Tall. Lanky. Olive-toned. Coach of the football team. This was my eleventh-grade history teacher. Posters of 80s athletes hung on his wall, next to memorabilia of the Pittsburgh Steelers and The Godfather. A few stickers of Italian flags rested beside campaign bumper stickers. I fought for reasons not to like him, myself being one of the social rejects of Southwestern High School (affectionately called “The Country Club on the Hill”). He represented everything that I was trying not to be, and that’s the worst thing a teenager can imagine.
“My grandfather was blackmailed by a Union in Pittsburgh as a child.” “He and his troop filmed these movies before he was killed in Falujah.” “You should all remember Amy King today.” “Have I told you about Squeaky Fromme?” He’d always tell stories vaguely related to what we were learning in class, or to a certain event, and he’d almost always connect something local to it.
“Did you know a member of the track team here was murdered in 1974?”
I looked up.
My teacher sat, perched on a desk up front as always, and began to set the stage of the harrowing incident. I scribbled down the name of the victim hurriedly in my notes, since his cellphone ban meant I couldn’t google the name. Daniel Ebersole, age 14.
January 8th, 1974. Fran (my teacher’s father) had just started coaching the track team. It was fairly early into the season when Ebersole was kidnapped. On a typical afternoon, he vanished without warning. The last evidence Fran saw of him was an IOU in the track team’s cash drawer for a candy bar, discovered after he had already been taken.
The assailants demanded a ransom of $15,000 of Daniel’s father two days layer. He informed the police of the situation and took the money to the location specified. The perpetrators were caught rather quickly, with officers waiting to ambush as they picked up their “prize.” Daniel had owed drug money to the three suspects, and he was held for ransom in retaliation. When torturing the teenager became too taxing, they left him to freeze in the woods.
As my teacher continued with the story, he lightly folded his hands on his lap. His deep gaze lowered to meet that of any student looking up. He could pass for a younger man, though the tugs at the corners of his eyes betrayed him.
“Do you guys remember Ralph ‘Bucky’ Phillips from when you were younger? They had to shut down the school to search the woods. The same thing happened with him.”
Fran didn’t hesitate to go looking for the lost member of his team. He joined the sheriff, the police, and several other volunteers, on a search to recover Daniel Ebersole. Their only source of information was that he could be found in the woods. Even in the 2010s, Chautauqua County, New York is a heavily wooded area. Plenty of search time and effort would be needed to locate the boy–and quickly, should he still be alive.
Fran joined the police in a search not far from the school. The small forested area was just out of sight of upper-middle class houses. Covering about two acres, it gave everyone in the vicinity an odd feeling. It was apparent that they were getting closer to the crime scene. A group of fifteen or so navigated on top of roots, twigs, and fallen branches in a officer-determined region.
Fran looked high and low for Daniel. In the darkness, the trees became mazes. Winding, twisting limbs tangled overhead, forming a maze with imperious evergreens to block the ends. He slipped on ice forming on branches, or areas of snow that were just two powdery. Long after the sun had set, the wind began to gust. Temperatures in the teens felt colder against his cheeks. Fran new his student wasn’t far, but he had a wife and a very young son. With a heavy heart, he made the decision to return home after an entire day of searching.
In the following morning, Fran discovered he was ultimately closer to finding Daniel than he thought. Not long after he had decided to return home, the police found the student’s body in a neglected spot of the same area. The young man was tied to a tree, beaten with a hammer, and froze over the course of a day. The case, now solved, was forgotten by Chautauqua county over time. In my small school’s history, it became an obscure, dark moment. Even when I googled the name of Daniel Ebersole later, only one mention of the case appeared.
“I remember coming to see my dad in the high school as a child and seeing a memorial for Daniel in the glass case,” my teacher concluded. “It always gave me chills, but at the time I couldn’t explain why.”
Just as Fran returned home from that fateful night, so did I. I stared at his house, just across the street from my dad’s, and went through the events in my mind. From the country club on the hill, to the labyrinthine woods, to his home in a quiet neighborhood. I thought of my teacher as a young boy, leaving that home and walking into the high school, seeing the memorial in a glass display case upon entry.
My teacher was no longer just the coach of the football team who I had to force myself to hate. Fran was no longer the old track coach who lived down the block. I felt a strong connection to the two after the story was told. Just as they could no longer forget the tragedy of Daniel Ebersole, neither could I.