The True Crime Story Behind the Movie “When a Stranger Calls”

What went wrong with 13-year-old Jannet Christman, and will the killer be ever identified?

Photo by Khoa Võ from Pexels

Over the years, society’s relationship with phone calls has seemingly changed. Once regarded as the essential mode of communication, now mostly considered as nuisances and headaches. While the phone’s role in modern culture has witnessed a shift, its place in horror movies remains analogous to the same. Nothing creates increased jitters than the silent, scary, and creepy phone calls that leave people cold feet.

In the story “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs,” dating back to the 1960s, the teenage babysitter at the home receives telephonic calls from a stalker that continually asked her, “Have you checked the children?”

This basic storyline has been adapted innumerable times as part of movies, including the 1979 horror film “When a Stranger Calls” and its remake in 2006. Besides the dramatic representation on the screens, the movie is inspired by the real-life ordeal of 13-year-old babysitter Janett Christman and her mysterious death in 1950.

Born on 21st March 1936 in Boonville, Missouri, Janett Christman was the oldest daughter of Charles and Lula Christman. She had a younger sister named Reta Christman Smith and also had a new-born sister Cheryl Christman Bottorff. Janett, by nature, was a fun-loving, cheerful teenager who worked fervently towards the goals she desired.

For a while, the Christman family resided in Boonville, Missouri, and later moved to a small town of Columbia, Missouri. The family lived a simple life. And the neighborhood people widely adored them for their good-natured behavior. Janett’s parents owned a business named Ernie’s Café and Steakhouse and made a reputable living. They resided on the shop’s upper floor.

Janett was academically studious. As a 13-year-old teenager, she was the student of eighth-grade and studied at Jefferson Junior High School. Besides academics, she had a knack for activities like playing the pianos, singing, and participated in the church queers.

Overall, Janett was a hardworking girl who had a deep sense of maturity in life, understood her family’s hardships, and helped reduce their workload. She was like a typical teenager living a normal life. However, one unlucky day, things abruptly changed for her.

The night on March 18, 1950, appeared haunting. And the atmosphere prepped up for a misfortunate event that was about to take place. Young Janett was quite unaware of the bad luck that awaited her.

Strong gusty winds blew succeeded by the rain and sleet that prohibited people's outdoor movement in the area. On that day, an eighth-grade party was organized at Janett’s school, to which she unattended. Instead, she chose to babysit Little Gregory, the 3-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Romacks, in their small one-story isolated home situated in the outskirts of Columbia, Missouri. Janett would often babysit for two families, the Romack’s and the Mueller’s who were well acquainted.

Janett told her friends the need of money as the reason for not attending the party. She had purchased a new burgundy colored suit for the upcoming Easter Holiday and that the babysitting job would help her make the last payment for the suit. Besides that, Janett had an affection for kids and her parents sent her for babysitting only to the people they knew.

Dusk settled in. It was around 7:30 p.m. Janett entered the residence of the Romack’s. There she was given specific instructions in case if anything transpired.

Before leaving for an evening party, Ed Romack showed Janett how to load, unload and fire his shotgun if the need arose and placed the gun near the front door. In case anyone came calling, he advised her to turn on the bright porch light before answering the doorbell. She was also assured that their little son, Greg liked to sleep with the radio turned on; therefore, handling him wouldn’t be troublesome for her.

Thereafter, the Romack’s left for the party in good spirits. Throughout the evening, the weather turned bad, and it was worsening during the late hours. The temperature dropped to mid 20 degrees, followed by the storms that brought in heavy rain, sleet, and hailstorms. It was therefore a spine-chilling night. Quite natural enough, the young Janett literally got scared while she was babysitting the child.

That night around 10:30 p.m., a girl’s jarring phone call was received by an officer at the police station. The girl on the phone screamed hysterically with the words “come quick!” that the officer heard. As soon as the girl was about to disclose her identity and mention her whereabouts, the telephonic connection was cut short, and it was only the dial tone that could be heard.

At that late hour, the telephonic company’s test board did not have any staff. Therefore the girls phone call went untraced. Back then, technology also wasn’t sturdy enough to easily trace the phone calls compared to the modern times. As such, the girl’s ordeal feels scary, much like a helpless individual struck amidst a difficult situation.

Shortly after, Anne Romack, Ed Romack’s wife, called home from the Moon Valley Villa, where both of them, along with Mueller and other friends were partying. They called to check on Jannet and to find out if their son was doing fine. However, nobody answered the call. Assuming that Janett might have fallen asleep as it was already quite late in the night hence Anne dismissed her concerns. The Romack’s continued their party for few more hours and finally decided to head home at late midnight.

It was around 1:30 a.m. when the Romack’s returned home. And there they noticed that the front window blinds were open, and the porch light lit up. Ed found that the house’s front and back doors were already unlocked, and the side window was broken off. The situation made them tensed and perplexed.

By walking towards the living room, they witnessed a horrific scene. Janett was found lying on a pool of blood on a shag carpet. She was brutally murdered and also sexually assaulted. Her face depicted a head injury, multiple puncture wounds that appeared to have been made by a mechanical pencil. The scars on her face reflected as if some fingernails had scratched it.

The cause of Janett’s death was ruled as asphyxiation. Possibly an electric iron cord was used as a weapon for strangling that had been snipped with the pair of scissors and was bound tightly around her neck. Investigators found that the landline phone was off the hook and was placed nearly a few feet away from the girl. The evidence proved the girl struggling on the phone was none other but Janett. She rightly made that call to the police station right before she was attacked.

As soon as the Romack’s witnessed Janett’s dreadful plight, they ran in panic and headed upstairs to check on their little son, Greg. Luckily, the child was found unharmed and was in a state of deep sleep.

The local investigating department was immediately informed, and the whole matter was put under investigation. Inside the home, there were clear indications that Janett had resisted the attacker. Blood smears and fingerprints were found in the kitchen and in the living room of the house. Shortly after, inquiries were conducted, and the local public was asked to report anybody they found suspicious or who had scratch marks or behaved strangely after the murder.

Soon enough, multiple theories began revolving around the murder. The investigating agency characterized it as a crime committed by someone who holds familiarity with the house. According to them, the murder was basically an inside act. Later, dozens of suspects who might have been possibly involved in the crime were interviewed and then excluded from consideration by the police.

Meanwhile, the local police officers also questioned Janett’s friends, family, and school students. During this entire process, more suspects emerged. Despite their multiple efforts, the killer remained unfound, and the investigation never seemed to gain real traction.

Also, it wasn’t the first murder that occurred in Columbia, Missouri. Four years earlier, on the night of February 5, 1946, 20-year-old Marylou Jenkins was brutally killed similarly to Janett; however, Marylou’s murderer remained identified and was sentenced to death via the gas chamber. That said, few hours before the execution, the assailant recanted his alleged confession. It was later discovered that he was coerced to render a false confession however it was too late a discovery as he already died. Marylou’s case today is considered solved. Many other incidences of similar nature took place in that particular area in the past that left people scared.

As Janett Christman’s murder investigation continued, one prime suspect named Robert Mueller materialized, and circumstantial evidence against him started piling up massively. Mueller was friends with Ed Romack since high school. After graduation, he served as an Army Air Corps Captain in World War II. He had distinguished merits resting by his side. In the later years, he returned to Columbia, Missouri to look after his father’s restaurant and also worked as a tailor. Local people admired his dressing sense and remembered him as someone who carried a mechanical pencil in his front shirt or inside his jacket’s pocket.

According to the testimony laid by the Romack’s to the grand jury, they felt something weird about Robert Mueller, who had already visited the family’s house on multiple occasions. As per Mrs. Romack, she felt frightened and uncomfortable around Mueller’s presence due to his evil eyes towards women. Ed Romack, too submitted his testimony. He mentioned that Meuller once told him that he liked Janett. Mueller was very well aware of the fact that the girl would babysit at Romack’s house that night because he himself asked the girl to baby-sit at his own home.

Furthermore, on that night Mueller excused himself from the group’s party in order to meet a doctor who was meant to attend his son and therefore remained disappeared for nearly two hours before making a come-back.

However, the case against Mueller as the murderer became problematic. After the investigating department’s all-night questioning session, the answers of Mueller were found to be unsatisfactory. To find the truth, the investigators made Mueller undergo a lie-detector test. Because of the unfortunate results of the lie-detector test, the detectives had to let Mueller go free. Releasing the findings, the grand jury did not return Mueller's indictment and pointed the inefficacy of the various investigating department in resolving the murder mystery.

According to the grand jurors, the investigative efforts were simply wasted because of the non-cooperation between the investigation departments and also because of their inability to correlate the crime pieces. As a consequence, the crime escaped finding its real answers and in unmasking the real criminal.

Soon after, Mueller joined the Airforce and left Columbia and later sued the investigators for violating his civil rights during the questioning session; however, he lost the case. He eventually died in 2006, aged 83. With his passing away, the murder theory of Janett Christman also went silent.

It’s now been 70 years, and the ever-cheerful, hardworking Janett who was saving for her Easter Burgundy dress would have turned 84 years old today. While the Romack’s and Christman’s family believed Mueller was responsible for Janett’s murder however they remained much in grief because of the law’s inefficiency in rendering justice and getting the case an ultimate closure. Janett’s murder case officially until today remains unsolved.

Be it any events in life, one should always remain vigilant regarding their environment, it’s happening, and observe people’s behavior. Tragic incidents can occur anywhere, and at any instance, but we can escape the evil-traps if we hold the slightest of awareness.

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