The Lexington Police Department’s Cold Case Unit works to investigate serious crimes that remain unsolved. Many of the cases are homicides, but all leave victims without justice — sometimes decades have passed since the crime was committed. These stories are part of an ongoing series on unsolved crimes in Lexington. Anyone with information about any of the cases is encouraged to contact the Lexington Police Department at 859-258-3700.
On July 5, 1965, 39-year-old Mary Marrs Cawein was found dead in her bedroom, the victim of a bizarre murder dubbed at the time the “carbolic acid cocktail murder.” Now, 46 years later, no one has ever been charged and her murder remains unsolved. This is the third of three stories detailing the case. To read the first story in this series, click here, for the second story, click here.
It was a cool February in La Mirada, Calif., when two Lexington Police Department detectives approached an 83-year-old woman in her garage and asked if she had a moment to speak to them.
Dr. Emma J. Lappat was apparently a little terse with Lt. James Curless and detective Chris Schoonover when they explained why they were there: Nearly 44 years after the murder of a Lexington woman, they were still working on the case in the hopes that new light could be shed on the happenings of July 5, 1965.
Lappat was one of the key players in the investigation into the murder of Mary Marrs Cawein — along with Cawein’s husband, Dr. Madison Cawein; Madison Cawein’s mistress, Barbara Leapman (Lappat was also reported to be a former mistress of Cawein’s); Leapman’s husband, Dr. Hershell Leapman; and several others.
Lappat testified in a grand jury investigation into Mary Cawein’s death. There are newspaper photos of her allegedly assaulting a photographer at the time of the investigation. Her name appears dozens, if not hundreds, of times on reports in the murder investigation files still held at the Lexington Police Department.
She was accused of threatening Madison Cawein’s latest mistress at the time of his wife’s death in 1965. She was accused of keeping tabs on Cawein and Barbara Leapman, day and night. She reportedly set up a meeting with Leapman’s husband and told him about the affair between Madison Cawein and Barbara Leapman.
But this day, Feb. 2, 2009, when she was approached by Curless and Schoonover, Lappat denied even knowing Madison Cawein.
“We asked if we could go inside the residence and sit and talk,” Curless wrote in a report regarding the encounter. “However, she wanted to stay inside the garage.
“We explained that we were investigating an old case and I asked if she knew Dr. (Madison) Cawein.
“Dr. Lappat stated no.”
The investigators pointed out that she had worked with him as a doctor in Lexington, and she relented somewhat, saying, “she didn’t know him real well.”
The back and forth between the detectives and Lappat went on for a few minutes until the woman became flushed and asked them to step out of her garage.
When the investigators asked Lappat about the affair with Madison Cawein, the interview came to a grinding halt.
“Dr. Lappat stated that Dr. Cawein did not portray himself as being married,” Curless wrote in the report.
Lappat then closed the garage door and when Schoonover explained they were conducting a homicide investigation, “Dr. Lappat stated that she was appalled that we were there wasting tax money and cannot understand why we were here asking her questions.”
A memorandum on the 2009 interview with Lappat was entered into the murder case file, one more piece of paper amongst countless others.
And now it is just one more stumbling block in a case that is already extremely difficult to investigate due simply to the passing of decades. Another interview with Lappat is now impossible. She died on Nov. 28, 2010.
Sorting through the evidence
Thousands of pages of evidence — interviews, crime scene photos, tips, leads, etc. — where complied as detectives in 1965 dove into the mystery surrounding Mary Cawein’s murder.
And as they started to examine things more closely, questions started to arise about Madison Cawein’s version of events the morning of his wife’s death. He initially told investigators that nothing, including the beer can and partially-filled glass of bourbon, was on the table next to his wife’s body when he found her.
According to statements from family friend Sam Strother Jr., though, one of Madison Cawein’s first actions upon finding his wife’s lifeless body was to dispose of the glass of bourbon and beer can.
“When (Madison Cawein) and I arrived, he went straight in and checked her and he handed me a glass and the beer can and I took it to the kitchen where there was a fifth of whiskey on the cabinet with the stopper still out,” Strother said in his statement to police.
In another account given to investigators, Strother says Madison Cawein was very specific when he handed him the glass and can, saying “here, dispose of this.”
Madison Cawein’s story changed dramatically during an Aug. 7, 1965 interview with investigators. At that time, he goes into detail about finding the alcohol containers next to his wife.
“(Cawein) states that there was a glass and a beer can next to her and that he checked the glass and smelled of it, but that he didn’t find anything wrong with it and gave both containers to Sam (Strother) to dispose of,” Cawein is reported to have said.
Cawein also told investigators at one point that even though he was a practicing physician, “as far as he knew, there was no medicine (or) drugs” in the house. He went into detail about how any hazardous chemicals — of which, carbolic acid would be considered one — had been removed from his home. His 15-year-old son’s chemistry set was disposed of recently, his medical kit was always kept locked in his car or at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, and “he even disposed of some spray that was used to spray his roses at his residence as a precautionary measure for his two children.”
Crime scene photos paint a completely different picture, showing a veritable pharmacy of medications found at the Cawein house. Additionally, when Dr. William Winternitz arrived at the scene when Mary Cawein’s body was first found, he noted that “some type of medication was in the bathroom and that Dr. Cawein stated that it was his.”
Another part of the mystery were two fresh injection sites, one on each thigh, found on Mary Cawein’s body. What was injected into her remains a mystery.
The official autopsy report indicates that methylparaben (a preservative) was found at the injection site on her right thigh, but no other information on the sites was listed. The carbolic acid listed as the cause of Cawein’s death was ingested, not injected.
When speaking to authorities, Madison Cawein said there were no syringes anywhere near his wife’s body when she was found.
According to a later report by police, contrary to what Madison Cawein initially said, a syringe was found in a drawer in the bedside table next to the Mary Cawein’s body — one that had Madison Cawein’s fingerprints on it.
In that report, Cawein tells investigators that the presence of the syringe was questionable.
“(Madison Cawein) states he doesn’t know how the needle got there or if it was there at the time of death or not,” the report said. “(He) states that he feels the needle was planted, but doesn’t know why or by whom.”
Death by carbolic acid
It only takes a small dose of carbolic acid to kill a person, but it does not work right away . And while it could be easy to assume that the poison found in Mary Cawein’s body came from her last drink of the night — the one found half-consumed next to her lifeless body — it is possible the carbolic acid was consumed earlier in the night.
Carbolic acid “is pretty nasty stuff,” said Dr. Greg Davis, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Kentucky. “It can manifest itself fairly quickly, but not instantly.”
Because of that, the poison could have been consumed while Mary Cawein was still at the Idle Hour County Club.
“Oh, it’s possible, sure,” said Davis, who is also an assistant state medical examiner. “There’s no way for me to rule that out.”
And if Cawein was suffering from the effects of carbolic acid poisoning earlier in the night, the people around her would most likely not notice because the early symptoms are very similar to those caused by alcohol intoxication.
As the symptoms progressed, though, Cawein would have likely lapsed into a coma and eventually her heart would stop beating.
Davis explained that Mary Cawein’s level of intoxication was so high — .4 percent — that she would probably not notice herself.
That amount of alcohol, “for a teetotaler would kill you outright,” he said. “She probably was a fairly heavy social drinker.”
The murderer probably knew about Mary Cawein’s drinking habits, and they probably also knew about the symptoms of carbolic acid poisoning.
“If you’re going to kill somebody, it’s a clever way of doing it,” Davis said. “A person who’s already intoxicated may barely feel it or think it’s part and parcel with the intoxication.
“And the people around her would blow it off as being drunk as well.”
The 2011 case
Speaking recently from his office at the Lexington Police Department in downtown Lexington, Curless explained how the Cawein murder was a bit of a spectacle when the murder took place more than four decades ago.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “It was a major homicide investigation.”
Detectives spent a “tremendous amount of time” working on the case, which is obvious when he brings out the case file, both volumes of it.
But even with so much evidence and testimony at their fingertips, investigators today are still no closer to solving the crime than back in 1965. And it’s not for lack of trying.
“Most of the people involved with this (case) are deceased,” Curless said.
In the mid-1960s when the case was being actively investigated, a grand jury opened an investigation into the case and compelled witnesses to testify about the murder. But no one was ever arrested or charged.
Lappat was one person still around, albeit in California, when investigators decided to take another hard look at the Cawein case.
“After reading the case file, she became a person I wanted to interview,” Curless said.
Curless and Schoonover went into the meeting with Lappat with high hopes. “I was hoping she would sit down and offer some information about the case,” Curless said. But it was not to be.
And as a detective, it pains Curless to have a case like the Cawein murder left open and lacking an answer.
“It’s a very unfortunate case because it went unsolved,” he said.
He believes that investigators in the 1960s were not far from cracking the case, maybe just one interview they missed, or a piece of evidence that went overlooked.
“I like to think they were on the heels of solving it,” Curless said.
Investigators would like to be the people to pick up the case and conduct that interview, or find that missing piece of evidence, but it is a nearly impossible task. All the Lexington Police Department has is the original case file, and while expansive, there are things Curless would like to have answers to.
“Do I have questions when I read through it?” he asked. “I do.
“But that happens when you look at any investigation.”
But there may still be some questions that have answers in the Mary Marrs Cawein murder, so detectives will continue to look until there is simply nothing left to be done.
Even now, almost 47 years after the murder, investigators are still interested in talking to anyone who might have any information about Mary Cawein’s murder.
“We’d certainly be wiling to sit down and talk to them,” Curless said.
Anyone with information on the case can contact Curless at 859-258-3700.
This case is no different than any other as far as the Lexington Police Department is concerned — it is an open murder investigation and the plan is to bring Mary Cawein some justice.
“(It’s) a very tragic case, and certainly one that compels you to want to solve it,” Curless said.
Special thanks to the Lexington Police Department for allowing KyForward.com access to files pertaining to this case.