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County Attorney Schafer led murder prosecution of notorious 'Pied Piper' Schmid

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County Attorney Schafer led murder prosecution of notorious 'Pied Piper' Schmid

The history of Pima County includes a number of fascinating trials, the stories of these each speak to a specific time and place. The tragic and bizarre trial of murderer Charles Schmid in 1966 is no exception. The case brought unwanted scrutiny to Tucson, and drew the attention of a nationally famous trial lawyer. 

Tucson news in 1965 was dominated by the disappearances of four teenage girls over the course of several months. In May 1964, Aileen Rowe, a Palo Verde High School sophomore was reported missing, having last been seen at her east side home. In August 1965, Gretchen and Wendy Fritz, the daughters of a prominent and respected physician, disappeared on their way to a drive-in. A fourth girl vanished in September, but she was found safe and sound in Phoenix months later, having run away from home. Though her disappearance had nothing to do with the others, authorities and the press understandably saw a connection, particularly since she attended Palo Verde High School.

Tucson police admitted to being baffled and frustrated. There was no ransom demand or any other sign of a kidnapping. Detectives followed up on reports of sightings around the state and in Mexico, but to no avail. The only physical evidence that had been found was the Fritzes' car, abandoned at the Flamingo Motor Hotel a week after their disappearance. One detective was openly dismissive of the possibility of foul play, telling the Arizona Daily Star that he believed that the girls were simply runaways, having changed their appearance by cutting their hair and using make-up to look older. The parents found this notion insulting, and out of frustration, they had reached out to Tucson's criminal underworld and even consulted a psychic for help.

A story in the Star in November prompted a tip from Richard Bruns, who reported that his friend Charles Schmid was responsible for the deaths of three of the girls. Schmid, a 23-year-old unemployed high school dropout who lived with his parents in midtown Tucson, spent his days drinking, working on his motorcycle, and picking up girls around Speedway. Exceptionally vain, the 5-foot-3-inch Schmid stuffed his boots with newspapers and crushed cans to appear taller. He slicked his hair back and trained his lower lip with a clothespin in an attempt to look like Elvis. He wore makeup and applied a bit of axle grease to give himself a distinguishing birthmark. Despite having almost nothing going for him, he maintained an inexplicable following among a clique of teenage girls who hung out along Speedway.

Bruns reported that Schmid had enlisted the help of a girlfriend in murdering Rowe just because he wanted to know what it was like to kill somebody. Months later, while dating Gretchen Fritz, Schmid bragged about the murder, and killed her and her sister when he became concerned that his confession would be reported to the police. Bruns said that he knew where the bodies could be found.

At this point, the County Attorney's Office became involved in the case. Chief Deputy County Attorney William J. "Bill" Schafer III joined the Sheriff, Tucson police, and civilian volunteers on a search for the bodies in the desert off Pontatoc road. Bruns was able to help locate the remains of the Fritz sisters, but not Rowe. Frustrated, Schafer hired an old man from Mesa who claimed that he could locate the body with a divining rod, but to no avail.

This left Schafer with a dilemma. Without Rowe's body, he believed that could not try the case for that murder. However, it would be difficult to establish a motive for the Fritz killings without establishing his guilt in the Rowe case first. Schafer decided to proceed anyway. Charges were filed against and arrests made of Schmid and two accomplices for the Rowe murder. Schmid was additionally charged with the murder of the Fritz sisters.

Schafer successfully argued to Judge Richard Roylston that the Fritz case be tried first. In a controversial move of dubious constitutionality, Roylston issued a gag order to law enforcement, arguing that press statements would prevent a fair trial. Despite this, national magazines like Life and Playboy eagerly followed the trial, branding Schmid the "Pied Piper of Tucson" and presenting the Old Pueblo and its youth culture in an uncomplimentary light, something which stuck in the collective craw of the community for years afterward.

The trial, which started in January 1966, went relatively smoothly for Schafer. Having used plea agreements to get the testimony of Schmid's accomplices, Schafer secured a conviction of murder for the Fritz killings and a death sentence.

For the Rowe trial, Schmid's attorney, William Tinney Jr., decided to bring in outside help. He reached out to an old Marine buddy, F. Lee Bailey, a defense attorney who had achieved celebrity status representing defendants in some of the era's most well-known criminal trials. Schafer called around to colleagues around the country to learn more about Bailey's tactics. Schafer was generally unfazed by Bailey's star power, but was concerned about what the famously theatrical lawyer would make of the lack of a body. He later wrote:

"It was about a murder case of a young girl whose body was never found. When [Bailey] gave his closing argument to the jury, he harped on the fact that there was no body and asked the jurors if they could convict someone knowing that the victim might not be dead. Then he turned quickly toward the courtroom door, pointed and shouted, 'There she is now.' Everyone in the courtroom turned toward the door. There was nobody there, of course, and the attorney looked at the jurors and said, 'See, not even you believe she's dead.' But the prosecutor was unmoved, and when he got up to make his rebuttal argument he said just one thing to the jury, 'Everybody in the courtroom looked toward the door except for one person—the defendant—because he knows she's dead.' I put that in my trial notebook, just in case."

After numerous delays, the trial started in May 1966. Bailey, serving as co-counsel, remained true to his colorful reputation. During voir dire, for instance, he asked jurors if they would be more likely to convict simply because he was representing the defendant. Though the issue of the still-missing body came up, the Perry Mason moment that Schafer feared did not occur.

After Bailey cross-examined the prosecution's first witness, there was a recess. When the proceedings resumed, Bailey unexpectedly announced that Schmid would plead guilty to second-degree murder. Schmid confessed to the murder of Rowe and the trial was over. Schmid was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.

A month later, Schmid led officials to Rowe's body, hoping for some kind of leniency. He had moved the body sometime before his arrest, but after he had shown the makeshift grave to his friend Bruns. Rowe's remains were near the northern end of Harrison Road, some 20 yards from the location found by the old man with the divining rod months before.

Schmid was spared the death penalty by the nationwide ban on executions that followed the Supreme Court's Furman v. Georgia decision. He was later killed in a prison fight.

As for Schafer, this was merely one episode in a long and distinguished career. In June 1966, he was appointed to replace County Attorney Norman Green after he resigned for an unsuccessful run for Governor and was subsequently elected outright as a Democrat in 1968. Citing a "dislike for politics," Schafer resigned a year later. In 1970 he moved to Phoenix to accept a job in the Arizona Attorney General's office and later served as a Maricopa County Superior Court judge.

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