Stranger with Candy: Why did teenager Chyrel Jolls kidnap, and allegedly murder, children?
By Catherine Pelonero | CrimeFeed June 6, 2016
“This is where I’m going to drown you and you’ll never see your mother or father again.” It’s been 55 years and Richard Edgington can still recall the words his kidnapper said once she had him in an isolated area near the railroad tracks. She was a stranger, a woman he later described “as old as somebody’s mommy but not as old as somebody’s grandma.”
It was June 22, 1961, and Richard Edgington was five years old. Ritchie, as he was called then, lived with his parents in a nice middle-class neighborhood on the north side of Buffalo, New York. North Buffalo was known for its peaceful family streets and for Delaware Park, a sprawling 350-acre gem of forests and meadows designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead that sat adjacent to the city zoo. Along with its gardens and walking paths, Delaware Park contained a golf course and a large tree-lined body of water known as Delaware Park Lake.
On that Thursday afternoon in 1961, Richard was outside playing hide-and-go-seek with some friends when the unknown woman walked up and said, “My mother is with your mother and you’re supposed to come with me.” When the five-year-old boy hesitated, she grabbed his wrist. “If you don’t come with me, I’ll drown you.”
Confused and frightened, Richard let the woman lead him away. She told him everything would be okay as long as he didn’t cry. If anyone stopped them, she said, he should say his name is Davey Johnson. As they walked, the kidnapper ate Tootsie Rolls one after the other, but didn’t share any with Richard. She promised to give him some candy later, as long as he didn’t cry.
Twice she stopped to ask people for directions. Holding Richard firmly by the hand, the woman led him to an entrance of the Buffalo Zoo. Along the way she had picked up various objects from the street: butcher’s twine, a plastic bag. They walked through the zoo and into Delaware Park, where greenkeeper Paul Costa yelled at them to get off the fairway; the spike heels the woman wore would tear up the turf, he warned, plus she or the child could be hit by a flying golf ball. Costa would later tell police that the woman, whose age he estimated to be 28, turned and gave him a nasty look before walking away with the boy.
It’s likely that the presence of the greenkeeper helped save Richard’s life. Backtracking out of the park, the kidnapper now walked him down along some railroad tracks, finally stopping at a lonely spot where a high embankment separated them from the city street above. She pointed to a pool of surface water beside the New York Central tracks. “This is where I’m going to drown you and you’ll never see your mother or father again.” Perhaps fearing that the boy would struggle or that the puddle wasn’t deep enough, she apparently changed her mind. Instead she gave him a piece of candy and told him they were going to play cowboys and Indians. She took the pith helmet Richard was wearing and put it on her own head. Then she stripped him down to his underwear. She bound his hands and feet, gagged him, and put the plastic bag over his head. She tied the defenseless little boy to the railroad tracks and left.
The small victim struggled to free himself. “I broke the ropes on my feet and I climbed up the embankment with my hands tied behind my back,” Richard recalled in an interview with me. “I was able to get the gag out of my mouth and ripped the plastic bag with my teeth.” Inching his way up the steep gorge, he climbed over a chicken wire fence and out onto Linden Avenue. “And that’s where a woman saw me and she took me into her house and called the police.” Richard Edgington was scratched and bruised from the experience, but he had escaped with his life.
Richard and his mother spent much of that Thursday night at precinct 17, where he described his ordeal and kidnapper for police. Despite being only five, Richard was a remarkably articulate witness. Officers wanted to get every detail they possibly could, particularly since there had been an eerily similar kidnapping in the same neighborhood just two months before. On April 23, another five-year-old named Susan Benedict had been lured from her home by a woman who offered her candy and a trip to the zoo. Susan had been found alive, bound and gagged on the same stretch of railroad tracks. Police feared they had a deranged woman abducting children in North Buffalo and that she might strike again.
They had no idea how soon or how horrifying the next incident would prove to be.
It rained on Friday, June 23, the day after Richard Edgington’s kidnapping. When the skies cleared that afternoon, officers took Richard and his mother along the abductor’s route. Just blocks away, at 3:30 p.m., another little boy named Andrew Ashley left his home at 195 Jewett Parkway to go play with a friend. Andrew Ashley was blonde, blue-eyed, and only 3 ½ years old. He lived with his parents, Donna and Francis Ashley, both 26, and a little brother who was almost two. The future looked bright for the Ashleys. Francis Ashley had graduated from Canisius College that week and Donna had worked as a registered nurse at Buffalo General Hospital. They lived in the type of neighborhood where it was safe to let your three-year-old walk to a friend’s house by himself. Or so they thought.
When Andrew had not returned by 6:00 p.m., Mrs. Ashley went to the home of his playmate, only to discover that the family had been away since that morning. Andrew’s parents began searching the neighborhood for him. At 8:00 p.m. they made a frantic call to police to report him missing.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Frank Felicetta personally took charge of the investigation. Felicetta was a veteran officer who considered himself first and foremost a policeman despite his role as the city’s top cop. Always one to roll up his sleeves and do hands-on police work, Commissioner Felicetta directed officers to conduct a house-by-house canvass of the neighborhood. He spoke with the media, asking local newspapers to put out a call for information from readers. He also contacted psychiatric hospitals for information on female outpatients, especially those that had been released to serve as domestics in homes in North Buffalo.
The disappearance of Andrew Ashley quickly became the big news of that June 1961 weekend. A massive search began Friday night and grew to include hundreds of law enforcement and civilian volunteers, including the Boy Scouts. Edwin Ehrne, a neighbor of the Ashleys, told police he saw Andrew on Friday afternoon with a woman who had him by the hand and was leading him in the direction of the zoo. The neighbor said little Andrew showed a “definite reluctance” to go. He estimated the woman’s age to be about 35.
News of the Edgington kidnapping brought forth more witnesses who had seen Richard in the company of his female abductor. Descriptions of her varied widely. About the only things the witnesses seemed to agree upon were that she was slender, at least 5’ 5” tall, and that she had been wearing a dress and no hat. Her age was variously placed at 28 to 40 years old.
That Saturday, the FBI took on the case and stationed an agent at the Ashley apartment. Because of the drowning threat made to Richard Edgington, the police underwater recovery team began dragging Delaware Park Lake and two ponds in nearby Forest Lawn Cemetery. On Saturday afternoon, police were summoned by the mother of six-year-old Elizabeth Palermo. Mrs. Palermo had caught a “big girl” leading her daughter away by the hand. The girl took off running when Mrs. Palermo shouted at her and Palermo ran after her. The chase ended abruptly when the fleeing girl was stopped by a man named Robert Brown, who had been driving around looking for the girl who had approached his five-year-old daughter Patty and asked her to “go for candy.”
Officers took the girl and the agitated parents to the station, where she identified herself as Michele Johnson of 91 Wade Street. Mrs. Palermo immediately cried foul; there was no such address. The girl then admitted her name was Chyrel Jolls and she lived at 21 Leroy Avenue with her parents. Chyrel was 15 years old. Though her behavior had been strange – asking children to go get candy amid the massive neighborhood search for a kidnapper – police didn’t seriously consider her a suspect. They believed they were looking for a woman, not a teenager. An officer told Mr. Brown that Chyrel had “just picked the wrong day to invite children for candy.” Chyrel was released. The police even asked Mr. Brown to give her a ride home.
Chyrel drew the attention of law enforcement again less than 24 hours later, however. On Sunday morning, the FBI traced a call made to the Ashley home. A female caller told Mrs. Ashley that her son Andrew was okay and that he would be returned to her unharmed if the police investigation was called off. Mrs. Ashley kept the caller on the line until FBI agents traced the call to a phone booth where they discovered Chyrel Jolls, still talking to Mrs. Ashley. Taken into custody, Chyrel said her call had been a hoax, that she had just been trying to “console” Mrs. Ashley.
Unaware of her brush with police the day before, the FBI also wrote her off as a misguided teen and let her go. Meanwhile Lieutenant John Dugan and a few fellow officers were with Richard Edgington and his mother, combing the kidnapper’s route once again as Richard showed them the way, Lieutenant Dugan carrying the boy on his shoulders when he grew tired. This time they found something new: Richard’s pith helmet, the one the kidnapper had taken when she told him they were going to play cowboys and Indians. It hadn’t been there before. As Richard recalled, “They found it floating in the water, showing that she had come back to get me.” The implication was chilling. It appeared that the kidnapper felt she hadn’t accomplished what she’d set out to do. At least not with Richard.
At 2:34 p.m. the little body of Andrew Ashley was found floating in three feet of water in Delaware Park Lake about seven feet offshore. His hands and feet were tied with a nylon stocking, a dishrag stuffed in his mouth. He wore only his underwear and a T-shirt. Cause of death was suffocation due to drowning. Medical Examiner James J. Creighton later determined that Andrew had been bound and tossed into the lake within an hour of his abduction. “Who killed my baby?” Mrs. Ashley screamed over and over again when told of her son’s murder.
As the Ashleys grieved and made funeral arrangements for their three-year old son, Police Commissioner Felicetta launched a massive and highly public search for the killer. Police were certain that the murderer was also responsible for the two prior kidnappings. “We are dealing with a woman maniac,” Mayor Frank A. Sedita told the press, warning parents to keep a close eye on their children until the perpetrator was caught. Leads poured in, suspects were questioned, but as days passed without an arrest, Commissioner Frank Felicetta feared that the suspect was hiding in plain sight. Felicetta told a reporter, “I am fearful we may have talked to this woman and passed her by.” He advised his officers to re-interview suspects and witnesses. Once again, young Richard Edgington turned out to be the most astute witness. Newspapers released a revised sketch of the kidnapper based on his description of her. This sketch showed a younger girl with her hair in a ponytail. He had described his abductor as old enough to be somebody’s mommy. As Richard explained to me, “My mother was only 21 at the time.”
The revised sketch prompted the parents of Elizabeth Palermo and Patty Brown to call police again about the girl they had chased the previous week, the one who had asked their children to go get some candy. Both parents felt there was a strong resemblance to the sketch. The Palermos and Browns were not the only ones who were suspicious of Chyrel Jolls. Another man alerted police when he observed Chyrel tear a branch off a tree and begin viciously whipping the tree trunk. The man thought her behavior so bizarre that he followed her and got her name, which he then reported to police.
On July 3, Lieutenant Thomas Hennessey brought Chyrel in for questioning. This time Chyrel was openly hostile, ranting that she hated policeman and that “those dirty cops are always following me and bothering me.” She denied any involvement in the crimes. Witnesses were brought in to view Chyrel in a lineup. Richard Edgington immediately identified her as his kidnapper.
A search of Chyrel’s home turned up several items of interest, including a journal of her daily activities with several references to the Ashley investigation and an undated, hand-drawn map of a route through Delaware Park labeled, “The way I went last Friday.”
Chyrel was taken to police headquarters where she was questioned further by Commissioner Felicetta, who described her as “extremely antagonistic.” A background check revealed the girl had a markedly troubled history. Though only 15 years old, Chyrel had already been confined to mental hospitals twice, where her treatment had included shock therapy. She had just completed seventh grade, well behind her age group. At the age of 12, she was suspected of setting a fire at a group home while living there. She currently lived with her parents and a younger sister, but had been in and out of foster homes or institutions for much of her life. Chyrel had six siblings, but aside from the one younger sister, all the others were either in foster care or living elsewhere.
Relatives of Chyrel Jolls gave police more disturbing details. An aunt reported that some years before, she had found her young son tied up and left in a back room of her home. Chyrel had been staying with them at the time and the aunt had always suspected Chyrel was responsible, despite her denials. An uncle revealed that Chyrel had called him the Sunday morning before Andrew Ashley’s body was discovered and told him it would be found in Delaware Park Lake. Despite her accurate “prediction,” Chyrel insisted she had nothing to do with the crime and the uncle said he didn’t believe she could be involved. He did acknowledge however that Chyrel had problems and that he had tried to help her. He had advised her not to take any babysitting jobs.
At police headquarters, Chyrel was also questioned by psychiatrist Samuel Yochelson. She quickly built a rapport with Dr. Yochelson, whom she had seen on TV talking about the Andrew Ashley case. Chyrel’s mother, Georgia Jolls, consented to having her daughter admitted for psychiatric observation. “I’ve said there was something wrong with Chyrel for 10 years,” a reporter quoted Mrs. Jolls as saying. Georgia claimed that Chyrel had been brought to the attention of various welfare agencies but “nothing was ever done about her.” In custody Chyrel soon confessed to Dr. Yochelson, Commissioner Felicetta and her mother. She admitted to the kidnappings, but denied throwing Andrew Ashley into Delaware Park Lake, insisting she had just left him tied and gagged onshore and that he must have rolled in himself. Police considered this highly unlikely. Chyrel said she denied the kidnappings at first because she was afraid her mother would be mad at her.
An FBI lab determined that strands of hair found in Richard Edgington’s pith helmet had the same characteristics as Chyrel’s hair. Police found more unusual handwritten papers in Chyrel’s bedroom, including one titled “An account of my life…and why I do things.” A grand jury indicted Chyrel Jolls on August 2, 1961, though District Attorney Carmen Ball said he doubted she would be found fit to stand trial. Psychiatrists offered differing opinions on her sanity, but ultimately a judge committed her to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane on January 12, 1962.
A little over two years later, on April 1, 1964, Chyrel Jolls returned to Buffalo when a doctor at Matteawan determined she was mentally capable of standing trial. Two weeks into the proceedings, however, in November of 1964, Judge Charles J. Gaughan declared a mistrial. “The defendant has deteriorated both mentally and physically,” Judge Gaughan said. Observing her behavior in the courtroom—which included collapsing to the floor, agitation, and speaking out of turn—the judge determined it wasn’t possible to have a fair and impartial trial. Chyrel was returned to Matteawan.
Five years later, with the support of psychiatrists who noted how well she had progressed, she petitioned for release. At a court hearing in November of 1969, two psychiatrists testified that Chyrel was no longer psychotic and was now able to understand the nature of the charges and assist in her own defense. However, the doctors feared that another trial could trigger another psychotic episode and cause her to relapse. They recommended that the charges against her be dismissed. The court accepted the recommendation and all criminal charges against Chyrel Jolls were dropped, clearing the way for her transfer to a civilian mental health facility in 1970. She was released as cured a year later on January 29, 1971. Her present status is unknown.
Back in the summer of 1961, Richard Edgington’s mother told a reporter that her son’s memory of his kidnapping was fading quickly. This was more a mother’s wishful thinking, though. “It stays with you forever,” Richard told me when we spoke this month. “It doesn’t ever go away.” Richard grew up and enjoyed a successful career as a machinist. Now in middle age and with decades of time and experience separating him from the traumatic event of his early childhood, the memories are still never far from his mind. He takes a humble and pragmatic view of what he went through. “I’m fortunate I got away,” he said, adding, “I’d never wish the experience on anyone.”
All images courtesy of Buffalo Courier-Express archive, E.H. Butler Library, SUNY College at Buffalo