On July 2, 1968, Norma Diane Cramer traveled from her home in Elyria (Ohio) to see her old boyfriend Mark Varasso in Portage (Indiana). Norma’s remains were found on August 17, 1968. She left behind a little girl, Mary. This is the Case of the Month for May 2018.
The call for modern technology
This case is solvable and the answer is the M-Vac. I know, I keep saying this. However, we have options now that we didn’t have in 1968. Now we can see if someone told the truth about not being somewhere. If we find touch DNA we have reason to talk to that person again. And, if we have properly preserved evidence it is time to see if we can connect someone to this crime.
The M-Vac can tell you things about the evidence such as the presence of specific pollen, touch DNA, mud, and more. If you compare those results with statements on file you can drop people from the suspect list. Did someone claim to not having seen the victim or never having visited a place but the touch DNA says something else? Confront them with forensic evidence. This is what we should do in Norma’s case. DNA alone will not tell us who the murderer is but it can point us into the right direction.
The ex-boyfriend, his new girlfriend, and her family
On July 2, 1968 Norma Cramer traveled from her home in Elyria (Ohio) to see Mark Varasso, her old boyfriend in Portage (Indiana).
- How did Norma travel from Ohio to Indiana? By car it is approx. 4 hours. By plane it is 1 hour. If she drove, where is her car? If she flew, did we check passenger lists?
Varasso was staying at Edward Ford’s home. Norma wanted to reconcile with Mark. Mark, who was involved with Betty Smolanovich, was staying at Edward Ford’s house who was married to Betty’s sister.
- Was everyone excluded as suspects?
Norma did arrive at the Fords home. Mark acknowledged that they spoke to each other.
What the gas station attendant saw
Bill Rushing, a gas station attendant who worked across the street, told police that he saw a woman leave the house.
- At what time did Rushing see a woman leave? Are we sure he saw Norma leave?
The woman was crying. She was accompanied by a man who drove a red Chevrolet with Indiana license plates. Rushing was certain that man was not Varasso. This man could hold some of the answers in this case. However, he need not be the one who pulled the trigger on Norma.
Some people think that Norma followed Betty to her home in Pennsylvania.
- Do we know if Betty was at her sister’s house the night Norma stopped by to talk to Mark? If so, did anyone see Betty leave that house?
Strangely, we are made to believe that Norma went to Pennsylvania and stopped in Beaver, Pennsylvania at a drugstore to buy cigarettes and hair dye.
- Which drugstore? Does anyone remember Norma coming in?
- Did Norma use hair dye at all?
- Were cigarettes and hair dye found among her personal possessions?
- There is a receipt from a drugstore but I’d like to know the exact date and time.
- Could that receipt have been planted on Norma to make the authorities believe that Norma went to Pennsylvania to confront Betty? If so, how did Norma know that Betty was in Pennsylvania?
- Are we to believe she arrived in Pennsylvania, confronted Betty, and a fight followed leading to Norma’s death? If so, the person who planted the receipt had no problems setting up Betty for murder or in the least, implicating Betty. Who could that be?
Norma’s badly decomposed body was found by hunters on August 17, 1968. Her remains were in a wooded area about three miles west of Valparaiso, Indiana, about 12 miles from Portage.
- I wish we knew how long Norma’s remains were out there, when she died approximately, and whether she was standing or kneeling when she was shot (looking for lividity here). Was she shot from a distance or from close up? Was she murdered at the place where she was found? If not, there are two crime scenes. The M-Vac could help here by checking to see if dust, pollen, etc. are consistent with the place where Norma was found.
Cause of death and condition of the body
Norma had two gunshot wounds to the back of her head. She was fully dressed but she was not wearing her bra or her underwear.
- Was Norma assaulted and did someone else dress her? What was she wearing? Any jewelry?
- Were there any prints near her body, tire tracks, dragging traces, anything?
Norma’s purse was found 3 miles north of her body. Inside was a receipt from a drugstore in Beaver, Pennsylvania. That store was 400 miles from Portage where Norma was last seen. Beaver is close to Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. That is where Betty lived.
- Was Betty ever interviewed and asked whether Norma ever showed up at her home?
Inside the purse, authorities found Norma’s bra and “other personal items.”
- I wish we had an itemized list of everything that was in that purse. So now we know where the bra went but what about the underwear? Can we use the M-Vac on the bra?
Mary grew up in the home and care of her maternal grandmother, Helen Cramer. Helen adopted Mary but always openly talked about Norma. Mary, a pianist with her own business, started collecting everything about her mother and her murder. Mary has two sons.
Norma was a single mother which makes me curious about Mary’s father and whether he was eliminated as a suspect. Not accusing, but I like to check everything.
On the day she left to talk to Mark, Norma left her daughter Mary with her roommates, Helen “Louise” Gilmore and Penny Byrne, in their home at 365 White Oak Drive. These women have some explaining to do. According to the papers, they packed up and sold all Norma’s belonging just one week after she vanished.
- How did they know she would not come back? They moved to Piedmont, South Carolina just days after Norma went missing.
One of them spoke to a reporter and made it innocently sound like that was the plan all along. “Gilmore spoke with Zarbaugh [reporter] in October after Norma’s body was identified, and she told him that the group had plans to move, and when Norma didn’t return, the two left and expected Norma to join them in a few days.”
- So instead of moving all belongings you just sell them in a yard sale on July 8?
And that isn’t all they should answer for. When they left the state, they dropped off Mary at a child welfare agency instead of searching for Norma’s family.
- What did they tell the agency? How did they explain how they happen to have a child and now need to leave her in state care?
- How is it possible that Child Protective Services (CPS) didn’t investigate this drop off?
- This just shows to me that they were lying when they said selling off Norma’s property was the plan and that Norma would rejoin them later. IF you know the mother will rejoin there is no need to drop off the daughter at CPS. You just take her with you!
I read online that the three roommates were colleagues at Inventory Service Co. in Elyria, Ohio. I wonder how well they knew each other, their backgrounds (professionally and criminally), and their reputations.
According to Helen, Norma didn’t mention any plans to move. Helen saw the yard sale advertised in the paper and thought it was odd for those two to sell her daughter’s things. “I went to it and saw everything that belonged to Norma,” she said. “I didn’t buy anything, but I picked up a picture album and thought that it was strange. Why would she want to get rid of that?” I would have marched straight into the nearest police department!
Mark Varasso, Norma’s ex-boyfriend, was a suspect and as such interviewed by authorities after Norma was found. What made him suspicious was that he had removed upholstery in his car. Norma had helped install it.
- Is that the red car the gas attendant saw or not? Was the upholstery tested for blood?
Mark has a record that includes drug and weapon charges dating back to 1971, an involuntary deviant sexual intercourse conviction from 1976, and a manufacturing marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms from 2012. Does this automatically mean that Mark is a killer? No.
- What was Mark’s alibi? As the autopsy report is gone, we do not know exactly (or even approximately) at what time or date Norma died. But maybe an account of Mark’s whereabouts between seeing Norma last in July 1968 up until the discovery of her remains would be helpful.
When he was interviewed about Norma’s case Mark maintained his innocence. He did mention getting counseling to help deal with Norma’s murder. Mark said he left the Ford home and went back to his house in Elyria about three days after he last saw Norma at the Ford’s. He told police Norma tried to convince him to come home with her. He refused, and she left crying.
- How did Mark leave? By car? What kind of car? By bus? Did anyone see him travel?
Mark claimed that Norma asked him to call her roommate, Gilmore, to say that she was on her way back home.
- Does Gilmore confirm that she ever received a phone call from Mark? If so, the yard sale and dropping Mary at CPS really do not make any sense at all.
Whenever you have several relationships there is a she-said-he-said spiral. He leaves, she wants him back, he needs to think, he takes another girlfriend, someone gets jealous, and they all say things that they later regret. But that still doesn’t make anyone a killer.
It seems that Norma was shot execution style. I wish we had the autopsy report so we know exactly where the gunshot wounds were. It could support a theory that Norma was killed during a heated debate between lovers. However, if that was true I’d expect Norma to be shot from the front and not in the back of her head. That really sounds like a professional hit.
Crucial here is that Betty stated she never met Norma. That could mean that Betty was not at her sister’s house the night Norma arrived to talk to Mark. If she was, they most likely would have seen each other. Betty married someone else in 1969.
Mary met with Mark and they spoke about Norma. According to the papers, Mary expected to see a monster but she saw an older man worn down by time in and out of prison. The man she saw didn’t look like someone who could pull a trigger twice. But what about the man he was in 1968? Not accusing, just wondering.
The investigative team
The original detectives assigned to Norma’s case may have retired or passed away. The Porter County Sheriff’s Office does not have a cold Case Squad. However, every ten years they do review cases according to Porter County Sheriff’s Detective Capt. Jeff Biggs.
The Porter County Coroner’s Office records were destroyed in a flood. Only five autopsy reports remain from 1968 but Norma’s file isn’t one of them.
- What was the cause of the flooding? How many years of files were destroyed? How did just five reports survive? Where they filed in a different way? Just wondering!
The reports that Mary got from the Porter County Sheriff’s Department in 1992 were destroyed in a fire at her home.
- What caused that fire and when? Was it accidental fire or arson? Was there a fire department report or not?
There was a fire at Helen’s house too and most of Norma’s belongings were destroyed. What she has left is an old high school photo and an ink hand print from Norma on the wall. Helen stamped guests print on her walls as a souvenir. During that fire a lot was destroyed but a piece of wall with Norma’s print remains.
- What caused that fire and when? Was it accidental fire or arson? Was there a fire department report or not?
Call me suspicious but in one murder victim family we have two house fires? Coincidence? Maybe. But did anyone know that Mary was collecting information?
The M-Vac can give answers in this case. The purse and bra that were found should be searched for touch DNA. If Norma’s clothes are preserved, they too should be checked especially around buttons, zippers, and sleeves. As we do no longer have Norma’s autopsy report we need to know whether she took off that bra herself or if someone did. If anyone else but Norma handled her purse we should find touch DNA around zippers, clasps, interior pockets, etc. I have not read in the public domain whether at least the bra and purse were preserved. Last, I wonder about any signs of dragging where Norma’s remains were found.
If you have any information about Norma Diane Cramer please contact the Detective Bureau of the Porter County Sheriff’s Office at 219-477-3130 or submit a tip online.
In the series “Case of the Month” I highlight old cold cases. These posts are not an in-depth analysis and often more information can be found online and in newspaper archives. The goal of these posts is just to get the cases back in the spotlights, to get people talking again, and if anything to make sure that we do not forget the victims. Just because their cases are cold does not mean that we can forget about them.
If you have any thoughts about Norma Diane Cramer’s case I urge you to post them on your own social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, etc. Every time we mention Norma’s name online we enhance her digital footprint.
We must make sure that Norma Diane Cramer keeps her web presence if we ever wish to find answers in her case. You can help by linking to or sharing this post. If you do, the post will show up in new news feeds, reach new people and networks with new connections. And who knows, we may reach someone who can help advance the case. And that is the goal.
Thank you for remembering Norma Diane Cramer with us.