Unwrapping the Disappearance of Helen Brach

The name “Brach” conjures up thoughts of candy corn, caramels, chocolate nougats, and various other delicious bagged confections. However, in the annals of crime, the name conjures up Helen Brach, the wealthiest woman in the United States ever to disappear and presumed to be murdered.

Started in 1904, the E. J. Brach & Sons candy company at one time sold two-thirds of the bagged candy in the United States and operated the largest candy manufacturing plant in the world. In 1966, the founder’s son, Frank Brach, sold the company to American Home Products Corp. for $136 million (about $1.1 billion today).

Frank took his fortune and retired with his third wife, Helen Vorhees Brach, a red-haired Appalachian hat-check girl he’d met at a Miami Beach country club. When Frank died in 1970, Helen’s share of the Brach fortune totaled nearly 160 million in today’s dollars. The millionaire widow spent her time socializing with female friends, riding in her pink and lavender Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces (the Brach’s brand colors), and giving generously to the welfare of animals.

Helen Brach

In 1973, ubiquitous con man and gigolo, Richard Bailey, was introduced to Helen at a dinner party. The almost 20-year younger Bailey showered her with flowers, gentlemanly attention, and dancing. Helen enjoyed Bailey’s company and they became a regular pair in social circles. Still, Bailey couldn’t resist swindling the Candy Lady, as he and his crooked buddies liked to call her. Bailey bought three rundown racehorses from his brother in 1975 for $18,000 and sold them to Helen for $98,000 (nearly $500,000 today). When Bailey tried to sell Helen more horses a year later, she grew suspicious and reportedly hired an independent appraiser who confirmed that her horses were essentially worthless. Helen detested being cheated, especially by someone she dated. A friend suggested that she should go to the local district attorney. She’d take care of it when she returned from a checkup at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, she told the friend.

After nearly a week of tests, a healthy Helen checked out of the Mayo Clinic. On her way out, she stopped at the clinic’s Buckskin Shop to buy cosmetics. The cashier, Phyliss Redalen, recalled Helen saying: “Please hurry and finish wrapping. My houseman is waiting.” Once Helen stepped outside that Thursday, February 17, she was never heard from again.

The houseman was John “Jack” Matlick hired by Frank Brach in 1959 as a chauffeur and the handyman of his estate in Glenview, Illinois, just north of Chicago. Whether the Brachs knew that Matlick had been in prison for various offenses including aggravated robbery and that he regularly beat his wife is doubtful. After Frank’s death, Helen expanded Matlick’s duties to include running her Glenview estate.

Strangely, Matlick didn’t report Helen’s disappearance for two weeks. He told police he’d picked her up from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on the 17th, and drove her home where she stayed all weekend. He said on the following Monday, he dropped Helen at O’Hare around six in the morning to travel to her recently-purchased condo in Ft. Lauderdale. After that, he never heard from her again, he said.

Helen’s paramour, Richard Bailey, told police he’d been staying at The Colony Hotel in Palm Beach with a young woman. He said Matlick explained over the phone that Helen would arrive in Florida on Monday, the 21st, so he prepared to see her. When she didn’t arrive in Ft. Lauderdale on Monday, he called her house again, he claimed, but Matlick answered each time and told Bailey she wasn’t in. Bailey told police he gave up inquiring about Helen because he thought she’d dropped him for another beau.

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Unbelievably, that’s where the investigation ended. The clues dried up and no one pushed authorities to dig deeper. Helen’s closest living relative was a brother living a simple life in Ohio with absolutely no curiosity. A court declared Helen dead in 1984 and her friends, relatives, and charities moved on much wealthier than before. To this day, no one has been able to explain what happened to Helen Brach with any reliability. Though several theories have floated about, there are three that stand out to me above the rest:

The Butler Did It

Jack Matlick said he picked up Helen at O’Hare; however, the Mayo Clinic clerk recalled Helen saying her houseman was waiting on her, presumably outside the clinic in Minnesota. No one saw Helen at the airport or on a plane. Matlick also said Helen stayed at her Glenview home for three days and four nights upon her return. Yet, Helen’s friends didn’t hear from her, calls to her home were answered only by Matlick who told callers that Helen wasn’t in, and painters working inside the home that weekend didn’t see her. Matlick said he took Helen to O’Hare at 6:00 a.m. to travel to Florida, but Helen hated mornings and the first flight for Ft. Lauderdale didn’t leave until 9:00 a.m. Again, no one spotted Helen at the airport or on a plane. No friends in Chicago or Florida, particularly those who typically picked her up at the airport, had heard anything about her traveling to Florida. Moreover, no airline ticket was purchased in Helen’s name to fly to Florida or anywhere else. Helen’s gardener chillingly explained to detectives that he’d seen Matlick with two strangers standing in Helen’s house that weekend. One was a young woman wearing a baggy dress and a wig similar to Helen’s. Police also found in Matlick’s possession a receipt dated February 21 (the Monday he said he’d taken Helen to the airport) for a toll exit near a farm owned by Helen in distant Ohio. Later, Matlick was accused of forging more than $13,000 in checks on Helen’s account that February and stealing currency worth $75,000 from her home (all totaling $375,000 today). Matlick signed an agreement with Helen’s estate to forgo a $50,000 bequest in her last will and testament in exchange for no charges being brought over the forgeries and stolen currency. Astonishingly, authorities lost interest in Matlick as a suspect and he was never arrested. He died in 2011.

The Boyfriend Did It

Richard Bailey

After Helen’s disappearance, Richard Bailey continued selling worthless horses and separating wealthy women from their money. In 1989, however, federal prosecutors in Chicago reopened the Brach case. Although they never learned exactly what happened to Helen, they indicted Bailey on 29-charges of racketeering, mail and wire fraud, and money laundering under the federal RICO statute, typically used in organized crime and drug trafficking cases. Bailey also was charged with conspiring to murder Helen Brach. Authorities believed Bailey hired someone to kill Helen to avoid arrest for fraudulently selling worthless horses to her and others. Bailey knew, so the prosecution’s theory went, that Helen had learned she’d been swindled and with Helen’s wealth and connections, the Chicago justice system would likely throw him under the jail. He waived a jury trial and pleaded guilty to racketeering and fraud, but maintained his innocence regarding Helen’s disappearance. In a federal sentencing hearing, a judge can take into account all “relevant conduct,” even if it falls outside the guilty plea. In doing so, the judge listened as notorious con man Joe Plemmons told the judge that Bailey had offered him $5,000 to kill Helen just weeks before she disappeared. Feeling that Bailey was not repentant for his life as a swindler, the judge sentenced Bailey to thirty years in federal prison (this was a sentencing hearing to a guilty plea only—Bailey was not found guilty of Helen’s murder beyond a reasonable doubt). Bailey was released from a Florida prison in July 2019 at the age of eighty-nine, still proclaiming that he had nothing to do with Helen Brach’s disappearance.

Everybody Did It

Joe Plemmons called detectives in 2004 to tell them yet another story about Helen’s death. This time, he implicated eleven people, including Matlick, but not Bailey, whom he had testified against ten years earlier. He said Helen had been murdered at the direction of Silas Jayne, a notorious bad man in Chicago’s horse world, while Jayne was in prison for conspiring to murder his brother, George. Jayne didn’t want Helen Brach going to the district attorney since his farm had sold worthless horses to Bailey for years as part of a scheme to swindle wealthy buyers. According to Plemmons, Jayne’s cronies beat Helen unconscious in her Glenview home, then Plemmons shot her twice, and they cremated her body in a furnace. Most rejected Plemmons’ story and no arrests resulted. Plemmons died in 2016.

* * *

So that leaves Helen Brach’s disappearance in 1977 as convoluted as that of Jimmy Hoffa’s abrupt departure two years earlier. It should be beyond dispute that Jack Matlick knew what happened to Helen Brach, but he died without telling. Perhaps he killed Helen in Minnesota or shortly after her return to Glenview and then transported her body to Ohio where he buried it on the Brach farm. The motive may have been simple robbery to repay his mounting gambling debts. Yet, based on the gardener’s remarks, Matlick may not have acted alone. Was Jayne’s horse mafia or con man Bailey working with Matlick? Possibly, but it’s not crystal clear to me that Bailey was involved. I also find it difficult to believe Plemmons’ 2004 story that Jayne and ten others conspired to kill Helen. Though it’s a flashy horse mafia story, Jayne would’ve had to kill half of Chicago to keep that story quiet.

In the end, Helen made the mistake of keeping a violent ex-convict as her houseman and of dating a lifelong conman who cheated women without shame. The hat-check girl could never have imagined that when she accepted Frank Brach’s proposal, her millions would make her a target for murder. It was the unfair price she ultimately paid for becoming the Candy Lady.

Read an excerpt from Philip Jett’s true-crime novel The Death of an Heir!

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