Top 5 Columbo Murder Victims I Wish Had Survived
Fortunately, Columbo was on the case.
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Last year, I told you about some of the sympathetic murderers on Columbo whom I would’ve liked to see get away with their crimes. Of course, not all of the killers Lt. Columbo pursued were sympathetic. Some of them were downright dastardly and devious, and some of the victims were so totally innocent that seeing them get murdered broke my heart. Here are the top five Columbo murder victims I wish had survived.
#1: Gabe McEnery, “Murder with Too Many Notes”
In the early days of Columbo, the victim was usually murdered within the first 10 minutes of the episode. We didn’t know much about them, just that someone wanted to kill them. When the show returned after a long hiatus in 1989, the new episodes seemed to spend more time with the victims, allowing us viewers to get to know them, like them, and even root for them. Such was the case with Gabe McEnery (Chad Willett) in the 1998 episode, “Murder with Too Many Notes.”
Gabe was an aspiring film composer working as an apprentice to the famous Findlay Crawford (Billy Connolly). Findlay taught Gabe everything he knew, and soon the student surpassed the master. Over the years, Findlay lost his touch, and he relied on Gabe’s talent to save his failing career. Eventually, Gabe was doing all the work, and Findlay was taking all the credit.
Gabe isn’t happy with this arrangement, as he’s anxious to start his own career as a composer, so he threatens to expose Findlay for the fraud he is. Of course, Findlay can’t allow that, so he hatches a plot to silence Gabe forever. First, he contrives an elaborate story about how he’s going to tell filmmaker Sidney Ritter (Charles Cioffi) that Gabe is the one who wrote the score for his most famous and generically-titled film, The Killer, and how he’s going to allow Gabe to conduct the score at a big show the following night.
Gabe is elated that he’s finally going to get credit for his work and a chance to show off his talents in front of an audience. He rents a tuxedo (complete with shiny new shoes) and his girlfriend, Rebecca (Hillary Danner), gives him a brand new baton inscribed with music notes that spell out a secret message of love.
It seems things are finally turning around for Gabe as he’s well on his way to a successful career, but sadly, it’s not to be. Findlay drugs Gabe and uses some kind of rickety mechanical elevator thing left over from a flop of a film to fling Gabe’s lifeless body off the roof of the studio during the concert, providing Findlay with the perfect alibi.
What’s so cruel about this murder is how Findlay lied to Gabe and convinced him that he was going to get the appreciation he deserved. Gabe was happy and optimistic about his future when everything was suddenly taken away from him. What’s more, he had a girlfriend who loved him. Rebecca was so depressed after Gabe’s death that she spent her free time sitting in his house and crying. This nice young couple didn’t deserve to be tragically torn apart like that.
Fortunately, Columbo was on the case. He figured out Findlay’s fiendish fib and made him listen to Rebecca play her and Gabe’s love notes on a keyboard so he would know some of the pain he caused before he was carted off to jail.
#2: Freddie Brower, “Death Hits the Jackpot”
“Death Hits the Jackpot” is another later Columbo in which we get to know and like the victim before he dies. Freddie Brower (Gary Kroeger) is going through a rough time. He’s in the middle of a long, drawn-out divorce from his wife, Nancy (Jamie Rose), his photography business is going nowhere, and he has to borrow money to pay his rent. His only glimmer of hope is purchasing a lottery ticket for a chance at a $30 million jackpot. While Freddie is at his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s house trying to convince her to sign the divorce papers, he watches the lottery drawing on TV and realizes he won! Freddie is now a millionaire, but he has a problem: he’s technically still married. If he takes possession of his winnings now, Nancy will get half of his $30 million fortune.
Freddie consults his Uncle Leon (Rip Torn), the only person he trusts, for counsel on his conundrum. Leon, meanwhile, is going through a rough time of his own. He runs his family’s high-class jewelry store, but they’re in the middle of a recession and business is slow. In fact, Leon’s accountant has just informed him that he’s “flat broke.” So Freddie’s miserable missive of millions, marriage, and machinations gives Leon a motive for murder. He agrees to accept the money in Freddie’s place and then give it to him once his divorce is finalized (for a cut of the cash, of course). But Leon doesn’t really plan to give the money to its rightful winner. Instead, he plots to murder Freddie and keep it all for himself.
Freddie was a nice, mild-mannered young guy just trying to make it as a professional photographer. He lived in a building inhabited by an odd assortment of quirky artists and writers (including a kooky poet who hits on Columbo, an old Italian couple who want to hook Columbo up with their niece, and a Scottish man and his pet chimp who wear matching kilts and tam o’shanters), who all loved and supported him, and in turn, Freddie helped them out whenever he could, even “chimp-sitting” on the night of his murder. After Freddie’s funeral, his friends gathered in his apartment and sang sad songs around a beautiful portrait of him. The people closest to Freddie, his uncle and ex-wife, betrayed him in the worst way, taking him away from his chosen family of misfits. Like Gabe McEnery, Freddie Brower seemed to have a bright future before some greedy bastard ended it all.
But don’t worry, Columbo took care of Uncle Leon and his mistress/partner-in-crime, Nancy. There’s no mention of what happened to the rest of Freddie’s money, but those two certainly would never get to spend it.
#3: Fernando the Gardener, “A Bird in the Hand...”
“A Bird in the Hand...” is a wonderfully complex episode in which two people plot to kill the same person (and each other), but only one succeeds. “Big Fred” McCain (Steve Forrest), the wealthy owner of a football team, is the intended victim. His nephew, Harold (Greg Evigan), a wannabe cowboy and compulsive gambler, is having an affair with Dolores (Tyne Daly), Big Fred’s neglected alcoholic wife. Unbeknownst to any of them, Harold and Dolores are separately plotting to kill Big Fred. Harold plants a pipe bomb in Big Fred’s car, but Dolores gets to him first, running him down in a stolen truck during his early morning jog.
Harold is shocked when Columbo shows up to investigate the hit-and-run murder of his uncle, whose Rolls Royce is still intact and unexploded. To prevent the bomb from going off and killing someone else, Harold hides both sets of car keys (Fred’s and Dolores’s), but what he doesn’t realize is that the gardener, Fernando (León Singer), has a spare set. When the cops need someone to move Fred’s car, Fernando helpfully volunteers. He starts the car, and the bomb explodes in a massive fireball, killing him instantly.
Poor Fernando didn’t deserve to get blown up like that. He was just there doing his job. First, Dolores steals his truck and uses it to murder her husband, and then he gets killed by a bomb meant for the same guy. He was a totally innocent, accidental victim. Harold never planned to kill Fernando and clearly felt badly about it, but he also didn’t say anything when he saw him get into Fred’s car. He could’ve saved Fernando’s life, but he stayed silent to save his own ass.
What makes Fernando’s death even worse is that we’re forced to watch it over and over again as Columbo studies a video of the event recorded by a TV news team at the scene. As he often does, Columbo continually replays the video, searching for subtle clues. When he finds one, he then replays the video several times for Dolores, who acts as disturbed as I am by Fernando’s shocking demise. No one wanted to see this nice, helpful gardener die—not even the two killers.
Before Columbo can arrest Harold for murdering Fernando, Dolores ends up killing him, so in a way, he got his just deserts. And Columbo uses Fernando’s murder to help put Dolores away for killing Harold and Big Fred, so at least his death wasn’t in vain.
#4: Lisa Chambers, “Double Shock”
In “Double Shock,” Lisa Chambers (Julie Newmar) was not the intended murder victim; it was her fiancé, Clifford Paris (Paul Stewart), a rich, elderly bachelor with twin nephews named Dexter and Norman (both played by Martin Landau), who were desperate to get their hands on their uncle’s money. Lisa, on the other hand, had no interest in Clifford’s money. Despite being young and beautiful and Julie Newmar, Lisa really loved the old guy.
Sadly, Dexter and Norman, Clifford’s own flesh and blood, don’t love him the way Lisa does. Together, they hatch a plot to murder him on the night before his wedding so they can inherit his money before Lisa has a chance to. While Clifford is taking a bath, Dexter barges in and insists on presenting him with what he calls a “wedding gift,” an electric mixer with a frayed cord, which he plugs in and drops into the tub, electrocuting his uncle to death. He and Norman then prop up Clifford’s body on an exercise bike in an attempt to make it look like he had a heart attack from working out too vigorously. The next morning, poor Lisa bounds into the house excitedly, only to find her beloved Clifford dead on the bike, his limp legs still revolving on the electric pedals.
However, the brothers’ plot appears to have been in vain. The family’s attorney, Michael Hathaway (Tim O’Connor) discovers that Clifford changed his will before he died, leaving everything to Lisa. He tells the brothers he’ll get back Lisa’s copy of the will if they give him a cut of the money, and they agree. Hathaway confronts Lisa, who makes it clear she didn’t even know about the new will and doesn’t want the money at all. She agrees to turn over her copy of the will to Hathaway so Norman and Dexter can inherit their uncle’s money, but unfortunately, the brothers get to her first. They push her off her own balcony, sending her plummeting to her death.
What’s so sad about Lisa’s murder is that it was completely unnecessary. She didn’t want Clifford’s money and was willing to let the twins have everything, but they got greedy. They didn’t want to give their lawyer a cut of the money, so they decided to kill Lisa instead. Lisa was a kind, loving person who just wanted to get married and live a happy life with Clifford. Her only crime was falling in love with the wrong man.
In the end, Columbo foiled the twins’ plot and locked them both up, so neither one of them could inherit a cent.
#5: Nurse Sharon Martin/Harry Alexander, “A Stich in Crime”
1973 seemed to be the year of collateral damage on Columbo. “A Stitch in Crime” featured two unintended murder victims, who are tied for fifth place in my list.
Nurse Sharon Martin, the Would-be Hero
Dr. Barry Mayfield (Leonard Nimoy) is working on a research project with Dr. Edmund Hidemann (Will Geer), a well-known and much-beloved heart surgeon who ironically just had a heart attack. Dr. Mayfield sees this as an opportunity to get rid of Dr. Hidemann, expedite their project, and take all the credit for their joint research. He volunteers to perform Dr. Hidemann’s surgery and cleverly replaces the permanent suture required for the procedure with dissolving suture, which, as the name implies, dissolves over time and would reverse the surgery, effectively killing Dr. Hidemann.
The surgery goes off without a hitch, but Nurse Sharon Martin, who has never liked Dr. Mayfield and has been suspicious of him from the start, notices that the leftover suture feels a little off. When Dr. Mayfield confronts her about her tense behavior, she explains that she’s “handled enough suture” to know what it feels like, and this suture doesn’t “feel right.” Dr. Mayfield laughs it off, but the nurse is unconvinced. She calls the suture manufacturer and makes an appointment to meet with them and figure out what was wrong with it, but she never gets there. Dr. Mayfield finds out about her appointment and bludgeons her to death as she’s walking to her car in the hospital parking garage.
Sharon Martin was a good nurse who was just trying to do her job and protect her patient. She saw through Dr. Mayfield’s charming façade and bravely worked to expose him. Many murder victims on Columbo confront their killers with the information they have and tell them they’re going to expose them. Some even try to blackmail the killers, which, in my opinion, is really just asking to be murdered. But Sharon was smart. She didn’t confront Dr. Mayfield. She made her plan in secrecy, and she would’ve been the hero of the piece if the doctor hadn’t discovered what she was up to. That’s the tragedy of her death.
Harry Alexander, the Fall Guy
The second unintended victim in this episode was Harry Alexander (Jared Martin), a Vietnam vet and recovering drug addict. Harry was friends with Nurse Martin, who had helped him through his recovery, so Dr. Mayfield saw him as the perfect patsy for his murder plot: Drug-crazed Lunatic Slaughters Nurse to Nick Narcotics.
Mayfield makes sure Sharon’s roommate, Marcia (Nita Talbot) drops Harry’s name to Columbo, then breaks into his apartment and shoots him up with drugs, presumably to cause an overdose. Harry miraculously survives and stumbles around in a drug-induced haze, only to fall down the stairs in front of his apartment and die anyway.
Harry was a completely innocent veteran who had nothing to do with Dr. Mayfield or his intended victim, Dr. Hidemann. In fact, he’d never met either one of them. He fought for his country, was stricken with PTSD for his trouble, and got addicted to drugs in an attempt to ease his pain, and because a kind nurse helped him get clean and get his life back together, he ended up dead.
Dr. Hidemann, on the other hand, survived. As Columbo started to catch onto Dr. Mayfield’s evil scheme, Dr. Mayfield was forced to redo Hidemann’s surgery and replace the dissolving suture with permanent suture, leaving Hidemann to live the rest of his life with a properly-functioning ticker. Thus, this episode is something of an oddity in the Columbo series as one where the intended victim was never actually killed, but two other innocent people were.
Columbo found the dissolving suture and arrested Dr. Mayfield for two murders and one attempted murder, so you can be sure he went away for a long, long, time.
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