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Who killed the babysitter?

It’s a familiar horror trope that never seems to get old. A young woman is in a strange house alone, babysitting. The phone rings.

The caller says malicious, terrifying things. The teenager hangs up, but the caller always phones back. Eventually, he says something which tips the babysitter off to the horrible truth…

The stranger is inside the house!

(Usually upstairs, where the children are sleeping.)

Scary, right? It’s comforting when the movie ends and we can say to ourselves that, yeah, it was disturbing, but it was only a work of fiction.

Or was it? Turns out, this trope is not simply an urban legend. It was inspired by the horrific murder of Janett Christman on March 18, 1950.

The story begins as all spooky ones do, with a dark and stormy night. When the Romack family of Columbia, Missouri, left thirteen-year-old Janett with their toddler, they didn’t anticipate any problems. Their son, three-year-old Greg, was already asleep with his radio on. As an extra precaution, Mr. Romack showed the babysitter how to load and fire his shotgun.

Cause that’s what one did in the 1950s, I guess.

Janett was advised to turn on the porch light before answering the door, and the Romacks left for their night out, confident that all was right with the world.

At just past 10:30 that evening, the police received a phone call. Officer Roy McCowan was startled to hear a girl screaming and begging him to “Come quick,” but the connection ended before the caller could identify herself. Sadly, the call couldn’t be traced.

Who Killed the Babysitter? The unsolved murder of Janett Christman

It’s difficult to imagine just how frightening it must have been for the Romacks when they returned home at 1:35 a.m. They must have had warning something was very wrong–both their front and back doors were unlocked, and a side window was broken. Their Venetian blinds were open, the porch light ablaze. Someone had come calling…but who?

Janett was in the living room, sprawled on the carpet in a pool of her own blood. She’d fought hard for her life. Officers found evidence of a struggle leading from the phone in the kitchen through the hallway to the living room at the front of the home. The teenager had puncture wounds on her head, and her face was scratched. She’d been hit with a blunt object and raped before she was strangled to death with the cord from an iron.

To this day, the murder of the young babysitter remains unsolved, but that doesn’t mean there were no clues at all in this case.

It turns out Lois Terry, one of Janett’s childhood friends, also had an unnerving encounter when she was babysitting.

A week before Janett was murdered, a man knocked on the door where Lois was babysitting. Something about his face struck her as evil, and she refused to let him in. When she found out her friend had been killed, she was positive it was the same man and that she’d been the intended victim. Lois never babysat again.

The man lived a half-mile away from the Romack house, but he’s never been charged or seriously investigated, despite the fact police dogs followed a trail leading to his neighborhood. The prime suspect was Mr. Romack’s friend, twenty-seven-year-old Robert Mueller, who had reportedly made inappropriate comments to Janett. Mueller’s metal pencil generally matched the wounds on Janett’s head, and he allegedly told Romack that he might have committed the crime but forgot about it.

However, Mueller passed a lie detector test and eventually sued Columbia’s sheriff for holding him illegally.

What do you think happened to Janett? Was her killer the man who frightened Lois, or someone who knew the Romacks well, as the police suspected?

Did you ever babysit? Were you scared to be left alone in a strange house?

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– with files from the Columbia Tribune

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48 Comments

  1. I wonder why they never seriously investigated the guy the other girl saw? That seems rather odd.

    Reply
    • JH

      I don’t think there was enough evidence to do more that talk to him.

      Reply
  2. Love the new look here!

    We must be missing something as to why they didn’t arrest this guy for murder. I realize they don’t have the tools we have today, but come on!
    That poor girl.

    Reply
    • JH

      No evidence. I guess a girl saying he came to the door when she was babysitting wouldn’t have been enough to arrest the guy. Even if the dogs went to his neighbourhood, it wouldn’t have been enough proof to do more than ask him some questions.

      Thanks, Heather! Glad you like it.

      Reply
  3. I guess things were different in the 1950s, what with showing the babysitter how to fire a shotgun — but it seems to me staying out until 1:30am is pretty late if you’re relying on a 13 year old babysitter! I’m a little surprised the family was out so late. I babysat frequently as a teen, and have great memories — except for the time there was a blackout while I was in the house. I called my mom and she assured me all would be well, but aside from the bonus creepy factor, there was nothing to do! No TV, no lights to even read a book! That was about as creepy as it got for me.

    Reply
    • JH

      That would have been scary enough in a strange house, Randee. Hopefully you didn’t watch horror movies back then, because you would have suspected someone cut the power…

      I guess 1:30 is a bit late, but she did have the shotgun.

      Reply
  4. Terrible story. Poor, poor girl.

    There’s an element of vulnerability when you’re alone in a strange house, watching over someone else’s children….

    Reply
    • JH

      Most definitely. It’s not like you can just escape the house and leave the poor kids to fend for themselves.

      Reply
  5. I’m confused. If she called the police at 10:30, how is it that the owners found her at 1:30?

    Reply
    • JH

      They couldn’t trace the call.

      Reply
  6. I remember watching that “have you checked the children” movie when I was younger. Super scary.
    I did tons of babysitting when I was a kid but thankfully most of the scares involved the kids (i.e. taking them to the playground and the kids hurting themselves).
    RIP Janett

    Reply
    • JH

      Even that title is creepy, Lisa! Apparently this story inspired the movie, “When a Stranger Calls.” Brrr!

      What a terrible way to die, and so sad for her family and friends.

      Reply
  7. Got it. No caller i.d. Funny how we assume that technology always existed.

    Reply
    • JH

      Ha! So true. At least no one asked why they didn’t just trace her cell phone. 😉

      Reply
  8. How horrible. It really does sound like it was the same guy both times.

    Reply
    • JH

      I definitely trust the girl’s intuition. Plus, it’s a bit too coincidental for me. The timing is too close.

      Reply
  9. It’s weird how some urban legends are based in reality. I guess the truth is stranger than fiction. Babysitting never scared me. I was much more afraid of the creepy basement in my own house! I backed your TC campaign. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Lexa! I know you did–you’re my top supporter. I see your name whenever I look at it. 🙂

      I had a creepy basement too! Are all basements inherently creepy, I wonder?

      Reply
  10. Fascinating story and it does seem odd that the likely murderer was never brought to justice. Makes you wonder if someone used their influence…

    Reply
    • JH

      It is weird. There was lots of infighting and jousting for control among the departments, though…that certainly didn’t help.

      Thanks for visiting again, Cat!

      Reply
  11. I am with Alex. Weird that the evil looking guy the other babysitter encountered never got investigated. It really annoys me when people get away with murder (and things less brutal as well). Great story! I only wished it was fiction. 🙂 Never babysat, but have been alone in remote areas. Having a dog around helps.

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s scary when you start poking around and realize how many people do get away with murder. A lot of criminals only get caught because they can’t resist the temptation to get away with it again.

      Reply
  12. That is scary and it sounds like a slipshod investigation. I would be centering more on that freaky man who lived nearby. I wonder if they could do DNA testing now? A crime like this..I can’t see the person stopping either unless the person moved away or died. I was never into kids so thankfully, I never really babysat. The idea of having to deal with screaming kids with dirty faces is horrific enough never mind the, iccchhh, diapers

    Reply
    • JH

      Thankfully, I mostly sat for older kids. Never changed a diaper! 🙂

      Sadly, the evidence in this case has vanished. People did go looking for it for exactly that reason–to test for DNA.

      Reply
  13. There was a documentary on Netflix I watched last year about urban legends and the reality they are based on. If I remember right, this was one of the stories talked about.

    Reply
    • JH

      Could be. Sounds like something I’d find interesting.

      Reply
  14. It seems that the two incidents are connected. Never answer the door when you’re babysitting! Terrifying. Yes, I got weirded out babysitting. I didn’t do too much of it.

    Reply
    • JH

      I don’t remember being scared while I babysat, but our town was pretty small. Everyone knew everyone. I’m sure that helped.

      Reply
  15. Very strange…The question I have is that if she put up a struggle wouldn’t she have screamed and woke the toddler? There was no mention of the child at all (not that the child would have been able to identify the killer but still…)

    Reply
    • JH

      Well, if it was her that called the cops, she definitely screamed. But some kids can sleep through a lot. Not sure if he woke up or not–beyond his name, age, and that he was sleeping with the radio on, he wasn’t mentioned in the news stories.

      When I was a kid, some guy tried to steal my parents’ van, but he was intoxicated and drove it onto the lawn. My dad pulled him out of the vehicle, had a physical confrontation with him, called the cops, and then the cops came and took him away. I slept through the entire thing. I even slept through an earthquake. 🙂

      Reply
  16. I’m guessing they lived somewhere quite remote or surely the neighbours would have heard something like that going on.
    It definitely makes you wonder if someone was specifically targeting babysitters knowing they’d be vulnerable. I think Lois had a lucky escape!
    Debbie

    Reply
    • JH

      I think so too, Debbie. The whole “taught her how to use a shotgun” thing said rural to me as well. I’m guessing it was a remote area.

      Reply
  17. What a terrible story! But you left one thing out–what happened to the kid?

    Reply
    • JH

      Since he’s never mentioned in any of the news stories, I’m assuming he was fine and slept through it all. If he’d been near the body or hurt in any way, the reporters definitely would have included that.

      Reply
  18. It seems unlikely this was a crime of opportunity. The odds of knocking on a door and having the babysitter answer seem slim. Someone planned this. It feels like this girl was targeted, known by her attacker.

    Reply
    • JH

      Good point, Ryan. If it was the same guy who frightened Lois, he could have been keeping tabs on both girls.

      Reply
  19. Showing the babysitter how to load and fire a shotgun – that definitely didn’t happen on my babysitting gigs. Fortunately, nothing horrible ever happened on them either. What an awful story 🙁

    Reply
    • JH

      It is truly awful. I feel for Janett and her family, who miss her still.

      Reply
  20. Whoa! But first, hi, JHM! I am glad to be here. I’m addicted to police procedurals/crime thrillers/horror stories.

    Apparently, investigations can resume decades later. There’s a TV channel “Investigation Discovery” where, in one episode, they reopened a case 30 years later and solved it. It was an amazing watch, and one of the deal-breakers was DNA as evidence in another state, not the one where the crime was committed–who knew it could be found after so long, and so far apart? The case was very methodically presented.

    In the babysitter’s murder case, probably someone who held a grudge against the Romacks? But why did Mueller say he may have committed the crime but “forgot”? That’s creepy.

    I have babysat a number of times–all ages. No major incident, unless one counts the shenanigans of the babies/toddlers 🙂

    Did I say it is great to meet you?

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome, Vidya! It’s great to meet you too. I also love Investigation Discovery–their show Deadly Women is one of my favourites.

      Reply
  21. Sociopaths can easily pass a lie detector test. But that was not known in 1950. Did you know that the inventor of the lie detector also created Wonder Woman?

    Reply
    • JH

      No, I didn’t, Roland. As usual you have all the coolest factoids! Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  22. Stuff like this was the reason why I was afraid to be a babysitter. lol

    Reply
    • JH

      And rightly so!

      Reply
  23. Funny coincidence, but I picked a book up at my parents’ house today to read while I was waiting for them. It was Lullaby, by Ed McBain, and begins with the murder of a babysitter (and the 6 month old baby). When a Stranger Calls is an excellent movie with this trope. Probably the definitive one. I used to babysit all the time, and ended up calling my dad once, because a stranger was pounding on the door. Luckily, I was babysitting at a neighbor’s house. Another time, I called the police, because something had repeatedly hit the window behind my head while I was rocking my baby sister to sleep. Embarrassingly, I discovered it was my cat, who had gotten out somehow, and he was leaping as high as he could and striking the window above the screen. The officer was really nice. I can’t remember if I had any other good babysitting stories, but I did it for a loooong time.

    Reply
    • JH

      Wow, those are some freaky experiences, Shannon! I’m impressed that you kept babysitting after that.

      Reply
  24. Very scary and sad when you think whoever did it was never brought to earthly justice. This is the time I want to believe in Karma and/or one of those levels in hell reserved for rapists and murderers.

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed, Lee. It’s truly heartbreaking.

      Reply

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