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John Lawrence Markle (1941–1987)

John Lawrence Markle was the perpetrator of a headline-grabbing crime in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in November 1987. The son of Academy Award–winning actress Mercedes McCambridge, Markle murdered his wife and two daughters before taking his own life on November 16, 1987.

John Markle was born on December 25, 1941, in Hollywood, California, to Mercedes McCambridge and William Fifield. McCambridge was a radio actress who eventually moved into films, and Fifield was a writer. They divorced in 1946, and when McCambridge remarried in 1950, her second husband, film and television director Fletcher Markle, adopted the boy. John Markle was eight when his mother, who would become known to a later generation through her role as the voice of the demon in The Exorcist, won the Academy Award for best supporting actress in All the King’s Men, the 1949 film that was also named best picture.

Markle, while said to be brilliant, had an uneven home life as a young person. He earned a master’s from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1968, and married Christina Mull in July of that year. He continued graduate studies in economics at UCLA, ultimately earning a PhD in 1973. By that time, he had joined Salomon Brothers’ Dallas, Texas, office, starting there in 1972.

Markle and his wife had two daughters, and the family moved to Little Rock in 1979 after he went to work for Stephens, Inc., as essentially a one-man futures-trading department. Markle became a vice president after only eight months (faster than any previous associate), and the early performances of his accounts were exceptional. Friends called him a devoted family man, although they noted that, while his wife and daughters were involved in a range of community activities, the family was very private.

After the murders, a fuller story emerged. When questions had been raised about some of his accounts, Markle had been put on medical leave by Stephens in early October while the accounts were reviewed. That investigation, which led to the discovery of an extensive embezzlement scheme involving accounts belonging to his mother, resulted in Markle being fired on November 13, 1987.

It appears that the murder/suicide that took place three days later was not a spontaneous act. For example, the film Nightmare on Elm Street was in the home’s VCR, and multiple guns were used in the murders. Markle had voided his previous will only days before, replacing it with a handwritten one that made no provision for his wife or children, which indicated that his own death was to follow theirs.

Markle had, in fact, left a suicide note that acknowledged that he had murdered his wife and daughters. He dated the note November 16, 1987, with a time of 2:30 a.m., which means he had written it before he called his attorney, Richard Lawrence, at 4:00 a.m., barely fifteen minutes before his own body was found. In the call, Markle abruptly asked Lawrence to come to the house and then hung up. Lawrence called back twice but was unable to reach his client. At that point, he called the police.

When Lawrence and the police arrived at the house at 4:17 a.m., they found Markle’s body in the downstairs study. Within minutes, the bodies of his forty-five-year-old wife and his two daughters, Amy (age thirteen) and Suzanne (nine), were also discovered. Near Markle’s body were two guns, and a third was found in an upstairs bathroom. Fifteen other guns were found in the house, but they had apparently not been used. Also found near Markle’s body was a Halloween mask splattered with blood; police determined he had likely been wearing the mask when he shot his daughters. In addition, investigators found the note acknowledging the act.

There were multiple gunshot wounds in each of his victims, and it was believed that he had shot himself with two pistols simultaneously, one put to each side of his head. Later tests also found that all four Markles had the drug Elavil in their systems, an antidepressant that caused drowsiness. The evening’s heavy thunderstorms were believed to be the reason that none of the neighbors heard any of shots that were fired.

Investigators also discovered a long letter written by Markle to his mother. The letter made clear that she had no knowledge of his business dealings, but it also detailed a long list of bitter filial grievances directed toward an absent, inattentive, and uncaring parent.

Mercedes McCambridge refused to comment publicly about the incident, and she, Stephens Inc., and many of Markle’s former account holders became embroiled in litigation that dragged on into the 1990s.

For additional information:
Moritz, Gwen. “15 Years Later, Murder-Suicide Fades From View” Arkansas Business, September 30–October 2, 2002, pp. 1, 21, 22, 23.

Owen, Rhonda. “Murder Mystery: A Nightmare on Main Street Conclusion” AY Magazine, May 2013. Online at http://www.aymag.com/May-2013/Murder-Mystery-A-Nightmare-On-Main-Street-Conclusion/ (accessed April 8, 2015).

Schmich, Mary T. “Family Massacre Bottom Line for Broker.” Chicago Tribune, November 22, 1987. Online at http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1987-11-22/news/8703270882_1_stephens-shot-three-times-mother (accessed April 8, 2015).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated 4/23/2015

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