Who would kill Martha Oelman?
It's been three months since friends found Oelman's naked body in her cabin near Sugarcreek Township, a rural community about 15 miles east of Dayton, Ohio. But despite a $10,000 reward and an exhaustive investigation, the mystery over who killed her and why remains. "It's a tough case, a real whodunit," admits Sugarcreek Township police chief Thomas Witten, who notes that the investigation thus far has focused heavily on the lesbian communities in nearby Yellow Springs, Dayton, and Columbus, all places Oelman is said to have frequented. "We have to start with the assumption that the killer is somebody she was familiar with."
Oelman, according to friends, was very private. She preferred to stay behind the scenes but knew how to get things done. A talented sound engineer and producer, Oelman founded the Women in Music radio show m Yellow Springs in the late '70s and helped produce albums for several women through the early '80s. Most of her life for the past decade revolved around her work as the media liaison for the National Center for Homeopathy, but prior to her death she had taken a job as grant writer for Dream Catcher, an independent film being produced by longtime friend Julia Reichert.
The daughter of a prominent businessman who once served as chairman of the National Cash Register Co., Oelman had plenty of money but lived modestly. The biggest indication of her wealth was her frequent trips to visit friends throughout the country. Though she lived at the cabin for two decades, Oelman was drawn by the social aspects of a larger city and was always looking for a place to call home. "I think she was frustrated socially and had a lonely life [in rural Ohio]," says Shelley Jennings of Provincetown, Mass.
The first indication that something had happened to Oelman came on Saturday, September 6, when she failed to confirm lunch plans with Sora Newman, a friend from Washington, D.C., who was in the Columbus area for a wedding. Oelman suffered from gallbladder disease, and Newman feared she'd had an attack. She called Oelman's cabin throughout the weekend, but when she was still unable to reach her by Sunday evening, she contacted Diantha Rau, a mutual friend in Yellow Springs. Rau made the half-hour drive to Oelman's cabin, finding the door wide open and the place pitch-dark. When she turned on the living-room light, nothing in the cabin appeared out of place other than a small pile of clothes that lay on the floor next to the futon--which at first led Rau to believe that she was interrupting a romantic evening.
After calling out Oelman's name and receiving no answer, Rau approached her bedroom and saw her lying naked on the bed, her head matted with blood. "The only thing that went through my mind was that my friend was hurt and that I had to call 911, " says Rau.
The police arrived and spent 36 hours combing the residence. They found no sign of forced entry or struggle. The autopsy revealed that Oelman had died from multiple blows to the head with a blunt object. It was ruled that she had not been sexually assaulted. No weapon was found, but police did discover an electronic diary as well as calendar books in which Oelman meticulously detailed her activities. Nothing in Oelman's diaries indicates that she had been involved with anyone for several years, yet circumstantial evidence has led investigators to believe the killer is possibly someone Oelman was romantically involved with or someone who was angry over a relationship Oelman was having with someone else.
One possible indication of this theory, says Witten, is that Oelman's car was found parked in an odd spot. According to friends and family members, Oelman always parked her car in a certain spot near the cabin. When her body was found, her car was parked away from the home, suggesting that she had either followed someone in or come home and found a car already parked in her usual space. "She had a car phone," says Witten. "If she didn't recognize the car, she would have called someone. That's how Martha was."
That there was no apparent forced entry and that Oelman was found naked in her bed only further police suspicion that the killer was someone Oelman knew and that the death was possibly a crime of passion. "Was this a lesbian lover or someone who was angry with her? There's pretty strong circumstantial stuff to lead you in a certain direction," says Witten.
Since Oelman's death police have conducted extensive interviews with dozens of lesbian friends and have asked many of them to submit to a lie-detector test. "I just can't believe that anyone she knows would do this," says Susan Zurcher of Dayton, echoing widely felt sentiment. "I won't believe it unless someone confesses."
Many of Oelman's friends have their own theories, such as Oelman's being the victim of a hate crime or botched robbery. Oelman had reported awakening from a nap one hot day last summer to kind a group of teens outside her window peering in at her nude form, taunting her. Perhaps a stalker knew she lived alone in an isolated area, or a developer wanted to get his hands on her prime residential property, knowing that Oelman was trying to obtain preservation status for the land.
Police are hoping the reward will prompt people with tips leading to the killer to call or that a clue to Oelman's death will turn up in her extensive diary entries. To get a better idea of the kind of person they are looking for, Witten says his department has even enlisted the help of the FBI, which is working on a profile of the killer.
Because of the mystery surrounding the death and the time that has already lapsed, many of Oelman's friends are beginning to fear that the killer will never be caught. "It's been a tough case, and we are not supersleuths," admits Witten. "But there are a lot of people with experience working on this case, and I think it will be resolved--one way or another."