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A murder everyone forgot

The tony resort community of Sand Lake in upstate New York roasted in 90-degree heat for the third straight day on July 7, 1908, when 20-year-old Hazel Irene Drew walked along a remote section of Taborton Road. Heavily wooded, this stretch out by Teal’s Pond was popular with squirrel hunters, campers and fishermen looking for bait, but it was risky business for a young woman like Hazel to be alone at night.

She was by all accounts a prepossessing woman, with flaxen, pompadoured hair and blue eyes. At approximately 7:30pm, she encountered two men: Frank Smith, a reportedly “dimwitted” teenage farmhand who had met her on a handful of occasions and was said to fancy her, and Rudolph Gundrum, 35, a charcoal peddler who had been driving his horse-drawn wagon into town when Frank hailed him for a ride. In her gloved hand, Hazel idly swung her black-trimmed straw hat, decorated with three large plumes and a monogrammed pin with the letter H. Hazel and Frank exchanged salutations. As the wagon moved on, Smith turned to Gundrum and said, “That’s old man Drew’s oldest daughter.”

This was the last confirmed sighting of Hazel Drew before her lifeless and bloated body was discovered floating face down in Teal’s Pond four days later. Cause of death: a blow to the back of the head, her skull crushed with a blunt, unknown weapon. The water had distorted Hazel’s features so beyond recognition that she could be identified only by her clothes and the gold fillings in her teeth. The evidence pointed overwhelmingly to murder.

Today, the mystery of who killed Hazel and why remains unsolved. And while the case attracted daily coast-to-coast press coverage for weeks at the time, including extensive coverage in The Washington Post, Hazel and her story would likely be long forgotten today if not for one thing: The murder happened in the vicinity of Taborton, New York, where future “Twin Peaks” co-creator Mark Frost spent his summer vacations as a youth.

Frost’s maternal grandmother, Betty Calhoun, would spin yarns derived from local lore, including Hazel’s murder, framing it “along the lines of a cautionary ghost story: Don’t go out in the woods at night,” as Frost remembered it in a recent interview. Frost inherited his grandmother’s flair for storytelling, becoming an accomplished novelist, screenwriter and television auteur who co-created, with David Lynch, the storied 1990s ABC show that returns with brand-new episodes May 21 on Showtime, 26 years after its cancellation. Little could Frost’s grandmother have imagined that her embellished ghost stories would help launch one of the biggest phenomena in TV history.

Frost and Lynch were batting around story ideas in a Los Angeles coffee shop when they conjured up the image of a young woman’s lifeless body washing up on the lonely shore of a small-town lake. Lynch, as one might discern from his filmography, was obsessed with young, troubled, vulnerable women, especially blondes. (Earlier, he and Frost had worked on a fictionalised Marilyn Monroe biopic suggesting that the Kennedys were involved in her death.)

As for Frost, “I’d heard stories about (Hazel) all through my growing up, because she’s supposedly haunted this area of the lake,” he said at a 2013 “Twin Peaks” reunion at the University of Southern California. “So that’s kind of where Laura came from.”

That would be Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee), whose murder is the core of the original series and, according to Lynch, will again be a central theme when the show returns.

During the show’s development, Frost started poking around the Sand Lake city hall for details of the murder. “It was the notion of this girl’s body being found on the edge of the water, the mystery remaining unsolved, the multiple suspects, and the kind of cross-cultural and different social classes of people she interacted with,” he says. “It really struck my fancy,”

Laura, a 17-year-old homecoming queen, and Hazel, who had worked as a domestic servant since the age of 14, were both small-town beauties whose murders exposed a wealth of personal secrets. On the surface Laura led a tranquil, exemplary life: straight-A student, faithful girlfriend to the quarterback of the high school football team, Meals on Wheels volunteer, and so on. But as the investigation progressed, secret lovers and sordid relationships emerged, enthralling FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and viewers alike.

Similarly, Hazel’s family and friends initially insisted she had no special love interest. However, as initial leads dried up, investigators unearthed numerous clues suggesting dalliances and clandestine meetings. Just as Agent Cooper gleaned crucial information from the pages of Laura Palmer’s diary in “Twin Peaks,” Rensselaer County authorities, led by District Attorney Jarvis P. O’Brien, discovered dozens of postcards and letters between Hazel and her acquaintances – identified only by their initials – locked away in Hazel’s trunk.

The “Twin Peaks” narrative at various times pointed the guilty finger at sensitive biker James Hurley, local drug dealer Leo Johnson and sleazy real estate developer Benjamin Horne. Investigators in Hazel’s case, under mounting pressure from the public and the national press, uncovered new suspects on a seemingly daily basis.

Frank Smith, the farmhand who crossed paths with Hazel shortly before her death, was an early target. In addition to his affections for the dead girl, he repeatedly made contradictory statements to the authorities. When corroborating alibis seemed to clear his name, a string of eccentric suspects followed, beginning with Hazel’s surly and melancholy uncle, William Taylor, whose farm was located within a mile of Teal’s Pond. While followers of the case felt he was odd and suspicious, authorities could never uncover direct evidence linking him to the murder, and he was eventually cleared.

Washington Post-Bloomberg