The Ice-Cold Case
On a chilly fall morning in 1978, Melanie Morgan sat eating breakfast at the posh Pam Pam Room restaurant, inside what was then the Alameda Plaza Hotel on the Country Club Plaza. Morgan, a 24-year-old reporter for KFIX AM, lived in an apartment on the Plaza and sometimes stopped in for French toast at the hotel before walking to the radio station’s offices at 47th Street and Broadway, near the Tivol jewelry store.
Morgan knew that the hotel’s restaurant drew a breakfast crowd of politicos. Having grown up in a politically active family of Kansas City Democrats — her mother served for years on the Committee for County Progress — Morgan knew the names and faces of the local players. And she knew that her ex-boyfriend, political consultant Jerry Jett, plotted strategy over coffee at the hotel with then-Mayor Charlie Wheeler, Democratic kingmaker Jim Nutter and other power brokers. “It was a sneaky way to get dirt on what was going on in town,” Morgan recalls.
At the time, the luxury Alameda Plaza Hotel (now the Fairmont) was only a few years old. The hotel’s construction was part of an early-’70s development boomlet that included the building of Crown Center and the Truman Sports Complex. The Alameda, financed by J.C. Nichols, drew conventiongoers, business travelers and the elite — Ronald Reagan stayed there during the 1976 Republican National Convention.
As Morgan ate on the morning of October 18, 1978, she didn’t overhear juicy political gossip, but she did notice two women who seemed distressed. “I could tell something was wrong, but I just sort of filed it in the back of my mind, finished eating, paid my bill and left,” Morgan recalls.
She walked through the hotel, her mind on her upcoming news broadcast, but the scene in the lobby stopped her. At least half a dozen Kansas City cops had crowded near the front desk, and more were rushing in, one by one, through the revolving door.
“I thought, well this is strange,” Morgan says today. Her reporter instincts kicking in, Morgan nonchalantly followed the police into the elevator. The cops ignored her and pressed the button for the ninth floor.
The elevator opened onto a crime scene: The door to room 928 sat propped open, and inside, a young woman’s dead body lay sprawled on the floor. Her black, wavy hair hid most of her chalky white face, and she was dressed for work in ’70s career attire — a frilly patterned blouse, a sharp blue skirt, beige pantyhose and blue pumps. Her eyes were closed. A bullet had pierced her temple.
Detectives walked in and out of the room, making notes and conferring with each other.
Just outside the doorway, Morgan hovered, watching. She noted the makeup containers scattered on the gold shag carpet, the bedspread trailing on the floor. A suitcase sat on a dresser.
Morgan stayed only long enough to get her story — she feared that the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department’s homicide commander, Captain Lloyd DeGraffenreid Jr., who had a reputation for disliking reporters, would discover her. And she had overheard someone say that veteran crime reporter Charles Gray, the WDAF AM news director at the time — known as “Blood and Guts” Gray — was headed to the scene. “I knew he might beat me at my own scoop if I didn’t get out of there,” Morgan says.
On her way to work, Morgan formulated the story in her head: shocking murder on Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza … white female found murdered at the Alameda Plaza Hotel … police investigating …
Over the following days, newspaper stories revealed that the victim, 29-year-old lawyer Mildred Louise Vilott, who worked at Phillips Petroleum Co.’s Bartlesville, Oklahoma, headquarters, had flown to Kansas City to give a seminar on document retention — teaching employees which records the company was legally required not to destroy in case of future subpoenas. A Kansas City, Kansas, native, Louise Vilott (she went by her middle name) had attended law school at Southern Methodist University and then landed a position at Phillips as the first female lawyer in the legal department.
Whoever killed Vilott had also taken a gaudy ring and a billfold filled with credit cards. But when no one used the credit cards and police noticed that Vilott was still wearing an expensive gold watch, they began to doubt a robbery motive. “We don’t have anything to go on,” DeGraffenreid told The Kansas City Times. “We’ll keep investigating until we run out of leads, but we don’t have any leads.”
Media attention waned as the case went cold. Morgan, meanwhile, stopped following the story — she had other things to worry about. Her radio station, which had struggled financially almost from the start, cut her job. In need of work, she signed on as news director at KYYS 102.1, an FM rock station that had little interest in hard news. After that, she took a job at KMBC Channel 9 as a reporter and anchor. For the next year, she worked long hours, overwhelmed with trying to learn the television business. When she heard that her bosses were considering offering her a 5-year anchor contract, she called her boyfriend, who was living in San Francisco. He proposed over the phone, and she agreed to decline the offer and move to California.
Today, Morgan works as a conservative talk-show host at San Francisco’s ABC-owned AM station, KSFO 560. But she spends much of her spare time trying to find out who killed Louise Vilott. For the past 3 years, she has spent hours each day and all 6 weeks of her annual paid vacation working with another reporter and private investigators to try to solve the case. She has dogged the Kansas City Police Department, made phone calls around the world, tracked down and interviewed hundreds of people who either knew the victim or had potentially useful information. She has flown from California to Tulsa and Kansas City numerous times with another reporter and spent $60,000 she may never recoup. And now she thinks she knows who committed the murder. She believes it was Louise’s husband, Bill Vilott.
Twenty-six years later, the murder of the young lawyer remains one of the city’s most fascinating unsolved crimes. Morgan’s persistence convinced the Kansas City Police Department to take another look at the crime — at least for a while. But now the case seems as cold as ever, and police seem uninterested in leads that Morgan considers compelling.
Although police considered Bill Vilott a suspect, he never was arrested or charged with the crime.
Morgan admits that her obsession with the case is personal — she identifies with Vilott. In 1978, both women were in their twenties and starting promising careers in fields that traditionally had been reserved for men. Vilott’s career ended that day on the floor of a hotel room. And Morgan still wants someone to pay.
Morgan’s quest to solve the case began in her living room. On a January evening in Marin County, California, in 2002, she sat on the couch in her two-story home, chatting with her neighbor Sheldon Siegel, a best-selling author of legal thrillers. As Siegel’s twin boys played with Morgan’s son, the conversation turned to books — Siegel was working on his second novel, Incriminating Evidence.
“Melanie, you should write a book,” she recalls Siegel telling her. But she brushed off the idea, telling him she didn’t have anything to write about. “You have lots of stories. Look at everything you’ve covered,” she says Siegel told her.
It was true — Morgan had covered some exciting stories. Not long after she moved to California in 1981, she began working for the local ABC radio station and also covered news for ABC’s national radio and TV networks. Morgan’s bosses sent her to cover the U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983. She covered Mexico City’s devastating earthquake of 1988 and the 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square in China. “I was a hard-news reporter, a hot-spot reporter,” she tells the Pitch.
But when Siegel asked her for a story, she didn’t talk about her international travels or political clashes. Instead she told the story of Louise Vilott’s murder.
“It was the first thing that just popped up in my brain, and the words just came tumbling out,” Morgan says. “He was fascinated by the story, and he said, ‘Why don’t you go back and check and see what happened?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m sure that this thing was solved a long time ago, and I don’t even know how to begin to go about finding out details about it.'”
As a reporter, Morgan had covered breaking news. She didn’t specialize in investigations, digging up records or dealing with police, crime and courts. And she’d been away from beat reporting for several years.
While at KSFO in the ’90s, her politics had slowly changed. To the dismay of her liberal mother, she had become an opinionated right-winger and talk-radio cohost. On The Lee Rodgers & Melanie Morgan Program, she’s more pundit than reporter. She loudly called for the recall of then-Governor Gray Davis and helped to launch conservative nonprofit Move America Forward. More recently, she has spoken out against Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 film and appeared as a commentator on the Fox News Network. But despite her busy schedule, Morgan decided early in 2002 to find out what had happened to the Vilott case.
She was shocked to learn from a KCPD captain that the case had never been solved.
As she began to pursue information on the case, she discovered that she wasn’t the only journalist still obsessed with it.
John Wylie, a former Kansas City Star energy and environment reporter who had covered the Phillips Petroleum Co., had spent more than 6 months trying to solve the murder case in 1980 at the request of Louise Vilott’s mother, Marguerite Wolfe.
Wylie had vowed to Wolfe that he would solve the murder — a promise he now regrets. “I always have felt like I just missed something, that if I had worked a little harder or a little smarter, it could have been resolved,” says Wylie, who spent hundreds of hours working on the case in Kansas City and during trips to Oklahoma to cover his energy beat. He ended up writing a long story for the Star in October 1980, on the 2-year anniversary of the murder.
In the story, Wylie hinted at various possible motives for the killing — the unlikely robbery gone bad, a murderous love triangle, corporate malfeasance. He revealed that Louise Vilott’s husband, Bill Vilott, had “adopted the robbery-murder theory,” suing the Alameda Plaza Hotel for $8.6 million for providing inadequate security. (Vilott later settled with the hotel for an undisclosed amount.) And, Wylie wrote, Bill Vilott had received life-insurance payments totaling almost $250,000 after his wife’s death — and had admitted to an affair with Janie Selph, whom he married soon after Louise Vilott’s death.
But other details complicated the picture. One of Louise Vilott’s former supervisors at Phillips told Wylie that Louise Vilott had twice mentioned working on a top-secret internal probe at the company that may have involved bribery at high levels. (Other coworkers told Wylie they doubted this was true.)
Even after Wylie quit his job at the Star and, with his wife, bought a tiny Oklahoma paper, the Oologah Lake Leader, he never stopped feeling bad about his failure to solve the Vilott case.
So when Morgan called Wylie almost 3 years ago and left a voice-mail message mentioning Louise Vilott’s name, Wylie called back immediately. The two reporters had different skills — Wylie was adept at tracking down documents and court records; Morgan had a talent for getting people to open up during interviews — and they agreed to try to solve the murder together and possibly write a book about it.
That April, Morgan flew to Kansas City, where she and Wylie met with Capt. Randy Hopkins and Sgt. Barbara Eckert of the KCPD homicide unit. They provided Morgan with a copy of the entire homicide log from 1978, which contained every police report from the case. “Barb Eckert seemed very excited about the case,” recalls Romain Morgan, Melanie’s mother, a former teacher whose southwest Missouri farmhouse serves as a clearinghouse for case records.
In fact, many KCPD higher-ups seemed eager to help — they were in the process of forming a cold-case squad, and solving this case would give them an excellent start. In June 2002, a group went to the Hereford House for dinner — Eckert, Morgan, Wylie, Romain Morgan and William Schweitzer, a former police detective who had worked the case. They ate steak, mulled over the case and then went to KCPD headquarters, where they stayed until 1 a.m., poring over the old homicide log and talking strategy.
Later that month, they got bad news. Although the KCPD had agreed to re-activate the murder investigation (the KCPD says no case is ever closed unless it’s solved), Eckert revealed that phone records, flight manifests listing passengers who flew from Tulsa to Kansas City near the time of the murder and Vilott’s bank records — documents that should have accompanied the old homicide log — had been destroyed by mistake in the mid-’90s.
In October 2002, the Star reported that the KCPD could not find documents in at least eight old homicide cases, including the Vilott case. In some of them, the records inexplicably had been destroyed by a homicide sergeant; the cop was transferred to a desk job and investigated. In others, police didn’t know how the documents had been lost. The Star also obtained an internal audit that called the KCPD’s storage space for physical evidence “leaky” and “rodent-infested.” In the Vilott case, a lot of physical evidence was also missing — including Louise Vilott’s clothes, the pubic hairs collected at the scene and scrapings from under the victim’s fingernails that, if available, could have been tested for DNA. Eckert told them that the only evidence the police had left was the bullet, a shell casing and one fingerprint.
Wylie, who handles most of the searches for documents and records in the case, says that many of the businesses that provided the original records for police, such as Braniff Airlines and Vilott’s bank, have folded, merged or changed management.
“There’s a great deal of material that can’t be reconstructed, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it — it’s just plain gone,” Wylie says.
Morgan and Wylie started with what little they had — the old homicide log. Morgan made a list of every person named in the log. She called all of them.
On the day of the murder and in the following weeks, police did the expected. They interviewed the hotel’s front desk clerk, Lori Dean, who had seen a dark-haired man in a blue leisure suit running out the front door of the hotel on the morning of the murder. They interviewed bathroom attendant Otto Parker, who that morning had reported seeing a blond, mustachioed man standing over a toilet as if he were going to vomit. They called the banks that issued Vilott’s credit cards. They called the Bartlesville, Oklahoma, jeweler who had created Louise Vilott’s gaudy ring. They interviewed the victim’s mother, Wolfe, and sister, Evelyn Knowles, who told them Louise Vilott was a cautious traveler who would never speak to a stranger, much less let one into her hotel room.
A private, conservative, yet outspoken young woman, Vilott was ambitious. She worked long hours, taught legal classes at a community college in the evenings and had just written a book on consumer credit for women, which was set to be published by Random House. But in that era, her accomplishments weren’t enough — her coworkers gossiped about her looks when she gained a few pounds, and her family worried that her bossiness might be off-putting to men. In fact, before Louise married Bill Vilott in the spring of 1976, her mother, who now lives in Prairie Village, used to lecture her to soften her manner. “I used to tell her, ‘Louise, you are going to have trouble keeping a husband,'” Wolfe recalls.
Police became suspicious of Bill Vilott early in the investigation because of his behavior. After his family notified him of the murder, he delayed coming to Kansas City for days, declining Phillips’ offer of free corporate jet service. He spoke with police by phone only briefly on the day of the murder, then had his mother act as a go-between, relaying his statements and speaking for him. When he finally arrived in town the afternoon before his wife’s funeral, he met with police only with his mother present, and he barely spoke, letting her dominate the interview. He agreed to take a polygraph test but kept putting police off about when and where the test would happen. Immediately after the funeral, he went to his father’s home in Texas, and when police finally tracked him down, he acted strangely. Then, through his attorney, he refused to take the polygraph. He wouldn’t supply fingerprints, either, according to the police log.
Vilott’s alibi seemed solid. He said he’d been in Tulsa the day of the murder, where he was a student at a community college. That day, he told police, he’d met his mistress, Janie Selph, at the college library. But police found it interesting that Vilott hadn’t attended any of his morning classes the day of the murder and couldn’t name a single witness who might have seen him before 10 a.m. Vilott initially told police he had studied the night before, then he told them he’d taken a cold pill and gone right to bed. But if Vilott had committed the murder, could he have returned to Tulsa in time to meet his mistress? Vilott had a pilot’s license, but police decided that even if he hadn’t flown (there was no evidence that he had), Vilott could have made the 3-hour trip back to Tulsa by car.
Vilott at first told police that the recently divorced Selph was just a friend. Later he admitted that they had been lovers since before he married. Vilott also told police that security guards had found him in the library and escorted him to an office, where his mother informed him of his wife’s death.
Vilott claimed that he and his wife had had an “open marriage.” He later told police that his wife wanted to try “sex without love” because she had been a virgin when they married. That came as a huge surprise to people who knew Louise Vilott, who described her as very conservative, devoted to her husband and self-conscious about her weight and looks. (In a later deposition in his civil suit against the hotel, Vilott said the couple did not have an open marriage, and he admitted to several affairs, which he said he regretted.)
Another piece of evidence seemed to implicate Vilott, according to police records: Hotel switchboard operator Colleen Broton picked out Vilott’s voice in an audio lineup, identifying it as most like the voice of a man who had called and asked for Louise Vilott’s room just before the murder.
The circumstantial evidence against Bill Vilott was compelling. But after two decades, there was little chance of prosecuting him without physical evidence. With no clothing or fingernail scrapings to test for DNA, however, Morgan looked for other ways to tie him to the crime.
She focused on trying to locate the tacky gold ring that was missing from Louise Vilott’s finger. In her mind, the ring was key. “I figured only the murderer or an accessory would have the ring,” Morgan says. “And we knew we could prove it was the same ring taken from Louise.” Morgan’s mother, Romain Morgan, had used a letter and a phone number from the old homicide log to contact the manufacturers of the odd gold band that Louise Vilott’s husband had picked out as a setting for seven of his own diamonds — one large and six small — for a 1977 Christmas present to his wife. “It was described by Louise’s secretary as grotesque. It was just such a massive ring, and it was so ugly, they hadn’t manufactured very many of them,” Romain Morgan says. Romain Morgan also found that no more than five such bands had ever been shipped to jewelers in Oklahoma.
After tracing the ring to its origins, Romain Morgan determined that a jeweler could test the ring to positively identify it, which the KCPD’s Eckert confirms. “We talked to the manufacturer, too,” Eckert says. “It could be identified if we could get the ring.”
Melanie Morgan contacted Eckert in July 2002 and told her that a source claimed to have seen Janie Selph wearing a similar ring shortly after the murder and that she may still have the ring. Eckert classified that as a new lead that should be pursued.
But with plenty of new cases to solve and hundreds of cold cases, too, sending an officer to Selph’s home in California to request that she show off her jewelry was probably not at the top of the KCPD’s priority list. Nonetheless, 8 months later, Eckert sent officer Brian Bell to the West Coast. Morgan’s source had identified the ring from a lineup of drawings conducted at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. But Bell reported back that the ring Selph showed him — the one she was wearing — was not Louise Vilott’s. As far as Morgan knows, he did not ask to borrow the ring so it could be analyzed.
Eckert tells the Pitch that there was nothing more the KCPD could do about the ring at that point. Police could not legally seize it or search Selph’s jewelry box; it had been years since Morgan’s source said she had seen the ring on Selph’s finger. “Too much time had passed for us to get a search warrant,” Eckert says. “Now, if someone sees her wearing the ring tomorrow, then that would be a possibility.”
Citing a lack of new leads coming in, Eckert says she shelved the case. KCPD Detective William Martin says the Cold Case Squad is not handling the Vilott case because that case came to the department before the squad was formed in December 2002. The squad is investigating the more recent of the department’s 850-plus cold cases first and working backward, he says. “It would take awhile [to get to 1978],” Martin says.
Only the police can subpoena phone records of the period or search Selph’s jewelry — leads that a frustrated Morgan wants to pursue. She continues to forward e-mails to the KCPD with information about the case, but the police have all but stopped replying.
“What they are finding sounds good to a journalist writing a book or to the average person,” Eckert says, “but it doesn’t make my case.”
To try to move the investigation along, Morgan and Wylie hired a Kansas City-area private-detective agency, which put several investigators on the case.
Despite the brushoff she’s received from the KCPD, Morgan continues to talk to people who knew Louise Vilott. She contacted everyone she could find who had worked for Phillips as a secretary during the late 1970s — about a dozen women — and flew to Bartlesville to meet with them. Through those interviews — especially with Louise Vilott’s personal secretary, Nina West — she found out that during the summer before the murder, Bill Vilott had called Louise at the office repeatedly to remind her to fill out her applications for life insurance.
And from the secretaries, Morgan learned that Louise’s portrayal of her marriage as perfect — even to her own family — was far from true. Several secretaries told Morgan that when Vilott would stop in at the office, he would flirt with them and make fun of his wife, referring to her as “the elephant woman” — a dig about her weight. Office gossip speculated that the relatively unsuccessful Bill Vilott, who had held a series of low-paying jobs and had briefly operated a failed optical shop called The Spectacle, had married Louise Vilott for her income.
West told Morgan that after Louise’s return from a business trip to London and Norway a week before leaving on her Kansas City trip, Louise had gotten several calls from her bank about bounced checks. The calls seemed to make her very angry; West noticed that Louise flushed a deep red as she was juggling money from other accounts to cover the deficits. West and others described Louise Vilott as a meticulous manager of money. Morgan believes Louise Vilott may have been angry enough to consider divorce. “Maybe Louise discovered he was spending it all on his toys and the girlfriend,” Morgan says.
In fact, West told Morgan that a few days before the murder, Vilott had drawn up a new will and asked her to sign it as a witness. (West didn’t pay attention to what the new will said.) A will Louise had made 3 months earlier left everything to Bill Vilott. That document was accepted in probate court as her official will. Morgan has not been able to find the will that West says she saw Louise sign.
Morgan tried to verify Vilott’s alibi for the morning of the murder by calling the three security guards from Tulsa Junior College who were cited by the homicide log as the men who tracked down Vilott in the school’s library and notified him about his wife’s murder. She found that none of them remembered doing any such thing. She later learned that the KCPD had never sent anyone to Tulsa to interview the guards; they’d made their statements by phone.
For Morgan, the information she had amassed only convinced her of Bill Vilott’s guilt. But it didn’t prove a thing.
Morgan says she’s not about to give up on her quest, even after discouraging setbacks. There was the bullet-riddled tree, for example.
In interviews with Janie Selph’s ex-husband, Jim Selph, whom she divorced the month before the murder, Morgan’s investigators had learned that Jim Selph had purchased a small handgun — he couldn’t remember the caliber — which he had left with Janie when they separated. Morgan’s private investigators theorized that if the Vilott had committed the murder, he might have used his mistress’s gun.
Jim Selph said he had taught Janie to use the gun in the woods in a rural area north of Tulsa, where they had shot at an old oak tree near a creek. Morgan’s investigators thought they might be able to find the tree, retrieve a bullet and have it tested by the KCPD crime lab for a match with the bullet retrieved from the crime scene at the Alameda Plaza Hotel.
But Jim Selph couldn’t remember where the couple had gone for target practice. So Morgan’s detectives asked him to undergo hypnosis to try to retrieve the memory. In September 2003, Selph visited the Jenks Hypnosis Center in a Tulsa suburb; afterward, he was able to find the general area but not the exact tree.
Morgan’s detectives flew to Tulsa and, with assistance from the Tulsa Sheriff’s Department, used a metal detector to find a large oak tree that had metal in it. They cut it down and had it shipped to Kansas City, where they extracted 32 bullets they believed came from a .32-caliber gun. They turned the bullets over to the KCPD’s crime lab.
At the beginning of this July, the KCPD contacted Morgan’s private investigators to tell them the bullets were not a match. “They weren’t even from the right type of gun,” Eckert tells the Pitch.
But Morgan isn’t letting dead ends like that discourage her. She had planned to stop investigating and start writing her book in February 2003, but she can’t let the case go.
Morgan says the case has so consumed her that she even talks to the dead Louise Vilott. “I have long conversations with her, telling her, look, if you want me to solve this, I need some help,” she says. She and Wylie have collected donations to offer a $10,000 reward for information that helps them solve the case. And she’s working with a screenwriter on a fictionalized treatment of the story in hopes of selling it as a movie or TV show to get money to keep paying investigators.
Morgan says she doesn’t care if she ever gets back the money she has put into the case. She just wants some resolution. And if she ever wants to write her book, she needs an ending to her story. “If there’s no resolution to this case, there’s no book,” Morgan says. “We don’t even have an agent right now, because nobody wants a murder mystery without an ending.”