When eccentric heiress Helen Brach vanished seven years ago, she left behind a mystery that Agatha Christie might have envied. The story involves burned diaries, psychic phenomena, an empty grave, forged checks, a meat grinder and a pink Cadillac. But for all its titillating drama, The Mystery of the Missing Heiress still lacks one element critical to its solution: a body.
The mystery began on Thursday, February 17, 1977, when Brach, then 65, checked out of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. with a clean bill of health. According to evidence that has emerged during various police and private investigations since her disappearance, most likely she got into a taxi and headed for the local airport. Her houseman, Jack Matlick, now 52, says he picked her up at Chicago’s O’Hare airport later that day, spent much of the weekend with her at her 18-room mansion in Chicago’s pricey Glenview suburb, and then drove her back to O’Hare in time for her to catch a Monday morning flight to Florida, where she owned a condo. But Brach never arrived in Florida. Indeed, friends who called her in Glenview on that weekend were unable to get her on the phone. Matlick answered and gave them a variety of conflicting stories.
That wasn’t his only strange behavior. During the course of the weekend Matlick scrubbed down the maid’s room in Brach’s mansion, had one of her Cadillacs washed inside and out, and ordered a meat-grinder attachment from one of Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department stores. Matlick also cashed six checks supposedly written by Brach; they totaled $13,000. Later Brach’s accountant noticed that the signature on the checks wasn’t hers. Matlick claimed they looked odd because the lid of a large trunk had hurt Brach’s wrist. Experts determined that the signatures were not Matlick’s, further confusing the issue.
Still, many of those involved with the case suspect that Matlick, who is now living in Glenshaw, Pa., knows more than he’s saying about his missing boss. He had come into the Brachs’ employ 20 years before her disappearance, while Helen’s husband, Frank Brach, co-founder of his family’s candy company, was still alive. After Frank died in 1970, Matlick became Helen’s right-hand man and confidant, to the point of sometimes wearing her glasses when he read. Matlick, who spent 21 months in prison for car theft in his late teens, did not report Brach’s disappearance to police for nearly two weeks. During the initial police investigation, he reportedly failed a lie detector test twice when he was asked, “Do you know where Mrs. Brach is?” But no charges have ever been filed against Matlick in connection with Brach’s disappearance.
Brach’s brother, Charles Vorhees, who stands to gain the income from $500,000 of his sister’s estate, once offered a $250,000 reward for proof of her whereabouts, alive or dead. On the other hand, Vorhees may also have contributed to the mystery. He admits that upon hearing of Helen’s disappearance but before an investigation had been mounted, he and Matlick burned her diaries and “automatic writings,” notes she made by holding a pencil tightly and letting “psychic forces” guide her hand. Explained Vorhees of the lost evidence, “I don’t think Helen would have wanted anyone to see them.”
Finally, at least one person—and perhaps only a prankster—thinks Brach’s disappearance was the work of Richard Bailey, a local horse dealer from whom she had bought $300,000 worth of Thoroughbreds. There is some speculation that Brach felt Bailey had cheated her and planned to sue him. In 1978 two red spray-painted messages appeared on the road near Brach’s house. “Bailey killed Brach,” read one. “Richard Bailey knows where Mrs. Brach’s body is! Stop him! Please!” proclaimed the other. Under subpoena in 1979 Bailey repeatedly took the Fifth Amendment, even when asked if he knew Helen Brach.
Seven years after Brach’s disappearance, police are not much nearer a solution than they were after the first weeks of investigation. Of course, she might have had an accident or killed herself, although there is no evidence to suggest either. This week a Chicago court, after four days of testimony, is scheduled to decide whether to declare Helen Brach legally dead. If it does, her fortune, now grown to more than $40 million, will be dispersed according to her will: the $500,000 trust fund to Charles Vorhees, a $50,000 annuity to Jack Matlick and much of the rest to aid for animals.