Where Is Fay Rawley (and His Cadillac)?

by Charlie Parkinson

"If you want to get away with murder, do it in Fulton County, Illinois," stated an FBI agent on the Johnny Carson late night talk show just a few years ago. When asked, "What part of the country has the largest unsolved crime rate?" the answer was­­ "a small county in Illinois by the name of Fulton!"

How true this was in 1953 is unknown. However, in that particular year, a mighty strange happening occurred in that particular county.

Now, we must state that a murder is not a murder unless you have a body! Or, as a crime technician would put it, a corpus delecti. In Fulton County Sheriff Virgil Ball's case, it didn't take a "body." All it took was "suspicion" and "motive"­­ and he had enough of both. Today it would be called "probable cause." Ball felt like he had that too. He also felt he had suspects. But first he had to prove there was a crime!

Why was the Sheriff pressing for an investigation into the matter? Because it was November of 1953, and according to family members, a man named Fay Rawley was missing­­ as was his 1953 green Cadillac. Both seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth!

1953 Cadillac Sedan
Fay Rawley of Summum, Illinois was a wealthy farmer and land owner. He was also, at the time, township supervisor for Woodland Township, serving in that capacity on the Fulton County Board of Supervisors.

Rawley was well known in his neighborhood by young and old alike. His activities included charitable endeavors and assisting those in need of a helping hand, and he was known for being "lenient" in his rental property dealings and real estate transactions. He was also known for his "womanizing." This is what made Sheriff Ball feel that Rawley had been "done in" by person or persons unknown!

Research showed that all Rawley's accounts and holdings seemed to be intact. Rumors that perhaps he fled the area were deemed "unfounded." No man, it was theorized, "would take off unannounced and leave his fortunes behind!" Just the same, Fay Rawley was missing, and his whereabouts were unknown to his family, associates and friends. If he had enemies, they were not talking either! And it was a proven fact (as far as Sheriff Ball was concerned) that Fay Rawley did have some enemies! Enough so for Ball to conduct an investigation into Rawley's disappearance and his lifestyle.

But years passed without results. Rawley's son and family publicized the fact that Fay Rawley was missing and rewards were offered for any and all information as to his whereabouts. The ads appeared in papers all over west­central Illinois and elsewhere, but to no avail.

An attorney froze Rawley's accounts and all assets that were a part of the elder Rawley's estate. (It was to remain so until seven years later when he was finally declared dead.) The investigation by the Fulton County Sheriff continued, with the blessing of Rawley's own County Board­­ an investigation that would draw interest from the media all across America and even the world regarding the man from central Illinois who vanished from the face of the earth!

Back when the disappearance first occurred, employees of a coal mine, working on mining leased land just across from Rawley's rural home, had reported noticing that his outside porch light had been on continuously for several days and nights. Upon investigation into this, "all that was found was a home that gave evidence of perhaps a minor skirmish taking place quite rapidly, in what could have been, earlier, a tranquil evening by its owner." Rawley's eyeglasses lay on the floor near his chair and a floor lamp was still on. His pants lay on the floor near the chair. Rawley was nowhere to be seen and his 1953 green Cadillac was not on the premises. The search then widened.

Reports of Rawley's "womanizing" influenced the course of the investigation. Many individuals were questioned as to his "affairs," as well as who he kept company with and who perhaps had hard feelings towards Rawley. It was discovered by the Sheriff that there were indeed individuals who had "probable cause" to do harm to the old man because of his habits and actions.

Further investigations brought out the fact that, in the summer of 1953, Rawley was seen early in the evening in Macomb where an act of vandalism and perhaps an attack on his very person took place. Persons unknown threw a bottle of acid at Rawley and damaged his green Cadillac. Retaliation of sorts? Perhaps.

Further investigation by the Sheriff brought reports to the surface that a car resembling the Rawley Cadillac was seen on an evening prior to the report of his disappearance in the area of the very mine land that he had leased, across from his home. It was this fact that Sheriff Ball followed up on immediately. It was then theorized by the Sheriff that Rawley could have been taken from his home, placed in his Cadillac, driven to the mine land, and covered forever there in the mine. Ball suspected various "persons" of "doing him in" and then covering more than their tracks!

However, Ball still didn't have a body, nor the car nor any eye witnesses to what (if it were true) could have been a "crime of the century."

Because of the tremendous press coverage from Life and Look magazines, the Saturday Evening Post and every major news gathering network in the country, the situation grew into one of the largest covered media events of the then modern day 1950s!

Later, in 1957, permissions were granted, and the search for Rawley and his Cadillac on mine land near Summum began in earnest.

Digging in various locations soon took place in what were known before only as corn, wheat and bean country. It was near the former home town of Gene Autry's old western film side kick, Smiley Burnett, who grew up there in Summum. However it was the digging for Fay Rawley near there that took precedence and gained the most notoriety­­ and huge crowds!

In Central Illinois that summer, it was commonplace for the population to stay glued to the radio and purchase every newspaper imaginable just to find out more information about the search for the wealthy farmer from Summum. With every move by the Sheriff and those conducting the search, tension grew. The question was, "Would Fay Rawley be found today?"

No stone was left unturned by Sheriff Ball in his relentless endeavors to get to the bottom of the whole thing. Ball interviewed and re-interviewed those who knew anything at all that might solve his dilemma. Even psychics were to come forth with their "versions" of the situation. One even told Ball of her "vision of a dark and mirky mine pond, complete and intact, with Rawley and his Cadillac."

Ball was so determined to find and solve the mystery, he left no stone unturned. In the early days of the search he had even brought in and buried a similar automobile to test searching techniques.

Sheriff Ball had total co-operation from state crime technicians with up­to­date equipment of the day­­ magnetometers and instruments with which to locate even buried automobiles. Though some efforts proved futile when discoveries turned out to be old mine steel cables and discarded oil barrels, the search went on. Finally, the 1957 search and "dig" concluded without success. The Sheriff's term in office had ended. The next Sheriff chose not to pursue the Rawley matter any further. But this didn't stop Virgil Ball's interest in the matter.

Ball was elected Fulton County Treasurer, and with persistance and his own expense, and with permission of Robert Rawley's widow and volunteer assistance, the search went on­­ in 1962!

In the interim time period, misfortune had once again entered into the situation. Fay Rawley's son Robert, who led the drive to find out what happened to his father, was killed in a tragic automobile crash on Route 9, north of Cuba. He was traveling home in a fairly new auto which, upon investigation, appeared (according to local officials) to have had the brakes cut or tampered with.

When the investigation of the disappearance of the elder Rawley began again with new diggings in 1962, the Sheriff called on the assistance of Harley Hart of Summum, who was known for his expertise at "witching," or using what is commonly known to old timers as a "divining rod." Hart used various tricks of the trade in hopes of locating Rawley and his Cadillac, his methods including the use of human bone fragments, pieces of tooth and, of course, metals. He believed in his methods devoutly. At the end of the search, he stated emphatically, "We were within three feet of both Rawley and the car!"

The only "witcher" I have ever met was Orville Fleming of Lewistown. He was a retired custodian from the local post office. I had occasion to interview him on the subject of "divining" and I had asked Mr. Fleming to what he attributed his powers. He stated, "When I was a young man I had hair as dark as anybody's; then one night I had an experience, and upon awakening the next morning­­ my hair was as white as snow! ­­ and I have been able to witch ever-since!" He stood behind his beliefs and agreed with Mr. Hart's findings in the Rawley case as well. I never had the opportunity to ever interview Mr. Hart. Sheriff Ball filled me in on his part in the investigation.

Ball, however, did tell me the following: "It was quite a sight that night Hart did his witching. The moon was full, and he walked the area with his paraphernalia as we all watched from the distance. Pretty soon he came over and stated he found where quite possibly the Cadillac could be found! Then he asked drag-line operator to hand him the "human bone" he had brought with him to use to "locate" Rawley's remains. The operator balked, stood back and stated that he "wouldn't touch that for $10,000!"

Other unusual things also took place during the search. Sheriff Ball tells of how on more than one occasion he felt his own life was in jeopardy, as certain attempts were made to perhaps silence him. This was done by some of the very individuals he suspected of doing Rawley in! Still other suspects refused to co-operate in any way in the investigation.

As time passed, so did the interest and the crowds. However, the County Board was in the process of hearing from disgruntled Fulton County taxpayers who made it known they had had enough, expense­wise, in regards to the search.

Meanwhile the search continued, and suddenly the word was out that they had indeed came across a vast mass of metal that could very well be the automobile­­ and perhaps the body of Rawley. Even Fleming told of samples of teeth and bone, possibly Rawley's, that came up in drillings that were made at that location.Ball had contacted the local high school principal as to his needs, and students and instructors devised a special magnet which was put down into the drill holes to attract metal flakes for examination.

It was while using this procedure that samples of metal fragments apparently came up on the drill bits. It was said at the time, "The samples in tests in Springfield showed paint samples matching GM paint specifications on Rawley's particular model of Cadillac."

According to spectators and others, "Suddenly, as quickly as it started, the operation ceased there at the digging site. The Sheriff was informed by those who had the lease on the land that they stood to be sued mightily should Rawley and his car be un-earthed! They demanded an immediate cease to activities there and the removal of all equipment­­ for they could not take that chance."

Thus ended what was perhaps the greatest manhunt in Fulton County history, closing forever, or so it seems, what was one man's attempt to see justice done here on the plains of the Prairie state.

Words could not and cannot explain the disappointment Sheriff Ball suffered in that attempt. Now, 35 years later, the area is once again private land, and where they once dug, there is now a pond. Just over a ridge was, for a while, a ball park, and now there is a convenience store in this location just outside, Summum, Illinois.

Across the way, yet today, stands a remodeled homestead that once was the home of a well-known-farmer, County Supervisor, and friend to his neighbors known as Fay Rawley. He now belongs to the legends of Fulton County­­ this was only one of them.

The former Sheriff has been retired for several years now, and he only speaks on the subject of the search when it comes up­­ as it does. Perhaps the FBI agent I mentioned at the beginning of this story was correct! You can "get by with anything in Fulton County!"­­ Even Murder??

Final note: Four years ago, a fellow I know had the opportunity to visit the former home of Fay Rawley on the eve of the 40th anniversary of his disappearance. He described the experience in this way:

"Upon entering the home, immediately I had the feeling that, indeed, something terrible took place in this home. It was an eery feeling. I browsed through the home, and upon arriving at the area of the stairwell, an even more uneasy feeling ran through my body!

"I felt suddenly the coldest chill I had ever experienced in my life! At first I thought it could have been my imagination. I walked around the premises, and each time I entered that area, the chill hit again. It was not my imagination!

"Truly, some sort of terrible folly transpired within the parameters of that home. It was as though someone's very spirit was calling for whatever happened there to be rectified!"

Financial problems: Virgil Ball had high hopes that the mystery around Fay Rawley's disappearance would be solved with the finding of Rawley's body in the strip mine at Summum. A Lewistown Attorney also had the same hopes! The attorney had this hope because of the mess it caused Rawley's estate from the time he disappeared till he was declared dead at the end of the seven-year waiting period.

The law stated that no person can legally be presumed dead for seven years unless a corpse is found! In Rawley's case, as a result, all business and legal transactions in which Rawley was involved remained "status quo" from the night of November 7th, 1953, the last time Rawley was seen!

The attorney was a former Fulton County State's Attorney and was Rawley's personal attorney at the time of his disappearance. Because of the size of the estate, the attorney was concerned with the filing of estate taxes that would be due. However, the government wired a communique stating, "We take the position you don't know this guy's dead, so there is nothing due."

Relying on the seven year rule, the attorney kept track of every dime that came in or went out in regards to the estate, then filed a report at the end of the seven years. Nothing in the form of any pointing fingers appeared anywhere within the estate that could provide a clue as to Rawley's whereabouts.

Another thing that bothered the attorney was the fact that Fay Rawley could come back at any time and say, "There's no presumption of my death," and ask, "Where's my stuff'?"

Another "bookkeeping" worry for the attorney was the fact that Rawley had about 35 loans made, secured by trustees. Under the law, a trustee could not release them unless he gave the note to the borrower. They couldn't do that­­ the notes were in one or more of Rawley's three lock boxes which were in the Astoria Farmers State Bank, of which Rawley was a former director and stock holder.

Thus, the attorney was left with a situation in which "we had people with the money, wanting to pay off their notes, but the attorney couldn't get to them­­ for seven years!!

Posted to Zephyr Online August 6, 1998
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