Her sister's killer
The Justice Story
By Mara Bovsun - NYDailyNews.com
Sunday, April 1st 2007
She was just sweet 16 and, on a cold Sunday, March
20, 1949, Patricia Birmingham gave the firefighters of West Allis, Wis.,
the surprise of their lives.
They had been summoned to the Milwaukee River by a
truck driver who said he had seen a woman jump into the water. Two other
men called at the same time, reporting that they had also seen the woman
and tried to toss her a lifeline, but she refused to grasp it, and
slipped under the water.
Firefighters immediately started dragging the river.
They found no trace of the suicide. But they did not
go away empty-handed; their grappling hooks pulled up two items of
interest. One was a maroon bicycle. The other was what detectives would
later call a "one chance in a million discovery" - a corpse, female, but
clearly no suicide. She had been shot in the head, and around her legs
was an ankle bracelet of cloth and wire attached to a 38-pound building
Within minutes of pulling her out, the firefighters
were certain this corpse was what was left of a high-profile missing
person - Patricia Birmingham, the pretty teenager who had vanished 38
days earlier. Her parents later confirmed the identity.
As firefighters continued looking for the suicide,
eventually finding the body of Florence Wynne, 42, detectives started to
probe the Birmingham murder mystery. Retracing the girl's steps on the
last day anyone saw the pretty brunette alive, Feb. 10, they determined
that the route she took home from school passed by a house that had been
burglarized that same afternoon. Perhaps she had recognized one of the
burglars, police theorized, and the crooks had decided she had to be
'Wed or dead?'
Suspicion fell on four teenage troublemakers, members
of a gang of juvenile thieves, who knew the victim from school.
Hours of questioning, however, yielded nothing, and
the next day, police started tracking a new lead.
"Wed or Dead? Sister of Slain Girl Is Hunted Through
Nation," was the Daily News headline on March 23.
Pat's older sister Kathleen, 17, had vanished two
days before the body had been pulled from the river.
Kathleen had left her parents a note, saying that she
had eloped with her sweetheart, Milton Babich, 19. They had been
planning it for some time, she wrote, but when Pat disappeared, they put
their marriage on hold.
"By the time you get this you will probably already
know that we've left to get married. I hope this won't cause the
confusion and trouble Pat caused - we don't want to cause any worry, you
know," Kathleen wrote.
Milwaukee police put out a warrant for the runaway
lovers, accusing Babich of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
But they weren't sure whether they would find a "happy newlywed or
another victim of a killing plot," according to The News.
It turned out that the lovebirds had not flown far.
First stop was Kalamazoo, Mich., where they had been married, then on to
a roominghouse in Minneapolis. Police were waiting for them there when
they returned home, arms filled with groceries. Kathleen burst into
tears when she saw the uniforms, weeping because she feared they were
going to arrest her for marrying before her 18th birthday.
But the cops were only interested in Babich,
specifically what he had been doing the day that Patricia had
disappeared. Detectives had learned that Babich and the dead girl had
scheduled an after-school rendezvous, so he could ask for her help in
smoothing out a problem he was having with his beloved. The two had
quarreled, and Babich wanted the sister to intervene.
Babich told police that he never kept the appointment.
Around 2 p.m., he said, he had stopped by the lingerie shop where
Kathleen worked. "She was all smiles," Babich said. Seeing no need for
help patching up the quarrel, he broke his date with the younger sister.
Witnesses, however, cast doubt on his story. Several
had seen him in his father's car, driving past the Birmingham home
sometime between 3:30 and 4, around the time Pat disappeared. Another
witness, Pat's school friend Ruth Miller, said that they had walked home
together, parting about 6 blocks from her home. "I've got to hurry,"
Ruth recalled Pat saying, "because I'm going to meet Milton Babich."
By the time the new Mr. and Mrs. Babich, escorted by
police, arrived home in West Allis, the focus was narrowing on the
bridegroom. His story was inconsistent. And, when his bride wasn't
weeping, she also contradicted herself.
After 48 hours of grueling interrogation and four
days after she had been pulled from her watery grave, detectives learned
what happened to Patricia Birmingham. Babich had killed her.
It had all been an accident, Babich told them. Late
in December, Patricia had learned something about her sister, something
deeply humiliating. Kathleen was pregnant. The couple had hoped to keep
it a secret, but there was no chance of that once Pat found out.
She started blabbing, spreading the news all over the
school. No amount of pleading could get her to shut up.
In early February, Babich decided something had to be
done. Murder was never on his mind, he said, but he bought a pistol
anyway and made a date to talk with Pat.
On Feb. 10, Babich had picked her up in his father's
car. The gun had been tucked into the glove compartment. He drove to a
secluded spot, and begged her to stop spreading the news about
Kathleen's delicate condition.
"She just laughed," Babich said.
"I took the gun out of the glove compartment and laid
it on the seat between us, just to scare her. But she thought it was a
toy pistol and grabbed for the barrel. I tried to get it away from her
and the gun went off. She slumped over."
Disposing of the body
Babich sat in the car for a half an hour, with the
corpse by his side. Then he started driving. Passing a construction site,
he came up with a way to dispose of his one-time future in-law. He stole
a concrete block and tied her legs to it with wire and strips of an old
shirt that had belonged to his father, which he found in the trunk. Then
he drove to the Milwaukee River and tossed the weighted corpse from a
dock that was used to dispose of snow.
There she may well have stayed, telling no tales, had
it not been for a despondent woman who wanted to end her life.
Despite the confession, Kathleen stood by her man,
putting the blame on her sister. "Patricia was a little devil and liked
to tease," she told reporters through tears after her husband's
It did not take long for the jury to find Babich
guilty of murder in the first degree, which carried a life sentence. His
bride screamed and collapsed when the verdict was announced after a
deliberation of just 75 minutes.
"Gosh, I'll be an old man before I get out," said
Babich, now convict No. 30816, as he entered the prison in Waupun, Wis.,
on June 21, 1949. He was behind bars when, a little more than a month
later, Kathleen gave birth to their daughter.
His wife vowed to wait for him, even if she had to
raise their child on her own. As it turned out, she did not have to wait
all that long.
Babich took advantage of every educational and rehab
program offered, was an exemplary prisoner, and earned a parole in less
than nine years.
In February 1958, Babich stepped out of prison,
heading for a new home and a new life in an undisclosed state.
Newspapers reported that wherever it was, his faithful wife and his
child were already there, waiting for him.