Back in the late 1970s, Thomas J. Clifton was a highly respected professor in the University at Buffalo’s Music Department.
Educated at three of the nation’s most prestigious universities, he was a tanned, athletic man who loved riding his 10-speed bicycle all over southern Erie County. He also enjoyed swimming and sunbathing in the nude on an isolated beach in Angola, near massive sand dunes.
When Clifton went there on the morning of June 15, 1978, someone – probably someone he knew – murdered him.
Around 11:30 a.m., two women out for a beach walk found the naked professor facedown in Lake Erie along Buffalo Beach, known today as Bennett Beach. He had been stabbed 30 times, including two deep wounds that punctured each of his lungs.
More than 38 years later, the crime remains unsolved.
“It was a very violent attack,” recalled Samuel DeJohn, the former Town of Evans police chief who spent decades investigating and reinvestigating the case. “There were many wounds to his upper body, his chest and back, and defensive wounds on his wrists. There was a trail of blood on the beach, leading from where we believe he was stabbed toward the water, where he fell.”
Police believe the killer used a hunting knife or butcher’s knife with a blade at least eight inches long.
“It absolutely looked like a premeditated crime, committed by someone he knew,” DeJohn said. “We don’t believe that a total stranger walked up to this man and began stabbing him as he laid there sunbathing on the beach.”
The beach where he was killed remains an isolated location.
“Kids still go there to party there today ... to avoid the police,” Masullo said. “If you were looking for an isolated area to kill somebody, that would be a likely choice.”
A person who was in the area that morning told detectives she heard a man’s voice – probably Clifton’s – raised in alarm, and that she later saw a woman walking away from the scene and driving away in a gray station wagon, police said.
Police said they questioned several people who knew Clifton, including his wife and a woman who once had an affair with the professor. But no arrest was ever made.
In recent months, Detective Bruce Green has taken a fresh look at the case, hoping to find answers.
“This was a very violent crime that happened in our community. Absolutely, we still want to solve it,” said Police Chief Ernest Masullo, who was a young patrolman when the murder occurred and is preparing to retire Dec. 9. “It’s frustrating. Detectives worked their tails off on this case. It’s still sitting there, almost 40 years later, still unsolved.”
Five months after the murder, Clifton’s sister, Mary Ellen Bailey, wrote a letter to the old Buffalo Courier-Express newspaper, asking the public to help police find her brother’s killer. Columnist Mike Healy wrote about the letter.
“None of us who loved Tom can ever pretend that our lives will be the same again,” Bailey wrote in a letter postmarked from Paris, France. “I will forever remain haunted by the violence of his death. Nothing can bring him back. But justice is important.”
Born in Texas and raised on Long Island, Clifton was an associate professor of music theory at UB. He had earned degrees from three of the nation’s most renowned universities – Notre Dame, Stanford and Yale, according to information UB officials provided. They said Clifton taught at the University of Michigan before coming to UB in 1976 – two years before he was slain.
“We spent a lot of time talking to people on the UB campus after the murder, and he was very well respected,” DeJohn said. “And from everything we could see, he was very well liked by his fellow professors.”
Clifton and his wife, Elisabeth, had a 15-year-old son. They lived on Keller Road in the Town of Boston, about 16 miles from the beach.
Investigators from the Buffalo Police Homicide Bureau, State Police and the Erie County Sheriff’s Office assisted DeJohn and his late partner, Norman Boergers, with their probe into the murder.
“These guys from Buffalo Homicide were very experienced. They worked on murder cases all the time,” DeJohn said. “I was happy to get their help.”
Shortly after police questioned Elisabeth Clifton on her whereabouts on the day of the slaying, she hired an attorney, Kenneth W. Knapp of Eden. Knapp, now 85 and retired, spoke to The Buffalo News about the investigation last week.
Because of the rules on attorney-client privacy, Knapp said he could not reveal any of his discussions with Elisabeth Clifton. But Knapp said he is convinced that detectives were wrongly trying to pin the murder on the widow. He said he had a respectful and professional relationship with DeJohn, but Knapp said he was upset by some of the remarks and actions of detectives from other departments who were helping with the case.
“In a husband/wife situation, when someone is murdered, they always look at the spouse,” Knapp said. “In this case, I think they were looking for a solution to a problem ... and she happened to be there as a convenient solution.”
Knapp said he does not believe Elisabeth Clifton had anything to do with her husband’s murder. “She was visibly, emotionally upset by the murder. She had no idea such a thing was going to happen,” Knapp said.
Police never publicly named Elisabeth Clifton as a suspect in the case, but she has never been eliminated as a suspect either, Masullo said last week.
“She continues to be a person of interest in this case,” Masullo said.
Police learned during their investigation that the Cliftons’ marriage was on the rocks, and that Clifton had at least one affair with another woman, DeJohn said. He said police also learned that Elisabeth Clifton drove a station wagon that was similar to the one described by the witness who saw the vehicle drive away from the murder scene.
Elisabeth Clifton told police that her husband had gone to the beach on his bicycle that day, DeJohn said. The bike was never found near the beach or anywhere else.
Detectives searched Elisabeth Clifton’s vehicle for evidence but found “nothing conclusive,” DeJohn said.
“We searched their home, and we even had divers from the Sheriff’s Department search several ponds near the home, looking for the bicycle. No luck.”
The clothes that Clifton’s wife said he was wearing when he left for the beach were also not recovered, police said.
The “other woman” who had an affair with Clifton was questioned and eliminated as a suspect because she had proof that she was nowhere near the beach when the crime occurred, DeJohn said.
Knapp believes some of the detectives involved in the search of the Cliftons’ home “went overboard.”
“They said they were searching for the bicycle, which was a key piece of evidence,” Knapp said. “I told one of the detectives, ‘You’re not going to find a bicycle in a bedroom dresser drawer.’ I still ask the question, isn’t it possible that the killer took the bicycle?”
Several months after the slaying, Elisabeth Clifton moved out of state with her teenage son, DeJohn said.
Efforts by The News to reach Elisabeth Clifton were unsuccessful last week. A reporter obtained a telephone number for an Elisabeth Clifton, in an out-of-state city where police said she was last known to reside. The reporter left three telephone messages at that number but did not get a return call.
The News also had no luck trying to contact the victim’s sister, Mary Ellen Bailey.
Knapp said he lost contact with Elisabeth Clifton about a year after the murder, and he is not certain that she is still alive.
“I have not heard about this case in a long time. Then the police called me about it a couple of weeks ago,” Knapp said. “I don’t know what could have happened after almost 40 years to make them want to reopen this case.”
Police are still interested in the case because it is one of the most horrific crimes to occur in the town in many years, Masullo said. He asked that anyone with information about the case contact the Evans Police information hotline at (716) 217-2535.
Story topics: Cold Case Files