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Book excerpt: ‘Who Killed the Candy Lady’

First of two parts

Adapted with permission from “Who Killed the Candy Lady?” by James Ylisela Jr., Agate Publishing, 2014. Available at Amazon.com.

On Thursday morning, Feb. 17, 1977, Helen Vorhees Brach walked out of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and disappeared forever.

The 65-year-old Brach had spent eight days at Mayo, getting a full but routine examination.

At 9 a.m., Brach stopped at the Buckskin boutique on her way out of the clinic and used her American Express card to buy a soap dish and jewelry box for friends in Florida.

From that moment on, Helen Brach’s life — and presumed death — has been shrouded in mystery.

Born in the Appalachian hills of southeastern Ohio, the former Helen Vorhees grew up in what people used to call modest circumstances. She believed herself destined for a life of glamour far beyond the Ohio Valley. When her first marriage ended in divorce, she left home to seek her fortune.

Her travels eventually took her to the Indian Creek Country Club in Miami Beach, where, working as a coat-check girl, she had a chance encounter with Frank V. Brach, owner of E.J. Brach & Sons, the multimillion-dollar Chicago candy company.

The 60-year-old Brach had already worked his way through two wives. At 38, Helen was on the wrong side of her prime. But the two hit it off. A year later, in 1951, Helen Vorhees became the third Mrs. Frank Brach.

The Brachs traveled, went to fashionable parties and kept houses in Glenview and Fort Lauderdale. Frank liked the ponies, and he introduced his wife to the beauty of horseflesh and the thrill of the racetrack.

When Frank Brach died in 1970, he left his 57-year-old widow an estate worth about $20 million — about $120 million in today’s dollars — which made her one of the wealthiest residents of the Chicago area.

By now matronly and taken to wearing a red wig, Brach was also a bit of an eccentric. She consulted a psychic and engaged in “automatic writing,” a practice in which the writer channels a spiritual source.

She enjoyed an active social life, and in 1973 a friend introduced her to a dapper stable owner named Richard Bailey. Brach was 61; Bailey was 44.

For Bailey, meeting Helen Brach was like hitting the daily double. She was rich and loved horses; Bailey owned a stable and was very fond of other people’s money.

Today, Bailey, now in his 80s, is nearing his third decade in a federal penitentiary. He represents the federal government’s best argument that one of Chicago’s greatest murder mysteries — the disappearance and presumed death of candy heiress Helen Vorhees Brach — has been solved.

Bailey sits in prison having never been convicted of Brach’s murder, though. Instead, federal prosecutors convinced a judge in a fraud case they had a preponderance of evidence to show Bailey also conspired to kill Brach. That sent Bailey to prison probably for the rest of his days — or, if he lives that long, until his early 90s.

Bailey was dating Brach when she disappeared and may, in fact, have killed her or conspired with others who carried out the deed. He may also be innocent, at least of that crime. There is an uncomfortable amount of evidence that suggests someone else may have murdered the heiress and disposed of her body.

Brach disappeared in February 1977. I came into this story about two decades later. In the years since, I’ve pored over court documents and police and FBI files and interviewed dozens of people.

I haven’t solved the mystery, but I’ve combed the record closely enough to build two plausible scenarios to explain Brach’s disappearance and presumed murder.

One is elaborate, a bit messy, and implicates many people — including Bailey, though not in Brach’s murder.

The other is clean and simple and focuses on Brach’s longtime houseman, John “Jack” Matlick.

Both explanations have strong evidence behind them.

The two prime suspects

The case of the missing candy heiress has inspired books, magazine articles, several made-for-TV movies, an episode of “Law and Order” and endless conjecture. What it has not produced is a clear, provable explanation of what happened to Helen Vorhees Brach.

Despite Richard Bailey’s 1995 imprisonment, the Glenview Police Department and the Cook County state’s attorney still consider the Brach case an open murder investigation.

After Brach’s disappearance, the police had little to work with. “Without a body you, don’t have a case,” Glenview police chief William Bartlett said in 1977.

Money seemed a likely motive. Among those who may have coveted Brach’s fortune, two prime suspects emerged: Bailey and Matlick.

Questioned early on about Brach’s disappearance, both acted in ways that only increased the suspicions of police.

In 1975, Bailey and his brother P.J. sold Brach three racehorses for $98,000, though they had paid only $18,000 for them. Brach’s friends later said she felt cheated and was planning to go to the authorities when she disappeared. Questioned by police, Richard Bailey lied and said he had had no business dealings with Brach. (P.J. Bailey died in 2001.)

In 1979, Bailey took the Fifth Amendment during a deposition about her estate.

Someone apparently wanted suspicion to fall on Bailey. In 1978, two messages appeared on the road near Brach’s estate, in bright red spray paint. The first stated, “Bailey Killed Brach.” The second read: “Richard Bailey Knows Where Mrs. Brach’s Body Is. Stop Him! Please!”

Bailey had been in Florida when Brach disappeared — there was no question about that. Bailey told authorities that after returning to Chicago, he called Brach’s house several times but never reached her.

He later told me he figured she had dumped him and moved on — an unconvincing explanation from someone who once called Brach “the goose that laid the golden egg.”

More circumstantial evidence pointed at Matlick. At the time of Brach’s disappearance, he lived rent-free with his wife and three daughters in a Schaumburg farmhouse owned by the heiress. Raised by an aunt after his father abandoned the family, Matlick never finished high school and, in his late teens, spent 21 months in prison for car theft.

Matlick had few friends and a sour disposition, and yet he had worked for Frank Brach for nearly two decades as a handyman, groundskeeper and sometime chauffeur. After Frank died, Helen kept Matlick on to help her run the household, paying him $1,000 a month. Matlick told police Helen depended on him to advise her on a variety of matters.

He told them he had picked up Brach at O’Hare at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 17, after her visit to the Mayo Clinic, and brought her back to the Glenview mansion. Records show 22 calls going in or out of the Brach home, and Matlick made or answered all of them. He said he told the callers, including Bailey, Brach couldn’t come to the phone and would call back. Brach’s friends told investigators she wouldn’t have made it through a day, much less the weekend, without gabbing on the phone.

That weekend, workmen hired by Matlick tore out the rug in the foyer of Brach’s living room and repainted the walls. The houseman later claimed Brach had ordered the work done.

No progress

Matlick said he drove Brach back to O’Hare at 7:10 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 21, to fly to Fort Lauderdale, pulled up to the Northwest Orient terminal, set her luggage on the curb and wished her a good trip.

But the first flight to Fort Lauderdale wasn’t until 9 a.m., and Brach’s friends said she never went to the airport early and rarely flew in the morning. There is no evidence Brach ever bought a ticket for a flight that day. Her friend in Florida who always picked her up from the airport said Brach never told her she was coming.

Matlick failed two polygraph exams and later pleaded the Fifth Amendment in front of a grand jury investigating Brach’s disappearance.

But in all the years that followed, authorities seemed to lose interest in him as a suspect.

In May 1984, Cook County Circuit Judge Henry Budzinski declared Brach legally dead, setting the date of her death at Feb. 17, 1977. Budzinski ruled that Matlick’s account of that weekend “totally lacks credibility.”

Matlick didn’t fare much better in 1986 and 1987, when he appeared again before Judge Budzinski as part of continuing litigation over Brach’s estate. Matlick admitted he had quarreled with Brach on the evening of her first night home. She was angry, he testified, because he had sold a 1963 Cadillac she had given him.

Matlick testified he told Brach he was having financial problems, and she was sympathetic and wrote him 13 checks totaling $13,117.40. Matlick used one of the checks, for $2,869, to pay off his car loan, and another $3,000 to satisfy gambling debts. Authorities later concluded the checks were forgeries but could never determine they were in Matlick’s handwriting.

Matlick stood to collect a $50,000 annuity provided for him in Brach’s will, but he gave up that claim in 1993. In return, Cook County prosecutors agreed to drop efforts to recover $90,000 they said he stole from Brach’s estate.

Dogged by the press, Matlick divorced, moved to Pennsylvania and got married a third time. After that wife died in 2004, he moved to Pittsburgh to live with his youngest daughter. Bitter, sick and reclusive, he died on Valentine’s Day 2011, a few days shy of the 34th anniversary of Brach’s disappearance. Whatever he knew about her death, Matlick took to his grave.

Coming Monday: How con man got 20 years for Brach death — without being convicted of killing her.

About the author: James Ylisela Jr. is a longtime Chicago journalist and teacher. He has written for the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune and been a contributing writer to Chicago magazine. He taught journalism in the graduate school at Northwestern University’s Medill School for 13 years.

James Ylisela Jr.