W. Wright Mitchell
The public is fascinated by high profile murders. And Buckhead has had its fair share of sensational murders since the hanging of the Buck’s Head in 1838.
But perhaps the first well-known murders occurred on July 16, 1879, when prominent ferry owner Martin DeFoor and his wife, Susan, were decapitated while sleeping. The murders occurred at the DeFoor’s residence, which was located near the intersection of present day Moore’s Mill and Bolton Roads.
The brutal nature of the crime captured national attention and the New York Times breathlessly reported “An Aged Couple Murdered. Found In Bed With Their Throats Cut.”
Suspicion quickly focused on two tramps that had been denied lodging at the DeFoor’s home the previous evening. Investigators determined that the assailants had entered the home while the DeFoors were away and helped themselves to food and milk. They even found evidence that one of the criminals had taken a nap in an upstairs bedroom. But the most compelling evidence was two sets of footprints, one barefoot, leading to the wood pile where the axe used to decapitate the DeFoors had been located.
Despite this evidence, no suspects were ever convicted of the crimes. Martin and Susan DeFoor now rest in the DeFoor-Montgomery family cemetery, which is located behind a Mexican restaurant on Marietta Boulevard, near the intersection with Bolton Road. DeFoor’s Ferry Road is all that remains to remind people of the DeFoor legacy.
Another murder connected to a well-known Atlanta family occurred in 1947 when Margaret Alston Refoule’s body was found in Peachtree Creek lying face up, her arm twisted behind her back and her feet bound together with her shoelaces. Mrs. Refoule had recently married Paul Refoule, a Frenchman, who she met while studying abroad. After the two married, they converted an old mill house on the south side of Peachtree Creek into a modern residence, which still stands today just over the Howell Mill bridge.
When Ms. Refoule’s son came home on May 14, 1947, he could not find his mother but he did find the back door open and muddy footprints on the rear porch. A subsequent search turned up Mrs. Refoule’s broken body just down the hill from the house in the waters of Peachtree Creek. An analysis of the body indicated that she had been strangled.
When police learned that her husband, an art teacher at Oglethorpe University, had been having an affair with a student, they focused their attention on him. And despite the fact that he had an iron-clad alibi, they arrested him and charged him with murder. The fact that he was French and lived the life of an alternative artist did not help Mr. Refoule’s cause. Although he was eventually cleared of the murder, Mr. Refoule was stigmatized by the event and died a bitter man shortly thereafter. The real killer was never found.
Perhaps the most famous presumed murder in Buckhead history, quite fittingly, has a connection to the modern Buckhead commerce of shopping rather than ferries and mills. On the evening of Oct. 14, 1965, Mary Shotwell Little disappeared from the parking lot at Lenox Mall while walking to her car. Recently married, the case was quickly dubbed “The Case of the Missing Bride.” Although her husband was considered a suspect, he had been out of town at the time of the disappearance and police generally discounted his involvement.
The facts of this case have perplexed law-enforcement officials for decades. The day after her disappearance, searchers could not locate her car in the Lenox Mall parking lot. Later, however, the car miraculously reappeared and inside the vehicle investigators found a neatly folded set of women’s undergarments speckled with tiny drops of blood. But Mrs. Little’s body was nowhere to be found.
Detectives had few leads until two credit-card receipts signed by Mrs. Little in North Carolina surfaced. When the investigators traveled to North Carolina to speak with the clerks who processed the transactions, both told similar stories.
According to the clerks, the credit card had been presented by men traveling with a woman who appeared to be bleeding. More tantalizing clues materialized in the form of statements from Mrs. Little’s co-workers, who recounted that she had received a phone call at work that seemed to upset her. Her colleagues remembered her stating “Please leave me alone. I’m a married woman now.”
To compound the mystery, Mrs. Little had also received a dozen roses from an anonymous sender shortly before her abduction. Mrs. Little has not been seen or heard from since the sightings in North Carolina a few days after her disappearance. And despite many tips over the years, most discredited, Mrs. Little’s disappearance remains the most famous missing person’s case in Atlanta history.
The most famous of all Buckhead crimes may be the 1933 kidnapping of First National Bank President John Ottley. Coincidentally, Mr. Ottley lived in a large home called Joyeuse on the land where Lenox Mall would eventually be built and where Mary Shotwell Little would be kidnapped 32 years later. Mr. Ottley was abducted by several men while driving to work and taken to a remote spot on the Chattahoochee River near Suwanee. While the other kidnappers returned to Atlanta to deliver a $40,000 ransom note, Mr. Ottley was able to convince the 17-year-old accomplice that had been left in charge of him to let him go. The two walked to a nearby grocery store where Mr. Ottley summoned police. The perpetrators were arrested and sentenced to prison. In addition to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the Ottley kidnapping was one of the most high profile crimes of the early 1900s.
These are just a few of the real life stories of murder and mayhem in Buckhead. There are many more equally worthy of mention no doubt. And although not exactly what the Buckhead Chamber of Commerce would like to advertise, they are a part of Buckhead’s rich history nonetheless.
W. Wright Mitchell is President of the Buckhead Heritage Society and a labor and employment attorney at Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP.