The old adage about not going off with strangers was never truer than on Friday 23rd April 1954. 33-year-old WWII veteran John Dopirak, who now earned a living as a merchant seaman, was leaning against a drink stand at 12th and Market, Philadelphia, when he was approached by 38-year-old Francis Ballem. Francis seemed an intelligent man with a poetic turn of phrase and wore an alpine hat and spectacles which added to his slightly eccentric, yet bookish appearance. They struck up a conversation and, for want of anything better to do, the pair made their way to a hotel bar at 13th and Filbert where they propped up the bar until closing time. Naturally, the conversation turned towards their respective professions, and John innocently revealed that he was currently flush with money after completing a recent voyage; or perhaps it simply became clear to Ballem that this was the case, as Dopirak seemed in no hurry to leave, and was eager to keep the drinks flowing.
Once the bar closed, Dopirak and Ballem walked the streets for a while, shooting the breeze as bored young men do when they find themselves full of liquor and in the company of another fellow who seems to share their interests. They soon found themselves at the home Ballem had inherited from his parents, at 7201 Hazel Avenue, Upper Darby, where they continued to indulge in alcohol.
At some point during the evening, John excused himself and went upstairs to use the bathroom; not an unusual decision by any means, after several hours of drinking. But while he was there, he decided to have a poke around his new friend’s house, and casually rifled through Ballem’s drawers to see what he had in there. Whether his intoxication had simply made him curious and removed the inhibitions that would usually prevent someone rummaging through a person’s belongings, or whether he was still sober enough to wonder what he could get out of the situation and make off with, is a matter for speculation.
Either way, John Dopirak took a liking to a gun that he found in Ballem’s closet and pocketed it before returning downstairs, where he discovered with surprise that his host was busily examining John’s own belongings, his hands inside the pockets of the coat he had left on the sofa. This bizarre dual pilfering act was cut short when Dopirak brandished the gun and yelled, ‘I caught you robbing me, and now you’re gonna pay for it!’ which was a bit rich, given that he himself had been robbing Ballem just moments before. In reply, Ballem shouted, ‘I’m going to kill you, you thieving bastard!’
Ballem owned a number of firearms and it just so happened that he had one to hand. It is unclear which of the men fired first, but John Dopirak was fatally wounded in the abdomen by a bullet from Ballem’s gun. Rather than calling for medical assistance, Ballem fell asleep, immune to the terrible cries that were no doubt emanating from his injured guest, perhaps hoping that he would wake up in the morning to find that the incident was all a figment of his drunken imagination.
The following morning, on Saturday 24th April, Ballem found that the problem was all too real. Gradually, the clouds of his hangover lifted, leaving behind not just a headache and a sour taste in his mouth, but an inconvenient body. At some time in the night John Dopirak had died from the gunshot wound. Francis Ballem considered how to approach the situation and spent some time reading a medical dictionary over breakfast, in the hope it would give him an idea of how to dispose of the body. His pet dog bothered him while he was trying to concentrate, barking for attention and a walk, so he picked up the gun and shot it dead, its corpse falling lifelessly next to Dopirak’s, both man and dog the victims of a rash and unpredictable killer.
Ballem did not seem concerned by living with a cadaver in his home, and it was not until the next day, Sunday 25th April, that he took action. He dragged the merchant seaman’s body to the cellar, undressed him, and threw his clothes into the furnace. He then applied lime and camphor to the body to slow the decomposition process and mask the smell. Then, with cunning calculation, he used a blowtorch to burn Dopirak’s face and fingertips, thus effacing the usual methods of identification. Finally, he cut up the body into manageable pieces using a saw. There is no record of what he did with the dog. Throughout the process, he wore a pair of gloves to avoid leaving any fingerprints.
Ballem spent yet another night in the presence of the remains, then on Monday 26th April, he went to the shops and purchased a suitcase, a footlocker, and several plastic raincoats. When he returned to the cellar, he wrapped Dopirak’s head and upper torso in raincoats and placed them inside a cardboard box, then tucked the cardboard box inside the footlocker, in a ghastly caricature of a set of Russian dolls. The man’s legs and eyes were hidden in the suitcase. Ballem loaded his grisly cargo into his car and drove it to the nearby Upper Darby Park. Conveniently, the weather was wet that day, so the only eyes on him as he discarded the body parts in the picturesque, wooded area of Naylor’s Run, were those inside the suitcase belonging to the dead man. Ballem reached the top of a hilly spot, puffing and panting under the weight of his load. Feeling rather proud of himself, he pushed his funereal freight down the hill. Standing with his hands on his hips, he watched as the victim’s midsection rolled its way down towards the creek where he hoped it would sink out of sight. He watched in horror as the plastic raincoat slipped off the body section and he leapt into action, chasing it down the hill in a desperate attempt to catch it. It was too late. The torso splashed into the creek and was swept downstream. He shrugged and picked up the raincoat that had worked itself loose. No matter, he thought to himself. He would have preferred the body segment to be completed covered, to reduce the chances of discovery, but he reassured himself that there was no way it could be linked to him. He stuffed the bloody raincoat into a sewer, then calmly returned home and cleaned and reloaded his gun. He had no idea that forensic scientists would be able to prove that it had been fired recently.
The following day, Ballem took a taxi to the Red Arrow trolley station in Sharon Hill where he surreptitiously abandoned the footlocker before making his way to the Folcroft Diner. The cook, Scott Witmer, noticed that he seemed nervous. It wasn’t long before the footlocker was discovered, and its gruesome contents revealed. The police launched an investigation and within 24 hours, they had located a witness named Joseph Schaeffer who reported seeing a man wearing an alpine hat in the vicinity of where the footlocker was found. When he heard the news, Witmer put two and two together and told the police about the suspicious man who had come to the diner. The final nail in the coffin was found inside the cardboard box that contained the victim’s head: the name ‘Ballem’ was clearly written on the inside of the box. No matter how carefully he had planned the disposal of the body, he had virtually signed his name to the murder.
More reports came in to add to the mounting evidence. The cab driver who had taken Ballem to the Red Arrow trolley station read about the case in the newspaper and went to the police, explaining that the man he’d dropped off there had been wearing a distinctive alpine hat and was carrying a footlocker. Ballem’s own neighbours, perhaps having heard the gunshots over the weekend and recognising his description, reported that he was known to wear such a hat.
Ballem knew the writing was on the wall, but for reasons best known to himself, he decided not to flee the city. Instead, he crept upstairs and hid in his attic, lurking in the dark while he awaited the inevitable. He didn’t have to wait long. That night, as he crouched among the dust and cobwebs, he heard the police arrive. They hammered on the door, and when they received no response, they broke it down and searched the premises. The attic, it turned out, was not a sufficiently good hiding place. Without further ado, they found him, handcuffed him, and took him to the station for questioning.
At first, Francis denied all knowledge of the dead man, but despite his best efforts to obliterate his victim’s identity, the police managed to name him as John Dopirak. They showed Ballem a photo of the merchant seaman, at which point he admitted ghoulishly, ‘Oh yes, that’s the man. I’ll never forget that smile.’
He eventually confessed to the murder but claimed it was in self-defence after Dopirak threatened him with a gun. On Friday 30th April, he took the detectives to Naylor’s Run and pointed out the spot where he had discarded the man’s torso. It did not take a jury long to convict Ballem of murder in the first degree and it seemed clear, at least on the surface, that he had deliberately lured John Dopirak to his home with the intention of robbing him. Perhaps it might have ended there had he not been discovered, but when Dopirak caught him in the act, Ballem’s response was to eliminate the problem by killing him.
Police subsequently questioned Ballem about a series of other murders. The victims Edgar Clymer, Robert Prado, Richard Rosen, and Elmer Schroeder were thought to be gay, so it may be that law enforcement suspected Ballem himself was more interested in gentlemen than ladies. Did they wonder whether this was another part of the picture and if Ballem had killed Dopirak after making advances towards him? When asked why he spent so much time in pubs and bars talking to strangers, he claimed to be gathering information to help him write a book about such places and the patrons who frequented them.
Ballem was sentenced to death, and the case might have thereafter been relegated to a footnote in a history book, but it appeared there was still more to the story. It emerged in the papers shortly afterwards that Francis Ballem had a wife named Marcelline Deitzer, to whom he had been married for a very short time, having met when Marcelline was 21, and Francis 33. Marcelline worked at a cardboard box factory (possibly even the one which manufactured the box that Ballem had used to store his victim’s head) and love had blossomed despite Ballem’s mother disapproving of the match, as she looked down on the loud and effervescent young woman from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. Ballem’s mother even stipulated in her will that he would not inherit the $20,000 family estate if he remained married to Marcelline. The critical matriarch needn’t have worried. Their marital bliss lasted for just four months, when Ballem walked out on discovering his bride was pregnant. After Marcelline gave birth to their daughter, he occasionally visited them, frequently beating her when he did so and even trying to kill the child, on one occasion by hanging her on a clothesline.
A month before the murder of John Dopirak, Ballem had tried to reconcile with Marcelline, but she had refused, wanting nothing more to do with the man she described as having an erratic ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality. Shortly afterwards, a strange man started following her and making threatening phone calls, which alarmed her so much that she and her daughter moved in with relatives for safety. Matters grew stranger still when she was contacted by a woman calling herself ‘Cookie’, who claimed to be having an affair with Francis. ‘Cookie’ was unwilling to reveal her real name, hinting that she was the relative of a prominent local politician whose reputation would be at risk if the dalliance were to be exposed. But her reason for calling Marcelline was to warn her that Francis had hired a man to kill her. Suddenly, the incidents involving the strange man and the threatening phone calls made sense.
After Ballem’s conviction for shooting Dopirak, Marcelline was shown a photograph of the victim and everything became clear. The man in the photo, whom her ex-husband had chopped into pieces and stowed in a footlocker, was the one who had been following her. This shed a whole new light on the case, casting doubt over the story of John and Francis chancing upon each other at a drink stand and a conversation being struck up between two strangers. It now appeared that they were already known to each other, and Ballem had decided to do away with Dopirak to make sure nobody discovered that he had hired him to murder his wife. It is also possible that Dopirak was blackmailing Ballem, prompting him to put an end to their business association with a deadly finality.
Three years after Ballem was sentenced to death, Governor George Leader commuted the penalty to life in prison. This peculiarly gory case should act as a cautionary tale, as so many true crime stories do, that just because a gentleman is wearing spectacles, an alpine hat, and a friendly smile, it is not necessarily a good idea to go drinking with him – particularly if he has recently hired you to murder his wife.