mystery still surrounds disappearance of Fay Rawley

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Six decades later, Fulton County still echoes:"What happened to Fay Rawley?"As if passing down a treasured heirloom, generations continue to share conjecture and gossip about the case, making Fay Rawley almost mythic. After all, how can a real, live person especially someone as well known as the gadabout Rawley seemingly vanish without a trace?The story is not folklore yet sorely short of facts after Nov. 8, 1953. The dig triggered a carnival of intrigue that mixed extramarital affairs, off the books loans, a dogged sheriff, inheritance riddles and lock box puzzles. Sixty years later, there are apparently only two possibilities of what happened:Either Fay Rawley got away with one the greatest disappearing acts in history or someone got away with murder. He wore spectacles for his bad eyes and dentures for his missing teeth. He trundled about with a slight stoop, eager to chit chat but meager with smiles. The farmer had served as Woodland Township supervisor and run the bank in Astoria, about 50 miles southwest of Peoria. Not long before vanishing, he was seen with $65,000 in his pocket while chewing the fat at the Astoria grain elevator. A thick wallet beckons as a strong aphrodisiac for a certain type of woman. And long after Rawley vanished, police found out what many husbands already knew: Rawley was a rounder, and he didn't let a pesky wedding ring his or others slow him from chasing skirts."He was a slick old duck," one of his gadabout pals said in 1957. "Women were his downfall."By 1953, he had been separated from his wife, Hazel, for several years. By then, she had left him behind in their white, two story farmhouse home in Summum, an incorporated hamlet near Astoria. She was granted a divorce on Nov. 9, 1953 the day after he was last seen. She never talked to the press, so the subject of their estrangement never became fodder for newspaper stories.
Page 2 of 6 Still, in a 1957 interview, a Rawley buddy might've inadvertently given insight to the wife's marital dissatisfaction: "He was a swell guy. We ran around together for 10 to 12 years, four or five nights a week, riding around, playing pool and so on."A social schedule like that can be hard on a marriage. Meanwhile, free wheeling away from home, Rawley made easy friends as something of a soft touch. He'd never push them. I don't think they made a better fellow."That's one viewpoint. Many men wanted to get their hands on Rawley, but Ball was the last to look for him. By that time, a year had slipped away with little done to track down Rawley. After all, at the time, the sheriff's office had a force of exactly two officers the sheriff and one deputy to patrol and protect most of the four largest counties in Illinois. Such responsibilities would allow precious little time for a missing person's manhunt. But Ball refused to let the probe lie dormant. strip mine, not far from Rawley's house, saw Rawley's new '53 Cadillac there. That would not have been unusual: Rawley, always restless, often would drive into the mine after nightfall to shoot the breeze with whoever might be around. 8, 1953, the car had been driven into the mine and parked alongside a 20 foot tall pile of earth. On the other side of that pile, atop an even higher pile, stood an excavation crane. The operator was to dig earth and dump it in the exact place where (supposedly) Rawley's car rested. However, because of compromised sight lines, the operator would not have been able to see the car as he moved and dumped ton after ton of dirt atop the Cadillac and whatever might be inside it.
Page 3 of 6 After securing the mine's permission onto the property, Ball convinced a reluctant Fulton County Board to spare $800 to allow a small scale excavation that summer. At Ball's order, geologists drilled deep into the soil and found scrapings of metal green, and like that of Rawley's Cadillac. Route 24, jammed bumper to bumper, for a chance to gaze at the growing hole in the ground. The sun beat down, with almost no shade trees in the strip mine to offer relief; men wore wide brim hats while Ball donned a pith helmet, evoking the look of an archeologist seeking fabled treasure. The scene became something of a tailgate party, with gawkers perched on beer coolers, sucking suds and ruminating gossip. Two enterprising college students set up a tent to sell sandwiches, soft drinks and ice to the masses. Marines and Illinois State Police to keep dour watch. Two weeks before Rawley disappeared, he was assaulted in Macomb. A week later, someone threw acid on his car. In 1957, Helen Wagner was 44 years old and living in Astoria. But in November 1953, she was living in an apartment in Macomb, six months divorced and keeping company with Rawley. In 1957, she recounted that in fall 1953, Rawley wanted to marry her after he was divorced. At first, she liked the idea, but later changed her mind. And they continued to see each other.
Page 4 of 6 On Nov. Still, she said she expected to see him again sometime. I'm not proud of that," she said. "Oh, I know I was single, and he had been separated from his wife for eight years, but the kind of person he was, it's nothing to my credit. And I have nothing else to my discredit, I can tell you that, and that's the truth."Did she know what happened to him? "I wouldn't know. Spectators soon had another diversion to pass the time: watching the self proclaimed "witchers." One was Orville Fleming, a janitor at the Astoria post office, who tromped around with a trusty rod, a piece of animal jawbone tied to the end. It dipped wildly over a spot where he believed diggers would find a car. "Of course," he said, "I won't bet whose body it is, but there's a body in that trunk for sure."If anyone took that bet, no one collected. After seven long days of excavation, the mine grew impatient, and Ball called everything off. In 1962, out of office for four years sheriffs back then were limited to one term Ball tried another approach at the mine: digging in a new spot with bulldozers. The search sparked renewed media ballyhoo, and a teen troubadour grabbed headlines while traipsing through Peoria bistros crooning his self penned "The Ballad of Fay Rawley."But the second search proved no more successful, prompting some observers to joke about "Ball's Folly." But the ex lawman, who'd partly financed the second search out of his own pocket, felt no pang of regret."As long as a man feels he's right about something, he should go ahead and do it," Ball said. "If he later finds he's wrong, there's no reason to feel bad about it."Still, chagrined was Rawley's lone son, Robert Rawley. After the disappearance, the 28 year old tried to run his father's affairs, then took out ads in newspapers seeking clues to the mystery.
Page 5 of 6 As years wore on, he fought with the courts to try to open bank lock boxes his father owned. He thought the boxes could contain tips about the disappearance, and certainly information about the estate holdings. In 1961, while driving a new Cadillac on the roads of Fulton County just as his father often did the younger Rawley was killed in an auto wreck. The family of Judge Charles Wilhelm, who retired from the Fulton County bench in 1999, was close with the Ball family. Yet Wilhelm, one of those two enterprising college students who had sold food and drinks at the '57 dig site, never did hear any whispers of possible suspects."I wish I knew," says Wilhelm, 79, of Lewistown, who still hears occasional coffee shop conjecture about the case. " . I wish I had even an inkling."Well, there might be at least two people who have an idea about the killer. A reporter and editor both now dead traded those for several days during the dig. The notes hint toward a suspect, and the paper even secured his photo, apparently to run upon his arrest. So there's no confirmation available there.
Page 6 of 6 But Virgil Ball's son says he knows who did it: his dad told him."I feel my father was very correct in who did the crime," says John Ball, 68, of Lewistown. "And I'm confident Fay Rawley's car and body are in that mine."John Ball, who never went into law enforcement, says his father didn't share with him any key reports or evidence regarding the case. Still I have no idea if the suspect's descendants are still around. A lamp was overturned, and his eyeglasses were left behind.

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