Ep. 4: When A Stranger Calls

When a Stranger Calls came out in 1979. It was directed by Fred Walton and starred Carol Kane and Charles Durning. It was based on the folk legend "the babysitter and the man upstairs". This urban legend dates back to the 1960's about a babysitter who received menacing anonymous calls to check the children. After calling the police who trace the call, she is informed the calls are coming from inside the house. When police arrive on scene they discover the man had been calling her after massacring the children upstairs. A version of this story can be found in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books.

The movie follows the same premise. Jill Johnson is babysitting the children of Dr. Mandrakis when she receives these calls. After discovering the call is coming from inside the house, she sees the man in the light of the staircase and runs out of the house only to discover the man, Curt Duncan, had already murdered the children. Fast forward seven years and Jill Johnson, now Jill Lockhart, has two children of her own and Duncan escapes his fate in the insane asylum and comes back for her.

The movie made over $20 mil at the box office and has since inspired many scenes and movies. Of course it inspired the sequel, When A Stranger Calls Back, and the 2006 remake. It was also a major inspiration for the beginning scene of Scream, where the ghost face killer gives Drew Barrymore's character a call to ask about her favorite movie before subsequently murdering her boyfriend and then herself while she's on the phone with her own parents who have to helplessly listen to her demise.

Obviously the movie is a great example of why we're all scared to be home alone at night, especially in someone else's home. A babysitter home alone is a recurring theme in horror movies, such as with Laurie Strode in Halloween. It's terrifying walking alone as a woman at night, let alone being locked inside a house alone with a murderous stranger who is watching your every move.

The inspiration for the movie came from the terrifying short story of the babysitter and the man upstairs, but the origins of that story came from the murder of babysitter Janett Christman.

Janett Christman

Charles and Lula Christman had Janett Christman on March 21, 1936 in Boonville, Missouri. They ended up moving to Columbia, Missouri where they lived on the upper floor of the business they owned called Ernie's Café and Steakhouse. Janett was described as an intelligent, independent, loving, churchgoing teenager. She was 13 years old and attending 8th grade at Jefferson Junior High School. On March 18, 1950 the school held a dance party. Janett did not attend like the rest of her friends because she had already agreed to babysit. She was babysitting for Gregory Romack, the 3-year-old son of Ed and Anne Romack. The family had recently moved to an isolated home on the outskirts of Columbia because Anne was pregnant. Before they left for their night out, Ed taught Janett how to load, unload and fire their shotgun. He placed the gun near the front door and told her to lock the door and turn the front porch light on if anyone stops by.

At around 10:35 p.m. Roy McCown from the Boone Country Sheriff's Department received a concerning phone call of a woman screaming in panic saying, "Come quick!" but before she could speak the phone line was cut. Roy stated, "I urged her to calm down and just tell me where she was. Then there was silence - not the sound of a receiver being hung up - just silence". Roy was unable to trace the phone call and the woman did not say where she was or what was happening.

Crime scene photo of Janett Christman

Around the same time, Anne Romack called home to check how Gregory was doing. Nobody picked up, so she assumed that Janett had just fallen asleep and decided to stay out longer. She headed home a few hours later at about 1:15 a.m. When they arrived home, they saw that the porch light was on and the window blinds were wide open. Ed went to unlock the door but noticed that it had already been unlocked. When they entered they found Janet on the living room floor surrounded by a pool of blood. Her legs were spread out and her right slipper was hanging off her foot, showing that she had been violently raped. Her skull was crushed by what appeared to be a blunt object and multiple puncture wounds from a mechanical pencil. The cord from an electric iron had been cut and wrapped tightly around her neck and the landline phone was hanging off the hook.

While Ed called the police, Anne sprinted upstairs and found her son completely unharmed and still asleep. Then Sheriff Glen Powell arrived with many detectives and bloodhounds but Lt. Joe Douglas from the city police also arrived at the scene. These two separate jurisdictions were being uncooperative but answers still became clear.

They found blood smears and fingerprints around the living room and kitchen, showing that Janett had fought against her attacker. They found adult male footprints near the side window that had been shattered with a garden hoe. The dogs followed the assailant’s scent one mile up from their road to West Boulevard and then across West Ash St. but this is where they lost the scent.

The detectives had a theory that Janett knew the assailant because the porch lights were on like Ed had said to do if someone knocked, the shotgun was not touched, and the assailant knew where the electric iron was located. Many locals called in with possible leads, but it was clear that there was a racial bias because most of the men were black men who the community deemed suspicious for no reason.

Another lead formed because Janett’s murder was extremely similar to the rape and murder of 20-year-old Marylou Jenkins that had occurred four years earlier on February 5, 1946. She was alone at her house, which was less than a mile away from the Romack Residence. As a safety precaution, she planned with her mother to turn on a light, lift the shades up and make a phone call if something was wrong. Late that night, Marylou's mother noticed a light on and the shades up in the house but had never received a phone call, so she assumed nothing was wrong. When she got home the next morning, she found her daughter dead on the living room floor, raped and strangled with an extension cord.

Then, two weeks later, 35-year-old Floyd Cochran, was arrested for murdering his wife. He then tried to commit suicide but was unsuccessful, so the police took him into custody. He willingly admitted without any remorse that he murdered his wife and the Boone Country investigators began interrogating him about Marylou's case. He ended up confessing to this crime even though there was not any evidence connecting him to the murder. He was sentenced to die on September 26, 1947 and a few hours before his execution he recanted this confession. Despite this, he was still put to death. It later came out that during his 10-hour interrogation he was coerced into giving a false confession.

Marylou’s murder was then considered solved even though he took back his confession. So, when Janett’s murder had shocking similarities to Marylou's, people started to doubt law enforcement. The police continued their investigation and found a prime suspect named Robert Mueller who had a lot of circumstantial evidence against him. He was 27 years old and friends with Ed Romack since high school. He served in WW2 as an Army Air Corps Captain and later returned to Columbia, Missouri where he worked at his father's restaurant, Mueller's Virginia Café and worked as a tailor.

He always carried a mechanical pencil in his front shirt or jacket pocket. He also was said to speak about wanting to defile young women. He also knew Janett since Janett had babysat for him multiple times and Ed stated that Robert had made comments about Janett's well-developed hips and breasts. Anne also reported that the day before Janett's murder, Mueller was at their house helping Anne alter a dress and tried to grope her breasts. Also, the morning Janett was murdered, Mueller had also asked Janett to babysit for his children because he was going out with the Romack’s that night. She said no because she had already agreed to babysit for the Romacks. That night after only a few hours, Robert excused himself and said he had to meet with his son’s doctor and did not come back for two hours. The doctor said he never met with Mueller. On top of that, Mueller called the Romack's house the morning after the murder and asked if they needed help cleaning up the blood, but the murder had not been printed in the newspaper, so he should not have known.

Due to all this evidence, on May 1950, the police went to Mueller's house. Instead of following procedure, they took him to a farmhouse outside of city limits and interrogated him throughout the night. Mueller was given a polygraph test and he passed so he was never charged for this crime. To this day, the case remains unsolved.

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