Mary Cramer had few unbending rules as the mother of two boys, but checking in was one of them.
She expected her sons to call her regularly when they were out and about while growing up, and heaven help them if they didn’t.
When son Andy, then 17, failed to call one evening, she frantically began calling his friends and friends’ parents. It was only 8 p.m., and he’d simply forgotten to call home after playing football, but the lapse was enough to start her panicking.
Andy is now 23, and her youngest, Shaun, is 17, and she’ll readily tell you she still expects updates on their whereabouts from both of them.
Her sons, she says, know exactly why she wants to know where they are and who they are with at all times.
Had someone done the same for her mother, Norma, when she set off for Indiana on July 2, 1968, maybe investigators would have a better idea of who shot her twice in the back of the head and dumped her body in a swamp.
“It’s not knowing why that is the worst. By all accounts, everyone that knew her said she was sweet and wonderful and kind,” she said. “I cannot understand how she ended up like this — with two gunshots to the head.”
The quest for closure
Mary, now 46, was only 1 when her mother set off from her home in Elyria to see a former boyfriend in Portage, Ind.
Mary ended up living with her maternal grandmother, Helen Cramer, in Grafton, when her mother never returned, and her grandmother always was upfront with her about what had happened.
While growing up, she just wanted to fit in, so sharing the details about how her grandmother had adopted her to become her mother after her own mother’s murder wasn’t a hot topic of conversation among her friends in Midview Schools.
“So many friends of mine that I’ve known growing up did not know about it,” Mary said. “There were very few people that I shared with, even as an adult.”
Mary kept quiet until an art teacher in high school who’d gone to school with Norma talked with her.
She realized then and there that if she didn’t seek justice, who would?
Between national piano competitions and touring tours to Germany, Austria and Hungary as a pianist, Mary began asking questions. She compiled a thick folder of information, but lost it in the years that followed in a fire.
At that point, she couldn’t emotionally dive in and start over at that point. She had two young boys to raise, and she focused her attention on that task for many years.
But the questions about her mother always lingered, and Mary, who now lives in Clearwater, Fla., where she manages a piano business and teaches music, is ready to start again and hopefully find the answers.
She recently created the website, www.whokillednormacramer.com, and has reached out via social media in the hopes of reaching “the right person” who knows what happened.
On July 2, 1968, Norma Cramer set off to the home of Edward Ford in Portage, Ind., where her former boyfriend, Mark Varasso, was staying.
She left Mary in the care of her roommates, Helen “Louise” Gilmore and Penny Byrne, at the small home they shared at 365 White Oak Drive.
Norma, a single mother, had hoped she could talk Varasso into returning home to Ohio. He had run off with another girlfriend, Betty Smolanovich, of Aliquippa, Pa., and was staying with the Fords, who were her sister and brother-in-law, according to records from the Porter County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated the case.
Norma made it to the Fords’ home — Varasso told authorities he talked to her there — and a gas station attendant working across the street told investigators he saw a crying woman leave the home.
But what happened after that never was answered by the Porter County Sheriff’s Department.
Norma was supposed to return home in two days for a doctor’s appointment on July 5, but no one heard from her after she left Varasso.
Her badly decomposed body was discovered by coon hunters Aug. 17 of that year in a wooded area about three miles west of Valparaiso, Ind., which is about 12 miles from Portage.
Norma, who had two gunshot wounds to the back of her head, was fully dressed, but she was wearing no bra or underwear, according to notes in Norma’s case file.
Her purse was found 3 miles north of the body and contained a sales receipt for a drugstore in Beaver, Pa., about 400 miles away from Portage, where she was last seen, and not far from Aliquippa, Pa. where Smolanovich lived. A bra and several of what appeared to be Norma’s personal items were found near the purse.
Rick Zarbaugh, a former reporter for the Lorain Journal who covered the story, said the case still baffles him.
“This was my first big case, and I’ve always been fascinated by it,” he said.
Norma left Ford’s home with an unknown man in a red Chevrolet with an Indiana license plate, according to the gas station attendant, Bill Rushing, who spoke to Zarbaugh in 1968 after Norma’s body was discovered. Rushing told Zarbaugh that the man was not Varasso.
Zarbaugh said there is a chance that the unknown man, who Rushing said it appeared as if Norma knew, was responsible for the woman’s death. He said he believes Norma may have followed Smolanovich to Smolanovich’s home in Aliquippa and that she stopped at a drugstore nearby, where the receipt lists that she bought cigarettes and hair dye.
Mary, however, thinks the receipt was planted in Norma’s purse, and she thinks Norma’s roommates at the time might be able to shed some light on what happened, but she’s never been able to find them. Both would be in their 60s now. “I think maybe they knew what happened, and they were scared,” she said.
A week after Norma left for Indiana, Gilmore and Byrne packed up their things and moved to Piedmont, S.C. Gilmore spoke with Zarbaugh in October after Norma’s body was identified, and she told him that the group had plans to move, and when Norma didn’t return, the two left and expected Norma to join them in a few days.
The three girls, who were friends, met when they worked together for the Inventory Service Co. in Elyria.
Gilmore and Byrne sold all of Norma’s possessions at a yard sale on July 8 — three days after Norma was supposed to return home. They dropped off Mary to a child welfare agency.
Helen, who still lives in her Capel Road home in Grafton where she raised Norma and then Mary, said her daughter never told her that she planned to move. She saw the advertisement in the newspaper for the rummage sale and thought it was odd that Norma’s roommates would sell Norma’s belongings.
“I went to it and saw everything that belonged to Norma,” she said. “I didn’t buy anything, but I picked up a picture album and thought that it was strange. Why would she want to get rid of that?”
The usual suspects
Varasso was interviewed after Norma’s body was found, and although police told reporters in 1968 that Varasso was not a suspect, it appeared investigators had their suspicions that he was involved.
Investigators noted that Varasso removed the upholstery in his vehicle — upholstery Norma helped him install. And the dates Varasso gave police conflicted with witness accounts.
Varasso, who is serving time at the State Correctional Institute of Pittsburgh on drug charges, said detectives continued to “harass” him after his arrest on drug charges in 1971.
Varasso, who was then living in Grafton, was convicted of drug and weapons charges in August 1971 after Elyria police found a bayonet, LSD, hypodermic syringes and various drug paraphernalia during a traffic stop for an unsafe vehicle violation. He was sentenced to 60 days in Lorain County Jail, which was suspended on the condition of good behavior for a year, and fined $250.
He was sentenced to one- to five years in 1976 for an involuntary deviant sexual intercourse conviction out of Allegheny County, and more recently, arrested for manufacturing marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms in his Corry, Pa., home in January 2012.
A small, soft-spoken man of 63, he was a stark contrast to the inmates who crowded the visiting room of the State Correctional Institution of Pittsburgh.
Varasso, surrounded by prisoners visiting their families, had not received a visitor since he was brought in to the Correctional Institution, but he spoke candidly about Norma’s death when he agreed to talk with a reporter on June 13.
“I spent four and a half decades feeling guilty, blaming myself. If I hadn’t left, this never would have happened,” he said.
Although Varasso denied any involvement in the murder of Norma, he said he has been seeking psychiatric help in prison to deal with the memories of her death, which he said he shut out until he was contacted by The Chronicle-Telegram. Varasso blamed his downward spiral into drug use and a suicide attempt on Norma’s death in 1968.
“It’s been 37 years of hell, and I’d like to see it end,” he said.
A love triangle?
After Norma’s death, Varasso was interviewed by Lorain County sheriff’s Sgt. Henry Zieba and Sgt. Charlie Bulger on Sept. 10, 1968 — an interview that was transcribed and sent to the Indiana police, which was investigating her death.
Varasso had returned to his Elyria home approximately three days after his visit from Norma, according to police reports.
During the interview, he told the detectives that Norma tried to convince him to return home to Elyria on her visit July 2, and when he refused, he said she left crying.
Varasso told Zieba and Bulger that Norma said, “Well, I guess I’ll go home and tell your mother that you aren’t coming home,” adding that she asked him to call her roommate, Gilmore, and tell her that she was on her way home.
But in an interview last month, Varasso told a slightly different story, indicating a possible love triangle between him, Norma and Smolanovich.
“I wanted to get away and think about things. She tried talking me into returning home. She said she was unhappy and asked if it was something she could have done,” he said. “I threw her out. The last thing she said was if she couldn’t have me, nobody would.”
Varasso said he has considered that the mysterious driver — whom he said he didn’t know — was responsible for killing Norma. He said Norma had a penchant for hitchhiking that he always believed would put her in danger.
Varasso said he also said he thought Smolanovich may have been involved in Norma’s death. The two women were both domineering, he said, and both were eager to marry him.
“If Norma had showed up at the house and Betty had been there, I think there would have been a scene from Hell,” he said, quietly.
Smolanovich, who still lives in Aliquippa, Pa., in a small run-down house, denied that she had strong feelings for Varasso, however, in an April 1 interview outside of her home.
“He was a pansy. Everyone thought he was gay,” she said.
Smolanovich added that she never intended to marry Varasso, who used to live nearby and who she met in her mother’s store. She told the same to reporters in 1968, according to newspaper accounts from the time.
Varasso, who never married, said he ended things with Norma, who was three years older than him and had a child from another man, because the relationship was “getting a little intense.”
Smolanovich, meanwhile, said she never met Norma. She said she did remember Varasso receiving a phone call from her, however, and that he gave her the indication that Norma had been “stalking him.”
Varasso said he had met Smolanovich while he attended school in Hopewell, Pa. in 11th grade. He and Smolanovich remained friends but began dating after he broke things off with Norma, he told investigators in 1968.
“I decided I was going to leave home, and (Smolanovich) said it would be all right if I went up and visited her sister. At this time, we were planning on getting married; not right at the moment, because I decided I was going to get settled down, get to the point where I could save some money, get a good job, then put money aside and save up ‘cause I wasn’t going to get married on absolutely nothing, which I had,” he told investigators.
Smolanovich and Varasso never married. She married John Mazza, who also lived in Beaver County, Pa., on July 23, 1969.
Mary, who tracked down Varasso several years ago while she was looking for answers, said the two met in a Pennsylvania diner and talked about Norma.
Her picture of the man she and Helen had always believed had some responsibility for Norma’s death did not match reality.
“He was still pretty empathic,” she said. “I guess my whole life I expected this monstrous person. The person I met was small and pathetic.”
Mary’s search for her mother’s killer has stretched out into the years, and she admittedly has taken some far-flung approaches.
She even talked to a tarot card reader named Florence at one point.
“I asked her about Norma’s murder. She said she saw a man and a woman involved with her death and that the woman’s name was either Billie or Betty,” she recalled. “Of all the millions of woman’s names out there, she picked Betty …This was even before I knew Betty existed.”
The passage of time with no resolution in the case — as any law enforcement official will tell you — generally doesn’t help. And Norma’s case is no exception.
Most of the detectives who worked on the case are now deceased.
The case hasn’t been a priority for the Porter County Sheriff’s Office, which has no cold case division, for quite some time. But detectives have checked back on the case in 10-year increments, Porter County Sheriff’s Detective Capt. Jeff Biggs said.
Meanwhile, the Porter County Coroner’s records were destroyed in a flood. Only five autopsy reports remain from 1968 — the year Norma was murdered. Norma’s file is not in the pile.
And Mary’s stack of papers on the investigation that she obtained from the Porter County Sheriff’s Department in 1992 was destroyed in a fire at her home. Most of Norma’s things were destroyed in another fire at Helen’s house, with the exception of an old high school photo and an ink handprint of Norma’s that is emblazoned on a wall along with one from Mary.
Helen began stamping the ink handprints on her wall when Norma was a young girl as a way to remember her visitors. Now, she has about 1,000 handprints, and the fire that ate through some of her kitchen wall did not burn the wall behind Norma’s handprint — one bit of good luck, Helen said.
Helen offered up the handprint to police to help investigators identify the body found in the swamp in 1968. Investigators never did come to the house, and it took three months to positively ID the body, she said.
Helen also contacted the FBI to get involved, but she said no one took an interest in the case. After a few years, it seemed like no one was examining the murder.
Helen, who reflected on the bad luck surrounding the case, said she’s always wondered if Norma’s killer would take the secret to the grave.
“Maybe God doesn’t want me to know,” she said, shaking her head.
But Mary, who isn’t one to give up on a lead, believes there is still hope at capturing her mother’s killer.
From behind her computer at her home in Florida, she hopes she can finally put her mother’s memory to rest. She’s received some tips on her website that she hope will lead to a conclusion after years of searching for a resolution.
She hopes that friends and acquaintances of Norma will come forward. The chances are good that they are still alive, she said.
“It’s not something you can just put in a box and forget about,” she said.