In a way, it’s the murder that won’t die. In fact, the investigation into who pulled the trigger is equally as intriguing as who actually did it.
Around 10 p.m. on June 24, 1948, a 17-year-old Oregon girl named Mary Jane Reed left her job as a telephone operator. Meeting her new boyfriend, Stan Skridla, a 27-year old Navy veteran from Rockford, the two went bar hopping in Oregon.
Eventually, they met another couple, and ended up on a gravel road about a mile south of Oregon on what locals called “lover’s lane.”
Early the next morning, Skridla’s car was found abandoned on the south side of Oregon. A short time later, his bullet-riddled body was found in the ditch on lover’s lane. He had been shot five times, including four times in the groin.
Reed’s body wasn’t found until four days later on another isolated country road four miles west of there. Ironically, it was the same road her father used to go to work at the local silica plant. The partially clad teenager had been shot once in the back of the head.
Seventy years later, it still isn’t clear who committed the double murders – although there are plenty of theories. Was it the result of a jealous boyfriend or a robbery gone wrong? Skridla reportedly had $70 which local police never found.
It’s also not clear what happened to the mystery couple who was seen with them.
Many of these mysteries are explored in “Mary Jane’s Ghost,” a compelling book by Ted Gregory, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
Written like a detective novel, the 203-page paperback is a first-person account of how Gregory first became involved in the case 16 years ago. Woven between the facts of the case and the ensuing investigation are insights into the life of a modern day newspaper reporter, as well as a myriad of other subjects, including Oregon’s past, a description of Illinois and much more. Extremely well-written, Gregory obviously did his homework.
Conceived in 2014, Gregory said it took two years to write the book, which officially came out last October.
“The structure came to me, oddly enough, while I was cutting the lawn one Saturday afternoon in 2009 or 2010,” Gregory said. “I was in that Zen-like meditative state I sometimes achieve when I’m performing menial work without listening to music or podcasts. It occurred to me that the case stuck with me for so long because it needed to be a book.
“But when I thought about writing it as a straight-line, conventional, true-crime narrative, it felt so inadequate. The case had taken on so much more meaning for me over the years. It accompanied and beguiled me through all the other stories I’d written, through the dismantling of this once-great institution known as the Chicago Tribune, and through my life, really, for 13 years.”
Over time, Gregory said he realized that the book “came to signify revisiting our pasts and remaking them and whether that’s worth the heartache. It became about journalism and its importance. It became about our need for stories.”
Gregory first learned of the case when he received a letter from former Oregon mayor Mike Arians, who became obsessed with it after reading a story in the Ogle County Life on the 50th anniversary of the murders.
Because of Arian’s persistence, the two-decade investigation has taken on a life of its own.
Among other things, both bodies have been exhumed, resulting in one of the most disturbing chapters in the book. When Reed’s casket was opened, officials found her body clad only in her bra and underwear and her dress stuffed in a corner, wrapped in a local newspaper with an account of the murder. Her skull had been severed from the rest of the body. An independent forensic expert – whom Arians paid for – stated he did not believe the skull in the casket was actually Reed’s.
That statement raised the obvious questions: If it wasn’t her skull, then who did it belong to? And where was Reed’s skull?
There are many unanswered questions and theories surrounding the investigation and the case, and it’s also as much a mystery as who committed the crime. Gregory presents strong evidence for at least four suspects, including the local police officer who headed up the investigation and rumored to be romantically involved with Reed.
Although Reed was initially considered the prime target, evidence suggests it just as easily could have been her male companion, who was involved in a couple of gambling incidents.
“Mary Jane’s Ghost” is a fascinating read about a haunting story, and is available on Amazon and at the Flagg-Rochelle Public Library.