities and was convicted the following year. Eubanks, 22, was sentenced to death, a sentence eventually commuted to life in prison following the 1972 abolishment of the death penalty.
Eubanks, who was somewhat of a model prisoner, was granted privileges for good behavior – including a Dec. 7, 1973, Christmas shopping trip to a mall in Columbus. According to the U.S. Marshals Service, he was allowed to shop unescorted.
Eubanks, who will turn 77 on Halloween, fled and has not been seen since.
His case, and his escape, are part of the second volume of Netflix’s popular reboot of “Unsolved Mysteries.” As of last week, officials with the U.S. Marshals Service said the segment was seeing significant success.
“He’s alive. I feel we’re getting closer,” Brian Fitzgibbon of the U.S. Marshals Service told the News Journal last week.
Terry Dunn Meurer, creator of the reboot, told TMZ on Monday that the episode about Eubanks, called “Death Row Fugitive,” has resulted in hundreds of tips.
The first six-episode volume of the Netflix reboot of the crime-solving show brought about the reopening of the case of Alonzo Brooks, who vanished from a party the night of April 3, 2004, at a farmhouse near La Cygne, Kansas. According to federal officials, Brooks was one of only three Black men among about 100 people at the party.
Brooks’ body was exhumed in July as part of the new investigation.
The U.S. Marshals Service has also doubled to $50,000 the reward for information that will lead to the capture of the longtime fugitive. The agency has been investigating the case since 2015.
Eubanks was added to the agency’s 15 Most Wanted list in 2018. ABC News reported last year that authorities were attempting to get permission to compare the DNA of Eubanks’ biological son to DNA evidence collected in unsolved cases across the U.S., with the hope of pinpointing where Eubanks might be hiding.
“The U.S. Marshals are not deterred by the passage of time when it comes to cases like this one,” U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott, of the Northern District of Ohio, said at that time. “We are fueled by one thing, and that is justice for 14-year-old Mary Ellen Deener.”
Watch a portion of “Death Row Fugitive” below, courtesy of Netflix.
‘A typical little girl’
The tragedy began with a broken dryer.
According to Myrtle Carter, Mary Ellen’s oldest sister, Mary Ellen and her sister, Brenda Sue Deener, had on Nov. 14, 1965, been tasked with doing laundry at the family’s home. It was not unusual – all seven of the Deener children did chores.
“Mary Ellen and Brenda had washed all the clothes and they ended up with wet clothes because the dryer broke,” said Carter, who, according to the Mansfield News Journal, was 18 and married when her sister was killed. “So they had to get a taxi to go to take the wet clothes to the laundromat.”
Cassie Jones, the siblings’ mother, had no qualms about their safety, since the girls’ grandmother, Love Williams, lived next door to Half-Hour Laundromat on Springmill Street.
Mansfield was also a “very safe place” where everyone seemed to know one another, Carter said in the “Unsolved Mysteries” segment.
“Mary Ellen was just a typical little girl,” Carter said. “Riding bikes, and hopscotch and, you know, playing with dolls. Oh, she had a lot of friends.”
That night at the laundromat, the girls ran out of change. Mary Ellen told her little sister to sit tight while she walked to another laundromat five minutes away.
Brenda did as she was told, but her beloved older sister never returned. The News Journal reported that Eubanks, who was out on bond on an attempted rape charge, was apparently watching as Mary Ellen left the second laundromat.
He grabbed Mary Ellen in the 300 block of North Mulberry Street and dragged her behind a home, the newspaper reported. There, he attempted to rape her and shot her when she refused to stop screaming.
Eubanks left the girl for dead.
He went home, where he got dressed to go dancing downtown, authorities said. John Arcudi, a retired captain with the Mansfield Police Department, told “Unsolved Mysteries” that Eubanks passed the spot where he’d left Mary Ellen on his way downtown, about 45 minutes after the shooting.
The girl was still alive.
“Mary Ellen was writhing in agony,” Arcudi said. “She was still alive after being shot, wanting help, and so he helped her.”
Eubanks picked up a brick from a nearby alley and went to Mary Ellen, striking her multiple times and crushing her skull.
“He went back. He admitted to it,” said David Siler, deputy U.S. Marshal for the Northern Ohio Violent Fugitive Task Force. “He’s a monster. He’s a monster.”
That statement to “Unsolved Mysteries” echoes comments Siler has made in the past, including in a 2017 interview with the News Journal.
“He’s an absolute monster,” Siler said at the time. “If you saw the size of the guy compared to the size of this little girl, she never had a chance.”
A frightened younger sister
Hours after Mary Ellen had left, Brenda grew scared and ran to her grandmother for help.
“My grandmother told her to stay there and she’d go and see if she could find her,” Carter told the show’s producers. “On her way down there, she saw the police. And eventually she saw that it was Mary Ellen there and what had happened to her.”
Authorities were able to determine the caliber of bullet used to shoot the teen. Arcudi told “Unsolved Mysteries” that detectives canvassed all the gun stores and hardware stores that sold weapons in the city.
At Diamond Hardware, records showed that Eubanks had bought a .32-caliber Iver Johnson handgun less than a month before Mary Ellen was slain.
In addition, an informant reported spotting Eubanks, who was well-known in Mansfield, in the area of Mary Ellen’s killing the night she was attacked.
Carter said in her interview with Netflix that she knew Eubanks solely as “a guy that walked down the street.”
“I just always thought he was weird and appeared to be a loner,” Carter said.
She described a set of nunchucks that he would fiddle with as he walked up and down the street.
Siler described Eubanks as a well-liked sharp dresser who “easily could fit into anywhere.”
“But he was also what we would label a sexual predator today,” Siler said.
Eubanks had at least two prior arrests for sex crimes, including the attempted rape for which he was out on bond when Mary Ellen was killed. In that case, he was accused of attacking an 18-year-old waitress at a local restaurant, the News Journal reported.
“This guy shouldn’t have even been out,” Arcudi told “Unsolved Mysteries.”
In his confession, a copy of which was obtained by Netflix, Eubanks said he was hanging around in the area when he spotted Mary Ellen in the laundromat where she was getting change.
As she hurried back toward her sister, she was drinking a bottle of soda.
Mary Ellen seemed suspicious of him, he said, and as she raised the bottle, he claimed he could not tell if she planned to sip her soda or hit him with the bottle. He said he blocked her movement with his hand.
“She started to scream and I got kind of (scared), with this other thing hanging over my head,” Eubanks said. “I would look kind of ridiculous with a screaming girl on a dark part of the street.”
Eubanks stated that he put his hand on Mary Ellen’s mouth and told her she could not scream, but she continued to try. He said he pulled her behind a house, trying to quiet her, but she would not stop.
He put his pistol against her body and fired twice, Eubanks said.
“This monster takes her entire family’s world and just crushes it,” Siler told “Unsolved Mysteries.”
How did Lester Eubanks get away? Who is he?
Eubanks’ case appeared to be open and shut, particularly after he was convicted and sentenced to death. According to those who knew him inside prison, Eubanks was a loner who enjoyed painting and writing.
While on death row, Eubanks’ execution date was pushed back three separate times for a variety of reasons.
It was pushed back for good when capital punishment was abolished. Still, he was expected to spend the remainder of his life in the general population at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus.
The treatment some prisoners received behind bars was far different in the early 1970s than it is today. Prison reform introduced an honor program in which Eubanks was allowed to partake.
Part of the program was to allow inmates, under certain conditions, to leave the confines of the prison walls. According to officials, the idea was to incentivize good behavior, which would also help control the inmates.
“(Eubanks) was a serial sex offender. Today we know that he’s probably one of the last people you’d want to let in that program, because of their recidivism rate,” Dale Fortney, a retired lieutenant with the Mansfield Police Department, told Netflix. “That was a real bad idea.”
The admitted child killer’s good behavior was rewarded with a Dec. 7, 1973, shopping trip, during which he was dressed as a civilian and was not accompanied by a guard. He and the other inmates were told to do their shopping and report back by 2 p.m.
Eubanks was never seen again.
“To go from death row to the shopping mall, and then allow him to escape is unfathomable,” Siler said. “He avoided the electric chair. He avoided a lifetime in a prison cell.
“Lester Eubanks was allowed to walk away.”
According to the News Journal, Eubanks, the son of a preacher, is a former Air Force medic. A gifted artist, he also has a black belt in karate.
From the mall in Columbus, authorities believe Eubanks fled to Michigan. He is also believed to have spent several years in Los Angeles.
Siler told the newspaper in 2017 that there have been leads and tips over the decades that have put him in a number of different places.
Anyone with information on Eubanks’ whereabouts is urged to contact the nearest U.S. Marshal Service district office, the U.S. Marshals Service Communications Center at 1-800-336-0102 or submit a tip using USMS Tips.
In a 2018 statement from the U.S. Marshals, Siler said Eubanks “literally could be hiding in plain sight” under an alias and with a changed appearance.
Eubanks is described as Black man who is 5 feet, 11 inches tall with black – or now graying or gray – hair and brown eyes. At the time of his disappearance, he weighed approximately 175 pounds.
Other unique physical characteristics include a large burn or scar on his upper right arm and a mole under his left eye.
He may be using the alias Victor Young. He has also in the past used the alias Pete Eubanks.
Siler, who has worked the case since 2016, said he thinks of Mary Ellen every day.
“In law enforcement, there are cases that keep you up at night; this is one of those cases,” he said in 2018.
He reiterated his dedication to her justice on “Unsolved Mysteries.”
“The last thing I want is for Lester Eubanks to die a free man,” Siler said.
Carter expressed a similar sentiment.
“He murdered my sister. The Bible says, you take a life, you give your life,” Carter said. “I want him caught.”