Thomas McKown, a 27-year-old ex-Marine, drove off one night in a Chevy Chevelle from his home on Fontana Ave. in Chesapeake, Va., and simply never returned.
At least that's the story his wife told police when she reported him missing on Jan. 7, 1969.
Cora McKown, 22, a lithe brunette who favored hip-hugging pencil skirts and stiletto heels, went door to door, asking about her husband.
"He just walked out of the house and said he'd be back," she explained.
That struck the missing man's friends as unlikely.
McKown, known as Timmy, seemed happy to rejoin civilian life after a taxing tour of duty in Vietnam. He found a decent job as a welder on a military base and doted on the couple's 3-year-old daughter, Natalie.
The McKowns married in 1965 in Cora's native southern California, when she was the teenage daughter of a prominent Long Beach builder, and he was doing his patriotic chore at Camp Pendleton.
The vanished dad drew a shrug from Chesapeake police -- just another low-priority missing person.
But the gumshoes got motivated two months along, on March 8, when a headless, handless male corpse bobbed up in an Elizabeth River marsh in Portsmouth, six miles from McKown's home.
The remains were rope-bound and bundled into a handmade quilt. The victim had been stabbed to death -- overkilled, cops said -- before decapitation.
Cora McKown identified the body as her runaway husband.
In a series of chats with detectives, she acknowledged that it was her quilt, a wedding gift from her grandmother. She also confirmed scuttlebutt that she had been "going together" with another man.
Finally, she sat down with police and wrote a confession, admitting that she had killed, carved up and sunk her husband.
As she finished, she scrawled "THIS IS ALL A LIE" on the document and started over. The second edition blamed her boyfriend, Henry Clere, 25, a used car salesman with a criminal record and a spouse of his own.
She said Clere barged into her home and killed Timmy and that she lied about his disappearance because Clere threatened her and the toddler daughter, a witness to the murder.
Both McKown and Clere were charged with murder on March 13, the day that Timmy McKown's Chevelle was grappled out of the river in Portsmouth. His head and hands were never found.
At arraignment, reporters described the widow McKown as "weary" and Clere as "almost cocky."
They faced separate trials later that year.
Cora McKown took a risky turn in the witness stand, where she came off as not-so-innocent, owning up to a promiscuous lifestyle.
Prosecutors entered both of her confessions into evidence, which also included a love-triangle warhorse: a $10,000 life insurance policy Cora took on Timmy months before his murder. She claimed the policy was the fruit not of a murder conspiracy but of her affair with a persuasive insurance salesman.
She cast her departed husband as a sexual sadist who beat her because "he knew it excited me." She alleged he compelled her to have sex with several other men.
As the brief trial drew to a close, the Virginian-Pilot newspaper ridiculed Cora as a delusional damsel who saw cruelty everywhere but in the mirror.
The jury seemed to agree, convicting her of murder in barely an hour. She was sent to prison for life.
Cora was back on the witness stand a few months later for Henry Clere's two-day murder trial.
She shared top billing with Clere's attractive wife, Judy, who gave her tomcat husband an alibi, testifying he was at home with her for once -- in bed -- at the hour of the murder.
His lover disagreed, saying that Clere was up to his elbows in blood at her home. A bloody scarf found in Clere's home was a physical link, and his moral compass was called into question by both his affair and rap sheet.
In 1968, Clere was convicted of posing as a vice cop to get into a women's apartment in Chesapeake. Sentenced to five years in prison, he was free pending appeal when McKown was killed.
Clere was convicted of McKown's murder and condemned to die. An appeal saved him from execution in 1970, and he was among 629 U.S. death row inmates whose sentences were commuted to life when the death penalty was scuttled in 1972.
His sentence still proved terminal: Clere died in prison in 2008.
That was not the case with Cora McKown. Court wags were shocked in January 1982 when Virginia Gov. John Dalton, on his last day in office, commuted her sentence, citing "this woman's outstanding achievements and record during her incarceration."
Still just 35, she had served 13 years for conniving the murder of her spouse. She soon returned to California, where she remarried and settled into a comfortable life.
That grated on her daughter, Natalie Geis, who was raised by an aunt.
She told the Virginian-Pilot in 2008 that she had struggled to find normalcy in her life, shadowed by dark memories of her father's violent end 50 years ago.
"She's...got a nice big house in a nice quiet town," Geis said of Cora. "She's got it all. I mean, how dare you brush yourself off and walk away?"
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