On June 2, 1969, an electrical crew was dispatched by the Baltimore County Bureau of Highways to repair two burned-out lights in the fountain at the center of Druid Park Lake. The first man to climb the ladder and look down over the rim made a gruesome discovery: The body of a woman was lying face down in about two feet of water in a depression inside the top of the fountain. The body was quickly identified as that of Shirley Lee Wigeon Parker, a 35-year-old African-American divorcee, who’d disappeared five weeks earlier “under mysterious circumstances,” according to The Baltimore Evening Sun.

Shirley Parker was a bookkeeper, barmaid, and waitress at Baltimore’s famous Sphinx Club. Beautiful, vivacious and popular, she was a secretary in a branch of the Urban League and volunteered for the NAACP. She’d been married twice, first to a man who lived in Pennsylvania, and then to a disk jockey named Joe Parker, who owned a record store on Edmondson Avenue. She was the mother of two sons, one who lived with his father in Pennsylvania and a second, David, who lived with Shirley and her mother.

The story of Shirley Parker’s last evening contains some contradictions. Most agree she was last seen on the evening of April 23, 1969, fashionably dressed in brown hip-hugger slacks, a yellow, orange and white print blouse, a rust-colored coat and pile-lined, knee-length boots. At the time, she’d been dating (and supporting) a 33-year-old man named Arno West. The night she disappeared, Mrs. Parker had gone to meet friends at a bar on Pennsylvania Avenue where, during the evening, she’d learned that Arno West had used her paycheck to buy a pants suit for another girlfriend, a woman who worked for the Social Security Administration.

According to witnesses, Shirley stormed out of the bar around midnight and went directly to Gwynns Falls Parkway, where West lived with his mother. Neighbors say they heard the couple arguing loudly on the porch. West later told police that Shirley was “very upset,” but denied the claim that he gave her “a nasty blow.” After their fight, however, the couple seems to have calmed down. West took Shirley out to another bar, then to visit friends. According to the Afro-American newspaper, “Mrs. Parker seemed angered about some matter and that he took her for a drive to cool off.”

After the drive, West said Shirley asked him to drop her off her in Druid Hill Park, near the lake. “After she got out of the car on Cloverdale Road, near the park, and started walking, he told police he became worried and followed her,” reported the newspaper, adding that before he drove off, West noticed Shirley climbing over the 15-foot-high iron railing around the lake. He returned to the scene, then “he handed her purse to her after she was persuaded not to enter the lake.” He then drove her home, according to West, though Shirley’s mother, Theresa Wright, said Shirley never came home that night. Later that week, according to West, he noticed Shirley’s purse hanging from the inside of the railing surrounding the lake in Druid Hill Park and reported it to the police.

Those who knew her say Shirley Parker just wasn’t the kind of person to leave home with no explanation, and her family was immediately alarmed. A nationwide search led to sightings as far away as California. One woman claimed she’d seen Shirley in Baltimore the morning after she was reported missing. A Baltimore medium said she was getting vibrations in the case and promised she’d soon have an answer. She predicted that Shirley’s death “will soon reveal one of the most horrible crimes in history.” Three weeks later, baffled by the lack of clues, the police dragged the lake in Druid Hill Park, but no body was found.

That’s because Shirley’s body wasn’t in the lake, but in the fountain, where it was discovered on June 2. But what was she doing in the fountain, and how did she get there? Her body too decomposed for the coroner to determine the means of death, only to rule out several causes. She wasn’t strangled or stabbed, and she hadn’t used narcotics. “There were no needle marks, and we were particularly interested in whether she died this way,” said Dr. Edward Wilson, an assistant medical examiner, in an interview with the Afro-American. Dr. Ronald Kornblum, also an assistant medical examiner, reported to the Afro-American that the body showed no gunshot wounds, but it was “possible other indications of foul play had been washed or decayed away.” The recorded verdict was death by hypothermia, though Kornblum admits, “it is possible she was drowned before she was placed in the fountain,” though not possible that she drowned herself.

“It remains a questionable death but was never a murder,” Sgt. Roger Nolan, the supervisor of the Baltimore Police Department’s Cold Case Squad, told The Baltimore Sun.

Reportedly, Shirley was upset when she went missing, which might suggest suicide. She was a strong swimmer who’d won awards for the sport in the past. Perhaps she tried to drown herself and found it more difficult than she’d anticipated, making her way to the fountain in the middle of the lake. Did she climb up the fountain to signal for help? If so, why, in this busy park, did nobody hear her shouting? If she’d changed her mind about suicide, why not simply swim back to the bank? It’s hard to believe anyone would choose to commit suicide by sitting in the middle of a fountain until they died of hypothermia; it could take hours just to lose consciousness, especially on a hot summer night.

Yet the other possibilities seem equally remote. Some believe Shirley was drowned or knocked unconscious by Arno West, who then hid her body hidden in the middle of the fountain and, if she was still alive, left her to die. But the body bore no signs of trauma, and even though West was reportedly a strong swimmer, could he really have dragged the body of a 100-pound woman, dressed in her coat and boots, three hundred feet across the lake? Even if that were possible, could he then have pulled her body 20 feet up the long metal ladder at the side of the fountain?

Unsurprisingly, after Shirley’s body was discovered, witnesses appeared with memories they’d previously forgotten to mention. Some said they saw a rowboat on the water that night; others say they saw Arno West looking at the fountain through a pair of binoculars. West failed a lie detector test; nevertheless, he was released without charge, since no crime had been committed. According to the Afro-American, the police referred to missing links in the case, inconsistencies, and “possibilities beyond belief.”

Forty-two years later, a mystery still hangs over this act of violence or despair.

Mikita Brottman teaches literature and film studies at MICA.

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31 replies on “Lady in the Lake: The Mysterious Death of Sphinx Barmaid Shirley Parker”

  1. I remembering hearing about this in the early 70’s from a friend who lived near the park. At the time, I thought Heidi had made it up (like many an 8 year old), but the idea captured my imagination and I thought of “the body in the fountain” every time I saw it. Now I feel sad thinking of how a terrible a loss for Shirley Parker’s family was made even worse by the mysterious nature of her death.

  2. this is my grand mother and they only show me the news paper i never got to she her…..david parker is my dad and my bother name is ohigee parker my pop pop name is joe parker

    1. This often haunts me and I believe to this day she just knew too much.I was a member of the Spinx Club. This was a very affluent Club at that time, and very private No way she or anyone got over those thick spiked bars, she knew something, and someone with access opened the gate, some say she was dropped in the fountain via helicopter.

    2. This is what I remember hearing. There was a James Brown concert at the Civic Center that night and he supposedly had a helicopter and had her placed there.

    3. Wait…what? What did she know? How did nobody notice a helicopter? None of the people interviewed at the time of the incident mentioned any damn helicopter, lol

    4. miss naja aurtry, i would like to speak with you, when i read this article i was completely shocked beyond belief……i read 3 different articles about shirley parker and i feel as though there are questions that needs to be answered and justice needs to be served….i feel the case should be re-opened…..this has been bothering me for some time

    5. Wow. My David Parker (the son) is a friend of my family. When I heard about this as a child. I didn’t believe it was true. I am in awww. This is just so sad. May u Rest IN Paradise. I think this case should be re-opened.

  3. Jeez, can’t believe I’m old enough to remember this. My father & brothers worked for the Afro and this was a huge story (Right after the Dr. King murder). To this day I think about this woman and this mysterious lost of a promising life and hard working mother. RIP Ms. Parker.

    Naja I’m so sincerely sorry for you familys loss.

  4. Why hasn’t this case been on America’s unsolved mystery murder. I will never forget this case, I was 10 years old when this murder took place. May God bless Shirley’s soul.

  5. Naja. My brother and I remember this. We were 6&7 years-old at the time. Never 2 4 get! Our hearts goes out 2 u& family. If u ever thought about reopenin’ this case. Hit me on fb will try 2 help u& ur family and people of baltimore. 2 get some closure! My name is: Mary C. Wilson. God Bless 2 u& family.

  6. Just found out Naja is my sister earlier this year.David Parker is my father. Ohigee informed me that the death of our grandmother was on the internet. It breaks my heart to read this, knowing that I never got the chance to meet her. R.I.P Shirley Parker… From your granddaughter Alysia Parker

  7. Naja, you don’t know me but, the story of your grandmother had always been with me since I was 10 years old. I always thought this case should have been reopened. If you ever find yourself wanting to have it reopened by police or yourself please know that I would help you in anyway I can…Lashelle Bynum (ladorniap@yahoo.com)

  8. I remember the lights being out at the fountain because I lived at 901 Druid Lake Drive. The building was located right across from the lake and I could see the fountain/lights right from my second floor bedroom window. However I had no clue anything had taken place until her body was discovered.

  9. this story has always haunted me, as my name is shirley, and i grew up on bolton streeet, not that far from the park

  10. A dreadful story, I’m always mystified about the lake – often I look at it knowing that there are many untold stories. RIP Shirley Parker.

    – DB

  11. I remember this from when I was little girl. I met David when he use to visit his cousin Simone for the summer. I remember him telling about his mom. Every time I go to the park I think about the story he told me, it still scares me.

  12. I was 6 almost seven years old and I remember this vividly!!! I remember them finding a body in the fountain and I asked my mom how did she get alt the way out there, my mom said she wasn’t sure but the news said that she was a professional swimmer. I never knew that after all this time that they never solved this crime, I always that she did it to herself at 6 I wasn’t thinking too much about suicide.

  13. Woww!! I lived near Walbrook Junction as a little girl on Roslyn ave. My father told us all the time about the woman “who’s body was found shoved in the fountain”…This is what I remember hearing every time we drove past or visited the park. I remember being scared of the fountain until the city lit the fountain with those pretty colored lights.. I always wondered as a child, how on earth did she get out there, or who put her out there!….I heard she was swimming & got sucked in there. I heard she was murdered & taken out there in a small boat. It was so many tales….. To hear this story over 35 yrs. later is very very heartbreaking.. My condolences to her family & may her precious soul rests in peace.

  14. This is the most ridiculous excuse to render murder as a absolute denial of ignorance…my 3yr old would have had a better explanation…this is surely a insult to anyone’s intelligence; why are you showing this ignorance 47years later? YOU MAKE ME SICK..Everyone is stupid except the ones that brainstorms the laws, and the rules…smdh.

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