The Couple Investigating The Death Of Their Daughter
No one loved a good murder mystery more than Jessie Whitehouse. It was in the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 30-year-old paralegal’s blood. Raised by a lawman-turned–private eye, and the granddaughter of a legendary Indianapolis Police Department detective, Jessie was weaned on the gritty details of the city’s most notorious homicide investigations. Her stepfather, Virgil Vandagriff, was a Marion County sheriff’s deputy who worked on nearly every bold-faced crime case in Indy for the last four decades, many of them known by shorthand titles: The Speedway Bomber. The Burger Chef Murders. The Fox Hollow Farm Serial Killer. Her mother, Anna, Virgil’s common-law wife, partnered with him to run a private detective agency after Virgil retired from the force. And Jessie’s grandfather, Indianapolis Police Department sergeant William Kaiser, investigated the gruesome torture-and-murder case of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens in 1965, a crime considered Indiana’s most infamous. Once, on a family outing, Jessie, Virgil, and Anna toured the house where Likens was murdered. Jessie seemed fascinated by the place. She devoured shows such as 48 Hours and Investigation Discovery’s True Nightmares, which once featured Virgil as a talking head. She could listen to her stepfather’s and grandfather’s war stories for hours.
Passionate about criminal justice, the 2004 Cathedral High School graduate considered law school, but instead studied to become a paralegal at International Business College. Jessie interned at the prosecutor’s office, scouring suspects’ social media accounts for evidence. By 2016, she had landed a paralegal job on the north side. She moved into a duplex not far from the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The neighborhood was a little dicey, but the cheap rent allowed her to save money. And Jessie had never been the fearful type. After all, titles like House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Case lined her bookshelves at home.
At the end of October, Jessie posted an Indianapolis Star article on Facebook recounting the Likens murder on its anniversary. Several days later, she herself would be found shot dead in her own house. In life, true-crime mysteries consumed Jessie. In death, she would become one. Police detectives tried for months to identify a suspect. Frustrated with the lack of progress, Virgil and Anna decided to take matters into their own hands. Now the veteran private investigators are working the most critical case of their careers: the slaying of their own daughter.
In 1990, after 23 years as a Marion County sheriff’s deputy, Virgil retired from public service and hung his shingle as a state-certified polygraph examiner and private investigator. A barrel of a man with thick white hair and a bushy, tobacco-stained mustache, he had developed a reputation as one of the city’s most talented and unconventional detectives, working everything from missing-person cases to murder investigations.
Virgil wasn’t shy about using unorthodox methods. The son of an electrician who had practiced hypnosis on the side, he convinced the local sheriff’s department to send him to California in the 1970s to learn the craft from the Los Angeles Police Department. Virgil would go on to pioneer the practice in Midwest police work, using it in nearly 300 cases. In 1977, when Brett Kimberlin detonated six soda-can bombs in Speedway, wounding two, Virgil hypnotized RadioShack employees who had sold the criminal the rudimentary timing device. Using details unearthed from the employees’ subconscious, a sketch artist created a rendering of the suspect, which ultimately led police to Kimberlin.
Virgil also worked with psychics. When gay men started disappearing from Indianapolis in 1993, Catherine Araujo, a mother of one of the missing men, hired him to help find her son. Virgil’s assistant and girlfriend, Connie Pierce, helped him work the case. The two detectives fanned out across the city visiting gay bars. But Virgil also turned to a woman named Wanda, an Ohio psychic at the time who had helped him on cases before. The psychic described a scene in a tony estate in Westfield, where men were being murdered. She saw a man “tied to a bed or handcuffed or something. He’s spread-eagle. Somebody’s kneeling, but I can see him kneeling behind with hands around his throat. His tongue is actually out and purple. His face is going blue, but I see flashcubes. It’s like he’s staring at him while he’s dying.” The suspect she was describing was a married family man, Herb Baumeister, the owner of the local Sav-A-Lot thrift store chain. Police later would discover he had sex with, strangled, then killed as many as 18 gay men from Ohio and Indiana, burying them on the grounds of his Fox Hollow Farm residence in Westfield. Virgil’s work on the case provided the Hamilton County sheriff and Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department with what turned out to be key leads.
Working undercover on the Burger Chef murders, Virgil once played pool with one of the suspected killers. In between shots, Vandagriff tested the waters to get a confession. “On that Burger Chef thing, did you know one of the guys murdered was black?” he said. According to Virgil, the man broke his stick over the table and said, “That’s what I did to that son of a bitch.” Soon after, when the man was in the interrogation room at IMPD’s downtown headquarters, he was shocked to see his new friend walk in to administer a polygraph. “What the fuck are you doing here?” he asked. “I came here to give you a lie-detector test,” Virgil replied. “You ready?” While detectives ultimately were unable to assemble enough evidence for prosecutors to charge a suspect, it was the closest anyone ever got to solving one of the city’s most notorious crimes.
In 1997, Connie was diagnosed with cancer. Knowing she was going to die, she told a close friend, Anna Whitehouse, that she wanted her to date Virgil and to take over her position at the agency. “I want to see you happy,” she said. Connie passed away a few months later.
Anna was the daughter of Kaiser, the detective who worked the Sylvia Likens murder. The case turned Kaiser into an alcoholic, and gripped Anna in the same way it eventually would grip her young daughter, Jessie. At first, Virgil wasn’t keen on Anna replacing Connie as either his girlfriend or his partner. But Anna offered to work three weeks for free, and he agreed to a trial on the latter front. She proved adept at detective work. In Indiana, private investigators must accumulate 4,000 hours of work in security or investigations before applying for their license with the state. After a year of working with Virgil, Anna earned her license.
Virgil and Anna soon fell in love, just as Connie predicted. Virgil took Anna’s young daughter, Jessie, under his wing. (Anna left Jessie’s biological father when the girl was in elementary school.) In addition to regaling Jessie with tales of crime in lieu of bedtime stories, Virgil often ran theories of his cases by the girl, even though she wasn’t yet a teenager. If the pieces didn’t fit, Jessie would poke holes. “Bullshit,” she’d say, amusing Virgil, who overlooked the girl’s expletives.
When Jessie reached dating age, Virgil and Anna demanded the date of birth and other pertinent details from any boy she brought home so they could run background checks. (The first check they did turned up significant dirt: The suitor she met one day in Broad Ripple who claimed he was 16 was actually 19 and had a felony theft on his record.) Even as she grew into a young woman in her late 20s, Jessie was still submitting to Virgil and Anna’s background-check process. When she started dating a guy named James Beckley whom she particularly liked, she refused for months to grill him for his date of birth. She didn’t want to ruin a good thing. Finally, at a Steely Dan concert the foursome attended at Klipsch Music Center, Jessie subtly coaxed the necessary information out of James. “How old are you,” she asked early in the evening. “Thirty-five,” he told her. Later, deeper into the concert, “What are you, a Scorpio?” After a few questions, she had triangulated his date of birth. James’s background check came back clean. As time passed, Jessie confided to Anna that she loved him.
Jessie did harbor one secret from Anna and Virgil. Her new duplex wasn’t in the best neighborhood: the blocks just north of the Indiana State Fairgrounds. There were stray bullet holes in the front of the house. She didn’t want her parents to worry, though. The affordable two-bedroom place allowed her to save money to replace her 1994 Crown Victoria, an old IMPD detective’s car, which she had purchased for $700. So much was going right, too. Jessie was in love, had a good job, and had parents who supported her. She had everything to lose.
On the morning of November 2 last year, James became worried. He hadn’t heard from Jessie since the evening before—unusual, because the two were in constant contact. More worrisome, perhaps, was her absence from Facebook. A prolific user of the site, Jessie often narrated her day on the social network, and used its Messenger app to carry on conversations with James. But ever since he left her duplex to watch the sixth game of the World Series on November 1, she hadn’t posted anything. It was Tuesday, and her plan for the day had been to round up some cash to make it to payday. At $19 an hour, she earned a decent wage from her paralegal work, but still struggled financially on occasion. James lent her $20, and her biological father had agreed to leave another $40 on his Broad Ripple porch for her to pick up. The money sat unclaimed as midday approached.
Around 11 a.m., James called Anna to let her know that he hadn’t heard from Jessie. Anna tried calling her, but was unsuccessful. After trying to reach Jessie all day himself, James decided to visit her house. Around 7:30 p.m., he arrived at the duplex, and noticed Jessie’s car was missing, but all of the lights in her house were on. He knocked on the front door. No one answered. He peered through the guest-room window, and noticed an ashtray on the bed. Jessie smoked, but when she did, she was fastidious about disposing of the evidence. Next, James walked around the house to her bedroom window. There, he saw her legs protruding into a hallway. He opened the unlocked window and climbed into the house. He yelled her name. No response. He touched her hip. It was cold. He called 911.
Minutes later, IMPD arrived. Perhaps because James hadn’t seen any blood initially, the first responders made no assumptions about this being a murder. When the coroner showed up, however, he noticed gunshot wounds. Soon, homicide detectives arrived. The lead detective was Harry Dunn III, a third-generation IMPD homicide investigator. His grandfather, in fact, had been partners with Anna’s father. Dunn began collecting evidence, hoping to identify a suspect.
More than 400 people turned out for Jessie’s funeral. Two days after her death, Virgil set up a GoFundMe page aimed at crowdsourcing reward money for tips leading to her killer’s capture. Over the next few days, people donated thousands of dollars.
As Dunn’s investigation began, he met with Anna and Virgil. He knew Jessie’s stepfather’s background, and according to Virgil, Dunn had only one request: “Stay out of the investigation.” Virgil told him he would steer clear as long as they were making progress.
Anna and Virgil frequently phoned Dunn with details they thought could be useful to his work. For instance, days after the crime scene was vacated by law enforcement, the couple discovered different kinds of cigarettes in ashtrays strewn about the house. Jessie smoked American Spirits exclusively. These were Marlboro Lights. And then there was the matter of an errant, early-morning phone call the day of Jessie’s death, which came to light soon after her murder. Anna’s friend received a call from Jessie’s cell phone at 6:20 that morning. It appeared to be accidental. But the friend says she heard Jessie answer the door. “Good morning, how are you?” Jessie said. “How are you? Yes, it is. It’s very early.” Ten minutes later, when Anna’s friend tried to call Jessie back, there was no answer. That would be the last time anyone heard from her.
In December, Anna and Virgil learned Dunn would be out of the office on an extended medical leave. They figured the case would be reassigned. They say it wasn’t. In March, the family announced a $10,000 reward for information about the crime. Dunn, according to Virgil and Anna, refused to give them much information about the status of his investigation.
“Fuck it,” Virgil said after a particularly frustrating phone call with the detective. “I’m taking the case.”
The offices of Vandagriff & Associates are located in a smoky, converted wood-paneled living room of a ranch-style house on the city’s west side, a stone’s throw from the old Indianapolis airport. A dogeared, leather-bound volume of The Guide to Background Investigations sits on one shelf. On the office door hangs a sign: “In God I Trust—All Others I Polygraph.”
One Monday in April, Virgil sat at his desk, swigging from a Coke and taking drags from a vaping pen. The white-haired 74-year-old had just finished a busy season of polygraphing, which these days provides the bulk of his income. There are occasional employment background checks and missing-person cases, but Virgil mostly administers lie-detector tests. Spring is his busiest time of year. With their tax refunds in hand, his clients have a little extra money to fund their curiosities. For $300, they come to Virgil to find out whether their spouse has been cheating on them or their son is guilty of molestation. In less than 90 minutes, they can walk away with an answer.
In recent months, though, he has been working mostly on Jessie’s case. Anna helps him run background checks on possible suspects. Virgil established a tips hotline. The couple canvassed Jessie’s neighborhood. Beyond that, they won’t share much of their methods, for fear they will show their hand to the person behind Jessie’s death. Anna and Virgil claim they still can’t get much information out of Dunn. “He said, ‘It’s an ongoing case,’” Anna says. “Well, it’s going nowhere.”
In April, Virgil met with Dunn and another IMPD detective. The meeting dissolved into a shouting match between them, he says. According to Anna and Virgil, Dunn told them that the case was lingering with the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office. But as of press time, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor told IM that the case had not been submitted to them. IMPD declined to make Dunn available for comment or to discuss the crime beyond issuing a short statement: “Our investigators continue to actively investigate this case. For several investigative reasons and limitations, we cannot provide comment beyond the fact that we continue to pursue information. We remain committed to continuing our already established dialogue with the victim’s loved ones.”
James still visits Anna and Virgil, hoping to hear some revelation. After Jessie’s death, he adopted her cats. “I don’t believe there will ever be closure,” he says, sitting in Virgil’s office in front of a poster board full of photos of Jessie. “A life—a beautiful life that was just beginning to blossom—was snuffed out way too early, for no reason.”