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Happy Holidays
Michael Massee
       Christmas is a really big deal here in our small town.  Come late September, some of the merchants start decorating their stores in red and green, much to the annual displeasure of our older residents.  But the big push comes the day after Halloween when witches and skeletons are replaced with Santa and his elves.  Forget about Thanksgiving.  That is just a quick stop, for a turkey dinner, on the fast track to Christmas.
       Elmsville is located southwest of Buffalo New York with a population of about 8,000 outstanding citizens.  It’s been around since 1857 and don’t you forget it.  Some of the families here never let you forget that their ancestors were here even earlier, as early as 1657.  I try and remind them that there was a group of peoples here long before that but they’re not interested.
       The story I’m going to tell you is about one of those families who are descendants of the brave white settlers that fought and killed the Indians (Native Americans, to be politically correct), took their land and turned it into farms.  Up came the crops as the soil was ripped and torn by the plows.  Down came the mighty pines and oaks as up went the picturesque red barns you see on those Christmas cards at holiday time.

       Actually, of the couple I’m going to talk about, only one of them had the blood of those early pioneers  flowing  through her veins:  Martha Abigail Shepard, married to Anthony Morris, the owner of the Morris Mercedes Benz Dealership.  He was Jewish, she was not, and she made sure everyone understood the difference. In fact, Martha Morris made sure that the town understood a lot things.  Firstly, that she was a very important person who would not tolerate bad behavior of any kind.  No skate boards on her sidewalk.  No loud music while driving down her street.  No gas-powered lawn mowers were used to manicure her grass.  She even insisted that the garbage collectors not bang the trash cans against their truck.  Her list of possible offences was very, very long.  Secondly, she let it be known that, even though she was tiny physically, she was a strong woman who wore the pants in the family and that Anthony was merely the bread winner.  All important decisions were hers to make and woe be unto he who stood in her way.

       We had the dubious honor of living next door to the Morris’s mansion.  Their house was a Victorian Painted Lady with feudal aspirations.  There was a crenelated tower that glared out into the street and I’m sure her majesty, Martha, would have installed a moat and a drawbridge if the local zoning laws had allowed her to do so.

       In all the years we spent living beside the Morris’s I never once entered their house.  Neighborly is not a word I would use to describe the two of them.  We would see Mr. Morris leave for work in the morning and return home in the evening.  He didn’t hang out in the backyard and she didn’t gossip over the fence.  He was silent and she was a shrieker.  Almost every night you could hear her muffled screams coming from the tower or their living room.  Once in a while we could even pick out a word or two; ‘stupid!’ ‘ashamed!’ ‘cheap!’  But never a sound from Anthony. I never understood how he could stand it.  Maybe he got off on being verbally abused.     

       “Her attacks were not only aimed at Anthony.  Anyone in the neighborhood was fair game.     

       Neighbors walking their dogs were particularly vulnerable.  Martha would come flying out of her front door, hands waving like a cop directing traffic, shouting loud enough to be heard in Canada, “Don’t let that animal do his business on my lawn!  I’ll call the police!” and she would chase the culprit and his or her terrified pet back to where they belonged.  I had learned early on to walk Waffles, our dog, in the opposite direction, away from the wicked witch of Elmsville.

       Children were terrified of her and fascinated at the same time.  The bravest of them would sneak up to the front steps, press the doorbell and run away as fast as their little legs could move, in the hopes of seeing her open the door and have a hissy fit when she found no one was there.  My own kids knew better than to antagonize Mrs. Morris but even they would become the enemy if they played ball in the street or squealed too loudly as they ran through the sprinkler in our front yard.  Martha would stick notes in our mailbox that listed her latest complaint.

To whom it may concern,
It has come to my attention that your son set up a stand yesterday in front of your house and was selling some kind of beverage.  This is a violation of township rules and it created excess noise and congestion.  Please see to it that this doesn’t occur again or I shall be forced to call the police.
A concerned neighbor.

       She never signed her own name to these epistles, as if we wouldn’t know who the ‘concerned neighbor’ was.  Her dislike of children was obvious but rather sad considering she and Mr. Morris had had a son.  Evidently, he left home at sixteen.  Rumor has it that he moved to New York City to be with his lover but more likely it was to escape his mother.  Maybe that’s why she was so unkind to young people and her husband.

       My wife and I did see the Morris’s at certain social events, like the opening of the Elmsville Community Center, which Anthony had funded very generously. Martha was dressed to the nines and, as always, she was wearing several thousand dollars-worth of jewelry.  At the annual Fourth of July Fair, Martha manned the Erie County Historical Society’s information booth.  We stopped by and were greeted rather coldly at first but then Mrs. Morris warmed up as she began to talk about the Shepard family being the founders of Elmsville. In the winter, Anthony was one of the judges of the Elmsville Ice Sculpture contest and he congratulated me when I came in second with my winning entry ‘King Cobra.’  I really think the poor fellow wanted to be more friendly and outgoing but his marriage prevented that from happening.  The counterpoint to the ice sculpture event was the Snowman Contest, open to children six to sixteen.  My daughter participated in that competition one year,  actually the year Martha was at the helm of the judging committee.  Lisa was very enraptured by high fashion at the time so she molded a runway model, in a long sweeping gown, entirely out of snow and topped it off with one of her mother’s beach hats.  I thought it was pretty spectacular but evidently Mrs. Morris was not impressed, so my daughter did not walk away with a prize.

       The reason we can have these two events every year is due to the predictability of the very cold and snowy weather.  Because we are in the path of freezing winds blowing off Lake Erie we get huge snowfalls, an average 12 feet of snow per season.  The temperature hovers around 19 degrees and zooms up to a balmy 31 degrees.  It makes Christmas feel like a real Christmas.  Which brings us back to the story I started to tell.

       T’was the night before Christmas, whoops, wrong story.  Actually, it was the day after Christmas and the whole town was digging out from several days of the heaviest snow fall in many years.  There were drifts so tall you could stand on them to shovel off your roof.  If you want to you can Google some awesome pictures of what I’m talking about.  We’re used to snow here in Elmsville but this was ridiculous.  I tunneled out from our house to the street and watched as the snowplows continued to pummel the already buried cars with more of the white stuff.  I did the best I could do, with my little snow blower, to remove the snow from our sidewalk.  The blizzard had been so bad no one could go anywhere for the last two days.

       As I chugged slowly to the edge of the Morris’s property I was surprised to see Mr. Morris leaning on a snow shovel and panting like Waffles.  The Morris’s usually hired a local guy to do their snow removal.  I shut off the noisy machine and crunched my way over to him. 
       “Mr. Morris, are you okay?  Why don’t you let me help you get rid of this stuff?” 
       “That would be very nice, thank you.  I have a car coming soon to take me to airport.” 
       “The airport?” I asked, unable to hide my surprise.  “Is it even open?” 
“Yes, I just got a call that one of the landing strips has been cleared.  Martha and I are flying  to The Cayman Islands to get away from this weather.  We were supposed to leave the day before Christmas but---” 
       “Yeah, I think this storm canceled a lot of plans,” I replied, as I turned on the blower and began removing the snow from the sidewalk.  This was the longest conversation Anthony and I had ever had, and to think it took the storm of the century to accomplish that.  When I finished I shut down the machine and, turning around, was surprised to see a black limo slowly edging up our street.  Mr. Morris was lugging a suitcase to the only opening in the wall of snow that faced the street and waving wildly at the approaching car. 
       “Thanks so much,” Mr. Morris shouted, as he stepped in the slush left by the snow plow. 
“You’re very welcome,” I shouted back, “But where is Mrs. Morris?  Isn’t she coming with you?” 

       “She went to her mother’s before the storm started,” he explained, opening the door to the limo.  “She’s meeting me at the airport.  Thanks again!”

       “I nodded and he closed his door.  The car spun it’s wheels in the snow and then moved slowly down the street.  That was the last time I ever saw Anthony Levi Morris.  
       “She went to her mother’s before the storm started,” he explained, opening the door to the limo.  “She’s meeting me at the airport.  Thanks again!” 

        That January, after the storm, the temperature never got above 20 degrees.  While it was not much fun for most of us, it was heaven for the kids with sledding, skating, snow angels, snow forts and snowmen.  Because nothing would melt due to the constant cold, the ice sculptures  and the snowmen remained in their fixed position, almost like they were on the day of the contest.  It was pleasant to drive by the fairground fields and glance at the art made entirely from frozen H2O.  The ice sculptures sparkled with a faceted crystalline light and the snowmen (and women) stood like ghosts holding a prayer meeting.

        Spring was late that year.  It wasn’t until the middle of May that temperatures began to rise and remain in the 50 to 60 degree range.  The snow finally began to melt and you could see sweet little patches of green peeking through the soot-stained white stuff.  In the fairground fields, the icy mermaids, swans and clipper ships dwindled down to mere puddles soaking the grass and the snowmen began shrinking into miniature versions  of themselves, all of them, with the exception of one.

       As a police buddy of mine tells it, he answered a call early in the morning to hurry out to the fairgrounds to check on some kind of commotion there.  When he arrived, he pushed his way through a circle of onlookers and was gob smacked by what he saw.  Sitting on a five-gallon white plastic tub was Martha Abigail Morris nee Shepard.  She was wet with melted snow and my pal determined that she hadn’t yet collapsed into a heap because she was still frozen solid.  Her eyes were open but glazed over and her hair hung down in wet strings.  She was dressed in a blue flannel nightgown and her feet were bare.   She wore no makeup and her hands, resting politely in her lap, were void of any rings.  There were no bracelets, necklaces or earrings.  She, who prided herself in always looking like she stepped off the cover of Vogue magazine, was just a plain Jane----a very dead plain Jane.

       One of the Fairground security guards said he remembered seeing an extra snowman way back in January but just thought that some kids had been playing in the field and decided to make their own Frosty.  He recalled it was rather lumpy and not very sophisticated unlike the other snowmen surrounding it.  “It looked like something a first grader would build.”

       An autopsy revealed that Martha had been strangled and was dead before she was encased in a tomb of snow.  If she had fought off her attacker there was no evidence to show that that had occurred.  No scratches or bruises, just the imprint of fingers around her throat.  Of course, the big question was: who did this terrible thing and the answer seemed to be: her husband.  Where was Anthony Morris, anyway?  His employees said that he and his wife usually stayed somewhere warm until winter passed but now it was Spring.

       I told my friend, at the police station, about seeing Morris leave in a limo back on that snow-removal day in December. Within a week a big search began to track him down, a search that eventually spread around the world.  But he disappeared over four months earlier and therefor the trail was very cold.  Did he actually go to the Cayman Islands? Or was Canada his choice? Europe? Asia? Antarctica?

The town was fascinated by the whole event.  Everyone had a theory about the murder, how it was accomplished and where Morris was hiding.  It was all conjecture, of course.  However, through my connection to the police department, I became privy to some of the facts.  Let me share them with you.

Morris had been withdrawing large sums of money from his account every month for eight months prior to his disappearance.  Total: $450,000

All of Martha’s jewelry, from her home and their shared safety deposit box, was gone.

A wheelbarrow was found under a snow drift in the corner of the Fairground field.  It contained a torn pocket that matched the blue flannel of Martha’ nightgown.

The limo driver, who picked Morris up, told the police that he dropped him off at the train station, not the airport.  The airport was still shut down due to the heavy snowfall.

The Morris home was searched top to bottom and yielded nothing.

       And so the story of Anthony and Martha, grinds on with no true ending.  As I see it, this is the tale of man who was so tired of his marriage to an abusive woman that he became obsessed with killing her.  A man who planned and plotted his spouse’s murder and his escape, for at least eight months.  A man who strangled his wife, put her in a wheel barrow and, in the middle of a roaring blizzard, wheeled her for two miles to a field full of snowmen and covered her in several layers of snow until she was also a roly poly snowman.  Determination, anger!  I can’t imagine the kind of rage that must have boiled up inside him to give him the superhuman strength to carry out such a difficult mission?

t’s Christmas once more in Elmsville, New York, and the Weather Channel is predicting snow, maybe by Christmas Eve.  Somewhere, who knows where, Anthony Levi Morris is living a new life, with a new name and a new look.  I try hard not to admire the man who committed such a heinous crime but sometimes, as I watch the snowflakes begin to fall, I  reflect on the irony of it all.  Mr. Morris turning Mrs. Morris, the ice queen, into a snowman.  Happy holidays, Tony, where ever you are.

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