Playing with Fire
updated 04/28/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 04/28/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Indeed the author of the note, Glyde Earl Meek, 49, and his girlfriend and alleged victim, Page Jennings, 21, were a sort of Romeo and Juliet, if you take Romeo as a sometime second-story man drifting around the country in a converted Greyhound bus and Juliet as a New England innkeeper's daughter who had taken up with an aging ex-con. From the beginning Page's parents loathed Meek. "She's sleeping with a man older than I am," her mother, Betty, told Page's brother, Chris, in the fall of 1983, when Meek first came to their home in Jackson, N.H. After a perfunctory hello, the stocky, powerfully built stranger simply took off with Page, and her furious father, Malcolm Jennings, drove around the Mount Washington valley for two days before tracking them down at a local motel. More than a year later, on the night of Jan. 15, 1985, Betty Jennings spoke her final word about Meek. "If that ass—shows his face around here, I'll kill him," she told Chris by telephone. Nine hours later she and her husband were found in the burning remains of their home next to the picturesque Dana Place Inn. Their hands had been bound, their bodies repeatedly stabbed, and their throats cut. Twelve days later, in Florida, police found the second set of charred remains and the suicide note.
But the case would not end there. Bringing in experts to examine the remains, the Florida medical examiner's office discovered that although one tooth in the charred rubble was indeed that of Page Jennings, the bodies could not be conclusively identified. Today, more than a year after the deaths of Malcolm and Betty Jennings, forensic scientists and police are confounded. Is Glyde Earl Meek still alive? Is Page Jennings? If the bodies in the shack were not those of the lovers, whose were they? Even among law enforcement officials—who tend to believe Page Jennings is no longer alive but aren't quite as sure about Meek—there is little agreement. "I think he's alive," says Lt. Martin Heon, head of the New Hampshire State Police Major Crime Unit, which has been pursuing the case for 15 months. "I put more than a 50-50 chance on it. The state would not be putting in the kind of man-hours we have in this case if we thought otherwise." Down in Florida, authorities aren't so certain. "I don't believe that anyone can tell you for sure that it is or is not them," says Alachua County Sheriff's spokesman Spencer Mann. "Glyde Earl Meek was a con man, very sharp, very manipulative. I would call this one of the biggest murder mysteries of the year."
Could Glyde Earl Meek have faked his own death? The evidence is contradictory, as was the man. Meek was a person of high intelligence, popular even with the people who sent him to prison, and he was never known to have been involved in a violent crime. But he was also a liar who traveled about the country under half a dozen aliases, who used his charm to evade the consequences of some of his acts, and whose well-known physical strength would certainly have been equal to murder. Most significant, perhaps, he had always been deeply, even frighteningly, emotional in matters of the heart.
His story begins in July 1935, in Pasco, Wash., about an hour north of Walla Walla. His father, Joe, a power-company lineman, was, according to his relatives, "kind of a no-count." Glyde's mother, Pearl, who later committed suicide, worked hard to support the boy and two brothers. Mrs. Make's sister-in-law says that beatings were common for mother and sons. The family split up when Glyde was young, and he spent much of his time after that on his Aunt Thelma's farm, with her family. They were hardworking people who remember him warmly. He was personable, good looking and strong, a wrestling champion in the Army and later, on an athletic scholarship, captain of the team at Washington State. But his relatives were aware of a darker side: He had been a habitual thief from the time he was 8. "I don't think he was a kleptomaniac," says his cousin Roger. "I think he just found out somewhere along the line that it was an easy way to get stuff. He had a lot of friends whose dads were fairly well-to-do, and his mom worked in a bakery and he didn't have the things the other kids did. But he got 'em, and he was such a nice guy that everybody helped him get off the hook."
Meek's first recorded brush with the law came in 1954 when he was 19 and pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary. That time he got off on probation. Four years later in college he was picked up for car theft and received a suspended sentence. But charm couldn't carry him forever. In 1962 he was picked up with a trailerful of loot so impressive that Walla Walla County District Attorney Art Eggers still remembers it. "He had this whole trailer filled with just about everything you could think of—the finest clothes, little pints of whiskey, cowboy boots, Hickey-Freeman suits. He told me, 'Art, I've done it all my life; I get a great thrill out of it and you aren't gonna change me.' I officiated football games over at the penitentiary, and I'd say he had the same attitude on the ball field as in the courtroom. If you gave him 15 yards for clipping, well, that was part of the game, and if you gave him 10 years for burglary, well that was part of the game too."
Burglary was not, however, an acceptable part of everyone's game plan. When Meek was about to marry a nurse in 1959, his own family tried in vain to discourage her. "I just begged her not to marry him, on account he was so sticky fingered from the time he was little," says Aunt Thelma. "But she thought she could influence him to change." The couple had two sons by the time his wife realized she was wrong. When she decided to leave him, one relative recalls, he escaped from jail and tried to get her to go away with him. But he was caught and imprisoned again. His life, in fact, seemed to bounce like a shuttlecock between success and disgrace. Released from the penitentiary at Walla Walla early for good behavior, he robbed a store and was sent back to jail. Out again in 1970, he rose to become foreman of a computer-processing plant in Connell, Wash., then remarried and began a successful sign-painting company. But when marital and financial troubles set in, he burglarized a store. Fred Mielke, a onetime cop who worked as a volunteer with ex-cons, believes getting arrested was a way out for Meek. "These cops find him in an alley and he says, 'Oh yeah, I'm here to burglarize. I had the skylight open. My burglary tools are over there.' This is a guy who's been in the pen and around the block; it doesn't happen unless he wants to get caught."
Divorced again and released from prison again in 1975, Meek was caught shoplifting and took to the road, bound first for Arizona and then for Alaska. It was there in the summer of 1983 that he met Page Jennings. A tall, slim, strikingly pretty redhead, she was the younger child of adoring and protective parents. She had been a good student and a star athlete at Kennett High School in Conway, N.H., but recently she had suffered some setbacks. In high school she had aggravated a congenital knee defect and had twice undergone surgery. Then, during her first year at Simmons College in Boston, where she was preparing for a career as a physical therapist, she flunked organic chemistry. The failure affected her deeply, according to her older brother, Chris, and she began to reexamine the direction of her life. "I think for some reason she decided she needed a little space and time," says Chris.
In June of 1983 she headed to Alaska, where she took a job in the kitchen at the Gracious House Lodge on the Denali Highway two hours north of Anchorage. She was quiet and kept to herself, perhaps because she was frightened. It was rough country, she told her brother later, with tough men and few attractive women.
Enter Glyde Earl Meek. Quiet and low-key, he was working at the time as the lodge handyman, a "tremendously strong guy," his boss Dave Gratias recalls, who could do "just about anything"—fix the plumbing, drive an air-boat, paint a sign with an artist's flair. Page never knew of Meek's criminal record—or even his real name. He called himself Mike Daniels and said he was running from trouble with the IRS. He was also repeatedly in trouble at the lodge for his unauthorized use of equipment, and when finally he smashed his boss's boat into a rock, it was decided that Mike Daniels should move along. No matter; Page was entranced. Perhaps, as someone who knew them speculates now, Page was so in love with the Alaskan mystique that she somehow had got Meek confused with it. The two traveled back to the lower 48 together in Meek's bus, and at summer's end, after writing her family about her new boyfriend, Page briefly returned home. The Jenningses were not happy. "They'd heard 'man, van, California' and thought, 'Oh, my God,' " says Chris.
When Meek arrived in October for a visit, with two dogs and all his belongings packed in a truck, Page's parents were appalled by his age and couldn't figure out what he did for a living. When Page and Meek, traveling as Mike Daniels, moved into the nearby motel, Malcolm Jennings demanded that his daughter come home. When she refused, he went to the police, who told him that the decision was Page's, not his.
"Do you want to go home?" somebody asked Page, who had come to the police station with Meek.
"No," she said.
Like his parents, 23-year-old Chris Jennings disliked Meek. The older man was "smothering" his sister, he says, and Chris couldn't bear the way the relationship was tearing up his family. His mother was often in tears, .and both parents were starting to drink heavily. He tried as best he could to make peace in the family.
"I love your sister," Meek told him.
"What do you know about love?" said Chris. "You've known my sister for two months."
"From the first night our eyes met in that bar, I knew she was the girl for me," Meek said.
An arrangement of sorts was worked out: Meek and Page would continue living together, but not near her parents. It was made clear that Page would always be welcome at home but that Meek would not be. That October, Page tearfully packed her belongings and set off with Meek for a new life in Rockport, Texas. Malcolm Jennings had a friend run a police check on "Mike Daniels," but not surprisingly nothing turned up. Meanwhile in Texas Page took a job as a sports editor at the twice-weekly Rockport Pilot, while Meek worked as a trucker. For a time relations with her family improved. Both Page and her parents had recently seen On Golden Pond, and it had a remarkable impact on all of them. Now in his letters Malcolm Jennings took to signing himself "Norman," after the dour, demanding father in the film, and Page called herself "Chelsea," after the insecure woman who yearns for his love. But Page and Meek were having their troubles. By her own account, Page started one battle by throwing dishes and Meek finished it by flinging her against a bed. There were reports of blackened eyes. Often Meek was alarmingly possessive. When Page moved out for six weeks, Meek crept through a window of the house where she was staying and held her hand as she slept. He even shadowed her at the newspaper, arriving at the tiny city room where she worked and sitting beside her for hours at a time.
The Jenningses were delighted when Page moved out on Meek, furious when she returned to him and tried to conceal it. Even the conciliatory Chris was enraged by her deception. "I don't have a sister," he said at the time. Then in May 1984, accompanied by Meek's omnipresent dogs, Page and Glyde once again took off for Alaska, where they worked in a small lodge as a maid and a handyman. One of the owners remembers them as a hot-tempered pair, and Page as a rather spoiled, temperamental girl who boasted that back home she could wrap her parents around her finger. Meek, on the other hand, was a puzzle. His dogs were so badly spoiled they nipped at anyone who passed. And when the owners' daughters, weary of it all, gave one of them a kick in the ribs, big Glyde Meek, the strongest man in the Walla Walla penitentiary, arrived at the lodge in tears. "Those dogs are like my children," he pleaded. "I've been with them so long, please don't let your children kick them."
"It was kind of funny—not funny but sad—seeing a 48-year-old man crying about his dogs," said the owner. "He was just a very emotional person from one extreme to the other."
Often those extremes involved Page. She told her employers she wanted to go home, and that fall she did, moving in with her brother in Kennebunk, Maine, where he had taken a newspaper job. But she was not the vivacious girl Chris remembered. She seemed quiet, depressed, "almost like a beaten puppy," he says. She saw a psychologist and got a Labrador puppy she named Chelsea. When Chris moved to a new job in Gainesville, Fla., Page joined him, taking a waitressing job at a Holiday Inn.
The Meek affair, Chris had thought, was over. But Mike and Page stayed in touch, and in December Meek arrived for a two-day visit that lasted, intermittently, for six weeks. By Christmas the Jennings family was once more in turmoil—and heading for their last family fight.
"Don't bother coming home if you're with him!" Malcolm Jennings screamed at Page over the phone.
"I won't!" Page yelled back.
Chris went home for Christmas; Page stayed in Florida. Her parents' presents for her had not yet been mailed, but on her 21st birthday, eight days later, her brother had returned to Gainesville and her parents sent roses with a card that said, "We love you—Happy 21st." Still, the message was clear: Page could have Mike Daniels or she could have her parents, but she couldn't have both.
Meek, meanwhile, went off on a brief trip. When he returned Jan. 8, he was driving a Fiat and was without his dogs. They had attacked a hotel maid when he was away, he said, and had to be destroyed. Gloomy and depressed, he disappeared with Page into the bed-room. In the middle of the night Chris awoke to the sounds of a terrible fight. He found his sister in her bedroom screaming, and Meek holding heron his lap, hugging her.
"He's being mean to me out of spite," she told her brother. "He told me he was gonna beat me up and rape me."
Moments later she followed Meek into the kitchen. Then Meek came into the hallway holding his jaw.
"Boy, she packs a good wallop," he said.
"Mike, you seem like you deserve it," Chris said.
The big man began to cry.
"I'm sorry," he said. "It's just been a terrible week."
Brokenhearted, Chris Jennings could take no more. "You're my best friend," he told his sister. "I want you to know I'm not kicking you out, but I'm not gonna have him in the same house. I don't like the way you act in his presence. I don't like the way he treats you."
On Friday, Jan. 11, he saw his sister for the last time. It was a painful goodbye, and he was reminded of the telephone he had given her for Christmas.
"At least now you don't have an excuse not to call me," he had said at the time. "I won't ever have that excuse," Page replied.
Meek said nothing at the final parting of brother and sister, but that evening when Chris came home from work he found a note:
"You all have really hurt her this time. We're going to Miami for our honeymoon. I'll make sure she calls. Mike."
Two days later there was a call, but not from Page. It was from Meek, who said the two would be returning to Gainesville later that week. When Chris asked to talk to Page, Meek said he couldn't.
"She doesn't want to talk to you," he said.
Chris thought that was peculiar; Page had never before refused to talk to him. On Jan. 15 around 8:15 in the evening, Chris talked to his mother. Her news was happy. There had been a get-together with four other resort owners in the snow-covered valley, including a horse-drawn sleigh ride through town. "Betty, you throw one hell of a party," her husband had told her.
That night the party ended forever. Chris got the call the next morning. He was told that his parents' house had been leveled and that both of them were killed in the blaze. A few hours later a close friend gave him a full account of the murders. Police immediately began looking for Mike Daniels. Discovering that he had been arrested in Louisiana the previous fall and charged with "unauthorized use" of a stolen car, they learned at last that Daniels was Glyde Earl Meek, still wanted in Washington state.
Twelve days after the murder of his parents, as he was preparing to return to Florida, Chris Jennings received another shock: The remains of two bodies, believed to be those of Meek and Page Jennings, had been found in the ruins of a shack outside Gainesville, beside a charred 12-gauge shotgun. Nearby were the blackened bones of a dog, believed to be Chelsea, who had been missing from the Jennings home since the night of the fire. Not far away, in a blue Fiat, the police found a suicide note, dated two days after the New Hampshire murders and signed only "Mike Daniels."
Page Jennings, according to the note, had been aware of Meek's plan to kill her parents, though apparently he had carried it out on his own. The only reason Chris Jennings had not been murdered too was that Page had forbidden it. "I wanted to do him like I did the parents," Meek had written. Another note from the presumed killer, found in the brother's apartment, said: "You son of a bitch, Chris. You won't be able to separate us now."
And so at first the story seemed finished. But it was an unusually complex case, and Gainesville Medical Examiner Dr. William Hamilton called in additional experts to set about the maddening task of examining 10,000 tiny fragments of bone. Dr. William Maples, a nationally known forensic anthropologist, went to work on the case, as did Dr. Curtis Mertz, a forensic dentist from Ohio. They determined finally that the remains in the field were not Page's. A molar that had been positively identified as hers did not fit the sockets of the tooth in the dead woman's jaw. There was no indication the victim had ever had knee surgery, they found, and her bones were much shorter than Page's. Though the skeleton of the male victim seemed consistent with Meek's physique, dental experts were puzzled that a large gold filling in Meek's teeth had never been found in the ashes. Finally last July the medical examiner declared that the two burned bodies were not those of Page Jennings and Glyde Earl Meek.
Police investigators, meanwhile, were raising their own questions about the apparent murder-suicide. Estranged though Page had been from her parents, it was hard for anyone to believe that she could have coldly consented to their murder. She had last been seen alive Jan. 11 by her brother, and though witnesses had spotted Meek on his journey north to New Hampshire, he had never been seen with a girl. Had Page Jennings already been murdered by then? If she had and her body dumped elsewhere, why would Glyde Earl Meek have returned to Florida, where he was most likely to be apprehended, to stage the faked murder-suicide?
Or might the medical experts simply have been wrong? Both Meek and Jennings had been under heavy emotional stress, and there had been more than one suicide in Meek's family. Could Meek have murdered Jennings during one of their fights, traveled north to kill her family in some vengeful rage, then returned to Florida to end his life in despair? There are no answers. And unless Glyde Earl Meek is out there still, adrift on the continent that has seen so much of his wandering, the chances are that none will be found.