Mysterious America

Who Killed Shirley Ann Rardin?

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

At around 12:30 a.m. Monday morning, July 3, 1973, Shirley Ann Rardin, a 20-year-old sophomore art major at Eastern Illinois University, finished her shift at Hardee’s at the corner of 4th Street and Lincoln Avenue in Charleston, changed clothes, and said goodbye to her coworkers. She was 5 feet 7 inches tall, 125 pounds, with shoulder-length blonde hair and blue-green eyes. She was wearing wide flare jeans, a black halter top, and blue tennis shoes, with $5 in her pocket.

Shirley was a local girl, having graduated from Charleston High School in 1971, and a young divorcee. She had been previously married to a former manager at Hardee’s named Rich DeWitt.

Shirley was renting Apt. 203 in the Lincolnwood building at 2210 9th Street, exactly one mile from the Hardee’s, and was believed to be heading there after work. She usually rode her bike to and from work, but that night she walked. If she ever arrived, no one knew. Medication she needed to take four times daily for a serious medical condition was later found in her apartment.

Her boyfriend, David Thomas, a fellow EIU student, reported her missing to Charleston police at 1:14 a.m Tuesday. The search dragged on for almost a week, but police were hampered by the fact that Shirley was a legal adult and could do as she pleased. As the days passed without any leads, however, they began to assume the worst.

Mysterious America

Does ‘Will’ Put the ‘Woooo’ in Will Rogers Theatre?

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

Built in 1938 at a cost of $90,000 in Art Deco style, the Will Rogers Theatre has been a fixture of downtown Charleston for generations. It was named after William ‘Will’ Rogers, a world-famous actor, humorist, and columnist of the Progressive Era who died in a plane crash in 1935. During the 1980s, Kerasotes Theaters divided the 1,100-seat auditorium and began showing movies on two separate screens. The Will Rogers was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, and designated a Landmark Property by the City of Charleston in 2011.

Like many theaters, there are rumors it is haunted. Since at least the 1990s, employees have encountered strange sounds and surreal events they attributed to a ghost aptly named “Will.” Will, however, is just a convenient moniker.

There are several stories behind the identity of this ghost, but no one knows for certain. According to Will Sailor, a former theater employee, the ghost is that of a man who died in the Charleston Riot. Lucas Thomas, who worked at the theater from 1996 to 2000, told the JG-TC that he heard it was the ghost of a projectionist who died of a heart attack in the projector room.

Mysterious America

“Something Terrible Has Happened”: The Murder of Andrea Will

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

It had been over 24 and a half years since sophomore art major Shirley Ann Rardin’s body was found in a wooded area northeast of Paris, Illinois. For more than two decades, students at Eastern Illinois University enjoyed a sense of safety and security. That all changed on the morning of Tuesday, February 3, 1998.

At around 10:00 p.m. the previous evening, 20-year-old Justin J. “Jay” Boulay descended the long wooden staircase to his downstairs neighbor’s apartment door and asked to borrow his car to pick up his girlfriend, 18-year-old Andrea Will, from Lawson Hall. Brian Graham, his neighbor, happily obliged. “I’ve been up to his place a couple of times by myself and I didn’t notice anything weird about him,” he later told the Decatur Herald and Review.

In a letter Justin later wrote and left in his apartment, he described getting into an argument with Andrea that evening when she told him she was dating other men. According to Andrea’s mother, Patricia, Justin called Andrea several times over winter break, but Andrea, a freshman marketing major with long blonde hair and cherubic smile, wanted to end their relationship and see other people.

“I lost it,” Justin, a sophomore history major, wrote. “I couldn’t let go of her neck.” Coles County Coroner Mike Nichols later determined Justin strangled Andrea with a telephone cord. At around 3:30 a.m., Justin’s downstairs neighbor and his neighbor’s girlfriend, Michelle McVey, heard loud but “soothing music” coming from Justin’s apartment. They knocked on the ceiling and it stopped.


Reviews of Tales of Coles County Pouring In

Tales of Coles County has only been out for a few months and already it has many positive reviews on Here are just a few:

“I grew up in Coles County, Illinois. This book brought back many memories and I learned some things that I didn’t know.”

Madonna J. Long

“Very insightful.”

Andrew Dowling

“Valuable reference book on the History of Coles County.”

Stephen F. Anderson

“Michael Kleen is so in depth in his research and delves deeply into each story. If you love small towns and the stories within them, you will adore this book. Check it out!”

Bobbie Jean Ashley
Mysterious America

Is the Marshall-Tycer House Haunted by a Cousin of Abraham Lincoln?

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

Dennis Friend Hanks (1799-1892), a distant cousin of Abraham Lincoln, once owned this property and a log cabin near the corner of Jackson Avenue and 2nd Street in Charleston. Hanks was a businessman who, among other things, was a cobbler and ran an inn and gristmill. He died at his daughter’s house in Paris, Illinois in 1892 after being hit by a wagon.

Col. Thomas Alexander Marshall, Jr. (1817-1873) was a lawyer, politician, and another Lincoln friend. He built a stately Italianate home on Hanks’ former property in 1853. During the 1960s and ‘70s, his house at 218 Jackson Avenue was widely reputed to be haunted by the ghost of Dennis Hanks.

In addition to playing host to Lincoln and his circle, it’s rumored the house was used to hide runaway slaves. Its basement contained a dungeon-like room with barred windows and what looked like 12 fasteners to hold shackles.

In 1965, Eastern Illinois University English professor Dr. Marie Neville Tycer (1920-1970) and her husband Forster purchased the home, renovated it, and opened it as the Tycer House Museum. They lived there for five years, furnished it with antiques, and allowed groups to tour the historic home.

Commentary Saudade

What Happened When I Tried to Start a Newspaper in Central Illinois

Freedom of the press is in serious trouble when a handful of self-appointed gatekeepers can so easily banish a news publication from store and library shelves.

In the summer of 2012, I briefly returned to Charleston, Illinois (where I had attended college) to help set up a monthly print newspaper. It failed spectacularly. The unexpected resistance I encountered taught me hard lessons about the limits of free speech and journalism.

Starting a newspaper is not easy. It takes hard work, travel, time, and financial resources. Still, it can be successful and rewarding with a receptive audience. Central Illinois is highly rural and conservative in temperament. Neighbors might be content to gossip on their front porches, but they’d rather not see the latest scandal plastered in the headlines.

For most of my life I had a naïve understanding of the role of the press. I imagined most newspapers shied away from controversy for any number of reasons, ranging from placating advertisers, adherence to a particular political or social agenda, or simply out of a lack of desire or resources to track down hard stories. I never thought pushback from self-appointed gatekeepers played a role.

Now I understand the blowback some of these news outlets face for reporting controversial events can be intense and make it difficult to conduct business.

Photography Roadside America

America’s Cup Coffee

Ghost sign for America’s Cup Coffee superimposed over a Coca-Cola sign on the side of Pat’s Lounge, 2019 Western Avenue in Mattoon, Illinois. America’s Cup Coffee was a brand of coffee grounds sold by Peoria wholesaler Oakford & Fahnestock.