closer look at Mansfield's greatest mystery
Background American Gothic Into Thin Air In Search Of In Plain Sight? One Theory Epilogue
By LARRY PHILLIPS • News Journal • January 17, 2010
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Buzz up!Twitter FarkIt Type Size A A A MANSFIELD -- The greatest mystery in Mansfield history took place nowhere near the city.
It was 60 years ago last week, on a cold and blustery day, 515 miles directly east of Mansfield.
The disappearance of 1946 Mansfield Senior High School graduate Richard Colvin Cox drew nationwide attention. Some compared his disappearance to the Amelia Earhart case. To this day, Cox remains the only missing West Point cadet never to be found.
This month, Life magazine listed the Cox saga as one of the 50 greatest mysteries of all time, along with Jack The Ripper and the JonBenet Ramsey slaying.
It can be difficult to gauge the audacity of such a scenario today. Just after World War II West Point was the cradle of heroes, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Omar Bradley -- men who saved the world from the Nazi regime.
Taking his turn in this gray line, the 5-foot-8, 158-pound Cox was last seen Jan. 14, 1950.
From several stories written over the years, a consensus emerged. Donning a full dress uniform and a long gray overcoat, the brown-haired, blue-eyed Cox signs out at 5:45 p.m. At 6:15 p.m. he's last seen by roommate Dean Welch. A second-year military cadet, Cox is supposedly heading for dinner at the Hotel Thayer in West Point.
He never arrives and is never seen again -- or was he?
A national alert is distributed with a photo of Cox: brown hair, blue eyes, a fair complexion with a diagonal scar on his right elbow. He may have been accompanied by a shadowy figure known only as "George." The probe travels a lengthy labyrinth to nowhere.
Of course, like any good mystery, there is much more to the story. Dark figures are outlined, lurid rumors perpetuated, witnesses from multiple continents are interviewed, and potential sightings add intrigue and shroud the case to this day.
Closer to home, the tragedy paralyzed Cox's family. It haunts friends and Mansfield Senior classmates, who will celebrate their 65th reunion next year without him.
The story featured all the trappings of a true crime novel, and the press seized on it immediately. Whispers insisted Hollywood pondered two separate movie deals on Jerome Edelberg's story in Coronet magazine, but no film was made.
Cox's disappearance drew Life, Coronet and Redbook magazines, along with The New York Times and The Washington Post. Harry J. Maihafer's book "Oblivion" was written 46 years after the disappearance. The News Journal's Jim Underwood investigated the case for 10 months before publishing a 12-part series in 1982.
The details to follow are compiled from those sources.
Richard Colvin "Dick" Cox was born July 28, 1928, the youngest of six children to Rupert and Minnie Cox. The oldest child was Rupert Jr., then Emily, Mary, twins Nancy and Carolyn, and Richard. The girls' married names: Mrs. Nancy (Albert) Allen, Mrs. Emily (Robert) Beard, Mrs. Mary (Watson) Slabaugh and Mrs. Carolyn (William) Colby of Cleveland. William Colby was a detective in Mansfield who later worked for the FBI and assisted in the local investigation.
The Cox family owned the R.F. Cox Insurance Agency in downtown Mansfield. Rupert Cox died when his youngest was 10 years old. The family lived on Third Street for years, but moved to 554 W. Cook Road, in the late 1940s. This was the home address when he disappeared.
By all accounts Cox enjoyed a normal upbringing. He was a paper carrier for the News Journal, served as the sophomore class president at Mansfield Senior, was a member of the National Honor Society and a major contributor to the yearbook, Manhigan. He was a sports fan and later ran track at Army, but did not participate in high school athletics.
Mansfield schoolmate Betty Timmons was informally engaged to Cox at the time of his disappearance. They planned to marry after Richard graduated from West Point in June 1952.
Fresh from high school, Cox went into the Army and served in the 28th Constabulary Unit in Schweinfurt, Germany. This is where he met the mysterious George, although details of this individual are sketchy at best. Cox reportedly was a clerk in the intelligence office but had no security clearance.
He took classes to help him pass an Army aptitude test and achieve enter to West Point. Some sources report Richard received a congressional appointment from J. Harry McGregor, who represented this district. Minnie Cox vehemently denied that, claiming her son got in on his own merits. Later, McGregor constantly badgered the Army and FBI about the case, one of the main reasons the search for the Mansfield native was so exhaustive.
At West Point, records show Cox was an exemplary student. At the time of his disappearance he was listed in the upper third of his class and first in his company in military aptitude.
Just when all seemed to be unfolding for a promising future, Dick Cox suffered bizarre back-to-back weekends, according to his roommates.
On the weekend of Jan. 7 and 8, 1950, Cox is seen talking with a visitor and later goes to dinner off base, apparently with this same person. This person is later dubbed George for the name he used when calling Cox's room and speaking to one of his roommates.
Cox returns from that weekend in poor form, drunk, and passes out at his desk. A photo of him captured at this moment appears in the book "Oblivion." He is unconscious and sitting up. Later, he wakes up, runs out of the room and into the hall. Looking down the stairs he says something indecipherable. His roommates, Dean Welch and Joseph Urschel, get him back to bed and all is quiet until the following weekend.
On the afternoon of Jan. 14, 1950, Cox attends an Army basketball game. He tries to talk Welch into an out-of-town jaunt. Welch considers the idea, and tries on a suit while pondering the notion, but declines.
Later, a visitor again hails Cox. Most think this is the same person who got Cox drunk the previous weekend, "George." Cox intimates to friends this person is a nuisance and hints he may be dangerous. Nevertheless, wanting to go to New York, Cox agrees to have dinner with George.
After a brief exchange with Welch, allegedly on his way to the Thayer, Cox disappears.
The 21-year-old Mansfield man left behind $85 and a prized wristwatch -- evidence, most believe, he intended to return. Cox may have had as little as $5 in his pocket at the time of his disappearance.
The search has many false leads and takes investigators on a wild ride.
Rumors of Cox being homosexual or bisexual are endorsed by independent researcher Marshall Jacobs and echoed in Maihafer's book "Oblivion."
"Very few people, even his family, knew the real Dick Cox," Jacobs told the Associated Press.
Although friends and family vehemently deny the allegation, the Army takes his West Point roommates (who also dispute Cox is homosexual) on a tour through the gay bars in New York City. Nothing is found.
The family still believes Cox was murdered by George and his body never recovered. Some believe Cox was killed as revenge for testifying against someone who committed a crime in Germany.
Another theory has Cox recruited by the CIA, working in Europe during the Cold War.
Still others think Cox knew about the cheating scandal that broke at West Point the following year. This angle takes off on Cox being murdered by those involved in the cribbing escapade. That story made international news in 1951 and involved numerous Army football players. ESPN recently made a movie about that incident, titled "CodeBreakers."
Another theory has Cox murdering George and going on the run.
In the end, there are no answers. Still, authorities don't stop looking.
The case becomes somewhat embarrassing to J. Edgar Hoover because the FBI is unable to solve it. The Army has no success either, and in 1953 it stops looking.
However, there are two intriguing and fairly credible Cox sightings long after his disappearance.
The first report comes in 1954. The FBI spoke to a former Army buddy, Ernest Shotwell.
Shotwell and Cox were in the same student company at Stewart Field Prep School in 1948. They took the same classes, geared toward gaining entrance at West Point.
After reading the story in Coronet Magazine in November 1954, Shotwell tells the FBI he saw Cox in a Washington, D.C., bus station in March 1952.
According to the book "Oblivion," the friend asks, "Cox, you are Dick Cox?"
The response, "Yes, how are you?"
A five-minute conversation ensues and Shotwell asks Cox if he is still at West Point.
Cox replies he resigned from West Point the previous year, 1951, and is heading to Germany. Shotwell said Cox was agitated, jumpy and terse, not like himself. Cox was not friendly to his former friend and abruptly leaves.
Only after reading the Coronet Magazine story does Shotwell understand the ramifications of this chance meeting. Since he knew Cox, and the Mansfield grad allegedly responded in an affirmative manner to him, this was considered a genuine sighting.
Nothing came from the ensuing leads, though. So, on Jan. 14, 1957, Cox was declared legally dead by the state of Ohio.
A second sighting of Cox was brought to light by the News Journal's Underwood in 1982.
According to his research, which included 3,000 pages of information from the Army and the FBI, Cox was allegedly seen May 16, 1960, in the Sho-Bar tavern in Melbourne, Fla.
On an undercover assignment, an FBI source begins drinking with one of his contacts. This contact is accompanied by a woman and a man named R.C. Mansfield. Later, the man is called Richard by the woman accompanying them. Still later, after several drinks, Richard admits the name Mansfield is a phony and his real last name is Cox. He intimates he's considered dead by the Army and his mother.
The source, looking for information on another subject, is unfamiliar with the Cox disappearance (it's been 10 years since this was national news) and is pressing his current case. Still, he sets up an appointment to meet Cox again, and does so four days later, May 20, to continue pressing for his original objective. When the source tells the FBI about Cox, it's discovered he is the missing cadet. A stakeout is planned for May 25, 1960. However, Cox never arrives at this meeting and is never seen again.
This second, and final sighting, is considered a genuine possibility.
Author Harry J. Maihafer believed independent investigator Marshall Jacobs solv- ed the case. Jacobs said he met with a retired senior CIA official in Florida. This individual, given a false name to protect his identity, told Marshall that Cox worked "in the intelligence field" in Europe during the Cold War.
"One of Cox's tasks was getting people out from behind the Iron Curtain ... These were members of the scientific community ... important to the Russians' nuclear capability.
"His work has been secret and significant."
Jacobs also was told at the time, in the early 1990s, Cox was alive but dying of thoracic cancer in a National Institute of Health facility in Bethesda, Md.
Jacobs, who died in 2008, and Maihafer, who died in 2005, believed that was the end of the mystery.
The family doesn't buy that theory, mostly because they insist Cox would find a way to contact his mother, who died at age 96 in a Mansfield nursing home.
We probably will never definitively know what happened to Richard Cox.
He would have been 82 this summer. One way or another, he is almost certainly dead.
Whether he died Jan. 14, 1950, or in a Maryland hospital bed in the mid-1990s, there has never been a sense of closure for the Cox family or his friends.
Six decades later, the disappearance of Dick Cox remains the greatest mystery in Mansfield history.