Ten years ago, Bill and Lena Chapman were killed in their own home on East South Bear Creek by burglars who then torched the house where the couple had lived for nearly 40 years. Police believe the killers set the fire to cover their tracks.
They have never been caught, and the Chapmans’ slayings are among the most notorious unsolved murder cases in Merced history.
Nearly every year since their deaths, members of the Chapman family have walked the streets of downtown Merced, posting fliers offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in the case. The flier includes a now-famous photograph of Bill and Lena dressed for a birthday party. They’re smiling together in their kitchen, Lena’s left arm around Bill’s shoulder, pulling him closer.
Anyone who has spent any time in downtown Merced during the past 10 years probably has seen the flier and looked at the photograph.
“We’ve been doing this ever since they were murdered,” Jim Chapman, Bill and Lena’s only son and the youngest of three children, explained.
On Friday morning, five family members walked into a pet grooming business on Canal Street, not far from the spot where their father ran his shoe store in the 1960s, and, armed with fliers, began to tell their family’s story once again.
But M’Lynn Hultgren, owner of P.S. M’Lynn Pet Salon, agreed to help before they even got started.
Yes, of course the flier can be put up at the shop, Hultgren told the family members. Hultgren, like most Mercedians, knows something about the brutal, heartbreaking story of Bill and Lena Chapman.
“Has it really been 10 years?” a woman in the store asked.
Hultgren and other business owners say they are always eager to help.
“It hits so close to home,” Hultgren said. “When it’s helpless victims; I mean, everyone has grandparents and parents. They were an innocent old couple.”
Posting the reward information around town has become an important family routine for the Chapmans’ children and grandchildren.
“We did half of downtown (Thursday), and we’ll do the other half (Friday),” Jim Chapman said.
The fliers have been posted for years at nearly every business in the downtown area, in and around shopping centers and grocery stores.
“It’s even posted in the jail,” Detective Joe Deliman said. “The fliers are working, too. We still get tips and information fairly regularly. I’d say about every three or four months or so, we’ll get some new tip or some information that we’ll follow up on.”
Public speculation causes more pain
At least four different Merced police detectives have spent several years tracking down leads, following up on phone calls, traveling to other parts of the state and even across the country looking for any information that will lead to the killers.
Investigators remain extremely careful about releasing information to the public.
Detectives have said they believe multiple intruders entered the house and were interrupted by either Bill or Lena. The couple were killed and then the fire was set, probably to destroy any evidence that could identify the killers.
Police continue to withhold other details, such as exactly how Bill and Lena were killed, where exactly in the house their bodies were found and where and how the fire started.
Deliman, the lead investigator on the case, said withholding those details is critical for detectives.
“It helps us determine the credibility of the leads and tips that we get,” Deliman said.
The Chapmans said they understand and support the decision.
“There are details even we don’t know; things we probably don’t want to know and it should be that way,” Jim Chapman said.
However, in the social media age of information on demand, many have tried to fill the factual void with wild theories and baseless, sometimes mean-spirited speculation.
Comments on websites, on the streets and at social gatherings many times have hurt the already suffering Chapman family.
There have been suggestions that someone in their family may somehow be responsible for the crime or, perhaps most devastating, some have suggested the deaths were part of a murder-suicide plot perpetrated by either Bill or Lena.
Jim’s wife, Jenny, said especially during the first few years after the slayings, the family really struggled.
“People were afraid to let their kids play with our kids because they thought it might be dangerous,” she said.
Tom Clendenin is a son-in-law to Bill and Lena. He married their second daughter, Gail, who died in 2010. Clendenin said he has even been told that, after all this time, the family should “get over it.”
Jenny Chapman said it is a hard, sad reality that many people feel a need to blame the victims of violent crimes. Perhaps, she said, it is a way of defending themselves from feeling vulnerable to the much harsher reality that sometimes people are not safe even in their own homes.
“It makes them realize that something like this could happen to anybody,” she said.
Working for justice
But the Chapman family also feels plenty of love and support from their friends and their community. Most local business owners are more than willing to post the reward fliers, usually offering kind, encouraging words.
And despite the pain of their loss and the insults they have suffered, the Chapman family remains close and steadfast in their commitment to bring those responsible to justice.
“Somebody, some place, knows what happened or multiple people know and they’re still around,” Clendenin said.
Before walking their fliers around downtown Merced on Friday, the family gathered at the site where Bill and Lena’s home used to stand. The fire gutted the home and the remains later were torn down.
A large sign on the now-gated property shows the famous photo of the Chapmans and offers the reward information.
Behind the fence, the family walked around the foundation, pointing out where the living room used to be, explaining how the kitchen was next to the garage. Farther behind the fence, several fruit trees still bear grapefruit, persimmons and pecans.
“My father loved organic gardening,” explained Karen Bohrer, the Chapman’s oldest child. She waters the trees regularly each week, and the family still enjoys the fruit. It’s one of their last remaining direct connections to Bill and Lena.
“She always cooked all the vegetables and fruit he had,” she said.
The family has kept the property, and there are no plans to let go of it.
“It’s peaceful here. We love it,” Bohrer said. “It has lots of Dad’s fruit trees. And it’s them.”
Keeping the memories alive
Walking closely together later on Friday, the family headed east on 18th Street to tell their story again, to post more of the fliers they hope will lead them to the answers they need.
“I think the community of Merced needs justice just as much as we do,” Clendenin said.
Most of the people they meet already have heard the story or at least know something about it. But, in recent years, they have run into more people who are unaware of the unsolved slayings.
So they tell the story over and over, they post their reward fliers and move on to the next business. They want everyone to know. Their family will never “get over it.” They do not want anyone to forget.
“That’s the fear,” Jim Chapman said, “that it will just fade into the background with everything else.”
Anyone with information about the case is asked to contact Detective Joe Deliman at 209-385-6992 or email@example.com. To leave an anonymous tip, call 209-385-4725. A reward of up to $50,000 is available for anyone who can provide information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killers.
Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482