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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Accidental?
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: February 10, 1949
Date of arrest: March 24, 1949
Date of birth: 1930
Victim profile: Patricia Birmingham, 16 (his wife's sister)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison on June 21, 1949. Released on February 1958

Her sister's killer

The Justice Story

By Mara Bovsun -

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 block.

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 silenced.

'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 arraignment.

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.




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