Mel Wiley, an aspiring novelist, never wrote the next great American mystery. But the 1985 disappearance of the Hinckley police chief is one mystery that continues to mystify those who knew him 25 years later.
Friends say Wiley is probably fine with that — wherever he may be today.
“I think Mel wrote his book on his way out. I think he gave his ending here,” said Jim Bigam, a close friend of Wiley’s and a detective with the Medina Police Department when the chief disappeared. “He said, ‘Here’s my boots in the sunset. Now leave me the hell alone, I want to start a new life.’ ”
Twenty-five years ago today, Wiley was reported missing when Cleveland Metroparks rangers came across his abandoned 1980 Toyota at Edgewater Park in Cleveland. They found his clothes neatly folded inside the vehicle, with his wallet, belt and police identification card stacked on top.
A multi-department search for the head of the Hinckley Police Department started there, but it didn’t take long for investigators to figure out that maybe Wiley didn’t want to be found.
A reserved man
Bigam remembers Wiley’s odd features: the wart on his nose that he would pet during conversations and his “jerky laugh.”
“I always laughed about his haircuts because it looked like someone used a hacksaw to cut his hair, and I mean that in jest,” he said.
Wiley worked as a reporter for The Gazette in 1965 but soon changed careers and started working for the Medina County Sheriff’s Office. In 1966, he reorganized and enlarged the sheriff’s identification division, and in 1982 he was appointed Hinckley’s chief.
Wiley was married at one point, but was divorced a couple years before his disappearance.
Friends and colleagues remember Wiley’s passions. He was a model train collector and built a loop of tracks that went around the Hinckley Police Department’s offices. He wrote poems and had started on “Harvest of Madness,” a murder mystery about the Burnt Cabins area of Pennsylvania.
He also felt a special connection to San Francisco, which he visited when he was stationed with the military at nearby Fort Ord.
He once wrote to a friend, “Each time I’ve gone to San Francisco, I’ve always spent a good deal of time in Chinatown … taking in all of the sights, sounds, and smells. And every time, I’ve always had the sensation of being ‘home.’ ”
But few, apparently, really knew much about Wiley.
“He didn’t do a lot of socializing,” said Jo Becks, a Medina resident and a Hinckley Township trustee at the time of Wiley’s disappearance.
Longtime Hinckley trustee Ron Rhodes would meet Wiley and other township residents every morning for gossip at the former K & K Doughnuts in downtown Hinckley. Wiley talked plenty, said Rhodes, but rarely about himself.
“There aren’t any stories about him. He was just kind of mysterious,” he said.
Bigam explained that’s why friends had few reasons to question Wiley’s happiness in the summer of 1985.
“He had several things going on in his life. He had a girlfriend at the time that he was seeing, he was police chief and he was writing this book,” he said.
However, there is speculation that Wiley wanted to start anew and spent some time that summer planning it.
On July 28, 1985, a Sunday, Wiley told his girlfriend he was going to Edgewater Park to swim with a friend who was visiting from out of town. He didn’t tell her who he was meeting, but he made plans for a date with her for the next day.
He never showed up for that engagement.
When Wiley’s car was found two days later on July 30, investigators said there were no signs of foul play or suicide. A Gazette article from Aug. 2 that year said authorities were looking into the possibility that Wiley was lost or had drowned in the lake, among other scenarios. But those close to Wiley said being at the lake didn’t sound right.
“I said, ‘He wouldn’t be down there. Mel didn’t like the sun. He had fair skin,’ ” said Nancy Abbott, Medina municipal clerk of courts and Hinckley trustee at the time.
[audio:http://medinagazette.northcoastnow.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/jimbigam.mp3|titles=jimbigam] Click above to hear an excerpt of Maria Kacik Kula’s interview with Bigam.
Bigam said Wiley didn’t swim.
“Also, he had radiation scars and marks on his body and he wouldn’t be one to be displaying all that,” he said.
Bigam took the lead on the case, which was investigated by Medina police and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
“I think at this point I probably know Mel better than he knows himself,” he told The Gazette in late August 1985. “And after knowing Mel for 15 years, and after thinking you know the man, you tend to take it personally.”
Knowing Wiley and his past was a key investigative tool, Bigam said.
For example, he recalled Wiley had a lot of questions about investigative techniques the last time the two men talked. Bigam had just graduated from the FBI National Academy with a specialty in forensics, and Wiley told him he was looking for information for his novel.
Bigam also remembered Wiley had access to “stacks and stacks of fingerprint cards” that contained Social Security numbers when he worked with the sheriff’s office.
“He could have assumed anyone’s identity,” Bigam said in a recent interview.
Clues began to surface as the investigation continued. Bigam said he found a Greyhound bus schedule from Cleveland to Fort Ord scratched on a piece of paper in Wiley’s handwriting.
Then he extracted the last words Wiley wrote from his typewriter ribbon.
The ribbon showed Wiley apparently wrote a letter to a female friend who was not his girlfriend. He told her he had walked past her house late one night as a way to say “goodbye.”
The Gazette saved what apparently is a copy of the ribbon in its files. It shows Wiley said he would be 2,500 miles away.
“I will have in one sense of the word, gone away. It’s a one-way trip, so I’m told, with no option of ever returning and perhaps that’s just as well for any and all concerned,” he wrote.
“Try not to judge me too harshly. I’m not trying to hurt anyone and if I do, that was not my intention. Right or wrong, I’m just doing what I think is the best solution for me.”
Bigam said there were plenty of people around town at the time questioning what had happened to Wiley. The ribbon was proof enough for him that Wiley left of his own accord.
“Well, this was typed by Mel’s own hand,” he said.
Not only was Wiley’s disappearance the talk of Medina County in 1985, it also garnered national interest. CNN, ABC, NBC, Time magazine and the Chicago Tribune picked up the story.
It was even the subject of a Weekly World News article in the same September 1985 edition that featured headlines such as “Wife makes hubby sleep in dog house” and “Corpse vanishes into thin air at funeral.”
Soon the story faded and life in Hinckley slipped back into normalcy.
Hinckley trustees waited about six months before they officially appointed Sgt. David Yates as police chief. Yates did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
“We just went on and hoped that Mel came back and we’d have a conclusion to it,” Abbott said. “And of course we never would.”
Rhodes said even those at K & K Doughnuts eventually stopped talking about their old friend.
“Within a year or two, people started to forget about it,” he said.
K & K Doughnuts eventually was sold, and is now Hinckley Coffee and Doughnuts. Brandy Krankowski has owned it for 14 years, but has heard very few tales about the missing police chief.
“I know all the gossip around town, but this — I don’t know much about this,” she said.
Ed Majestic owns the Minnehaha water store on Ridge Road and said he remembers the story of Wiley, but hasn’t heard much about it in some time.
“The people that I get here are really newer customers. We have an older crowd around here, but most of them have sold their farms and moved on. Now we have the new developments,” he said.
Wiley officially was declared dead in 1993 in Medina County Probate Court. According to state law, people can be declared dead if they haven’t been seen or heard from in five years.
Wiley, though, who would be 72 today, isn’t forgotten.
“I think about him more than people would think,” Bigam said.
“I’ve handled a lot of cases. But Mel’s case, just, I mean, it gets to you because it’s someone you know, as well as it’s a case,” he said.
He said there’s a bit of guilt associated with the case because he wonders if he may have been able to do something to stop Wiley from leaving. However, Bigam said there’s also a part of himself that understands what made Wiley leave.
“What starts to tie you down in life certainly would be family, loved ones, someone you care about and a job,” he said. “If you lose feeling for that job and if you lose your feeling for those or want more, finally you say enough’s enough. You know?”
He said he thinks Wiley found the life he wanted in San Francisco, with a new home, new career and a new name.
“To anyone else, he might not be Mel Wiley. He may be Johnny Lunchbucket or Freddy Fricky Bolo,” he said. “And my fear is if he passes away as Johnny Lunchbucket or Freddy Fricky Bolo, we may never know.”
Contact Maria Kacik Kula at (330) 721-4049 or email@example.com.